Topping Up

If you read the angling press today, you could be forgiven for thinking that many of our top anglers relied purely on the pole cup to top-up their swims... well, think again! Topping-up by hand may be viewed by some as an insignificant part of one of angling's forgotten techniques', but not in France. In fact, it's an area of angling skill where French anglers excel and who are reputed to be amongst the best in the world! In order to expand and enlighten you all in the intricate, yet simple technique of hand topping-up, we've called once more on the expertise of one of Frances' finest technicians, Alain Dewimille. A superb exponent of feeding by hand, his recent article on 'Balling In', proved a valuable insight into a much over-looked subject... this article will prove no different.

Alain has a immense reputation on roach venues in Northern France because of his speed, accuracy and fluency, once on fish. I met up with him on the banks of the River Sambre in the picturesque village of Aymeries, just south of the historic WWI battlefield of Mons in Northern France, not far from the Belgian border. Alain arrived in top form from a recent Sensas Challenge match and spent the afternoon running through every aspect of top-up feeding. All you now have to do, is sit back and learn from one of the absolute masters of feeding by hand.

What are the advantages of top-up feeding by hand?
I asked Alain what he felt were the main advantages of topping up by hand and his response was fascinating, as he approached them purely from the point of view of holding fish and encouraging them to feed.
“Feeding by hand has several advantages. Fish are naturally curious and the noise you get from regular top-up feeding will often provoke bites. It's often the best way to hold fish when they are really feeding well. Also, it allows you to top-up your swim easier and more often than you could with a pole cup. Once fish become use to the regularity of feeding, they tend to wait for the balls to fall, which in turn generates confident competition amongst themselves as they go for each ball, which can often be the secret to putting together a big weight.”

This can be broken down more thoroughly into an expanded list:
  1. Saves time: When you feed by hand you do not have to stop fishing
  2. Frequency of feeding: Related to this is the notion of holding fish by feeding perhaps a ball every cast. If you try to do this via a cup, for example a fish, then cup in, then a fish... it becomes far too slow and you end up spending a good proportion of your time shipping the pole cup in and out, rather than physically trying to catch fish
  3. Noise: The regular introduction of top-up balls are one of the key factors in drawing and holding fish in your swim, particularly on larger venues like rivers and large navigable canals, where fish can easily drift away from you. It's therefore important to maintain a constant noise (dinner bell!) to hold them in place and stop them wandering too far
  4. Rhythm: Feeding by hand is much easier to keep going once you are on fish. By watching Alain feed and catch, you begin to understand what this notion of rhythm is all about. He incorporates feeding into his fishing so seamlessly, that you almost don’t notice it. If he gets a bite while he’s standing to feed, he will strike, feed the ball, then quietly sit down and play the fish into the bank. He makes it look effortless, but behind this style lies many hours of practise.
Setting up correctly for top-up feeding
If you are going to feed accurately and smoothly all day long, then you need to be set up correctly. Here are some main pointers to take into account:
  1. First, make sure your footplate is strong, level and not slippery! To feed correctly, you should be able to stand up on the footplate with complete confidence every time. If you have any doubts about the stability of your footplate then you simply will not feel confident enough to do this properly. Alain, like many anglers, has moved over to thicker 36mm legs (right) to ensure this stability
  2. Use a shallow bowl rather than a groundbait bucket for your top-up feed. You need to be able to reach the feed easily without having to 'hunt' around for it while you're fishing. The high sides of a bucket just make this action more awkward than it needs to be. The shallow bowl shown right, is a perfect example, which allows plenty of room for both mix and joker.
  3. Have your feed bowl on your RIGHT side (assuming you are right-handed), roughly level with your knees. This is so you can comfortably reach the bowl with one hand and form a top-up ball without having to stretch and distrub your fishing rhythm
  4. Have a container of water near to hand as well. Alain is meticulous and very tidy when fishing and will quickly clean his hands after each top-up ball, just by rinsing his hand in the water. (right) It takes seconds and doesn't interfere with fishing. It also helps stop grit and dirt being transferred onto the pole, especially as you break down, but it's also there for a second reason. Alain will often add a splash of water to his top-up mix if it dries out, or if he wants to make a ball a bit heavier
  5. Have a towel handy and use it to dry your hands quickly afterwards. Alain uses one which can be tied around his waist, allowing him to dry his hands at any point.

