To many, pellet fishing normally comes within the boundaries of spring and autumn and associated more commonly with carp fishing. However, there's a strong claim that it's equally effective during the depths of a frosty winter for many of the silver fish which share their habitat as well! But as with many things in angling, it's not always that straightforward. Turning up on the bank with an assortment of different flavoured and size pellets may suit many fisheries during peak periods, but in winter we need a more thoughtful approach. We all know that roach and perch tend to bite well during cold months, but that's with more natural baits. What we are looking for are those fish which can be targeted with pellet.
To illustrate this feature more effectively, I was joined at a fish-packed venue in Hampshire by Ian Dixon (known locally as Dicko!). We go back many years and I well remember meeting Ian as he entered the match fishing ranks back in the 80's. Since then he's progressed through the different levels of match fishing to enjoy the status of an A-listed angler... which few of us attain. Ian's served time with two of southern England's iconic match squads, Daiwa Dorking and PI Delcac, but now resides closer to home with the up-and-coming Milo Bordon team, so he's more than qualified to pass on his knowledge.
Throughout this article, we'll use our session with Ian to illustrate some of points when tackling winter pellet fishing. But always remember, these points are for guidance and may need to be adjusted according to your own area and circumstances.
Points to consider There are several important factors to consider before simply turning up at your local pond expecting great things...
Size and stocking levels
Size and stocking Perhaps the first thing you need to do before venturing out, is consider the size and stocking levels available at your chosen venue. By this I mean are there enough stocks (all species, not just carp) of varying sizes present. It's no good thinking that just because you have a good day in June, with your 6 and 8mm hookers over shedloads of 4mm feed pellet, that December to February will be the same! Many fisheries in the UK are well-stocked but it doesn't necessarily mean they have enough of the right species present to cover them when the going gets tough! What you need to remember is that during winter ALL fish metabolism's drop, in varying degrees, into a very low-feeding gear, so you'll find many of them switching off. That's OK if you've done your homework on the venue, because you'll know that there will be others still present capable of giving you a good day's sport.
Small fish are usually willing to feed during severe weather periods. It's a well known fact that even during the harshest weather, you will usually find the smaller fish willing to feed. This is probably down to their constant need to keep feeding in order to replace the energy lost as they search for food to keep them growing. This is in contrast to larger fish who seem to go into a more docile feeding trance, probably because they have more fat and muscle reserves! This is the first clue to a successful day on a hard morning, so don't set your sights on breaking personal bests... it simple won't happen. There are lots of bites to be had from those fish between a few ounces and a couple of pounds (100gr – 1kg). This should be more than enough to keep you busy on a cold and frosty day. After all, you don't want to sit there like some of our 'bivvey' brothers do, waiting for the alarm to go off. So ask yourself this question first, “do I want to go and catch some fish to keep warm and active?”
History: What a venue offers Over the course of a couple of weeks in January my aim was to visit two waters, both with an acknowledged pellet history. The first was MBK's Pump Station, which is situated alongside the busy A3 at Greatham, near Petersfield, Hampshire. From past experience, we knew the venue was teeming with many smaller species, as well as some much larger carp (10lb+/5kgs+). Matches can be won with 40lb plus, even after everyones been ice-breaking, as a recent post-Christmas match on the main lake showed. I weighed in a superb 19lb haul of skimmers, roach and a couple of 2lb bream... and finished nowhere! Dicko weighed in 28lb of skimmers and small 'puppy' carp to finish in 4th place! Most weights in the 30 plus turnout where taken on pellet, so we knew the bait functioned well in the cold! Previous events on the three-lake venue had produced similar results, so its selection was based on a well-documented history and offered us maximum opportunity for a good day's fishing.
