French trips these days are generally frequented by ‘holiday carpers’. By this I mean a group of people who have got together and done their research on what type of venue and/or fishing they desire, all booked at least 18-24 months in advance nowadays and with a large savings pot put aside for the extortionate final balance of fishing, travel, bait and tackle. Overseas carping is now so popular, that finding a French venue to fish when not treating it as one large group holiday can be somewhat challenging. This is because of firstly how far in advance you have to book and secondly, a lot of lakes now only take lake-exclusive bookings as well, which makes it even more tricky. Then you have the weeks running from a Saturday-Saturday to further complicate things and abolish ‘short sessions’ and a draw bag that can hinder you getting on any sort of fish if you’re not there for the start.
For this reason, those like myself who much prefer ‘spontaneous’ fishing, or quick trips abroad to mix things up, or long weekends away, are then pushed to either explore the public lakes or an element of the unknown. Whilst this can be very exciting and is generally probably much more fulfilling for me than an artificial/commercial fishery, it poses its own challenges in terms of time, research and often travel and sometimes you therefore just need something convenient yet still on par with the other top French venues.
There is a real gap in the market for French style ‘day-ticket’ carping and that’s where Abbey Lakes comes into its own as a truly unique complex in what it has to offer the angler. Situated in northern France, Abbey is just 2 hours’ drive from Calais, meaning that driving from north London and including the crossing time, I can do it door to door in just 5½ hours – the same time it often takes me to get to the north of England, or the Manchester lads spend driving down to one of my southern syndicates!
As if this couldn’t be any more convenient, Abbey boasts six well-established lakes, each offering the angler something different to fulfil your needs. First up are Wild Boar (10 anglers) and Frog lake (4 anglers) which will keep your string tugged all day long, yet you can still go home with 40-50lb+ fish under your belt. Next they have Attila lake (7 anglers) and Kingfisher (8 anglers), which are a step up in terms of difficulty, so they will start to test your gravel pit skills of watercraft, feature-finding, bait application and casting, but can in return reward you with bags of very big fish if you get it right. And then you come to the two jewels in the crown. Fox lake (15 anglers) is very popular as it can throw up more 40-50lb fish than most venues in a week, whilst maintaining the very real prospect of 60lb and 70lb fish, and then I finish on my favourite, the mighty Heron lake (17 anglers), dubbed the ‘home of the 60s’. Heron also boasts 70lb fish and lots of back up 50s and 60s. Heron is like fishing a venue in the Colne Valley back home, just with supercharged leviathans – need I say any more?
Yes, you read that correctly, I did just compare Heron to a Colne Valley lake. A rich statement, yet my opinion is based on a few proven truths. Firstly it’s mature and tree-lined, and the topography, gin-clear water, weed and bays certainly make it like fishing an established gravel pit back home, where your watercraft and angling ability is testament to your success. Then we have the fish, and not just the Heron fish, but a large proportion of the Abbey fish in general, are somewhat reminiscent of Belgian fish and a lot of the original, early Colne Valley/Lea Valley stock fish – with rounded heart-tails, melted fins, jet black colouration and as fine as they come from a European standpoint! They are the polar-opposite to your stereotypical ‘French Royales’–which are normally pale, often scale-less, with yellow, beady eyes and pointy tails.
So, not only does Abbey boast a venue and fishing type for everyone and good quality fish, it also operates its own unique booking system. I’ve often likened it to the ‘Linear of France’. Whilst you can hire the individual lakes for exclusive weeks and run them as you please within your group, you can also book on any venue for any length of time, date and duration, meaning it is perfect for long weekends, or midweek jaunts and last-minute trips. You then have the flexibility to bounce between lakes if A) you find fish elsewhere and/or B) your chosen lake hasn’t got the full availability you require for your chosen dates. If you are a mobile angler like me, with people coming and going, you will always be able to find and get on fish! There’s nothing worse than a draw for a swim on a Saturday and the anti-climax of 18 months of suspense for your French jolly-up to now know you’re now camping for a week and can’t move onto them – well this style eliminates that worry!