The secret of good organisation is to have everything you need for feeding within easy reach. You will be going to go through the same series of movements every time you feed, which, during the course of a match, could be over a 100 times! Therefore everything has to be easy to get at... no bending down... no reaching... no straining. Look on it a bit like setting up a drum kit, where all the main drums are set at the same distance from the drummers hand so that he can run across the drums without straining his position. The same is true of the things you need for feeding, the groundbait bowl, the water for cleaning your hand and the towel, they all need to be within easy reach so you can use them without thinking or looking!

Organising the feed
Topping-up is all about bait management... judging how much feed the fish need to keep them interested without over-feeding them. You also have the noise attraction, of course, which helps hold them in the swim. But this attraction will only work over the long term if the fish find what they want to eat at the end of it. Too little feed and they will drift away, too much and they will be overfed and also move on. Here is how Alain organises his top-up feed so that he can adjust the amount of feed going in at any point during a session:
  • Place what you are using as top-up feed in your bowl/tray with no joker in it. Alain will often use the same groundbait base mix which he used for his initial feeding, but there are no hard and fast rules on this. However, we are not focusing on what feed's being used in this article, we're looking at how Alain feeds it. For our session he certainly used the same groundbait as he fed initially. Start with what you think will be enough feed for topping-up and nothing else
  • Separate the joker with your normal separator. Alain believes that separated joker is much easier to add when being mixed in your top-up feed as pure joker has a tendency to form neat balls, which can mean too much feed in some balls. An added danger when trying to squeeze a ball for feeding, is that you can have pockets of raw joker left in the ball which will not bind correctly and therefore will cause it to break open while being thrown
  • Alain lays all his separated joker to one side of his bowl/tray, on top of the groundbait.
  • What Alain DOES NOT do is mix the joker directly in with the groundbait at the start of a session. Joker sitting on top of the groundbait is protected by the separator and, unlike pinkies, has no desire to burrow into the groundbait, therefore it stays on top until Alain is ready to mix it in, a little at a time. The same principle would apply if he were feeding casters or chopped worms. These would, in fact, be kept in small bait boxes on the side of his bowl to be added as needed during the session.

Getting into a rhythm
Alain is superb to watch catching fish, he's so rhythmical once he gets going. Fish just seem to follow one another and you don't quite notice exactly what he's doing, because it all happens so quick and smooth. What I've tried to do is sit alongside Alain and physically break down, into a series of steps, exactly what he does and why. These steps may take a bit of explaining, but bear in mind that when you 'string' them together in real time, they only take him a few seconds to complete.

Step 1: Pole in stomach
As Alain is right-handed, he uses that to make and throw his feed balls. In order to free his right hand, he holds the pole in his left hand and places it on his stomach while still seated, directly after he's laid out his rig in the water. So, rig in water... pole into stomach... right hand becomes free to make a feed ball.

With or without a belly!
This particular way of holding a pole has been affectionately called 'a la brioche' (French slang for beer-belly). Brioche are sweet fattening breads, eaten during breakfast in France, but here refer to the size of some top anglers stomachs! I can remember Kevin Ashurst holding his pole in his large 'brioche' many years ago and I used to dream of having a stomach like that! The old poles they used then were heavy and the guys who had a bit of excess ballast in the stomach area were at a real advantage, because they could use that extra weight to counterbalance their poles better. Luckily, modern day poles are much lighter and stiffer than the ones Kevin used, so having a large 'brioche' is no longer an advantage! Fortunately, Alain is exceptionally fit and athletic and was quick to point out that my description of 'a la brioche' was somewhat inaccurate and could not be applied to anglers who were visibly 'sans brioche' (without a brioche!). These days I tend to have a bit more of a 'brioche' than Alain, but so far I've not managed to reach anywhere near the size of my hero Kevin!!!

Step 2: Making top-up balls
As Alains groundbait has no feed in it, he needs to mix in some joker first and then possibly add more water. If he needs to add any water, he'll simply dip his fingers into the container of water and splash it into a corner of the groundbait. What you DO NOT do, is add too much water at any one time. Then, from your joker reserve, take a small amount and spread it over that damp area. Adding the joker into the feed a little at a time, as and when required, is extremely important as it allows the joker to remain alive. If mixed in and left for too long, it will die due to the groundbaits salt content. By controlling the amount of joker you put in each ball of feed, you achieve a controlled bait management approach!

