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Wading with carp

By Mark Bowler

Mark Bowler sight-fishes for giant carp with Buzzers and Bloodworms in southern France

A good common hooked on a large Bloodworm.
A good common hooked on a large Bloodworm.
The Petit Camargue: a mosaic of lakes, lagoons and channels, heaving with carp.
The Petit Camargue: a mosaic of lakes, lagoons and channels, heaving with carp.

“Bonefishing, French-style” , whispered Arnaud, as he beckoned me towards a quivering fish-tail the size of a man’s spread-eagled hand that poked through the surface of the reed-fringed lagoon. Sure, we could have been bonefishing; it was swelteringly hot, I was wearing my flats cap and tropical shirt and I had my fly-line trailing at the ready, fly in hand. But my fly was not a Crazy Charlie; it was a size 4 Bloodworm, and the tail I was studying was not scapel-shaped, erect and silver, but bronze, flaccid and palmate. It belonged to a common carp.

So began my first stalk for carp across the clinging, muddy bottom of the Camargue lakes. Would this fish, which has limited eyesight and uses its sensitive barbules to smell out and locate its food, really take my simple floss-bodied imitation of a bloodworm without the aid of the usual carp-fishing paraphenalia of boilies, bivouacs or monkey-climbers? Each sliding, gliding step of our breathable waders took us closer to the beckoning tail, and I could now see that this signified a fish in the teens of pounds. In my coarse-fishing youth this sort of fish existed only in BB’s Confessions of a carp fisher. So wild, so wary, so coy, and yet I was surprised how Arnaud, my guide, urged me closer. It dawned on me that these fish were rarely fished for, because Arnaud – who was brought up in the Camargue – knows the owners of the private lands of the ‘petit Camargue’, and possesses a ship’s pilot book of the lakes – depth and the consistency of the mud below the surface – in his head. Only he has learned where one can and cannot wade. No-one else could wade these waters or navigate them alone; if they did they would surely disappear without trace. Arnaud was just as at home in this vast expanse on interconnecting lakes as these carp were.

I knew what to do; Arnaud had explained in detail that the fly had to land close to the head of the fish, sink and then be trickled across and in front of its eye-line. Depth and angle of retrieve were critical, as was bite detection, because in this water – the colour of weak tea with a merest hint of milk – it would be impossible to see the fly. Hardly daring to breathe, I cast, paused, and made a constant figure-of-eight retrieve. “Closer”, murmured Arnaud.

I tried to land the heavy fly as gently as possible to avoid a ‘spook’, but this pig of a fish ignored my persistence, and continued to busily root and trough at the bottom whilst standing on its head, its tail slapping and flapping at the surface. I varied my retrieves – pull-pause; strip, strip; twitch; long draws and then, just when I thought I was trying to achieve the impossible, there was a whisper-like tremor transmitted down the line. Hardly believing what had just occurred I lifted gently, just as Arnaud had instructed. Nothing.

There and then I thought I’d blown my chance. Arnaud had puffed up the trip that day saying that we were going for an IGFA record, and were using specially tested, low breaking-strain line. He said he had brought his mobile phone with him to contact the local radio and TV stations the instant the record fish was hooked.

And I’d missed it.

Angling immortality had deserted me, but never mind, this failed first attempt signalled one of the most intense and absorbing day’s fishing I’ve ever experienced. There were carp everywhere: bronze smudgy shapes which loomed through the silty water, providing an endless succession of likely targets; creamy white mouths the size of tennis-balls slurped their way along the reed margins; and huge scalloped tails broke the surface and beckoned ‘come hither’ as massive fish wallowed and nuzzled into the black, oily mud-troughs in the shallow water.

Some of them were twice the size of the fish I’d just encountered.

A brush with the record?
Towards the end of the day – you need to get off the lakes by early evening otherwise you will eaten alive by mosquitoes – Arnaud and I located a fish working the bottom in water that was too deep for us to wade. Nevertheless, we could still clearly see its tail as it drove its nose into the mud.

With each successive pile-driving head-butt, black silt mushroomed to the surface, flattening the waves with a suspended cloud the size of a dining table.

By now, a strong coastal cross-wind was blowing, and to cover the fish required a long cast, slightly upwind which allowed the fly to drift into the fish’s feeding area as it sank. The idea was to drop a big, bright Bloodworm fly close to its head and then draw it away.

Although nothing was said, we both knew this was a record fish. Even now, I’m frightened to estimate its weight.

