WaterCraft – Bill Phillips


If asked, ‘what is the most important thing in the any angler’s armoury?’ my answer would always be, ‘YOUR EYES’. Used effectively, your eyes can catch you more than any alleged super bait, rig or anything else.

With experience, other senses such as hearing, smell, knowledge of your quarry and even intuition can come into play. As does the careful plumbing and mapping the topography of your swim. What I am alluding to, is ‘WATERCRAFT’. Learning by watching the water and its surroundings for signs and features that lead you to potentially feeding fish.

Signs can be diverse from a crashing carp to a discreet vortex or flat spot on the surface. The sound of a clooping carp at night to the plop of a lily pad as a carp swims through. From clearly seeing fish swimming on the top to obscure shadows drifting in the depths.  Reeds moving & bending over to the flicker of a lily pad. A massive smoke screen to a slight puff or change in water colour. Sheets of bubbles to a minute pin bubble. Shinny clean gravel dinner tables to holes in the weed. Island areas to snags, overhangs & small undercuts. Deeps, shallows, bars & humps. From birds feeding on a hatch to a slightly odd look of a coot when it surfaces from a dive. The effects of wind, temperature, air pressure, rain, snow and all aspects of weather.

The list is endless and you can be sure that however much you think you know there is twice as much still to learn. The trick of course, is learning to understand how all these things affect the feeding habits of the fish in a given water. Above all, watercraft goes hand in hand with stealth, patience and concealment, there’s no point in finding fish only to spook them with clumsy presentation.

I believe that many carp fishers of these modern times have a different approach to watercraft than us old school anglers. We were fortunate enough to have the enforced close season which enabled unhindered time to observe our chosen waters.  Overcrowding of most waters nowadays make it far more difficult to find and get on the fish. On many waters, the swim has to be booked in advance which of course restricts even more what you can do as far as finding fish is concerned. There are also the comfort, convenience and social types that put such pleasures above catching. I see nothing wrong with that if it’s what you enjoy. However, it is still worth putting in a bit of observation time, mapping topography, careful bait application & exercising an element of stealth to get a few more bites.

The very few anglers I have known over the years that are masters of watercraft are very exceptional Anglers with an instinctive nature that thinks like a fish. They have many, many years of experience on all types of waters including rivers and often have a countryman / hunting background. Stealth and concealment seems to be second nature to them possessing the ability to drift around the margins like a floating coat.

As mere mortals most of us can’t hope to aspire to these heights, but we can put in the effort to learn by spending a bit more time observing rather than getting baits in the water for every available minute and sitting behind unproductive rods. I certainly don’t profess to be a master of watercraft, particularly on large lakes; there are others on this rotary far more qualified in this area than me. However, I do believe that back in the 70’s my love affair with canals and small intimate waters enabled me to hone my watercraft skills in the area of observation and stealth to a reasonable level.

Strangely enough the word ‘observation’ brings to mind the memory of a time when the penny really did drop for me. I will tell a shortened version of the story to try and indicate the level of effort required to even start to understand your quarry and its environment.

The importance of location & how much I could learn from watching carp behaviour came about during a decade of trying to catch carp from a 15 mile stretch of none navigable canal in the 1970’s. 30 miles of margins containing very few carp was a daunting prospect but aroused my determination to the point of obsession. Initially I spent a few hours walking the banks looking for carp, but the majority of my time was spent behind rods as I thought I should maximise fishing time. 3 years & hundreds of fishing hours later not a single carp had graced my net.

The next close season I walked the banks at least three times a week becoming more observant with every visit.

The water was very clear, largely due to the thick fifteen-foot-wide bank of lesser yellow waterlilies that ran continuously along both margins leaving a clear channel of about twenty-feet-wide in the middle. Extensive plumbing indicated the depth to be a consistent four feet in both margins shelving down to a nine feet channel in the middle. The north bank was thick with trees that overhung the water, heavy undergrowth made it difficult to penetrate. Much of the north bank was private (red rag to a bull) no fishing was allowed on that side of the canal.  To the south it was open fields. Pleasure & match fishing pressure in the summer was high but I never knew of any other carp anglers at that time.

