Alpine Giants | Tony Davies-Patrick
As the days shorten and the landscape becomes painted in layers of white frost, my mind reflects on a recent incredible summer/autumn journey in search of giants across the length and breadth of France. Not only did I eventually find them, it has also become one of my favourite-ever memories during more than five decades of global travels.
For the initial 2 weeks of the grand tour, I decided to leave all my fishing equipment locked inside a storage cabin. I packed just a bag of clothes, trekking boots, cameras, and a small mountain tent, and then drove east as dawn mist enveloped the valley of Aisne. This meant I would be very mobile, could move at short notice, and cover a far wider section of France than if I'd remained beside the same lake inside a bivvy for 2 weeks. Another big advantage was that it would provide a great chance to explore new waters, spend time locating swims, and actually spot fish. My idea was that I could return to the best places with my fishing equipment during a planned second tour of the regions.
The first region on my agenda was the low rolling mountains of Vosges, east of Epinal, and then on to the region of Jura. From the steep cliffs surrounding the lakes of Jura, I would cross the grand old River Rhone and head onwards into the wildest regions of the Alps. I spent several days trekking the high mountain wilderness, from hidden green valleys up to the rugged snow-lined peaks. The views were simply mind-blowing.
I finally took a physical rest from the high-altitude treks, and began to spend time exploring the Alpine lakes in search of future places to fish for giants. The massive 58,000 hectares of Lake Geneva stretches for 73km along the French and Swiss borders, and plunges in places to over 1,000ft deep. The awesome Lake Annecy (2,800 hectares) has spectacular backdrops, and the gin-clear water of the amazing Lake Bourget spreads across 4,450 hectares as it winds through 8km of forested slopes and rocky canyons. The turquoise waters of the famous carp-mecca Lake Aiguebelette is a stunning Alpine water spreading across 545 hectares.
I'd been to them all many times during the past decades, yet I was determined to visit them again during this trip, to absorb more knowledge for my quest. But there are hundreds of smaller glacial lakes, man-made reservoirs and gravel pits dotted like a Dalmatian throughout the regions of the Alps. I spent many days driving along snaking mountain roads and dusty tracks, just to explore as many of them as possible. My car and tyres took a beating, but the beating of my own heart was even stronger as I walked around these amazing waters. I longed to fish some of them, and I had a vision that soon my dreams of catching mountain giants would become a reality.
In late July, I returned to the high mountains. This time my car was packed to the brim with camera equipment and fishing gear. The previous scouting tour had helped me gather valuable information, and now I was ready to fish seriously for the monsters. My quest in search of giants during the following weeks were partly accompanied by friends, and other times it was a completely solo session. I enjoy the company, although I tend to fish better when I'm completely on my own.
The first water I decided to target was Lake Chamonix. It is an ancient glacial lake formed during the Ice Age, with average depths ranging from 10-20ft and 33ft at the deepest point. My friend, Roberto Carbone, drove from his home in Italy to join me during the first week. I got there early to provide a better chance off bagging a good swim prior to the arrival of any local weekend pleasure anglers. For years, this lake was put on the back burner, as I had so many other lakes on my agenda still to target. However, on that memorable day of summer 2016, when my car rolled down a dusty gravel track to look across a grassy meadow, my mind almost went into overdrive.
I stepped out of the car and my eyes scanned a scene that was simply jaw-dropping. Lush green lily beds spanned out from my feet, and clear water rippled across a place of ancient history. Forested foothills surrounded the lake, with a stunning backdrop of rocky mountains. White clouds rolled and buffeted against the high peaks to disperse like vapour into a blue void. Mountain ranges lined each horizon like the jagged teeth of a wolf. Far in the distance, wedged between two lofty crags, I could see the highest point in Europe: the majestic snow-capped Mont Blanc. For a few minutes, I just breathed in the atmosphere. There was something about this place that heightened my senses. I could literally feel the thousands of years spanning back in history, to when great glaciers carved it out of solid rock. A large island was formed at its western centre, and three seasonal streams had deposited a carpet of dark silt during hundreds of years of past floods.
