Croix Blanche revisited

by Steve Howard

It is commonly said that we learn more from defeat than we do in victory, and when you analyse that statement in terms of carp angling it becomes perfectly clear that this is most certainly the case. In fact, I would suggest that an unsuccessful session is one that we learn nothing from at all despite how many or what size carp we may (or not) have caught.

I am very thankful that the past 35 years of my carp-angling journey have continued to pose challenges and raise questions, just as they always have. Those challenges are what attracted me into carp angling in the first place and they have consistently fuelled the flame that burns inside me. I ponder now on how I might view carp angling without those factors in place, and if indeed I would still be a carp angler if the ultimate ambition had been swiftly removed on my first ever trip by the capture of a truly enormous carp?

Anyway, that being said, I don’t set myself many targets and neither do I judge my success or failures by the size or numbers of any carp that I catch, far from it. I fish for myself, for the joy and pleasure of angling, and hopefully it will remain that way just as it always has been.
In June 2014, I enjoyed a purple patch, catching 10 amazing 30lb plus carp off the top at Croix Blanche. These 10 surface-caught fish represent the first I have ever caught in France and my biggest anywhere off the top – the biggest being just under 40lb. My return to Croix Blanche, just one month later, was to provide a very different set of challenges and the two trips panned out in stark contrast to each other in several ways. The first session had me buzzing like hive of honeybees – it was perhaps my most memorable session ever – and I enjoyed a problem free week where I landed all but a couple of the fish that I hooked.

It is perhaps easy to become a little complacent after a session like that, and it was very much a case of ‘if it ain’t broke, it don’t need fixing’. With that in mind, my 2nd session at Croix Blanche would be equally rewarding, you would think, right? Well, not quite!
It was apparent on my arrival that things had changed – the lake looked as stunning and atmospheric as it did before but with the presence of a temporary silkweed bloom. On the face of it, I never considered that it would pose much of a problem and to be fair it really wouldn’t have, if I had not intended to surface fish!

 After a 7-hour drive it was more a case of setting up camp but first, those carp needed feeding! I introduced a few floating morsels into several areas and then set about erecting our tent and installing the airbeds. Yes, you might think that this sounds more like a camping trip but, with day-only fishing, my self-imposed fishing time of from 5AM – 11PM took into account that to be at my best, I needed 6 hours undisturbed sleep per night.  My previous experience here taught me that I would get much less than half of that if I fished at night too!

Daytime fishing only has its rewards!!
After preparing camp I checked the spots that I had fed and returned hastily to set up my stalking rod… Along the margin there were several fish taking the pieces of floater cake that I’d introduced, and among them was the fish I refer to as ‘boss hog’, my target fish!
As I stealthily eased my way along the bank under cover of the low canopy of overhanging trees, I could see that the carp that I desired was preoccupied, greedily consuming the pieces of SBS Z-code floater cake that I had made earlier in the week. I held my breath as it raised its body, headlong toward me to consume another morsel of cake. I dare not move!

SBS Z-Code grounbait provided the main ingredient for my home made floater cake.

 As this huge carp slowly submerged its giant frame beyond sight, I moved into position, ready to introduce my hookbait and present it where the behemoth had last appeared. Another, smaller carp attempted to take my bait but a slight, deliberate twitch of the line was enough to deter it without spooking it. The hookbait was now sitting perfectly again as the leviathan reappeared, and the audible pulse in my head was the only sound as it rose confidently toward my bait… In an instant, the bait was drawn in and the fish turned quietly away before feeling the hook. The surface water was disrupted violently with an almighty swirl and as it made a powerful and mighty surge into the abyss, I set the hook.

 Seconds later, without putting any pressure on this giant, inexplicably, the hooklink parted!  I was left feeling extremely empty, mouth open and in disbelief as to why that had happened. I can only imagine that as the fish powered off, it found a hidden snag nearby that, at such close quarters, severed the line. I was totally distraught, I had hooked and lost my target fish within 20 minutes of angling, and to compound the agony I seriously doubted that I would be afforded another opportunity in the following days.

 I made a comment to my partner, Lynne that now seems very prophetic…;  On occasions such as this, when a session begins with such a monumental calamity, it often follows that bad luck will continue. Unfortunately, exactly to my words, this was to be the case! I would wish it otherwise, of course, but the next two fish that took my bait were also lost, one to a hook pull, the other to a snag. Determined to put the record straight, I stalked a nice 26lb mirror in the margin with floater cake… I was unconcerned about being selective at this stage and gratefully accepted the first fish to show interest in my bait!

What a relief! – An evening stalked 26lb mirror – was this perhaps the turning point?
The following morning, I managed to wheedle out another carp, an 18lb common on the controller float at range. Again this fish had taken my floater cake without hesitation. At last, my luck had turned, hadn’t it? Well, if only that were the case!

