Christmas was cold, wet and windy but three days into the New Year it’s mild, dry and fairly still. It’s looking good for the day ahead as Jim crosses the bridge by the Boxing Club and turns left on to the towpath. He’s heading for where the canal widens slightly a few hundred yards along from the bridge. In summer it’s a popular area for the odd crucian, bream, tench and carp. At this time of year it’s renowned for roach and perch to over 1lb .
Jim stops opposite a moored boat and studies the dark water. It’s always quite clear in winter, when there’s no algal bloom and little boat traffic, but it’s even clearer than usual today because of the recent rain. ‘That’s the great thing about this canal,’ he says. ‘When rivers flood, this place just fills up like a bath, so you’ve always got somewhere to fish.’ He confidently sets himself a target weight of 5-6lb – good fishing by any standards for the middle of winter.
Jim will start with punched bread on the whip for small roach, while feeding hemp and casters across to the boat for bigger roach. He’ll try to keep fish coming on the whip for as long as he can before going across with caster on the waggler. ‘The longer you leave your caster line alone, the better, to get the bigger roach feeding confidently,’ he explains.
His punch line will be some 6m out, at the bottom of the near slope. He knows the depth here is about 1.7m , but takes the time to plumb it exactly so he can set his hookbait 2.5cm off the bottom – ‘level with the fishes’ mouths, to make it easy for them.’
He doesn’t plumb just one spot, either, but edges the plummet across the bottom, making sure there are no snags down there. As he says, ‘you don’t want to be fishing in an old supermarket trolley!’
In summer, when perfect bait presentation isn’t critical, the fish come faster and speed is of the essence, you usually fish the whip to hand. But this is winter and precise bait presentation is important, so Jim will fish a short line and unship sections of his soft-tipped, part take-apart, part telescopic, 7m whip to bait his hook and land fish.
But first he plumbs his waggler line. In summer this would likely be tight to the boat, in the shallow water on top of the shelf where the fish shelter from boat traffic. In winter, with few boats on the move, the fish are more often in the deeper water at the bottom of the drop-off. He plumbs it and finds about 1.2m .
Jim opens a plastic tub containing a liquidized loaf of sliced white bread. For canals he removes the crusts before liquidizing – for rivers he doesn’t bother. He prefers day-old bread because it flakes out better in the water than fresh bread. ‘There’s no way I’ll use all this today,’ he says, ‘but I’ll freeze what’s left for another time.’ The box he has brought is, in fact, one from the freezer. ‘It dries out a bit after freezing, but a quick spray with an atomizer soon dampens it up again.’
Jim adds a few drops of Catchum Roach Attractor to his atomizer before spraying the bread. ‘I don’t know if it works, but it can’t hurt,’ he says. He also sprays his hands before fluffing up the bread with his fingers, so no human smell taints the bait.
Next he opens a bag of casters and a bag of hemp. In winter there’s no need to put them in water – a few squirts from the atomizer keep them fresh all day. He fires over four small pouches of hemp and two small pouches of casters. He’ll top this up with half a dozen casters every 10 minutes or so while fishing the whip. The casters are dark so they sink slowly and lift off the bottom when a boat passes – feeding the swim twice, if you like!
For his bread swim, Jim gently squeezes together a ‘golf-ball’ of liquidized bread and tips it into the water 6m out with a pole cup clipped to his whip. You could throw it in but a cup gives pin-point accuracy. The ball sinks slowly, breaking up as it goes. ‘With luck,’ says Jim, ‘I won’t have to feed this line again.’ overdepth -and gets a gudgeon. Sometimes shallowing up does the trick. He tries 5cm off the bottom – and gets a tiny roach.
Jim’s puzzled. Liquidized bread usually attracts bigger fish than this. He feeds another ‘golf-ball’ and a little hemp – not so much to fill up and feed off the tiny roach, but more in the hope of attracting bigger ones to bully them out of the way.
Three boats chug past in as many minutes. ‘I’d have bet on not seeing any boats today,’ he says. ‘Not that the odd one bothers the fish.’ Hardly has the water settled when a 2.5cm roach takes the bait. ‘I can’t believe it. That’s got to be the smallest roach I’ve ever had on punch!’
But by persevering and feeding more bread and hemp, Jim eventually finds a better stamp of roach – 2.5cm ‘off the deck’, where he started! By mid-day it’s a fish a cast. Satisfied, he decides it’s time to take a look at his caster line. ‘If I don’t catch immediately it’ll mean the fish aren’t there and I’ll go straight back on the punch,’ says Jim. That’s the mark of experience — many would sit it out on a barren caster line.
He picks up his waggler rod and buries the hook in a caster. As soon as the float lands he dips the rod tip into the water and flicks it to the side to sink the line. He never treats his line with washing-up liquid -’would you put it on your bait?’
Each cast Jim feeds just four casters. He gets a small roach straight away then misses five bites in five casts. Hooking the caster on like a maggot makes no difference so he tries going overdepth.
The result is dramatic as quality roach and perch averaging 8oz start coming to the net. Gradually, however, the drift on the canal builds up and to stop the float moving and dragging under he has to go more and more overdepth. He even takes off one dropper shot, to increase the float’s buoyancy. He copes for a while but the skim gets stronger until there’s no way to hold the bait dead still – the way the roach demand it – and he begins to miss bites again. It’s time for the long pole.
With a 13m pole Jim is able to hold his bait against the drift. Immediately he’s back in business as the elastic streaks out and a ‘goer’ roach bolts for the sanctuary of the boat. But there’s really no contest and it’s soon surrendering with a flap of a red fin. He continues to net fish one after the other until a posse of boats ploughs through the swim and kills it. No matter, it has turned pretty cold anyway and he’s well pleased with a thoroughly good day’s fishing.