We left Dave and Pierre, shortly after balling-in, with the first few minutes of their session looking promising, although there where a couple of issues which needed to be overcome...

The weed issue
Floating weed is one of those problems that you only really become aware of once you start fishing. There was the obvious weed and debris floating around the edges, but what was less obvious was there more further out, just under the surface which made it difficult to get bait out without it getting covered in the stuff. This was frustrating for our anglers as they knew there were fish to be caught, if only they could get a bait down to them! Both used landing nets at various points throughout the day to try and keep the weed clear. Just occasionally the wind would be funnelled up the arm which helped to push the weed back into the edges. But as soon as it dropped, the weed would start to drift back out again, so both anglers had to come up with some solutions to cope.

Dave’s approach
Dave was getting annoyed with the weed at the start because he was using a long top 3 and couldn't get his rig over the weed quickly enough to avoid getting the hook caught up in it, so it was slowing him down. Dave decided to add an extra metre of line, along with an extra section of pole, to allow him to flick the whole rig over the weed and then ship out. This worked well and had little effect on his presentation, or bite-to-hit ratio, as there was no wind to speak off. Indirectly, had there been more wind then the weed would not have been such a problem, as it would have been pushed into the bank rather than spread out over a wider area.

Advantages: Dave managed to keep his hookbait and shot free of weed most of the time. It was certainly easier to flick the rig over the inside weed and definitely less frustrating using the top 4.

Disadvantages: The long line worked relatively well with the lack of wind and the fact that Dave was using maggot. The fish were taking the bait properly and were easier to hit, even with a long line. However, there was an issue when he tried caster. Even though Dave was feeding a lot of caster, when he tried it on the hook he missed quite a few bites. It seemed that the fish weren't hanging onto the caster as long as the maggot, making bites more difficult to connect with because of the extra line.

Pierre’s approach
Pierre was less bothered by getting weed on the hook and line than Dave. He was happy to fish with a bit of weed on his rig and only shipped the kit back if it was caked in rubbish. “If the fish take it like that, I don’t care!” he explained. Pierre was trying to ship out fast, with his pole lifted higher than he would usually do, to try and skip his rig over the top of the weed.

Advantages: Pierre's approach meant his rig spent more time in the water than Dave's. Keeping a shorter line also meant that he retained greater control over the rig as well.

Disadvantages: Shipping the rig out high across the water did cause Pierre to tangle a few times because he had dropped his bulk shot closer to the hook to try and get the rig down to the roach quicker. As a consequence, his hooklength would sometimes flip back round the bulk and tangled. This would not have been a problem had Pierre been able to ship out normally with his line low in the water.

The perch issue
This proved a greater problem to overcome that the weed. The perch were quite voracious and were capable of snatching a bait on the way down. The key to avoiding them turned out to be keeping the roach feeding! As soon as the roach backed off the feed, even slightly, the perch were in like a flash. These were real nuisance fish averaging just 15 grams, much lighter than the roach. If you'd managed to get your rig out through the weed, the last thing you wanted on the end of it was a tiny stripey! Pierre tried feeding extra maggots down the edge to draw them away from his main feed, but to be honest there were so many of them that this was never really going to solve the problem. As we shall see, it was finding out how to hold the roach in your swim for longer that would prove to be the decisive element in beating these ravenous fish!

Here again, both men took similar, but nevertheless slightly different approaches, each electing to fish with a stumpier pencil type 1 gram float. As we've mentioned before, Dave likes to modify his floats and his choice proved no exception. He'd replaced the wire stem with a carbon one and, for added sensitivity, the bristle also! Depending on the background he may wish to fish it against, he paints the bristle either red or leaves it in the carbons' natural black colour. Dave has been adapting many of his floats with carbon stems, although it is very much a personal thing.

Pierre on the other hand kept his float as they came off the shelf... but with one minor alteration. He likes to varnish the base of all his floats, just as an added reinforcement at the point where the stem meets the body!

