Jamie Bellhouse | Moving waters in the south of France

Jamie’s work takes him to all manner of places. Last year he headed to the south of France to document a well-known, small fishery. While there, he and a couple of friends decided to dabble on a section of the local river...

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There are moments in your angling life when everything seems to come together and a journey begins that will be imprinted in your memory for a lifetime. Recently I was fortunate enough to experience one of these special trips for myself and the events that unfolded will be retold on the bank for many years to come.

Being a photographer and filmmaker, I get to travel across Europe regularly to produce promotional content for angling venues. The first trip of 2018 was to Le Queroy Luxury Holidays in the south of France. Three friends and I had the task of fishing and filming the larger of the two lakes on site, Lake Elba. Having been out the year before to cover the other lake on site (Napoleonic) I was familiar with the venue and after driving the eight hours through the night, we wasted no time in getting set up.

A simple flip of a coin was all that was needed to decide our swims and I ended up at the far end of the lake from the entrance. By this point I had been awake for around 30 hours and had consumed five or six coffees and the same amount in energy drinks – I didn’t know if I wanted to pass out on the floor or go to an all-day rave! That being said, I soldiered on and got the gear set up in my swim. I had a quick lead around and identified a few areas, including a sunken island around 60 yards out in front, a deeper area closer in and a plateau at around 70 yards to my left. Three singles were fired out to the spots with around 50 baits around each and then it was straight to bed, where I needed to sleep for the rest of the week.

Having ventured to their other water the previous year, this time we would be on Lake Elba

Having ventured to their other water the previous year, this time we would be on Lake Elba

The weather was questionable for fishing, as was some of the chosen attire

The weather was questionable for fishing, as was some of the chosen attire

I was woken at around 3pm when the bivvy had reached a solid gas mark 7, and I slid out of my sleeping bag like a milky bar left in the sun. Dazed and confused I made my way to the social gazebo where three other sweaty men were already sitting, drinking water – not small French beers! The temperature had reached 27ºC and the rest of the week looked like it would be much of the same – great for topping up the tans but for the fishing it was going to be very questionable.

The first run came a few hours later, with my good friend, Stuart Lemon, staying true to form and putting the first carp in the net – a heavily tanned mid-30 and a nice start to the trip. We got the pictures and video out of the way quickly and the rest of the afternoon passed without event. We retired to bed shortly after the sun went down, attempting to fully recover from the long journey the night before.

At some point during the early hours Stuart landed an upper 40 and he woke me up at first light with a cup of tea as a peace offering for pictures. Not one to object, I was up with the cameras and snapping away at a very happy man with a lovely looking 49lb mirror.

The rest of us were yet to put a fish on the bank, but with a new day came new optimism. The sun wasted no time in burning the retinas out of the back of our eyeballs and we all got the rods out just after breakfast, which was cooked by the finest chef in the whole of France... me!

Stuart, with the first big fish of the trip, at 49lb

Stuart, with the first big fish of the trip, at 49lb

53lb 8oz – what a marker to lay down for the rest of our stay

53lb 8oz – what a marker to lay down for the rest of our stay

The pressure to get off the mark was on for the rest of us and after seeing a fish show a few rod lengths from the bank I put a rod straight on it with a small handful of freebies. At 3pm that rod was away and I landed a 26lb mirror. I was on the board! As I slipped it back, another fish showed in my swim close to the far bank, and again I wasted no time in getting the rod straight onto the showing fish and less than an hour later, the same rod was away again. I could tell this was a good fish by the heavy lunges and slow powerful runs and as the fish plodded up and down the margins it went into the net a lot quicker than I had expected – huge shoulders rolled over the net cord and I was in no doubt this was a beast of a carp. It spun the scales round to a very respectable 53lb 8oz and my Sunday, spent as a day of worship to the carp gods, had paid off!

Monday morning came around quickly and Stuart had managed a small common early doors. It was clear that it was going to be a tough week with the hot conditions, so I convinced the other two lads, Steve and Sean, to go and prebait the river – which was about 20 minutes away from the venue. Having done a single night on the river stretch the year before, with moderate success, I was confident that with some prebaiting, we could at least try our luck later in the week on the river if the lake didn’t start to produce. About 50kg of mixed particles and boilies were put on some likely looking spots that afternoon and we headed back to the lake with the intention to return again on the Tuesday afternoon for another round of prebaiting.