What would the Spectacle Lake offer after our ice-clearing activities... With three lakes of differing characters, it afforded us the opportunity to move to another if one lake disappointed, especially in iced-up conditions. This was the case when we arrived at the Pump Station. Our first choice swim was on the Spectacle, an elongated piece of water running parallel to the A3 road and containing around 12 pegs. I must mention now that all three lakes on-site are as prolific as the next, but one factor seem to prove our downfall on our first choice... ice-breaking.
Because the lake was quite long and narrow, around 16-20 metres wide, and the fact that we were the only 'souls' there, our ice-cracking session seemed to have an adverse affect on us. When breaking ice under a normal match event, everyone is making the same sort of commotion and noise, but it would seem that because of our solitary presence, all the fish in the area moved to the farthest edges of the lake (we where approximately in the middle) once we started throwing in the ice-breaker. This is fine when you have plenty of time, because ultimately the fish will return.
...obviously not very much, as our move onto the Main Lake proved! Unfortunately time was something we had precious little of, due to the nature of having to produce an article before it got dark! So after and hour of nothing, we decide to move onto the Main lake behind us, some 20 metres away. I must add that this scenario was partially foreseen and I'd therefore managed to select a peg and cut a gap, some 40 minutes before I uprooted Ian and relocated him into it! Even though our ice-breaking activities on the Spectacle placed us behind schedule, we were optimistic our new position on the Main lake would produce results.
The reason I mention this is that it's all to do with the selected venue and what it may offer you. The end ultimately justifies the means, so if you are having a lean time in your first choice peg, always have a back-up Plan B ready! After all, you don't want to end up blanking, now do you? A small, but nevertheless relevant point to bear in mind if you go out on any practice or pleasure session.
The second venue we'd chosen, Willow Park near Aldershot, was regrettably closed for the duration of the mini ice-age that swept the south of England during January. We therefore had no choice but to re-visit the Pump Station in order to add a few final shots to the feature. Nevertheless, Ian was quite forthright about what we would have encountered at Willow, had we been able to go there. We will keep relating to this venue as we go through other relevant parts of this article.
Target species Your selected target species should always be realistic. Forget your double-figure carp, tench and bream, and try aiming for roach, skimmers, F1's and small carp. These are fish which should oblige, even when temperatures fall dramatically.
The Pump Station is solid with just about every conceivable species, with the exception of barbel, so I knew from experience that it held enough to form a target plan, which involved looking for skimmers of around 6-8ozs (150-250gr), roach to a pound (500gr) and some of those 'puppy' carp (500gr-1kg). Willow Park on the other hand was heavily stocked with F1's, bigger skimmers and carp. All good winter fish!
Rigs Not necessarily the clearest of markings, but at least Dicko knew which size was which!Ian applies a simple presentation rule to his rigs when he goes out in winter, as he does in summer... fish as light as possible, taking into account conditions and target species. His choice at the Pump Station was a hollow tipped KC Carpa F1, 4x14 pencil style float set to around six foot deep. The bulk was made up of four No.8 shot with two small No.11's spaced quite close below, some 22-24 inches (56-60cm) from a Tubertini 808 size 18 hook on an 8 inch Powerline 0.10mm hooklength. The two main No.11 droppers were spaced 6 inches and 8 inches down from the bulk. It's interesting that when I asked him if he ever dropped down to a smaller hook, he firmly replied “NO, never smaller, but I would increase the size if I started bumping-off fish”.
Elastics deserve some consideration during colder months, as they can often freeze up. Using special elastic lubricants, such as Slippery Eel , are a good way to solve this problem, but I heard of an equally good one while competing in our local Gold Valley Rushmoor league one Sunday. This 6-match series is packed with high-flyers and internationals, such as half the current Team England squad, ex-England team members and many A-listed anglers from the south. I was fortunate, or not as the case proved, to be pegged near to Darren Davis and Des Shipp on a freezing cold day during one round. I'd heard from Dicko, who was further down the lake, that Darren had used screen-wash from the car as his elastic lubricant and it was perfect in the conditions... I guess we learn something new every time we go out! PS: A special thanks to Des for cutting out my peg!!!
