The Steve Gardener session

This final part looks at bites in a more realistic way, and what we can learn from them. I had spent a day with Steve, at Sumners Ponds mixed fishery in Southern England, where I'd asked him to target different species, using different feeding styles. This particular venue had been selected because of the variety of fish present. Skimmers and roach are mainstays of catches throughout the colder months, but there are also plenty of bigger carp present, along with some crucians. I wanted Steve to fish several lines and target different species using a variety of baits. The idea was to look at the types of bites he was getting and then discuss the striking and timing issues which arose from them. To do this he set up four different lines as follows:

A roach line:

Steve noticed that roach could often be caught closer in than skimmers and carp during spring so he decided to loose-feed casters and target them at around 5 metres to his left. This was a comfortable distance for feeding casters by hand and he could keep this line going all through the session.
Depth: 1.5 metres
Float: 4x12 prototype, based on inline Milo Oxon float, 1.2mm short hollow bristle, carbon stem.
Hook: Gamma Black, size 18 to 0.08mm Milo Ghost
Mainline: 0.12mm Milo Ghost.
Loose feeding caster by hand over a 5 metre line.Loose feeding caster by hand over a 5 metre line.... skimmer line:

Steve chose to fish for skimmers at 11.5 metres and slightly to his right. This was because as he plumbed up he found an slightly deeper 'groove' straight in front of him and didn't want to feed into it. “These grooves on the bottom are caused by ice breakers” he said, “because during winter many of our fisheries are still open for matches, even when ice forms, so the anglers use heavy ice-breakers (up to 5kgs) to clear a swim as far out as 14.5metres. And what these heavy weights do, is effectively cut-out channels back towards the bank!” Therefore Steve elected to fish over a flatter part of the swim, just to his right. He planned to feed this line with fishmeal groundbait and a mixture of micro and 4mm pellets then fish pellet and maggot over the top.
Depth: 1.8 metres
Float: 4x14 prototype float as above. Same hooklength and hook as above
Mainline: 0.12mm Milo Ghost.

... carp line:
The best way to target carp on these commercial fisheries, when the water is still cold, is to feed a few grains of corn out on their own and fish a single grain right on top of it. Steve elected to fish this line at 13 metres to his left, in line with a post on the far bank so that he could line up his feeding and rig perfectly each time.
Depth: 1.8 metres
Float: Milo prototype in line float with 2.00mm short hollow bristle
Hook: Gamma Power size 14.
Mainline/hooklength: 0.12mm Milo Ghost

Finely chopped worm pieces would not over-feed the fish.Finely chopped worm pieces would not over-feed the fish....and a chop worm line:
I had also asked Steve to fish with worm for part of the session, just to see what the reaction he got. He didn't feed this line at the beginning, but once he got into a catching rhythm, and knew that fish were responding in his peg, he put some worms out at 11.5 metre to his left, along with some fishmeal groundbait. He then fished small worm sections slightly overdepth on this line.
Depth: 1.75 metres
Float and hook – same as for skimmers

Note: In keeping with many commercial fisheries in the UK, Sumners Ponds operate a strict barbless hook policy.

Our Panel's View
Looking at Steve’s float selection for this venue, we can see that he is using floats with modified short hollow bristles, for all his rigs. This goes back to a fundamental belief of his that if you want to read bites correctly, even for larger fish like carp, you need to shot floats right down as low as you can. Hollow bristles have the buoyancy needed to be shotted down quite easily, whilst still being large enough to remain visible. Shotting a bristle down to a pimple, emphasises any movement on the float, so tiny dips and lifts become much more obvious. Steve modify's many of his floats this way for most of his fishing in the UK.