Step 3: Start shaping the ball

Gather up your combined joker and groundbait and squeeze it to form an oval shaped ball. Many anglers will feed a ball this shape, but Alain takes a extra care just to round the ball off a bit more, as he believes that the rounder balls fly through the air and sink better. With a little practise it is easy to get each ball the same size and shape, which is vital for accurate throwing.

The total time taken for these three steps should be no more than 10 seconds. Try it yourself ... lay out rig... pole in stomach... spread joker over groundbait... roll ball... and throw. Remember that for these first stages you are always sitting down and able to strike at a bite any time, simply by lifting the pole with your left or right hand.

The accuracy of Alains feeding was impressive too. I think this is because he makes the effort to stand up every time and have a good posture before throwing. Alain’s throwing technique is to keep his arm straight and apply a fairly short swing. These actions were different to the follow-through technique used when throwing the initial balls, as you may have noticed in the feature we did back in summer on Balling-In. This is because these top-up balls do not weigh the same and therefore don’t need the same power of follow through.

One last thing to note about Alain’s top-up ball throwing technique is that he releases the feed balls on a fairly low trajectory. It is perhaps only when you photograph the ball leaving an anglers hand that you realise this... the ball is thrown at the pole tip and released from the hand no higher that 4 o’clock! The fact that the balls are hard and well squeezed means that it's much easier to be accurate when throwing with a fairly low trajectory. It is also much quicker, as you throw the ball towards the pole tip, rather than up in the air. You don't have to think, or work out, where the ball is going, you just keep your eye on the float at the end of your pole and throw directly at the target.

Feeding strategies
There are two basic strategies of top-up feeding:
  1. One or two balls fed regularly
  2. A series of four or five balls fed and then the swim is left alone for a period.
Alain feeds in two different ways, depending on which strategy he adopts.

This is the more common strategy. By regularly I do not mean necessarily a ball every cast, it could be every second or third cast, but essentially you're throwing in one, or at most, two balls each time. We recap below, the Getting into a rhythm steps, detailed above, in a simple action list for your convenience:
  1. Keep the pole in your stomach secured by your left (or right) hand
  2. With your feed ball in your right hand stand up straight on your platform
  3. Aim at the end of your pole tip and throw. If you have a second ball made up repeat the action again
  4. Sit down again and wash hand
  5. Dry hand with on your towel
  6. Take pole butt and hold pole normally, ready to fish.

By breaking these actions down into a simple list, we can focus on each aspect of the procedure to complete the whole routine. Watching Alain fish, I also noticed that he never took his eyes off the float when feeding this way. Several times on the River Sambre, Alain got a bite just before feeding and as he was standing up each time, he simply lifted the pole... hooked the fish... fed the ball... sat down and landed the fish... a very smooth demonstration indeed!

Feeding with your good hand
Years ago, right-handed top internationals use to spend hours practising feeding with their left hands. I can remember Bob Nudd writing on this skill saying it was vital in order to fish the pole at the highest level. I asked Alain how he felt about this and whether he tried to adopt Bob's principle. "I am naturally right-handed and simply do not see how I could feed with my left hand at 11 or 13 metres, I just would not be accurate enough. On the other hand when fishing for bleak, I will feed with my left hand, because of the number of times you have to feed and the fact that the distances involved are much shorter." This was reassuring because trying to feed accurately with your left hand can be extremely difficult and frankly puts a lot of people off learning how to feed by hand. Alain’s brioche (without having a brioche, of course) technique is simple to master, while remaining accurate.
Feeding in bursts

When Alain decides to feed four or five balls at a time, he prefers to place the pole in his rests and feed the balls one after another, while standing up behind his box, rather like you would feed at the start... this is for two reasons:

  1. You achieve better accuracy when throwing without supporting the weight of a pole. Accuracy become less of an issue when feeding one or two balls regularly, as any slight deviation will be compensated on the next ball. It's the average area where the ball lands that's important this way, rather than each ball being spot on. When feeding 4 or 5 balls you need to be pretty sure that they are where you want them, otherwise you risk spreading the feed area out. Bear in mind that one ball going astray does less damage than say two or three!
  2. There is no time advantage to be gained from not placing the pole in the rests. Usually, when you feed four or five balls at one time, the fish are more likely to back away temporarily from the noise, therefore you are less likely to get a bite straight away! Also, if you have to bend down and feed four times with the pole stuck in your stomach, you’re not going to maintain any good throwing control, so it makes sense to place the pole in the rests for a couple of minutes and feed properly, then continue fishing after that.

