Steve Briggs | The Balaton Experience

In keeping with much of Steve’s fishing in recent months, he has turned his attention to another venue that he has been keeping tabs on for a number of years. This venue would require some serious planning ahead, as it is definitely not your ordinary fare, covering almost 150,000 acres in total!

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It was around 15 years ago that I first fished in Hungary – a coach load of UK anglers had headed out to one of the big public waters in the south of the country. It was a good trip, with most of us catching fish of various sizes. I even managed to catch my first Hungarian carp too. But the one thing that stuck in my memory most, was when, on the journey back, we drove past this massive expanse of water. I’d fished some huge waters previously, like Chantecoq and Orient, but even they looked small in comparison to this! It took around one hour to drive past this inland sea and we were all mesmerized by what we saw. The coach driver told us that this was Lake Balaton, Europe’s largest natural lake, and all of our ears pricked up when he told us that there were indeed carp in the lake but location was almost impossible and swims needed to be baited for several weeks to entice any fish in to the areas. It looked a daunting prospect – almost impossible in fact. But from that first sighting I was hooked and I knew that one day I’d have to go back and fish that huge lake for myself.

The chance eventually came when I met a young Hungarian guy called Attila Pinke who runs Catch Carp Hungary. Attila organizes trips to various lakes, and at first I fished one called Paradise Lake. It was during that week that he dropped it into the conversation that he also could also organize trips to Balaton! On a lake the size of Balaton you think it would be easy to just turn up and fish, but much of the bankside is privately owned, or the parts that are accessible tend to be quite busy with local anglers. But Attila has three properties that can be leased by anglers and it provides not only a lot more space but also the comforts that come with having a house just a few yards from the water’s edge! I didn’t need any persuading – this was the chance I’d waited for to fish that awesome lake and dates were soon put in the diary.

Lake Balaton was created thousands of years ago by huge glaciers gouging out the land as they moved slowly forwards. It left a lake that was 48 miles along and with an average width of five miles! However, for such a huge lake it is surprisingly shallow with an average depth of around nine or ten feet. The deepest part of the whole lake is only 35 feet and that is a deep channel used by a ferry that provides a short cut for people trying to get from one side to the other. The surface area of the lake is 600 square kilometres, which equates to 148,263 acres!

It was certainly a good move going through Catch Carp Hungary as I had little previous knowledge of the lake and there was a lot to be learned. The property we rented is on the north side of the lake, with Attila and his family taking the top floor and me and Joan having the lower floor. With such a shallow lake, fishing on the north side was significant, as it’s the deeper side. On the south bank you can wade out for 200 yards in most places and still only be waist deep in the water. On the north side it does drop to reasonable depths more quickly and with that in mind the rules are slightly different. The fishing has become much more carp angler-friendly in recent years. The commercial netting was stopped in 2015, meaning that there are a lot more carp these days. The distance limit has also been increased from 100 metres right up to 450 metres on the south bank and 350 metres on the north bank, reflecting the depths of the two sides. Only two rods are allowed per angler.

There are a lot of carp in Balaton but it’s also a huge piece of water and the nearest fish really could be miles away, so I was under no illusion that it was a case of just turning up and chucking them out! We did have a plan though. With four rods between Attila and myself, we would stagger the ranges to maximize our chances, and also bait fairly heavily on the first day to either try and attract fish, or merely to just try and stop them on their way through. If there is a downside to Balaton, it’s that there are a lot of smaller fish, so we avoided baits such as maize and pellets and concentrated more on boilies in 20mm and 24mm sizes. That first evening we baited with around 15kg each, which might seem a lot but it seemed very insignificant when I looked around from the boat.