Milo has exactly the same opinion as Steve and fishes with 90% hollow bristles these days. Diego, on the other hand, is not a hollow bristle 'fan', except for carp floats. Most of his canal and lake rigs have plastic or fibre bristles and are set relatively low for fishing, because it's simply not possible to shot these bristles down as far as hollows, because they are much too sensitive and they would be impossible to see (a No.13 shot will sink at least a centimetre of a plastic/fibre bristle!). There are a couple of reasons why French anglers, as yet, seem reluctant to converted to hollow bristles in the way that English and Italian anglers have. First is due to bloodworm fishing. Bloodworm is still the No.1 hookbait in France, whilst Milo spends most of his year at home fishing maggot and worm sections. Bloodworm, being a much lighter bait, allows fish seem to suck it in more confidently than the slightly heavier and bigger baits that Milo uses. In fact, the remaining 10% of Milo's floats use fibre bristles as they are mainly for bloodworm fishing!

Then there are the species of fish each angler is targeting. Diego's main targets tend to be smaller roach, perch and skimmers, while Milo fishes a lot for carassio and carp and, as we have already mentioned, these are notoriously finicky feeders. Steve's focusses on just about anything that swims, from small roach to double-figure carp, more in keeping with Milo. Finally there is angling pressure. Steve and Milo fish waters that are placed under a much more pressure than the canal and river networks of France. All fish become cautious when placed under angling pressure, carp especially learn fast and the idea that they are big clumsy fish is far from the truth. Milo and Steve dot hollow bristles right down, even for carp fishing, because they know that many anglers do not even see when carp have picked up and rejected a bait. Nevertheless, the hollow bristle revolution is gradually spreading to France. There are more floats available now with hollow bristles and as anglers start experimenting with 'hollows', they will find the readability of bites will greatly increase... even when using bloodworm!

Just some of Steve's hollow bristle float collection, both long and short tipped.Just some of Steve's hollow bristle float collection, both long and short tipped.

The short hollow bristle trend
Steve was fishing with some new prototype Milo floats which he was testing and these had slightly shorter hollow bristles than previous models. This is a trend we are seeing more and more. The best example is the latest cult carassio-type float to come out in the UK. The KC Carpa F1 float (right) is a wire stemmed pencil float with a very short hollow bristle, which is incredibly easy to shot right down. I've tried these out myself and were impressed with just how easy they are to dot right down and how quickly they sit right in the water. Expect to see much shorter hollow bristled floats appear over the next year or two, as this trend is, I think, here to stay!


Bites, feeding and fishing
The best way to describe what happened is to look at each line in turn, then explain how the bites progressed and what we learnt.

The roach line
Steve had chosen to fish this shorter line so that he could feed by hand throughout the session whilst fishing the longer lines. He chose to feed it with caster, even trying some hemp and fishmeal groundbait, to try and fix the fish on the bottom as the session progressed. What happened on this line proved very interesting.

First couple of hours
Our session started slowly on all lines, as it had been quite cold the night before, but the day was bright and clear, and fairly warm. Yet there were some bites to be had on the roach line but not over the feed itself. Steve explained that when he starts fishing for roach, he needs to find out where the fish are, because they sometimes back away from the feed. He had set up his roach rig with about 50cm of line between the float and pole tip and used this extra length to look for the fish as he lays the rig out with a tight line to the tip, so that it falls in a clean line, down and over the feed area. This tight line lets him follow the floats progress as it settles, allowing him to strike more directly at any little dip or hold up as the rig falls toward the bottom.

Several times Steve tried this procedure but couldn't get any indications or bites, as the roach were seemingly hanging back away from the feed. The only way he could get a bite was to lay the rig out in a tight line, beyond the feed, then let it fall back towards his feeding zone. It was as if the roach were somehow scared to go right up to the feeding zone, but they would though take the odd particle, if it happened to fall in front of them!
Lay the rig beyond the pole tip so that it falls back into the feeding zone.Lay the rig beyond the pole tip so that it falls back into the feeding zone.
It was during this period that Steve experienced two types of indication (described below), even so, he was still missing a fair proportion of them.

  1. The hold-up. This is where the float stops falling smoothly because a fish has held the bait on the way down. Steve’s tight line meant these were easy to spot, but he missed a few bites, because when a fish holds up the bait there will always be a slight bow in the line, caused by the rest of the shot sinking faster. This 'bow' means that missed bites are aleays inevitable. Most of these hold ups came in the last 30cm of water.
  2. The pick up. This is where the roach follow the bait down and then lift it back up off the bottom. Steve didn't get the normal lift bite – as you would expect – but a pull under because the fish were lifting and then swimming away with the bait. However, the sign that the fish had lifted the bait up was apparent once they were hooked, as they tended to have the hook in their bottom lip.

