After Eric had fed his initial feed, he turned to me and said "That’s it, we won’t get a bite for an hour,” then turned his back to the water to sort out another rig. Just as he did that, our French 'gambler' swung in a roach, which Eric didn't see... but he saw the next one… and the next. He seemed genuinely surprised by Michel's immediate response, exclaiming “WHAT... THEY'RE HERE ALREADY! Dave was still cupping in his second pot of double leam as Michel dropped his third fish into his net!

Just after balling in
What followed for the next half hour was a bit of a catch up session, as both Dave and Eric tried to react to Michel’s powerful start, who'd shipped straight out and started catching immediately. Dave, as a consequence of not putting joker in his initial feed balls, seemed to have very few fish in front of him. He now needed to top up yet again, with the joker-rich double leam, to kick start his swim. But he was falling well behind both Michel and Eric during this first period.

We're all aware of the importance of the initial feeding bombardment, especially on a big canal where the noise helps pull fish in... the dinner gong effect! However, rarely do we see three anglers feed the same mix and same quantity of groundbait balls at the start. Although the noise made by this initial barrage was equal for all three, it seemed that the fish where 'homing-in' on the joker, rather than just the sound.

Michel had assessed the situation more positively when he saw others catching further along the stretch, therefore his strategy was based on a more positive approach by utilising his joker more effectively. Even though Eric had fish in front of him, they were not as active and concentrated as Michel's. This was probably due to Eric cautious approach were he added only 100g of joker. This, when added to 10-12 balls of groundbait would have only seen minimal joker breaking away from the outside of his groundbait mound. Michel, on the other hand, had applied two different yet devastatingly effective actions. First, he'd added EXTRA water to the mix to stiffen it then mixed in FOUR times more joker than Eric. The groundbaits extra stiffeness allowed the balls to break up at a much slower rate, releasing this heavy concentration of joker gradually from the mound, but in a more controlled way so the fish were kept actively looking for more.

Dave had clearly made an error of judgment by not putting any joker in his initial groundbait feed. He had made the same noise as Michel and Eric and he was on the outside of the three man lineup, so he actually had a slight positional advantage. However, this made no difference and it was clear was that without enough joker being released from his feed balls, the fish were simply not prepared to stay over groundbait with a few loose joker, from the double leam, swimming above it!

What was apparent and paramount in holding the fish in these early stages was joker, not groundbait. Dave, along with Eric to some degree, had confirmed this.

The need to pick and choose
To say that Eric and Dave had been caught on the back-foot by Michel’s flying Formula 1 start would be an understatement. One of them had stalled on the starting grid and the other was having to change tyres shortly after to try and catch Michel up. Although Eric was catching a few fish he needed to increase his speed to try and maintain pace with Michel, so set up a 1mm top with a heavier 1.5 gram rig and 0.08mm hooklength. Dave was mixing more balls of double leamed joker to try and get down at least the same amount of bait as the others.

There had certainly been fish present from the off but, as time went on, their size was getting smaller and bites taking a little longer to materialise. This looked like it was not going to be a race after all! The anglers would have to concentrate more on top-up feeding and working out how to select the better roach from the smaller ones. Eric eventually reverted back to his original rigs, while Dave was starting to slowly put a few better fish in the net and climb his way back into contention. Let’s look more closely at how each man managed his top-up feed with the joker they had remaining.

Michel Beranger’s strategy
Michel had gambled and won through the first stage of our test. He had fed half of his alloted joker in his initial feed and was able to keep bites and fish coming without topping-up for over an hour and a half into the session. Given his initial success, he decided to follow it up, with just a single top-up by hand of a further eight smaller balls of pure groundbait containing another 200 grams of joker. This again worked for Michel as the fish returned to the noise and the additional quantity of joker.

Here's how Eric makes his balls of top up feed:

Eric di Venti's strategy
Eric was planning to be flexible with his top-up feed, allowing the size and quantity of fish he was catching dictate how he fed through the session. The top-up mixture of soil and groundbait was kept apart, only to be combined in small amounts as he went along. This gave him the option of adding more soil if the fishing became harder. Eric's approach to joker management in his top-up feed was very interesting, because he placed small amounts of it his groundbait, prior to feeding. This was to "let it die a little”, he explained. The reason behind it was he didn't want the joker too active, as it would attract too many small fish! I foolishly asked Eric if Russian joker wouldn't have been better for this. He laughed and said “a dead Belgium joker is better than a live Russian any day”. Sometimes it’s really better not to ask!!!

