Return to the Secret Garden Part 1: Initial Discoveries

Return to the Secret Garden Part 1: Initial Discoveries

Thursday, 14th October 2021

A long, long time ago we booked a two week holiday at the Secret Garden through Armfield Angling.

Wheelbarrow filled with brown, cereal-based fishing pellets.

The venue is booked at least 24 months ahead and given our previous visit took place in September 2019, it's no surprise that we had to wait a while! Now, after a dozen false starts (trips were postponed or cancelled more often than No Time To Die!) our time had come.

So despite all the UK government's attempts to stop us going by insisting that we jump through all manner of hoops we were almost ready for the off. We took all the tests and completed all the forms and obtained all the certificates and at last we were ready to leave these blighted shores for the first time in nearly two years. You can read about how we got on in 2019 here:

Since that visit the lake had suffered a slight (and temporary) Covid-related set-back, as the lack of anglers' bait going in had meant that many of the fish had lost a bit of weight. However, Jean had put in place a feeding regime using a nutritious cereal-based pellet that was introduced by the wheelbarrow load.

fresh water mussels and crayfish in a black bucket.

This was introduced in quantity, the idea being to supplement the natural food in the lake, which is plentiful with fresh water mussels and crayfish being present in abundance. Jean was putting in a 150kg a week of these pellets and while these were not as nutritious as the majority of angler's baits, the introduced pellets would stop them going too hungry.

68lb carp being held by fisherman, Jean.

Clearly this regime was working and this can be evidenced in the fact that in February of 2021 the lake record was broken by Jean himself when he landed this amazing, sleek mirror of 68lb. As you can see this torpedo of a carp has got an lot of growing still to do and Jean was hopeful that it might make seventy pounds plus by the end of the season. We hoped it would do so earlier than that; in September would be nice.

Stunning red and orange sunset over Roscoff.

Covid has played havoc with Brittany Ferries' sailing schedules but living as we do a long way from the short sea crossings and the Tunnel we chose our preferred route from Plymouth to Roscoff aboard the cruise ferry Pont Aven. We arrived in France as the sun was setting over the old fishing port of Roscoff and after a quick bite to eat in one of the many eating establishments in the town hit the sheets in our overnight B&B in the town.

Huge, castle-like building surrounded by greenery and lawn.

Though this meant we would arrive in France a couple of days early we were determined to make the most of those days by cruising slowly down through France, eating and drinking the best that France could offer. This is the Château de Nieuil, a 4star hotel and restaurant situated in Nieuil some 20 miles south west of Confolens in the Charente Departement of France. It is luxury in a single word and that word is chic. The bedrooms are top class and the restaurant is one of the finest in France. We broke our journey here and were treated like royalty. It is lovely to be pampered from time to time!

Front cover with French building, overlooking water.

We also took the opportunity to look at lakes and rivers, and at one or two gites that we had pencilled in as worth a look. The Gites de France booklets are always a good starting point if you are looking for a new venue.

Old watermill next to open water and greenery.
I have had my eye on this little riverside gite for some time so this was a good opportunity to take a closer look. It is on a tributary of the River Charente, a well known river for carp and one we had fished a few times before. This old water mill stands above a deep, gravel-bottomed pool and asking around in the local bar I discovered that a few Dutch carpers had been regulars on the river. The Dutch have a well-deserved reputation for finding tasty little hideaways and this one looked to be ideal. It went in the book with a big tick mark alongside it.
 Still French water with overhanging trees.

This is the main river (Charente) below Cognac and it looked in fine form with a good flow and plenty of weed growth. I had circled a couple of gites on the river between Cognac and Jarnac and also a few gravel pits at Saintogne. I knew that some French guys were fishing nearby so I popped in to see them. They were all a bit down in the mouth as the fishing had been very poor. I hope this wasn't bad karma for our trip!

Chalet bungalow with gravel front, overhanging trees and a blue vehicle parked outside.