Steve was striking classically and doing his best to hit every slight movement of the float, but I would have said that during this first part on the roach line, his miss-to-hit ratio was 40 to 60 in favour of a hit. He tried to feed some hemp and groundbait, to settle the fish over the feed better, but all that did was cause them to back off for several hours.

Our Panel's View
Fish behind the feed
This is a problem well known to our two international anglers. Milo talks about carassio fishing in Italy, where you actually feed short of your pole tip and then look for the fish behind the feed – always. He explained that they are very cautious fish and seem happy sitting back, picking up the odd particle here and there, but they rarely venture over the feed itself. Like Steve on his roach line, Milo preferss to use a very subtle shotting pattern, with the dropper shot some way from the hook. He also added that as their matches progress, carassio become much more cautious, prompting him to drop the hook size in order to keep a few bites coming. Even so, Italian anglers try to avoid fishing too far beyond the pole tip. Steve had found, during this part of the session, that if you fish beyond the pole tip, then missed bites did become a problem.

Diego has a slightly different approach and is in favour of looking around the swim when roach fishing. He believes that roach are often some distance away from the feed so he will use a longer line to go looking for them. I've watched Diego loose feeding pinkies over his main groundbait area, on several occassions, when he's been on one of his local canals. This is because he suspects that sometimes roach back off the main feed zone, which is probably as much to do with fear of exposure and danger than anything else. By loose feeding, over a much wider area, he finds the roach tend to stay around the swim without becoming too insecure.

Roach come good in the afternoon
Steve continued to feed his roach line, whilst working round the other swims he had set up. He's quite use to feeding and rotating several lines at once and he would go back over the roach line at intervals to see if the fish has settled over the feed. It took a while for the fish to finally settle over his line, but once they did he was able to lay the line in tight to the left of his pole tip so the rig fell straight into the feed zone. The difference in bites, once the fish were actually feeding proper, was astonishing.
Hooked perfectly, a sure sign of fish feeding well.Hooked perfectly, a sure sign of fish feeding well.
The firstly noticeable change was that he hardly missed any bites. He was also hooking every fish in the middle of the top lip, which was a sure sign that the fish were feeding properly. Bites were more positive too. No more annoying hold ups and 'iffy' indications as earlier, the float simply disappeared, allowing Steve to strike firmly and confidently. He was dropping a roach in the net almost every every put in!

The skimmer line
Some initial success
Steve started this line off with a ball of fishmeal groundbait and a handful of micro and 4mm. pellets. He then alternated between 4mm expander pellet and single red maggot on the hook. It took about 20 minutes for any sign of a bite and Steve missed the first two. These were fast bites, possibly caused by small roach. One thing that's happened to many fisheries in England, is that roach have now been switched onto pellets. It's becoming as universal a bait as maggot and is now truly capable of catching all species of fish!

However, after these first couple of bites things started to settle down and Steve experienced two types of bite. The first was a slight tremble on the float, followed by a slow sink. This was the same for either maggot or pellet, the main exception being that the fish on pellet were slightly bigger. He was striking at these slow and deliberate bites, using the lift method we talked about in Part 1, explaining, “I am striking less hard on this line, than the caster line, because the bites are slower and therefore don’t need hitting quite so hard”. The advantage of a dotted down bristle magnifies any movement down the line, whether it be a fish brushing against the line, or action around the hook! Steve was fishing with the bait 2cm on the bottom so a well-shotted bristle gave these bites a very positive look, which made them hard to miss. I don’t think the fish were moving very far with the bait, therefore had there been more bristle showing, any bite would not have appeared so positive.

