Carp match results are particularly revealing, but so too are ordinary match results which are often won by captors of very large carp that have been played for hours on end. I discovered a match lake in Brittany that regularly produced weights in excess of fifteen kilos, often the result of the capture of one fish!
There are carp clubs springing up left right and centre all over France these days. The addresses of local clubs may well be forthcoming following an initial approach by letter to the local `federation de peche`. Tackle shops are also worth contacting as they will certainly have detailed information on the local carp lakes in the region. They may even be able to help specifically with information on your chosen lake. Bear in mind however, that one manís monster is another manís tiddler.
It is fair to assume that most if not all French lakes hold carp. It is not fair to assume that all the carp are necessarily going to be huge. Nor too should one automatically assume that big lakes hold big fish. There are as many tiny ìRedmire-typeî waters in France as there are over here, and simply because a lake is small - it may not even be marked on the 1cm/2km maps - it doesnít mean that so too are itís carp. The opposite applies, but to rather a lesser extent. Water quality, stock density and natural food availability, those are the crucial factors affecting the likelihood of the presence of big carp. For instance, there are some huge carp inhabiting an unmarked five acre gravel pit in the Saone valley. The water is deep, heavily weeded and crawling with natural food items. There are perhaps only thirty carp in the lake, but the best fish I have heard of so far is a common of 26kg!
On the other hand, the carp in Lac de la Chappelle-Ebri near Rennes are mostly small fish but the lake is absolutely stuffed full of them. The lake is low in natural foodstuff, hence the poor growth rate of the carp stocks.
Another good way of finding out if a particular lake is likely to be worthwhile is to keep your eyes peeled for signs of other anglers' spilt or discarded bait, or look out for rod rest holes in the bankside. Find two holes spaced about three feet apart and itís a fair bet they were made by front and rear rod rests. They can also tell you the general direction the angler was fishing. Sneaky, or what?
Given a smattering of French, most of the initial groundwork can be done from home, either on the telephone or by post. If you are tuned into the UK grapevine, you may well be handed a lake on a plate. If that is what turns you on, go to it. If you fancy a bit more of a challenge, you will have to get busy dialling. Good luck!
Having looked at the basics of choosing a likely area and a primary target lake, we move on to the next step and this can only be carried out once you have arrived at the side of your chosen lake. Most experienced carp anglers will be able to weigh up the potential of a lake by examining its natural character. Some will tell you that they can `smell` big carp simply by looking at the lake. I wish that were true of me! I need to rely on more scientific methods. Usually all I can smell is the nearest bar!
From your initial investigations you should have a rough idea of the layout of the water. You will also probably know the average depth, the surface area, the age of the lake and when it was last emptied. Now you should try to find out from which direction the prevailing wind blows because it is an almost invariable rule of thumb that French carp will follow the wind.
Consult your map (by now you should have bought the most detailed map you can find of the lake) and make your way to the shoreline onto which the wind is blowing. It is as good a place to start as anywhere. Sling a good pair of binoculars around your neck, draw the cork on a nice first bottle of Bordeaux and set off for a leisurely stroll around the windward shoreline. Search the shallows for evidence of natural food. If the lake is as productive as you hope, this will usually be in the form of empty mussel shells, dead crayfish (or their shells) bloodworm and other larvae, and flying, biting things that have hatched in the lake.
Look out also for strands of weed that may have been uprooted from the bottom by feeding fish, and for lily pads and for beds of rushes lining the margins, areas where carp will spawn and feed early in the season before the water level drops. If there are snags present investigate these fully as they will invariably hold carp. If you are there when they are spawning, there is no better way of finding out the potential of a lake.
One of the best indicators of the richness and potential of a lake is the presence of crayfish for they form a large proportion of the carpís diet. Evidence of a plentiful stock of the smaller, European crayfish is an excellent sign; if there are plenty of great big American crayfish in the lake, that can be a problem! However, an abundance of crayfish plus a comparatively small stock of carp, usually equals big fish! However, bear in mind that the large signal crayfish pose problems for the carp angler because they eat boilies in great quantity, and even the hardest air-dried baits will not last ten minutes in the face of a determined onslaught by these large crayfish.
While you walk the banks, keep an ear open for big carp crashing out. This is often the best way to pinpoint feeding fish. You may see flat spots among the waves or a glittering head and shoulders pushing out in the sunlight; all are welcome signs that fish are in the area. For myself, I am still unsure about the meaning of such displays. Iím sure most carp anglers will take them as signs of feeding fish, and I guess for the most part Iíd go along with them. Certainly in France any visual or audible indication that carp are close by should be greeted positively. On the other hand, I can recall a lake we fished in central France where the fish seemed to spend more time crashing out of the water than actually swimming in it. We never had a sniff until all the exaggerated display activity stopped.