Eric’s system relied on good organisation, to ensure his top-up actions remained smooth and clean. He had a large side tray containing two separate bait bowls, one for soil and the other for groundbait. The neat joker was in newspaper on top of the soil. All the mixing was done in the same corner of the groundbait bowl, so any joker not picked up in a top-up ball, will end up in the next. Eric also had water and grey leam nearby, should the consistency of his feed needed to be modified. This organisation allows him a flexible feeding strategy which he can adapt while fishing... adding more soil, less joker, more groundbait etc. Up to halfway, Eric topped-up every 3 or 4 fish, but then slowed down to every 5 fish in the last half, as he felt there was enough feed already out there. Ironically, he used more of his joker than Michel, finishing up with barely 100 grams remaining, however, he had delivered it in a much more progressive manner.

Dave Vincent’s strategy
Dave had pinned his faith on a typical English feeding strategy, still largely misunderstood by many foreign anglers... double leam. All this is, is using two types of soil together to feed compact balls containing a heavy concentration of joker. These soils can vary, according to what type of venue you're fishing. Deep flowing waters, like canals and rivers, tend to require Terre de Riviere, as it's much heavier than Terre de Somme. It doesn't cloud up on descent yet it breaks up quite quickly once on the bottom. Somme comes more into its own on stillwaters. While these two soils may be alternated accordingly, the one consistent component is the binder... grey leam. Double leam keeps joker alive all through a session, unlike groundbaits which contain killer salt! Once the double leam hits the bottom, it breaks up quickly and the joker swims and spread out from the soil ball with a side wriggling action, making it almost irresistible to all fish!

Damp... NOT wet
Once your Terre de Riviere is properly dampened, here's how Dave prepare's his double leam mix:

Mixing double leam can be quite a delicate operation, especially if the soil you're using is too dry. Dave always prepares his leam days before fishing. For Terre de Riviere especially, the best way he has found to get it to the right dampness, is to lay it out in shallow trays and use some old towels which have been soaked in water and wrung out. These are then placed over the top of the soil, where the moisture in the towel will slowly permeate through the soil over a period of time. The soil then reaches it correct level of dampness without it becoming clogged up. You can achieve a similar effect by using layers of newspapers, or an old potato sack. If the soil becomes a little dried out prior to using it, then you'll have to use an atomiser just to bring it back to the correct dampness. Be very careful at this stage with the amount of water used... and ALWAYS mix in with a whisk. Damp... NOT wet, is what you’re looking for.

Remember, Dave had put no joker in his initial groundbait feed. As the session wore on, Dave topped up steadily throughout the day with double leam, yet still only got through around 500 grams of joker. He had in fact fed the least joker of the group.

There couldn't have been a greater contrast in approaches than we had here. Michel relied on delivering a lot of bait in one hit, fishing it out then delivering another load. Both Eric and Dave worked constantly with a pole cup, feeding every 4 or 5 fish and trying to maintain the size and selection of fish in their swim. If viewed from the far bank, unenlightened omlookers could be forgiven for thinking that both men where following the same strategy of cupping out top-up balls of joker regularly, However, nothing could have been further from the truth! While Eric was deliberately killing his joker, Dave was keeping his alive and active. These three highly experienced anglers had been given free reign to feed their equally alloted feed as they saw fit on the day. What it achieved was just how many variables there were when it came to managing large amounts of feed. It's not as simple a solution as just balling or cupping in. Is your joker alive, dead, half dead, a bit dead… do you use more groundbait, more soil, only soil, more water, extra leam… what??? These are factors and questions which come into play when trying to manage your feed over a 3 hour period. Restrictive bait limits in French matches mean this sort of experimentation would be impossible.

Just look at the detail and thought processes behind Eric and Dave's feeding strategies, then imagine the possible permutations on this type of water alone which would require sorting out in order to find the right way to feed. Ironically, Michel’s approach proved to work perfectly on our test and full credit to him, he'd seen the potential, fed his bait accordingly and caught over it, even though his feeding strategy was the least flexible. Like all modern French match anglers, Michels experience of managing quantities of bait was limited, but out test showed that if you extend bait limits to say 800 grams of joker, there could be more room for varying and experimenting how that bait went in!

So, how effective was each strategy?
Having described earlier how each anglers had approached his session, there were two factors which proved decisive in our test. One was the size of the roach, the other was the speed they could be caught at. Both factors changed as the session wore on. Here is how the day progressed, in terms of fish size and catching rhythm.

Size of fish
Michel started off well with 10 good fish, proper 40 and 50 grammers at least, in the opening spell. Then, as things settled down, he maintained his rate but their size was getting smaller. Although he had plenty of 20 to 30 gram fish, there were much fewer larger ones. The large amount of joker in his swim had obviously attracted many smaller small fish.