Shotting-wise, Dave used a 0.8gr olivette as a main bulk, while Pierre opted for No.5 shot. An interesting variation in dropper shot between the two anglers saw Dave using three No.12 shot, spaced 5cm apart, 20cm below the olivette, whereas Pierre went for a more direct and positive arrangement underneath his bulk with a single No.9 dropper. Both anglers selected the same hook, a Kamasan B511 size 18 for maggot and 16 when trying caster. It's one of the all-time classic and most versatile hooks you can use for general roach fishing. The rig diagram below shows the main differences clearly:

It's all about the feeding!
While the choice of rigs and groundbait for each man were similar, it would be how they fed which would prove the ultimate difference between them. There were two distinct phases to how each fed. To start with they both cupped in loose feed samples over the top of their initial balls and later topped up with balls of groundbait. Had you watched them from a distance you would have assumed they were doing exactly the same thing, but nothing could have been further from the truth! Let’s look more closely at the key differences in each mans' top-up strategy and how the fish seemed to react to them each time.

Cupping in loose feed
Pierre’s loose feed was a mixture of maggots and casters, plus some hemp now and again. Feeding relatively small quantities at a time, about a quarter of a big pole cup, he noticed that after cupping in the roach seemed to back off and the perch would 'zero' in on the feed. The roach would then return and he’d catch for about 15 minutes  before having to feed again to try and pull them back. Perch moving into the swim was always a sign that the roach had melted away. So Pierre tried to work around the problem of how to keep the roach close. His reasoned that if the loose feed was too tight, the fish could be getting spooked easily because they were being drawn into too  small a feed area. He therefore tried spreading the feed in an arc to see if he could hold the fish longer, but this seemed to have little effect on the situation, it was still perch first, then roach, then perch again!

We discussed why Pierre thought the roach were backing off the loose feed as it went in. One possible explanation was that as each top up went in, it caused the roach to come off the bottom as they competed for the feed. They then hung around for a while, searching for more, before returning to the bottom. This is something that can usually happen when you constantly top up over feeding fish.

Dave's approach was much more aggressive. Even though he was using a medium size cup, he was filling it full of hemp and alternating with loads of maggot and caster to keep the fish on the deck. It's a tactic I've seen him use in the past, to great effect, on venues heavily stocked with fish. One advantage of dumping masses of bait in like this is you tend not to get the fish coming up in the water, like you would if you fed smaller amounts of bait. However there were a couple of things that seemed not to be quite right with Dave’s approach.

First there was the fact that the fish had never seen so much bait thrown at them as the locals tended to be more conservative in their feeding approach. What looked to be happening was that the roach were being scared by a highly visible and overpowering amount of bait falling through the water onto them. If you watch a FULL cup of feed drop through the water, try to imagine what it must look to any fish feeding quietly on the bottom! It was no wonder that they probably seemed to scatter every time before returning 10 or 15 minutes later onto the feed. During these quiet periods Dave would catch a few perch, as they were always the first to return, followed by the roach. But these waits were long and ultimately costly to Dave’s overall weight.

The second problem seemed to be Dave's reliance on caster. The fish at Val Joly had never seen a lot of caster before as it was something the locals didn't use. Hemp yes, maggot yes, but caster was totally new to them. It normally takes a while for fish to get a taste for caster, but once they do it tends to sort out the bigger fish. Dave had been catching from the off on the maggot, but every time he tried caster he couldn't get a bite. As time went on he started to get a few signs that the fish were taking the caster that he'd cupped in. A few roach coughed up caster, as well as the couple of bonus ide that Dave landed. These fish had been stocked into Val Joly, some years earlier by Philipe Hornain, as part of a managed stocking programme for the water. These ide clearly loved caster judging by the amount they threw up! They feed in much the same way as chub, by hoovering up lots of particles off the bottom. As the session wore on, Dave managed to get more bites, but missed many of them due to his long line approach!