Having dealt with the first four issues, it now remained to get the most out of our bait. As I mentioned earlier, it's no good turning up with an assortment of varied pellets, both in size and flavour. Ian has a specific outlook when it comes to this...
Bait: There's pellets and then there's pellets! We mentioned earlier about which pellets are best suited to winter fishing. Well, the obvious point to always bear in mind is that drop in the fishes feeding metabolism. That doesn't mean to say that fish will not eat anything, on the contrary. What's actually needed is a balanced reduction and proportioned approach in what you offer them.
Hookers: Size can make a difference Under normal conditions, i.e. through spring, summer and autumn, we would normally use a hooker pellet anywhere between 6 to 11mm for most of our quarry. These are relative to plain coarse/match angling and obviously don't enter the bivvey-world were anything under 11mm is deemed loose feed!!!
In general, once cold weather hits, you can effectively ignore anything above 6mm, both in hooker and feed pellet form.
Although hooker pellet is available ready expanded, it tends to be more popular in its DIY form amongst many match anglers. This is because it's more controllable regarding the actual quantities and quality required. That's not to say that ready-made hookers aren't good, far from it. However, experienced match anglers demand something they can control and experiment with. Ian's pellet preparation is one which involves making the pellet into a 'semi-jellied' form, just tender enough for soft mouthed species to accept, like skimmers, yet good for the hook to hold on under false strikes. If the pellet's too hard, you risk limiting the catchable range of species, too soft and the pellet will fall off, no matter what species you're after! Experimenting with pumping and soaking yourself, will establish what consistency is best for you and your specific venue. Ian has a standard way of preparing these, which we show opposite.
Having already set our target species for the session as small skimmers, roach and carp, our chosen hooker was restricted to 4mm semi-jelly expanders. This choice came from an historical knowledge, that's to say Ian knew that they had been catching fish in previous matches on this lake. A simple yet effective logic, but one which some anglers overlook as being too obvious! Another factor is that with soft-mouthed species such as skimmers, it's important to retain the bait on the hook during missed bites for as long as possible, otherwise you are constantly re-baiting and thereby losing valuable time. Therefore, having the hooker slightly jellied was crucial because many bites from these aggravating fish can be often missed!
With the other well known pellet venue in the area, Willow Park, Dicko applies a different approach and uses 6mm expanders. For some reason, which Ian is at a loss to understand, ALL the fish seem to prefer these larger hookers rather than the smaller 4mm during winter. It's really does boil down to the species present and what they are use to. In this, Willow tends to be different from the Pump Station. Also, when skimmers become more of a nuisance because their persistent pecking at the expander causes missed bites, Ian swaps over to a banded 6mm hard pellet. Even then it's not always immune from their attentions. The good thing about the banded hooker, is that it will remain in place for much longer than a hooked expander, thereby offering more opportunity for one of the resident carp or F1's to take it. It's a point to bear in mind when smaller fish, such as skimmers, flood the area. Another advantage of a hard hooker is that carp tend to be more partial to them. Ian believes it's something to do with the fact that carp seem to like crunching things! It may also be related to their up-bringing... after all many of them were reared on hard pellets!
Colour An issue which perhaps is not that relevant during winter as it may be in summer. Even so, there are some venues which will respond to a different coloured pellet. There's a craze going around at present where some fisheries are going crazy on white hookers, why is still unclear. One would have thought that white would be too prominent and therefore create suspicion in the feeding area at such times. Yellow could seem a good choice as it would mimic the appearance of sweetcorn, a classic winter hookbait. Although, as far as I'm aware, yellow seems to be a more difficult colour to consistently achieve, as it's closely matched in the colour spectrum to the light brown standard colour of many natural pellets on the market. Ian uses neither colour during winter!
