Once Upon A Time... P1

"Once upon a time there was a Frenchman and Englishman who went into a tackle shop one day where they met a Belgian international angler who said, "Come and fish with me on my canals' back home. I’ll give you the same groundbait, finest fresh joker and cracking hookbaits as me”. The Frenchman and Englishman looked at each other and decided to give it a go. Off they went to the Belgians' canal and sure enough he was as good as his word. Having mixed up the groundbait, he divided it equally into three buckets. Next came six bulging packets, each containing 500 grams of joker which he divided between the three... that's TWO packs for each angler... a KILO for just three hours fishing!!!

The Frenchman, who was a sly old fox, looked round to make sure nothing 'funny' was going on then suggested a side bet. The Englishman fancied his chances so he bet all the stones at Stonehenge (after all they’re only rocks!). The Frenchman wagered Brigit Bardot’s old house in St Tropez. The Belgian scratched his head for something of equal value, eventually deciding to offer all the coal remaining between Mons and Charleroi. The three men shook hands on it and went off to fish.

There was a sense of achievement running through the Frenchman’s blood. Liberated from the shackles of bait limits, who could stop the French now? Remember, in most French matches, a bait limit of 250 grams of joker for 3 hours fishing is normal! Sure enough, fish after fish, bulging with joker, started to flow into the smiling Gaul’s net. At the end of the contest, both the Englishman and Belgian were soundly beaten by our Gallic hero. As he stood on the podium being sprayed by champagne, his heart pumped with pride. He looked around in the warm Belgian sun as the Marseilles played, the streets were lined with his countrymen singing ”Allez les bleus”. Could this be reality? It seemed tangible, real and terribly exciting... a kilo of joker for three hours fishing... ummmmm!!!"

However, we must return to the real world and a feature which basically followed the first part of our 'fairy-tale' introduction.


Some time ago, I'd asked Belgian international Eric de Venti to fish alongside two other highly respected internationals from England and France, Dave Vincent and Michel Beranger, on one of Belgium's major canals using identical baits and rigs. What I was looking for was THREE different feeding strategies, free from any bait limitations with ALL the anglers using the same baits and quantities. I was curious to observe each feeding approach and try to understand how the thinking processes is determined between anglers from different countries.

There would be no advantages in terms of different groundbait mixes as Eric would be solely responsible for creating ONE mix, then dividing it into three. Bait as well would be identical in terms of quantity and where it came from. In the case of rigs, Eric showed Michel and Dave what he would be using, then both could follow suit with their similar sponsored Rive and Browning patterns.

Eric would make enough suitable groundbait for our chosen venue so that the three angler had 17 litres each. I also wanted to give each angler a reasonable amount of joker to use, so we supplied 2.6 kilos of top quality joker for them, that's about 860 grams each. Not quite the kilo in our fairy-tale, but still more joker than many French match anglers get through in THREE matches! This would be an article TOTALLY focused on feeding. All possible variables were removed so that the three anglers feeding philosophies could be analysed freely and in-depth. Our supply of joker came from Hainaut Peche, one of Belgium's mega tackle shops, who were doing a thriving trade in it. Because their anglers still buy joker by the kilo, the price for both Belgium and East European joker was very reasonable, around 12 euros per kilo, with a choice of local or East European... for the same price!

Venue information
When I originally contacted Eric de Venti to come and work with us at Declic, we had planned to fish the Grand Large canal at Peronne. This is one of the best summer venues in Belgium, producing massive bream weights then decent roach nets at the end of the season. It was these roach that we were hoping to target. However, as the date for our feature drew ever closer, the weather became much colder with a succession of frosty mornings, somewhat jeopardising our venue choice. My last up-to-date info on the Grande Large was “you’ll either get 10 kilos or you’ll blank!!!”

Not wishing to drag Michel from France, Dave from London and Eric from near Luxembourg, only to run the risk of blanking, I looked at the possibilty of an alternative venue where we could catch. We therefore sought the advice of Eric's fellow international, Pierre Francois Deschepper, who lives in Louvieres just south of Brussels. He suggested a place west of him where we could all be sure of catching, the Canal du Centre at Houdeng. Pierre said in order to avoid the main ship canal, where the boat traffic would make the fishing too tricky on the day, the area behind the scrapyards on the smaller arm of the canal would be best. Depths should be around 4 metres with a target weight of a couple of kilos, rather than our original 10!