This is not to be misunderstood and Abbey to be disregarded as a ‘holiday venue’ in the slightest as it is one of the most popular and well known fisheries in France, so if you want an exclusive week, I advise you get booking sooner than later. The facilities are spot on too – there are toilets and hot showers, a well-stocked clubhouse, freezers, English power sockets and English food. If you want a last-minute trip or want to book a long weekend, a quick email or phone call to Dave/Evelyne is all that’s required and they’ll go through the availability of the lakes that week and help you plan your visit.
As I type this, I’ve just got back from another trip to Abbey, a trip that changed in booking dynamic several times which is one of the Abbey joys. Originally, I booked onto Heron Lake for one night and Fox Lake for the following four, with the logic being that on my second day, Fox was to come free from a lake-exclusive, giving me the opportunity to move into a decent swim on Fox that’s produced consistently that week and be guaranteed to get on the fish. Well my trip increased to six nights and then seven nights as I was granted more leave from work as the trip approached. Upon arrival, despite having the opportunity to jump straight into the flier on Fox, which had just about every resident carp present (they were present in such an abundance as they were grouped and acting very ‘spawny’) and following a quick word with Dave, the bailiff, I moved my entire week onto Heron where the fish were showing no visible signs of any spawning activity including those that were being caught. I can’t say I was too disappointed as I have a secret soft-spot for Heron and it’s my favourite lake at Abbey. Like I said, the only reason for my initial booking plan was that I could do a night on Heron and be guaranteed to be on some fish in Fox when the lake-exclusive finished. Plus, it was also a change of scenery as I have spent more time fishing Heron.
My dad had booked on my trip at the last-minute too, so we had a good look around Heron and settled for a couple of swims I’ve fished before, and swims I know were worthy of bites this time of year. I myself chose peg 19, with my dad next door in peg 18. Heron was quite busy, so we couldn’t get directly on the fish which were evidently, strongly present from peg 10 round to 14 in a secluded bay. The logic was picking swims we knew were vantage points and although not necessarily being located in a holding area, if the fish moved late on in the week, we still wanted a chance to be able to nick a few bites when they did pass through to the other larger body of water at the opposite end.
The week started off very slowly in truth. The fish remained abundant at the other end, seemingly the result of a hot, flat, high pressure. This was probably triggering other things on the carps’ minds too (spawning), so they were more than comfortable in the weed and secluded bay at the far end and even the lads who were well on the fish weren’t catching what they’d have liked to.
A move was on the cards, perhaps to a different lake, but the following day we were scheduled with rain, a pressure drop and cooler temperatures, albeit only for half a day so we stayed put knowing we could nick some bites if the weather moved the fish. After the third night, the weather changed as per the forecast. The sunny, high pressure turned overcast and we were blessed with a bit of wind and drizzle. A refreshing change from the flat-calm and high pressure and it certainly got them moving a bit more. A few fish started to make their way down to the other end of the lake, as predicted, and as they did so, they showed all over me as they passed my spots without a care for feeding. Hmmm, something had to change. My spots were baited like an ‘ambush’ ready to capitalise on them, but they seemingly weren’t interested in dropping on any of them. The weather had certainly moved them, but they weren’t exactly too willing to feed. With this in mind, I decided to find new spots to the right of my swim and come away from my clean and blatant baited areas and fish ‘attractive parcels’ of bait in the weed, in the hope that this would trigger a bite from a more willing fish that would be susceptible to a mouthful of food.
The perfect presentation for my new line of attack was the solid bag. Often renowned as a small fish tactic, the solid bag has accounted for 40lb+ fish for me from tricky UK waters and 50lb+ fish from abroad. Solid bags lend themselves perfectly to presenting a super-effective, short, bolt rig in a pile of attraction on top of low-lying weed. Back home they are almost too effective and any rig that catches you more bream and tench than others is quite clearly a rig that’s capable of tripping more carp up too.
The weed on my chosen spots was fresh strands of Eurasian Water Milfoil. Using a grappling lead to rip the weed out, I estimated it to be averaging some 4-8 inches deep on the areas I wanted to present on, next to some slight denser weed. This meant I opted for a larger bag, namely a medium-sized Korda solid bag, the idea being to compress and flatten any bottom debris, or weed, and provide a nice, flattened parcel of bait that would be visible and not hidden. I then used a 5oz drop-off lead arrangement to help flatten things further and counteract the buoyancy of the trapped air between the pellets that causes the bag to fall slower and not flatten down the bottom weed. Hookbaits of choice were my two favourites: a Mainline pastel barrel wafter in the peppered peach yellow, and an Essential IB pop-up. Don’t be scared to use a wafter in a bag in weed, particularly until you’ve seen the presentation in the margin, despite a pop-up offering more confidence, a wafter presents just fine as it’s engulfed in that parcel. My biggest piece of advice is to be so careful and meticulous as to how hard you sink the line. The last thing you want to do is to move the bag and spoil the presentation. A heavier lead also lends to this as well as I don’t want big line bites caused by the bad line angles in the weed to mess up my presentation.