Flavouring Some will say that certain flavours can enhance the pellets you're fishing with, even in winter. Flavouring in winter has already been dealt in our A-Z of Paste Fishing, so we don't feel the need to add to what's already been documented on this relevant matter. Ian doesn't flavour his pellets during winter, preferring to keep them in their natural state.
Presentation Small amounts of feed are delivered accurately via a Toss-pot.Much is made of presentation in angling, with winter in particular requiring more careful thought and preparation. Because presentation becomes more acute during colder months, Ian's philosophy is that he requires the hooker to behave as natural as those he is loose feeding. This becomes apparent as you watch him fish. Filling a toss-pot with a few micros, he ships out and tips the contents into the 13m area. He then slowly sets the rigs over them, making sure that he keeps in contact with the bulk on its way down. In doing this he's then able to control the descent of the droppers and allow the hooker to fall as naturally as possible, rather than simply let it fall under the droppers weight.
As his loose feed's falling, Ian try's to imagine when they have nearly reached the bottom, say about a foot off. He will then raise the hooked pellet up to where he believes the loose feed to be and lets the hooker fall down freely amongst them. This often results in a bite when fish are around the area.
False indications or 'liners', are the cause of many missed bites and wasted time. Personally, I've not always found it that easy to distinguish a liner from that of a proper bite, but Ian applies the same method above of adjusting the rig and hooker. If the float wavers, or dips under slightly, he gently lifts the float out of the water and allows the hooker to fall back down under its own weight. I know it's difficult to do this when you think that there's a fish interested in your hooker, but if it's a proper bite, then you will usually find a fish hooked on the other end. If it's simply a liner, then by lifting the pellet up a few inches and easing it down, you will often induce a proper take from a curious fish, who perhaps was only passing through! I saw Ian convert many liners into hooked fish this way!
Even when times are quiet, by constantly lifting and dropping the bait you are copying the falling pellets that have and are being fed. In most cases, this action produced a bite for Ian, even when there seemed to be no fish present. Throughout the time that the rig's in the water, Ian was constantly raising the float up and allowing the pellet to fall back to the deck under its own weight, free from any dropper shot. Fishing with pellet doesn't mean you have to always keep it still, even though a static bait can sometimes work!
Just four of the many fish hooked in the top lip, a sure sign that Dicko had the depth right! Depth also is an important aspect of presenting the pellet. Dicko stresses that it's important to find the depth the fish want to feed at. During our session, he believed that they didn't want it up in the water, or laying overdepth in the conditions. So, having found 'dead' depth, Ian set the float accordingly and confirmation that this was correct was when fish came back with the hook firmly embedded in the top lip. This told him that they were feeding confidently at this level and in the environment that he'd created. I can vouch that this happened on every occasion Dicko caught!!!
TOP TIP: When you are fishing in such extreme conditions, it's important to keep all your actions smooth, like when shipping out feed and shipping back hooked fish. In these circumstances, TWO pole rollers are a definite advantage!Feeding This is where many come to grief... feeding during winter. I acknowledge that this area of winter pellet fishing will be the most difficult for many to handle and, as an acknowledgment of its importance, we give special attention to this final section.
Dicko's bait tray may seem to have a lot of pellets on it, but he'll always have more than is necessary because he knows what he's doing! If your trying winter pellet fishing for the first time, you need to take a lot less! Lots of anglers, myself included, often lose our grip of the situation, especially when there's a seemingly endless supply of fish below, eager to take your bait. It's a big mistake to confuse this with thinking that the fish are starving and want more bait... they generally don't! Remember what we said about a fishes feeding metabolism, they don't gorge themselves in winter like they do in summer. You need to be ruthlessly mean with your quantities. If you're unsure, a good tip is to take half of what you think you'll need. Better to run out of bait after 4-5 hours than have the fish vanish after just ONE!
