Mitch Godfrey | Across the Mountains

Mitch Godfrey has been visiting this notoriously windswept, southern French venue for the best part of 25 years now. Nothing in previous years has compared to this particular trip though...

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Salagou has been my favourite carp fishing destination in France since first visiting it in the early 90s. Set in an ancient volcanic area, with steep-sided, red rock cliffs, shale outcrops and vineyards gently rolling down the hills to meet the crystal clear blue water’s edge. It is certainly an idyllic setting, and not a place you would associate with some of the worst weather conditions in Europe. Yet this stunning setting is home to the Tramontane, a severe wind created when it builds between the Pyrenees and the Massif Central mountains. When this northerly blows, there is no hiding place, and it definitely does not make for the best conditions to be camping, or indeed fishing, in!

I’ve even heard that the name Salagou is derived from the meaning windy valley. I have always tried to fish areas of the lake in the past that are sheltered from this beast, but in reality you can’t get out on the lake wherever you are – so, on this occasion, I decided to man up and fish into the teeth of it, which actually turned out to be a great decision, from a fishing point of view.

We arrived at the lake completely knackered, having driven non-stop through the night, after finishing work on a Friday evening. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s the way we prefer. After all, the more time spent on the lake, the better, surely?

There was a chance that we’d be able to get some markers in place and fish the next day as the forecast had given advanced warning of a lull in the wind at dawn. And so we set to, walking all the gear round to our swim, as it was too rough to get out in the boat. This took us all afternoon as we were not exactly close to the vehicle and there were plenty of gullies and boulders to negotiate.

You can imagine the state we were in, the 30ºC heat certainly didn’t help either, and what with not having had any sleep for over 40 hours, we were both at the point of exhaustion. We cooked up a basic meal of chorizo pasta and then, by 8pm, we were both in bed. With no shelter up and gazing up at the Milky Way stretching across a crystal clear sky, it was sure good to be back – even with the wind!

I was up early and eager to get going at dawn, but alas there was no lull and the forecast was only for the wind to get stronger. So we decided on a nice leisurely set-up, in a sheltered spot. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. There was nowhere fitting the bill – semi-sheltered would have to do instead. We would just have to tough it out. We debated on whether or not we had made the right choice, especially as the wind was now forecast for another couple of day. But we decided to stick it out, as there really wasn’t anywhere else to go and, after all the effort, it would be bordering on madness to do it all again, elsewhere.

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We settled on casting a few rods out regardless, as we could reach depths of 50ft from where we were set up, and we had already seen a couple of fish top. Most people wouldn’t even contemplate fishing in those conditions, but we’d seen it all before, and fished in it, so we knew it was possible. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until later the same day that we realised it was far too snaggy where we were and all four rods, that we’d managed to put out, were actually stuck in rocks.

Patience was needed, so we hit the shops, did a quick water run to a nearby spring and started the preparation of the particles. Tigers and hemp were favoured for this trip and after that was all done we sat on our hands some more. Eventually, day four arrived, and with it, a gentle breeze and at last it was time to go fishing!

Everything had been ready for some time now, so we had a quick bacon and egg cob and a cuppa and then set straight out with the fish finder in search of some spots, and of course, carp.

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I knew roughly where I wanted to fish to, and was mightily relieved when the echo revealed that there was around 40 feet of water, with the other three markers placed well away from the first, by at least 200m. One marker was in 30ft, another in 50ft and the last in a shade over 60ft. We shared markers, and as it is always the case one area will always do better than the others, so we share the takes on these trips.

We baited heavily on each marker with 10kg of tigers, 5kg of hemp and 5kg of Bait-Tech’s Triple-N 18mm boilies. This was a little bit of a gamble, as it was a lot of bait and we still had 12 days to go, but the Tramontane was in the forecast again for the end of the week, so we decided to make hay while the sun shone, so to speak. We were really optimistic leading up to that first night, but with only one run coming through the hours of darkness, which we managed to loose in a snag, the end result was a bit of a washout. Nonetheless, we stuck to the plan and baited heavily again the following morning – although only putting in half the amount of the previous evening.

We had to wait until mid-afternoon for the first run – a very slow stop-start affair and not the normal wild lake screamer we are accustomed to. Out in the boat we went and after a good tussle, a big cat surfaced! They’re not really my cup of tea, what with those beady eyes and stinking mucus, but it was a start!

