Its Not All Wine And Sixty Pounders…
If you are reading this in the hope of discovering a shortcut to success on the French river scene than I am sorry to disappoint you, I am a long way from unlocking the mysteries but I may be able to help guide you around some of the obstacles that have so far barred my way.
You may, like me, have trawled the web looking for articles that shed some light on the subject and you may also have come away frustrated at the difficulty in finding useful information. But surely that is exactly why we have chosen to fish the great rivers of France, they are one of the few unknowns in carp fishing and any fish caught is worth ten, no a hundred ‘named’ fish from a lake where most of the specimens will bear the scars of previous captures. When I travel abroad it is for a new experience and that is why I avoid still waters.
The first decision is location and that is entirely down to how far you are prepared to travel, generally speaking the further south you travel the better the weather but fishing in extreme heat can be more difficult than facing a little rain. The record river carp in France of over 81lb was taken from the Yonne south of Paris so that may tempt you there but before you visit any river over there try to do a little homework. The grapevine of information in the UK will give you some clues as to what to expect in as much as many of the rivers around the up and coming industry of holiday lakes and ‘Drive and Survive’ deals has put extreme pressure on the rivers. It would seem, so I have heard from numerous sources, that anglers have plundered the once bountiful rivers and removed many of the fish only for them to end up in their lakes. This behaviour has blighted carp angling at home and abroad for years and the French have now legislated for it with a mighty fine for those caught but, on my last trip earlier this year I heard of a lake I fished years ago that had suffered a total wipe out of its stocks because diseased fish had been introduced from the nearby river.
The upshot of this is that there are some areas that used to produce relatively easy fishing but nowadays are proving difficult due to the lack of fish. If you choose to fish where the reports of good catches in the past have been made then you may well go home disappointed. This then leads to my first tip to the would be river carper – don’t set your hopes too high. There are still plenty of fish and some absolute beasts in amongst them but the chances of that big fish taking your bait whilst you spend a relatively short time on the banks is, to say the least, slim. If a section of river has done a sixty pounder I suggest you aim for a thirty and take anything bigger as a bonus.
The rivers I’ve fished include the Yonne, Seine and Lot, I have struggled on all of them and my pain may help you reach success. First let’s look at the Seine where my homework said ‘big fish below Paris but slower sport, lot’s of fish above Paris with the odd lump thrown in’. What could be better? Three of us took a fortnight break and fished the lower Seine for most of the first week, we found a night fishing section (more of which later), and fished hard but were constantly being ‘done’ by enormous barges and we are talking in excess of 110yards long! When these monsters approached from upstream your bobbins would all drop to the ground when it was still over a hundred yards away such was the pressure wave of water ahead of it. How can you fish in that? Answer, not very well. We tried hard but were forced to move having not seen a carp between us, yes we caught chub, barbel and bream but they were not what we wanted.
The Yonne is similar in that the barges are a pain but we found a location that just screamed carp with islands, lilies and shelter. Whether we were too close to their spawning time ( when many of the fish migrate to lakes that are joined to the main river), or what I am not sure but again we blanked. The next stop was the Upper Seine and we found an area where the 350 yard wide river was dissected by long islands, this allowed us to avoid most of the boat traffic that went up the other side. A week later and despite a couple of small catfish and a plague of roach/bream hybrids that, at about five pounds each, gave screaming runs, still no carp. Two weeks between three of us, including I might add a well known and accomplished carper – no names 😉 We were all at our lowest as we packed, I put the last of my kit in the car and returned to the swim to say my goodbye’s to the others when, right over my bait rolled a big carp – sometimes you just can’t win.
The Lot was another heart breaker. I had done a lot of homework on this place and was told by one that had previously fished there of its potential and moods. The Lot is controlled by a series of weirs or barrages as they are locally known. When the river was broken up into a series of short sections controlled by the aforementioned weirs, it was stocked with a variety of species and some areas hold predominantly common carp whereas the one we were to target held mainly mirrors. Apparently the barrage on this section was opened every evening for an hour or two causing the current to go from placid to torrent and to cause the angler to wind in, take it steady and have his meal etc. This sounded quite civilized and I was ready for the trip. Well, information is only good if it’s accurate and yes, five years ago in those conditions at that time of year the barrage would indeed have been regular but, when I was there it was all over the place and the debris coming down with the flow had to be seen to be believed. On the first night I was woken by a buzzer telling me that a clump of weed weighing about fifty pounds had taken my distance rods out. I wound them in, had a leak around the back of the bivvy and had to jump to it when my nearside rod screamed off. The fight was not a classic but the size of the flank as the fish rolled into the net was satisfying and I had a river carp at 30.11, just the job. What could possibly go wrong now?
