Pole fishing

Any serious matchman now owns at last one roach pole. The quaintly antique image has been dispelled: poles catch all manner of fish—and win all manner of matches.

Although we regard the present day roach pole as one of angling’s latest and most important discoveries, it is, in fact, one of the oldest weapons in an extensive array of fishing rods. Dame Juliana Berners described a prototype of it in the Boke of St Albans published in 1496, and Izaak Walton described and enthused over it in his Compleat Angler of 1653. London anglers have used it along the Thames for countless years, to the extent that in the early part of this century the ‘Pole’ became a fishing cult and the hallmark of an expert roach catcher.

In theory, the superlong tapered pole, with the line fastened to the end, uses a short link below the rod tip to convey the strike, which must drive the hook home very rapidly in this kind of fishing. In practice, there is an added bonus in the slim taper of the rod, for this produces sufficient spring to allow the careful angler to land fish well above the size of a roach that it was originally designed to catch.

Hallmark of strength

The best poles were once produced by the firm of Sowerbutts of Walthamstow, in North-East London. Special white cane was selected, each piece being carefully cleaned and cut. Small distortions were straightened by heating the cane gently over a soft flame, and bending against the bench side. When the whole rod, which was usually 18-22ft in length, was aligned, heavy brass ferrules and butt caps were added. The final hallmark of strength was conferred in the form of hundreds of turns of best silk, which was whipped around the nodes in the cane and then repeated, at regular intervals, until each band of support was, on average, a mere Vim apart. Finally, several coats of copal varnish were applied, and the pole was ready. An extra top section was generally supplied with each rod. This was made from spliced whalebone and the tip section was stiffer than that made from cane.

Production of Sowerbutt rods ceased during World War II, and not until its end were poles again available, this time in the form of cheap Japanese and Brazilian ready- shaped and whipped canes, usually 14-16ft in length. These were poor substitutes for the original Sowerbutt rods, but welcome enough at a time of acute shortage.

Transition from cane to fibre

The transition from cane to glass-fibre poles probably took place through the growing demands of match fishermen. For several years the sport had been growing in popularity, and by the 1960s many matchmen were looking to the Continental angler, whose techniques with the pole, an instrument that was a national institution, were far in advance of those of this country. With its fixed line and deadly strike, ‘fish whipping’ could reliably take prize after prize.

The name ‘roach pole’ suggests that a pole can be used only for catching small fish. This is a misconception. Used properly, a pole can also handle big fish, such as chub, tench, bream and barbel.

Poles vary in length from 14ft to 24ft, and those made of ultra-lightweight hollow carbonfibre have been made over 40ft long. The more common hollow glass pole, however, designed to suit the average pocket, is about 18ft in length, and the assembled pole can be shortened according to the angler’s needs, simply by not using the bottom sections.

When you buy a pole, you are advised also to obtain tackle specially designed for pole fishing, You can make do with ordinary elastic, floats, shots and so on, and still catch plenty of fish, but, on the other hand, the tackle specially designed for pole fishing is neater, more streamlined, and makes pole fishing easier.


The most important item of tackle is that length of elastic. Most poles are designed to be fairly rigid at the tip, and as a reel is not used with a pole, the elastic acts as a shock absorber when hooking and playing a fish. Our grandfathers used a length of knicker elastic fixed to the end of their bamboo poles. Nowadays, M special angling elastic is attached to I the crook (or swan neck) tip, which is ° in turn fitted into its slot, and ° secured with a plastic sleeve which slides over the slot when the elastic loop is in position. The line is tied to the free end of the elastic, and carries the float, shot and hook, so it is useful to have several traces with end tackle on winders, ready for use. A ready-for-use assembly like this could consist of line, plus a float, weighted with either a celery shot pinched onto the line, or a hollow olivette lead with the line running through its centre. (A split shot is pinched onto the line to stop the olivette lead sliding right the way down to the hook.)