Feed pellets: Balance is the key! Like hookers, you need to be careful when choosing your feed pellet, whether Micros, 4mm or 6mm? But unlike hookers, what you choose to feed can have a greater impact on the day's outcome. It's also important to realise that the feed content in a pellet can be quite substantial, so if you are normally 'too-free' with your loose offerings, then you'll probably need to drastically rethink how you approach fishing in winter! We were well aware of this on our first session at the Pump Station and took account of it, as we describe below what happened and, ultimately, the outcome.
Arriving at a frozen and bleak landscape, devoid of human activity (no anglers!) is not everyone's ideal day out, but hardened match anglers tend to be a breed apart. Dicko is no exception and gladly swaps a comfy chair indoors, for a seatbox perched in the snow and the opportunity to catch some fish!
Having eventually moved from our initial planned location, Ian began to set up his kit from a shallower rig to one slightly deeper (about an extra foot) and proceeded to put some feed in via his 'toss-pot'. This is the crucial stage at which many of us falter. Ian however is well aware of the golden rule...'you can't take it out once you've put it in', and feeds just half a dozen small micros at 13 metres.
The surprise of the session. Who said you can't use groundbait in icey conditions!!!One surprise was that he also cupped in a small ball of groundbait, sprinkled with a few micros, a metre short of where he'd fed his pellets! This raised the obvious question, why use groundbait in winter? Again his reasoning was logical and based on previous knowledge. “I know that there are many skimmers in this lake, because the match I attended several weeks ago, in similar conditions, produced quite a few fish for me when I tried groundbait”, he said adding, “so I'm quite confident that this extra line will either pull skimmers away from my pellet line, leaving that free for better fish, or the groundbait will offer me another skimmer alternative should the pellet line fail.”
Two types of toss-pots. Above: The Fox Cup and below, Vespe's Aero Speed Cup system which is very light and doesn't damage the fragile pole tip when you attach it. He eventually settles the rig over the pellet line with one of his 4mm expanders, but keeps adding a pinch of around 4-8 micros every put-, via his toss-pot. After some 30 minutes Ian raises the float in a half-hearted attempt to connect with something. “Did you see that Dave?” he says. “NO” I replied, “I was looking elsewhere!” A few minutes passed before we both saw the float sink and the No.6 Vespe elastic came slowly out of the tip as Ian raised the pole, into what was a small roach. “That was quick, just 30 minutes!” I said. Normally you can expect to wait quite a while, after severe disruptions like ice-breaking, but on a venue where that's not been necessary, you may see action much sooner.
Dicko's first fish of the session... a small roach. Well at least we caught!
Continuing with his little and often feeding approach, Dicko starts to build up the swim, adding several roach and small skimmers of around 6-8ozs into the keepnet. It wasn't long before the elastic really did shoot out, indicating that something different had taken a fancy to the bait! Slowly guiding the pole back and through the ice-channel he'd cut out, Ian eventually brought the fish, a nice mirror of around a kilo, to the net. Things were looking up and Ian was questioning whether he could increase the feed to a harder 4mm unsoaked pellet, as carp seemed now to be showing interest. Ian's initial approach had been to feed just micros, which he's soaked previously, but the capture of this carp meant he was looking to 'up-the-stakes' and increase his catch.
A small skimmer is brought to the net during our second visit to the Pump Station's Main Lake. Although we only stayed for around 2 hours (the conditions were terrible), Dicko did catch about 4lb (2kgs) of fish, mainly skimmers.A few hard 4mm feed pellets seem to have done the trick as more carp start to come into the swim, as well as the skimmers.It seemed to work. Even the skimmers became quite happy with the change to a larger feed pellet. The swim had now come alive and Dicko was hitting just about everything. Even the GB line, which had not been fed since that initial ball, produced skimmers. Three more carp were added to the haul before we called it a day and weighed-up. The three hours we eventually managed to squeeze in, had seen just over 16lb caught. Not a bad return for venturing out during a 'mini' ice-age.
