Back in France, Phil was now fishing with Leon Hoogendijk and Xavier Paolozzi – this is beginning to sound like a European carp convention – and together the three of them had started doing trips to Sarulesti. Meanwhile Vlad was on about me going out there to fish the huge lake and maybe do some TV…Hang on a minute, this is me you’re talking about; me…Ken Townley. Are you sure?
I remained rather reluctant to go out there until finally Phil twisted my arm. He said that he, Xavier and Leon were taking a group of French guys to the lake for a fortnight's trip and did I want to come? I could fish for free and all he asked was that I make myself available for a few coaching sessions, give a few tips on carp fishing and generally make myself useful. Oh yes…and he’d pay my expenses too! Well a man can only put up so much resistance and so it was that I found myself in the heady company of a group of French carpists drinking cold beers in the lakeside hotel in the red-hot May of 2003.
The trip that followed was one of the most amazing sessions I have ever enjoyed, and yes, it’s true, Romanian TV actually did want to interview me…Must be hard up for material.
Now while it was supposed to be a 2-week trip a strange set of circumstances conspired to limit me to just eight days proper fishing. It’s a long story and isn’t worth the telling so let’s just skip the first 6 days and come to Friday 23rd May 2003…
There were three of us fishing together, me, Philippe Lagabbe and Xavier Paolozzi. Our search for a productive swim had already seen us move twice. Now here we were in our third swim, a beach-like affair not far from a water tower in a massive bay. The bay held just three other anglers in what I guess must be about 700 acres. You couldn’t say it was crowded.
After setting up camp in two substantial canvas tents we set off in one of the two sturdy boats that the lake had provided for us in order to access the swim, which was about 4 miles from base camp at the hotel. The whole lake is more than 1,200 acres in size so you can imagine how essential it was to have access by boat as the roads were non-existent!
With the outboard engine chugging along happily we used the echo sounder to scan the lake bed. The underwater topography looked perfect. From the margins in front of the tents the bottom dropped away quickly to about 25 feet, then shelved gently as we moved out further into the lake. Then at about two hundred yards distance a large plateau began to show on the sounder, the bottom climbing steeply from thirty feet to about 15 feet in a matter of yards. Further exploration showed that the plateau itself was very extensive, stretching out over an area the size of two or three tennis courts. It was roughly rectangular in shape and the depth to the top varied between 15-18 feet, the surrounding water being an average of thirty feet deep.
Using a donking rod (a six foot long sea fishing rod carrying a reel loaded with braid with a ten ounce lead on the end) we found that the lake bed on the top of the plateau was pretty solid and by dragging the lead over the lake bed we could feel the distinctive pluck-pluck of mussel beds,
In close, no more than 30-40 yards from the bank, the bottom plunged steeply down in an acute drop-off, falling quickly to about 25-30 feet and half way down the drop-off a narrow ledge some two yards wide seemed to run along its length. Depth to the ledge was also about 15 feet. This looked as if it would be an ideal spot to fish after dark or in big onshore winds when the fish would almost certainly patrol the drop-off. We baited the plateau and the margins with tiger nuts and boilies; lots of boilies; about 10 kg of boilies…!
Obviously we would need to use the boat to take the baited rods out to the plateau as it was too far for us to cast, and we decided to fish two rods each on the top of the plateau and two each on the drop-off. Twelve rods on a feature may sound like too many but remember this was no small two-bit plateau you might find in a home counties gravel pit, it was a massive one the size of a small field.
Bait for the trip was Trigga and Big Fish Mix (with an elevated level of Robin Red) that had been home-rolled prior to the trip. They were then air dried until they were rock-hard. They were perfect in every respect; shape, form, smell and hardness and they were just starting to turn, with spores forming on the outside of the bait. This is when they are at their very best! These fresh baits were backed up with Trigga shelf life boilies and preserved tiger nuts, the preserved version one can buy in the large jars.
That first night Xavier caught a nice common of about 33lb and a grass carp, while Philippe caught two what I would call good commons of around 28-30lb or so. However, apparently these are ‘small’ fish for the lake! How our standards change depending on the lake we are fishing. Personally I would have given a king’s ransom for either of those fish at the time.
The weather meanwhile had become rather lively, to say the least with three foot waves crashing onto the shoreline at our feet, spray flying everywhere. It was like being on the beach at Brighton. The conditions looked ideal for carp fishing and so it proved.
