Friday, 29 November 2013
As far as different branches of angling go, ultralight lures and fly fishing for predators are pretty close cousins. Both are active, intimate methods that suit smaller waters perfectly. They also suit the fidgety angler who constantly wonders if there's a better spot waiting just a little further along the bank. When conditions are tough, as they have been lately, that's no bad thing either. I always fancy if the fish aren't especially hungry my best chance is to simply show a fly or lure to as many eyes as possible.
Joining me for a couple of roving canal sessions were the two Peters, Wardle and Higgins. It started in pretty urban style as Pete Wardle and I tried around Bridgwater, flipping flies and jigs around likely structures. The fry were present in spades, but the only perch that gave a solid take was a fish of perhaps a pound lured by Pete that came adrift. Other small fish followed or nipped, but it was a bit underwhelming on the whole, a sudden explosion of fry and a rolling pike the most exciting moment. Why is it that these attacking fish quite often seem hard to tempt I wonder? Maybe amidst a mass of living prey fish, a lure or fly is suddenly not so appealing?
Never mind- we soldiered on and ventured out in the sticks to find incredibly clear water and plenty of visible life. We both stuck it out on the really small stuff, because I quite fancied one of us to connect with a decent perch following my pole fishing session on the Taunton to Bridgwater a couple of weeks earlier. The theory was nice, but the fish that came at my fly was more in the small but cute category (what brilliant colours these clear water fish have!):
With polarising glasses it was easy to spot perch and jacks, but less easy to wake them from their lethargy. Were easterly winds and high pressure to blame? Pete thought it was more a case of clear water and light levels- and the fishing definitely picked up in the last hour. I managed to hook and lose a rocket powered pike after switching to a black streamer, while Pete had the last laugh with this cracking perch guesstimated at around a pound and a half on a tiny soft shad:
Peter Higgins joined us nearer home the following day for another testing canal session with similarly chilly, clear water and rather lethargic fish. The place looked beautiful all the same- and it's certainly a confidence booster to be able to spot fish, even when you can't always tempt them. I think Pete Wardle, used to fishing busier, murkier cuts, found our canals a very different prospect and swapped the ultra light lures for a fly rod, so that all three of us were fly fishing:
And so the tricky fishing continued. Even the tiny jacks were a bit nervous or disinterested, sport only really picking up in the afternoon. I kept ringing the changes during lulls, and while the takes didn't exactly come thick and fast a black fly worked best for me- a Black Beast, to be specific, that Turrall will be producing early next year for the new "flies for coarse fish" range. It's not the first time this has been a get-out-of-jail pattern for me by any stretch and also tempted the best fish of the day:
This was a strange creature, big mouth but not much bulk. The take and ensuing fight were both rather lazy and bloodless too- although it did manage a sudden thrash on the bank as I retrieved the hook, giving me a bloody thumb as a thank you. Mind-blowing fishing it hasn't been of late then, but interesting nonetheless and perhaps what I like about fly or ultralight fishing is that it makes every fish an event: every bite is earned and you don't need to hook anything spectacular to put a decent bend in the rod. After all, fishing should be about fun rather than bragging rights shouldn't it?
Wednesday, 20 November 2013
If ever a session illustrated the merit of having different lines of attack, it was my last canal fishing trip with Russ Hilton on the Taunton to Bridgwater. The subtext was getting a few more shots for my canal fishing book and some practice for the Tiverton Christmas match, but I was just looking forward to some fishing as opposed to merely writing or talking about it. At the start it looked like we might catch silver fish all day long on bread punch. And had we so desired, that would have been a distinct possibility, so stuffed was the venue with small rudd and roach. It didn't matter whether you went all cute and fine with a tiny piece, or switched to flake on a fourteen, the hordes descended.
