I used to have plenty of time at my disposal, and no doubt someday I’ll get that time back, being free to meander from water to water in search of dreams. But, for now, I have to make the most of my time and plan trips carefully in order to get full enjoyment from them. This weekend was such an event, a weekend away with three great friends at a local venue with the makings of becoming a very special fishery.
I have known it in the past as Greenridge Farm, but the now called FLE Fishery at Ampfield, just outside Romsey in the heart of Hampshire, has recently undertaken a change which I’m sure with propel this wonderful haven into one of the most popular lakes in the south. The pool itself is around an acre in size with an island and a series of bays. There are 15 stunning carp present that range from 20 to over 30lbs, so when that float dips you can be sure whatever is hooked is certainly going to be a bit special.
Set among picturesque and tranquil woodland the lake looked fabulous when I arrived early on Friday morning. I was greeted by Graham (FLE fishery manager) who prepared us a cup of tea before giving me a tour of the Top Lake. I’d fished there before with my Dad two years previous, that was before they had their problems with topmouth gudgeon, but what Graham has done since the pool was drained and all the fish removed is simply genius and probably every carpers dream.
The Hut End
Faced with having to start all over again Graham had a vision, a goal that was sure to ensure that the Top Lake cements its place in local carp fishing folklore. Some of the existing swims were retired leaving just 7 from the original 16, willow fences were erected around its perimeter, the island was trimmed and reinforced with hazel edging and an out of bounds bank was established to create a safe haven for the carp.
Graham carefully handpicked 15 carp, quality carp that range from 20 to over 30lbs. These are young fish, good lookers that will grow well creating big fish fishing for years to come. The fishing at the lake is booked on a weekend basis with up to 4 anglers sharing the pool. The weekend session starts Friday morning and runs till Sunday tea time, leaving the rest of the week unfished. You can check availability and book in through their website. http://www.forlifeexp.com
The general idea is that it won’t be a runs water, far from it, but you will have the chance to get up close and personal with big carp that will just continue to get bigger year after year. Stalking lends itself well to the Top Lake with its many bays and overhangs, float fishing in the edge is sure to be a favourite with margins averaging a metre or more in depth very close to the bank. Camaraderie will be the order of the day with groups of friends enjoying such facilities as an anglers hut, summer house and fire pit as well as a fully functional toilet block. Fellowship was certainly high on the list during our weekend.
The Summer House
So the scene was set, four traditional anglers were to spend the three days and two nights on the Top Lake, to catch one of the stunning carp that reside within those overgrown banks would have been nice, but it wasn’t seen as the be all and end all. The traditional angler enjoys far more than simply catching fish, and all those extra things, such as the flora and fauna, the companionship, the laughs and the relaxation are so easily achieved at such a marvellous place.
As soon as I started on my tour of the pool with Graham, it was clear that what he had created was the perfect venue for anglers of many disciplines, the pleasure angler, the hardened carper and the traditionalist alike. As we walked and talked we saw the resident colony of moorhens, Terry the terrapin and a few of the pool’s other inhabitants, the ones below the surface, blatantly visible by observing the sheer amount of water being displaced by their movement through the murky water. Our unseen adversaries appeared colossal.
With much of the emphasis surrounding those magnificent carp, it came as no surprise when Graham informed me that he’d like us to use the carp care products he provided. Weigh slings, unhooking cradle, large net and even top notch scales on a tripod are there for every angler to use. As well as ensuring that each and every angler has sufficient equipment to safeguard the fish, it also acts to prevent the chance of disease being transferred from other waters, they really have thought of everything at FLE.
Just as soon as our tour was over and the last drop of warm tea was finished Graham bid me farewell, he had a tuition session to attend to on one the venue’s canal sections and I was keen to make a start. Fennel and John were due to arrive after lunch and Tim later in the evening, so in the meantime I thought it would be rude not to interrogate the banks some, slowly unload the car, make camp and, perhaps, to have a cast or two. The Opposite end of the lake from the car park looked a good place to camp for the weekend, the summer house and fire pit, coupled with the pools widest grassy banks, made it the perfect spot.
An area opposite the island seemed to be attracting some activity; the water close to the bank was rocking frequently and sheets of bubbles rose to the surface. It looked so easy, although the water was coloured and actual fish spotting was going to be tricky, the sheer bulk of the fish was always going to give their presence away in only a metre or so of water. I set up a Mark IV carp rod, slid the reel bands onto a Bakelite centrepin and attached a small quill float. A nice chunk of luncheon meat was threaded onto a size 6 hook (with crushed barb as per fishery rules) and a gentle swing saw the float settle just above the spot the bubbles had been rising.
I half expected it to slide under straight away, but it didn’t. Instead, pin prick bubbles continued to surface all around my float, which never dipped once. I gathered there and then that the pool must be going through a period where naturals are in abundance, just another obstacle to manoeuvre and another challenge we’d have to get around in order to catch a carp. I tried three or four different areas around the pool, fished for around three hours or so, baited some spots for later, introduced a few floaters and when that was done I began making camp.
