The Grand Union Canal near Rowington in Warwickshire is regularly match fished and Mark knows most of it well, but he’s never practised or been drawn above Rising Lane Bridge. From the bridge, a peg with an overhanging elder bush opposite looks a flier. ‘Let’s get down there before someone else nabs it,’ says Mark.
The towpath is overgrown after three months’ rest but it’s only a short walk. Each time the sun goes behind a cloud there’s a definite chill in the air. ‘I haven’t seen a single fish top yet,’ says Mark. The water is still. ‘There can’t be many boats about, otherwise there would be some lock movement. You need the occasional boat, just to keep it stirred up.’
It takes but a few minutes with the pole and plummet to draw a mental map of the bottom. The canal is fairly symmetrical in cross-section. There’s about 40cm (15in) of water on top of the narrow shelves. In the middle it’s some 1.2m (4ft) deep.
Mark plans to fish halfway down the side of the near shelf, where it’s about 75cm (2/2ft) deep, with a 3m (10ft) whip, for gudgeon mainly; half-way up the side of the far shelf, where the depth is also about 75cm (2/2ft), with 9m (30ft) of a long pole, mostly for skimmers; and on top of the far shelf, under the bush, with 13m (43ft) of the long pole, for roach.
His strategy is to switch between the three lines, resting each in turn; fish one to exhaustion and the fish rarely return.
On his whip line he feeds two hard ‘golf balls’ of groundbait packed with squatts. These sink straight to the bottom but break up within a few minutes to provide a bed of feed. He throws them in slightly short of where he will actually fish, to allow for the feed rolling down the slope.
Next he feeds the 9m (30ft) line, this time with four ‘satsuma-sized’ balls of ground-bait. Two are squeezed together hard -again, to break up on the bottom. The other two are soft, to burst on impact and sink in an attractive, billowing cloud. Again, all are packed with squatts, and again he allows for the feed rolling down the slope, this time by throwing the balls slightly past where he will actually fish.
Finally, he fires four good pouches of casters right across, under the elder bush.
Throughout the day Mark feeds all three lines regularly, whichever one he is fishing: stop feeding and your fish move on to pastures new. On the whip line he feeds ‘thumbnail’ balls of groundbait containing just a few squatts – each cast while he is fishing the whip, every five minutes or so when he is not. This groundbait is soft so it can attract any roach and perch cruising past as it sinks.
At 9m (30ft) and 13m (43ft) he loosefeeds one small pouch of squatts and casters respectively at five minute intervals while he is resting these lines, stepping up or cutting down on the loosefeed when he is actually fishing them according to how the fish are responding.
Mark starts on the whip, baiting his hook with a pinkie. He leans forward, watching his float tip intently. It dips hesitantly -he strikes, misses and finds the bait unmarked. A fresh pinkie on, he tries again. The float sinks half-heartedly and a muddy ruffe comes to hand. More bites are then missed. He tries twitching his float to tempt a more positive bite, but the gudgeon aren’t playing ball.
He puts his whip to one side and tries the 9m (30ft) line, with one pinkie on the hook. The float goes straight away but he misses the bite. Next drop in a small roach succumbs. Feeding the pole back through the bushes behind him he nearly knocks a startled squirrel off its perch! ‘I’m getting bites now and not even seeing them,’ he says. ‘I can’t believe how shy they are. Normally, small roach would be ripping into the bait, but it’s like winter at the moment.’
Mark goes back on the whip with single pinkie. The float slips away and after a brief tussle he nets a 4oz (115g) roach. He moves the Olivette up the line but gets no more. ‘It shows how shy they are. There was obviously a shoal of roach there, but as soon as I caught one they spooked.’
He moves the Olivette back down and suddenly it’s a bite a throw from gudgeon. Soon six or seven are in the net. They’re good sized gudgeon too — 30 or so to the pound (0.45kg) – and they’re taking the bait as soon as it reaches the bottom. ‘The bites are nice and slow, though,’ says Mark. ‘They’re deliberate, feeding fish.’
It’s tempting to carry on plundering the shoal but he knows that in the long run he’ll get more of them by resting the whip line after every half dozen or so fish.
Out over the 9m (30ft) line again and Mark catches a couple of small roach on single pinkie. Next drop in, with double pinkie, the float slinks away followed by several feet of elastic. ‘That’s what we’ve come for -a big skimmer,’ he says. It’s fit, but he lets the elastic do the work, expertly breaks down the pole and pans the 1lb 4oz (570g) fish first time.
It’s tempting to get straight back out there and go for broke, but he knows that while he might well catch another skimmer immediately, the commotion in the shallow water would likely also scare the shoal away. So with admirable self-discipline he returns to the whip. The gudgeon are still there and feeding confidently. It’s actually quite warm now too.
Back on the 9m (30ft) line Mark loses a small skimmer at the net. Then a boat ploughs through. Next go he gets a gudgeon, then another: the skimmers have gone. It’s time to try under the bush with a caster.
The float bobs twice under the foliage, then vanishes, and there’s a flash of white as he connects with a good roach. ‘This is more like it,’ he says, netting the plump half-pounder (230g). Two more net roach follow rapidly, then a dark back breaks surface under the bush – a carp!
Hastily he rigs a quivertip rod with 3lb (1.4kg) line, 40cm (15in), 2/2lb (1.1kg) hook-length and three swan shot on a 15cm (6in) link. He baits the forged 18 hook with double caster and casts tight to the bush. The seconds tick by, then suddenly the tip pulls round. He strikes and the rod hoops over -but it’s only a small perch.
Back on the pole, Mark has the roach lining up in good order under the bush when the float slips out of sight for the umpteenth time and something much bigger is on. For a while it circles ponderously under the tip of the pole and he wonders if it’s a big bream. Then it takes off at a rate of knots and he’s forced to follow it along the towpath. ‘Definitely a carp. It realizes it’s hooked now. The trouble is, this elastic isn’t really strong enough.’
Gradually, though, it fees and after a few hairy moments it rolls into the net. Weighing 2lb 4oz (1kg), it’s covered in fungus – not a pretty sight, but a very welcome fish all the same.
Despite the disturbance to the swim, the roach are still there and Mark carries on catching steadily. He still feeds the other two lines, but can be forgiven for sticking it out under the bush – especially when he strikes into and successfully subdues a battling, bristling 1lb 5oz (595g) perch!
After five minutes he’s still not seen the fish and it’s become something of a stalemate.