Russ was definitely catching these quicker than I was, at a fierce old rate on the whip. Makes me think I should dig my old whip out again at some point. A four meter model, with pointless yellow decor on the handle, was the first ever fishing rod I could call my own as a small boy. But in terms of fish caught that crummy length of fibreglass probably represents the best value item of tackle I've ever owned. It was the downfall of many Thames roach, as well as bullheads and bootlace eels. Not quite as posh as this rather sexy Sensas model you'd have to say:
But I digress. Fun though it is bringing endless rudd to hand, it's always nice to put something bigger in the net too. And the trouble with small baits is that it can take an age to get through the bits and pieces. Luckily enough from my own, slightly disorganised perspective on this occasion, Hilton came up trumps with a ridiculous bag of worms and strict orders that he didn't want to take any of these home.
It's a plan that works so often on canals, but worth reiterating the value of a "feed and wait" line on the cut. A pole cup of chopped worm and caster went across to a tree on the far bank, which not only looked fishy but had good depth under it. Apart from a top up after an hour or so, this was left well alone while I kept out of mischief by pinching more rudd, roach and a solitary silver bream.
Slipping a redworm minus head onto a size 12 and heavier rig, I eventually made the switch across and the response was pretty instant. After a slightly better rudd, the next fish was a proper head shaker in the form of a much better one, a perch this time. Had it been a match I'd have been cursing because I managed to lose the next two, including what felt like quite a beastie. Meanwhile Russ was taken all over the canal by what we guessed was a carp, which actually turned out to be a rocket powered pike of about four pounds that picked up a worm. In fact we'd seen little fish scatter at the surface a few times and not all of these attacks screamed pike. After another top up and another crack at the rudd, the next fish from the sunken tree stayed hooked. A lovely perch of 1lb 14oz proved the best of the day- and just in the nick of time because I had to leg it back to Exeter.
In spite of my late, lucky perch Russ must have had the greater weight of fish, with a silly number of rudd and some better ones that showed later on the bread. I wouldn't put it past him to teach me a similar lesson in the Christmas match:
And on that note I'm really looking forward to a proper winter break, with no deadlines and no place to be on a cold morning. Other than the odd order I've done little fly tying lately, which I must put right. After giving talks to branches of the Fly Dressers Guild on tackling coarse species I definitely have the bit between my teeth. Especially so after seeing the collection of Chris Reeves, which included this rather baroque looking antique pike fly:
Tying is rather like fishing: always a new trick to learn and another direction to try. I am permanently making little notes and snaffling samples when in the company of fly tying enthusiasts. And at least the long, dark winter provides plenty of time to fill a box or two with new creations.
Thursday, 7 November 2013
I've said it before in these ramblings, but more often than not the angler doesn't pick the weather- the weather picks the angler! You get a day or two free if you're lucky and go for it. I mean, why exactly would anyone pick two days of gales to try a spot of perch fishing on a big sheet of water? I was actually really pleased to take a trip in the company of Chris Lambert and Tyrone Norah on this occasion. Not only does it keep your spirits up on a testing session, there is the added benefit of tea and shelter.
In exchange I bought a tin of beer each for an afternoon tipple- best not to mention where I store my tinnies though eh? (yes, that's right, they also help keep the maggots cool!)
Spot number one on this wide open lake had to be abandoned, such were the extreme conditions. A shame because bream were stacked up in the "match" pegs. I was getting a skimmer a chuck- although it was literally impossible to stake out a keepnet. You would turn round to see net, fish and all literally being blown clear of the water, such was the wind.