It was now late in the evening, and I ignored a nagging lust to cast out a few rods, so instead simply laid out a bedchair and slept beneath the stars. Deep sleep was rudely broken at 4.00 a.m. by bright beams of light stroking across my eyelids. They emanated from the headlights of a black VW van bouncing across the grass towards me. Normally, when an unknown vehicle arrives in the middle of the night, it tends to put me on edge, because sometimes the passengers bring trouble, but when Roberto jumped out and gave me a welcoming hug, all the trepidation vanished. He immediately grabbed two beer bottles from the van, and we celebrated the start of a new session together. Two years had passed since we'd last met, so it was great to go over old times and catch up on missed news.
Eventually, Roberto suppressed a few yawns; he quickly erected a bivvy by torchlight and then jumped inside. A few minutes later he was snoring like an elephant. Other than Roberto's snoring, it was a quiet night and I didn't even hear a carp crash. The place where we slept was close to the main carp park, and I fancied finding a quieter swim, far from other anglers who might arrive during the weekend. I'd already had a tour of the southern section of the lake, mainly near the eastern stream inlet around a small second island, and along half-submerged bushes that fringed most of the northern bank.
Roberto and I jumped in a dinghy to search the complete lake. We eventually found a perfect place deep inside a forest, and far from the main access roads. It was a tranquil place hidden from prying eyes, yet it offered a wide variety of places to cast or place a rig. It also had the positive benefit of being much closer to the main island. The sun broke from behind the clouds and painted golden light across the mountains. We both already knew where we wanted to be, and so got down to work.
We pumped up the second dinghy, loaded them up with mountains of gear, and paddled towards the secluded place inside the southern forest. It was midweek and we were the only anglers on the lake. Once camp was set up, we decided to split the lake in half. Roberto chose to fish the right-hand side, which gave him many acres of open water to fish, including a 10-acre bay dotted with sunken trees in the margins. My left side was also filled with great options, including a huge wind-fallen tree in the near margins, plus the main island directly in front of me at 150m distance. I could see Roberto eyeing up the big island, and because I was in a good mood, I gave him the option of taking the eastern half. A few hours later we both settled back on our low chairs admiring the views, satisfied that all the rods were out and at last fishing.
During the next few days, Roberto lost a couple of fish. One was at long range, where a carp had picked up a tiger nut rig presented close to lilies growing in a small bay. The second take was again on tiger nuts, but this time next to a sunken tree only 50m along our own margins. He wasn’t alone in losing fish, because I also missed a dropback, and then hooked another on a double-boilie rig presented tight to some half-submerged branches near the apex of a peninsular. The carp was on for a short time, but unfortunately got behind a snag and neatly deposited the Size 2 hook on a small branch. How do they do that? It’s as if they've got a disgorger and a pair of hands instead of fins!
By the time the third night arrived, we were still moaning about our losses, when one of Roberto's alarms beeped three times as the indicator dropped a few inches and then rose again. He grabbed the rod just as the spool began spinning, and jumped inside the dinghy. He paddled quickly beneath the branches of an overhanging oak, until the dinghy came close to the big sunken tree in the margins. A short battle commenced in the darkness, and then I heard a loud splash followed by silence. Soon a torch drifted back beneath the trailing oak, and the dinghy slid to a stop between our two rod pods. My torch beam revealed a landing net draped over the edge, with a lump inside the net. I waded out to help him carry the net and lowered in onto the wet mat. He unfurled the mesh and inside was the first fish of the session. Not a monster, but still a beautiful mirror carp which put a big smile on Roberto's face. He didn't waste time, and immediately rowed the same tiger nut rig back into position. His reward was a second carp landed, this time a nice common.