To soak or not to soak... that is the question! It's clearly worth mentioning that the reason for soaking the micros, as with any other size, is to increase their weight and in theory allow them to remain in position on the bottom more easily, as well as helping the breakdown process. It also allows you to squeeze them together to form a ball, which will sink quicker to the bottom, making a more compact feed area. However, this ploy may be only valid in times of undertow and limited fish activity. In particular, once fish activity increases as more fish enter the feed area, then the small and light micros could possibly take on the role of a 'dispersant', rather than an 'attractor', as fish move them around a wider area as they search for more free offerings. The idea, after all, is to keep them as close to where your hook bait is as possible! Soaked pellets also usually tend to be more preferable to the soft-mouthed skimmer... but not always!
Our first days catch shot show just what can be achieved if you approach winter pellet fishing correctly.Similar, but not quite! Willow Park, in its heyday, use to be caster and bloodworm dominated during winter, but times have changed and pellet rules, even in winter. Dicko is a regular competitor on many matches there and has a string of wins to confirm his ability. The venue has certain similarities with the Pump Station, in as much as it contains many annoying skimmers! Annoying, that is, if you're trying to catch weight-building F1's.
The procedure here is similar to the Pump Station, except that sizes are increased, in terms of both fish, hooker and feed. The feeding approach however remains the same, namely little and often and through a small clip-on pole pot, where micros are substituted for either soaked or unsoaked 4mm hard pellet. One important fact regarding what you feed, is what the venue actually allows! Certain commercial fisheries, like Willow Park and Tunnel Barn in Warwickshire, do not allow the loose feeding of expanders, so be aware of this when visiting unfamiliar venues.
TOP TIP: Vespe's Aero Cup system is ideal for feeding accurately in windy or poor conditions. It's light and there's THREE different size pots in each packet you buy.Similarity can breed success! Finally, a point to bear in mind is that you should always try and maintain the similarity of both hooker and feed pellets, as fish can become suspicious, during extreme weather, of anything that looks or feels different. Don't simply hook on a dark brown expander while you feed light brown hard pellets, try matching both pellets with the same manufacturer if possible.
There's one surprising tip relating to this, which Dicko swears comes from a higher source than him, and that's using a soaked HARD pellet on the hook, instead of an expander!!! Now this may seem unworkable to most people, as they would argue that you can't really hook a soaked hard pellet, so why not use a similar sized expander? But the word is YOU CAN!
In certain cases of extreme conditions, you may be faced with a situation when nothing you do will induce a bite. So try soaking your normal hard feed pellets the night before, then placing them in a sealed plastic bag, or container, and put them in the fridge overnight. By the morning you should have perfectly soaked feed pellet which you should be able to hook lightly! The trick is they MUST be left overnight in the fridge.... DO NOT USE THEM UNTIL THE FOLLOWING MORNING! Why the fridge? Dicko couldn't explain this, but was adamant that it definitely works. So when you find yourself struggling during a match, try using one of these pellets on the hook, rather than just feeding them, and then drop in another 3 or 4 of them via a toss-pot. Dicko's adamant that this will get you bites when nothing else will, because what you have on the hook is not similar, but EXACTLY what you're feeding... so worth a try then?
There will no doubt still be questions relating to our feature. It's important to realise that this article is meant as a platform, for all our visitors from the many countries around the world, to adapt and adjust to their own environment. It's all too easy to write a feature on catching loads of fish, the general angling publications are full of them. What they don't do is point you in the right direction, by looking behind the glossy catch shots and explaining all those tiny details which actually make the difference. Many anglers simply cannot understand why the media continue to show features like this, which imply we can all go out and do them at a moments notice. Angling's not like that and never was!
We hope once more, that MA.com has given you 'food for thought' and the basis for going out in extreme winter conditions and catching more fish on pellet. We acknowledge our feature may be somewhat irrelevant to our friends in Scandinavia and Russia... after all, THEY really know how to ice-fish!!!