Sunday, 19 May 2013


The weekend enabled some fishing, some water meadow wanderings and, armed with new otter sign knowledge, some general naturey meanderings were undertaken in an area not seen since I was at school largely at the upper end of the Warwickshire Avon and its crossing of watery paths with the North Oxford Canal

First thing Saturday saw the usual roachy shenanigans on the cut. Cut it was, but accompanied by the word 'short' as 60 walkers and 12 narrowboats, each one associated with a Rugby Union Premiership Club, headed off from Rugby to Twickenham in aid of the Matt Hampson Trust. The leader-off was a gentleman, and a former canal match angler, who broke his back seven years ago and was attempting the route on crutches for the fourth time, and sometimes we are inclined to complain about our lot. Complain, about the boats and otherwise considered disturbance, I did not; for once I was humbled by the sight and bid them good day and good luck as I parted with the only two shiny coins deep inside many-layered clothing and slowly packed my gear away in awe of the effort these people were putting in for a worthy cause

The catch had been good in any event, albeit a couple of solid fish were bumped on the strike for no apparent or logical reason later on. The roach fed well from the moment the rig hit the water as seems to be the case at present with the water not noticeably cold when mashing the bread to pursue the method described in the previous post. Indeed they came thick and fast before bream moved in on the heavy feed. The best roach (pictured above) went 1-3-5 and sits safely in 10th place on the all time canal list

The Saturday Catch. 5 roach to 1-3-5 and 3 bronze bream to 2-6-0
An event I hadn't witnessed on a canal for many years unfolded before my eyes and, initially, ears when I heard a definite 'plop' to the right and looked round to see an orange fluttering as a kingfisher emerged from the water with its, or its kids', breakfast, which was duly beaten into submission on a branch. The extravagantly coloured bird which, when flying from twig to stem, in the hunt for fry has that bumble bee-like impossible design aesthetic converts into a jet propelled blue missile when commuting more urgently around it's territory. The roach almost seemed as nothing by comparison to this little wonder of the waterway

Later in the day The Lady Burton had an appointment; The Dog was batting no.5 for the local town club so Parps and I headed off for, in one case, some nostalgia and, in the other, a new adventure

We started on the canal and found evidence of otter having passed through under the very first bridge. I, we, found it incredible that this large elusive mammal could possibly live in such a busy place, but they do and, while I had expected to find such evidence by the river the canal was hardly the first spot I would have looked  

Some good looking pegs were passed in an area I had only once before fished in the Rugby Schools Championship back in the mid-late 1970's, when ounces were the order of the day(s)

Then we decided to follow the river, first downstream, then up. I remembered a few of the features of the landscape but naturally it had changed in the ensuing 35 years. There is no direct link for fish through the area of the river with the downstream section cut-off from the upstream by outfalls, overspills and concrete, not to mention a fine collection of aquatic Tesco trolleys and discarded bikes.

Some bread pellets thrown into some pacey, dark, and therefore deeper, water soon had chub of around eight to twelve ounces pouncing from the depths and further upstream beneath a weir a few roach were to be seen with a least one worth fishing for

Soon we abandoned this man-made riverine route and headed for the natural streamy river further up-flow where the most beauteous water meadows still exist and remain just as I remembered them from my youth.

So variable is a river at this stage of it's life. First fast-flowing through channels in phragmites beds, colonised by reed and sedge warblers as they vie for the loudest most repetitively incessant song, then slowing to the standstill of wide, deep bends inhabited by shoals of deeply-coloured roach which top with abandon mid-day in hot spring sunshine as if to celebrate the quite wondrous habitat the are fortunate enough to treat as their own

Top - reed warbler, softly plumaged and with an eye-stripe stopping at the eye
Bottom - sedge warbler, more bold wing striations, with a complete and deep eye-stripe
We knelt in the emerging lushness of bank side herbage, with the rich smell of crushed leaves coursing through the nostrils, and came to regret the absence of a picnic now that we had wandered so far

A few discs of best bread were compressed and flicked into the stream under a hawthorn. Roach chased and harried for the treasure until, each time, the white speck suddenly was gone, the view enhanced by Polaroid lenses, and then, from the dark water below, a chub burst through the roach and in a tight arc took the bread and was gone in a instant. All it left, the memory of the flashing flank of this one golden pirate

We followed the course downstream for few yards, past nesting moorhens and more sedge warblers disputing territory, for soon the rushes would be high enough to nest and by that time the need to argue would be better ignored with energy directed to the necessity to procreate in a world so fragile

On a winding section of river an eight inch wide surge of small bubbles commenced at the far bank and progressed downstream with some speed, mid-stream. We both knew this could only mean one thing - the mammal that had eluded us in England for so long was before us, we just had to be still and wait for it to surface. 20, 30, 40m the bubbles continued, ducklings scattered in panic and the perpetrator suddenly burst from the water in a flurry of wing beats, warning quacking and spray. A female mallard had to advise her young, urgently, that we were about to catch and eat them...and so the otter can wait until another day!