Two weeks later I was waiting for my next bite! My son had yet to register a fish and my other two mates had just one between them, alright, it was a 40.8 but I’m not jealous – much. My son and I had just a couple of days left so we decided to move to a small tributary I know as I thought it would give him a chance of changing his fortune. The other two, for some reason, moved into our swims and would you believe it, the next day it switched on and they had three fish between 15 and 21lbs from it. Tip two, if you travel with friends make sure that are true friends or they can end up off your Christmas card list come the end of a difficult session. Fortunately our move worked out and Neil got a fish and lost a lump that made him vow to return. I had loads of bites, all from mozzies and I was pickled in itchy red marks for days! Tip three – take mozzie repellent and buy anti-mozzie candles and burners in the local supermarket, they are a bloody nuisance. At one location we visited the hedgerow was brown with resting mozzies, the smell of fresh blood as we arrived caused a food frenzy and we were all bitten to death. One party member strolled up in his shorts and announced, “They never seem to bother me”, I told him to check out his legs where a dozen mosquito’s gorged on his blood. I wish I’d filmed the little dance he did back to his bivvy flicking insects off as he ran.
Of course, having visited a venue you are far better equipped on your return so this Spring Neil and I went back to the Lot where we would put right all that had gone wrong before. Wrong! We arrived after heavy rain in the mountains and the barrages throughout the river were all fully open. The river zoomed past and was full of trees and debris. Tip number four – have a plan B, or C or D even.
We had booked a chalet in a nearby campsite, it meant that we had a good fridge, a shower and somewhere dry in the event of a wash out. It seemed like a good idea and would have been except we were physically unable to fish seriously the venue of our choice. Deciding to remain near the chalet and its last vestige of civility in a wet environment, we headed for a nearby (one hour away) lake but again, found it to be completely unproductive due to the amount of snow melt entering it, driving the level up by four metres in a week. That was plan B gone for a burton. We had a night in a proper bed (after a good meal and copious red wine), then decided to ditch the chalet and we headed West for about a hundred and fifty miles to where the weather was still wet but considerably warmer.
I had a contact in this area (if you can find anybody local then bleed them for information, it is invaluable) and he put us on to a couple of likely waters. At the first, a hundred and fifty acre gravel pit, I had a thirty pounder after about forty five minutes but the conditions quickly changed, the wind veered around by 180 degrees and there was nowhere on that side of the lake left to fish. So, here’s another tip; check out the local Public Holidays because all of the shops will be shut and all of the fisheries will be busy.
Wanting to fish the rivers we moved again but the big rivers such as the Dordogne and the Gironde, are not fishable for weeks after heavy rain, we were back to square one. We went again to the tributary, a narrow, deep river that never runs fast. It looks like it would hold nothing but a few roach and bream but the potential is amazing, there are large pike, zander and plenty of carp that patrol the river in shoals, all you have to do is either find them or draw them to you.
Over the next few days we were visited by fish and, although we didn’t quite break the twenty pound barrier, we at least rescued the trip and recorded a few fish. Neil would have landed more but for a couple of unmoving snags in his swim and dodgy tackle. Who do you know that would be playing a carp in the middle of the night only to find that the handle had inexplicably broken off and he has no control over a hard fighting common. He tried in vane to hand-line the fish and had a cheese-wire cut on his finger to prove it. The very next bite some three hours later and – yes, he did it again. The second handle broke and he again tried to hand-line the fish (with his other hand) and again had a deep cut for his efforts. Two good fish lost and two reels out of action. We were only using two carp fishing rods each due to the tight swims we fished so I let him have one of mine and Neil used his beloved centre pin on the other but, there’s a lesson for us all – Tip 5, check your gear before you go and take spare everything.