Eric started slower than Michel, but caught some bigger roach at the start. He continued to pick out the bigger roach all through the session. Despite this, he did have times, generally after he fed, when the small fish would come in. However, the better roach would usually return over the feed again and he could pick off one or two before having to feed again. This catching rhythm was maintained throughout Eric's session.

Dave started even slower, by only catching the odd decent fish around 60 or 70 grams. He continued to catch slightly larger fish than the other two anglers on average and as time went on these fish seemed to come more regularly. Feeding less joker looked to have resolved the small fish issue, which was certainly plaguing Michel and to some extent Eric, throughout the day.

Catch rate
The size of fish is only part of the story. Although the roach seemed good with the biggest running between 90 to 100 grams at best, we were looking at an average fish sizes much lower, therefore a 20 gram roach caught immediately after a larger one would drop that average right down. If there had been the odd 200 or 300 gram roach for the taking then you could neutralise 15 or 20 small fish with one hit. However, this was simply not the case. Bigger fish did make a difference, but you had to be catching them regularly to keep pace with those around you.

We had not been counting fish, like in an international contest, this was not a competition and never intended to be so... it was a fishing test. By watching the anglers catch fish, you got a feel for the rate at which they were coming in. I have split this into catching rates:
Slow: odd fish with long periods awaiting bites
Steady: catching regularly, but not very fast
Well: catching fluidly... float out, float under, fish in, re-bait, float out, float under, fish in, etc, etc.

As you can see, Michel caught the fastest from the off, but he had the smallest average fish. Eric soon caught Michel up on speed with slightly bigger average fish. Dave took a long time to recover from his poor start, but was catching well in the last hour... and with better fish.

At the end, the result proved close, with Eric just edging ahead of Michel with a better size of fish. Dave had made up lost ground, but it was too little too late! Even though Dave and Michel had never seen this type of venue before in difficult winter conditions, each had fed totally and very fundamentally different ways, yet along with our top Belgian, had managed to put together good nets of fish.

This was as genuine a big test as I have ever done. Thanks to Eric, all three anglers had started the same quality groundbait mix and bait. I had not given any of the anglers any special instruction on what to do except fish it like you think it should be fished.

There had been a danger that all three would have done the same thing and we would have been looking at very little to comment on! I'm positive that had I sat three  Belgian’s, three French or even three English anglers in a row, they would have fished in more similar ways. By mixing the nationalities, we achieved different insights into how feeding and bait management between not only anglers, but different angling culture's. One thing is certain, it's not the issue if having more joker and just throw it in, that's likely to win more matches, far from it. Managing your feed is a vital key to success at any level of angling, even more at the higher competitive one! I believe tests like this precisely illustrate the complexity of the decisions facing anglers and is relavent to the whole issue surrounding bait limits, particularly pertinent at this time with changing climate in the French match fishing scene.

One of the most noticeable differences between French match anglers along with those from many other nations, is the time that they spend discussing groundbait mixes, compared to their counterparts who focus on feeding... what to feed... when to feed... and how! You could point to this particular action in recent World Champs and say that bait management was not very well understood or carried out by the French. But it would be totally unfair to highlight this a being the solely the problem. French anglers attach great importance to groundbait mixes, because under their current bait limit regimes, groundbait is essentially all they have to feed. Dave chuckles when he thinks about the time England spend on getting a groundbait mix right, compared to the French. "It has to do a job by delivering the feed to the fish in the right spot at right time" he says, adding "it’s the feed that is at the heart of all English thinking." However, when you fish all year and groundbait is basically your main feed material, then concentrating so much on groundbait equats to the same thing!

Change could be in the air. I predict that bait limits will be relaxed over the coming years and anglers can then learn that more bait does not always mean more fish. They'll need to think, adapt and manage bait to do well. There are more match anglers in England than France, yet they have relatively fewer restrictions on bait and quantities. Even so, there is nowhere that I'm aware of that you can buy success simply by having more bait. In many respects, it's harder for the English match angler to do well because of the range of bait options and venues available to him. Should he fish chopped worm, caster, maggot, bloodworm, pellet, paste, groundbait, sweetcorn... not to mention the vast array of methods on hand… sometimes all in the same match? Perhaps it is this freedom of choice and the subsequent thinking processes involved in arriving at solutions, that make English anglers so good at not only managing their bait, but obtaining the best from it!

Finally, never loose sight that it’s the fish that do the talking in the end. You can have all the bait in the world on hand, but if you can’t read how the fish will respond to it and feed accordingly, you will never, never make the grade as an angler!