Plan B was to seek more sheltered sanctuary and the fishing, while not exactly hectic, was decent. Perhaps I should have gone for more selective tactics though, because while I caught lots of skimmers, roach and the odd rudd, I was struggling to get through to the perch even on half a lobworm with fish like this about- not that I'd ever regard these as a nuisance:
Prawns did the damage in the end, at least for the odd better fish. These are a bait I've never really put my faith in, although I love eating them myself. I really should go back to the drawing board because they definitely sort out decent perch. Decent you say? Make that cracking perch- because that's exactly how you'd describe the best fish of the trip at 2-12, taken by Chris:
It was a fun but testing trip in the end. The British climate has a dark sense of humour I sometimes start to think. On the afternoon of day two everything finally settled and for about an hour it was lovely. The heavy feeder tackle suddenly seemed a bit excessive; the quiver tip kept trembling and the fish kept coming. A slightly better perch of a pound and a half or so also showed up amongst the silvers:
And then out of the blue as I was filling the feeder for another throw a little chunk of ice landed in it. Like a fool, I ignored the warning shot before three minutes later the hail pelted down and I got that stinging sensation as I ran for cover. Despite a weekend of natural disaster style weather though I had a nice bag of mostly skimmers and silver bream on each day. No giant perch, but I guess you can't have everything and being a fidget I do like simply fishing for bites. The crappy weather never left on the second evening and at around five it was like God had just flicked the light switch to "off" and announced "get yer coat and bugger off."Next time, I'm coming here on a calm, sunny day- that's for bloody certain!
Wednesday, 30 October 2013
Someone recently asked me "what does it take to produce a fishing book?" The truth isn't so glamorous, I'm willing to admit. It takes as much perspiration as inspiration. It requires sitting in an empty room for long periods, well away from any water. It takes a maddening process of words, photographs, emails, strong coffee, phone calls and miles on the road. I love it, but it can be lonely. Take the above shot, one of a few possibles for a cover image. It looks serene enough. But what you don't see are the 120 "not quite right" versions, the buggering around with angles and exposures and self timers. Or the part where I'm desperately scrabbling to nail one final alternative shot before the light fades and end up with one foot in the canal.
Then again, there are the genuine discoveries. Like the brilliant stories and anecdotes that have arrived in my inbox. Or the way that sometimes mid sentence I'm transported back to 1991 again, catching rudd and perch as a kid sitting in the beer garden at Double Locks.
And why not start with the small things? If I had to try and distil the essence of canal fishing, it would be something child like, the simple act of finding somewhere quiet, watching a float and wondering what might happen. And I felt closer to that moment by putting everything down last midweek and getting down to the canal for an afternoon with my old man. After all, you can have too much research and not enough practise. It was a sweet afternoon too. I had a small, suicidal perch on a bare hook while plumbing the depth and the bites pretty much continued from there on in. No grand ambitions, just a float tip and a cute swim. And the canal was alive with fish. An infinity of greedy perch, and my dad cursing the lightning quick roach bites. We each had quite a collection on pinkies over ground bait:
I also anticipated pike however. It's inevitable they'll find you when there are that many small fish. The first spotted was about two pounds and arrowed into the side of the keepnet, daft bugger. That was about all the invitation I needed to switch to a pike rod for the last hour.
More and more often on the weedier canals and drains I'm starting to think conventional pike fishing is rather dogmatic. Always two treble hooks, and a bait nailed to the bottom where it isn't incredibly easy for the pike to spot. Hence more often, I'll float fish a deadbait at mid depth, with just one treble nicked through the back. This also lets the bait drift with any tow or breeze and search more water. Call me eccentric, but I also enjoy using a centre pin for this close range fishing. I fancied there would be several pike in the vicinity ogling all the small fish drawn to the ground bait and it took no more than twenty minutes before the float popped and started a slow walk that I hit immediately:
The fish went on an absurdly strong first run. They so often punch hard at this time of year, all lean and angry. The single, semibarbed treble fell out in the net and I released the fish without the indignity of weighing her, a low double I'd guess. A great afternoon's fishing and for at least a few stolen hours I'd forgotten all about word counts and emails.
Tuesday, 15 October 2013
I seem to be getting more and more nomadic as autumn kicks in. I feel like I've spent more time in the midlands the last fortnight than actually at home. Zander explain at least half the reason why. Not only do I love fishing for them, I've also been eager for more canal fishing material for my current book project. My high opinion of zander might well cause a sharp intake of breath from pole anglers who read the finished article- but I not only enjoy catching these stylish killers (or trying to!), I consider them a very welcome species.