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With the rods out and baiting done, the waiting game began. That first evening was lovely and calm and hugely atmospheric with reed warblers chirping away close by and the distant lights from far away houses and restaurants getting brighter as the sun dipped down behind us. I drifted off to sleep some time later not really expecting to be woken up by the alarms. That all changed at around 4am when I was awoken by both alarms bleeping in unison. When I looked out I was amazed by what I saw! The calm water had been replaced by huge waves that were battering the rods and both of my lines had been dragged well out of position into snags and weedbeds. The wooden platform all of a sudden didn’t look so safe and my boat looked as though at any moment it would come crashing over the top and onto the rocks! Balaton was raging and yet this was just classed as a medium breeze, but it really brought home the realities of fishing this place! I couldn’t do anymore than secure the boat and sit it out until things calmed down – it was frustrating and awesome at the same time!

The authorities take the weather very seriously around Balaton. There are lights positioned at various points so that they can be seen wherever you are. No lights means that it’s perfectly safe to go out in a boat, whereas a flashing light means that you can proceed with caution. But a fast flashing light means that you are not allowed out at all! There is also a phone app that I found much more usable, which shows three different-coloured symbols: green for safe, yellow for caution and red for no-go. Different parts of the lake could have different situations at the same time so it was always important to check the app before going out.

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By mid-morning, things had calmed enough to start getting the rods sorted again. Attila had managed to keep one of his rods in position and a slow steady take saw him take to the boat for the first Balaton battle! At those distances it’s often easier to get in the boat and get above the fish rather than drag them all the way back. The tactic worked perfectly and he soon had the first fish of our trip back on the bank – a scale-perfect common weighing in the high 20s. A great start and one that spurred me on to get fishing again. With the small fish in mind I had made up a batch of really big, Scopex Squid hook baits, perhaps 45mm to 50mm in size. I had used similar baits to good effect in the past for targeting the bigger fish on huge lakes, so when my alarm burst into life I had high hopes for something substantial, but the result was a mid-double common that clearly had eyes bigger than its belly! But it was my first Balaton carp and I was pleased to see it.

Both of the takes had come from around 250 metres and we knew that fish were at least starting to find the bait. It was still early days and we couldn’t read too much into it at that stage. It could be that a group of fish had just moved through at that range and the next group could be closer, or further out. Or maybe it would turn out to be some sort of patrol route or an area that the fish preferred to visit because of natural food? There was certainly evidence of small and large mussels around the area and I guessed that’s what the fish would feed on naturally. Where my right rod was placed the bottom was noticeably firmer, but I had been told that often the softer areas were better – not only for the fish but it was also easier to hold the rigs in position in the soft bottom when the undertow was strong. This is a common occurrence when there are strong winds and storms around the lake. For that reason I was using Tractor leads between 6oz and 8oz to help hold station. Rigs were fairly basic as always with size 2 Nash Claw hooks and a fairly long length of 25lb Skin Link at around 40cm – the Balaton carp were naïve fish, and if the lead was plugged in silt then it would still be enough to leave the hookbait clear.

Action did start to pick up as the fish found the bait, although we were very much feeling our way in to it. Before long a few fish had come our way, all between mid-doubles and low 20s. I wasn’t quite sure of the right approach really. Would big beds of bait attract more fish, but also smaller fish? One popular method is to bait up and then fish the hookbaits several yards away. It’s a common enough tactic for targeting larger fish but I’m not sure it’s always that effective. I tried it but it didn’t seem to make any difference really. It was clear that at different times the fish would come from different areas. Sometimes a run of fish would come from longer range and sometimes from shorter, and not just the areas where we caught from at the start either. I began to think that it wasn’t really possible to target larger fish and it was just a case of what was out there at the time and having a bit of luck on which fish picks up the bait.

The next morning there was some great news however! I was up early for a couple of fish around 5am and I noticed that Attila was up too on his platform further along the bank. He walked up with a smile on his face, and rightly so as he just landed a superb common of just over 40lb – his biggest ever Balaton carp! That was cause for some celebration and it showed that anything could be out there. Just a few weeks earlier there had been a 60lb common banked around 800 yards away from our swims, and fish of that stamp could be out there right at that moment!

