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How to Catch Your First Carp over 20lbs

Ready to step up to a large carp water? When you become more experienced – so do the bigger fish. Read on to demystify the overwhelming volume of information out there on location, carp tackle and carp tactics, in your first pursuit of ‘the one.’

I recall my first real visit to a large carp water with the same excitement to this day. It felt like hallowed ground: being there, housed in my first bivvy. I immediately felt the weight of angling history: the photos from magazines, the tales of famous carp anglers and I was here, now, ready to make my own story in search of the stars of the lake.

When I say ‘my first real visit’ this is because I had crossed a line in the silt and prepared by researching location, purchasing appropriate upgraded tackle including equipment relating to fish care. Most significantly, I had read magazines, watched videos and talked to experienced carpers.

Choosing a specimen water

A ‘specimen’ is any fish which is a superior and large example of its species. I also like to think people often shorten this to ‘specie lake’ because these venues are usually well landscaped and respectfully treated, therefore really special. I will provide some recommended locations later.

English specimen lakes are often shallow compared to the continent, with six to 10 foot average depths being typical. I recommend this type of water over deeper gravel pits because it makes it easier to spot and catch feeding fish.

I think it’s best to focus initially on specimen stillwaters as they are easier to get onto than member-only lakes or syndicate waters. Be prepared to either book well in advance or turn up early to venues which operate on a first-come-first-served basis. Average cost: £25-£35 for 24 hours – half that or so for a day ticket for two rods.

Top tip: target weekdays rather than weekends when there are likely to be fewer anglers to provide competition. You will also enjoy tuning more deeply into a well-landscaped venue with less distraction.

Always read the rules. Many are standard: a minimum of 42-inches for your landing net and a deep, padded landing mat or cradle. And don’t forget carp care – an antibiotic salve will help to prevent disease where a hook or a lost scale reveals a blood spot and could lead to infection.

Watch out for fisheries which demand specific types of hooks only, ban surface baits or ask only for certain types of terminal tackle. There is nothing more disappointing than turning up to the lake’s tackle shop only to find they are out of stock of these demanded items. Order essentials before you go.

How to read the water

Location, location, location

I could have all the sophisticated rigs and pungent baits in the world but if my hook is not landing amongst the carp, I risk a blank. General coarse fishing invariably means drawing the fish to your swim. When carp fishing: follow the carp. On that first ever magical trip I caught because I paused in my excitement to take an extensive look around the whole lake. Look first – cast later.

Judge a book by its cover

By that I mean, study the surface:

  • Fish feeding on the bottom or mid-water in shallower areas tend to send up a moving ‘shadow’ of dark silt, often under trees or overhanging bushes. Acknowledge their presence in your tactics but do not be over-eager and end up dropping a lead on the fish’s head in your haste to get a bait into the water. It is hardly silver service to a carp if you spook them this way.
    Slow, continually moving bubbles are fish swimming just under the surface or mooching through the silt.
  • Crashing fish denote a regular holding area.
  • Waterfowl picking bait off the bottom indicates a shallow shelf. Shelves can lead to a rapid catch early in a session but larger carp may then be spooked afterwards.
  • Look for fizzing bubbles, often in early morning. Revisit those locations, especially if setting a line before darkness to pick up fish in the early hours. Fizzing often occurs in repeat places because carp will form channels through deep silt to feed more easily, or they will use gravel areas for navigation and to dig out natural food stirred by wind.
  • Look at the direction of surface ripples. Fishing into the wind can be productive as bait is pushed into particular corners or areas. A warm southerly wind can also encourage feeding.
    If there are no particular signs of wind, locate the north east corner (perhaps by using a compass app on your mobile). The UK often sees wind in that direction, so it can be a default option for a swim.

Dig a little deeper at your chosen swim

Cast only a lead at distance and drag it over the bottom of the lake to find favoured, deeper areas and gullies – you will feel a sudden drop or a ‘clunk’ as the line comes in. This method can also identify weed or gravel bars where carp feed.

Consult a depth map if available either online, from the day ticket or tackle shop. Deeper, warmer water holds winter fish. In summer depth can still hold larger, cautious fish.

