There are canals and there are canals. Mark fished the Macclesfield the day before, when there had been a severe frost, and put a hard-earned 7oz (200g) of miniature gudgeon on the scales – pretty dismal -and to cap it all he trod on a section of one of his poles and smashed it to smithereens! Tackling up on the banks of the Staffs-
Worcester though, prospects look rather different. Here is a cut of the kind that anglers dream about. Gone is the uniform strip of oily water, the tins and unyielding concrete banks, the yellowing bankside grass and urban decay. Instead you’ll find a natural vista. Even on an overcast day in late October tall grasses, dock leaves, rose-bay willow herb and nettles fringe the tow path. The far bank is crammed with hawthorn bushes and alders, and the shadowy water beneath and between them looks irresistible. Then there are the ‘feature’ pegs…
Mark’s son Lee has beaten his dad to the prime spot – a place where the mature boughs of a slender willow dip into the soupy water. You have to admit, it looks a bit special. Says Mark: ‘Vauhan Smith had 18lb 12oz (8.5kg) off that peg last year. Ten pounds (4.5kg) of perch – two of them for 7lb (3.2kg) – and a couple of small carp.’ Still, Mark’s peg doesn’t look bad.
Opposite, there’s a dense reed bed with a few reedmace. ‘You get reed beds on many of the pegs,’ says Mark, ‘but most of them are low and fiat, of a lighter green and don’t grow so far out. These are different. The stems are longer, greener and, more importantly, they grow in deeper water.’ It is here that Mark hopes to catch roach, gudgeon, small perch and maybe the occasional ruffe, while waiting for something bigger to move into the swim.
Using 1 lm of his 14m pole, Mark plumbs up against the reeds and finds just over 60cm (2ft) of water – a generous depth for a far ledge swim on this canal. Although it may be only 15-18cm (6-8in) deeper than reedy swims of the other type, it’s enough for a deep-bodied carp to ghost its way in.
Mark’s overall approach is to fish bloodworm against the reeds directly in front of him for the bits, and casters about 1.8m (6ft) to the left for bigger roach and bonus carp. He sprinkles a little binder on some joker, squeezes together three walnut-sized balls and cups them in on the far side. Then, with the cup – which is about the same size as a film canister – one-third full of hemp and casters, he baits the other spot.
In a match, Mark puts one ball of joker close in – so that it starts to attract gudgeon straight away – and then feeds the far bank swim. He then returns to the inside and hopes to catch straight off. Continuing to plug away on this line, he slowly builds a weight, giving the far swim time to settle. Quite when he’d go over depends on how well he was catching and what was happening around him, but usually it would be after about half an hour.
Mark reckons that a 6lb (2.7kg) catch is always on the cards here, and in one match he took 10lb (4.5kg) of gudgeon on 9m of pole. This gives a fair idea of the quantity of small fish that are here to be caught.
Today, Mark keeps it simple and pushes his Olivette rig straight over to the reeds. Away to the right there’s an ominous rasping as a tractor creeps towards us along the fish of the day – a very presentable Staffs-Worcester gudgeon. ‘I’d rather catch gudgeon than small roach,’ says Mark. ‘They don’t half weigh.’
Uh oh! – now there’s a problem. That tractor is pruning the bankside vegetation and towpath. The significance of this doesn’t register straight away.
Also to the right – but about two miles away – there is a set of locks. These create a slight right-to-left flow. Mark lets the float run parallel to the reeds and then eases it back again. Accurate plumbing means the bloodworm’s tail is tripping along the bottom.
The orange bristle sinks positively and Mark lifts the pole smartly, but misses. ‘I hope it’s not them,’ he says, holding his fingers about 3cm (l’/An) apart. Dropping back in on the same spot he misses another bite. Third time lucky, he hooks the first the cuttings are dropping into the water. The first of the debris has just reached us and now there’s an endless stream of cut grass and other weeds. Mark is still catching gudgeon but is having to lift his hook clear of the water each time he pushes his rig out. It’s slowing him right down.
Meanwhile Lee is getting into his stride. Keen as mustard, Lee has fished a couple of times for the England Juniors and looks set to leave his mark on match fishing. The chopped butterbur and nettles have yet to reach him and he’s catching plenty of gudgeon and small roach – no sign of any big perch or carp, though.