As I say, I generally welcome such signs, but I donít take them as read. I suggest you, too, keep an open mind. After all, they may simply be in one of their favourite play areas and may not be feeding in the area at all. It would be silly to get all set up in front of a staggering display of leaping and cavorting carp, only to watch them gradually move away up the lake to their preferred feeding area as the day wears on.
It is still too early in the course of your explorations to determine the patrol route followed by the carp, but the longer you observe, rather than actually fish the lake, the more obvious any patrol route will become. French carp are no different to those in our British lakes: they tend to stick to a set pattern, patrolling the lake from one area of natural food to the next. Even in the deepest of lakes they may still show at the surface as they pass from one area to another, but the places you should be searching for are the areas where they put their heads down and feed.
Spend a long lazy afternoon with your bins and your bottle, keeping your eyes open for anything that may indicate natural food items and the presence of carp. Talk to other anglers using your smattering of French. (Are you beginning to twig the importance of being able to speak even a modicum of French yet?) Itís possible that you will not see any other carp fishermen on your chosen lake - not necessarily a bad sign; far from it, in fact - but there are always a few old boys pike or pole fishing on every French lake - I think itís written into their constitution. You will be greeted with strange looks and maybe a few Gallic shrugs, but if big carp are present in the lake, these old boys will certainly know about it.
So, you are ready to fish now, surely? No, you are not! Resist the temptation to set up, even after you have spent several hours walking the banks. I have lost count of the times that I have seen anglers come to regret taking even the most leisurely of decisions. It is far better to have a beer or two in the nearest cafe or bar and chat up the locals, assuming you have that smattering of French I talked about earlier. (There it is again!) Iíve found that the purchase of the odd beer or two in the nearest bar nearly always pays off.
Having got a local assessment of the stock level and the size of the carp from the guys in the bar, you must now return to Shanksí pony and the gifts provided by your eyes and ears. By all means set up a bivvy at the lakeside if youíre allowed to do so - after all, youíve got to sleep somewhere - but as darkness approaches, that is when the proper work starts in earnest.
By far the best time to locate feeding carp is during the first two or three hours after dark. Now is the best time to stroll around the most promising area of bankside, keeping an ear pinned back for splashes. On just about every lake weíve fished we have found that carp will head-and-shoulder and swirl at the surface after dark, and this is definitely a sure sign of feeding fish - as opposed to crashing out and repeated leaping, which may or may not be such a positive signal.
Once youíve found a few fish showing you will almost certainly be keen to introduce a bit of bait to keep them occupied until you can get at them in daylight, but be careful for this may spook them. French carp donít always take kindly to a shower of little round balls falling around their ears. Remember, there is probably a very good reason why these carp are head-and-shouldering in the area and most likely itís because the area is a natural food larder. In all probability they visit the spot regularly, so mark the bank or take landmarks and get back there at first light with the rest of your gear and some bait!
An almost vital piece of equipment on the larger French lakes and reservoirs is a boat equipped with an echo sounder as, before you even start fishing, it is well worth surveying the lake bed with the sounder to try and find out if there is anything specific about the underwater terrain that has attracted the carp into the area. Snaggy areas of stones, rocks or old tree stumps are very productive spots as crayfish love to hide in the shelter provided by such snags.
Be warned against taking the images of fish on the sounderís screen too literally. I have heard anglers saying that the easiest way of finding fish is with their sounder but I firmly disagree. Echo sounders can paint a very false picture for the uninitiated who arenít familiar with the controls and who thus use the machine to show them what they want to see, rather than what is actually there. The sensitivity or Fish ID feature on most modern low cost sounders flatter and deceive so switch them off and concentrate on using the sounder for what it is best suited; drawing you a picture of the lake bed. With practice you will be able to identify mussel beds on the screen as well as noting the profile of the bottom, the whereabouts of gullies, plateaux, the course of an old river bed and so on. You will be able to identify weed growing on the bottom, its thickness and the height that it grows up from the lake bed, at the same time locating snags such as old tree stumps, pike anglerís mooring poles that may have become submerged, and other snaggy areas that may hold carp.
Donít restrict yourself to simply finding the deepest part of the lake. The shallower areas should be investigated too. Any little drop-off or shelf that deviates from the normal pattern of the lake bed should be investigated. A small gravel patch a yard square in over 100 acres may still constitute a hot spot.
I remember fishing a 200-acre lake in eastern France in 1991. Extensive research on foot and in the boat with the echo sounder eventually revealed a small but very distinct gravel area sitting no more than a foot or so proud of the otherwise flat lake bed. That tiny patch of gravel in the middle of the lake produced fish from the start, the best being my first ever forty-pound carp.