CARP INSTINCT AND BEHAVIOUR
One of the things I often say to people when talking about boilies is “carp are not humans”. It may seem a strange thing to say because everyone knows carp are not humans but we try to humanise them by thinking our thought processes align with the carp. Let me give a couple of examples. How many anglers when looking for a boilie pick up the pack or pick up a boilie and smell it? How many taste it? We use our preferences to decide if it’s something the carp will like but how do you know what a carp will like? How many have tasted a raw crayfish or have eaten a handful of mud from the bottom of a lake? These are what carp feed on or in so aren’t they what carp like? Instead we make a judgement based on what we like and impose that thought on to how we think a carp will react. Another example is in where we fish, many books and articles have been written that say in this weather condition or that weather condition the carp behave in a certain way. In many cases they do but I am yet to meet a carp that can read so sometimes they don’t do as the books say. So what has this to do with targeting big carp? The answer is simple, carp live by instincts not conscious thought. To try to predict where to fish for a big carp we need to understand what those instincts are, what influences them and if possible what effects they have on the behaviour of the carp.
All creatures have 2 basic instincts which drive everything else, survival and reproduction, survival so we can produce offspring. Survival is composed of 2 elements, avoiding predators and obtaining the nourishment we need to reach maturity, attract a mate and pass on our genes. At that point the job is done and some creatures will die very soon after, others may be able to reproduce for many years before becoming old and useless in a biological sense.
Once carp reach a certain size there are very few predators that can harm them but carp do not possess self awareness and logic. They don’t switch off the instinct for self preservation just because they are big. Add in to this the years of learning of situations that present danger and where there is natural safety and it starts to allow us to build a better understanding of the behaviour of the carp.
A similar process is true of finding the nourishment it needs. All carp from the moment they hatch have the same senses and sensors but as they mature experience and learning enable them to refine the responses to stimulation. A carp can learn when is a good time to feed in a particular area and which are areas rich in food. How often do you see reports of big carp captures where the fish has been caught in the same area of a lake or even the same spot on a regular basis? They have learned where the food supplies are to be found so visit them regularly and the only time they move to a different part of the lake is if those food stores become depleted.
The aim of what I have written today is to highlight the impact instincts have on the behaviour of carp and the great thing about instincts is they have fixed reactions. If we learn how a carp instinctively reacts to particular situation we know it will react that way every time. We can use this knowledge to improve our chances of success.
Part 3: The mechanisms of instinct
In Part 2 I spoke about the drive to survive and reproduce being the basic instincts of living creatures. In relation to fishing the important one is survival - finding food, maintaining health and avoiding danger. I don’t want to go into much detail about the science other than to say there are broadly speaking 3 mechanisms, 2 involve transmission of electric like signals of the nervous system and the other chemical signals of the hormone system. We could also include the immune system but that is more connected with disease and can impact behaviours as a secondary effect.
Let’s start with the nervous system and here a little bit of science is needed. The nervous system is constructed of millions of individual nerve cells which all share something in common, they are activated by a stimulus at one point and transmit it to neighbouring nerve cell or cells at another point, thereby sending the signal from one place on the body to another. The way in which it happens is just one of the many incredible processes happening in living cells every moment of the day and I am happy to share my enthusiasm about it with anyone that is interested but for here it isn’t important. What is important is the pathway a signal travels. I will give an example, imagine a hot summer day and you see a cold bottle of beer, without consciously thinking about it your mouth begins to produce saliva and you feel a desire for the delicious refreshing feel. Now imagine that same cold bottle of beer is thrown at you. It’s exactly the same cold bottle of beer but the response is no longer a feeling of desire, it’s a fast response of your muscles to get out of the way. In both cases the signal originates from the same sensory receptor, the eye, but the signal is processed via a different route and produces a different response. To produce the feeling of desire requires previous knowledge of satisfaction from drinking a cold beer in hot weather, it is a learned behaviour. The other is something we are born with, it is hard wired into our nervous system.