After several visits to various areas I gradually began to realise that most of the carp that I saw frequented the more remote areas away from the roads and bridges. As a result, I narrowed my visits down to the middle area of a section with close on three miles between bridges. This enabled me to spend more time scanning the water on each visit.

Polaroid glasses & a sun shade were essential bits of kit enabling better vision below the surface. Apart from physically seeing fish, the lilies became one of my best friends for giving away the carps presents. This led me to purchase a decent set of binoculars with a zoom so that I could scan the private bank opposite for signs of movement. With the aid of the bins I soon established the majority of the fish were the north side, particularly under the trees and bushes.

The next breakthrough was to throw caution to the wind and spend some time on the private bank where I could get close up and personal. After spending a few visits I soon learned that absolute stealth was crucial as was drab, dark clothing. Being able to penetrate thick brambles and climb trees was also necessary. The numbers of carp seen during every visit increased and it became apparent that in the main the same fish were often seen in the same areas.

By the time the end of the close season was approaching I could pretty much predict were the carp would be. Wind seemed to have virtually no effect on these canal carp but the morning to midday sun would often see them basking under the lilies. Sometimes only the slightest flicker of a Lillie leaf would portray the presents of one gently sucking snails from beneath. I also observed them grubbing in the silt, which was virtually all the bottom was made up of. Sometimes sheets of fizzing bubbles came up but other times they appeared to be grubbing in a similar way but not a sign of a bubble. I was also seeing other species and to some degree I could differentiate their signs from the carp..

My next breakthrough was to start watching the carp’s reaction to bait which resulted in some interesting discoveries. Firstly on the surface with bread which they did take with some confidence but masses of silver fish & lots of small pike spoilt that idea. I had just learned to make PYM floater cake which was much tougher. By the time a few loaves worth of one inch cubes had been put in over a few days the carp started to take an interest. Then one evening a most bizarre thing happened, a few slurps in the lilies surrounded by white frothy bubbles looked and sounded different. The first of the culprit I saw was a greyhound like head with a long trailing grey body taking floater with gay abandon, in no time at all every bit had been taken by eels coming up to the surface in seven foot of water.

The next trial was bottom baits; my choice was broad beans so as to hopefully avoid the eels. Beans were introduced to areas where I knew the carp fed and I could see the bottom. Carp and tench fed on them confidently from the off, it was so interesting to see how the tench would come in to be pushed out by the carp. Next was to thread a couple of beans on a knotted length of line tied to a stone. I made dozens of these and introduced them into the feeding areas along with a good scattering of free samples. The idea being to observe how the carp reacted to bait that was attached to line. Also, if they got used to it, they might be less cautious when a hook was involved. It certainly didn’t seem to deter the tench at all; they would just dive in and take them with abandon. Carp however were far more suspicious stopping, fins flicking, backing off and slowly leaving the area. A few minutes later they would come back, pick up a few free offerings but not the tethered ones. This happened over a few days until one sucked in one of the tethered bait, shook its head, reversed, striped it off the line, spat it out and then took it properly. Eventually the tethered baits were being taken with regularity and the close season was nearly over.

There is so much more to the evolving of my watercraft on the canal. It still took me a couple more years to accept that I could catch more carp with less rod hours by spending more time looking for and watching the carp. In fact, 1978 saw me spending 200 hours of preparation and observation time  but only 20 hours actual fishing for one single very special carp indeed.

The statistics for a decade pursuing the canal carp are as follows:
Hours of observation: – 1305.
Hours actually fishing: – 2227.
Carp caught: – 25

Three top tips:
Spend as much time as possible walking, creeping, climbing trees and observing all that is going on in and around your chosen water.
Be stealthy in your approach to your swim, your bait application and your fishing.
Get out of the bivvy at first light and have a spare baited rod ready to cast to a moving fish.

Always carry Polaroid glasses, sun shade or peaked cap and decent binoculars.

A wise man once said:
If you are told you could forget.
If you are shown you might remember.
If you DO IT you know.

So just get out there and actually do it.







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