That night I woke to a screamer at 3am. I was up to my chest in water in the waders netting this fish as it kited heavily around the corner of the point I was on, and just as I slipped the net under a good-sized common, my other rod burst into life. Talk about all this time waiting and two come at once! It was slightly difficult holding a net between my legs in the pitch black with a turbocharged common giving me some stick, whilst wading out with another net around the point, to also grab another turbocharged common that wanted to go to the other end of the lake too! Eventually, the second fish was in the bag and the pressure was off! More noteworthy was that it was the right hand and middle rods, fished on the solid bags in the weed that produced the bites, so I’d clearly found a winning tactic. For the record, the commons were 35 and 36lb respectively.
At first light I had an occurrence which I thought was a liner, and 20 minutes later a twitchy take followed consisting of a short pull up on the bobbin. When I struck the rod the fish had actually kited 20 yards on a tight line, giving me little to no indication and was probably what I thought the liner was. My swim had a steep slope at the front that goes from 3ft to 16ft vertically, with a weedbed on the surface in the edge, so my line angle there certainly didn’t help the indication either. Unfortunately, I struck into a weeded fish and after applying pressure all my tackle came back and the hook had pulled. I wasn’t too disappointed having got off the mark. Now, more importantly, it was another bite and another fish to the solid bag rods. Whilst getting a new bag tied, the other bag rod was away, and a gorgeous scraper-30 mirror hit the net.
My swim remained quiet for the rest of the day, but my dad got off the mark with two fish – a lovely 26lb fully scaled mirror and a 54lb mirror. My dad had changed his spots slightly too, dropping slightly shorter and next to the thicker weed. On the fifth night, my dad had a take at 3am and gave me a shout as it had weeded him up on the drop off of his marginal slope, and he needed help wading and freeing it up. Whilst I was up to my chest retrieving this fish (a scrappy, 30lb+ common) my receiver round my neck burst into life! I was only halfway between our swims, in the margins, so I splashed through the water and back to my rods, to find not just one rod ripping off, but two! My first thoughts were that my fish had kited and taken the other line out, but I very quickly realised after bending into the fish the other rod was also in need of my urgent attention. I clamped the clutch down as tight as I dared to the other rod melting away on the rest as the fish had already taken considerable amounts of line and just concentrated on the fish I was playing. I landed the first fish, an awesome 41lb mirror, and unfortunately the fish on the other rod had weeded me and quickly resulted in another hook-pull. I’d now found the feeding spell seemed to be, having had two consecutive double takes, in the early hours of the morning – it just goes to show how important the ‘right place and right time’ really is.
The following day was quiet apart from a mad 40+ grassy that tried its best to tear a hole in my net and a couple of tench and the following night I was rewarded with another bite in the evident early hour feeding spell, again to the rods in weed. The format of the remainder of the session stayed the same, and now that I’d cracked it, I had my usual bites in early hours and a couple of tench in the sun during the day. In total on the last four nights of the trip I managed nine bites for seven carp landed. Plus, I also had the pleasure of a few grass carp and tench, which at 10lb+ each (and not in the middle of the night) I was actually quite pleased with, as they kept my confidence high with regard to the presentation and spots.
My next trip to Abbey will likely be in the late autumn, most likely a long weekender using the last of my annual leave with the summer out of the way and knowing where I stand with work. Late autumn is my favourite time to fish Abbey, and as the weed starts to die back it opens more natural larders and the carp feed all the way through until it gets too cold and the lakes start slowing up for the winter. The lake and the fish look stunning too – the embers of reds and oranges come out in the trees and the carp start showing their autumnal colours too as their chestnut-coloured bellies ripen. And last but not least, the big girls are up in weight too!
Until next time, au revoir!