It is mid October and we join Mark on the canal bank. The sun is low and its rays haven’t made it on to the tow path yet, but with a cloudless sky it looks set to be exceptionally warm. Mark is going to take us through the procedure for a typical match on the Grand Union.
Most canals have the same cross-sectional profile – ledges on the near and far sides with a boat channel down the middle. The Grand Union is no exception, but on this stretch the far ledge is much wider and shallower than usual. This means that Mark isn’t going to fish under the bushes on the far side but only two-thirds of the way across. It is deeper here but not in the direct path of boat traffic. a rod. By using a pole Mark can hold the float perfectly still – the way the roach like it. ‘But some days they know the pole’s there – then you have to use a rod,’ he says.
The main hookbait for the roach here is squatts. Hemp occasionally works on the hook if there are bigger roach about, but is largely used to hold the fish in the swim. Pinkies are a good change bait, often attracting the attention of perch or better roach. In a match Mark would bring a few big maggots for the hook too.
He puts in six pouchfuls of hemp on the far swim and two handfuls on the inside at 5m – his second line of attack – the idea being to create a carpet of food to keep the roach interested. When he starts fishing he’ll loose feed with squatts.
Mark’s groundbait mix is an essential part of his squattsmall roach technique and he goes to considerable trouble to get it right.
First he makes a half-and-half dry mix of Van den Eynde Super Rouge and Supercup in a large bowl and adds two egg-cups full of vanilla attractor. Then, using another bowl, he adds water – a bit at a time – until the mix is damp. Finally he puts the mix through a pinkie riddle to remove any lumps. Mark tests the groundbait by squeezing together a handful and dropping it into the canal. It sinks and then resurfaces, slowly dropping particles before finally sinking altogether – perfect! Mixed this way the groundbait attracts roach without overfeeding them.
Match anglers tend to keep the insides of their tackle boxes either clean and tidy or like the inside of a dustbin. As you’d expect, Mark’s box falls into the former category – he has rows of his own blue balsa floats all immaculately laid out in trays. An orderly approach saves precious, match-winning time and generally makes life easier. Within a matter of minutes he’s set up his two pole rigs and is ready to go.
At first the hawthorn behind Mark presents something of a problem when it comes to feeding his pole back. But after a while he finds a hole and is able to use it to his advantage, whizzing the pole back and forth, using the hedge like a pole roller.
The first job is to plumb up both lines very accurately to find the exact depth. While Mark does this he continues to loose feed squatts.
His inside line is 1.4m deep and his far side line only 60cm deep. The roach like the bait presented 13mm off the bottom and Mark adjusts his rigs accordingly. He decides to start off with his inside rig to give his main line of attack time to settle.
The autumn fall has scattered willow leaves over the surface of the canal. Mark lifts the pole and a hooked leaf nutters towards him like a little yellow fish. He recasts, dropping the single squatt into an area of clear water, and concentrates on the minute orange pimple that is the tip of his float. It vanishes. He swings in a loz roach, unhooks it, pops it in the net, then recasts and loose feeds both swims with a small pouchful of squatts. A moment’s wait and a little perch is flying to Mark’s hand – sport is certainly fast if not furious.
Two perch later Mark concludes that there can’t be a lot of roach around. The truth is that he’s just itching to try his far line.
After a few more roach and perch, things slow down so Mark picks up his other rig -it’s time for a look over. Rather than manhandling the pole out to the 9m line, he propels it rapidly so that it shoots quickly through his hands and out over the water. When small-fish match fishing, speed is of the essence.
Mark’s diminutive pole float shows up suprisingly well, glowing like a miniature orange beacon. Sensitive in the extreme, it looks as though it is capable of registering the merest sneeze of a gudgeon. It hangs there a moment before blinking. A sharp lift of the pole and a fish comes bouncing out of the water – Mark’s first gudgeon.
The fish are coming one a cast – mainly gudgeon with the odd roach – and Mark continues to loose feed. If this was a match he’d be quite happy. Just then a maroon barge comes chugging into view. There’s a lot of traffic on this stretch and it can be a war of nerves for anglers. Mark fishes on regardless. It looks as though he is going to wait until the last second before withdrawing his fragile, highly expensive pole. The barge noses into his swim. Mark carries on resolutely. Surely he’s left it too late? The barge is already bearing down on his pole, there isn’t time to draw its 9m out of the way. What’s he going to do? Mark lifts the pole high in the air and the barge and its bemused occupant pass serenely beneath.
The swim has taken a severe pounding. Ugly grey puffs of mud appear as the boat passes on. Mark feeds a walnut-sized ball of groundbait to encourage the fish to regroup — he’ll do this every time a boat goes through or every 10 minutes — whichever is sooner. If they’re really going well he groundbaits every other cast.
He misses one or two bites. This is odd because on examining the bait he finds that it has been completely sucked out each time. A fish does this with its pharyngeal teeth and since these are situated in its throat the fish must be taking the bait confidently. It doesn’t take long for the gudgeon to settle, though, and Mark is soon clonking them out again at a very satisfactory rate.
In a five-hour match Mark sets himself a target of over 200 fish – that’s one every one and a half minutes – so there’s no time for tangles. Everything has to run as smoothly as a well-oiled machine. He’s going well now, roach are coming regularly – he’s just taken six on the same squatt – but they are still not quite as big as he’d like.
It seems that you have to vary the line on which you are fishing until you find the fish. Mark is now fishing slightly closer than when he started. This means that his bait is over deeper water – about 9in off the bottom. On his next cast the bait drops slightly farther out. His float blinks rhythmically as each wavelet bounces against it — making it easier to see, in fact. Suddenly it is not there when it ought to be. Mark strikes and the elastic licks out from the pole tip as a 4oz roach darts for freedom. He nets it, goes back out to the same spot and is into another straight away. ‘You never get a fish with squatts in its throat unless it is really hungry,’ says Mark. That one, like the previous fish, had about half a dozen down its throat.
It seems that Mark was wrong. He’s been fishing too close when all the time the roach were farther out. Well, at least he’s found them. Now it is just a matter of making hay while the sun shines.