Nothing else materialised that day, except a couple of skimmers, which had managed to hang themselves and with the bream obviously there in numbers, we decided on another course of heavy baiting that evening. At midnight on the third day, the first proper run was forthcoming. It fell to my mate – a lovely common of 26lb, followed shortly afterwards by a 31-pounder. Then it was my turn, at 4am, with a cracking 33lb common. At last they’d turned on! The next day saw us land two more 20s in the late afternoon – things were definitely on the up and we were really excited at what the night and the rest of the stay might bring.

That evening again saw us bait heavily on the marker that had produced all the fish so far, and lighter on the others that were still to produce. We also moved four of the rods onto the 40ft ‘hot’ marker, still leaving a rod on each of the others, in the hope of them receiving a visit too. That night the hot marker produced a cat for me and a 38lb 12oz common, while my mate had a 22lb common and a 39-pounder.

Again we baited heavily on the hot marker, as we had every evening and morning, continuing to do so until we left. The following day again produced in the afternoon with a 26 and then a 31lb 4oz in the evening. The night was pretty quiet, with only one half-hearted run. As I picked the rod up I could still feel a steady pressure, so once more we took to the water. When we got over the fish I could tell it was something special, I just couldn’t make much impression on it at all. It simply towed us around in circles for what felt like an age. With the ol’ heart pumping, I turned to my mate and said, “This is the one”. Eventually I started to make a bit of ground and slowly but surely it started to come up. What felt like hours later and with my arms at breaking point, the fish decided on one last dive which nearly pulled me from the boat. As I lost my balance, the rod slipped from my hands, and I was lucky to just manage to grab a hold of the butt before it disappeared down into the abyss. I then spent the next few minutes with my arm at full length being towed around, before I could get back to full control. Finally, we saw a swirl so knew it to be very close, then, to my shock, a 3lb shredded, bream came flying out of the water to smack me square in the face. What a palaver, I hate catfish! All that excitement and adrenaline for sod all. And all my mate could do was laugh, just to rub salt in the wounds...

As per the rest of the session, the next day was spent twiddling our thumbs until the clock showed 4pm, when once more, my Delkim went into meltdown and, after a great tussle, the first 40 made its way to the waiting net. Coming in at a weight of 42lb 12oz, it was a relief to get one of the bigger girls on the bank.

The rigs we were using were a combination of triple or double snowmen using BaitTech’s Triple-N 18mm boilies, to a size 4 JPrecision long shank, precision point hook. The braided hooklink was tried and trusted Quicksilver 25lb, as I have found the colour matches the red silt perfectly. We used the matching Triple-N hard hookers for the sinking bait and a combination of wafters or pop-ups to balance everything up. Poloni, nut and hemp oils were all added to the freebies for extra attraction, and the hookbaits were then dried and glugged in Poloni oil for 24 hours.

That night saw me have two more fish at 29lb and 36lb.

Day six was pretty quiet, with just one low 20 hitting the net around lunchtime and with nothing that night. Things were a changing – unfortunately, they were definitely slowing down. That only seemed to attract a better stamp though, as the next day, on the late afternoon run-time, my first upper 40 appeared, weighing 48lb 4oz.

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Our next fish was of a similar stamp to, with a 46-pounder coming the following morning. I must just add that a couple of things had been niggling at us for a day or two; firstly, how come all our fish were commons, with not a mirror in sight? Where were the big mirrors? And, why could we only catch from the one marker? These were questions we couldn’t answer at the time, although with the 40s now starting to appear, they weren’t becoming quite such pressing matters...

The wind was now starting to get up again and was forecast to be strong for the next three days, so we had a quick double up on the planned baiting strategy and fresh rock-hard snowman hookbaits were dropped overboard. The traps were set.

The night was quiet apart from the roar of the wind, until 5am, when with zero chance of getting into the boat, one of the alarms sounded. It would have to be from the bank... With me on ghillie duty (it was my mate’s rod that had torn off), I wasn’t especially looking forward to getting out in the 4ft waves and spray to try and land this fish. Then my alarm started to sound and I just knew the fish had somehow tangled up – but it was nothing as simple as just going under the line, it had also caught up much further out. I decided I would stay with the rod, keeping it loose but tight, if you know what I mean, so it didn’t tangle and get in a right mess. At least I didn’t have to head out onto the lake with those gale force winds and waves.