They obviously loved the bait and tactics. This is the same fish Stuart had a short time before

They obviously loved the bait and tactics. This is the same fish Stuart had a short time before

The early morning views were a sight to behold

The early morning views were a sight to behold

That evening I had a violent take just as I was serving up dinner, which turned out to be the same 49lb mirror that Stuart had landed on Sunday morning. We did a few sunset shots in the water and I returned to eat my dinner off the grass where it had landed during the excitement. Darkness descended on us quickly that night and as the temperature dropped, so did the morale of the group. I tried to counteract this negativity with stories of hauling hippos from the deep but, as every angler is aware, when you’re blanking and others are catching, it’s hard to stay positive. That being said we made solid plans to hit the river on the Wednesday afternoon after I had finished off the filming for the venue and not before the legendary lemon cake was delivered from the venue owner! Priorities, lads, priorities!

The following morning I awoke to a cockerel trying to rid itself of its vocal chords. I stepped out of the bivvy to inspect the commotion and was greeted by a beautiful mist rising from the lake. The sun was beaming through the mature oak trees that surrounded the water’s edge and I was surprised to be the first one to emerge. The camera was once again put to work and I danced around on the bank making the most of the morning’s spectacle. Without warning my middle rod absolutely ripped off and a very angry carp made its way down the lake. I was locked in an instant tug of war with the creature and was soon joined by Steve, who had seen the commotion from down the bank. A monumental battle played out for the next 20 minutes until a flash of pink succumbed and rose to the surface. An absolutely stunning, rosy red mirror pulled the needle on the scales around to 32lb and I was buzzing to have caught the fish on such a beautiful morning.

A stunning low 30 – the aptly-named Rosie Chops

A stunning low 30 – the aptly-named Rosie Chops

With no further action for any of the other lads they wasted no time in getting straight down to the river, for the second round of prebaiting. Another 50kg of the good stuff was spread over the spots and the excitement once again started to build for a new adventure the following day.

That afternoon, Steve managed to bank his first carp of the trip in the shape of a solid looking mid-40. This one had paid a visit to the spray tan booth before visiting the bank and its vibrant yellow/orange flanks beamed in the sunlight. A small victory for a tough start to the week but we had our sights now firmly set on the river. With one more fish, a small common landed by Stuart, Wednesday came around quickly and we spent the morning packing up the gear we needed for the river. With the vans loaded with all the essentials, we were soon flying down the wrong side of the road to our new destination.

There is something extra special about fishing unknown waters and rivers – the thought of the unknown is definitely something that appeals to my angling and my aspirations. Arriving at our spot, we were running around like school children scrambling to get the rods out. With the sun beating down on our backs and the incredible scenery that surrounded us, it really was an incredible place to be. We set up in a picnic area on a dammed section of the river, and we had a towering footbridge with impressive high arches to our right and an old tannery that was built out on the river to our left. There were lots of boulders and hidden obstacles in the swims we were fishing but after a quick check on the echo sounder, we found some incredible clear, hard areas in around 10ft of water.

Our base for the assault on the river had a backdrop to die for

Our base for the assault on the river had a backdrop to die for

Sean with the first carp from the river, at a little over 21lb

Sean with the first carp from the river, at a little over 21lb

The flow was moderate, so 3-4oz leads were ample and all that was needed to hold bottom. I had changed over my rigs from the Ronnie rigs I had been using at the lake to big, size 4 claw hooks and 25lb combi-link. A simple hair rigged 18mm Scopex Squid topped with a tiny small foam ball to keep it upright was my weapon of choice on all three rods, glugged in the Scopex Squid bait dip. I wasted no time in getting the rods on the spots and sat back in my new home for the next day or two.

The lads had popped up to the shop before getting their rods out and in the 15 minutes they had gone I’d had a savage take that sent my heart rate through the roof. I was on the rod in seconds and was doing battle with my first river catfish. Unfortunately, before it reached the net, it popped off just under the rod tip. I was slightly gutted but took pleasure in the fact the spot was already rocking.

The rod went straight back on the spot and I eagerly awaited the lads’ return to tell them a very over-dramatised story about a man and his small catfish! Reloaded with a fresh supply of food and beer, everyone got the rods on the spots in anticipation for a busy session ahead. We were not disappointed, as no less than an hour later Sean had another incredible river take. The fish steamed across the river violently and we stood questioning if it was another catfish, the sharp shakes of its head and savage power had us convinced it was – that was until a flash of scales emerged from the depths of the river and we all made some high pitched noises that resembled something along the lines of “it’s a carp!” After a few scary moments with the huge rocks that were protruding from the depths, we banked the first river carp of our session. Spirits were soaring as the fin-perfect common weighed in at a respectable 21lb 12oz and we slipped it back to fight another day.

There was a feeling amongst us all that this was set to be a good session but nothing could have prepared us for what was about to happen next. The afternoon passed without further ado and talk hadn’t strayed far from the capture of Sean’s little common. We were sitting around the picnic bench enjoying a late evening sandwich when my left-hand rod almost left the bank. You can never prepare yourself for how savage the takes can be from a river and this was no exception. By the time I had reached the rod, the fish had stripped a good 40 yards of line from the spool and as I tightened down the clutch it did not stop there, the spool was in meltdown and by the time I managed to get control of the situation, the fish was in the middle of the river using the flow to its full advantage.