For one thing, they are so constantly mysterious and intriguing. Perhaps it's because they thrive in dirty water and hence defy attempts at careful observation. They are also beautifully mean to look at. That huge, cold eye. That mass of great fins and angular, sinister profile. And nor is the fishing predictable either, with lures, deadbaits and even flies all thrown into the mix. It started with bait tactics last week however, as I tackled the maze of canals near Fazely:
Rain follows me like a bad smell at the moment, as you can see from this "character building" (and for some time utterly biteless) scene on a boat junction. I tried small, freshly killed dead baits here- and for the record, I always think catching a handful of baits is instructive in itself when predator fishing. Anyone who thinks zander, or pike for that matter, "eat everything" needs their brains testing. I found stacks of small and not so small fish here on pinkies, half a dozen of the smallest making perfect zander baits.
With space cramped and banks hard, quiver tip style tactics seemed ideal, with the rod tucked in parallel to the bank. I also made use of a swimfeeder packed with a fishmeal ground bait. I got a soaking for several hours, but the zander responded well and I had four in total, to about the four pound mark.
The real eye-opener came a few days later however, although it nearly didn't happen as my car refused to start at 5am that morning. A visit from the AA and a new battery later though and I was back on the road and on my way to fishing a different canal in the company of John Cheyne and Andy Mytton. These guys absolutely love lure fishing and it was hard not to feel buoyed by their positive attitude. I decided I just had to try the fly rod- even though the water was so coloured it didn't exactly fill me with confidence. We roved between a handful of areas- although one thing I immediately noticed was just how long these chaps will linger in specific areas, covering water really thoroughly.
The nips and pulls arrived early, building a sense of anticipation. I had been wondering if I needed my brains testing trying the fly, but one of my jig style flies, tipped with a tiny grub tail, soon got a big whack mid-canal.
In fact my jig fly came back looking vandalised after this first hit, half of it gone. Revenge was sweet though, and the third solid pluck I received led to a proper hook up and a thumping, perch-like fight from this handsome devil:
That was the best of a fly caught brace in the end. Very gratifying, although our lure enthusiasts took the most fish, using jigging tactics mostly with small shads. What a brilliant, skilful method this is too. I learned tons just by watching them- not least of all that zander demand a finer presentation than pike. Retrieves are quite gentle and the key is in keeping in touch with the lure at all times, often keeping the rod at quite a high angle to jig lures in the bottom foot or so of water. That said, both these lure men catch a lot from right under the rod tip, sometimes just by walking along the sides of walls and boats:
Perch also joined several typical canal zander, this one falling to Andy's 4" shad:
Honours were about even at close of play I would say, although John had the best zander of the day with this better sample. What a fantastic looking fish!
It was a great day and the banter was every bit as good as the quality of the fishing. The most disturbing part of it was the sudden squealing sound of excited turkeys taking me by surprise. "The locals like plucking them round here," John told me (or at least that's what I think he said!!!). As for where we fished, well- I'm not going to lead you there by the hand but there is great potential for roving anglers here with twelve miles of water on the Grand Union to explore, controlled by the LACC on a cracking value five quid day ticket (see www.lureanglerscanalclub.co.uk).
With John acting as Regional Coordinator for the Angling Trust, it was also great to get his thoughts on the state of our canals in general, and a whole range of current ideas for their continued use and development. And on this note, I can't stress highly enough how important it is for all of us to put our weight behind the sport we love. Times might be hard, but one great current initiative is to offer membership for just £2.50 a month. That's less than a pint of beer, and an affordable way to give angling your much needed backing! (Check out the Angling Trust site for more details at www.anglingtrust.net)
The way the last two weeks have gone I may as well relocate to Birmingham, my final trip taking me near Coventry for the Tackle and Guns show. I was there with Turrall, and also got to play with one of their lovely new Peak vices to turn out a few dozen flies for roach, rudd and pike.
