During the winter period, shallower water warms up quicker than very deep water and roach seek out this little extra heat. On major rivers, they will often head for port or docking areas in towns to shelter from floods and also to gain the extra warmth from the cover that moored boats create. Most of them will stay in these quarters until late February/March, after which time they move away to spawn.

This annual migration can have some very pronounced effects on fishing. In eastern England there is a network of low flatland called the Fens. Much of it is below sea level and all drained by an interconnecting network of rivers, canals and canalised rivers. During summer you can catch roach throughout the region, as large shoals dilute and spread out searching for food. However, come winter, there are many miles/kilometres of these waterways where you simply cannot get a bite because the fish have congregated in their winter quarters

Local anglers are well aware of this and for many years have enjoyed some of the best sport in these areas during the depths of winter. Towns within the Fens, that have rivers or drains running through them, such as March, regularly host sell-out matches as anglers flock to enjoy roach fishing of the highest order.

This feature deals with a typical winter roach holding area in northern France, the magnificent Lac du Val Joly, the largest water body in the region. The 180 hectare reservoir was damned in the late 1960’s by EDF and has three main functions. To generate hydroelectricity, control flooding on the River Helpe Majeure and provide water to cool the old thermal electric power station at Pont sur Sambre. The reservoir is unusual in that the dam itself is not very high in proportion to the size of the lake, just 18 metres at its tallest point! It also has one other function, a by-product if you like... it's a water leisure park!

The lake is stunning and looks exactly what it is... a flooded valley with its features still clearly visible. It is a fabulous looking venue that screams fish, however, this project has not been without its issues. There have been problems with silting at the top end of the lake and also with summer algae blooms as phosphate rich sediments from upstream farmlands settle in the water. We visited the lake in November, well past the algae season, but still had problems with dead and dying weed growth... more of which later! During the 1990’s, green tourism took off in the area and the shores around the lake saw several phases of building development. There is a visitor centre and numerous holiday accommodations surrounding the lake, which complement some very good fishing of course!

During the summer season, bream and skimmer weights dominate the fishing. Most of the banks, but not all, are accessible to anglers. On the wooded southern area access is difficult where there are plenty of big bream weights to be had fishing the feeder. The north east section, known as Le Miroir, has easy access and mixed bags of bream and skimmers are on the cards during summer. But we had not come to catch skimmers in November! We were after just one species in this huge expanse of water... the pristine roach which roam in massive shoals.

Being a 'drowned valley' the lake not only takes on the shape of the old valley floor but includes former tributaries of the old river system. These tributaries have created two distinct 'arms' on the lake and it is in these sheltered shallow arms that the roach congregate over winter. The locals knows this, as well as 'Mr. Pike' because he follows the shoals into these arms and feeds with minimal effort all winter. Even the 'black plague' of cormorants know it, as they can clearly be seen perching on the marker buoys at the mouth of these arms, waiting to dive on unsuspecting shaols as they moved in and out. We were headed for the largest of these arms at L’Orbaye, on the north bank of the lake. When we arrived anglers were already set up around the arm and catching some quality roach on hemp. Looking at the venue you could see why the roach would winter here. The arm had previously been a fairly steep-sided and narrow tributary valley of the Helpe and was about 100 metres wide. The depths on the pole line were around 2 metres, sloping gently out to over 3 metres in the middle.

No local experts used!
Today’s feature focusses on two anglers who had never seen Val Joly before and I wanted to see was how they would approach the lake and its various problems. Dave Vincent, a previous England International, loves fishing in France and has been with me on many Declic reportages over the last decade. Usually Dave is pitched against a top local angler, so it was a change to have, as his fishing partner, a fellow international, Pierre Francois Deschipper, one of Belgiums new generation of stars. Pierre Francois is also part of his country's rejuvenated team who, under their manager Roland Marcq's guidance, have been launched into a new era of success. It may be hard to accept, but Belgium are a more consistent team these days than France- having had more major championship successes, both individual and team,  over the last decade! In fact their European Championship record in particular is second only to England and a stunning reminder of exactly what has been achieved!