So after a very relaxed and leisurely trip down, we at last arrived at the Secret Garden. If you have followed my blogs you will know that Tat and I have developed a passionate love affair with this place. It truly is the most laid back lake we have ever fished and though the majority of guests fish the lake hard with great intensity, we are the total opposite. I suppose it's each to his own - "catch them on your own terms" as Rod used to say - and we treat our French trips as more of a holiday than an all-out attack on the carp! And when we've got this kind of super-comfortable accommodation at our disposal, well, it seems a shame not to use it to the full.

Old cobblestone building, set off from the road.

I guess what I am saying is that as ever we are very laid back in our attitude towards the fishing. We don't fish nights and always enjoy eating out and having a beer, or a wine or two in the local hostelries. This is one of the finest hotel/restaurants in the area and we invariably enjoy a Sunday nose bag here. It is a member of the Logis de France, which is as good a stamp of quality as you will find across the Channel.

Dalmatian on red dog food packet.

As I expect many of you know, the European Union forbids UK residents from bringing in any products that are meat, milk or fish based, which in effect rules out just about every well formulated boiled bait made in the UK. However, you can still use such products that are made in the EU and Frolic dog biscuits fit the bill admirably.

Haith's Robin Red poster.

Luckily for all UK Francophiles there are one or two bait companies that have started a business dedicated to making what I would call 'proper' baits. Food baits in other words. These baits are also known as HNV baits. These are made to the tried and tested recipes created by such companies as Nash, Solar and Nutrabaits. One such company is Union Jack Baits, which is based in the Haute-Vienne region of France. The company is well established having been the main agent for Nutrabaits when Bill Cottam was the boss. Now it has branched out on its own under the guidance of Andrew Bernard and his son Ben. They are true believers in the wisdom of offering the carp a really good bait based on the traditional HNV principle so beloved of Big Bill. As it says on the label, ' Old School Baits for Carp Anglers'.

Packet of bait for fishing.

As anyone who has read my Blogs will know, I too am a died-in-the-wool adherent to such baits so when Andrew offered me twenty kilos of his top-selling Squid boiled baits I bit his hand off! Not only did they roll the bait freshly for me, they also were hand delivered to the venue by Andrew himself. Big thanks to all at Union Jack Baits. Such is the growing reputation of the company that they now roll the 'house' baits for several of France's biggest and well known carp lakes, including Le Queroy, Murphy's Lake and of course Andrew's own wonder-lake Priory Lake just north of Limoges.

An assortment of bait ingredients including coloured powders and eggs.

If you want proof that UJB's stuff works just drop in on Priory's Facebook page and be amazed! These are proper, well-formulated old school food baits. This pic shows some of the ingredients they use and from this you can imagine the thought and complexity that goes into their products. Andrew feeds his Priory Lake carp on UJB boilies throughout the year and his growth rates are phenomenal. You'll not be surprised to hear, therefore, that UJB uses only Haith's Baits genuine Robin RedNectarblendCLOPTX and Red Factor. Incidentally, all these products have been modified to comply with Brexit and other EU Regulations.

Andrew smiling whilst holding a massive carp he caught whilst fishing.

This is Andrew himself with an absolute monster from his own lake, Priory Lake. Andrew has been around the block a few times and knows how to catch them He is equally at home on small lakes as he is on the huge inland seas where the truly wild, uncaught carp lurk. His album would either make you green with envy or wild with applause. His bait ethos is quite simple…If you feed them they will come! That means true 'Food Baits' made with top quality birdfoods, fish and nut meals, hydrolysates and other food liquids. He is a man after my own heart and his belief in offering carp premium bait is one reason why he teamed up with Big Bill and Nutrabaits in the first place back in the day. Sadly that relationship has had to end after Bill left the company, but their loss is our gain, as now we can all benefit from his expertise and of course his bespoke service to anglers.

Open gate leading to a French lake.

So the scene is set: time to get down to the lake. The view through the trees as one opens the sturdy gates to the property never fails to stir the emotions. The Secret Garden is very well named. If you didn't know it was there you might pass it by without a second glance, but the secrets that lie through those big green gates are magical!