Consult a depth map, if available online or from the ticket and tackle shop. Deeper, warmer water holds winter fish. In summer depth can still hold larger, cautious fish.

Top Tip: Never ignore the margin, especially at night. Even large fish will come in really close to feed amongst reeds. The optimum times for this is before spawning, usually in May to around early July. The larger fish want the territory by reeds and features on which to spray eggs and milt so they stick and survive. Secondly, do not assume that only fly anglers pay attention to insect hatches. Mayfly periods can attract carp into the margin.

Tackling up for larger carp

Carp rods

When upgrading to heavier tackle, bear in mind: ‘enough to do the job.’ It will keep your costs down and reduce the overwhelming onslaught of choice to a manageable selection. It is also more likely that you then base any future upgrades on actual experience and need.

Rods should have a 3Ib ‘test curve’. This will handle any carp in UK waters, so do not use a lesser specification. It will be against the fishery rules and do remember an average high street mountain bike will weigh 12 kilos – around 25Ibs+. Your average high street mountain bike is not buoyant in water admittedly but then again, they are not swimming around trying to escape.

I first upgraded to two, 10 foot (three metre) Pro-logic C1A rods. They are ‘high-modulus’ made from a little stiffer carbon. They are durable, lighter and handle the fish. Carbon not fibreglass is highly recommended as you need a flexible action. This aids distance casting. In addition, when a carp is finally coming in and not taking out line, the spring in the tip avoids hook pulls at that stage of playing the fish.

Those rods have landed carp to 30Ib and catfish to 55Ibs-plus and are good for casting to 75 feet (around 25 metres). Expect to pay around £50 each.

Ten-foot rods have two advantages: they are less restricted by overhanging branches when casting and they split into only two sections. You can therefore set them up in advance and still break them down to fit into a holdall without your set-up tangling. If you are on a day ticket, this maximises the time your line sits in the water.

Carp reels

Reels need to cover two basics: carry a lot of line and have a strong gear or clutch to let powerful fish run on a tight ratchet after being hooked. I still often use those I first stepped up with: Shimano ST 10000 bait runners. You will see many carp fishermen using them and as they are no longer new models, will cost around £55.00 to £70.00.

Avoid cheaper, clunky, juddering mechanisms. The line should pay out smoothly and consistently. If you are in a tackle shop, ask permission to remove the spool and look inside at the cogs, fittings and spindle. Avoid flimsy metal closer to tin. It may not sound important now but it will fell very important at three in the morning when a 20Ib-plus carp is trying to kite across the lake.

Line for carp

A 15Ib line will handle any UK carp, stand a good chance of keeping hold of an accidental catfish up to about 40Ib and get you out of snags. Choose quality line that is stiff and lays well on the bottom. A lifting line spooks fish. Gardner is a good make whilst Daiwa Sensor is a make that stretches amazingly and is less likely to snap but do take that stretch of a couple of yards into account if fishing tight to features or snags.

Top Tip: Use a back lead to keep your line flat when fishing at distance and to avoid interference from geese and ducks in the margins.

Back leads are small weights with a removable, plastic hoop on top which you place onto your line at the rod tip and allow to slide down into the water to pin your line safely to the bottom.

Landing gear at the ready

I like to use a floating foam pad around the ‘V’ where the handle connects to the net to make it easier to use one-handedly while playing the fish. This also keeps the net up in the water away from margin snags until you are ready to land the fish. A net floater is recommended.

Top Tip: only put the net in the water when the fish is tired and ready. Otherwise, the carp can take the line under the net and causes a hook pull.

Rest the fish in a large, padded unhooking mat or a rubber cradle on legs. Keep it in the shade and have lake water ready in a container to pour over the fish. This keeps the gills moist and retains the layer of slime around the fish which protects it from disease.

Have carp care ready to smear over any blood spots around the mouth or lost scales before weighing and returning to the water. Carp are very sensitive to heat and hard ground. They feel mainly through the ‘lateral’ line along the body to detect vibration from predators and other threats.

Whatever you do, never stand up whilst holding a fish to have it photographed. Use a large weigh sling which zips up either side so the fish cannot wriggle out and drop onto the ground during weighing. Assist the fish back into the water, holding minimally under its belly until it is ready to swim away.