At first glance you would think that Dave and Pierre were totally different characters. Pierre’s long hair and seemingly relaxed manner was set against Dave’s older and more seasoned exterior! Yet scratch the surface and look below, where you'll find two remarkably similar anglers who are both very much 'old-school' anglers in the best and purest terms. Take a look at their bait boxes – a mix of square boxes, old round tins and ice cream pots. Look at their approach to groundbaits – simple and thought out. Both have homemade attachments on their boxes and both leave the same sort of mess on the bankside whilst they concentrate on their fishing! In short, neither are tackle tarts, both have been brought up on 'proper' fishing for silver fish, on generally hard canal venues and both get totally absorbed in their fishing. What I love about working with both men is the feeling of working with 'real' anglers, guys just like you and me. Both work all week, fish at the weekends and devote their lives to this sport of ours.

The venue in more detail
We have Philippe Hornain and the local anglers of CSD 59 to thank for finding us the venue. These guys checked that fish were feeding a couple of days before our visit and made sure that we were on the right pegs. They also supplied us with more information about the lake and how the roach respond. The local's do well on maggot loosefeeding over groundbait as well as loosefeeding hemp with hemp on the hook. There are roach of all sizes in the area during winter and one of the problems with using bloodworm could be picking out the larger fish. We asked about caster, which no one had really tried fishing with. However a lot of anglers do score well on the waggler and just pinging out a few maggots beyond the pole line. The depth on the waggler line is about 2.50 metres because despite the steep sides of the banks we were fishing on, the flooded tributary valley had a flat bottom. In fact the bank slopes away quite fast under your feet, then levels out about 9 metres before sloping gently to the middle.

There were a couple of potential problems that our two anglers needed to be aware of. One was the hordes of small perch that swarm these areas over winter. There are tens of thousands of them and they only weigh grams! Roach will eventually push them out of the way, but they can be a real nuisance. The second was the weed I mentioned earlier. The L’Orbaye section is protected from the wind and there was a lot of dead weed just floating on the surface. This had probably drifted in from the main lake and was no doubt caused by vegetation dying off in the run up to winter. Without strong winds to blow it away, it would prove another nuisance for our two anglers as it was lining the first couple of metres of the bank!

With the briefing over, our two anglers set about tackling up and considering their options. While both would have the same set of problems, each would take different approaches. So let’s start by looking at the groundbait.

Groundbait for the roach
Both men used essentially groundbait straight from the packet. Dave used a mix of Sensas Roach and Gros Gardons while Pierre used Van den Eynde Lake and Secret. Each proved a versatile mix with neither being any stickier than the other. Both mixes added a small amount of Terre de Riviere to add weight and hold the groundbait together for a longer period of time. Each angler added a similar amount of joker and a few hook samples to their initial feed then cupped in more pure loosefeed over their initial balls. Having looked at the similarities of both anglers groundbait strategies, let’s now look at the real differences from here on.

Val Joly is about 800 metres from the Belgian frontier at Touvent, yet there are relatively few Belgian anglers who take the trouble to cross the frontier and fish on a French fishing card. Therefore most of the anglers were using local French style groundbaits, which were mid to dark brown. Dave Vincent followed this trend while our Belgian decided that the colour for the session would be black! Pierre had used some black powdered cement colouring to darken further his already dark mix. It says a lot about the Belgian mentality that when they use groundbait it has to be black! So our first difference is colour.

The two colours of groundbait used by our anglers raise an interesting question. We often talk about groundbaits blending in with the bottom of a venue. Well, the venue here has a clay bed which you could see at the sides and beneath our feet as we were walking. Vincent, our cameraman, can vouch for the fact it's clay, as he slipped and nearly fell into it! So Dave’s brown coloured groundbait would have been closer to the colour of the actually bed of the lake, than Pierre’s. However, other anglers claim that you should try and match a groundbait to the colour of the water. But the water here was cold, clear and dark... almost black and much closer to Pierre’s mix. The one pitfall about using a colour of groundbait to match the bottom at the side of a lake, is that what you can see, has actually been subjected to wind and wave erosion and the normal silt layers would therefore been washed away. It is more than likely that the colour of the bottom of the lake where the anglers were fishing would be different to that near the bank. In general terms a dark groundbait works better when conditions are hard, but you couldn't say that conditions for our test had been particularly hard if you look at the nets of roach that were caught! Pierre had in fact caught more fish by the end over his black feed. Even so, both Pierre and Dave believed that this had little to do with the colour of the groundbait and more down to the way the top-up feed was managed. However, the question remains when fishing in winter as to whether you trying to imitate the colour of the bottom, or the colour of the water, because both are not always the same thing!

