I’m sure that if I told another angler that I knew of 2,000 miles of mature, hardly-fished water; much of it with specimen potential – they would either think I was lying or be eager to hear more! Well it’s true. Right here in Britain we have a huge network of unexploited angling waters, which aside from a few matches, rarely see any angling pressure at all. They are easily accessible, with comfortable banks suitable for disabled anglers and chances are that wherever you live in this country – even in the centre of a city, you live just a matter of minutes away from one of these waters. If you’re still wondering where on earth I could be describing, I’ll spell it out to you… CANALS.
Whilst canals have long been regarded by many as sparsely populated, infertile waters, where you might be lucky to catch on a pinkie and size 24 hook; there are a number of species which have managed to thrive on neglect and grow in both size and numbers, virtually unnoticed. I’m talking about species such as carp, tench, chub, bream, perch, pike and even zander. You only need to read a few canal match reports before you come along a description of a winning bag containing a “number of big perch” or a couple of “bonus tench”. This information, along with a few reconnaissance sessions over the past few seasons, has brought me to the belief that the majority of our canals really are untapped specimen waters.
It may be daunting to think that, say, the Grand Union Canal is some 135 miles in length and is generally quite featureless, but I firmly believe that a structured campaign at your local longboat-highway will throw you up a few surprises. There are so many attributes canals have which give them potential as specimen venues: They are vastly under-fished; boaters often feed the ducks or throw food scraps overboard (some of which will inevitably end up as fish food); canals are all linked to rivers, meaning any river fish could enter a canal (as could lake escapees which get into rivers during floods, etc.); … the list goes on. Canals are also very similar in make-up to drains, with shallower marginal shelves dropping off into a deeper main channel. When the drains were in their heyday you couldn’t move for anglers queuing up to catch their resident bream, tench, pike and zander. The only main difference between drains and canals is depth. Many of the large drains have a good depth, whereas canals are generally quite shallow.
Eel caught from a Canal
Canals make perfect eel fishing venues – acting as arterial routes between major rivers
Andrew Kennedy with a Leather Carp caught from a canal
The obvious downside to canal fishing is boat traffic. More of an issue during the summer months, for obvious reasons, boats can be a real pain. In my experience, if you’re easily visible, most boat drivers will slow down as they approach, and pass you with care. That said, there is always the inevitable plonker in a hire boat who doesn’t know or care about showing anglers a bit of courtesy. It is against the law for most boats to travel in darkness, so if your local canal resembles the M1 in the daytime, my advice would be to fish evening sessions, staying as long after dark as you can. Arrive at your spot an hour or two before dark and you will have plenty of time to set up, and more importantly, bait up your swim before dark. Most specimen fish feed more confidently after dark, so this scenario is perfect.
This hard-fighting 12lb leather carp came from a stretch of canal not known to contain carp!
A “turn up and chance it” session may catch you one or two fish with the odd surprise here and there, but If you want to tap into the most consistent action, with a good chance of big fish, you really need to employ a pre-baiting campaign. If you choose to pre-bait with groundbait, use a heavy blend, maybe with some leam or molehill soil mixed in. This way most of your bait will remain where you put it, even with a few boats passing overhead. The same could be said if choosing to pre-bait with particles – use larger or heavier particles to ensure they stay put. If you want to be extra-sure that your pre-baiting doesn’t become dispersed by boats, try baiting the far margin (on the opposite bank to the towpath.) The water is typically not that deep in the margins, but if you’re going to cast after dark towards a bank which no-one ever walks along, then most species will feed quite confidently there and you’ll still catch.
In just a few trips to a local canal, I’ve caught perch, chub, eels, carp, bream and ruffe – all to worm fished hard on the bottom. I’ve also hooked and lost some hard-fighting fish, which I never managed to see. One fish gave me such a bizarre but powerful scrap that I was convinced it must be a catfish! More likely a foul-hooked carp or pike, but you just never know! There are several canals which are already famed for their heads of double-figure carp, running to over 20lb and I’m sure there are plenty still out there which have never seen a hook. In the winter, if you pick your stretch carefully, it’s surprising just how many canals hold double-figure pike, along with specimen sized perch and good zander. If you adopt a roving approach, as is popular on the drains, you will cover a lot of water in a day and give yourself a great chance of coming across a number of good fish. I’m not for one minute declaring that every canal in the country is bursting at the seams with specimen fish, but in every canal there will be at least a few specimens of a multitude of species. The key is tracking them down or attracting them to your chosen swims.
Shhhh… My first 20lb+ pike was caught from a canal!
So think about it. When was the last time you considered a specimen hunting session on a canal? Forget your preconceptions and get out there and give it a go! I guarantee that with the correct approach and a bit of persistence, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise…
Good fishing to you all