End tackles are carried ready made-up on plastic winders to save time and troublesome fiddle on the bankside, something that could be a considerable problem when one ap-preciates that line may drop to as low as a Vfclb b.s., hook size be as small as size 26, and lead shot for float cocking be so tiny that the angler needs an eye-glass in order to see the split through which the line is run. In order to avoid confusion with various hook and line sizes, tackle winders can be purchased in various colours so that a code may be devised by the individual, allowing him to select or replace end tackle of equal balance immediately. In the same way that the pole has accepted a definite European slant, so have the floats that are used with it. Originally, a small porcupine or crow quill would be used for fine weather and calm water, with perhaps a tapered cork or quill for winter use. These were shotted down as low onto the waterline as possible, so that the tiniest bite would pull them under. Today’s floats respect the same principle of delicacy, but by means of a drastically reduced stem or body circumference so that there is little or no drag when the bite takes place. The float, in fact, is designed literally to crash-dive.

Types of pole

There are different types of poles. Telescopic models, with sections which slide into their lower neighbours, like a telescope, are generally used for small dace, roach, gudgeon and so on, when the fish can be swung in from the water to the hand. The length of line used for this is about three quarters, or less, of the length of the extended pole. If, when using this rig, an angler is fortunate enough to hook a big fish which cannot be swung to hand, he must use the essential ‘pole angler’s’ long-handled landing net. These nets are usually made of hollow glass-fibre, and can be extended to 12ft or more—especially useful when a big fish is hooked with a long, lightweight telescopic pole.

Other poles are designed to be unshipped section by section, when a large fish is hooked. It may be necessary to bring the fish near to the bank before the net can be used, so after striking, the angler has to play the fish gradually towards the bank, nearer and nearer to his feet. One way he can do this is by walking backwards gradually, shifting his grip on the pole so that his hand moves from the butt towards the tip. However, this is not always possible—nor is it good practice.

The proper and most convenient tactic is to stay seated, and use the ‘cross-over hands’ method of unshipping the bottom pole sections as the fish is brought nearer the bank. Here, the right-handed angler continues to grip the pole with his best hand, while unshipping the bottom sections with his weaker hand. This keeps the fish under constant control, and the weaker hand is used for wielding the landing net.

Several important facts must be remembered when fishing with the pole. It is essential that the bait be kept where fish are feeding and normally that means keeping it on, or at most a few inches from, the bottom. A plummet—the new spring-clip types are ideal—must be used at regular intervals, particularly when river fishing where water levels often rise or fall imperceptibly. Should fish move up to the surface, any alteration to the float will result in a longer length of line between it and the rod tip, leaving slack line that defeats the pole’s most advan-tageous feature. The angler must, therefore, at all times be prepared to alter the length of his line in order to avoid slack line at any time.

The vital rod tip

The rod tip, or point, is the vital part of the pole and it should follow the float and remain directly above it, otherwise the strike will be delayed fractionally by slack line, which may well mean the difference between a hooked or missed fish. It also follows that once a fish is hooked, the rod point should follow, and be kept immediately above it.

Once a fish is allowed to move away from the tip, then direct strain is placed on the line, all spring absorption from the rod being lost. A break is almost inevitable under these circumstances, and on more than one occasion an ardent pole angler has been seen running up and down the bank, following a fish to try and prevent this happening.

Although pole fishing may be new to you, it should not prove difficult. It is simply another way of fishing with a rod and float or ledger tackle. When you first go pole fishing, try for the smaller fish—gudgeon or bleak. You will soon get used to the fact that there is no reel on the rod, and quickly learn to use the stretch of the elastic instead of the slipping clutch of a reel.

You will also learn, as have many top match anglers, that the delicate precision of the pole will often catch fish when other methods fail—a fact confirmed by the thousands of British anglers who have turned to pole fishing during the past few years, not simply to catch small fish, with which the pole is mistakenly associated, but the big ones too; and that sport can be electrifying.