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Before photographing Attila’s prize I made sure to get the rods back out in position. Windows of opportunity always come and go during a session and it’s important to recognize them as one and to capitalize on them when they present themselves! Over the next few hours several more carp came our way and it was clear that there was a group of decent carp out there. How many and how big – I had no idea. A group could be 50 carp or it could be 5000 carp – we really didn’t know and that went for the size too. We know for sure that there are monster carp in Balaton but there are millions of carp of all sizes, but Attila’s carp got us buzzing and we had a great day. While we couldn’t top that fish we did have several good ’uns to over 30lb. Amongst them were the occasional mirrors too. Some of the small mirrors were spectacular with big, apple slice scales, but amongst them was also a really chunky, true leather which fell to my rods and I did wonder just what a rare fish that was for the lake as the vast majority are commons.

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I was on a bit of a mission after that. During the first few days it was quite tempting to bring the rods in at night, especially if it was a bit choppy, but I made the effort to get the rods back out every time one went off. By 7am the next morning I’d already caught eight or nine fish and it was extremely tiring but I was loving it. The job was made easier by using a Torqeedo engine, which is much more powerful than the standard electric outboard, and with a 500 yard round-trip to complete almost ten times in a few hours, that extra speed was really welcome!

However, that afternoon, with the surface looking as calm as it had done at any stage, the weather app said that the whole lake was now under a red zone! I was puzzled and asked Attila what was going on. He’d seen all this before and explained that with all of the technology available they could see in advance when either big winds or storms were approaching and not everyone had the means to get off the lake quickly. It seemed like going over the top to me at first but it was indeed the calm before the storm! Within 10 minutes the winds had increased and dark clouds were rolling in! The constant flashes of lightning came closer and closer until the mother of all storms hit us and then it all became clear just how this lake could change in such a short time! We retreated to the house and I was really glad that we had solid walls around us instead of the bivvy for once. It was awesome to watch mother nature raging – but I just didn’t want to get another run for a while!

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By daylight the next day the storm was long gone, but the air was cooler and it looked good. The surface was choppy but with a yellow warning over the whole lake I could get the rods back in position. By now we were really getting tactics sorted. The fish would come to the bait as long as it was at a reasonable range, so I more or less settled for 250 yards. We could catch fish at closer ranges but it was very noticeable that the closer we fished, the smaller the average size was. But at the same time going further out than 250 yards didn’t bring bigger fish – so I didn’t see the point of going further. I tried baiting lightly but the action tailed off, so heavier baiting with boilies definitely brought the rewards. I also ended up using single and double 24mm Scopex Squids as hookbaits as they were far more effective than the big baits I’d made – the single 24mm bait definitely out-fished the double baits too for that matter. The action could come at day or night, in windy or calm conditions. It was really just a matter of when they turned up and, as time went on, that was more and more frequently. Smaller fish were generally unhooked from the boat to make it easier to drop the bait again and after an initial baiting every evening and morning it was just a case of spreading a few handfuls around the hookbait every time. Don’t get me wrong, I think we could’ve probably used ten times as much bait and it all would’ve been eaten but there has to be a limit somewhere.

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It became a case of grabbing sleep in the quieter times, and inside the house it was easier to switch off for a while from the outside world. It was tiring of course, but, also incredibly exhilarating. Besides the screaming runs and the tough battles, the part that I enjoyed most was just being out on that vast expanse of water in the boat – it’s so different to the norm but an incredible experience and I went there as much for that, as I did for the fish. It took me a long time to get around to fishing Balaton but it didn’t disappoint! In fact it was everything I hoped it would be and more. The wildness and rawness of the lake was perfectly contrasted by the comforts and luxury of the accommodation that we had for our time there. Going through Catch Carp Hungary was the best choice I could have made, they know all about Balaton, and thanks to Attila Pinke, I now know more about this fantastic water myself. I’ll be back there for sure in the future – Balaton has so much mystery and a feeling of the unknown about it that you really never know what the next run will bring. Monsters are out there, and sometimes they even get caught – who knows, next time it might be my turn!

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Mick Clifford