At this time of the year the fish are normally very tightly shoaled, making location critical. You will need to do your homework before fishing by either walking the banks to see where anglers are catching fish (matches are often best for this) or asking by the bailiff. There will be whole areas virtually devoid of any fish life and you will need to avoid these.
Accuracy is critical both in baiting and in feeding. If you are going to fish the feeder you'll need to clip up or mark the line so that you are the same distance out on every cast. Take careful aim when casting so that you are casting in the same direction on every cast. Look for some feature on the far bank and continually cast to it.
The maggot feeder is a good bet but enlarge the holes to get the feed out as quickly as possible. A short hook link of fine line to a small hook works well. I have changed over to Preston Innovations Reflo Powerline with good results. At 0.15 mm diameter this line still has a breaking strain of 5lb 14oz or at 0.13 mm diameter a breaking strain of 41b 12oz, which is very good compared to more conventional lines. Use a fairly soft tip as bites can be rather gentle and difficult to detect.
Float anglers are advised to use sensitive pole rigs. I do not own a pole but you will see ready made-up pole rigs in my tackle box. I use these with a running line to get the sensitivity of the pole rig but with the advantages of running gear when playing fish.
It is surprising to see how little feed top match anglers use at this time of the year. Even large bags of good fish can be taken using very little feed. Many anglers ruin their chances by overfeeding. I was once put to shame by a top class canal angler who only had a quarter of a pint of pinkies and less than that of casters. He had ten carp to just under 15lb, a dozen roach to 1lb 6oz plus several bream on his bait - and still had plenty left over!
Bloodworm can trigger fish into feeding. Remember little fish attract big fish at this time of the year. Top match angler, Ken Collins of Willow Park at Ash Vale in Surrey recommends starting by accurately feeding six tangerine sized balls of double leam (a mixture of damp and dry) laced with jokers. Then fish double bloodworm or caster three inches overdepth on the feed. You'll need to check to see if bloodworm is allowed as it is banned on some venues. If it is, chopped worm can work well.
A bloodworm and joker pack sells for about £7.50 but this is more than enough for two anglers so it pays to share it out with a fishing partner. With a few casters your bait bill should be about £5 which is good for a full day's fishing.
Another good trick is to start by feeding a small ball of pinkies held together by sticky mag with about 12 casters placed accurately on top. Fish a pole rig with either a pole or running gear about 3 inches overdepth with a caster buried in a size 18 hook on top. Once bites start, take care not to overfeed. About 3 to 4 casters between bites should be sufficient. Take care as this method has the habit of producing the odd large winter carp mixed in with redfins.
On some waters, fluidised bread with a small piece of punched bread on the hook can work remarkably well for redfins. Again the pole rig with running line is preferred and it pays to carefully build up your swim and to avoid over-feeding. Remember you can always add feed, but once in, cannot take it away.
For the odd better specimen, I carry a few triangles of Kraft Dairylea cheese. This in reality is a soft, high in milk protein bait, that in winter has a good texture and is a killing bait for those specimen carp and larger roach. Just introduce a few small bits of the cheese and fish over it with pole gear on running tackle. It often surprises on-lookers when they see how a very gentle bite can produce such big carp. The fish have a tendency to hold this soft bait in their mouths and not swim off in the colder water. Although this bait works well in winter, in summer it tends to get too soft for practical fishing.
Although a simple paste made from ground-up trout pellet mixed with water is a very effective summer bait, it tends to be far less productive in the winter. It appears that the fish attracting oils in the ground-up trout pellets become emulsified and do not diffuse properly throughout the water. The addition of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) helps this diffusion of oils and enhances the baits attractiveness to the fish.
In simple practical terms, Vodka is one of the commonest forms of relatively pure alcohol. I add 25ml of Vodka to 25Og of finely ground trout pellet and then add water to make up my winter paste. As feed, I ignore traditional pellets as they take too long to break down in cold water. Instead I use a feed made up by shaking 25Og of trout fry crumb with 25ml of Vodka in a plastic bag.
The paste is fished in small balls on small hooks on a pole rig fished with running line. Bites can be very shy in winter and sensitive gear is often needed for detection. The feed is accurately introduced in small, marble sized balls with great care taken not to overfeed the swim.
Despite being the butt of many angling jokes, this Vodka-based baiting system has proved to be very successful. It has often worked where traditional pellet and paste tactics have failed. No doubt the fish enjoy the booze!
Location, fine tackle and accuracy are therefore the keys to success at this time of the year.