Fishing urban canals

If you know where to look, even the most featureless canals have signs to help you track down the fish.

Imagine you are going to fish a typical urban canal. Often, such a canal is quite daunting, with concrete or brick banks, little or no weed, minimal bankside cover and few (if any) moored boats – an apparently featureless stretch of water of uniform width. To make matters worse it is probably fringed with industrial buildings – warehouses, factories, foundries and wharfs. Where would you find the fish?

Building up a picture However featureless a water may at first appear, there are always natural fish holding areas – safe places with a ready supply of food. By keeping a look out for certain bankside indications and then carefully plumbing a swim, it is possible to build up quite an accurate picture of the fishes’ habitat.

On the surface

If you are pleasure fishing and able to choose your swim, you can improve your chances by doing a bit of detective work. Any time you spend strolling along the towpath observing the water is time well spent. Factory outfalls Industry – so often the angler’s worst enemy – can work in your favour. Factories, and especially foundries, pipe uncontaminated warm water used in processing, into canals. Even if the temperature is only slightly higher than the canal water, fish congregate around the pipe. The pipe might be visible or submerged. On a cold winter’s day you may be able to see a cloud of steam over the water. Moored boats During summer boats are too active and tend to disperse the fish but in winter a boat may be moored for several months without being used. It is then that the fish regard it as a roof over their heads. Find the anglers When you’ve got nothing at all to go on, bear in mind that the fish are where the food is. Anglers themselves provide a steady supply of food in the form of groundbait and loose feed. It is often the case that a peg is good simply because it gets fished a lot. So keep a lookout for trodden down grass and worn banks. Litter Strangely enough, an urban canal surrounded by dereliction can be a beautiful place, but like any other setting its beauty is marred by litter. However, it is a sad but true fact that a peg with litter is a well fished one and (therefore) worth a try. If you do find the fish by this method, you needn’t broadcast it by leaving the litter behind – take it home with you.

Bridges and wharfs Some features attract anglers more than they do the fish. Bridges, overhangs and old brick buildings reflected in the water create da k, ‘fishy’ looking areas where an angler can easily see the float. Fish do move into these areas – attracted by the anglers’ feed. Match results Match results provide an accurate, reliable guide to where the fish are. Not only that, they tell you what’s been caught and how. So it’s worth keeping an ear open in your local area and checking where most of the fish have been caught.


Once you have located a good area, find out what’s going on underwater. Plumbing up Careful plumbing with a fairly heavy plummet shows the contours of the canal bed. A long pole is best since it allows you to lower the plummet and float vertically into the water with minimum disturbance, so you don’t get a false reading. By starting a metre (about 3ft) out from your own side, you can work your way across the canal to within 30-40cm (12-16in) of the far bank.

Boat channel A canal with a steady supply of boat traffic has a boat channel – deeper water running roughly down the middle of the canal. On each side there is a shallow ledge. This profile is produced by the boats as they churn up the bottom and push mud, silt (and food) to the sides.

If you’ve plumbed carefully you should know exactly where the near and far side ledges fall away into the deeper water of the central channel.

Four lines of attack

In summer the fish prefer the undisturbed water around the ledges, away from the boats. Most canals are accessible from one side only – where the towpath is. This is called the ‘nearside’. Although there are four distinct areas, it is unlikely the fish are in all four. It is more likely that they are at one depth, somewhere between the top of the ledge and the bottom of the boat channel. Top of the nearside ledge Depths vary from one canal to another but on the nearside ledge a depth of 45-60cm (18in-2ft) is typical. This is where gudgeon, small roach and perch congregate. It’s a good place to start in a match because it enables you to build a weight with small fish while waiting for the bigger fish to move on to the feed in your other swims.

Nearside of the boat channel

You’ll find the nearside of the boat channel about 4-5 metres (13-16ft) out. This is where most pleasure anglers fish, so it gets fed regularly. You’d expect to catch roach, small skimmers and the odd bigger bream here. Far side of the boat channel At about 3-4m (10-13ft) from the far bank, the boat channel slopes up to the far side ledge. This is another spot to pick up roach, skimmers and bigger bream.

On the far side ledge The depth here is likely to be similar to that on the nearside ledge. Being farthest from the towpath it’s the least disturbed area. Carp, tench, big roach and bream patrol the ledge so it is worth your attention.

Winter When the temperature drops and the boat traffic stops, the fish move off the ledges and into the warmer, deeper waters of the boat channel.

Attracting the fish

There are two approaches to feeding these kinds of waters – the continuous, little-and-often approach and the ‘laying the table’ approach.

The continuous approach When fishing the boat channel and the far side ledge in summer, continuous loose fed caster and hemp is a good way of attracting small skimmers, roach and the odd tench or carp. Caster fished just on the bottom, under a light waggler, is a well tested method for taking the better fish.

Although an urban canal may look very different to a weedy rural canal, the fish are similar in their habits. Whatever the water, tench and carp prefer to feed early in the morning and in the evening. So if you are fishing at these times, baits like bread, corn and worms are worth a try – but be prepared to wait a little longer for the bites.

Fish that are topping often aren’t feeding, but if bites are scarce try fishing up in the water. Sloppy groundbait and regularly fed loose squatts draw fish from other areas and may get the topping fish feeding on the drop. Gradually introducing a heavier mix brings in the better fish while you continue to catch small ones on the drop. It is an excellent approach to fishing on top of the ledges in summer.

Laying the table

A different approach is to put bait down and wait for the fish to move over it. This works well in winter or on cold windy days in summer. There are three ways of doing it – the continental method, the cupful of worm method and the worm and binder method.

The continental method is to ‘fill it in’. Put five or six ‘cricket balls’ of heavily mixed groundbait laced with bloodworm on to the far ledge (in summer) or on the far side of the boat channel (in winter). It’s suprising how often you catch straight after the initial bombardment – they seem to be drawn by the disturbance.

A cup clipped on to the top section of your pole really is the only way to introduce neat bloodworm and joker on to the far ledge. It’s very accurate and good when the going’s tough – particularly in winter, when fish don’t want feed dropping into the swim all the time.

When a binder such as learn (powdered clay) is dampened and added to bloodworm and joker, it makes the bait stick together and enables you to form almost neat balls of bait. These sink quickly and break up on the bottom, so the worm is less likely to be snapped up by small fish on the drop. It’s a good method if skimmers are feeding on the bottom.

There’s no doubt that bloodworm is superior to any other bait when fish are few and far between, but it needs to be properly presented. A bloodworm that curls up on the hook is unattractive to the fish. If you nip the worm’s tail after hooking it, it hangs straight.

Fishing urban canals