The second type of bite Steve experienced were small lift indications. Now most of us think that lift bites are always caused by fish raising the bottom dropper shot, which is true in certain circumstances. For example, when fishing on a relatively steep sloping bottom where the fish are lifting the bait up and moving out into open water with it or, where you are fishing with a lot of line on the bottom. However, this was not the case here. The fish were not lifting the dropper shot at all, but were picking the bait up and slightly releasing the tension on the line, causing the finely shotted bristle to rise slightly. Steve was striking slightly slower at these, than if they were disappearing normally. He explained “I like to wait slightly longer with these lift bites, just to be sure they are not being caused by fish brushing the line, and see if the bristle stays up... if it does then I strike!

Our Panel's View
Lift bites and when to strike at them are a source of concern for many anglers. Milo and Diego both agree that with lift bites, you need to let them develop longer than normal. The more line you have on the bottom, the longer you should leave the lift to develop. This, on the face of it, seems strange? Surely if a fish lifts up a bait, sufficiently enough to register movement on the float, then the fish has the bait in his mouth, much the same way as if he had moved and pulled the float under. Therefore why wait? Even so, both agree that the problem with lift bites is you cannot be certain that you are in direct contact with the hook. Hence the need to wait a bit longer to be sure the fish has taken the bait properly before striking. In the case of skimmers, Diego often waits until he sees the whole bristle – sometimes down to the body – being properly lifted before striking. This usually happens when there is a lot of line on the bottoms. Lift bites are the product of a dual indication. First there is the reduction of tension on the line, which was what Steve struck at, when the bristle raised slightly by 4 or 5mm. Then there is the lifting of the dropper shot, which causes the bristle to rise.

Laying in hollow bristled floats
Many anglers struggle to get a hollow-bristled float to sit perfectly in the water. What they normally do is lift and drop the float a couple of times to get the bristle sitting upright, but this slows you down. If the fish are feeding in your peg, then 'jigging' the bait up and down may cause the fish to back off your hookbait for a while. Steve has an excellent way of laying the rig in, which results in the bristle sitting perfectly every time.

  • Lay out your rig to one side – right or left – but with the bulk shot being placed over where you want to fish
  • Now fold the top part of the rig, back over where you placed the bulk shot (a bit like folding over a sheet)
  • Let the rig settle.

The bulk shot should fall straight down and settle quicker than if it was left to fall in a natural arc. Once you stop the rig falling in an arc and get the bulk going straight down, it avoids the element of surface tension, that can cause hollow bristles to sit up, particularly on carbon-stemmed floats!

Topping-up issues
It doesn't look that much feed, but it had a adverse effect on Steve's skimmer line!It doesn't look that much feed, but it had a adverse effect on Steve's skimmer line!Steve was hitting about 90% of the bites on the skimmer line, during the first part of the session. However, problems started when the bites began to fade away, causing him to feel need to re-feed. But topping up with what seemed like a very small amount of feed – a nugget of groundbait and a good pinch of pellets – actually caused some problems... attracting TOO MANY fish into the swim! Luckily, Steve had several lines he was fishing during our session, so was able to manage his topping-up in an interesting way.

One advantage of fishing several lines is that once you have fed one line, you can leave it to settle, while you explore another. What seems to happen is that those fish who are immediately pulled in over the top-up feed, either become full up or disinterested, then drift away, leaving fewer fish in the swim looking for the remaining feed.

It was hard to imagine that such a small amount of feed could cause problems, but this is all part of weight-building, as Steve explained. “I missed a few bites during the session, yet I’ve put almost 10 kilos of fish in the net. On the other hand, I could have fed less, missed less bites and ultimately caught less fish.”

It simply confirms the paradox I mentioned at the end of Part 2, if you are feeding to build a weight, then missed bites are all part of the game. If Steve had not topped up his swim regularly, the fish would have slowly faded away and the time between bites – even missed ones – would have become greater and greater!

Our Panel's View
Too many fish in your swim can cause lightening bites as fish charge all over the feed, simply sucking and spitting out feed in a feeding-frenzy! (This also often happens after an initial balling-in). Many of these initial bites are so fast, most are missed completely, until the fish either get their fill and move off, or there is simply less feed available in the swim... or a bit of both! Diego recalls his worst experience in angling ever as being in Portugal with mullet when he fished a match where he must have had 200 seemingly unmissable bites from mullet, only to actually hook a dozen or so fish! He used lively-feed which he believes sent the mullet into a frenzy and led to many problems with line bites.

