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Underwater Blues
by John Dearden
10 December 2010
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As I stand on the dam wall, looking East across the expanse of water at my feet I can see the first rays of the morning sun filter through the distant tree line as it lifts the grey swirls into a cold clear sky.
Its still technically winter.

The early start has not been to cast a line this time, but to allow me to get a feel for a new water which has suddenly grabbed my attention, and I fear from this initial introduction it will continue to do so for some time to come.

A few fish have been rising since first light, some right at my feet, probably the first time they will have come across anyone standing right above them, while others are shouldering further out in the open water and in the margins. Small creatures rustle in nearby dead leaves and undergrowth, while the Grey Louries in the nearby Karee tell me in no uncertain terms to “go-way”.
A small stoat like animal, most likely a Meercat but curiously alone, disappears over a nearby tree stump, now having to find an alternative early morning watering spot.
This is a good place, a quiet unvisited water and I hope in time my presence will cause less concern to its residents. Yes, this place feels like a place I could enjoy fishing.

I have never been one for the crowded waters and bivvie cities which seen to spring up on certain waters, preferring to fish waters which provide a challenge and enjoy learning a waters secrets over a period of time.

We are probably at the same point in time as the UK was in the 1960’s in terms of pressure on waters from Specimen Anglers targeting big Carp, and a number of local pioneering waters are being used as springboards from which anglers move onto new rarely fished waters.

It will not take the 35 years or so to reach the point Europe is at now, but more than likely within 5 years, increasingly instant big carp anglers will be on the scene.

One aspect though which they will not be able to buy over the counter is experience or watercraft, and even with the latest hi-tech baits and gear, if you are fishing in the wrong place or the water you are fishing to catch that 40lb’er doesn’t contain one, its not going to happen, so in the next few lines I will try and put down a few things which has helped me along the way.

This water has hardly been fished over the many decades it has been in existence, but has produced fish to 35lb regularly to those that have fished it with reports of bigger ones lost and seen. I do not really go by “reports” but if fish to 35lb have come out, then there is a very good chance that with the right tactics, bait and some time spent on the water, you will ascertain whether there is any credence to such reports.
It is small by SA dam sizes and looks about 5 acres, but not being a good judge of waters size, I’ll err on the conservative. Willow and Eucalyptus trees line the water almost completely, with reeds on every bank except the dam wall side. The reed beds are quite thick, as much as 30m in places and there are a number of sunken trees, with tops and dead wood just visible. A small tree covered island in the northern corner completing the visible features.

It’s what is under the surface I intend to discover today, because this, in combination with the visible features will determine where I intend to expend my energies and whether it could really hold some special fish.

Fish, especially on waters not used to anglers or their baits will be found in areas where natural food collects. These areas do not really change much, unless there has been some dramatic weather influence, so the fish within any given water will, during is growth, come to learn where the best food areas lie. It is up to the angler to either place a bait within one of these spots or to try and intercept the fish as it travels along its regular food patrol routes.

Artificial feeding places created by anglers using bait boats, canoes and graphite casting poles disguised as fishing rods, together with the loud noise from the bank, have forced fish to feed away from the margins in many of the popular local waters and as such the fish are to be found at greater distances. It is usually the smaller fish, with their lesser nutritional requirements, which are feeding in these areas on the many different baits the angler is putting out.

The larger fish, which need to consume larger volumes of food with a greater nutritional value to sustain their body weight, will be found in areas where the abundance natural food is greater and more consistent. I believe this to be the main reason why many larger fish come out on nutritionally lower quality baits during winter, such as mealies, dough and pap, due to the fishes natural food larders being depleted, forcing the bigger fish into areas they would normally not be found, thus coming into contact with the anglers bait.

The natural food larders or food trapping areas can take many forms, and the more an angler tries to discover these and understands what to look for, the more the odds will be stacked in the anglers favour.

These areas can include, the bank, reeds or shore into which any prevailing winds is blowing or have been blowing for a number of days, pushing food into these areas. Where the wind has been blowing into a bay, eddies may occur to the left and right trapping food into these areas.

The old riverbeds with broad sweeping rivers or wider rivers which at some point have the original river bed running under the surface, as in the case of a couple of the inlets to Hartbeespoort Dam, which in their case occurs tight to the opposite bank.

Another feature to use is the bank you are standing on. Chances are if it’s flat and sandy, the water in front of you will be the same, dropping in gradient at the same rate. A typical example of this is the Vaal Dam flat and featureless, exactly what is in front of the majority of fishing spots. Not much good at holding food.
Likewise if the bank your on is steep and rocky down to the waters edge, more than likely it will continue this way into the water. A difficult place to fish, but find the point where the angle flattens, maybe on a ledge or as it bottoms out, and you will have found a potential natural food collection point, something the fish already know about.

Bloodworm beds are great sources of food for the Carp and when they come across these, they feed very heavily, sometimes becoming completely preoccupied, ignoring all other foods including bait, but they are definitely worth a try. Look out for midge hatches on the surface in the early morning and evenings, indicating the probable location of bloodworm beds, and then try to locate an area of silt or mud in this vicinity. If the fish are feeding, there may even be clouds of silt visible.

Gravel bars and patches are probably one of the single most productive areas to place your baits, especially if the surrounding areas consist of heavy weed or silt. Raised gravel bars/beds hold large quantities of food that settles down between the stones as the action of the water passes over them, trapping particles of food within the gravel grains. Not only do carp feed on these food particles but also on the other creatures such as small crustaceans like snails and crabs, beetles and larva which also come to feed within the gravel.