That pretty much sums up the trials and tribulations of my pathetic attempts to catch a river monster but, it is a work in progress and I shall succeed. The little river we fished has produced commons to nearly fifty pounds and the thought of landing one of those from a narrow, snaggy river keeps me awake at night. I now have more experience and a few leads to more places to try so, one day I may write an account of a victory ….. one day.
For those of you that are thinking about giving it a go here are a few suggestions. The web site http://www.unpf.fr/ is a mine of information. I have downloaded a translator onto my Web Browser and it makes navigation around the site much easier than trying it with a French dictionary.
Do buy a license when you are fishing, at the time of writing it costs €30 or €35 for a carte de vacances (holiday license) which lasts a fortnight, €65 for an annual license for the area where you buy it or €85 for a licence that covers the vast majority of France should you decide to go more than once or to cross District boarders. France has a Garde de Peche or Fishing Police and they can be quite humourless when confronted with poachers, you have been warned.
Each district had allocated night fishing areas which are mostly shown on the above web page and on the pamphlet you will get when you buy your license. These areas are subject to change and have rules concerning your behaviour. Of course, if you are fishing where everybody else can night fish, you are chasing more pressured fish. The temptation to go ‘off piste’ as it were is very strong but rural France is very parochial and not much goes unnoticed by the locals which in turn will be passed to others. I don’t think that discrete and well behaved anglers are too much trouble but I still advise you to stick to the permitted venues and maybe go exploring during the day when fish can still be taken especially from unpressurised areas.
The French people, despite the stereotype portrayed by many, are friendly and helpful providing you are polite to them and at least make an attempt at the language. My French is awful but I splutter along with much arm waving and have been given loads of help, I can honestly say I have never been treated badly or rudely by a French person.
Tackle for France is whatever you have at home but with fresh line, sharp hooks and plenty of spares as buying quality gear is getting easier but is still a hassle trying to find a decent tackle shop. I spool up with 15lb line, anything that has a high abrasion resistance will do. Take a spare spool and preferably a spool or two of braid for marker float work, spodding or should conditions require a finer line such as heavy flow etc. I did make the mistake this year of only putting 150 yards of line on each spool. This is more than ample on a river but one of the lakes we were forced to try would have been better fished had I been able to get a bait out to extreme range with a boat, I shan’t make that mistake again.
I use Solar longshanks and Gardner Mugga hooks for the vast majority of my fishing with size 4 and 6 coping with most situations, I like to use a hook that will not tear as I am aiming for big fish that may need to be bullied away from snags.
Leads between the 1oz and 4oz will cope with most situations, flat pear leads with the bobbly edges will help keep everything settled in a flow. Take plenty and a few backleads as they will keep your line out of the way of boats, pedalo’s (anywhere near a campsite can be mayhem), and passing debris. As for the rest of your terminal gear, just take what you normally use but lots of it.
Bait is a difficult one to judge. I have read of many anglers that get though tons of bait on a trip but I don’t know that it is necessary. If you have found your fish it may work against you to fill it in as it will doubtless attract every bream and chub for miles, whereas if you are trying to attract a carp or two, too much bait will limit the chances of that fish picking up your bait. I tend to take lots of boilies and fifty kilo’s is a lot in my book. But I feed moderately and can always build it up when the fish are on the feed but I have brought back a lot of my bait each time I’ve been. I do stick to boilies though as particles can also attract unwanted species and I have seen river carp over here avoiding shoals of bream, barbel or chub. Having given that advice, my efforts have been modest so far and humping in the bait may work better but I am convinced that it would not have improved any of the situations I have found myself in so far. Take a few extra hard boilies as crayfish can be a nuisance and they are very keen on fishmeal so go easy on the pellets if you insist on using them.
Make sure your car is serviced and have a breakdown insurance in place before you go. I have had car problems in France, thankfully only fairly minor stuff but your average garage owner is rarely fluent in English so be prepared for a game of charades when trying to explain a strange noise or where it is coming from. I once tried to describe a hissing sound coming from my turbo which subsequently proved to be a leaking air hose but all I could get from the three people trying to decipher the mad Englishman’s babbling was each of them checking my tyres for a puncture.
My last word of advice, enjoy the ride, expect at least as many ‘downs’ as ‘ups’ and try to maintain your sense of humour. France is a beautiful country, there are thousands of miles of rivers rarely if ever fished and plenty of unmarked fish waiting for you to pay them a visit. Good luck.