It can get a little frustrating when methods and areas that seemed to produce fish quite easily in the summer months suddenly drop off as Winter approaches. It’s a situation that occurs on many waters with the onset of the cold weather. Carp go into a semi-dormant state during the colder months which means they become less active and feed less aggressively. We’re not quite talking about the family tortoise that gets packed up in straw for months on end in a nice warm airing-cupboard, rather a slowing down of the metabolism which means less food is required to sustain energy levels. That said, they do still feed, but less frequently. Moreover, their behaviour can change quite dramatically during the colder months and this can also determine the places within a lake they may frequent – in simple terms; the swim where you bagged up throughout summer may now be at the opposite end of the lake to where the fish are now stacked up throughout Winter.
The first thing I would do to try and locate the fish would be to plumb the depths around the lake. In Winter carp are often found in areas that stay pretty constant in terms of temperature – in many cases this means the deeper water. Find the areas of the lake that offer this security to the fish and plan your approach accordingly. Much depends on the average depth – the deeper the water in a lake the more dormant they tend to remain. I like to fish shallower waters through the colder months as I find the fish remain more active. This is mainly down to the fact that carp are stimulated by the daylight hours and fluctuations in temperature. Shallow water will warm and cool quicker than deeper water so is more likely to stimulate the carp into a bit of action on a bright Winters day, as apposed to water with a much deeper average depth where the carp will likely remain rooted to one area for longer periods.
Also, and this goes for waters in general, try to work out where the warmest water is likely to be when you are fishing. Many anglers assume that all the water within a lake will be at the same temperature at any given time or on any given swim – this is not the case. Furthermore, there can be a difference of several degrees dependant on water depth and time of year. Several years ago I fished a shallow water throughout the Winter. My friend and I really struggled to pick up fish until we worked out where they were ‘hanging out’. In summer they could be caught from any number of swims but come Winter these all dried up – what’s more, we weren’t even spotting any fish. After many fishless sessions we began to analyse our results and those of others around us to see what we were doing wrong. Nothing obvious sprung to mind until we started climbing trees for hours on end in the hope of spotting a few fish that might at least point us in the right direction! Sure enough, we soon started to see groups of fish hanging about in exactly the same two areas of the lake, time and time again, session after session. The lake was pretty much lined with trees and both of these areas were quite shallow. It suddenly dawned on us that they were the two areas of the lake that caught the sun for longest period throughout the day, and with the spots being extremely shallow there was a likelihood of temperature increase within the two areas. On bright days good numbers of fish would always turn up around 1pm and just mill around till late afternoon in areas no bigger than a car parking space. After that, when fishing in bright and sunny conditions we targeted these areas and started to pick up fish on a regular basis.
We struggled to work out the exact areas they were coming from or going to when congregating in this area, so ended up tailoring our sessions to suit these particular times & conditions and it worked quite well. The point I’m making is that although all carp are similar in behaviour, the carp in any one water will behave just that bit different to others in another water based on their own environment, so it’s a case of getting to grips with the features and holding areas in your own water.
Another thing worth mentioning is the breakdown of vegetation each year. You mention that you favour fishing close in to the margins and also just off an island. In summer both areas doubtless prove highly productive, but with the onset of autumn and Winter there may be an awful lot of debris falling into such areas as trees and bankside vegetation begin to shed leaves. As the decomposition process begins to turn the debris to silt a great deal of the available dissolved oxygen content within the immediate area is used up, and over the following weeks I think this may deter carp from visiting these areas; for a short while at least. I’m convinced this exact thing happens on the Top Pool which is a relatively shallow water completely lined with trees and bushes and I witnessed a perfect example of this just a few weeks ago - There are numerous clear spots both in the margins and out in open water that anglers fish to from any given peg throughout the summer. As soon as the leaves start to fall you can tell which areas fish are visiting regularly as the bottom will be swept clear down to the silt and kept that way until the weed has all gone (especially if a little bait has been going in). However, come October many of these areas simply switch off for a number of weeks. I got up there and investigated several swims from above a few weeks ago and many of those within a few feet of the bank did not appear to have been visited; the lake bed within these clear spots was just littered with leaves and debris. However, those slightly further out from the margins where there was not as much leaf fall had been kept clear. There were still lots of leaves around them but you could tell the fish had still been frequenting these areas and keeping them swept clean down to the silt. In addition, a few of the untouched areas still had varying amounts of untouched bait within them - so definitely food for thought. Basically, I’ve now adopted an approach where I stop fishing areas which are affected by heavy leaf fall from the time that the leaves really start to drop until late November and my results have certainly improved.
As carp behaviour and mobility changes during Winter - eating habits change also. During summer carp will often gorge themselves and upon finding food, hungry or not, will often have a nibble resulting in more opportunities to put fish on the bank. In Winter I’ve found the opposite to be the case. Yes they eat, but it seems they only eat what they need to, just enough in order to sustain themselves. Thus for me big beds of bait are out. My Winter fishing revolves around trying to provoke a reaction - Imagine you’ve not long had a hearty tea and you’re feeling quite content on the sofa. If someone puts another slap up meal in front of you, the chances are you’ll decline the offer. However, if that person were to offer you a nice toffee, or an After Eight, you might well accept the offer as it would take up little or no room. As such, I try to do just that; offer a tiny amount of bait presented in a way that they simply can resist!
Whatever your bait may be, keep it simple and don’t put too much in – I would say this is by far the biggest mistake novice anglers make when short session Winter carping. I usually stick to single hookbaits. Also, because finding the areas where they are held up can be more difficult, I favour a roving approach on at least one rod; a single hook bait re-cast to a different area every hour or two will often bring about a result. The other bait I will often leave static for the full session, with a very small bed of bait. Something that moves or stands out can be good in provoking that response – a brightly coloured or glugged hookbait, a few wriggling maggots over a handful of hemp - anything that can take advantage of their inquisitive nature. A bait fished with this mindset will often do the business!
When all said and done, carp are still there to be caught during the Winter months. However, the importance of locating the fish and working out the feeding times can’t be underestimated. I hope all of the above may plant a few seeds in your own mind about catching carp in your own water this Winter.