Dave Vincent, like many English anglers, is not overly convinced for the need of additives in groundbaits. A groundbait has a certain job to do and that is to deliver feed to the fish where they want it. Sure, the groundbait makes noise, pulls fish in and arouses curiosity. All this is taken as read but in terms of the actual attraction of the groundbait itself compared to what's inside it, most UK anglers then become sceptical. Therefore Dave added cooked hemp, joker, maggots and casters to his groundbait, but no additives! Pierre on the other hand added two extra ingredients to his groundbait.

These were:

  1. Sweetner. Pierre used a white powdered sweetner which he added to the dry mix, along with his black groundbait colouring. Like Eric di Venti, Pierre believes when mixing a groundbait for roach, a sweet element adds pulling power.
  2. Pain d’Epice. Continuing on the sweet/spicy theme, some Pain d’Epice is also added to the mix. However, Pierre adds this at the very last moment by riddling it dry over his wetted groundbait. If you mix Pain d’Epice in before wetting the groundbait, it will become too sticky and the action will be killed. Pierre is very conscious of keeping any roach mix active, so by dusting the final mix with Pain d’Epice, he gets the spicy sweetness without modifying the action of the groundbait.
Both men chose to use some Terre de Riviere to add weight to their mix and not cloud in the way Terre de Somme would. Remember that we were trying to select better quality roach and clouding would be more likely to attract small fish. Following sponsorship lines again Dave used Sensas Ochre Terre de Riviere and Pierre ,Van den Eynde. There was a slight difference in colour between the two soils with the VDE lighter. The biggest difference between the two was how they mixed the soil into their groundbait.

Dave’s method was to use the classic French style of mixing soil into over-wetted groundbait using his whisk. Because soil dries damp groundbait out, Dave compensated for this by adding more water to the groundbait in the first place. With a whisk it is even possible to rectify your groundbait by adding a little more water to the mix once the soil and groundbait have already been blended, but it does risk the mix becoming far heavier and stickier.

Pierre’s method on the other hand was slightly different. He believes that you don't want to overwet a groundbait, because this can kill the action in it. Pierre prefers instead to wet his mix normally, then at the last minute riddle some soil into it, just after he's added the Pain d’Epice! He argues that the Terre de Riviere is there only for weight and that when the soil particles are just damp and not fully incorporate in the mix, they actually help act as a dispersant to break the balls up.

It is always fascinating talking to Belgian anglers about soil as they have developed a unique knowledge-base of how it works in groundbait. Pierre’s understanding on Terre de Riviere as a dispersant is fascinating. What was clear was that Dave had his groundbait ready and whisked a good 20 minutes before the initial feeding, whereas Pierre was ready with his riddle to add the Terre de Riviere and whisk in at the very last minute, to avoid it getting over wet and drawing too much moisture out of his mix. Dave’s preparation was certainly easier to manage, as you don't have to re-work the feed just prior to making the balls, but it does make you wonder how much extra water you need to add into a groundbait to compensate for the drying out effects of the soil. That's another question which could easily be the subject of a feature in itself!

One thing's certain, whisks helped both mixings greatly for without them neither angler would have added the Terre de Riviere with such ease. I also believe whisks help compensate for overwetting by adding plenty of air into the mix, even once the soil has been added. We have already extolled the virtues of whisks in a previous article and would recommend any angler contemplating a soil and groundbait mix to use one!

Initial feeding
Once both men were ready I gave the signal to begin the initial feed. Both put in 10 or 11 good sized balls, plus a couple of cups of loosefeed over the top and, as always, then settled back and waited for the first bites. We knew the fish were in the area as the local anglers had been catching further along the bank as we arrived. Sure enough, within a few minutes of feeding, both men were into small perch followed by a few roach and it was clear that there were plenty of fish around. The session would now be about how to manage the top-up feed and cope with the two additional problems of small perch and the floating weed, which was covering the water for several metres in front of our anglers.

In PART 2, we'll look at how they coped with those two issues, before focussing on the all important feeding.