Diego also mentioned about when he fished in Spain for carp and he and his 'Gallic' team mates struggled to read the bites correctly, as there were simply so many fish in their swims! In the end they worked out that the best thing to do was not to strike at all, but wait until the elastic shot out and a fish hooked itself. This, in reality, actually takes some doing! It's very hard to simply sit still when a float goes under while every sense in your body's telling you to strike! Milo also talks about similar problems in Italy when carp fishing. The worst thing you can do is to pull too many fish into your swim, as you start getting fast bites, liners and foulhooked fish, which then become difficult to control as they plough around your swim. What this highlights is that we often generate our own problems through feeding errors. It might seem bizarre, but overfeeding and attracting too many fish into your swim can spell disaster!

The carp line
Steve approach on this line was simple. He would feed early, a few grains of corn at 13 metres, then bury a single grain of corn on the hook, to try attract an individual carp. What amazed me was that when he said he was feeding a few grains of corn, he REALLY mean it! Taking great care to feed these grains, Steve used his spray bar and placed the butt of his pole in his pole seat, before tipping the pole cup over his feeding spot. He wanted to be sure that the corn would land exactly where he was going to fish. The good news was that Steve had no quick bites or dips from small roach as he explained, “the last thing I want on my carp line is small fish!” Unfortunately there was no signs of life on this line!

After a couple of hours he decided to top up with a few more grains, but still there was no sign of life. Steve had his thick bristled carp float dotted right down and was sitting with his hands in the Power Strike position, ready to strike. Then it happened... the float dipped then slid under. After this second feeding, Steve finally had a fish on… a nice roach and that effectively was the end of any chance of a carp! This was obviously not going to be a day for the bigger fish!

The worm line and fishing overdepth
Steve fed the worm line after a couple of hours into our session, alternating between maggot and small worm-heads and caught some nice fish. It as obvious by then that the skimmers and roach were prepared to feed properly, so I asked Steve to try another line, using a bigger piece of worm, fished with much more line on the bottom, just to see how things differed. The first thing we noticed was that bites took longer to develop than the other skimmer line, which had only 2cm of line laying on. I needed to establish whether these slower bites were due to less fish feeding over his chopped worm or because he was fishing with more line on the bottom. To double check this theory, I asked Steve to fish overdepth in another swim, where he was catching well at the time, and compare what happened.

Steve had been laying in his rig, as described above, and was getting bites within 15 or 30 seconds with just 2cm on the deck. He would first get a tremble of the bristle, then the float would slide away. Sure, he missed a couple of these bites, but he didn't have to wait long for the next one! Once Steve added an extra 5cm of depth, it all changed. He was having to wait a minute or more longer for a bite. So why did bites take much longer to register when laying on an extra 5cm, compared to when he had just 2cm? This is a good question and one to which we may never fully know the answer, without underwater filming, but I suspect there are two likely reasons:

  1. First, it is probable that several fish had lifted up the bait and rejected it before one finally took it right in. This is a reasonable explanation and one that probably had happened several times before. In fact there was one crucian carp that Steve caught on the worm previously that was actually hooked on the OUTSIDE of its mouth. This, it seemed, had been foulhooked as it spit the bait back out!
  2. It's also probable that the fish were not moving very far with the bait, once they had taken it. It is equally possible that the bait had been taken by just one fish, who had not moved far enough for the bite to register, due to that 7 or 8cm of line on the bottom, therefore the bites were slow in showing because a fish probably had the bait in its mouths for some.

Even so, the end result is likely to be a combination of both these factors. Once Steve returned to just fishing just on the bottom (2cm), bites became much quicker.