A rainy lake with an abundance of greenery surrounding it.

We soon settled in and even the heavy rain couldn't dampen our enthusiasm. The lake looked magnificent in all it's summer greenery and while Tat made a start on the dinner I got set up near to the second pontoon. Since Covid struck Jean has spent the dreary lockdown months creating a new pontoon closer to the house, a mere fifteen meters away, in fact!

Still lake with sunlight shining through.

As I mentioned previously, we are very relaxed in our outlook. "It's a marathon, not a sprint", as Rainbow Lake expert Eric Smith often says, so we didn't fish that first day, choosing instead to sleep in the spacious main bedroom, which features a large Velux window through which you can see the stars shining and sometime a big old Harvest Moon. We slept really well and when we awoke the next morning and went into the conservatory we saw that the rain had stopped, the sun was out, and on the near pontoon my rods were awaiting the call to arms!

  Lake covered with green lilypads.

I put on my wellies an went for a stroll down the bank to the far end of the lake. This is real Mr Crabtree country and sure enough, as I stood and gazed at the pads, small patches of tiny bubbles trickled up to the surface from the carp patrolling the pads. Occasionally the pads would jerk or tremble, sometimes one or two would actually move across the surface and dip below it, sure signs that the carp were actively feeding. I could almost hear Mr Crabtree pointing out these signs to Peter. Those Crabtree books were surely responsible for encouraging generations of kids (and quite a few adults, I imagine) to take up fishing. They certainly inspired me. Now here, in real life the illustrations on those pages came fully to life.

Time to get fishing, Kenny, I told myself and wandered back to the house, where the smell of freshly made coffee diverted me from my intended task, namely to get the rods out. The fishing can wait. Breakfast comes first and it was much appreciated.

Red boilies in an ice crusher.

Most of my boilies were now in the freezer that Jean provides for his guests, but I had kept back a couple of kilos and these I converted to crumb using my trusty ice crusher.

Brown crushed bait for fishing.

Wherever practical I prefer to fish crumb as I feel it creates a more positive and aggressive feeding activity. I added extra attraction to the crumb with a goodly dollop of a liquid fish hydrolysate, which in turn was spiced up with hot water. This is a trick I learned from Dean Cowell who uses it to activate his own food hydros, and believe me, it is a trick that I am rather loath to pass on, coz it works a treat and will be a definite 'edge' for you should you want to give it a go.

Bottle of liquid plankton hydro feed stimulant.

The liquid food I am using at the moment is Liquid Plankton Hydro, a very interesting product from Feed Stimulants, a Dutch company that is at the forefront of carp bait science with a catalogue that will gladden the hearts of any bait man.

Tin of sweetcorn.

Here's another little tip for you. You know those large catering tins of sweetcorn? The ones that hold about three kilos of cooked sweetcorn in a sweet and succulent solution that carp fishing much to their liking?

Gooey sweetcorn for fishing bait on a spoon.

Well, leave the tin in the sun for a day or two and see what happens. It's well worth the wait! Does this remind you of anything?

Sweetcorn being transferred to a green bucket and mixed with red boilies.

I mixed in a couple of baiting spoons full of the activated sweetcorn with the boilie crumb and added a few Frolic biscuits glugged in Tamari Soy Sauce and that completed my bait prep. Now to get fishing.

Eroded waterbank.

On my last visit two years ago we had caught all our fish under the bushes across on the far bank, but at the drain-down in January 2020 Jean discovered that the bank was getting undercut quite badly, probably by the carp feeding tight to the margins. A digger was called in to shore up the bank, but this meant that instead of the usual three to four feet depth along the far bank, there was now only a foot or so. True, the margins sloped down quite quickly but it seemed to us that the carp were less likely to get right in tight to the far bank as they had been 24 months previously. This photograph shows the extent of the erosion.

Join me next time to see how we fared.

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