Shortly after ice-out, my friend and long-time carp master, Paul Almanza embarked on a quest to catch a giant carp. Paul is no stranger to carp fishing, but, for whatever reason, he felt the need to up his game further and put his refined collection of carp tackle to good use.
As the season unfolded, he began sending frequent emails documenting his results. His updates contained photos of big fish, several in the 30-pound range. For many of us, these would have been trophies, but not for Paul. It was hundreds of fish later, in early November, when he finally announced he’d caught the one he was after — a 40-plus pound behemoth. This fish surpassed the current Ontario record, set by a 39.88-pound Lake Simcoe giant.
While late season, cold water conditions would hardly seem the time to be fishing for monster carp, fall is actually a peak big-fish period for the seasoned carp trophy hunter.
Those wanting to lock horns with a mammoth carp need to know its growth cycle. Shortly after ice-out, carp come off their winter hiatus and start moving sluggishly to warm, shallow waters to feed. Their body weight starts to rise as their condition improves and mature females begin building egg mass. Carp reach their heaviest weight just prior to spawning.
The peak pre-spawn period in southern Ontario tends to be mid- to late-May. Spawning time can vary, depending on water temperature, but mid-June is typically when they reproduce in earnest. Once spawning starts, fish are less interested in feeding, and the females begin to lose egg mass. Large females can carry as many as one million eggs, that account for as much as one third of her body weight.
In summer, carp often spread out and utilize deeper water. As fall approaches, water temperatures drop, and fish are once again in top condition, so they will relocate. On some waters, such as the St. Lawrence River, fish will move out of the main river and seek quieter back eddies or bays. This provides a window of opportunity, even for shore anglers, to access big fish just prior to their winter dormancy.
“Prime time for fall fishing is when water temperatures are between 15 and 20˚C (60 to 70˚F),” said Almanza. “Fish become inactive once temperatures drop below 5˚C (40˚F). In fact, the label on some commercial koi food packages specifically says not to feed fish below 5˚C, due to the fact that the food will not be digested.”
Almanza finds that smaller fish become dormant sooner, which may help to explain why the average fall catch size is bigger. Cold-water carp fishing is a unique opportunity, given that the fish are still feeding consistently, are concentrated, and generally closer to shore than in the summer.
Once winter sets in, carp stay concentrated. Feeding is limited, except perhaps during warm spells when they will eat opportunistically, but are hard to catch. Ice fishermen commonly view carp on underwater cameras, suspended and schooled tightly together, as if patiently biding their time for warmer days. Exceptions to this behaviour exist of course, such as warm-water discharge areas, where fish will feed regularly throughout the winter.
Tony Benham, the author of Carp Fishing in Canada, agrees that these are general cold-water behaviours, but is quick to point out that anglers must stay flexible. “As important as it is to go in with a logical game plan, it’s also important to be open to complete surprises and be ready to serve up something different in terms of baits, tactics, and locations, if logic isn’t panning out.”
Big carp are where you find them. That is to say, their whereabouts are dictated by the prevailing lay of the water. Ideally, you can expect fish to seek out calm water, outside of current. This is especially true in winter, when their preoccupation is to conserve energy. On natural lakes, don’t expect carp to be rooting through the shallows like they will during the summer. Vegetation is quick to die off as water temperatures drop, and ice formation will literally squeeze fish out of the shallows. In rivers, look for carp in deep back eddies. Smaller ponds yield good carp fishing too, although they cool much sooner than big waters, so the fall fishing window tends to be smaller.
Carp are a warm-water species. A rapid drop in water temperature generally spells tough fishing, while short warming trends can activate them. Try to plan your outings to correspond with stable, warm conditions. Not only is the fishing likely to be better, but it’s far more pleasant for the angler.
Mind your bait
If there’s one other cardinal rule for fishing cold water, it’s don’t overfeed. As water temperature drops, so does a fish’s rate of digestion, which means they literally can’t eat as much.
“In the summer, I might feed in about 2 pounds of bait per hour. Once water temperatures drop below 10˚C (50˚F), I will likely use a quarter of that,” said Almanza.
Not only does the amount of bait decrease, the nature of the chum does too, from mainly particle baits (loose corn, maize, and trout pellets) to finer particulates, such as method mixes. Carp pellets are ideal for coldwater situations because they prevent overfeeding. The pellets are large enough to be fitted into a PVA or deployed using a slingshot or baiting spod, yet they dissolve quite quickly. This releases plenty of scent and smaller particles for fish to sift through, but leaves virtually no food for fish to fill up on. Using this tactic, anglers can continually deploy pellets throughout the day without worrying about uneaten food piling up in the swim.
Almanza uses more conventional chum mixtures as well. Prepackaged products that are designed to be mixed with water and packed into balls can be tossed into a swim, or packed onto a method feeder. Binding agents, such as molasses, hold balls together to ensure they make it to bottom before breaking apart. Even when the water is cold, Almanza tends to add a few small edibles, such as sweet corn or a small sinking trout pellet, just to add an incentive for fish to stick around.
Spices are also important ingredients in Almanza’s cold-water recipe. Tabasco sauce, chili pepper, and curry powder are among his favourites. He’s convinced they make a difference in cold water.
“The choice of chum additives is more than just trial and error, there’s some science to it,” Almanza insists. “Oily scents simply don’t disperse as well in cold water, while spices are ester, or alcohol based, which dissolve more easily.”
If an Ontario record catch is one of your fishing goals, don’t let a summer slump dampen your spirits. By tailoring your tactics to cold water, you may find that fall is your prime time for big fish. Just be sure to bring a tripod; there won’t be many anglers around to help you take a photo of your trophy.