The low cloud cover has gone and now a warming sun beams down from the wintry blue sky. ‘I can’t believe it,’ says Mark as he pulls his pole out of the way of the gaily painted Gentle Gypsy. ‘You never normally see a boat in winter.’ In fact the boat helps to disperse the grass. ‘I’ll just have a little mooch on the caster,’ says Mark. He has been feeding the occasional pouchful of casters and hemp just to the left. ‘When I go on to the caster I’ll feed the bloodworm swim with another ball of joker.’ The idea is to keep working both swims.
Burying the size 18 hook inside a caster, Mark pushes the pole out and carefully lowers his slightly heavier – caster – Styl rig into the reedy bay. After about thirty seconds the bristle still sits there cheekily. Mark lifts the pole and does a mid-air bait inspection. It’s okay-the hook’s still buried – so he drops it back in. This time the bristle sinks and as Mark lifts the pole a bit of elastic licks out.
He pops a tiny roach in the net, rebaits, shunts the pole out and bumps a bigger fish off! Unable to get into a rhythm, Mark has to wait for the next bite which, when it finally comes, is from another small roach. They’re obviously not responding so he returns to the gudgeon swim. they aren’t tackled up properly.’
Mark says that you need a strong hook made of thickish wire – such as the Drennan Superspade – so that it doesn’t cut into the fish’s mouth, and one of the new ‘double strength’ lines of about 5-6lb (2.3-2.7kg) b.s. Don’t use a favourite float because floats are often badly knocked about. Anything around 3×8 Styls is fine. The elastic should be something like a Zim no. 8.
We have a visitor. The inquisitive, golden-coloured, furry head – which has buried itself in Mark’s bag – belongs to a young labrador. Inside the bag there’s a box and in the box there are some ham sandwiches. Mark secures the bag and our photographer tries to chivvy the dog on its way. When it starts to growl we soon realise that the dog isn’t going anywhere while there is food to be had!
Mark’s catching a succession of gudgeon punctuated by the occasional small roach and perch. It looks as though the carp aren’t here. Says Mark: ‘When they turn up in matches most anglers lose them because 30cm (1ft) out, a carp still wrenches out around 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft) of elastic!
It is often a waiting game. You are fishing for maybe two or three bites – but they can be from double-figure fish! This means it is by far the wisest course to be patient, and to come well-prepared.
Our canine companion is watching some young lads playing football on the other side of the canal. This reminds Mark of an incident which took place during one of the matches he was fishing.
Some youngsters kicked a ball into the canal and an angler by the name of Dylan Williams fished it out with the intention of kicking it back. When asked whether he could manage, he said that it was no problem and gave the ball a hefty kick – sending his Wellington boot soaring into the middle of the canal! But it didn’t end there. Back in the pub after the last match in the series, a raffle was held. When Dylan’s peg number was called out he couldn’t believe his good luck and went up to claim his prize. In fact it turned out to be a child’s Wellington boot on a plinth bearing the inscription: Willy’s welly’ – the raffle had been rigged!
Although the telling of a yarn or two isn’t a substitute for a netful of fish, it makes for an enjoyable day. In fact, a good sense of humour and a stock of amusing stories are essential items in any angler’s kit. Mark’s got plenty of both.
There hasn’t been a sniff of a carp and, what with hard frosts, tractors and a roving labrador to contend with, it has been tough. Still, dogged persistence paid off in the end. The 3-4oz (85-114g) roach have turned on in the last hour and, with the gudgeon, small perch and roach which Mark caught earlier on, they’ve boosted his catch to around 4]A lb (2kg). This is a very creditable weight when you consider that a 140 peg junior match held here the day before was won with 1lb lloz (0.77kg)!
Mark has shown that, even when the weather is cold and the going hard, by using fine tackle and bloodworm you can usually put a few fish in the net.
Being a ‘parrot cage’, however, it’s too gloomy and constricted down there to take good photos. So he walks back upstream and settles on the brighter and roomier cattle drink swim. The flow is a touch faster here – too fast today for bream and skimmers, he suspects, but ideal for chub.