Roach have taken over from tench as the main target at the Liverpool end of this clear, weedy canal.
Tench and the Liverpool end of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal once went together like bacon and eggs. The fish weren’t huge, but what they lacked in size they made up in numbers — ‘It was nothing to catch a dozen or more at a sitting,’ recalls Derek.
The reason they were so prolific was the extraordinary clarity of the water. Anglers used to say it was so clear you could read a newspaper lying on the bottom all the way across. ‘This clarity allowed maximum sunlight penetration, and filamentous algae bloomed in profusion like green candyfloss,’ says Derek. ‘The tench thrived in burrows in it like rabbits in a warren.’
Now the algae has all but gone, and with it most of the tench. Fringed waterlily has used to be replenished from reservoirs in the Leeds area. In the last few years, though, there hasn’t been enough reservoir water to spare, so water from the River Douglas near Wigan has been used to top up the level of the canal instead. ‘This water is cloudy and polluted, and when it’s pumped in the whole canal takes on a dirty brown tinge,’ he says. Whether it is direct cause and effect, the fact is that in the last few years the algae and tench have all but gone. And although the canal is still quite clear most of the time, you can’t see the bottom any more. ‘These days the canal is wall to wall with ounce roach,’ says Derek, ‘though you get them all sizes up to a pound. Your bonus fish are skimmers and bream, plus the occa- sional tench. There are also quite a few small perch, a fair number of eels and isolated little rudd.’
Like most clear, weedy canals, the Leeds & Liverpool fishes best in summer. We met Derek on a favourite stretch — Brewery Lane, near Maghull – one bright afternoon in August. It is a picturesque, rural spot, marred only by the amount of rubbish in the water. Looking down from the bridge we watched a shoal of small roach swim over a white carrier bag like a squadron of bombers silhouetted against a full moon.
Walking along the towpath, all the swims looked good. Some had inviting reedbeds along the far bank, while others supported fishy-looking masses of fringed waterlily on one side, or even both sides, of the central channel. ‘There are no bad swims here for roach, just some that are better than others,’ said Derek. ‘During the day and in the evenings you get a lot of people about on the towpath, walkers as well as anglers. With the water being clear, this means the fish tend to stay over the far side, so the better swims are those with far bank cover. The cover needn’t be reeds or lilies – a big clump of Canadian pondweed is just as attractive to roach. ‘Even where you have cover on the tow-path side, you don’t catch much this side of the middle during the day or in the evening. The only time you catch close in is very early in the morning, before there’s too much towpath traffic.’
Make them come to you
If you decide to set out your stall for a tench, Derek advises you to pick a swim with far bank cover in the form of reeds or lilies, and pole-fish caster or punched bread across. ‘The tench go up to four pound, but because the water is clear and the venue so heavily fished, you have to fish with fine line and small hooks to get bites. Don’t fish too close to the reeds or lilies, therefore, or you are sure to lose any tench you hook. Feed and fish a yard or two away from the feature, to draw the fish out into the open water.’
Choice roach swim
Derek chose a swim that at first glance looked featureless. About 13m (14yd) wide, it seemed to be clear all the way across to the far bank. But on closer inspection a few surface fronds betrayed the presence of a mass of Canadian pondweed about three-quarters of the way over – a sure-fire roach-holding feature, he reckoned.
Plumbing up, he found some 1.4m (4/4ft) of depth, typical for the stretch, he said. ‘Skimmers can turn up anywhere, but if I was after the bream I’d look for a slightly deeper stretch. Six inches can make all the difference – find five foot of water and you’ve a good chance of finding the bream.’
He explained that punched bread works well for skimmers and bream, while hemp reigns supreme for roach. ‘It’s worth starting on punch, just to see if there are any skimmers or bream there. If there aren’t, you can switch to hemp with no harm done. I like to feed and fish the hemp in three spots in rotation – straight in front and on either side – to keep the bites coming as long as possible. If you feed and fish only one spot, you tend to catch a few early on but eventually the roach fight shy of the disturbance and your bites dry up. ‘Long pole/short-lining is the only method worth considering, with as much line between the pole tip and float as possible, to avoid waving the pole over their heads. With the waggler you get far fewer bites and they’re almost impossible to hit. Even on the pole, I reckon if you hit one in four bites you’re doing well. But you get lots of bites, so that makes up for it, and once you get them going, Bob’s your uncle.’
Derek started on the punch, but when this failed to produce any skimmers he quickly switched to hemp. Conditions were good for hemping — it was a bright, warm day with just enough breeze to ripple the water — and in a short session he managed