The following evening, Roberto’s friend, Herve Texeira (the name stems from his Portuguese father) arrived at our swim for a chat, and joined us in scoffing down a hot Italian pasta meal cooked by Roberto. Suddenly, a Delkim burst into song and a big spool began spinning. Something had picked up two 25mm MTC Triple R Garlic boilies, presented close to the sunken trees lying in deep water next to the central margins of the island. I stood my ground for a minute, and placed solid pressure on the rod in an attempt to keep it out of the branches. Soon the fish turned towards us and swam into deep snag-free water. I stepped inside the dinghy, still holding the fully-bent rod, as Herve jumped in beside me and grabbed the oars. The carp put up a dramatic fight until we both let out a loud cheer when it eventually rolled in the landing net, and covered us in a sheet of spray. It was certainly not a giant, but the beautiful scaling of this fish made me very happy.
The time for Roberto to leave quickly arrived. He had some urgent work to finish at his plumbing business back in Italy. I was going to remain in the swim alone for a while longer. On hearing this news, Herve requested if he could take Roberto's place so we could fish together for a few days. I still didn't know him very well, and being a non-smoker, I wasn't sure if I could stand having him puffing reefers around me all day. However, our days together at Lake Parfam had showed me his warm-hearted nature and keenness as a carp angler, and this swayed me to agree. Herve always carries gear inside his large van, so he soon set up beside me with a rod pod and three rods.
That evening a series of flashes lit up in the distance. A storm slowly drifted over the mountains in front of us, as sheet lightning strobed across the clouds like a mad disco display. At regular intervals, bolts of jagged light stabbed at the high peaks and lit up the lake in shades of violet. Thunderclaps shook the ground beneath our feet and echoed across the Alps. A distant roar touched our senses and slowly grew louder and louder, until the black sky split open and dropped its heavy burden. It hit us like a tidal wave. Rain fell in sold sheets, pounding the dry earth into a heap of soft mud. Gradually, the thunder faded into the distance, but the rain remained firmly above our heads, pummelling the earth.
At dawn the rain finally stopped, and we both appeared sleepy-eyed from our respective shelters. My bivvy had kept me as dry as a bone, but the cheap camouflage umbrella that Herve used had leaked like a sieve. His sleeping bag looked like a wet flannel.
Shafts of sunlight began to lift moisture from the forests, to form banks of rolling mist that drifted across the lake. They arched upwards like waving cloaks until each one vaporised. The scene was mesmerising. Chamonix was just a sea of stunning vistas. It was creeping into my blood, and I was slowly falling in love with the place.
Except for the sound of a gas burner boiling water for our morning coffee, all was quiet, until I noticed my right-hand rod tip beginning to tap, which caused the Delkim to bleep and then warble as the big spool started to spin. The fish had picked up a double 30mm boilie rig that I'd recently moved to a new long-distance spot in the margins of a peninsular on the far bank. I'd rowed a dinghy out to the far shoreline to search the area, and had chosen to lower the baited rig in 18ft-deep water next to a large half-submerged bush, before showering handfuls of Garlic boilies over the top.
Due to my rig being so tight to the sunken branches of the bush, as soon as I struck into the fish, I began walking back several paces with the rod locked over in its full battle curve, and then maintained pressure. The flexed carbon and taut braid did its job. With zero stretch in the line and a strong hook, the fish was going nowhere. I could feel the throbbing sensations transmitted down the line as the carp shook its head several times, trying to shed the hook. Some harsh bangs vibrated through the cork handle beneath my elbow as it attempted to swim inside the maze of branches. It was stalemate for several seconds, and then the pressure took its toll and the rod tip began to gradually ease off as the carp gave up its power struggle, and decided to bolt over the ledge to enter even deeper water.