Never mind, the immediate change of venue was what we needed in order to catch fish, because there is nothing worse than blanking when trying to do a feature on feeding! The reason I tell you of the last minute venue change, is to point out that all the anglers, including Eric, were now dealing with a venue they didn't know. Eric had in fact never fished this section of canal before, therefore the new venue offered a little more fairness to our test.

Pierre gave us all a thorough briefing of what to expect from the venue as follows:
Profile: A typical Belgian canal shelving down to around 11 metres with stone sides which then flattens out to a bottom of small stones and gravel, about 3.80 metres deep, so long top fours would be fine.

Target species: Roach essentially, between 10 and 100 grams. The bigger fish would be worth their weight in gold. You may have to wait for the first bite, but once they start then you should get more.

Target weight: Two kilos would be a good weight on the day, three kilos exceptional. However, there should be fish for everyone.

Water movement: This canal links directly with the larger ship canal about 300 yards away. As such, our smaller canal can flow in either direction as water gets sucked in and out as the big barges pass by. The water level will also rise and fall, as they move through the locks.

Boats: On this smaller arm, you may see one or two boats in a day, you may see none, although one boat would be the average. Once a boat goes past you may need to think about feeding again.

Rigs: Anything between 0.75gr and 1.5gr if things are hard, with 2gr being the most you would ever need if things were easy.

Groundbait ingredients
Pierre gave Eric some specific information on the sort of groundbait mix and composition he would need to use for our test. The requirement for a groundbait here is something that needs to be active and work to draw roach in, but also heavy enough to stay in place as the water pulls right and left with the boat and lock actions. This is typical of many Belgian canals, were you need groundbait to actively work and break up over a period of time and cover the small stones that line the bottom of them. Weight is an important issue as well, as it needs to cope with the 'pull' and remain in one place. One thing is sure, Belgian’s are masters of this type of fishing so we all took the opportunity to keenly watch how Eric prepared the mix.

I asked Eric to go through each element of his groundbait and describe what benefits he believed they added to the mix. Here is what Eric put together for our three test subjects:

5kg Gros Gardons Fine Mouture: Eric prefers this over Gardons or Gros Gardons normal because it retains the selective properties of Gros Gardons yet binds even better thanks to the fine mouture. A good all round base for a groundbait, especially on canals where groundbait has to hold in place for a long period.

3kg Etang Noire: Belgian anglers often incorporate lake (Etang) in their groundbaits, be it Sensas, Rameau or Van den Eynde. The reason always seems to be the balancing act in the blends between binding and working. The lake is a supple groundbait and helps to get the overall mix working by offseting the richer, stickier components in the Gros Gardons

2 x 550gr packs Chenevis Gras Grille: This is an active hemp ingredient to get the groundbait working once on the canal bottom. Eric explained that he will control his feed through regular topping-up of groundbait and soil, so this active ingredient is vital in the mix to get it working and breaking up, onto and over the small stones. Eric mentioned this sort of action several times, believing that getting the groundbait worked into the gaps between the stones, helps hold the feed in place when the big barges pull the canal one way or the other.

1 pk Coriandre Moulu: This has the same function as the active seed attractor hemp. Belgian and Dutch anglers are still very attached to coriander as a roach attractor and have been for many years.

Powdered additives
Brown sugar (Cassonade): A couple of decent pinches. This is impure sugar, derived directly from the juice of sugar cane. It is stronger tasting than many refined sugars and is widely used throughout Belgium and northern France in dishes like civet, chou rouge au flamand and even the Belgian cassonade tart. Eric uses it for two reasons. First it helps to select bigger roach and secondly, because he likes it!

Black groundbait colouring: All Belgian anglers are agreed on one thing, if you use any colour in Belgium other than black... "you will not catch!" Now there is black and there is BLACK. Groundbait with lots of Terre de Riviere will normally look a dark grey-black, but this is not what the Belgian’s mean. They use groundbaits that are solid BLACK. To do this they all carry with them powdered black colouring which are based on ferrous oxide compounds and are extremely effective colourwise, these are available from all the main suppliers. Eric doses this colouring rather like the sugar, a couple of shakes from his tub is enough to dye the whole groundbait mix. Whick it thoroughly into the dry ingredients in order to get the colorant evenly spread.  Do not panic and add more dye if the dry ingredients still look grey-ish. As you wet the mix the dye will take hold properly and darken everything into a solid black.