Top Tip: larger carp are clever. They will often stop pulling against the rod tip and rise up in the water to suddenly slacken the line and let the hook drop out of their mouth. Be aware of this when fighting the fish. Angler’s say ‘tight lines’ for reason as well as luck.

Use a net float

I like to use a floating foam pad around the ‘V’ where the pole connects to the net to make it easier to use one-handedly while playing the fish. This also keeps the net up in the water away from margin snags until you are ready to land the fish.

What is a lead clip? And how to use it

I have always favoured bottom fishing for larger carp: I sink therefore I am! A lead clip is the default presentation. This may look complicated to start with but it is a safe method for hooking fish and avoiding tangles.

First thread your loose line through a section of narrow tubing about 1.5 feet long. Choose the widest type available and the type labeled for silt. Next, thread the line through the small rubber supplied with your packet of clips and then thread the line through the clip too. Tie the end of the line to the swivel on your hook length.

This sits the line behind the rig flat to the lake bed and importantly prevents naked nylon line lifting a scale off a fish when turning and fighting in the water. You can also change the weight without setting it all up again.

Lead Clip

A lead clip is the default presentation. This may look complicated to start with but it is a safe method for hooking fish and avoiding tangles.

Carp Rigs

There is a bewildering volume of rigs to be tied or bought ready-made. Until you have more experience I would advise choosing ready-mades. A lot of design goes into them. The packets also offer sound tips on how to hair-rig different bait types in relation to the hook shank. Such attention to detail is everything when fooling larger specimens.

What you are looking for is an extra banded stop down the hook shank. When a fish bites, the hook immediately turns and inserts itself into the fish’s lip before it can spit it out. It should be adjustable – meaning you can move the small band along the hook shank to cater for different bait sizes and presentations. Take a look at the Korda Dark Matter Wide-Gape rigs.

Size 6 hooks are a standard but when carp are fussy drop down to an Size 8 rather than step up to a Size 4. You can always choose a ‘wide-gape’ description on the packet to compensate for the smaller size. 18mm boilies are optimum for a Size 6 and 15mm for a Size 8. In your first sessions keep it simple and do not over complicate.

Korda Carp Rig

Until you have more experience I would advise choosing ready-mades. A lot of design goes into them.

How to choose a bait for large carp and why

Some bait recommendations: Boilies are the go-to option due to their powerful ingredients and their staying power on your hair rig. Remember: you may be on a water where carp will not touch a bait until they see it lie undisturbed for hours. They come in an amazing variety but there are some key flavours for common conditions so let us cut down the choices to something meaningful for your first large carp sessions.

Carp recognise several main base-flavours including sugar, fat, fish and salt. These can then be exaggerated by boilie flavours such as: Spice responds to their recognition of salt and fish and is a year round option. A combination of tuna and chilli have caught fish for me in multiple weather and water conditions when others have failed. If this doesn’t work try fruit or sweet flavours which respond to their recognition of sugar. I find coconut often attracts fish more than standard flavours such as pineapple.

Top tip: use standard bags of boilies from the tackle shop for loose feeding. Splash the cash on small tubs of more intensely flavoured boilies for the hair rig. They will be called ‘cell boilies or ‘wafters.’ Always be willing to cut down your boilie with scissors to match the hook size – the curve and point of the hook must appear over the side of the boilie to hook the carp effectively.

Stand up to Stand out: Pop-ups, which float, can be very effective. Even in spring and summer, do not assume you need large baits for larger fish every time. Quirky small baits such as pop-up boilies, pellet wafters or cut-down boilies will often fool wary fish. Larger pop-ups or pop-ups too far from the hook shank may be more difficult for the fish to swallow as they are too buoyant.

Current trends and emerging brands and flavours

Over the last two seasons I would say without a doubt that the CC Moore range of boilies have proved superior for me, partly because they contain more natural ingredients which is why they often describe their range as ‘live-system’ boilies. I have had success on hard and difficult lakes with their Pacific Tuna range especially and certainly the pop-ups.

