Wednesday 30 October 2013

Escape to the cut

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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.
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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:
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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:
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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.  photo DSC_0346_zps2a2a87d7.jpg

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Canal zander

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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 (Later note- this is now finished and available from my site- Canal Fishing: A Practical Guide). 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:
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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:
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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:
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Perch also joined several typical canal zander, this one falling to Andy's 4" shad:
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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!
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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
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
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.
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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:
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Tuesday 1 October 2013

Berries and Books

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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.
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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.
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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:
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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.
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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.
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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:
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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:
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Also on the traditional fishing crafts theme, Chris Reeves and Caroline Emmet were busy tying flies, with Steve Dedman making traditional river floats:
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Along with Charles Rangely-Wilson and Theo Pike I made up one of a trio of authors signing books:
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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:
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