Fennel and John arrived around 2pm, Graham gave them a quick tour after which I showed them around some more and pointed out what observations I’d made since arriving. With the cars unloaded we set about finishing off camp, up went the shelters, fishing spots were allocated and stalking spots were eyed up. All through lunch we continued to see fish show themselves, not in the true sense of the word, but with their movements and the rocking of the water. Already we were starting to work out areas they preferred, and Fennel wasted no time in finding a nice area close to the end of the island to mount his attack.
Soon after tea time Tim arrived. Now we were all together it was time to get on with some fishing and, early evening, meet back at camp for a barbeque and a few glasses of red. Nobody caught anything on that first day, it was hot with the odd shower and although the surrounding area consisted of well-established woods, there was still a nice breeze on the water. Fennel was the only one who actually got some fish interested in feeding; a few swirls under the crusts he allowed to drift along the margin filled us all with confidence. As per usual, a few of those crusts did disappear, but sadly not the one with the hook inside.
After the rain...
Me being me, I decided I’d have a couple of rods out overnight, and was the only one in our party to do so. This consisted of one rod with a centrepin fished so that the loud ratchet would wake me should I get a run, the other with a Mitchell 300 fixed spool on a Heron bite alarm. One rod was cast under a tree to the right of my pitch, and the other fished across to a winter bait hopper on the opposite bank. It looked good and with the areas baited it was time to join in the festivities. Soon enough the fire pit was fed logs which were set alight at the same time as the barbeque. The wine was opened and a great evening was had by all.
From left: Me, Tim, John (aka Alby Tross due to his considerable wingspan complete with collapsible camping candelabra with citronella candles) and Fennel
I was using my new French army WW2 canvas tent for the first time, which happened to be the same one as Fennel was using. With a single blow up mattress inside along with my trusty sleeping bag I was cosy, warm and soon asleep. I turned in before the others in the hope of waking early, seeing the first rays of sunlight on the pool and perhaps tricking one of those big carp before they were fully awake. Rain fell through the night but morning was dry and the sky was clear, it was the start of a beautiful day.
Like a fire in the sky...
Mist rose in columns and as the sun began to cast its beams through the trees to the right of camp, the water was still for the most part, wobbling only when Terry cruised through, a moorhen ducked through the marginal growth or a carp moved just under the surface. I emerged from the shelter, realised that the lines hadn’t moved and wound both rods in prior to exploring the pool. My friends snored happily. It was as atmospheric a carpers morning as I’d ever experienced. I tried to capture it with my camera as best I could, but it never quite looks the same.
With my two bottom bait rods, net and mat in tow, I crept ever so quietly round the top bay, past the bait feeder and to the margin alongside the double swim. This was where I’d seen most of the activity so with both traps laid I retreated to the little white bench and watched the world awake. As the day previous, I observed what were obviously feeding fish, and I was as close as I could get to them, but they just seemed so disinterested in what I was laying before them. It was as if they were totally ignoring my baits in favour of something else, something far tastier than luncheon meat, sweetcorn or worms. As I sat there I watched the resident kingfisher land on one of Fennel’s redundant rods, I just knew that was an omen for something wonderful.
With all the observations made I still remained confident that one of us would capture one of these elusive beasts. It was unfamiliar territory for me, but Fennel, going by what I’d seen the afternoon previous, knew fully what he was doing in such a situation. His faith in worms seemed the obvious choice, if the carp were feeding on naturals then what better than a nice bunch of wrigglys? At a little after 8am I returned to camp, lit the Kelly Kettle and proceeded to make a pot of tea. Once the four cups were made (a blend of earl grey and assam with a smidge of honey) I woke my three friends, and whilst they enjoyed that first brew of the day I readied pot number two.
We assessed the prospects for the day, Fennel crept off to his spot near the end of the island past the bridge, Tim opted to fish near the bridge, John sat in his own pitch and float fished a worm out in front and I cast the bottom rods back to where they’d been fishing overnight. The sky was gradually beginning to darken, there was rain in the air and by mid-morning my eyes were starting to get heavy. I climbed into the shelter, laid down and rested my eyes just as the heaven opened. For a few minutes I listened to the rain drumming against the canvas above me, a sound that always has a lullaby effect on me; I was soon in another place dreaming wonderful dreams.
I slept soundly for a couple of hours and woke expecting to meet up with my friends, but they too had crawled into their respective homes and as the wind and rain began to subside the sun started to shine through the ever increasing gaps in the cloud. The lake steamed for a time after, not as dramatically as the morning, but still enough to create a feel of contentment. At around lunchtime I prepared another pot of tea just in time for the awakening of my companions.
The afternoon session began after lunch, everyone dispersed to their spots, the sun’s strength grew and those carp were becoming more visible. I was watching a carp under the bridge whilst contemplating the best plan of attack when I looked up just in time to see Fennel perform the best cast I’ve seen with a centrepin, his Hardy cane rod was matched with a Speedia reel and the bunch of worms landed inches from the island. I watched as Fennel punched the air and said “Yes”, it was one of those casts that has ‘Take’ written all over it, especially as I later learnt that a carp had been feeding in that very spot.
I got back to my own fishing and was watching some movement to the right of my pitch when I heard the screech of Fennel’s Speedia, I knew straight away what had happened and rushed over to assist with the netting. He told me it was a heavy, ponderous fish which didn’t run too far, just circled deep round and round. With the net head dipped I watched the fish come towards the platform, surface and try to head for the stanchions beneath us, with a little twist and a flick I worked the net into the fish’s path which thankfully went in at the first time of asking.
I shook Fennel’s hand and congratulated him on a wonderfully skilful piece of angling; he thanked me for the deft netting. The fish was big, 23 he said, 25 I said, but I was being conservative, it was a deep bodied fish with high shoulders and bags of power. With everything ready we weighed the stunning mirror at 26lb 10oz, took some photos and as Fennel leant across the platform releasing the fish I snapped away some more. It was a marvellous moment, we hoped one of us would catch one, to see one on the bank and we did.
After something like half an hour of recapping the capture over and over, I was somehow more determined to catch one of those splendid creatures myself. Taking a leaf out of Fennel’s book I rigged up similarly with a hookful of worms suspended by a blob of floating putty and went off in search of something to cast at. Opposite my pitch I stood and watched two carp cruise around looking as though they might be susceptible take a slowly sinking bunch of wriggle worms, but until almost dark I must have dropped not only worms but bread crust and dog biscuits onto carp noses with so much as a swirl.
As darkness fell I laid my two traps as before and retired with my friends to the fire pit. We had more than a few giggles, the company was first class and over a bottle of champagne we toasted not only Fennel’s capture but also our recently departed friend Richard. Richard was originally due to be with us but lost his battle with illness before his time. He was with us in spirit though; perhaps he had a hand in Fennel’s capture? Maybe he sent the nightjar to serenade us into the night. Sometime around midnight we called it a day and clambered into our pits.
I slept soundly and woke on Sunday morning slightly later than previously, but still fairly early and, once more, long before the others. I missed the sunrise however, and any atmospheric mist had already been burnt away. It was the final day which always saddens me somewhat on trips like these, but somehow I felt that FLE Top Lake had already been kind to us, giving up one of its gems and spoiling us with enchanting mornings and dreamy evenings. The pressure to catch was off, it would have been nice to land one myself, but at the same time it would only make my eventual return visit and any future capture even more special.
The plan for the final day was to relax, enjoy the time we had left and to soak up the Top Lake aura. Graham had been the perfect host regularly popping down to see if we needed anything. The tackle shop they have now has all the essentials so there are no worries about running out of anything. He also stocks bait in case you run out, including wriggly stuff. If you wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle, with a few friends, angle for big carp without having to travel abroad at a venue that has everything you could need, then look no further.
For the early part of the morning I sat in the Lafuma reading my copy of Chris Yates’ ‘Lost Diary’, a great read that mentions another of my favourite pools, Waggoners Wells, which made me want to revisit at some point this summer. The two waters had their similarities, but were also worlds apart. The secluded feel of the Top Lake was a breath of fresh air, upon arrival you are handed a key to the gate; nobody is permitted to enter but you, your party and Graham and his tea, leaving you to relax and fish in peace. Waggoners, being a National Trust site, couldn’t be busier!
At around 8am I made a pot of tea and woke my chums with a brew. Soon they were up and back to their fishing with Time and Fennel concentrating either side of the bridge, John creeping into position at the head of the pool past the Summer House and I wander around casually looking for that opportunity to arise. It was a lazy day, a sunny one too with a breeze that had swung round and was now blowing towards us from the car park. “Westerly” Fennel informed me, perhaps there could be one final twist?
Carp continued to show themselves, around the island, along most margins and out in the bays but as hard as I tried, with every method and bait at my disposal, Still I could not bring leviathan to the bank. Fennel came close with a carp sucking the bread from his hook without actually drawing the hook inside, but on that last day it was about as close as we came to more success. Mid-morning saw us begin to think about breaking camp, the shelters were dropped, dried out, rolled up and crammed into their carry bags which are always far too small for some reason.
With most of the things packed away and stacked up alongside the back gate for easy access to the cars, we continued fishing half-heartedly whilst chatting about what a wonderful weekend it had been. Tim was first to back his car up the path, load his boot and bid us farewell. Then Fennel, John and I reluctantly loaded our cars and with handshakes all round we thanked each other for being such wonderful company and vowed to return for another go.