This year, as winter started to fall away, there were many videos and online articles on ‘black foam and maggot.’ I saw anglers catching where a carper in the next peg blanked. More information on that can be found on You Tube, Facebook or your tackle shop. I would hazard a strong guess that the black foam element replicates hatching insects in early spring.

When carp go off the boilie!

In summer carp are far more likely to switch on to meat, responding to their recognition of fat. Meat leaks more oil into the water and they are more likely to move towards it than in winter when they are dormant and require bait being dropped right next to them. Luncheon meat will be slowly eroded by smaller fish and will soften, so use it when fish respond within 45 minutes or so.

Peperami or Chorizo have more staying power and whilst large halibut pellets are a standard, the oils they contain break down slowly and are suitable for a long wait if that is the feeding situation. Be aware, however, that the largest sizes may attract catfish.

Love your glug

If everybody is using similar bait, how does yours stand out? Drop a handful of dry pellet, particles or boilies into the water in front of you. Now glug the same and drop them in the water. Compare the volume of oil which is released from the glugged bait as it spreads throughout the nearby water. Never forget that difference – it is ‘ready-meal’ compared with ‘Cordon-bleu’ for bigger fish. Halibut, Krill or Tuna oil are reliable standards.

Liquid Krill & Tuna

The oil spreads through all water depths from the moment it hits the surface. A key advantage of your glug when bottom fishing is that ability to draw in fish from a wide area around your hook and in all depths at which the fish may be feeding as your bait sinks down to the bed.

PVA mesh bags melt in water so can present only solid, dry baits. Placed directly on the hook before casting, they can be very effective for fish ready to feed but always glug the hair-rigged bait. PVA bags of the melting polythene type permit liquid glug but distance casting can be more difficult if you are using them for the first time as they are not so aerodynamic.

I recall sitting on a specimen lake in a heat wave. As you might expect in such temperatures, feeding slowed. I changed not my bait but my perception. Instead of sitting on a bottom bait for hours or assuming I was doing something wrong I did some research from magazines and decided to feed over the top. The result was that I banked several carp of 18lbs to 22Ibs.

It may sound counter-intuitive to loose feed over the top when you are baiting up the bottom but it can make the difference between a blank and a catch. The purpose of this is not so much to chuck in more and more bait but to get the fish curious and excited when lazy in heat.

Avoid a winter of discontent

Avoid pop-ups in winter and stick to the smaller baits. I often drop down to a Size 10 hook and use small pellet wafters on the hair rig. When the first spring sunshine heats up the shallow margins, usually around usually late February and March, target them, even if they are only a foot deep. You may well be surprised that all the anglers chucking out at distance catch less than you. Do not assume margins are a summer venue for carp – they like them all year for differing reasons.

Specialist bait tips

If all else is failing I always have some pink Nash Citruz boilies at the ready. They have a highly concentrated, unique citrus flavour which is unusual and not your standard pineapple, etc. They have a coating which continues to break down in the water and the colour stands out even in silted, rain-flooded waters. (An aside to Tench anglers – they love them on a shallow shelf wherever you go).

Try real prawns propped up by a small, tuna flavoured floating boilie – but they will need changing about once every 45 minutes, so be careful in the margin when you need to be quiet. This can be a killer choice when fishing is hard.

Nash Boilies

Nash Citruz boilies have a highly concentrated, unique citrus flavour.

Specialist tips to take with you

Madness in the Method

I suggest you fish a Method feeder on one of your rods. This flat bed type is best. They sit well in silt. The holes mean water pushes out the pellet appropriately. It does not have ribs around which your hook length can get caught and sit in a tangle. They have more weight for any distance. They hold more feed.

It is a tactic often associated with smaller commercial lakes but here’s a secret shared with you: I often use a normal, ready-made hair rig hook length. Some anglers may say this is madness: the whole point of the Method is to have the hook within the feeder’s bait. But that is for smaller fish. A longer hook-length is far less likely to break on a specimen catch than a shorter link.

It is more dissociated from the method feeder itself so won’t spook more experienced fish. It keeps your hook bait just outside the range of any smaller fish that may hit the feeder for food. It allows accurate casting over any distance and the use of that all-important glug, to create an unctuous spread of flavour all around the area to bring in moving fish and hold them.