Somewhat embarrassed at expecting the unlikely and being proven wrong we offered some more bread to roach in a deep pool on a tightening bend and they accepted without question. We suspected a pellet of bread punch from a slice would have these little chaps beyond redemption come June 16th

In about 1975 The Old Duffer and I came to this very river to find it bright red with roof tile dye from a factory upstream. Fish sought refuge out of the water, so painful was it for them to withstand the effects. We could not rescue them all but raised the alarm and managed to get to a two pound chub which took up residence in our bath for a day or two while we pondered its fate. Given the Avon was likely going to be poisoned for some time into the future we introduced it to the Swift, a small tributary, upstream of their confluence some mile or two downstream of its rescue. An admittedly futile gesture but it made us feel as though we had done our bit

As we traipsed back through the finely preserved, and somewhat literally breathtaking, ridge and furrow to the path a young ginger-backed rabbit proved very confiding; basing it's survival on the old human baby theory 'If I cover my eyes they can't see me', or, in this case, it hid behind a blade of grass and we, being expert spotters, saw through it!

The day was one of discovery or, in my case, rediscovery and no lack of emotion and plain old sentimentality to see this landscape very much untouched since my youth and simply bursting with such a biodiverse community of animals.To think that all of England must have been of this natural quality once though even more species-rich, until the water companies straightened it out, no doubt

The first hooked fish of the morning comes to the top against a backdrop of sunrise
This morning started much as the last one but an absence of good roach did not go unnoticed. They seem to be in tighter areas now and the bream and hybrids are beating them to the feast when they are dominant in number

A hybrid with spawning time tubercles on it's head is gently replaced in the water 
Apart from a fascinating internal debate over blackcap and garden warbler song, I think I had both during the morning, the highlight was an old three pounds five ounce love-scarred bream with its sides and chin scratched and bleeding. Otherwise hard-fighting hybrids again proved the attraction together with an interesting bird list which kept me amused for the duration of the three hour session that commenced just after 5am

Next weekend sees us off for our annual spring Highlands trip and based on it being half as good as last year, I cannot wait

Species list for weekend:
Mallard, moorhen, wren, blackbird, carrion crow, chaffinch, woodpigeon, collared dove, swallow, swift (they're back!), kestrel, buzzard, goldfinch, dunnock, kingfisher, skylark, goldcrest, great tit, magpie, blue tit, lapwing, jackdaw, whitethroat, blackcap, willow warbler, reed bunting, pheasant, pied wagtail, jay, reed warbler, sedge warbler, chiffchaff.
Rabbit, grey squirrel, brown rat.
Roach, bronze bream, roachXbream hybrid.
Orange-tip, small white, speckled wood

Monday, 13 May 2013


The influx of milder air has presented with it the opportunity to experiment further with the approach for big canal roach

Regular followers will appreciate that despite the bream and hybrid fest that my local canal has offered these past few weeks it is really the big roach that bring a smile to the face and a sharp intake of breath everytime something with a bluish hue to its scales breaks the murky surface, and bread is the bait to tempt them to bite

Up until this spring the tactic had been to mush-up a slice or two of white bread and over a period of two to three hours the equivalent of about four hen's egg-sized balls might be introduced to the water. Contrast this with an old 35mm film pot, or two, of dry fine white bread crumb introduced over a similar period for bread punch fishing

I had always been of the opinion that bread fished in matches had to be very carefully planned so that the fish did not get overfed on those odd days, or perfect venues, when they could feed for an extended period on the bait and thus provide the opportunity to do well on that method. The idea would be to introduce a pot full of dry crumb on still canals at the start, at three-quarters the width of the cut but mixed so dry in fact that it would initially float and then slowly sink in an ever-increasing cloud. A large (5mm) bread punch would then be fished over it laid-on about 6", then 3" and then off the deck to see what was happening. On fish-filled venues a lack of action would result in the rig being chucked up the bank and another option pursued, but, on hard venues, it might have been persevered with in the hope that a few fish that others might miss-out on could be brought to the net as bonuses

