Dylan Roper on the Lancaster Canal

8 Grand Union Canal near Rowington in Warwickshire Rising Lane Bridge

We join Dylan on a cool overcast day in mid-April. It is the close season for most of the country but in the north-west this restriction only applies to some waters. On the towpath there are signs that spring hasn’t quite shaken itself free from the grip of winter. The canal is fringed with new reed growth and the hawthorn hedgerow is fresh and green but many of the trees are still bare. All along the soupy margins of the far bank little bubbles keep popping up to the surface. ‘They’re blowing their heads off,’ says Dylan. The question is: are the fish feeding or are they still spawning?

The cut can be unpredictable at this time of the year, so as an insurance policy Dylan feeds two swims. He walks on to his second choice and uses his pole to put in one cup-full of bloodworm on the 11m (36ft) line then returns to his first choice – at the end of the high bank – and does the same. This gives the fish the chance to get their heads down while he is tackling up.

Although this stretch looks rather plain it holds some fine fish. Apart from a good head of skimmers and roach, there are bream around the 3lb (1.4kg) mark, tench over 2lb (0.9kg) and eels of Mb (0.68kg). ‘People often lose these eels in matches and think they have lost a tench,’ says Dylan. ‘Deciding tactics is essential.’

He sets up two rigs: a very light Olivette rig for the quality silver fish and a Styl rig with heavier line for the eels – his ‘snig ri’.

Bait requirements couldn’t be simpler: a pint of bloodworm and a few small red-worms from the compost heap. Dylan prefers to feed bloodworm rather than joker it seems to sort out the quality fish. He introduces the bait neat using a big pole cup ‘that way you can get in more bait in one go’ — which saves messing around.

Dylan starts on the Olivette rig. He baits the size 24 hook with a single bloodworm and pushes the delicate rig carefully out towards the reeds. ‘Right! We’ll go in and there is no way in the whole wide world that we’ll get a bite first chuck.’ His float sinks so that only 2mm of the black bristle remains visible – making it rather hard to see. A foot to the right a few bubbles appear on the surface but Dylan’s prediction remains accurate.

A second cast produces a sharp bite and a smart lift of the pole sends the no.4 elastic lickingfrom its tip. From the way the elastic judders every now and again it looks like an eel: ‘We didn’t want that!’ he says. (It’s on the wrong rig.) The eel comes off. ‘Well, we’ve gone 20 minutes with only one bite so we can’t be quite on,’ says Dylan. He shallows off the Olivette rig by about 20cm (8in) – to bring the bait just off the bottom -and then goes back in again. According to Dylan the bottom is very silty here and this can encourage the hookbait to bury itself in the mud, making it extremely unlikely that a fish will find it.

Another positive bite and Dylan drags eel number one reluctantly across the canal. It weighs about 10oz (280g). ‘I’ve come second and third with eels in matches but never won with them,’ says Dylan. He gives it a bit longer – but without success. The prospect of moving on to his alternative swim is looking more and more attractive by the minute.

The new swim is towards the pylons but at a sufficiently safe distance away from them. ‘Well it’s solid with ‘em,’ says Dylan. His enthusiasm is based on the minute bubbles which keep adding themselves to the substantial patch that already hovers over his feed. ‘Right, hands together,’ he says, praying for a bite. He drops the Olivette rig about 60cm (2ft) from the weeds and the float whizzes away – he’s into a fish! The skimmer which he had hoped for turns out to be a roach.

Keeping the depth the same, Dylan changes the bristle on his float to a red one -making it much easier to see among the reflected greens of the far bank. Although there are no locks on this stretch, there is a light surface tow and Dylan uses the pole to keep pulling his float back over the feed. Just then the float starts to run slowly against the flow and sinks out of sight. Dylan strikes in the opposite direction. This time it is a small skimmer.

Staying with the Olivette rig, Dylan cups in more bloodworm about 60cm (2ft) from the reeds. ‘We’d love to catch a bigger bream -so three bloodworms on the hook and get it on the deck.’

Nothing happens so he shallows off and puts two bloodworms on. ‘It’s a matter of playing around until something comes off.’ Now by saying this Dylan has revealed one of his essential secrets – pure, unbridled optimism – which is just what is needed on such a peculiar venue! His patience is soon rewarded by a 7oz (200g) skimmer. This is a good sign.

Dylan is having to wait quite a while for bites so he starts using the pole rest. This leaves his hands free for other tasks — such as taking the occasional swig of pop. In fact it is just as he is having a quick sip that the pole end is yanked suddenly round by a vicious bite. More bubbles appear by the reeds -there’s obviously something down there. Wouldn’t he be better off holding the pole? ‘If a bream comes along all you can be is too quick — you certainly can’t be too slow,’ says Dylan. ‘When you know there are only eels there you have to be quicker. You’ve got to lip hook them or else they’ll bite through the line. So as soon as you get an indication, wallop it!’ The float slides slowly away and, without hurrying, Dylan takes the pole out of the rest – by which time a skimmer of about 10oz (280g) is on the hook.

One small roach and a line-bite later and things have gone quiet again. Dylan thinks there are a few eels down there so he changes to his snig rig. Baiting up with two bloodworms, he drops in and pulls out of a good fish. The next cast results in a baby skimmer and then a small perch follows. Although he is after eels you can almost feel him trying to will a bream on to the hook. ‘Let’s have a change and stick a worm on.’ He puts the pole in the rest and is just leaning over to pick up the bottle of pop when the float whizzes under, taking a good deal of line with it. He misses the bite but, undaunted, rebaits and drops in again. ‘If this were a match I wouldn’t be doing much different,’ he says.

The bristle is pulled gently out of sight, Dylan disengages the pole from the rest and lm (3ft) of elastic springs out of the tip. More elastic appears and the pole bends under the strain. Dylan coaxes the fish slowly but firmly across the canal. More and more line below the float appears as the fish tires and a bronze flank shows itself just beneath the surface. ‘This is what we’ve been waiting for – a bream of about 3lb (1.4kg),’ says Dylan looking suitably pleased and not a little relieved.

A change back to the Olivette rig produces a small roach and then a nice skimmer of about 1lb (0.45kg). Dylan grins, ‘Nowt wrong with them. Are we shaping now?’

He cups in some more bloodworm, drops back in and pulls out of another good fish. Adding a section to his pole he pushes a red-worm tight against the reeds. ‘We’ll tempt fate,’ he says, putting his pole in the rest. After missing two bites in rapid succession the pole still goes back in the pole rest.

Third time lucky – the bristle vanishes, the pole goes up and a good 1.2m (4ft) of elastic shoots out. Dylan hangs on. ‘Looks like a foul-hooked bream.’ The fish goes to the left, boring hard and deep and bending the pole. As it comes closer Dylan takes off a couple of sections. But it catches him unawares when, swimming straight towards his side of the canal, it almost buries itself nose-first in the bank. Somehow the top sections of Dylan’s other pole rig become entangled round his line and as the fish swims out again it drags the spare sections with it. The bemused former World Champion watches as the fish swims in circles, trailing several hundred pounds worth of tackle behind it. Finally Dylan gets it under control and eases it into the net. The culprit turns out to be a tench of about 2KLb (1.13kg) and was probably responsible for all those bubbles! Well, it’s been an odd day — Dylan caught his eels on the Olivette rig and most of the silver fish on his snig rig!