Saturday morning came and with it two exceptional fish. First Philippe latched into a fish on one of his margin rods less than 30 yards from the bank at first light. The fish had picked up his double Trigga hookbait on the fifteen foot shelf on the drop-off and at such close range it really tore off. It was an incredible fight from an incredible fish. According to Philippe it was one of the originals, a mirror we guessed at a weight of well over 20kg. Philippe doesn’t weigh his fish so I am afraid that guesswork is all we could use at the time.
Trying to return a fish safely to the lake in a rising sea is not easy!
Not to be outdone Xavier then latched into another amazing looking fish, again from the drop-off at very close range. It was a near fully-scaled mirror, a big round fish with massive 'apple tart-like scaling. It was the most gorgeous fish you could imagine, and the photos don’t really do it justice. It weighed just over 35lb.
Two amazing fish in a brief early morning feeding spell from a spot really close to the bank. It seemed amazing that you could catch just a few rod lengths out in such an enormous expanse of water, but Xavier, Leon and Philippe have caught stacks of big Sarulesti fish well within casting range and you would be wrong to imagine that all the fishing is at extreme range, taking the baits out by boat. Mind you, I think the gale force onshore wind was helping to push the carp in to our bank.
In fact it was blowing so strongly that a huge zone of highly coloured water began to form as sand and silt was disturbed from the lake bed an swirled into suspension in the water in front of us. I'd say this disturbed, coloured water reached out some thirty yards into the lake and obviously a lot of natural food was getting swirled around at the same time, drawing in carp to feed in the coloured water.
Xavier and Philippe had to pull off the lake for the Saturday evening to say goodbye to some of their French tour anglers who were going home after a week, and to greet others who were arriving for their week. This left the swim to me and I was going to make the most of it! That afternoon I caught my first Romanian carp, a common of 28lb! Nice start.
It was hard graft getting the baits in position on the plateau my own in the rough conditions so I concentrated on the margins where the fish continued to feed at throwing stick distance.
However, on the Sunday the wind began to die down and the fish drifted off into the deeper water, probably heading back out to the plateau. I rowed all four rods out to the plateau and baited up sparingly with the rock hard Big Fish Mix boilies and a few kilos Trigga shelf life ready mades, and though the rest of the afternoon was quiet, during the night I caught seven decent commons of between 25lb and 35lb including a long lean, bright silver common of thirty-five pounds. What a night!
Seven big commons…! That's the sort of fishing one can only dream of and just looking back at that last sentence and reading it out slowly to myself emphasises just how spectacular the fishing could be at this incredible lake. After a brief lull in the proceedings the fish came back with a vengeance around mid-morning and I landed another five thirty pound plus commons between including this beast of 37lb 4oz.
Xavier and Philippe spent a second night in the hotel so again I felt pretty confident it would all kick off during the night. And I wasn’t wrong! I had a further nine fish during darkness including seven thirties all over 15kg in weight, magnificent looking beasts, immensely long and totally virgin, never caught before. As the night was calm I took each bait back to the plateau after every fish landed. Hard work, but worth it.
In two nights fishing I had now caught over twenty carp, all commons only one being under twenty pounds and most being over thirty. That's the stuff of dreams and no mistake. In fact I was having trouble convincing myself that this was actually happening…I was having an outstanding session.
Philippe got back early Monday morning and immediately took the boat out to rebait the plateau after I had told him of my astonishing run of big fish that had been caught from the area while he was away.
There was no doubting the effectiveness of the boiled baits we were using as some of the fish were excreting the Robin Red-boosted Big Fish Mix in the sack. You can see the Robin Red in the lower right of this photo.
Meanwhile Xavier decided the plateau was getting a bit too crowded so he decided to move to the opposite side of the bay where he could fish on his own. Meanwhile Philippe put two rods out onto the plateau and two off to the right on the drop-off ledge. That left me a large bit of the plateau to go at, and as I was not having any action in close I decided to put all four rods out long again.
Tuesday morning arrived and with it came a Romania film crew. They wanted to shoot two 30-minute shows dealing with tackle, bait and tactics for the lake. I don’t know why they were asking me as it was only my first visit to the lake, but I was flattered to be asked.
Philippe and I had again caught well during the night and we had a couple of decent fish to show them for the filming. I must admit, it did feel strange but apparently the programs were very well received when they aired at prime time on Saturday mornings. In fact I’ve been asked to go back and do some more. Whatever is the carp world coming too? Here’s Phil and I in true pose mode!