All that fishing maggot overdepth confirmed, was that fish needed a disgorger to remove the bait!All that fishing maggot overdepth confirmed, was that fish needed a disgorger to remove the bait!Another thing I noticed was that when Steve tried maggot overdepth, he ended up having to use a disgorger on most of the fish, as they were hooked deeply. Yet the fish he hooked on a worm were all lip-hooked! This shows that laying on can make sense with bigger baits, like the worm sections. It allows the fish time to get the bait in their mouths without you striking it away too fast. But with smaller baits there seemed nothing to be gained from laying on, even for skimmers. The bites were slower and the fish hooked deeper so they took more time to unhook. There's also a case for assuming that a smaller bait would be taken more readily, as opposed to something larger, which required more 'chewing'! Another relevant issue would be the size of fish present, as these would have a bearing on how easily/quickly they would manage to take different size baits... Therefore there's much 'food-for-thought' here! Nevertheless, it must be said that there was not much drift during our session and, to be fair, if Steve was laying on hard to hold the bait, things may well have been different.

Our Panel's View
Milo is not keen on fishing with too much line on the bottom, even for bigger fish like some species of Italian catfish. He trys to fish with as little line laying on the bottom as he can get away because he confirms our findings that, “if you lay on too hard, they just take the bait right down and you loose time using a disgorger”. The same goes for bream/skimmers as these are now becoming an important target on some Northern Italian venues. (Eds. Note: How you set your rig overdepth could prove an important factor during this year World Champs on the Ostellato Canal in Northern Italy).

Diego is also an angler who prefers to fish with less line on the bottom than many might imagine... one example being lollipop fishing. Diego is one of the most feared flat float angler in Europe, but his style is not always what it appears! He often chooses to fish with the pole under his elbow – in the classic striking position – and work the rig very slowly down his swim. I've watched him many years ago fish on the River Oise, in the middle of Compiegne, where he was slowly 'running'/'blocking' the rig down his swim with only the hook length on the bottom. There was little flow that day and Diego was striking at any tiny dip or lift on the float. I watched him closely and only rarely did the float go under before he struck. Fishing with too much line on the bottom would have made recognisinging bites almost impossible, a mistake may anglers make when running a rig through. By having too much line on the bottom you limit the number of bites you are able to see. Obviously it depends, to some extent, on the bait you are using. For example, if you are fishing a big bait, then you can afford to leave more line on the deck because the fish will take longer to physically take it into their mouths and won’t be damaged so easily if it is picked up and dropped by several fish. But a maggot hookbait, or a couple of bloodworm, should be only fished overdepth as necessary, in order to keep the bait perfect... and no more than that.

10 ways to hit more bites

This has been as much a section about trying to understand how fish feed, as it is about striking. So to conclude I have made list of things we can all do to help us hit more bites:

  1. Fish with hollow bristled floats more often. These are the easiest to dot down and you will be able to see bites much clearer when you dot the float right down.
  2. Use thicker hollow bristles for bigger baits, but still dot them right down.
  3. Let lift bites develop. Give them a little longer before striking.
  4. Know your fish. Understanding how your target fish feed will help you adjust your strike to their particular type of bite. If you are after large-mouth fish, which attack rather than such in a bait (like perch or even catfish), give them a bit longer before striking. You need to let them take the bait to the back of their mouths to be sure of hooking them securely.
  5. If you are fishing beyond your pole tip keep a tight line to your float as it settles, so that it shows up any hold-up or pick-up bites.
  6. Try to fish several lines, so that you can feed one and rest it, while still being able to fish others. This should avoid missing those annoyingly fast bites caused by too many fish coming into the swim directly after re-feeding.
  7. Do not lay too much line on the bottom, you will simply not see some of the bites. Fish may also be deeply hooked, which will slow you down, as well as not being good for the fish!
  8. Try to match your striking to the bites you are getting. If the bites are slow and positive, then you don’t need to strike fast and hard. Just use the Lift strike and they should be hooked every time. Flashy, faster bites will need a more reactive strike, so here the Classic strike is more suitable.
  9. Look at where you hook a fish to work out what is happening below. The ideal place is the middle of the top lip.
  10. Do not get frustrated by missed bites! You need to miss some, otherwise you won't put together a decent weight. Remember the 'paradox of bites'... but try not to miss too many!
AND finally, and perhaps most importantly, it's more likely to be your feeding approach that causes you to miss bites, rather than any problem with your striking technique. So stay calm and try to solve that issue first. Correct feeding usually sorts out the problem!