Events like this are brilliant. So many friendly people and friends I hadn't seen for way too long. It was also a great chance to spread the word about my work with Turrall, who will be producing an entire range of flies specially made for coarse fish species under my name in early 2014. The response so far has been really exciting- and when you think about it, it's about bloody time somebody made a series of tried and trusted patterns for roach, chub, perch and the rest. Coarse species are everywhere, not only accessible to everybody but often so much more affordable than trout waters. My favourites so far are perhaps the chub flies- which include beauties like a cricket, a kicking beetle and even a wasp (or "jasper" as we Devonians call them!). I'm hoping the range will provide a lot of fun and really take the headache out of fly selection for anglers in the new year:
Tuesday, 1 October 2013
Isn't it funny how in fishing, as in life, we so often overlook answers that are there sitting right under our noses? On a recent trip to the canal at Bridgwater Docks with Russ Hilton, the answer to making a great catch was literally growing from the bank. We'd been catching plenty of small silver bream and roach but struggling to land anything bigger when I spotted something. Hanging there, over the skankiest bit of canal you could imagine, were bunches of ripe elderberries.
You've probably seen these growing by water on your own travels. Red branches, cute but rather sour little things. Back in the day they not only made wine out of them but used these to catch solid roach. It started with a little dare: "Go on, slip one on the hook, see what happens." The next few minutes were spell binding: slow, juicy bites and a cracking stamp of fish.
A fantastic run of roach, rudd and silver bream all in the space of a few casts. Russ was just as impressed. Like me, he has a thing about silver bream, which seemed especially partial to an elderberry. So often misidentified as skimmers, these dark-finned, large eyed fish are prolific in Somerset waters and very pretty they are too:
While Russ got more bites fishing on the drop, I had set my stall out for better fish on the bottom. It very nearly paid off as I hooked and lost what felt like a good tench on a berry! Even so, we both managed very tidy bags of fish on these traditional baits, which we used in conjunction with hempseed.
You might have noticed I've been spending a lot of time on canals this season- and on that note it's probably about time I disclosed a badly kept secret. My current book project is on canal fishing, to be published by Merlin Unwin books for early Spring 2014. And it's already two thirds written, amidst a haphazard tour of canals from here in the Westcountry to the Highlands of Scotland and everywhere in between. It has been a mammoth undertaking, but one I've really sunk my teeth into. I simply love canal fishing. As well as a phenomenal range of brilliantly mysterious and untapped fishing, canals have wonderful history. They have a deep nostalgia and are the kind of waters where every lead you follow leads to another three question marks.
As well as a bang up to date work on different species and techniques, the book will also be a complete guide to UK canals, with notable captures, hot areas and eye-opening trivia on scores of venues. What began as one of the most daunting challenges I've ever faced is coming together nicely however. Variety is hardly the word and my most recent stop took me to the heart of London on the Regents Canal.
Surprisingly beautiful and clear waters met me on the way to "Little Venice". This is intriguing, challenging fishing to say the least, perhaps illustrated by the sight of a large carp passing under the boats as I walked from Paddington Station. Along with the obligatory drowned traffic signs, trolleys and cormorants were scattered pockets of fish. The session wasn't plain sailing however and for the first couple of hours I couldn't buy a bite, even on a single pinkie on a size 20 hook. Expecting murkier water I hadn't taken any bread, which I kicked myself for. Nevertheless, after a move that good old canal staple of chopped worm earned me some bites from under the boats, and a couple of pretty, blank-saving perch:
The Sunday was then a jump to Merton in south London to meet up with the Wandle Piscators holding their "World Rivers Day" event. An intriguing selection of guests appeared, starting with organizer Jez Mallinson dying fly tying materials in little dishes that resembled the sort used by my mother for Sunday lunch:
Also on the traditional fishing crafts theme, Chris Reeves and Caroline Emmet were busy tying flies, with Steve Dedman making traditional river floats:
Along with Charles Rangely-Wilson and Theo Pike I made up one of a trio of authors signing books:
One of my favourite parts of these fishing events is when the real river fishing nuts turn up with trays full of mini beasts. You won't ever get a better chance to photograph the tiny critters of our waters at such close quarters, hence I just had to have a go with the camera. Here's a rather beautiful stone loach: