Most people probably think of ponds as being small, and term larger bodies of water as lakes, but where is the dividing line? Searching on the internet, it seems classing stillwaters as ponds or lakes isn’t based on any convention, it’s just an arbitrary naming process. This leaves me unsure if I have been fishing large ponds or small lakes, something I very much enjoy doing when winter calls. Many of the smaller stillwaters around where I live are packed with carp and get very busy during the warmer months, a time when I prefer to visit less hectic places. Despite having spent many years match fishing, I don’t like crowds, which is why I love drains and canals so much. On well-spaced pegs you still have your own water to explore, which is not the case when method feeders and pellet wagglers are firing in all directions on carp puddles during the height of summer. But when local pools get quieter, they turn into something very different.
By the time winter arrives the banks of most of my favourite small stillwaters are deserted. The carp have shoaled up into quiet corners and their metabolism has slowed right down. This opens the door for some of the best silver fish sport I’ve ever had the privilege to enjoy. A new world magically appears, where species like roach, rudd, hybrids, skimmers and perch take over. You wouldn’t think these fish existed during the warmer months, when pellets and fishmeal groundbaits were being guzzled up by ravenous carp. But the secret shoals were always there and happily getting plumper on the leftovers. Most of these fish have never been caught, learning to pick up small and safer particles of food, ignoring anything big with a hook attached. With the first frosts, the time arrives for delicate tackle, along with natural baits like pinkies, maggots, casters and worms. Sometimes I might push things further with punched bread and hemp.
I enjoy fishing with company and having a bit of banter, but also equally savour those outings when I can appreciate the surroundings and peace and quiet on my own. This gives me time to mull over things and to try different tactics, both feeding and tackle-wise. It’s amazing how small tweaks to what you normally do can make such a big difference to results and the type of species you catch. This is Birch Lake, over the far side of the Woodland Waters complex, well away from the busiest areas. It still gets packed in the summer, to the extent only season ticket holders and holidaying anglers who stay on the site are allowed to enjoy it. But during off-peak times, a polite word at the office or with the bailiff, will often allow visitors to have a go on a day ticket. Even then, I often have this big pond, small lake, or whatever it really is, all to myself. It’s a beautiful, sheltered spot, with woods behind and the odd flash of blue as kingfishers dart by.
The main thing with smaller, well stocked venues is they almost guarantee bites when most other bigger waters turn rock-hard. I still like to fish those places but it’s nice to have a bonus day bagging up, getting a bite almost every put in. On this occasion I caught well to begin with on a full-depth rig, bearing in mind my swim was only 3ft deep. Due to that I used a light pole tackle with strung shot, which pulled quite a few bites on the drop. When the fish were really having a go, I switched to an even lighter and shallower set rig, finding better quality roach off bottom. I caught mainly skimmers, perch and smaller roach with baits like segments of worm, red maggot and caster at full depth. Caster was better towards the end with the shallow set-up, finding more netters. Apart from red fins, these included a few rudd and hybrids. I did try introducing some micro pellets and hooking a 4mm soft pellet, hoping for bigger skimmers, but that failed.
Returning to the same lake during a prolonged cold spell, it was still possible to find some shelter from the icy wind. Accompanied by my mate Andy on that occasion, he was trying out some chocolate orange pellets, the theory being the fish wanted less fishmeal in the depths of winter. It was almost embarrassing. He cupped in some micros and didn’t stop catching all day long, using a similar flavoured 6mm expander on the hook. Carp had unusually decided to have a proper go, but he was also finding skimmers and roach. I did my normal thing with natural baits and failed miserably, only spasmodically finding the odd small roach and skimmer. A few weeks previously I had bagged up big time on the silvers with the Angler’s Mail photographer by my side. On that occasion proper bream turned up to put the icing on the cake, but this time it was funny pellets that were doing the business. I could only watch on in amazement.
Andy had given me a bag of Chocolate Orange micros before departing, so I took them on a return visit. It was still freezing cold and I was surprised the lake hadn’t frozen over. The water was gin-clear and I could see lots of big dark shapes slowly cruising about in the middle. I set up a waggler, first wetting the micro pellets to make them heavier and then found I could catapult them out a fair distance. I fed a good bed of them and then simply fished double red maggots over the top, resisting the temptation to put anything else in. It was crazy. I enjoyed rod-bending action all day long, to the extent other anglers fishing on the much bigger and deeper Match Lake behind me were coming around to see what was going on. By this time I had orange fingers due to keeping busy feeding those daft sweet pellets. I caught mainly carp because they were muscling the skimmers and roach out of the way. I put any silvers back and enjoyed the action.
It was suddenly winter again and not much had changed when I visited Birch Lake recently. There were still quite a few floating leaves to negotiate, so pole tackle seemed the best bet. There was only one other angler on the pool, tucked around the corner from where I chose. I could see the Match Lake in front of me and quite a few people were on there, but not much appeared to be happening. I decided to tread carefully because with so many leaves in the water it tends to sour things, making fish less prone to feeding well. I cupped in a small helping of dark groundbait dust, laced with a bit of chopped worm, plus a few casters and red pinkies. I had slightly less than 3ft of water to play with, so after that I dinked in half a dozen casters every few minutes. I needn’t have worried because bites came immediately on my main rig, set a few inches over-depth. A single red maggot found hand-sized skimmers, small roach and perch to begin with.
I don’t like having shot all over the place when fishing shallow venues, so I use a Drennan AS5 0.1g float, with just a few spread-out number 11s. This can pull bites on the drop and if baits manage to get to the bottom. My menu was worms, red maggots, red pinkies and casters – a pellet-free zone so as not to pull in any carp. I had an even lighter shallow rig set up in reserve, but doubted I would get to use it. I prefer having the best of both worlds with my first-choice tackle, catching at any level, from when it hits the water, down to full depth. The only thing missing bait-wise, compared to my normal winter approach years ago, was squatts. They are hard to get now but when I dropped in at a local bait farm on the way, they said they had started producing the tiny feed maggots again. Match anglers fishing popular winter hotspots like March and Benwick on the Old Nene have created a demand. I must give this forgotten bait a proper go again.
I really rate using groundbait in loose or dust form in shallow, cold-affected venues. I cup it in, with a few freebies mixed in, and normally get bites straight away. Fish home in instantly on the cloud, while with hard balls of feed they take ages to arrive, sometimes hours when the going is tough. Another problem with firm balls of feed is they can attract carp, which messes up silver fish action and very often your light pole rigs too! I first saw groundbait dust being used by Kim Milsom back in my Essex County days. We were fishing a snake lake in winter and he cupped some in, loose feeding maggots over the top. It impressed me because he caught instantly and didn’t stop. I even use this tactic sometimes after cupping in hard balls of feed in deep waters, finishing off with a cup of dust, which seems to speed up the fish arriving. It’s a great tactic to use on canals and drains, where very often hard balls of groundbait seem to spook wary fish.
It never ceases to amaze me when I catch perfect fish like this hand-sized skimmer from heavily fished waters. I often pass this pond in summer, never seeing them being caught when the place is heaving. The same applies to similar sized roach and hybrids. There are bigger silvers too. I’ve caught odd bream to 3lbs, along with prime roach, rudd and perch to the pound mark, which are nice weight builders. But I doubt if many of these fin-perfect fish are caught on heavy pole gear, or the in-line feeders anglers use for the carp. It’s a case of scaling down to 0.08mm or 0.10mm lines, along with fine wire size 18 or 20 hooks and as mentioned previously, light capacity pole floats. With waggler tackle, I find 0.14mm line and strong size 16 or 18 forged hooks adequate if the carp are having a go. Dropping down to 0.10mm or 0.12mm traces and medium wire hooks when targeting the bigger silvers, tackle that can still land big intruders.
On my latest visit to this brilliant little venue, I virtually had the place to myself and caught all day long. Nothing massive but highly enjoyable at a time when local rivers needed rain and canals were crying out for some colour, both deep in the doldrums. This type of shallow pool silver fish bagging is very similar to prime canal venues I used to fish, but sadly many of those stretches are barren of anglers these days. Once popular towpath haunts are now taken up with moored boats nose to tail, in some cases on both banks. Finding parking is another issue, along with speeding bikers, joggers and dog walkers. It can still be worth putting up with busy canals, which I do occasionally, but you need to keep your wits about you the whole time. Not so frantic in this instance, where I could push my pole back without fear of anyone trampling or running over it. The peace and quiet was not bad either, although the fish just wouldn’t leave me alone!
I’ve always liked methods that keep bites coming regularly, not minding catching small fish, as long as something is happening. I get bored sitting like a garden gnome, which makes it feel even colder if it’s wintertime. Not that I would class these roach, skimmers and perch as particularly small. Back in the heyday of canal fishing this would have been a match-winning haul. So, if you have any small pools, lakes or ponds near you that are dominated by carp in the warmer months, it might be worth checking out what else they hold during the winter. I’ve just highlighted one example in my area. There are many similar venues dotted around, either part of complexes or isolated. Some are buzzing with silvers, while others throw up big surprises. I’ve witnessed small ponds producing huge perch to over 3lbs and carp to over 20lbs, even catfish that have got too big for their tanks. Many anglers start fishing on places like this and it’s good to go back.
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