A defining moment in my angling life – words failed me for this upper 40, river-caught, common

A defining moment in my angling life – words failed me for this upper 40, river-caught, common

I knew straight away this was a good fish by the amount of pressure it took to tame it. The first glimpse came a few rod lengths out and a huge pair of shoulders broke the surface – you know it’s a good fish when an “Oh, my god!” is shouted from all directions. What happened next was one of the scariest moments of my life. The fish dived deep under the boulder in front of the swim and the line went solid. For a few, brief moments, that felt like a lifetime, I didn’t dare breathe – and then the braided main line I was using started to move again, grating against the sharp edges of the rocks. This warrior had tried its best to reach freedom but resistance had indeed been futile. It took one last gulp of air and drifted over the net cord with the sun setting on the horizon and the pink arches of the bridge lighting the way. I screamed, a lot, at this point, as the reality of what had just happened started to sink in.

This carp was about to smash my PB on the river but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how big it would go. Debate was instant as I set about preparing the mat, the scales and the cameras before we lost the last of the light. We had guessed her to be an upper-30, or maybe a scraper-40, until I went to lift it out of the water and realised this was something much bigger! The scales pinged around to an incredible 47lb 12oz and a defining moment in my angling career was set in stone.

A monumental river carp was raised for trophy shots against the soft lights of the buildings that skirted the river and, as I slipped it back into its vast, watery home, I took note of every last stroke of its tail as the carp drifted away. I feel blessed for moments like that, it’s what we all go fishing for and why we continue our never ending search for our quarry. The story however did not end there. The night passed without event and I was awake before the sun had even hit the horizon, I knew the smaller fish would have cleared the bait from the night before so I put out another 10kg of particle and another 4kg of chops over the spots. Before I could finish, the right-hand rod was away. This time I was standing over my rods so I had the fish under control in seconds. It towed me up and down the margin for a good 10 minutes but it wasn’t as clever as the big girl and didn’t head for the rocks. Another 22lb common was added to the tally and an even bigger smile – if that was possible – was on my face.

We couldn’t leave without having one last cast

We couldn’t leave without having one last cast

Twenty minutes later Sean had a slow take on his middle rod and as he lifted into the fish it suddenly woke up and went ballistic! Screaming off downstream, we knew the drill and were certain of another good carp. A steady fight ensued and again the fish headed for the dreaded boulders – we all held our collective breath as it danced around the edges, powering around like hard-fighting river carp do. The fish just about fitted in the net – it was so long – and another stunner was in the bag. A sensational French common carp of 34lb, fin and scale perfect with a gob you could fit a grapefruit into. It glistened in the morning sun, with the golden arches once again painting the backdrop – the good times just kept on coming.

Sean signed off from the river with this immaculate 34lb common

Sean signed off from the river with this immaculate 34lb common

We headed back to the lake that afternoon with the intention of getting the rest of the gear packed up and heading straight back to the river. It was too good an opportunity to pass on and if we could carry on with our success we were going to make it happen.

In no time at all we were back at the river, setting up again, sending out another 10kg of crushed and chopped Scopex Squid and Key Cray boilies over the spots. We were all so confident of a take it came as a bit of a surprise when the afternoon passed, then the evening, and then darkness came and the rods still sat silently. Being the hottest day of the week we began speculating on the lack of action. Had we put too much bait in? Had the fish moved off? Was it too hot? Scratching our heads a little we headed to bed.

I must have been asleep for less than 15 minutes when my middle rod registered a violent take that somehow lifted both my bank sticks out of the ground. It was the most savage I’ve ever experienced and if the handle of my reel hadn’t got caught in the butt ring of my left-hand rod I would certainly have lost the whole lot! Unfortunately, that fish slipped the hook but my confidence had been restored. I rebaited with just a kilo of chops this time and got a rig back out there before retiring back to the comfort of my bed. Around 5am the same rod was away once again and this time there was nothing left to chance, I had pegged my rod butts into the ground and there was no chance I was losing this one. I was sure this was another good fish by the fight and I wasn’t disappointed when it finally surrendered to the net. It wasn’t quite as big as I had first thought, but at a respectable 27lb I was once again buzzing with excitement for the last day and night ahead.

With a final sending off present our little stretch of river produced one more a few hours before we had to leave for the ferry at 5am. A little 19lb common carp that proved to be the smallest fish of the week, from a time that I will never forget. If you’re ever struggling in France or Europe, never forget that the public lakes and rivers hold some incredible fish and if you’re lucky enough to put one on the bank, it could be the fish of a lifetime.

A parting gift

A parting gift

Mick Clifford