Bait Checking - with Jason Johonnesson
There are two theories when it comes to baiting for carp. One is the "Water Fox" theory which states that carp are sly, finicky, and not easy to please. The other is the "Water Pig" theory which states that carp will eat anything in front of them. It has been my experience that both are true and there is a tactic to find out which carp you are dealing with.
In November of 2008 a German client of mine, Florian Laufer, introduced me to this very simple tactic. Once he captured a carp, and put it on the unhooking mat, he gave the fish a gentle squeeze just above its anal fin and the carp immediately excreted partially digested maize. I said "Wow! I didn't know you could do that." Although I found it very interesting, I had no need to keep doing this check to every fish we captured, because the fish were feeding like water pigs and during this session we caught more than 350 carp. Our bait was working fine, so there was no mystery as to what they were feeding on. Because of this, I forgot about this tactic for awhile.
In the spring of 2009 I was fishing the very same swim on Lake Fork. I approached this session as I usually do by baiting with particles and pellets. The surface action seemed to be immediate, but in truth the action had likely started before I arrived.
As night came the fish were going mad surfacing. However, they were not crashing like carp normally do. A carp will usually break the waters surface, turn on its side, and whip its tail upon reentry making the typical carp crashing noise. The crashing that I was hearing was nothing like this. It was more of a very fast surface break without the hard whip. In fact, if I weren't able to see the fish, I would have sworn it was a different species.
I expected a run at any moment, but I wasn't getting a single beep from the alarms. I began to get bored, and I started counting the crashes. The carp were crashing in this very weird way, more than twice a minute! Baffled, I went to sleep and didn't wake until the next morning. Disappointed that I was so well rested, I began to put my mind to work in an effort to solve this problem. Then, an alarm finally sounded and a fish was caught. It was small, so I quickly unhooked him and gently put him back in the water. Before the fish had left my sight a feeling of stupidity had overcome me. I remembered, at this moment, about Florian and the bait check tactic he had shown me. "I should have bait checked that fish!" I said to myself. Frustrated, I decided that I would not forget to do so a second time. The problem was that the second time wouldn't be until the very end of my session.
All day I watched the carp surface as if they were in some kind of race, and all I day I was angry with myself for not bait checking the single fish that I had caught. However, at the very end of my session, I did capture another common carp. I quickly performed a bait check and found out exactly what they were feeding on and it explained everything. They were feeding on insect larvae! This is why they were racing all over the water column and why they weren't very interested in my particles. This session the carp were acting as water foxes.
Now, armed with this knowledge, I decided to revisit my swim the following week. This time I was prepared with bait that was advertised to be "Successful when carp are feeding on insect larvae" and this time I figured I had the water fox's number. Although it had only been one week since my last visit to this swim, the fish were not surfacing like they were the weekend past. In fact, there was very little surface activity at all. I did manage to catch a single fish and, of course, I performed a bait check. Bloodworms! Tons and tons of bloodworms! There were so many bloodworms that many of them, not only hadn't been digested, but they were still alive and writhing! I was wishing, at this point, for maggot clips and night crawlers but, once again, it was too late to do anything about it. The session was over, and I had to leave. The water fox had bested me again.
My most recent water fox experience was in November of 2009. I was fishing Lake Austin during a time when the hydrilla was very thick. Knowing that the outer edge of the weedline is where the fish like to feed, confirmed by a lot of surface activity, I baited along this zone and placed 4 rods over a 100 yard strip. I placed an additional 2 rods well outside of my baited zone, in the river channel, hoping to catch fish traveling from point A to point B, as opposed to feeding along the weedline. Although the outer edge of the weedline is where the fish were showing, it was my perimeter rods that had most of the action. "Why would this be?" I was asking myself. "Ah ha, I must be dealing with water foxes once again." I answered myself. The first two fish I caught I put in the keepsack so that I could take pictures in the daylight. Upon taking them out of the keepsack I noticed masses of crushed mussels, crushed crawfish, and bloodworms that had collected in the bottom of my mesh. Only when the fish had their fill, and moved away to the river channel, did they take any interest in my particle bait. They were doing the usual fall feed up, in preparation for winter, trying to get as much of that nutritious protein as they could before the coming winter made it scarce. Once again I was unprepared with comparable bait and once again the water fox was getting the best of me.
There is a popular phrase used amongst bass anglers: "Match the hatch." No matter if bass are focused on shad or bluegill, there are lures that an angler can quickly switch to in order to mimic the look and action of each. With carp fishing this isn't so simple. It's not so easy to hair rig a crawfish because the lil mud buggers seem to get off the hair. I am still learning this game and I do not have the answers in this article. But, if you don't know what they are eating, then you are even more lost in the world of best guesses. Bait checking is a tactic that makes me a little wiser to the ‘ole water fox every time I seek him.