Filming and interviewing took up most of the morning. The interviewer was my old mate Vlad Pavlovici who at the time worked for the British Council. His spoken English and French was immaculate so asking questions in either language was easy for him.
While we were being filmed a young French guy rowed across to chat to us. His arrival was well timed as one of my rods went off almost the minute he arrived.
By now I had caught over fifty fish and was getting exhausted! The majority of the fish were commons, many of them over thirty pounds. Sadly I had yet to catch one of the lakes really huge fish which run to over seventy pounds, but I was more than happy with my lot and everyone agreed that given the numbers of fish I was catching it was only a matter of time before something a bit better came along. Philippe was catching plenty too but by contrast he was working less hard for his fish as 90% of his takes were coming from the margins. He kept on at me to leave at last one rod in close but I wasn’t confident about it. The fact was that even though Philippe was catching well from in close, whenever I put a rod close in on my side it remained untouched. I wanted runs, the more the merrier, so it was the plateau or nothing for me.
However, that’s when fate lent a hand. Suddenly a repeat of that fierce NE wind sprang up, blowing straight into our bank with waves of 2-3 feet high crashing onto the shingle beach at out feet. It was impossible to use the boat as it would have been swamped within a couple of yards of the shore. This meant that it was also impossible to take baits out to the plateau so I had no option other than to join Philippe in casting from the bank the 30-40 yards to the drop-off. I decided to fish two rods on the shelf itself and two at the foot of the drop in about 28 feet of water. The wind was really hacking into out faces and once again the huge area of coloured water spread out into the lake.
I felt sure the fish would respond accordingly, and so they did. Over the next 48 hours we caught about 40 fish. All were caught on rods cast from the bank to the marginal shelf at depths between 15-18 feet of water. It was easy fishing, brilliant fishing, and with the fish averaging low thirties I was having a whale of a time. They were like peas in a pod, those long sleek commons. We must have hit on the Mother Lode!
It felt odd to be fishing such a massive expanse of water yet to be baiting up with a catapult or a throwing stick but the fish were in close, they were on the feed and wanted bait and we were there to give it to them!
In the evening the wind relented very briefly and I could take all four of my rods out to the plateau. Phil on the other hand move all his rods off the plateau which allowed me full access to the hot spots I had fished over the weekend some two hundred yards out from the bank on the huge plateau. take four baits and some more freebies out to the plateau. I had it all to myself and I was determined to take advantage of this fact.
Philippe meanwhile continued to concentrate on the margins and he picked up carp regularly in the stiff onshore gale of wind. Here you can see just how rough it had become as Phil plays a big carp in a lively surf.
Out of the plateau the big girls had come out to play. I caught a nice common of 40lb 8oz common followed a 42lb 12oz common, and at a big dumpy lump of a common. I will not claim it was the most beautiful fish in the world but at 45lb 8oz, I wasn't complaining.
The big girls had at last come out to play in the big bay, spurred no doubt by the big wind. Across from us Xavier landed a gorgeous 25kg common.
Phil and I both had commons of over 40lb. This is mine... What a night! In our final 24 hours Philippe and I around thirty further takes. We pulled out of one or two but managed to land most of them.
For the last four days we had a gale of wind blowing right in our faces for 90% of the time. It was virtually impossible to get out to the plateau most of the time but with just as many fish coming at 30-40 yards, it wasn’t a problem. Indeed, Philippe’s last forty came just 30 yards out, on the shelf on the drop-off .
So that’s the story of my first trip to Sarulesti. I cannot in all honesty tell you how many fish I caught as I simply lost count after a while. Philippe reckons we caught around 125 fish between us and he says I must have caught at least seventy of them! I’ll take his word for it. All I know is I shall never forget that session on the wonderful lake. It was bloody hard work but at a rough guess (and I am sorry I cannot be more accurate than that) I had about forty fish over thirty pounds and three fish of over forty pounds.
I cannot begin to tell you what an amazing place Sarulesti Lake is, the things you see, like pelicans, massive bullfrogs, the peasants with their horses and carts, the flocks of sheep and the wild dogs. The storks and the sand martins and the deer that swim across the lake in the dawn mist. The amazing sunrises and sunsets. Or the things you don’t see or hear: cars, planes, trains.
The lake has lost its appeal somewhat over the years following a fish kill but I hear on the grapevine that like the Phoenix it is rising once again from the flames to reclaim its former glory. Maybe I'll get the chance to go back there one day and maybe, just maybe I'll catch some more of the lake's most glorious carp.