I, and others, were very much of the opinion that successful punch fishing was all about not over-feeding the fish as there were many of those harder venues which simply would not respond to more than one or, at the most, two feeds of crumb before the swim would completely die and Plans B, C, and possibly even D, would be called for. The largest fish often came first and it was rare on most of the canals I fished in excess of 15 years ago to be able to keep them coming for more than an hour

So, it was against this backdrop of fifteen years' extensive bread punch fishing experience that I set about trying to catch big roach this time around commencing in 2011 by way of a newly emerging approach to angling and, with match fishing now well and truly out of the system, results were fine in a 'that would have nice in match' kind of manner but when it came to the crunch this fishing purely for pleasure was not satisfied in that manner and I again drifted-off into other worlds. Early in 2012 however I stumbled over a post by the Idle Quester himself Jeff Hatt that set the metaphorical hare racing in a totally different direction - backwards, in fact

Jeff set-out an old fashioned Fred J Taylor-esque lift-bite method for big canal roach on rod and line and I simply had to give it a go on the pole. First trip out it produced a 3lb bream and a brace of 1lb roach in the first half hour, followed by nothing. The baiting method was much the same as the old days but with sloppy bread crumb in similar quantities and, over time, it became apparent that this approach was fine through the winter when one didn't necessarily expect many fish but it was often a case of one bite only and this could sometimes take over an hour to materialise so, once it came and went, one could quite comfortably head-off home in the knowledge that the day's sport had been enjoyed

All this kept me perfectly content for quite sometime as catching big roach so regularly was still new to me, and something of an eye-opener in general. However some parts of the picture were blurred, much like the new varifocals the Lady Burton and I are wearing; the odd fish here and there is fine but it's all a bit one dimensional; it was difficult to stop these larger fish occasionally tearing through the fed area of the swim like mad things as the balance between an elastic choice to set the hook and yet not pull-out of the delicate mouths of the fish was finely judged but, more importantly, how could these regular odd fish be increased in number?

Chub fishing on the River Leam gave me some ideas. I was amazed at the quantity of bait that could be introduced to choke-off the small fish and yet not over feed hungry bigger fish. Was it not time therefore that I realised big canal fish had similarly proportioned stomachs and appetites contrary to my indoctrinated match angler's opinion?

The next step therefore was to try mashed bread instead of liquidised. It took some of the hassle out of getting ready too as the bread could simply be mashed by hand on the bank. The result was initially quite similar and perhaps the only noticeable thing was that more hybrids and bream started to be caught but catch numbers and the pole associated issues remained

Eventually I took the plunge and dusted-off my old light 11' canal roach rod, built for building weights of 1-4oz fish in the days before zander when such a thing was possible. What struck me immediately, or really 'struck the fish', was that the act of striking itself drew the fish away from the baited area in one sweep of the rod. There had been a couple of occasions when heavy fish, around 3lbs, had simply caused the no.6 solid pole elastic to stretch on the strike which adequately set the hook but, in fact, the fish hadn't been moved thus causing it's subsequent actions to wreck the remaining fishing, not so with a rod

For a few weeks I again remained happy with this approach until, with the advent of warmer weather I one day piled some more feed in at the start thinking it was worth the risk in a noted area as the fish were now feeding more avidly and yet I also knew that the initial feed was the one most likely to result in a reasonable catch as subsequent feeds never produced as many fish, nor for so long. Bread is after all an instant bait when the receptive species of fish are in the swim already (roach, 2 bream species and their hybrids), that I am sure will never change

The prospect of waiting for bites remained but now there was a difference. I had come to realise that those days when fish took a while to bite, so to speak, were often preceded by their own form of 'silent dawns', that is not to suggest the birds weren't singing but that nothing would top at that crucial visible activity time for roach during the hour after sun-up. The sign had been obvious but my past made me blinkered I was having to learn some of the watercraft I had missed-out on by fishing so often through the middle of the day in the past at a time when a topping big fish was probably having some kind of fit and on a peg that I had been forced to fish. So the fish weren't there then, it was that simple, but they would go by at some point if the boat action was later rather than early in the morning