With each successive cast, I held my breath in case it interferred with my take-detection, and I could palpably sense Arnaud tighten his grip on the mobile phone in his waistcoat pocket. As the fish worked downwind, so I continued to cover it, but we couldn’t get any closer than a 25-yard cast. Then, during one retrieve, the carp’s tail slid under the surface and disappeared, just as I sensed the merest sensation of a take. I lifted, but not into the fish; just an empty void. Arnaud gave me a rueful smile.

I bet that fish is still there now. Wallowing like a hippo, feeding like a warthog, and growing even bigger by the day.

The technique and the tackle
Arnaud believes that the IGFA record for carp can be broken in the Camargue. He once caught a carp of 17.5kg (38.5lb) on a 3lb leader without ratification of a witness. Whilst this sounds incongruous, Arnaud has perfected a rod blank which has a phenomenally soft tip which absorbs all the shock of the take and the powerful runs, and a special leader system. A special technique is required to get the hook-point to bite, yet not cause the nylon to break. It is the fly-fisher’s version of the ‘bolt-rig’ – a technique used by carp-fishers which involves the initial prick of the hook point in the carp’s mouth causing it to panic and take flight, whereby it hooks itself. Thus the ‘strike’ is a gentle lift of the rod-tip, sufficient to allow the fish to feel the hook-point.

Once hooked, the rod-tip must then be kept vertical to allow the tip to cushion the runs. Get it right, and you could find yourself in the record books. Get it wrong and you lose not only the fish, or your fly, but also your stake for angling immortality. During the day I detected a myriad of takes, sensing or seeing subtle movements of the line, but initially my gentle strikes resulted in either thin, briny Camargue water, or a semi-hooked fish which came off before a firm connection was made. Later, I found I could lift into takes with surprising power without breaking off – such was the rod’s softness in the tip.

Getting it right
When a fish is hooked then prepare for two types of battle. If it is a fish of up to 6lb then it will tear away on a reel-screaming, gill-bursting run, peeling off line for a long initial run. If it is one of the bigger boys, then they tend to utilise their power and weight, rather than flight. It’s a long battle with a fine leader in the hot sun. Learning as we went, Magnus Angus and I found that a good draw on the line could sometimes induce a more committed take, and another method of bite detection was to watch the carp change direction quickly as it turned on the fly. Either way, once the fish was hooked it was important to keep the rod tip vertical, so the soft tip could cushion the runs and protect the ultra-fine tippet. We were surprised how easily we could subdue fish of up to 6kg (13lb) using the special set-up.

Camargue carp
Due to the shallow water, high temperatures and rich muds of the bottom of the lakes, combined with the excellent spawning facilities afforded by the shallow, weedy drainage ditches, the Camargue could have been designed for carp. Feeding is constant, numbers are high, food is plentiful, and some of these fish have grown to monstrous proportions.

Due to the difficulty of access, fishing pressure is low. Most of the fish we saw were in the 5-10lb range, but there were plenty ranging from the teens to ‘thirties’.


The Camargue
Deep in the south of France at the mouth of the Rhone valley, the Camargue is a vast marshy delta, which has been managed by man since the Middle Ages. The result is the ‘Ile de Camargue’ a vast, flat, mosaic of rice paddies, salt flats, orchards and vineyards intermingled with drainage ditches and dominated by reed-fringed briny lagoons and lakes.

Prehistoric ‘horses of the sea’ – the white Carmargue horses run wild across the flats, and young black fighting bulls are reared here, too. The area is a botanical and zoological nature reserve – eagles, harriers and hawks patrol the skies, and ducks, egrets, storks and herons strut the margins, accompanied by the area’s famous pink flamingoes.

The bottom muds of the lakes are rich in shrimps, bloodworms, midges and mosquitoes and provide excellent feeding for both wading birds and carp.

Other activities
The ‘petit Camargue’ area lies between the two arms of the River Rhone, south-west of Marseilles, on the Mediterranean coast of France. An area some 40 miles across, it is close to the walled mediaeval town of Aigue Mortes, near the harbour town of Le Grau du Roi. The area hosts horseback tours, jeep safaris, and cycling outings and is a haven for bird-watchers. For fishing, however, you will need a guide as this is private land, and Arnaud Pellegrin has permission to fish here, and is a specialist on these waters. Contact him through ClubFishFrance, tel: 0208 874 6717. www.clubfishfrance.com

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