Eventually it looked as though the caster was becoming less of a problem as the fish began to gradually accepted it. It seemed to be holding the roach and attracting the odd bonus fish, which Pierre was not getting. Caster works best when there are quality fish to be had and Dave proved this with a couple of bonus ide and the odd decent hybrid. However, the average size of his roach was the same as Pierre’s and there didn't seem to be that many big bonus roach of 300 to 400 grams on offer. Had these larger roach had been present in any sort of number, Dave could have done some serious damage with the caster. If local anglers were to use caster more often, fish would become more accustomed to it and give a quicker response, especially those quality roach. However, the bait was not giving Dave the edge he expected, in terms of fish size. Had the weed issue not prevented him from fishing with a short line, he could have fished further out to try and sort out the better caster fish within the shoal in front of him. Even so, selecting these bigger roach would not have stopped fish backing off every time feed went in!

Groundbait held the key
It was Pierre who first put a stop to loose feed in the cup because he didn't like the way the fish disappeared after each top up. He decided that they would be happier being fed in a different way, so switched to using groundbait. Having some left over from his initial balling-in, Pierre decided to use a small amounts of this to introduce feed samples into his swim.

TOP TIP: To kill pinkies, take a pinkie riddle and rub the them vigourously over the mesh. This kills them quite quickly, but make sure you use relatively fresh pinkies otherwise you will split and have horrible 'gunge' all over the mesh!
First, Pierre added plenty of dead pinkies, a tactic he's used quite a lot. Live pinkies are great at disappearing once on the bottom, but when dead they just lay there waiting to be picked off by the fish. He then added joker to his mix and plenty of it, in fact Pierre was gambling that the joker would settle the fish in one spot in a way loose feed couldn't. Finally he added some Pain d’Epice and bit more Terre de Riviere. His top up mix ready, Pierre set about cupping in balls of the feed-rich groundbait. The effect proved dramatic.

Instead of backing off, the roach seemed to settle better over the groundbait. There was something in the previous cloud of loose feed that must of panicked them in a way that balls of dark groundbait did not. I also believe the fish really liked the mixture of joker and pinkies. These were not enormous roach, more your basic shoal fish in the 60 to 150 gram range. An added bonus was that the joker didn't bring on a rush of small perch, but seemed to settle and preoccupy the roach. Once he started feeding this way Pierre could settle down to catch fluidly and really build a weight. In fact Pierre commented later that the fish obviously seemed to like the groundbait because some of them were coughing it up when they came in!

Dave persisted with loose feeding for a good hour longer than Pierre, before finally cupping in some groundbait balls, although he used very little feed in them. This was partly due of the amount of feed already in his swim, but in any event he was always going to play catch-up from this point. He'd put his faith in bigger fish coming over his caster-based loose feed attack but, unfortunately, the bigger fish had not shown in significant numbers needed to build a winning weight. Pierre hadn't fed as much loose feed as Dave during the session, but once the fish settled over his groundbait there was no stopping him. You need to remember that neither angler had fished the venue before and the information received told us that there were big roach available, which needed targeting. Joker could have been a risky strategy for the bigger roach as it's not selective enough. Nevertheless, with fewer big fish showing than expected, the joker and dead pinkie proved to be the perfect holding bait for Pierre's medium-sized roach. As Dave commented afterwards, Pierre’s switch to topping-up with groundbait, whilst he plugged away on caster, highlighted just how one key decision can turn things around. Even though Dave did manage to keep fish coming, he was always too far behind Pierre.

Both men had problems with missed bites throughout the day. Because Dave used caster, some of the bites were fast and needed to have a quicker contact with the float. Unfortunately, using a longer than normal length of line between pole and float meant he had to strike more harder, rather than lift into the bite and it was this that resulted in many lost connections! He therefore tended to concentrate mainly on maggot, which did bring more bites from the small perch. Dave hooked his maggots classically though the top end (blunt eyed-end) and even with the longer line, managed not to miss too many bites!

Having sorted out his feeding, Pierre started to experience a run of bites which he couldn't hit on the maggot, because of competition he had created in the swim. In fact at one stage he was missing ONE in every TWO! A change of hook did little to improve his fortunes, so he finally decided to hook the maggot through the head with more of the hook point showing and this proved to be the answer. Having now improved his strike ratio, he started to catch well again. It just goes to show how in fishing there are no hard and fast rules! When I produced the feature last spring, on The Fall of the Maggot, I couldn't get a bite when I hooked a maggot the conventional way through the rear, whereas here Pierre found the competing fish would take a head hooked maggot much easier.