This uncovered the key point, it was this quantity of initial feed that, in simple terms, determined, within limits of course, the size of the catch. I am not suggesting that the more feed you pile in at the off the more fish you will catch, that clearly would be nonsensical, but it would be true to say that there needs to be a fair old dollop of food there for them to hold their interest as they pass through and the cup of fine white crumb or liquidised bread was just not up to the task, under those circumstances it was more likely that one of the fish passing by in the shoal would pick up the bait anyway without the feed having influenced proceedings at all, and that is too much like pure luck to be of interest to the thinking angler
A now somewhat typical mixed bag of bronze bream, hybirds and a pound plus roach
Once this apect of feeding became clear the situation changed beyond belief, helped by increasing water temperatures into spring, the use of various rod types has helped to refine the method when combined with a centre-pin, rather than a fixed spool reel, such that, currently, early morning three-hour catches probably average around 6-7lbs comprising 3-10 fish. Occasionally the three to four hens-egg sized balls of mashed bread will produce a nice net of good roach when combined with a large punched (15-25mm) disc of medium sliced bread if they are present but it is also filling the net with bream, big hybrids and occasional silver bream like the 1-5-8 PB taken just yesterday first cast from a swim I last visited as a boy with The Old Duffer (who tells me he is close to getting back on the bank after a whole year out of action - he'll miss his first bite out of over-excitement of course!)
Almost as good as a big roach but certainly a higher percentage of the national record. A silver bream of 1-5-8 taken first cast at 5.15am on 20mm punch 

Much of this type of fishing relies heavily on the first couple of hours before boat traffic gets moving and so the need to hit the fish hard early is essential to make the most of those sessions. A start before 5.30am is the order of the day with bites often immediate. The fact the canal has been fishing unbelievably well to this method for around 6 weeks does help of course and, come the winter, this may well change but for the time being this method is quite excellent and, combined with the occasional sortie with lobworms for perch, is a more than satisfying distraction from the intensive Monday to Friday life

Drill bit cases cut in half as over-sized punches. The inner sleeve is bunged with cotton wool soaked in glue

Monday, 6 May 2013

What's with the Hybrids (man)?

Over the past month the frequency of hybrids in catches on the local cut has been increasing but the most surprising element has been the sheer size of the individuals

Were is not for the fact that they are not a fish-type one would purposely seek-out, the excitement could have reached fever-pitch but, sadly to a degree, as they are not a species, they really don't seem to count in most anglers' eyes and I have included myself in that number...until now

As they are so prevalent, and have been right through the period since early 2012 when my own personal fishing life was reborn, the decision has been made to create an extra line in the PB's to accommodate this underrated heavy-weight fighter of canals and slow-flowing rivers

Back-tracking from today, when three such individuals were taken from the western-most section of the North Oxford before breakfast, early morning sessions since the first day of April have produced the following specimens (we're allowed to call them that as of now, it's official!) in chronological order:
1-0-3, 1-4-3, 3-5-6, 3-14-0, 2-11-5, 4-0-3, 1-11-8, 2-0-6, 1-11-2, 0-8-0

This one seemed almost entirely roach in certain light but the anal fin is too long
This list stretches over eight 2-3 hour sessions but on only one of those were none caught and in the last two trips they have dominated the catches quite comfortably

Whilst they are all canal fish the size has been such that three 'all waters' PB's are among that list and, hand on the (sometimes faltering when these things come to the top) heart, the 4-0-3 half roach/half man individual is unlikely ever to be beaten, I suspect

Eye of roach...

...but anal fin longer than roach and heading to breamy proportions with caudal fin not quite as paddle-like as bream in this
4-0-3 example 
 The majority of the fish have been more roach than bream, with a hint of blue iridescence to their 
scales but the give away extended anal fin length and tail size removes any doubt as to the fact that the parents of these fish included bream, that, combined with the lack of red pigment in the fins

Something possesses them with an increased power in the fight, presumably some kind of jumbled-up mix of the roaches fight with the weight and form of bream. They have invariably been chunky fish, well recovered from the long, deep winter, and a high percentage would have measured two inches or more across their substantial bellies thus adding to their ability to resist the anglers' (slipping) clutches

Henceforth then the hybrid will be loved and noted with the same vigour as any genuine species, roll on the next one!

Correction: The PB hybrid reported recently as 4-2-3 was a was actually 4-0-3

Thursday, 2 May 2013

A Crescendo of Big Fish Populations

A non-descript modest canal but currently full of surprises
So what to make of all this currently exceptional angling on the local canal?