We can use this knowledge to equate it to feeding behaviour in carp. I don’t mean response to cold beer, I mean routes of signal transmission and outcome. Evolution has given carp the tools to find food, from hatching from an egg it must find food so how does it do this? It doesn’t randomly swim around taking mouth fulls of mud! Although carp are omnivorous they are predominantly carnivorous, they eat animal cells (insects, insect larvae, etc more so than plant cells. How do they find such small items, especially when they are hidden under stones or in the mud? All living creatures secrete various chemicals, some are waste products from cellular processes, some are the left overs from digestion (faeces) and others are chemicals used to signal to other creatures. Evolution has produced receptors in the carp which can detect some of these chemicals and activation of the receptors sends a nerve signal which is hard wired in the carp to recognise a source of food. Research has shown various amino acids generate this signal transmission. There is a particular chemical I have used in most of the boilies I have made for the last 30+ years that generates a strong signal transmission.
So we now know there is a signal system the carp to direct it to a food source so we may want to use this to include one or more of these chemicals into a boilie but it is not as simple as just doing it, we need to include it at an appropriate concentration. The chemical I mentioned is a good example of this. Many years ago, on longer sessions it would mean making boilies while fishing. On one particular occasion I was fishing a lake and over the first day or so more and more carp were coming to the baited area but I caught nothing. Every day more carp appeared but still nothing. I was fishing on a plateau only 1 metre deep so it was easy to see the carp and the water was filled with black shapes. For a week I tried so many different things to get a bit but nothing. I was pulling my hair out, so many carp over the baited area but I caught nothing. Eventually I was so frustrated I decided to move to a different part of the lake. Later the same day another angler saw all the carp there so decided to fish there. He too caught nothing for 2 days then the weather changed, from hot sun with no wind to cooler air, wind and rain. I lost count of the number of fish he caught but on several occasions he had carp on both rods at the same time. The additive I was using had attracted so many carp to the area but under the initial conditions close to the boilies it was too intense and repulsed the carp. Once conditions changed nd water movement meant the chemical was being washed away from the area close to the boilies and was no longer repulsing them so they fed like it was Christmas Day. The attached picture shows this in the form of a graph.
The take away information from this is that just because something is a stimulus does not mean adding more and more must make it better.
In the previous part I mentioned 2 types of behaviours, the response to seeing a cold beer and in seeing the bottle coming towards your head. We saw that there are certain stimuli for which we have no control over the response, in humans we have the knee jerk reaction. There is another class of behaviours which we are not born with and must learn. We begin to salivate when we see the cold beer because we have learned from previous experience how good it feels to drink. Learned behaviours result from experience of well being or pleasure and pain, the more intense the feeling the quicker we learn. Anyone who owns a dog will be familiar with this concept, it is how we train them that taking a pee in the house is bad but coming when called is good.
Let’s use the idea of training a dog to look at this type of behaviour in carp. If we want a dog to learn to come when called we need to reward it for the response we want and give nothing for the wrong response. To begin with we need to reward it every time it responds with the desired outcome until after a while praise is a sufficient reward and eventually it becomes an automatic response. The concept of a learned behaviour was very well demonstrated in a famous experiment conducted by the scientist Ivan Pavlov where he (here’s the not so nice bit) surgically exposed the salivary glands of dogs. Over a period of time each time he gave them food he at the same time rang a bell, eventually ringing the bell without giving food would still result in the dogs producing saliva. It was termed conditioned reflex. As anyone who trains dogs will know, when beginning training if the reward is only given periodically in response to the behaviour the association between action and reward is very difficult to establish.
So how does this relate to the behaviour of carp? It is key to understanding their reactions to the baits we use, often where we position them and the rigs used to catch them.
1. Conditioned reflex in relation to baits. Very few lakes containing carp are still completely wild so the carp have from being small encountered anglers bait but they still had to learn that it represents food. All baits, with the exception of the imitation baits, exude a smell or flavour. This could be something we added or just the natural sugars, amino acids or other molecules found in the items. Unless the molecules illicit a response as described in Part 3 the carp does not associate it with being food. However, carp are naturally inquisitive so will investigate the items. Obviously they have no hands so they use their mouths to pick up an item to inspect it. They may even pass it into their throat to crush it. If their senses indicate it to be edible they may then eat more of the items. It is only a number of hours later will any feeling of benefit or harm will occur, in the intervening time the carp may have eaten other things so it does not associate any particular thing with the feeling. Over a period of time if each time it eats the same item it feels some benefit will it learn to connect the 2. Once the association is established there will be an automatic behaviour of stimulus to reaction. A food item which generates a more intense feeling of well being will generate a quicker learning experience. At one time what was sampling an item becomes a strong feeding response. The more frequent the learning experience the sooner the connection is made.