Fiente (pigeon pooh) and soils
Eric had brought some of his own Fiente which he'd gathered fresh as a pure mass, complete with feathers and all, then frozen. Being still frozen during the morning, Eric added a bit of water to speed up the defrosting process. Belgian’s set great store in using Fiente, freshly frozen. Again there is a considerable consensus as to its effective action, which is essence is simply 'mechanical'. Fiente impregnates groundbait in a way that water does not, by clogging and coating each particle, it makes the mix appear almost greasy. This certainly helps to keep groundbait in place during the various lock movements on Belgium's many large canals. It also protects a groundbait from excessive wetting, which would normally kill some of the actions of its active ingredients in which Belgian’s set so much store by, thereby allowing the groundbait ball to break-up gradually, while still retaining activity, from the outside to the central core.

The final element in Eric’s mix was Terre de Somme, of which he had allowed 2kg per man, although he would add surprisingly little to the initial groundbait mix itself. Just a standard 2.2 pint bait box of soil would be added to each of the three identical buckets of groundbait at the last minute. The rest of the soil he prepared was to be used with the top-up feed. As we will see later, Eric’s particular feeding strategy would rely more on topping-up than the initial feeding. This is when soil becomes much more important as the richness of top-up feed becomes crucial throughout a session. His initial allocation of soil in the main groundbait mix was to add weight more than anything else.

Eric had arrived with Terre de Somme he'd collected himself and there was a fair degree of joking and laughing amongst the other Belgian anglers we were with, including the likes of Francis Bartolas, a name from the late 70’s and 80’s. Francis actually fished some of the same world championships as I did, finishing individual third in Newry behind Kevin Ashurst. Much of the Terre de Somme sold in France, actually comes from Belgium, so when THIS Scotsman asked why they were not using shop bought soil they all fell about laughing and said, "why buy Belgium soil that had been sealed in plastic bags, transported to France, then shipped back to Belgium where it had come from in the first place"... A fair point!

Although Eric’s soil was the typical Terre de Somme colour, light beige, it did 't take him longs to sprinkle some colouring over it and with a quick whisk it was black.

Right: Eric sieves his Terre de Somme then adds more of his special black colouring.

Assembling the mix
Eric had amassed NINE kilos of dry groundbait ingredients, which worked out at 3 kilos per angler. He thoroughly mixed them all in a big bucket and then divided the mix evenly into three smaller buckets in order to make mixing easier. Eric riddled off his Fiente to take out the bigger particles and feathers then again divided it into three equal portions, which were then added to each bucket. A little water was added to each mix at a time to get the consistency right then the mix was allowed to rest for an hour or so, while our three anglers got on with preparing their rigs. The bait box of Terre de Somme would be added just before making up the balls.

Eric showed Dave and Michel the pattern he would use on the canal, a Perfect Carbon Bream. This is a sensitive float, despite the name, with a thin fibre bristle. It had a long carbon stem and a slender teardrop body making it perfect for bloodworm in deeper waters. The shotting patterns for his three size floats, 4x20, 1.5gr and 2gr, were kept simple, just a sliding olivette with a group of three No.9 shot below it and two No.10 droppers, spaced 20-25cm apart. Finally, he attached a 15cm hooklength with a size 22 Drennan Carbon Red hook. The lighter of Eric replaced the olivette on his lighter rig with a bulk of shot and retained the two No.10 droppers and hooklength.

Michel chose a 1.25gr Rive 4 float with shot as a bulk and two droppers, whilst Dave chose a similar Rive 4 float which he had modified himself by replacing the metal stem with a longer carbon one and painting the body black. This would be set up with an olivette and three droppers. If you compared the business end of each of the rigs you had roughly the same thing, a bulk and two or three droppers down to a bloodworm hook. I really didn't want too much variation between these rigs as this was not the focus of the test. My interest was solely on feeding and what the anglers would do when given the same mix and the same bait on the bank. The other two anglers had set up 1.5gr and 1.25gr floats with similar shotting patterns, this was about as consistent as we could get for our test.