Herve stood beside my dinghy, ready to jump inside, but this time I asked him to remain on the bank. I waded out, and climbed on-board for a solo battle. Once inside, I began pumping faster on the reel, maintaining a taut line at all times, and using the weight of the fish as an anchor to pull against. The lightweight dinghy skimmed across the surface at a rate of knots, until I caught up with the fish and settled down to enjoy the fight. And what a battle it was. The carp just didn't want to give up and kept hugging the bottom, kicking up layers of swirling silt. Suddenly, a mass of bubbles rose from the depths and began to fizz and pop on the surface, as it rose like a submarine and surfaced next to my landing net. In she went at the first attempt, and I brought the mesh closer to the bow to peer inside. It looked to have a slight kink in its back, but what an absolute stonker of a common it was. It was built like a bulldozer, with broad shoulders and muscular flanks.
Things went quiet for the rest of the session, and Herve had no takes at all. It reaffirmed to me just how difficult it can sometimes be at these Alpine lakes. He had planned to take his family to Switzerland for a long weekend break to visit his wife's parents, so he began packing up his gear. Even though he'd not had a take, he said how much he had enjoyed our few days together, and we planned to join up again in the future.
I spent a few days driving around the mountains to view lakes in a distant valley, only to return to Chamonix for an extra 2 nights’ fishing solo. This time I decided to set up my bivvy in a narrow gap between trees on the point of the main bay in front of the island. I still intended to fish towards the exact same places when fishing the forest swim, but this position was much closer to the main island.
I reeled in one of the rods and noticed some scratches, as well as flat-sided scrapes, on the baits. I had been wrapping the 25mm Garlic boilies in plastic protection against the crayfish, and the harder 30mm Globetrotter boilies tended to withstand them without protection, but the flat sides told me that the dreaded American bullhead catfish was the culprit. I decided to wrap the two 30mm boilies in Fox Heavy Armour plastic netting. The largest size in the netting is 22mm, but it stretches around a 30mm bait with no problem.
I dropped the new armoured rig into a bucket of mixed 25mm and 30mm baits, and then slowly rowed out towards the southern fringes of the island. On closer inspection, the two prongs were, in fact, the tips of the upper arms of a very large tree lying in 25ft-deep water. I'd not noticed it during earlier searches due to murky water, but a few days with no wind had allowed the sediment to settle and provided a better view. The main trunk was still partially hidden in the darkest, deepest water but my mind’s eye, I calculated where it lay by following the angles of the main branches.
Just then waves began to slop against the dinghy as a breeze got up, so I grabbed hold of the prongs poking above the surface and quickly wrapped the bow rope over them. The wind pushed the dinghy until the rope snapped tight. I was now prevented from drifting away from the zone, but the water had already begun to churn up, and the main trunk faded in a drifting sea of sediment.
However, I already knew exactly where to place the rig, so I lowered the 6oz lead and 60mm hookbait into position until I felt it touch bottom, and then rowed back to the rod pod as fast as possible before the braid began to drift in the upper water layer. A flick of the rod tip straightened out the bow in the line, and I then tightened up to the lead. No drop was left on the indicator, so everything remained as tight as piano wire between rod tip and lead.
Nothing happened for the rest of the daylight hours, but at dusk the breeze gradually grew in strength, and by midnight it was gale force. Luckily, the back of my bivvy faced the storm, and dense bushes buffeted the worst of the howling winds. Out across the lake it looked like a chunk of the Atlantic Ocean, as gigantic waves pounded against the island and winds roared loudly through the swaying treetops. In the nearby forest, there was a creaking sound and an horrific crack, followed by the sound of one of the big ancient trees being uprooted from the soil and smashing to the ground in an almighty crash.
Suddenly, one of the alarms lit up the pod in a bright blue glow, and the spool began revolving. I immediately jumped off the bedchair and lifted the rod, to feel a satisfying thump as the tip hooped over. A fish had picked up the rig that I'd moved to the new spot beside the prongs. I was so glad I'd moved it, but not so glad when I focused on the mountain of waves rolling across the lake and kicking up plumes of white spray on my headtorch. For the first few minutes I held my ground, pumping on the reel handle and leaning back on a fully-flexed rod in an effort to pull the fish clear of danger. My efforts seemed to work, and slowly but surely, the angle of the line showed that the carp had swam away from the tree into the 30ft-deep trench.
