As we finally leave the most dreary months of January and February behind, all around us, nature can be seen to be moving up several gears in preparation for the most important phase in the calendar – that of breeding.
I have to say that the first two months of the year are by far my most disliked as far as angling is concerned, and I am always glad to see the back of them. Sure we can bang on about how quiet the banks are and stuff like that but in reality, you have to be a very certain type to actually enjoy endless solitude in a dark, frozen wasteland! Although I do love aspects of winter fishing and always indulge in it, my life outside of fishing is so important to me that often it is hard to justify the absence from home.
As I write, we are nearing the end of January and already I can see changes taking place. I was speaking to my good friend, Simon Scott the other day and he remarked that the bird chirruping was on the increase and he’d even seen blue tits starting to investigate bird boxes in readiness for their annual nuptials. This sort of behaviour is of course genetically pre-programmed to ensure the survival of the species and one of the key triggers is the increase in daylight.
One of my favourite days in the winter calendar is December 21st and as we pass the solstice, days finally start to lengthen once again. Although at that point, winter is still very much ahead of us, I always feel a buzz of positivity from the pending prospect of increased daylight. I fished every week through December and you needed to get your rods sorted by 4pm if you needed light; now it is already an hour later and you can see the difference in the mornings too.
Understanding that pure daylight hours play a major part in not only nature around us but in our carp fishing potential, is a huge part of the equation. By the time March arrives, carp activity will begin to see a big upsurge, and the important thing to bear in mind is that this happens regardless of water temperature. In fact, even if the country remained in winter mode all year, with temperatures struggling to reach double figures, catches of carp would massively increase anyway simply down to the rising daylight values. Down the years I have found this to be a big part of the mental approach – when spring seems to arrive and then (as always happens), it gets slammed back down by some brutally cold weather, it is pointless getting all despondent and abstaining until the weather improves again. Once the carp are up and about (which they will be by mid March), they will stay that way, simply because they are genetically programmed to be.
So what happens to the fish once they ‘wake up’? The single, primary motivation a carp has is to increase body temperature. This needs to be achieved in order to facilitate the most important goal which is reproduction. Until the body of the fish exceeds certain temperature thresholds, this objective cannot be achieved and as a fish is clearly cold blooded, it must utilise aspects of its environment in order to reach this target. Forget the old thinking that once the carp are ‘up and about’ they need to eat as much as possible in order to gain weight for spawning. This is flawed in the extreme and whilst carp do clearly need to eat, it really does put the proverbial cart before the horse.
One of the key things I have learnt down the decades is that piling in bait early on is largely detrimental, particularly when pursuing bigger, older fish. Required fat reserves will have been reached months earlier and even in cold water, some fish will be burgeoning with spawn, sometimes several months before they will be able to jettison it. In fact I have had male fish milt on the mat as early as the first week of March, despite the water being brutally cold. Largely speaking, the majority of these bigger, older fish will not be in the mood for eating quantities of bait until spawning has been completed and I honestly think many just feel bloated and disinterested.
Instead of being focussed on eating, they will be primarily preoccupied in raising body temperature and to do this they will often seek out areas that offer greater warmth. To this end, I will be wary of following cold spring winds (although it is vital to bear in mind that there are NO hard rules) and will seek instead areas of shelter that are also south facing. Areas of snaggy margin that get the majority of the sunlight can often be good places to find the fish laying up, along with south facing island margins where the water is protected from cold northerly air flow, allowing the calm water to soak up the increasing sunshine.
If your lake has areas of extended shallow ground then very often the carp can be found there. Simply, shallow water will warm up faster and as we know, it is all about warmth as far as the carp are concerned. In the past I have found new lily pad growth to be very appealing along with that old classic – reed beds. If you have a dense set of reeds that gets a lot of sunlight then be sure to check them out; very often the carp will have overwintered within them – keep your eyes on twitching stems, one of the best giveaways of all.
A key change we will see as we enter the spring is the difference in bite times. Generally these become more daylight orientated and knowing this helps us plan and prepare.
Often the nights are clear, cold and frosty, as such the fish become more active and willing to feed in daylight hours. The positioning of single hook baits in areas the fish are holding up is one of the key factors to success.
During this period of increasing light and (hopefully) increasing water temperatures, the lake bed and water column will be changing too. One of the first signs is the breaking up of the crust that covers the lake bed – this is a kind of algae and as it breaks up and floats to the surface it exposes areas of natural food beneath. This often happens as the water temperature tips into double figures (a key catalyst for carp and the whole aquatic environment) and this allows the first tips of new weed growth to break free and start growth up through the water column. New weed growth is very attractive to carp and I am always interested in areas where I have found short, fresh sprigs.
Insect activity will also be on the rise and some of the first hatches can be clearly seen around the third week of February. The fish will take full advantage of these and this is of course where zigs come into their own. This is the one time of the year where fish will spend a lot of time in an elevated potion within the water column to enjoy the warmth of the sun, and when you combine this with an increase in water column food, you can see why zigs become so effective.
Generally speaking, I look to fish the zigs in the top third of the column so if the water is say, ten feet deep then 7 foot is a good starting point. Another great tactic that is seriously underused and is highly effective year round, is the ‘micro zig’ – basically a small bait fished straight off the lead at a foot or two in length. This has caught me a lot of fish down the years, particularly in shallow water of maybe 5-6 feet.
Using phone apps to check weather is obviously an advantage. Bear in mind air pressure – this is an important factor and generally speaking the higher the air pressure, the higher in the water column the fish might be. This could translate to the fish being in the top few feet over deep water
or it could mean that they will seek a similar depth over shallow ground. I consider anything over about 1020 to be ‘high’ and clear, sunny days with pressure exceeding 1030mb are most definitely prime for finding the fish well off the bottom and/or in very shallow water.
The early spring is of course when most campaigns begin to unfold and it is a good idea to take advantage of the low lying weed to do some advanced homework. Using a marker set up or as is often my preference, a bare lead, work done investigating the lake bed is always well spent and has over the years resulted in some seriously good results as the season has progressed.
Other factors to consider in terms of location encompass the shape of the lake and also bird life. The centre of the lake is often the place where carp will overwinter and as such, it is often the best place for an early bite. I know this is slightly contradictory to what I have written earlier but often, before the fish venture into the margins and so on, they can be found out in the middle zones.
If there is any thick weed remaining from the winter months then this too is worth paying attention to. Watch the bird life at all times as these will take advantage of weed as a food source – often the fish and birds will be in close proximity.
Birds are great markers at giving away carp location and I have caught many after seeing subtle signs. Coots in particular are very nervous and if you hear the alarm call of fear (not a territorial call) it is always worth checking out the area. In fact I have caught carp based solely on reacting to this sound and then fishing the immediate area. Coots will also act nervously by extending their necks and tilting the head should carp be close by. I have again caught carp by reacting to this, in fact, a couple of springs back, the first carp of the year from the Quarry was caught like this. Myriad coots flocked the entire area, picking up weed and digging about. I was sure the carp were also close by and so I sat and watched. After an hour I saw a coot react to something below it. I lined it up and committed two singles to the zone. Early the next morning a lovely, dark mirror made its way to my net, the pure result of burning those Optical Calories – the biggest edge of all!