If you are river fishing, look for the slacker water, especially off a faster moving current. All fish will know that these areas will trap food and many species will forage in these areas. Steep banks with water running along them usually mean a faster current and possibly deeper water, look for where the bank side vegetation changes and the cutting action of the water has eased. This will indicate either a broadening of the main current or a change in direction of the older riverbed, steering the water away, either way this slacker water is another natural food holding area.

Its at this point I can hear a number of people say, its all well and good knowing about these areas but unless you saw the water when it was during a drought or own an expensive fish finder and boat, the average angler is never going to find these areas. Well this may be true, but with a little knowledge and some basic equipment, they will be very surprised.

The initial technique referred to as plumbing is a vital part of match anglers tools on the European circuit, Carp anglers use it though not for perfectly shotting float rigs and depths but for a slightly different role. When plumbing or reading a water it is always a good idea to take a notebook with you to draw the areas and record any features, fish sightings etc. for future reference.

Firstly, you will need a large heavy weight, two soft rubber beads and a large buoyant float. Some special floats with flights attached and which have aerodynamically designed for greater distance and accuracy called Marker Floats are available but any float, which you can see at a maximum distance of +/- 100m, and which will not lift the lead of the bottom, should be fine.

Your main line is threaded through the large weight, the two beads and then to the base of the float. Your main line should be quite heavy, to cast the heavier than usual set-up plus to allow it to be pulled through weed beds and silt. If you suspect the bottom to contain snags and thick weed, rather first use a heavy lead on its own rather than risk losing your marker float, for the initial few times.

Once you have chosen the area on the water you would like to check, mentally carve it up into various pie sections. Begin from one side, say from the right and work across the whole area until you have it covered across to the left.

You only need to cast out as far as the area you intend fishing. If you are first checking for snags, use only the weight on the end of the line and allow the weight to land on the bottom before tightening up the slack. Slowly tighten the line until your rod tip is pointing down the line. Next, slowly move the rod to the side until you can feel the weights movement along the bottom. You will be able to feel the bottom conditions, by recognising the different sensations, the weight makes and the way the rod “feels” as you drag the weight across the bottom. Some anglers cut grooves into their weight to pick up and bottom debris, which is then inspected on the bank.

Possible conditions. These are a merely a guideline of what to expect.

Clay or Heavy Mud – Initially the weight will be struck, but after the initial pull as it comes out of the cloying sticky substance, it will come in a heavy sticking kind of way or as in the case of hard clay, very smoothly.

Gravel – the lead will move generally straight away and will come in with very small bumps or knocks on the line and rod. If you hold your line and pull it in by hand you get a very exact feel of the size of the gravel particles.

Sand – An easy constant retrieve, smooth with no pulling or snagging, possible slight grating feeling.

Weed – Generally a stop and start type of retrieve as the weight pulls free from one patch and stops as it gets caught up in the next. The resistance can also increase as the weed builds up around the line and lead. Often traces of the weed will still be found on the swivel.

Rocks- The weight can become completely stuck, or will bounce vigorously as you retrieve. Weight may also have shiny scratches and knocks visable.

Sunken Trees/Stumps – Fairly smooth retrieval before becoming completely stuck. Usually results in the loss of tackle, unless you are able to pull through the branches, which will then cause the lead to fly free.

How it works

Step #1
Once you have given your chosen area the once over to give you a rough idea of the bottom conditions, you are ready to give it a more detailed going over. Using a set-up similar to the one above, you repeat your casting pattern.

Step #2
Once the weight has settled, reel in any slack line. You are now pulling the float under the water until it reaches the weight. The two beads prevent the two swivels from pulling into each other and allow the float to pull the line more freely through the weight eye, but you will clearly feel the float reach the weight.

Step #3
With your rod tip pointing in the direction of the line you begin to feed off line from the reel in 12”/30cm lengths, counting each one until you see the float on the surface. 1..2…3…6…7…9…. 12’ the float pop-ups. You now know the depth at that point is 12’ deep.

Step #4
You reel in the slack again until you feel the weight and drag the weight across the bottom. The weight moves with a stop start type of action, similar to the weed you felt earlier. After about 5m of similar stop start pulling you again point the rod to the weight, reeling in any slack and slowly feed off line, 1..2…3…6…7…9…. 12’ the float pops up again at 12’, you now know that the bottom is evenly covered in weed at 12’ in that area.

Reel in the slack and pull the weight another 5m. During this action, you notice that the weight has changed to small bumps vibrating along the rod. You stop reel in any slack and again slowly feed off the line 1..2…3…6…7…9…10’ the float pop-ups up at 10’. Now you have found a feature, just what you were looking for. The bottom has risen 2’ and the bottom condition has changed from weed to a raised gravel type bottom.
You again reel in the slack and pull the weight across the bottom for 5m, still no change. Taking up the slack, you once again feed off line, 1...2…3…6…7…9…10’ the float pop-ups again at10’.
So far so good.
Reel in the slack again, and drag the weight for a further 5m, but at 4m you feel a stop start type of action return, weed again. Feed of line once more, and you see your weight has dropped down again and the float has risen at the 12’ mark.

You have now found either a gravel bar sitting out of the weed bed or a localised patch of gravel, either way, you have found a change in bottom conditions, with the probability that this is a good place to fish. As you continue to do this across your chosen area, you might find deeper holes in the weed, patches of silt, possible bloodworm beds. Steep drop-offs, at the bottom of which could be food-holding places.

Once you have completed steps 1-4 it is a matter of repeating them throughout your chosen area in the fan type pattern as shown.

All of these things were not visible from the surface but with the aid of these simple tools, you now have a detailed map of the bottom. Learning to recognise different bottom conditions does take time, but feeling differences between the various sensations is quick and easy.

By repeating these steps all the way to the bank you will have an accurate picture of the bottom conditions, the depth of water and any changes thereof and an idea where any features within that chosen area may lie.



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