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So out in the boat my mate went – he had little choice, even in those conditions. It would have been impossible to land the fish near the bank with the waves crashing into the bank. Good old Daz, my best friend and lifelong fishing partner – I had to laugh while watching him, it was a huge struggle in the conditions. He definitely had the last laugh though, as a very chunky mirror made its way into the net. It was a new PB and at 53lb 14oz, the biggest fish either of us had ever seen! Despite the weather it had us both laughing and jumping around like kids. The first mirror and what a corker to boot – happy days indeed...

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The next day saw a major change, with the rods fished on all the markers eventually producing bites. At last, with the wind hacking in, it really seemed to switch the carp on – but with not being able to get out in the boat, we lost a few fish on cut-offs near the shoreline, yet still managed a 33 and a 29 to keep the scoreboard ticking over. The 29-pounder came from a rod cast very close in. The night saw us lose another carp.

Day 10 brought gale force winds, but beautiful blue skies as is so often the case here. We managed a little ’un at 21lb and, unfortunately, more losses on the zebras. The night saw us get a nice linear at 28lb – a very rare fish for the lake.

It appeared that we could only get the smaller fish in from the bank, with the bigger fish repeatedly cutting us up on the zebra mussels. The last rod out eventually roared off at midday and turned out to be a nice common which, when landed, weighed 33lb.

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There was a brief chance to get some rods out with a lull in the wind in the evening and indeed we did manage to get four rods back on the hot spot along with a fresh spread of bait, before it picked up and began blowing a hoolie again. Unexpectedly, we both drew a blank that night. First light saw another lull and I was able to get the other rods back on their respective markers too. I also chucked in more bait around the hot marker, just for good measure! We had to wait until 3pm for anything to happen – surprisingly, it was a take from the 60ft marker and produced my first mirror of 46lb 8oz. It was a proper fat thing, like her ‘mud puddle’ cousins, and nothing like the normal torpedo-shaped fish the lake is so well known for – but still very, very welcome, all the same.

That night the hot marker kicked in to life again, producing two more fish – a low 40 for Daz and a 37lb mirror for me. By this point, our bait supplies had all but gone, with just a handful of boilies and a couple of kilos of pellet left. We had used everything else and, with two more days still to go, we decided just to get it all in and see what would happen. We weren’t overly confident without the nuts or boilies and were proven right as the hot marker didn’t produce any more fish thereafter.

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The rod fished to the other 60ft marker which had been quiet throughout the trip, and was by far the closest marker to shore, decided to spring into life at 10am. It caught us slightly unawares, seeing as this was a time when we’d previously caught nothing throughout the trip. It was also being fished over pellet, which was a tactic that hadn’t produced so far either. My thoughts were that it would be a catfish, and I was even more convinced as we got over it and I couldn’t even raise it off the bottom.

After an eternity of being pulled around it eventually started to come up. I was expecting the bream to come flying out the water as it neared the surface, but, as it finally came into view about 20ft down in the crystal-clear water, I could see it was a carp. I immediately loosened the clutch – I wasn’t going to lose this beast, cupping my fingers over the spool to slow it up every now and again. After a long period of lunges, it eventually gave up and, as it turned on its side, I could see it was a very special creature. And indeed it was – a common of over 60lb, the stuff dreams are made of...

And that was it for us. There were no more runs once the bait had run out. I’ve fished this lake so many times, spending literally hundreds of days lazing on the banks and going there for nothing more than the beauty and serenity of the place, rather than the sizes of the fish. My biggest Salagou carp beforehand was a scraper 50, whilst my mate’s was a low 40-pounder. I really wasn’t even sure that a result like this was even possible from the lake, so it made it even more of an epic trip, and one that will go down in the folklore of our little circle.

It’s nicknamed the Devil’s Lake by the French, although I couldn’t disagree more – except once maybe, when I tried to row a couple of rods out and the wind got up and I ended up a mile or so away. The outcome was I had to trudge back through windswept shallows, sometimes up to my neck in water, up and over rocks, and with feet cut to shreds on the mussels. But why would that have much significance once I have had a wild 60lb common on the bank! Bon voyage, Mitch.

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Mick Clifford