Once you find feeding fish it is essential to cast exactly into the same spot each time. Because the feeder drops food on every cast, feeding fish will listen for the splash rather than be spooked by it. Do not be worried about casting in more frequently – about once an hour, if they start to feed.

Clip up to bag up

Use a 1.5-ounce weight or a feeder without a rig tied, to make several casts until you accurately hit your spot by a feature: perhaps an overhanging tree by an island or a deep gully in open water. If trying to hit the same spot in open water, line up the rod with the same feature on the opposite bank to aim.

Once you have the right distance put your line into the clip on your reel before reeling the line back in. Then you will hit the same spot on each cast. Though obviously unclip once your rig is in. When next reeling in to cast again, clip it once more.

A snowman in a summer lake…?

Larger carp will spit out a bait which has unnatural weight – they feel the hook by weight before they get anywhere near touching it. So cut down your sinking boilie or pellet to permit an extra piece of floating bait on the hair rig and combine both. This negates the weight of the hook so it is ‘critically balanced’ and stands more chance of being taken. It is more important than you might think. ‘Snowman’ simply refers to the typical shape of the bait on the hair rig:

How to get started with spodding

Spods are like a fat dart, the body of which contains a pile of glugged freebies. You cast it separately into the place where you will then cast your line. A button on the front of the spod hits the water and it opens up to drop contents.

I used to think when I first started that spodding was the preserve of anglers more professional and experienced than myself. It often means buying a specialist rod to cast out the heavy device and that rod can only be used for that purpose and adds expense to your first tackle upgrade.

Then I found the mini-spod. You can cast it on the same rod you fish with, on the same clip without having to change to a heavy spod rod and it does not over-bait. Personally, I do not like over-feeding a water as it takes oxygen out over time and makes fish sluggish, especially in summer. I do recognise the need to balance that against competing with all the bait landing in the peg next door. The mini-spod is my compromise and often a very effective one.

Tight Lines

I hope this information serves you well and fuels your passion. It will make sense and fall into place for you quickly once you are on the bank considering tactics, even if some of it seems quite detailed at first. After all the preparation, being there all set up, makes it worthwhile:

Below are some suggestions of where to fish and some FAQs. Before I sign off with that information – here’s a final, important note. I never forget fishing under a full moon watching constellations reflected in the water at my feet. Sometimes it is not just the fish which are the stars of the show but the being there!

Recommended specimen waters


Do I need an Environment Agency rod licence?

Always. Be aware that one license covers two rods and that to fish with three requires a second license.

Are fisheries’ rules enforceable?

Yes, they are there for a reason. If you do not follow them, you will be asked to leave.

How long should I fish for on a specimen trip?

I recommend 48 hours to properly explore the water and tactics.

Can you fish just for one day for specimen carp?

Yes, but do lots of research to maximise chances.

How do I take a photo if fishing alone?

Buy a tripod for your phone or digital camera and use either a shutter delay which is standard on all digital cameras or a phone app which provides a movement sensor.

Is there an optimum time of year?

Debatable but most anglers would say May to Sept when water is warm, nights still long but heatwaves or heavy rain are less likely to kill the feeding.

Do all specimen lakes have tackle shops?

Most but not all. It is advisable to ring in advance to check if you really need something to be stocked when you arrive.

How much bait would I expect to use?

I recommend a kilo at most in 24 hours awake, made up of all loose feed used. I usually use around three kilos in four days given that I sleep for a few hours here and there and I do not like to over feed. Some waters demand far less.

What is the average cost to get started for the first time?

All tackle, your bivvy, cooking and sleeping equipment, would come to around £600 to £700 from scratch.

Are venues secure and safe at night?

Yes, in my experience very much so – as long as you do not wind-up strangers who are blanking.

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Written by Stuart Duncan
Stuart has been a keen angler for nearly forty years. Moving from the North of England where he grew up river fishing, he discovered match-lake fishing on moving to London and the South East. Following long-term membership of Hadley Angling and Preservation Society and learning from many talented anglers there, he stepped up to specimen carp fishing.


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