There could be several reasons why this seemed to work better. First, if the maggot is hooked through the 'pointy-end', rather than the blunt-end, there is less body covering the hook which effectively means a greater chance of penetration. Another way of looking at it depends on how fish are sucking in a bait. The fish at Val Joly were feeding confidently, but would blow the bait out quickly if they felt something wrong. With the fish taking the blunt-end first, it could be that there was less resistance from the following hook and line, because the bulkier part of the maggot has already been sucked in. Another aspect could be the rate at which the maggot falls, which is marginally slower than if hooked through the rear. Again this is something we covered in our feature, The Fall of the Maggot, last Spring. Whatever the reasons, the head-hooked maggots produced a run of positive bites with all the fish cleanly hooked inside the lip.

What the anglers thought
Dave loved both the fishing and venue but felt that he'd overdone the loose feeding, which had been his downfall. “The fish had never seen so much thrown at them before and were simply not used to it” explained Dave. However, he had proved a point. Although it had taken a bit longer for the fish to come on to caster, as the session wore on he had fish coughing them up, so they were definitely feeding on it. There were also two ide in his overall net and these bonus fish really did take to the caster!

Had Dave been able to fish with a shorter line with more control, he might have hit more bites and spent longer fishing caster. The fact that he mainly relied on a maggot hookbait meant we could not prove conclusively whether the caster was capable of selecting only the bigger roach. However, caster once more threw up some surprises in the anglers nets. While Pierre had no ide, Dave had caught more hybrids with caster, which is a trend we have seen happen every time we fish it in France. There is no doubt that fish take a while to get used to caster, but once again Dave proved that within a relatively short timeframe they will settle on it. He was the first to accept that his feeding was the main problem today. All those long quiet periods without a bite ultimately lost him ground against Pierre, who caught faster and more steadily throughout the day.

By the time Dave made the switch to feeding groundbait, it was too late. Pierre had already pulled away from him and he was only playing catch-up from that point on. There were not enough of those bigger ide or roach around for Dave to make any impression into Pierre's lead since his timely switch to groundbait, pinkie and joker!

However, the venue proved excellent and solid with fish. Dave was confident that if more local anglers fished caster, it would undoubtedly produced bigger and better catches, as quality roach will always focus on it. He would be tempted to try 'pinging' a few casters next time rather than simply dumping it in and see whether it spooked the roach less. Even so, Dave had a bite almost every cast and caught the biggest fish of the day, if not the heaviest bag. Would he come back to fish at Val Joly? Of course he would... “it's stiff with fish!”

As a 'thinking' angler with a good temperament, Pierre enjoyed working around the challenging surprises, like the weed and perch issues. Rather than get frustrated, he analysed the situation and worked around it rationally. An example of this was not to worry too much about weed on his hook or rig, because he could still catch. Most anglers would be in and out trying to keep their rig weed-free. Dave was certainly not happy about fishing with weed on the rig or hook. But rather than being bothered about this, Pierre tried to analyse things from the fishes point of view. Were they put off by the weed on the rig? Apparently not, so why should he worry about it unless there was too much covering the hook or the rig sank! He applied the same reasoning  to the bites he was missing. By hooking the maggot through the head section, he found the fish more willing to take the bait cleanly and, it allowed him to hit the bites better.

One look at Pierre’s net told the story. He'd had a great day out and reckoned this was his best roach net of 2008, by some margin! Once Pierre was happy that he'd sorted his feeding out, he could begin to concentrate on getting into a rhythm and start building a decent weight of roach. One thing I've noticed when working with top Belgian anglers is how fast they are when on fish. Perhaps we will prepare a special feature on 'How To Catch Fish Fast, The Belgian Way' later on!

Finally, I think Pierre enjoyed fishing with Dave and liked the idea that this was not a match but a test, where you were free to take risks and try different things to see if they worked, without any of the competitive element normally associated in fishing a contest. Did Pierre like the venue? Take a look at the roach in his net. If that's not an answer I don’t know what is!