As our trio plumbed up and fine-tuned their rigs, Eric finished off the groundbait by adding the soil. A final whisk, a check on the consistency and Eric pronounced the groundbaits' ready. Each angler was then handed 2 x 400g packs of joker and their bucket of groundbait with a second smaller bucket of black Terre de Somme for feeding, if required. Bloodworm hookers, both large and small, were shared out equally, as were a few pinkies and maggots. There were no more directions from me, each angler was now in possession of exactly the same feed, similar rigs and basic venue information. From here on end, the test would be all about what each man did with the bait he'd been given.

Initial feeding
If you had stood on the opposite bank of the canal and watched the initial feeding, you could be forgiven for thinking that all three anglers were doing the same thing. In went 10 to 12 big balls each, however, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this initial feed revealed much about how each had assessed the venue. So lets look more closely at what they fed in this initial bombardment.

Michel Beranger
The first thing Michel did with Eric’s mix was to add a bit more water. Remember, they all started with the same consistency, but what they did after was down to their own individual approach. While the groundbait was holding together okay, it seemed a bit too dry for Michel as he wanted to use a lot of feed at the start, therefore the groundbait needed to be wetter to hold this. The next thing Michel did was too add at least half his joker to this damper mix. Michel is a confident angler who believes in feeding for fish, even though we had all been told that the canal could fish hard, Michel was pinning his faith in fish being in the swim, so he wanted to start catching quickly over a heavy bed of joker because he'd noticed that the anglers above him were catching roach already, he assumed that if they were catching there was no reason why we should not. He was in fact surprised by Eric's pessimistic comments that it could be rock hard. Michel had other ideas!

Eric de Venti
Electing to use the mix he’d prepared, Eric made solid heavy balls containing 100gr of joker, which would open up quickly, once on the bottom. The remaining 700gr would be used for topping-up.

Dave Vincent
Dave was the odd man because he had decided not to use joker in his initial groundbait balls, preferring to feed just a couple of joker rich double leam balls over the top to concentrate his bait in one precise area of the swim. The rest of his joker allocation would be used in double leam top-up balls via the pole cup. See our feature with Steve Gardener on how to mix the perfect 'double leam'!

Now each man had adopting a totally different approach to this initial feeding. To some extent this looked to follow their own national stereotypes. Michel boosted the joker content of his feed immediately, having assessed the venues possible potential from anglers catching nearby. It was also an opportunity to use quantities never before dreamed off in his normal 3 hour matches back home... and still have plenty left over for topping-up! Dave was erring on the side of caution and looking to feel his way into the fishing by following the bites. Eric undoubtedly had a bit more knowledge of this type of venue, even so, he too was taking the cautious route, preferring to let the fish dictate how he would introduce feed as the session wore on.

There is something very fundamental in the way the three men approached feeding their respective swims, underlying their vision of how each swim might develop. Michel had in fact taken an enormous gamble by feeding so much joker at the start, even if he had seen others nearby catch fish. A few problems could arise from this action, not least of which would be the early arrival of one of the canal's massive barges! I talked to Michel afterwards who said he had heard a local say you might see a barge every couple of weeks here. However, talking to Eric his opinion was that we might see one or two big barges during the day. If one came through shortly after Michel’s initial feed, he would be in serious trouble with just 400 grams of joker remaining. Then there were the fish... how would they react? We had been told it might be hard, so putting 400 grams in at the start could prove just be too much for whatever fish were present. Even though he felt sure he’d catch as well as the nearby anglers, if Michel's gamble failed, he would probably have killed his swim right from the start!

Eric had 'hedged his bets' by introducing a small amount of feed at the start, enough to hold any fish that might be present. The rest would then be used, as and when the bites and fish in his swim dictated.

If you tell an Englishman things could be hard, he'll take you at your word! Dave had played the ultra-cautious card and decided to slowly introduce double leamed joker via the pole cup in one precise area. Dave, like Michel, was taking a gamble, only the opposite way! By not including any joker in his initial feed he was relying on double leam top-ups to keep his swim going throughout the session. However, if the fish were present at the start, like Michel believed, then Dave may not have put enough joker in his groundbait to hold them there. Although, in many anglers opinion, it would seem the 'lesser of the evils', compared to Michel's approach.

Having analysed each anglers approach during this initial period of feeding, we already begin to get some idea their strategic thinking! We have Michel the 'gambler', Eric the 'hedger' and Dave the 'cautious'. We'll look at how these three options develop for our trio in next month's Part Two.