Canal-side fishing tactics

Canals are among the most popular and accessible waters in Britain. Although you may not be able to see beneath the surface of a canal, it is often possible to build up an underwater picture of events from the few hints that you can gather. These hints, together with an eye for various features above the waterline, can greatly improve your ability both to spot fish-holding areas and to exploit them. To be a successful canal angler, indeed, to succeed in almost any water, it is vital to think like the fish you are trying to catch. Fish are motivated by the same factors that govern the behaviour of any animal – feeding, breeding and fear.


When not feeding on excess ground-bait, hungry fish must seek out food in their usual hiding places. These include weedbeds and the mud at the bottom and are the first areas that you should explore. Foliage at the sides of the canal can also point to fish-holding areas. Look for overhanging trees and bramble patches on the towpaths as these are home to flies, caterpillars and many other delicious creepy-crawlies. Their underwater roots also provide an additional fishy larder.

Canal Fishing Tactics

RoachShelves, weedsLong and short pole, small waggler
GudgeonShelvesShort pole
CarpShelves, moored boatsLeger, floater
ChubShelves, overhanging trees and rootsLong pole, waggler
TenchShelves, wides, weeds, reedsLeger, waggler, long pole
RuffeShelvesShort pole
PerchShelves, weeds, reedsLong and short pole, waggler, spinning


Coarse fish, obviously enough, generally spawn during the close season and so cannot be caught during this period. Carp and tench – two species often found in canals -tend to spawn later and can be caught among the shallow-water weeds at the edges of canals early in the season. It is wrong to disturb them at this time, however, as this can be almost as damaging to fish stocks as removing them altogether.

Fear and self-preservation

Whenever danger threatens, fish head straight for the nearest cover – be it weedbed, sunken shopping trolley or an overhanging tree’s roots. You will therefore find most fish within easy reach of safety. This makes locating the fish easier for the angler but it can make landing them rather difficult. Extricating any reasonably large fish from cover may prove impossible. On these occasions you must prevent the fish reaching a reedbed or tree’s roots and direct its struggles to a snag-free area. Boats A form of cover that many fish, particularly large ones, use is moored boats -and this can be very useful. Besides acting as a fish-holding area, these boats can be used by the angler to get really close to such fish without spooking them.

But there’s another angle to boats. Most canal fish avoid not only traditional enemies – predators such as perch, gulls and water rodents – but also have to hide from the blades of boat propellers. Over recent years there has been an enormous increase in leisure boat traffic. This used to have a significant effect on canals during the summer only but it is now noticeable all year round. Therefore, in order to continue feeding and avoid accidents, fish steer clear of the central channel and stick to the shallower areas near the banks.

Best times for fishing

The large volume of boat traffic has produced a specific behaviour pattern in the fish which you can exploit. At dawn and dusk, the number of boats using the canals is small, so fish move away from the side ledges and, as the water clears, begin to feed in the deeper central channel. These relatively boat-free times are marvellous for the canal angler.

Tench are particularly active at first and last light during the summer months while remaining in dense weeds for the rest of the day. At these times there is no need to seek out the bank-side features. The fish feed boldly and usually patrol the more open water for food, only returning to weedbeds and overhangs when danger threatens.

During the day, the further the fish can move from the boat line the better, so you should explore wider stretches of canal. You should also try out the long sweeping bends where boats tend to use only one side of the canal. Both these features offer reduced turbulence and a degree of safety to the feeding fish. In very wide or deep canals, such as ship canals, there is less disturbance, so you can use lake techniques.

Take note

If you are planning to fish a canal for the first time, a couple of hours spent walking along the towpath with a pen and paper will prove extremely useful. Note the bridge numbers in case you forget where you’ve spotted a likely area for fishing and keep an eye open for the features mentioned earlier. Watch also for signs of fish – bubbles, weed or reed movement and clouds of colour suddenly appearing in the water.

Winter fishing

During the winter months, fish congregate where the water is warmest. On sunny days this will be the shallow water over the ledges and shelves on exposed sections, where the weak rays of the sun can have a warming effect. However, in windier conditions, fish tend to avoid exposed stretches of water where the temperature will be lower. So, stay away from the cold, windy sections and look for wooded areas where the canal is sheltered. The chill factor will be that much less and the fishing more enjoyable. After all, that’s why you do it, isn’t it?

Canal-side fishing tactics