For many anglers fishing is a few times a year so there is not the time to build up this learning but a campaign of regular baiting using a bait which creates a strong feeling of well being, introduced over a number of weeks and several times per week can result in the carp seeking this food item in preference to other baits. Such baiting campaigns have been made by numerous angler to great success for many years.
So for those of us that do not fish the same lake so often we want something the carp already associates with it being food. Using a boilie with a flavour the carp has never encountered before will only get the carp investigating it, not feeding heavily. Better is a boilie with a flavour the carp recognises or the ultimate is a boilie the carp’s instinct as described in Part 3 immediately produces a feeding trigger.
2. Positioning of baits. It seems to me to be common sense to position the hook and bait in an area where the carp feed naturally. We don’t need to encourage them to visit the area, they do that whether we are there or not. However, when an artificial feeding area is created by anglers always fishing the same spot the carp learn that it is a source of food so any items positioned there may be investigated more frequently than they would normally be. There is however a down side to the artificially created feeding area and that is carp can learn to associate it with pain if they are regularly caught there and if they are regularly there when other carp are hooked and cause panic among other fish they can begin to associate the area with danger.
A very successful tactic that has caught many big carp is to position the hook in the vicinity of such an area they associate with danger while feeding the danger area.
3. Rigs. This is a subject that will probably get the most heated response to so I will keep you waiting until next time as I want to give it the level of attention it warrants.
Part 5: Conditioned Response and Rigs
As I mentioned at the end of the last part, I expect this to get the most disagreement with what is being said. I say that because so many people think the latest or most complicated rigs are the best ones to use and this simply is not true. Without even considering any particular rig or hook arrangement we must first look at the natural feeding behaviour of carp, then consider how that behaviour might change as a result of a conditioned behaviour. Once we understand how the carp we are fishing for is likely to feed we can then decide which is the best way to present a baited hook. Only if we know how it feeds can we determine the mechanics for maximum efficiency of hooking.
In this modern age of technology and the internet there are numerous videos of carp feeding but most are of carp feeding on an area of anglers bait. Our starting point must go one stage further back to how does a carp feed in a totally natural environment. There are a number of videos which have captured this but the process the carp uses to detect, select, clean and eat are not possible to see so I will describe the process here.
1. Detection. - There are 2 levels of detection in carp, we can equate them to our senses of smell and taste, although both are in a water environment. A carp has 2 “nostrils” which are the holes situation in front of the eyes. The carp draws water into the cavity and the olfactory bulb can detect low levels of certain stimuli which the carp then associates with the presence of food. Just as we can smell our favourite foods from a distance away and are drawn to the source of the smell by the increasing intensity, the carp can find food in the same way. The next level is where we differ greatly from the carp. When we think of taste we think of it being a process which happens in the mouth, however, as most of you will know we only have a small number of types of taste receptors so most of what we think of as the taste of something is actually predominantly the smell. This is possible because our mouths and nose share the same cavity, it’s what allows is to breathe through both pathways. Carp do not rely on the inside of their mouths for detecting tastes, instead they have receptors positioned on the underside of the head, along the leading edge of their pectoral fins, along the body and in vast numbers on their barbules. It is the sense of smell which guides the carp to food once they are in a closer proximity. When the carp is feeding in silt it is using the signals from the barbules to detect with greater precision where the food items are. At no point in this process has their vision played a part. When the food is detected in sufficient quantity it draws the food and sediment into the mouth.
2. Selection. Once the food and sediment is in the mouth the carp needs to hold the items it recognises as food and expel unwanted sediment and non-food items. It utilises 2 mechanisms for this, it has something called the branchial sieve which sits in front of the gills and can trap small items and it also has the palatine organ. This lowered from the roof of the mouth, forming a rippled structure which traps food items against the bottom of the mouth
3. Cleaning. Once food items are trapped in the mouth the carp “cleans” the food to further reduce unwanted debris. It does this by holding the food in place using the palatine organ and passing water back and forth in a washing motion.
4. Eating. Once the food items are sufficiently clean and free of debris the carp passes the food items into the throat where pharyngeal plates crush them before being passed to the oesophagus. It is estimated that a carp swallows less than 10% of the silt in picks up.
When feeding in silt it may refill the mouth several times before raising up and performing the cleaning and eating.
We now understand how a carp feeds in silt but is this the same process when they feed on harder areas such as gravel or mussel beds. First of all let me dispel one myth, it is almost impossible for a carp to eat colony forming mussels. I am sure many of you will have brought in old markers with mussels attached to the weight or the anchor line. How hard were they to detach by gripping in your fingers and trying to tear them off? Now imagine you are trying to do it by holding it in one hand and swimming. OK, carp are more powerful swimmers but even if you were being pulled by a boat with a motor you would find it almost impossible. Any energy and nourishment you got from the few you did dislodge is tiny in comparison to what it cost you in effort. Carp do feed on mussel beds but not on the mussels themselves. The bed of mussels provides a fantastic habitat for shrimps and other small water creatures and insects. The carp is using the low pressure it creates in its mouth to suck out the food from between the mussels. The mechanism of feeding is essentially the same but without the vast amounts of silt.
There is another aspect we need to consider and that is for feeding on larger items, where it may be just a single item that is picked up, such as a crayfish, a swan mussel or a large snail. In these situations rather than taking several mouthfuls of food to filter out the food items, the single items is quickly inspected to determine if it is the expected item then passed to the pharyngeal teeth for crushing. Alternatively, if it is not the expected item it can be ejected.
So how do we as anglers impact this feeding mechanism? If we consider the mechanism used for small items, a carp may feed this way many times a day and spend extended periods repeating the same mechanism over and over. As was mentioned in the previous part, to associate an action with a consequence the same outcome must be repeated multiple times. Even if we place a hook in the area with a small food item it may be once in every few thousand times the carp ingests food that it gets hooked so it is not possible for it to associate danger with the way it is feeding. What is possible, is if it is frequently hooked when feeding in a specific location that it associates the area with danger and avoids feeding in that area. The way in which it feeds is not altered in the rest of the lake.
It is when we consider the feeding mechanism for larger items when we can identify the possibility for modification and this is the subject for Part 6.
PART 6. Feeding behaviour modifications.
I was fortunate to become interested in carp fishing at a time when it’s popularity was only just starting to grow. There were many places I could go and have a lake to myself or to see only 1 or 2 other people fishing for carp. My first carp were caught using a paste moulded around a hook, the hair rig was still held secret amongst a small number of anglers in the country. There were a few very hallowed lakes where monster sized fish lived but these were just a dream to my novice abilities. In the early 1980’s in England carp over 30lbs (14kg) were rare and the capture of one could guarantee your photo in a weekly angling magazine. The first book I read specifically on the subject of carp fishing was Carp Fever by Kevin Maddocks who described events of a year when he managed to catch 3!!! As the 1980’s progressed the sport grew massively in popularity and the number of anglers on these lakes containing big carp also increased rapidly. In October 1984 Ritchie McDonald caught a fish weighing 45lb 12oz (.........kg) the largest living carp in the country. The fish would later be given the name Bazil and would be the target for many anglers for the next 19 years, me being one, until it died in 2003.
The lakes containing these giant carp were well known, even clubs with publicity bans could not stop anglers talking. Carp anglers want to catch big carp so these lakes received ever growing numbers of anglers and often the best anglers in the country. What many of you will not know is there are very few lakes in England bigger than 40 hectares and the majority of lakes that held these big carp were sometimes less than 0,5 hectares up to maybe 4 or 5 hectares. These lakes also held very few carp. Yateley North Lake, the home of Bazil was 4 hectares with islands dotted around making places unreachable and contained about 10 carp in 1984 and by 2000 had another 10 introduced. The neighbouring Carp Park Lake was also about 4 hectares with only 9 carp. Ashley Pool was less than 1 hectare and 6 carp. Wraysbury was an anomaly at 40 hectares and 20 carp.
Why am I telling you this when I am supposed to be writing about feeding behaviour changes? The answer to that is quite simple, I want to build a picture in your mind of small lakes with very few carp but many anglers. When I was fishing Yateley the Car Park Lake would have 14 anglers fishing there every single night of the spring, summer and autumn and not many less than that in the depths of winter. 4 hectares, 9 carp and 28 baited hooks!!!!! The anglers fishing there spent every second of the day from it getting light to it going dark watching the lake for signs of activity from the carp. And it had been this way for more than 10 years!!!! It was an extreme example but many other lakes containing big carp had the best anglers fishing there that were experts at observation and understanding where the carp were most likely to be. It had reached the position where carp had very few places in a lake where they felt safe when feeding. And this is the important point of all this, they never felt safe when feeding so their behaviour changed.
The first change is in the places they feed. Areas associated with danger are ignored. Here’s an example, 1 particular lake had a narrow channel leading into the main part of the lake from a small area that was full of sunken trees and overhanging branches. It was an area that produced so many carp but over the years it became less productive until eventually every carp you saw swim through the channel did so at high speed. Another lake the carp stopped following a new wind. The anglers believed carp followed a new wind because the action of the water suspended food items as the water washed against the shore so were always there waiting for the carp. Eventually, when a new wind developed the carp would only be found at the “wrong” end of the lake. When carp associate an area with danger they simply avoid it. The feeling of danger not only comes from encountering boilies but also from noise and lights. There was a lake I used to fish of only 0,5 hectares that I knew very well. If anyone was fishing there when I arrived it was unlikely a carp would be caught in that part of the lake. Almost everyone that fished the lake would use a hammer to put in pegs and bank sticks. As it got dark they would wander around using torches. My tactic was always to fish as far away from them as possible and more than 90% of the time I caught carp. Now think about how many of us fish. We go out in a big boat, many with head torches so bright it would blind the pilot of a plane flying at 3000 metres. What better way to warn carp that someone is trying to catch them!!
So let’s now look at how and why feeding behaviour has changed and therefore rigs and hook arrangements have changed.
There has never been a more significant change to rigs that revolutionised carp fishing more than the introduction of the hair rig. Prior to it’s use a carp could pick up the hook, covered in paste and as it moved if it felt any resistance simple eject it. The development of a bait separated from the hook meant that now when the carp moved there was a much better chance that the hook point would catch hold and on feeling this the carp would panic and bolt away. By holding the lead weight in position the sudden jolt would help pull the hook beyond just the point and usually beyond the barb. The number of carp being caught sky rocketed. One of the consequences of this was general anglers started seeing carp being caught and ever increasing numbers wanted to try. As lakes became more popular the ones I mentioned earlier received ever more pressure. Firstly carp became more cautious when feeding in certain areas but not all carp responded in the same way. What I am about to say comes not only from personal experience and observation but also from observations made by some very good anglers.
Back in the mid 1980’s we didn’t have the range of materials for making rigs, it was either monofilament line or a braid called Dacron. I had been using Dacron with great success but then started fishing a lake where the carp usually fed during daylight. Dacron being black was easily detected by the carp and they would either avoid the immediate area or suck and blow at boilies until they determined they were safe to eat. Having a boilie attached to a weight means it has a limited distance it can move so by sucking and blowing the boilies the carp could determine if it moved far enough to be considered safe. Observations of carp in Savay lake they were seen to stay in position once they felt the hook point catch hold, they would then tip up and down and roll side to side without moving the weight until the hook dropped out. I have watched carp “sweep” an area by swimming over it on it’s side multiple times while beating it’s tail close to the lake bed so the food I had introduced was moved by a metre or more. The result was a single bait left in the area while the carp proceeded to eat everything it had moved. A simpler version of this is wafting an area with the fins to disturb the feed and watching for any bait that reacts differently from the others then not picking it up. Other behaviours although not seen have been suggested with evidence for it coming from catches improving following rig modifications to counter the behaviour.
All the behaviour modifications have come about because the carp have felt unsafe and modified the way they feed. This only happens when the carp feel unsafe. Even when I have seen the houses side or railway side of Gyékényes in the height of summer full of anglers or Merenye in summer it does not represent the level of pressure seen on the lakes I have mentioned. The carp have so many places they can feed and not have a hook within 50 or 100 metres, how many places can the carp go and feed knowing they are safe because there isn’t a pile of boilies or tiger nuts, etc? As mentioned in a previous part, it requires regularly repeating an action and consequence for a connection between the 2 to be established. On almost every lake in Europe and England there are not the required circumstances for a carp to learn that boilies mean danger. If you don’t agree with me take a look at the rig used by the most successful big fish angler in history, Terry Hearn. When using a bottom bait his rig is no more complicated than the hair rig which was first used in the early 1980’s.
The 1970’s saw a new generation of carp anglers