Winter days ‘on the cut’

Canals may be hard in winter but at least they’re always f ishable – unlike rivers, which flood. Even when they’re frozen, you can break the ice and catch. But you must pick the right spot. England man Mark Downes tells you how.

There are literally hundreds of miles of canal around the country that can produce excellent sport throughout the year. Sadly, most canals are largely neglected in winter. But be in no doubt, winter days ‘on the cut’ can provide highly rewarding – if seldom spectacular – sport.

All change

As autumn slips into winter and the first ground frosts start to chill the water, the whole character of a canal changes. Most noticeable is how the colour of the water diminishes. What was murky, constantly moving water in summer, because of the passage of boats and the opening and shutting of locks, is now clear and still – and as winter progresses, so the clarity of the water increases.

To make the most of your canal in winter you need to know how the fish react to such changes and how best to approach what is, to all intents and purposes, a totally different fishery from the one you fished in the warm summer months.

First, you need to know what fish are worth pursuing. Generally, two species dominate the winter canal scene: gudgeon and roach. Other fish you can expect are ruffe and perch. Bream and carp do occasionally show up, but normally only on exceptionally mild days.

But as with all waters in winter, choosing the right swim is more important than at any other time of the year.

In deep water

There are two main lines of attack on most canals: the near and the far. In summer, your near line is usually l-2m (1-2yd) from the bank, in 30-45cm (12-18in) of water, while your far line is often right across, on top of the far-bank shelf.

As the nights draw in and the water cools, however, the fish drop down into deeper water, congregating at the bottom of the shelves where most natural particles of food eventually settle.

On the near side, look for this point around 3-3.5m (3-4yd) from the bank. Depending on the canal, expect 60-100cm (2-3½ ft) of water here – ideal for putting together a bag of gudgeon or Tommy ruffe on the short whip.

As for the far line, mostly you find the bottom of the shelf 7.5-9.5m (8-10yd) from the near bank. Again, expect 60-100cm (2-3Mift) of water. This is where the ‘silver’ fish -roach, mainly – tend to gather, shying away in the clear water from anglers on the tow-path.

If you only have around 60cm (2ft) of water across it is better to use conventional rod and line techniques rather than the long pole. This is simply because waving a pole over the heads of the fish in such clear, relatively shallow water can spook them. If you have less than, say, 100cm (3/2ft) of water, a small waggler can work better.

Cat-ice on the cut

As winter progresses and evening temperatures start to slump below freezing, you find cat-ice (thin sheets) forming in the margins. It is now that the water is at its coldest and fishing is at its hardest.

This is the one time that fishing in ‘no man’s land’ – down the middle, in the boat track – can pay dividends. You find that the fish feed for only a short time, however -usually between noon and 2:30pm, the warmest period of the day.

In such conditions, shallow stretches yield very poor sport and you really need to know your canal and fish the deeper areas. Often the deepest water is around bridges, due to the channelling of boats under the narrow spans. Fish often shoal tightly in these spots when there is cat-ice on the cut.

Ice work

Surprisingly, once you get past the cat-ice stage and you have a fully frozen canal, sport can take a real upturn. The wind can no longer chill the water, and the ice acts like the glass of a greenhouse, warming the water underneath.

The longer the canal stays frozen over, the more the fish spread out away from bridges and other deep areas, though still keeping to the deep water at the bottom of the near and far shelves. The problem is how to get at them. The answer is easy: you break the ice.

If the ice is up to 5cm (2in) thick, a heavy weight attached to a length of rope is all you need. Starting on the near side, break your way slowly across by repeatedly swinging out the weight until you have a fishable channel extending over the bottom of the far shelf.

If, however, the ice is more than 5cm (2in) thick, you can only effectively break a smaller hole reaching about 5m (5Myd) out from the bank. This restricts you to fishing over the bottom of the near shelf.

You might expect the disturbance caused by smashing the ice would send every fish in the swim diving for cover, but surprisingly this isn’t so. In fact, ice-breaking often seems to attract rather than repel fish -perhaps because the weight on the end of the rope stirs up the bottom, providing cover as well as food.

By the way, standing on the ice is not recommended – one slip and you are in trouble. And it’s much easier and safer to go accompanied – you can help break the ice in each other’s swim, and you are there for each other if one of you falls in. In matches, incidentally, it is accepted that you help clear your neighbours’ pegs.

It was in the big freeze of 1986 that the real potential of fishing through the ice was realised. Then, ice up to 15cm (6in) thick covered many of the country’s canals and match anglers, once they came to terms with the hard work involved in breaking such thick ice, enjoyed some superb sport. The Grand Union Canal and the Oxford Canal in particular produced some superb catches, 6 lb (2.7kg) winning bags in matches being commonplace, with good backing weights.

Tackle and baits

A canal is no place for heavy tackle and heavy feeding on the best of days at the height of summer. In winter, light tackle and light feeding are doubly important.

Fine wire hooks in sizes down to 26 and fine hooklengths down to 8oz (230g) breaking strain are essential.

Best baits are bloodworm and joker, squatts and pinkies for gudgeon, ruffe and roach, casters and punched bread for roach, and chopped worm for perch.

Winter days 'on the cut'

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