A greedy 18lb common snatched the following day.

The next carp stripped line off my reel in blistering fashion, and as I lifted into the fish I would never have imagined that it could throw the hook, but it did! I couldn’t work out what was happening, my head was in turmoil! – I was using extremely good quality 13’ floater rods that have a test curve of just 2.25lb and are unquestionably proven fit for purpose. The SBS Grip-Tip hooks were proven to be efficient and reliable on my last visit, as was the hookbait set-up. What ‘was’ the problem I asked myself!
All of my years of experience were being called upon as I pondered on what to do next… I lengthened the hair – another poor hookhold and lost fish! I skewed the angle of the bait to hook – another hook pull. I changed the size and shape of the bait and lost another to a snag and then, yet another hook pull – then it hit me.
The silkweed bloom, although not too much of a problem under normal circumstances, when ledgering, the affect that it has on floater fishing is fairly significant. I surmised that what had been the cause of the lost fish was the lack of good contact on the fish after the take, and even prior to that due to the weed, before the take, the amount of fine weed on the line was causing indirect pressure on the hook, not allowing it to be taken freely.

The latest change was to bring definitive results…
I then altered my hook arrangement to facilitate a more direct contact. I mounted a chopped down SBS pop-up tight to the shank (image 6) so that even with weed obstructing the free flow of line on the take, the hook would theoretically find its target. A 30lb common was next on the scene and it devoured my bait with relish, surging away powerfully, it was hooked and it was game on!

That’s more like it – A lovely 30lb common relieves the stress a little!

The next take after that produced the oddest battle that I have ever had… 4 times at various points, the fish dived to the bottom and buried into the thin layer of silkweed covering the other vegetation. On the 4th occasion, 4 yards from the net, it did the same but, unfortunately there appears to have been a submerged branch right where it chose to bottom out – I could feel the tell-tale sensation of grating – and after attempting a few tricks to get the fish to swim back out, away from the snag, I decided to go out in the boat to free it. To cut a long(er) story short(er) I freed the fish only for the hooklink to part once it dived again for the bottom. Cest la vie, at least it was free from the snag!

 My next fish also bedded itself into the silkweed, so out in the boat once more. I positioned myself directly above it and popped it out with comparative ease… If I needed further evidence that my new hooking arrangement was working, this was it. Unbelievably, I had caught my very first tench off the top, to add to the 4lb crucian that I had caught earlier that day!

There can’t be many anglers who have caught a tench off the top, can there?

Another snagged fish was lost to a hook pull before I caught what was to be my last fish of the trip – right before the lake went into complete torpor. A magnificent common of 38lb powered off across the lake with my hookbait firmly engulfed in its cavernous mouth and the next few minutes were to prove that my fortunes had indeed changed. Firstly, with weed clogging my line badly, I took to the boat. I knew from experience that this option would be my best bet because it would at least allow the fish some leeway should the line not pass through the eyes because of the weed jamming in the tip eye.

The moment of horror… when my net fell apart! Is it Murphy’s law that dictates ‘if anything CAN go wrong, it WILL?

Three times on the way out, chasing the hard fighting common down, it became impossible to gain any line through the tip eye, and three times I was forced to drop my rod to deal with the clogging. Then, as I neared the fish, I could see my MCF controller float… 30 yards away from the fish! Again I had a problem to deal with but, fortunately, after once more freeing up weed from the tip, I somehow managed to pull apart the rubber SBS heli-chod system by which I attach the float (to provide a semi-fixed bolt rig) and the whole lot slid down the line towards the fish. Once I gained line the battle began!

This fish was significantly powerful and its surges spun the boat around time and again. In the crystal clear water, as the fish began to tire, I slipped my net over the side of the boat and prepared for… ‘oh no’! The net arms sprung, and the mesh began to sink! Quickly, with a rod in one hand and an oar in the other, I grappled with my emotions as much as I did with the situation. Eventually, I managed to retrieve the net, but how the heck do you put a sprung-loaded net back together with one hand!

Believe me, I tried, but in the end I had to ease off on the clutch and drop the rod before I was able to put the net back together. A comedy of errors, perhaps? Maybe, but I sure as heck wasn’t laughing and there was absolutely nothing that I could have done differently at any point to avoid the pandemonium! If not for a change in fortunes (and a change in hook arrangement) I would surely not have had the pleasure of cradling this perfect common in my arms.

As I started this article with a statement about learning more in defeat, I’ll close it in the same vane… The experience and, dare I say it, losses at Croix Blanche this time around, have no doubt provided me with an invaluable lesson. If I ever find myself in this situation again, with these specific circumstances coming into play, I can guarantee you that the losses I suffered on this occasion will be greatly reduced if not eradicated altogether.

Tight lines (but not because of weed!) Steve

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