Over the past few weeks I have posted details of catches enjoyed from a wide variety of pegs along the central and eastern sections of the canal and even the areas with no previous pedigree for producing any number of fish have offered unbelievably good sport

It is, as they say, 'a known fact' that zander have been present in the water for decades with their initial impact being seen in the loss of gudgeon and then ruffe shoals. All these years later the impact is seen in a different manner with the previously predominant small fish below three ounces now in the minority and constantly being controlled by the alien predator resulting in larger fish dominating the extant biomass

More surprising still however is the number of fish over a pound now being caught. When I quit fishing back in the late nineties matches on the canal would often produce the odd big roach or skimmer and also the occasional big perch or two thus proving that anything over a pound was a rarity. Whereas nowadays fish over that weight are caught on, almost literally, every trip and regularly, recently, in multiples

The cut is reasonably deep in some areas, over six foot, but generally it's depth is not unusual and historically it has not been noted for big fish nor high populations. Indeed back in the 1980's a pound of small mixed species of fish was a run of the mill weight in matches, although I do recall a couple of seasons when ounces were all that was required to do well, so poor was sport, and then in the 1990's catches improved such that one was fishing for two pounds or more to make the frame but, even then, weights over 4lbs were exceptional red letter days for the lucky captors

Other changes have taken place too; the percentage of hybrids has increased with one or two being taken in the majority of catches and roach over one pound are quite literally commonplace as are bream and good perch in the right areas...and then there are the zander too of course

Personally I have never been what I consider a specimen hunter, i.e. an angler prepared to stake-out a location for days in pursuit of the fish of a lifetime, much more for me the incessant anticipation of a bite through the guile and thoughtfulness we now call watercraft, and all that goes with it, in short sharp bursts and it may therefore be that a few even larger specimens exist now and perhaps may also have been present in the past.

Certain Rugby, Warks-based anglers of yesteryear; 1960's England International Hubert Noar, Norman 'Ted' Adderley, Johnny Knee and Maurice Smith or (to a lesser degree and in a different style) Bedworth's John and Steve Haynes spring to mind as those who would not be averse to hanging-out a significant lump of bread (or even paste or cheese) and consequently would from time to time, and often in bursts, enjoy some success with the odd big roach or skimmer, and sometimes maybe up to four or five of them at once, to take the honours in locally run matches. Those few circumstances apart however the present situation is unprecedented and, in terms purely of roach, must currently offer some of the finest sport on offer anywhere for the early riser, for, after the passing of the first narrowboat, the going is instantly less than average

It has been noticeable that since the end of the extended cold winter the fishing has improved beyond belief. There have been times through the coldest spells when bites always seemed possible but often with just one or two occurring per trip and, between mid-December and the end of March, sport was hard with not a single roach over one pound taken and the ceiling during that period being 13 ounces. Once water temperatures rose past seven or eight degrees though things began to change dramatically. Catch weights went from averaging under one and a half pounds in January to three pounds in February/March are I've just calculated were in excess of seven and a half pounds for April

Recently, while basking in the unmistakable and unavoidable ensuing glow of a roach of over 1lb 7ozs, I became engaged in conversation with a dog-walker who explained that a new marina was to be built nearby and, being a nosey so-and-so, I sought to investigate this upon returning to the Burton Roost. Apart from the sheer scale of the proposal, approaching 600 moorings(!), two things struck me - first the depth; marinas are apparently constructed with a water depth of 3.5m, quite an eye-popper; and, secondly, that apart from the area loosely based around Rugby there is only one 'proper' offline marina between there and Oxford. This latter point was not something I had previously considered but, as with many of these things it becomes immediately obvious when pointed-out that this is indeed the case

So why is this relevant you may ask? Well if the fish are not there at certain times, and I am a great believer that if they are there then more often than not you are going to catch a few of them, why are they not there at other times? There are a few new marinas and a few old established ones that could influence the situation in this respect but the one factor they will all have in common is that they will not have many trees on the banks, they will generally be lined with boardwalks and interlocking steel sheet-piling. The upshot of this is that in order to spawn the scaled inhabitants need to run the gamut of heavy day-time boat traffic to find that shallow water with roots in which to deposit and then fertilise their eggs that simply will not be present in the marinas particularly in respect of the needs of roach, bream and perch

At other times of course the depth of the marinas will offer shelter, especially below the propellor line, particularly in the depths of winter which would appear to explain why fish were scarce just two months ago and yet now are present in impressive numbers. It would also explain why they are so large with the vastness in volume of the marinas enabling them to thrive and grow to sizes previously unimagined on narrow canals and, with the zander also benefiting from the same advantages, they continue, in the absence these days of annual electro-fishing by, then, BW, to effectively cull the small native fish with their own inimitable team-work

The acid test will come when spawning time is over. The fish cannot have appeared from nowhere and there must be some logical explanation for the sudden upturn in excitement so if they disappear as quickly in June as they turned-up in April I suspect we can be fairly certain of the answer. Of course it is just possible this phenomenon may have occurred, presumably to a lesser degree, in the good old days when close season rules applied to canals, but we would never have known of course

So what price a two pound roach now then? Are they still genuine canal fish or a form of lake fish? Time will tell