Fishing Canals in Britain

Britain’s canal system is falling rapidly into disrepair, but as more and more stretches are closed to boat traffic, anglers who know the fishing potential of canals may be slow to complain

Canals and canalized rivers are com-monly thought of as straight, characterless and of uniform depth. If that were true, the fish would be spread out evenly, there would be no hot-spots and reading the water would be impossible; but it is not.

Hidden character

Canal lock/sluice gates complex under bridge G...
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The returns from heavily fished match stretches disprove that kind of thinking – top weights are taken from a few winning pegs season after season. If there is no character, no larder, no cover, or no attraction in these winning swims, why do fish congregate there? There are many large, wide stretches of canal where all the swims ought to offer the same opportunity, but seldom do.

There may be a small patch of weed, a slight depth variation, or an obstruction that puts a little extra draw on the almost non-existent current. There may be an undercut bank caused by the washes of boats; there may be some kind of natural food supply such as small worms washed continually from undercut banks; even a few rush stems in an otherwise characterless stretch of water could indicate a starting point. Green, round-stemmed bulrushes almost always grow from a clean gravel bottom. If you are seeking roach you are likely to find them over patches of such gravel.

Your choice of swim may prove wrong, however, and it is better to work to a plan than to sit down in the nearest or most comfortable spot you find.

Some canals are navigable; some are overgrown and silted. Both kinds hold fish, but methods of locating them are likely to differ. Much depends on the time of year. In summer, bream and roach in an overgrown and silted canal may be visible to the cautious angler.

There is no better way of reading the water than by watching the fish themselves. I have watched shoals mingle and criss-cross, moving aimlessly in the heat of a summer’s day, with no interest in feeding whatsoever. By studying their movements I have often been able to establish feeding times and places. I have observed, for instance, that canal roach and bream do not have discernible feeding times. I have seen canal bream ignore groundbait carpets and settle, towards dusk, in a lily-pad hole or bulrush bed – both food-holding spots.


Lifford lane guillotine lock, Kings Norton, Bi...
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Navigable canals colour-up badly in summer and it is almost impossible to spot fish in the murky water, but their presence may be betrayed by bubbles or movement of other kinds. Tench, bream and carp all bubble when bottom-feeding.

It takes time to recognize the various bubbles and, even with experience, mistakes can be made. The slow, regular appearance of two or three large bubbles coming to the surface in one spot can usually be dismissed as marsh gas. Larger sheets of small bubbles coming up intermittently, not necessarily in the same spot, usually indicate tench. These are sometimes called needle bubbles. Bream send up sheets of larger bubbles, and carp can raise bubbles the size of a small balloon. Roach are not generally associated with bubbling, but when they are searching a confined area of canal silt they can cause strings of bubbles to rise. Dropping a bait ahead of the bubble stream will often bring good results.

A sudden surge of bubbles, followed by surface swirl, will virtually guarantee the presence of an active pike. Whether its presence tells you where to fish for its prey, is debatable. A shoal of roach being harrassed by a marauding pike is unlikely to show interest in an angler’s bait, but the pike is obviously chasing something. It may pay to catch it first and continue roach fishing afterwards.

In summer, many of the far-bank holes produce fish immediately after a boat has passed, and there is evidence to suggest that shoals often stay near these areas all through the winter.

The centre channel of most navigable canals is usually the deepest. In some parts of the coun- 1 try it is referred to as the ‘boat road’. In winter, particularly if boat traffic is at a standstill, the deep, middle channel will be the best area to explore. Even though the standard advice is to fish hard on the bottom in winter, it is doubtful whether fish actively search for food in severe conditions. It is generally accepted that winter fish need less as they are less active, but most fish are opportunists at times, and if a piece of food passes close by, they are apt to bite at it.

It is not possible to draw canal fish from a long way off by pre-baiting. Hotspots have to be found by trial and error. It is often difficult to pin them down, but I have a particular liking for the deep, centre channel and the bends where vertical banks indicate a deep hole caused by erosion.

Canal locks in England.
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Do not be side-tracked by rule-of-thumb ideas. There is truth in all of them, but they can be misleading. In some canals the fish hole up in the deepest water, but the chances are slight of this being true all the time. Is it likely that all the fish in a stretch of canal shoal at the foot of a lock gate? Although it is a comfortable spot and may be the deepest in a lock swim, fish may find it lacking.

These can be approached in the same way as small ponds, but fish will see every movement of an angler silhouetted against the sky if he stands on the higher level near the lock gates. Keep to the towpath (if that is accessible) while reconnoitring and fishing, and cast from there towards the gates.

In summer, if you see a trickle of water coming through a gap in lock gates, fish may have gathered close up to the wood to enjoy the small in food and light and move out to one less comfortable in order to find food. Look for winter roach in the deepest hole, but be prepared to be proven wrong. The deep, slack hole in a stillwater canal may well hold roach in winter, but there are many times when they will be elsewhere. Unless the temperature is hovering around freezing point, the relative warmth of deep holes is probably quite irrelevant.

Decayed lilies

Reading the water and deciding upon a location is only one part of the procedure. The next is to search with tackle. In winter, use light float tackle that makes no disturbance on entry, and a groundbait that attracts but does not feed. Walnut-sized balls of brown, moistened and finely ground breadcrumbs are usually best here.

Certain areas become natural winter larders. Perhaps water lilies thrived there in summer. In autumn the decaying leaves put the fish off, but in the dead of winter, when the area has cleared, and provided the bottom is free from decaying vegetation, these areas produce fish from time to time. Although the plant life has died off, the snails and other small forms of animal life, so liked by roach, probably still remain.

The key to locks

DEVIZES, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21:  Fishermen coll...
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In the days of horse-drawn barges and narrow boats, the locks on canals were good places to fish. When a lock is opened, there is a considerable flow of water which keeps the canal bed just below the lock free from silt, and scours it out to a greater depth.

Nowadays, with many more powered craft passing through, locks are far from congenial places to fish, except at night and early in the morning when the boats are tied up. Even then it is not uncommon to find that moored craft prevent access. But sometimes an angler is fortunate enough to discover a section of canal or river where no boats pass, and which has not yet reached the stage of dereliction incompatible with fishing. In such cases, good numbers of large fish may be found in the deep holes below the locks. Perch are lovers of lock structures, especially those reinforced by piles and sheathing. These fish are generally small, but remember that almost every shoal of small perch has a large hanger-on which possibly feeds on its smaller brothers.

In some areas, fishing is forbidden within a certain specified distance of locks, and before putting up your tackle you should check the relevant local bye-laws.

Bankside clues

Study not only the water, but the banks as well. Heavily trodden and beaten-down margins, well-fished swims, areas where the grass has been completely worn away, and cutouts made to accommodate seat-boxes or baskets, indicate that certain swims are extremely popular. You will either conclude that the fishing there is good or that the water is overfished! An inconspicuous, narrow gap in the rushes a few yards above such a swim, cut by some wise old angler who knows the value of concealment and values the qualities of the swim may signify a great deal more to the specimen hunter.

Study the match results, learn where the good pegs are situated, but learn too from the individualist who waits until the matches are all over before he puts up his tackle between pegs, who reads the bank as well as the water, and who often catches better fish.