Modifying a top-up mix
In general, the only modification that Alain makes to his mix is by adding more, or less, water to it or adjusting the amount of joker going into each ball, in response to the bites. He rarely modifies the groundbait itself, say by adding extra soil. Once he's started fishing with a mix, that generally is what he uses till the end. There is just one exception to the rule, and that is the addition of Tracix to the mix, in order to cloud up the swim, particularly if he's struggling towards the end of a match.

Mixing in Tracix
When adding Tracix to an already wet groundbait, you should be quite generous with the powder. Put some of your groundbait in a separate mixing bucket and sprinkle it with the Tracix. You might also need to add a splash of water, as the Tracix will dry it out a little. Mix in by hand then feed, and don't worry if it's not completely separated through the mix, you want it to break off and hang on the way down, rather than form a cloud off the bottom. If you want a long-acting, bottom leaking cloud, then the Tracix needs to be incorporated into the dry groundbait ingredients at the start of your mixing.

The two colours favoured by Alain are yellow and white, of which yellow is the most commonly used, as this creates a persistent cloud, not too dissimilar to what you get from a Tapis de Terre. This can sometimes be enough to encourage a few more fish to feed to give you those few extra valuable points in the net. White is Alain’s 'last throw of the dice' colour, and is what you would feed in the last 10 or 15 minutes of a match. in order to try and catch a bonus bream. The white stands out like milk in the water and may arouse the curiosity of a big fish, but it will almost definitely create panic for most small fish, so use it with extreme caution!

To be realistic, by the time you're reaching for Tracix, it will probably be too late for any last minute 'salvations', the damage will have been done and with it any match expectations! Remember, modifying a groundbait during fishing is a 'get out of jail' strategy, but one which could put a few vital extra grams in your net.... and, in the case of white tracix, give you a hypothetical chance of catching one big fish at least, right 'at the death'.

Thanks to Alain
We would like to thank Alain, once again, for his genuine openness when demonstrating his angling skills. He's allowed me to watch and break down exactly how he feeds, however, one thing is for sure, you cannot simply read this article then go out on the bank the next day and expect to produce the same results. You need to understand what's being said and how the whole process fits together, even down to the smallest detail like the shape of the feed balls. These are all small and simple, yet vital components in Alains approach. I hope this article helps you to understand and reassess your own feeding startegies, and further encourage you to practise a little more and improve them. As we've said many times before, what makes Alain and anglers like him so skillful, is not the secrets or tricks, but hard work and dedication!


Often, when it's hard, the fish may still want some top-up feed, but will not accept larger balls being thrown at them... this is especially true on canals. However, when you try to throw in small balls, accuracy and distribution can suffer because you simply can’t get the correct compression in a small ball that you would in a larger one. This is down to the structure of our hands and the fact that they cannot control the denseness of different sized balls because of their variation in shape. When you squeeze anything soft, the compression is chiefly governed by the size you are squeezing. For instance, the compacted pressure of a ball the size of a marble, will not be the same as that of a walnut sized top-up ball. The marble size ball will be too loose and therefore either break up in mid-air, or as it hits the surface, which may not be what you want!

There is also the noise factor to consider and the attraction of it hitting the surface regularly, which can have the same affect as a large ball. You need that distinct sound (plop!) as a hard ball hits the water to use this noise factor, but again it's difficult to squeeze a small ball hard enough.

There is however, a simple solution which Alain uses to get small balls squeezed to the correct compression. He takes a normal hand-sized top-up ball, and squeezes it hard in his hand, taking advantage of its size to compress it fully. He then splits the properly compressed ball in two, rounds it off and then feeds them. Simple when you know how!