It was now time to jump inside the flimsy rubber boat. Now or never. I quickly waded through the marginal mud and knee-deep water and climbed aboard. The lake level had dropped quite a lot due to past days of hot, dry weather, hence a layer of soft mud in the margins. Now my extra weight on the dinghy made it sink lower to the bottom mud, with too-shallow water beneath me to launch it forward. I was glued like a limpet. All I could hear was the screaming ratchet and the whistling winds.
There was a steep underwater slope in the margins, which plunged down to 18ft. I climbed out and let the wind catch the bow to spin it out amongst the waves and deeper water, and then catapulted myself back on board. I started reeling again and avoided using oars, due to only having one hand to row and the other holding the rod. Gradually, I was pulled away from the bank.
The sound of a Delkim suddenly split the night. I looked back towards shore to see a second reel bouncing and spinning. Another run, but the waving beam of my torchlight caught the reflection of two lines entwined. Oh no! Somehow, the tip of the rod had caught a second line when I climbed inside the dinghy, and coiled over without me realising. It was too late because the full force of the wind hit me head-on, and skated me out to the centre of the lake like a piece of paper.
My headlamp flashed twice in warning and then extinguished. The batteries had chosen this moment to die! One moment the scene was bathed in bright white light, and then it disappeared inside a black hole. Utter darkness.
I continued to pump wildly on the reel handle, until there was a sudden explosion amongst the waves as a big tail flapped wildly, and then the carp bolted as if fired from a cannon. The reel screamed like a banshee, as it sang to the accompanying chorus of the taut braid whistling against a raging storm. The wind chose this precise moment to intensify, and it spun the dinghy round like a plastic duck spiralling in a bath after someone has pulled the plug.
For the next 10 minutes, things got a bit chaotic. At some point the dinghy lifted completely off the surface of the lake, and almost toppled over as it crashed back through the waves. Without a moon to guide me, I tried to concentrate on using my night-vision in the Stygian darkness. Things gradually began to fall into place, and the other crossed line acted like an anchor, slowing the drift of the dinghy amongst the howling wind and high waves. The carp begrudgingly gave up the battle of maintaining its place in 30ft-deep water, as it began to ascend until it popped up like a cork on the surface.
It just lay beyond the furthest reach of my short landing net pole. Gusts of wind kept hammering against the sides of the dinghy and pushing it further away from the carp. When I picked up the oars in frustration, the carp chose this opportunity to wrench line off the spool to gain back its happy place near the bottom at 30ft! The stamina and power of this carp just amazed me. In a fit of stubborn anger, I dropped to my knees, wedged the rod handle between my legs, and powered against the oar handles like some demented demon. Once level with the fish, I dropped the oars, picked up the rod, and fought the carp back to the surface and straight in the net at the first time of asking.
It was a job to row back to shore against the wind and crashing waves that had already turned the inside of the dinghy into a nightmare version of a kiddy’s paddling pool. Suffice to say, I managed the journey and quickly transferred the fish to a floating retainer. It was then lowered into the deep margins in a sheltered spot away from the waves. I found some fresh batteries for the headtorch, and I stood beneath the pelting rain, surveying the scene. It was a train wreck. The rod pod was empty and three rods were scattered at all angles around me, with a fourth half-submerged in the margins, and only a cork handle poking above surface. The dinghy was covered in glutinous mud, as too was my own body; I was plastered from head to toe!
The next half-hour was spent washing myself in the lake and sponging down the dinghy. All the rods were reeled in, the lines untangled, and I eventually collapsed in a sodden heap inside my sleeping bag, before finally falling into oblivion.
Sometime before dawn, the wind abated and blue skies greeted a rising sun. I slowly waded out to get a proper look at my prize. The zip was pulled back, and I peered down at an absolute giant lying quietly inside. It was a stunning mirror with orange-tinted flanks and a massive tail. A smile, which was as broad as its back, split my cheeks – my Alpine adventure had truly begun!