When rivers run awash in winter spate or the sweltering summer sun shrinks our trout streams to trickles, Mike Handyside finds a beat for all seasons as he goes canalside.
“Clear-water canal fly fishing… now how would you go about that?” I thought to myself as I walked the local canal in the cold spring. With plants struggling to leaf and birds confused by an ongoing wintry spell, I began to hatch a plan!
Despite the low temperature, fish were already rising here and there, but I would have to wait another couple of months because I choose not to fish for coarse fish during the traditional close season. This gave me time to think about what tackle I needed and the tactics I would employ when the sun would finally bathe the Shropshire countryside and dappled shade would become most welcome. Plus, what species were these early risers that could be seen, particularly at dusk? I wanted to find out more.
With the final arrival of a nondescript, cool and somewhat wet summer of 2016, thoughts turned to sea trout, as fishing for the browns inevitably goes off after the easy pickings of the mayfly season. With the coarse season now open, when not out after the silver summer tourists it was time to venture forth along the canal again, but with the fly outfit this time!
Selecting a 5-wt, floating line, 9ft fluorocarbon cast, tapering down to 3lb breaking strain and size 16 foam Black Beetle, I was quite successful on my first afternoon, catching three small rudd, which are easy to spot in the strong sunlight.
Wandering back on foot from my house in the evening was a different matter, though, because it was tougher going spotting fish without the strong light. I managed one small roach but cast to a leviathan of some 2lb, which was having nothing to do with my offering!
Summer gold. Rudd are just one of a wealth of species to be found by the prospecting canal flyfisher.
Free-Rising Canal Chub
On one hot, sunny afternoon I observed what I thought were good-sized rudd basking lazily, no more than two inches below the surface on a tree-shaded stretch.
So the following day saw me out with the little 5-wt again targeting them. However, they turned out to be reasonably sized roach, although I suspect the biggest fish present the day before had disappeared. I got well into double figures with these and on my early canal fishing afternoons I caught chub too. These were probably the answer to one of my close-season questions, being the early risers, although roach will also rise well at dusk towards the end of winter, as day length starts to draw out.
I pondered whether the chub, a river fish, had been put in the canal by anglers because they need a gravel/sand substrate over which water flows for spawning. I was to discover something fascinating about these canal chub later in my endeavours, however.
We chop and change, as fly anglers, continually searching for that special successful fly in the box, but for summer canal fishing I had no need, for the Black Beetle was deadly! It seemed that every fish in the water was waiting for one to fall perilously from the overhanging alders. Presentation was no problem – the bigger the splash, the greater the attraction! I soon learnt that the technique was to drop the beetle as close to the fish as possible. It was then often a race, as two or more shoaling fish would try to get it first. A short roll cast suited this somewhat clumsy presentation, also suiting the marginal overhanging and hedgerow vegetation of the towpath. An overhead was rarely used, although side casting was useful. It all came together swimmingly well, as they say!
However, there were golden rules to be learnt. Avoiding boat traffic, which colours up the water, was perhaps top. You need to find canals that are very lightly used, or backwaters that don’t see any traffic. Once a boat goes through and disturbs the silt lying on the bed, fishing goes right off. Although it is surprising how quickly the water clears sometimes and the fish come back on the feed.
Travel light and explore. Fish move from area to area and so should you! Leave your waders at home and enjoy the comfort of a pair of walking shoes. A small backpack will carry a few essential items, water and snack. With an accessible towpath, I often ventured out in shorts, something you wouldn’t consider wearing along the nettle and bramble-covered banks of the trout stream!
Travel light and make use of the bankside vegetation…
… and you’ll be rewarded with a good bag of canal specimens.
Along with the usual suspects – roach, rudd and chub – I caught bream and hybrids, such as a rudd-bream and roach-chub, making fish identification interesting at times. As summer drew on, and perhaps with greater competencies, I started to catch bigger fish. Sighting fish and presenting the beetle to them was all important; polarised glasses were simply essential. A retrieve would put fish off but the odd twitch would sometimes draw their attention to the plump offering. However, I have no doubt that a retrieve would work with other flies, such as nymphs and traditional tiny wets. The flash of a Butcher might well grab the attention of old red eye (roach), while I suspect size 16 dries and buzzers would also work a treat. Nevertheless, being a little lazy on those hot summer afternoons, I had found all I needed.
It might not have an adipose fin but a summer roach is a pleasure to catch on light gear.
Locate Those Big-Fish Hang-Outs
Becoming selective with my fishing, I found where the bigger fish hung out and would try to drop a beetle directly in front of two or more large rudd. Accuracy being difficult at times with the roll cast, sometimes a presentation landed too close for comfort to accompanying smaller shoaling fish. So I would instantly flick the fly away and reposition it in an attempt not to spook the biggies. I succeeded with some stunning decent-sized rudd, tales of which to coarse lads would result in the comment: “What, on the fly?”
One particular afternoon I spotted good fish nosing at a clump of bankside vegetation that had become dislodged, one I suspected was a carp of about 3lb. However, after a couple of casts it turned its big nose up at the floating bug and was off with a flick of its bright red fins. Yep, that was no carp, but probably the biggest rudd I’d ever seen and one that would be near impossible to catch, even on a natural bait.
Mike’s go-to canal flies. Two floating Black beetles crawl out of the vegetation, while orange Leadheads and an MH Depth Raider will seek deep waters.
An ‘In Between’ Time
Leaves changing in colour from lush to dull green, a lower afternoon sun and chillier evenings signalled that summer was slowly giving way to autumn and this was an ‘in between’ time for me on the waterway. Unless the sun was strong around 2pm fish spotting was difficult. While thoughts turned to predators, the water was still too warm for the perch to be actively seeking prey and it was this species that I had now set my sights on.
A couple of weeks later, with the bankside vegetation dying back and the first leaves falling in October gusts, I set up a 7-wt, short 6ft fluorocarbon leader of 7lb strength and a Leadhead. My first attempts at the perch were fruitless. However, on a particularly cool evening, reminding, in a melancholy way, that winter was around the corner, I had several pulls and lost a good fish of 11/2lb.
Success was to follow later in the season, and into winter, with perch after perch as I learnt where they preferred to ambush prey. Look for permanently moored boats, deep water above locks and thick marginal plants growing into the water. Reed beds, perhaps, provide the best habitat, the perch’s stripes having evolved to blend in perfectly.
Mike steps up to 10lb fluorocarbon in winter for perch, as other toothy critters lurk and take a liking to an MH Depth Raider!
With the addition of a very fast-sinking polyleader, roll casting and a slow intermittent retrieve seemed to be the most efficient way of targeting the perch. If you have a go in winter watch out for a sudden take on the drop, though!
I hadn’t even made my first proper cast at a new venue, when, on the drop, the line shot away! A sharp, short strike at close range resulted in a fish running all over the place, where an inlet brought freshwater into the canal. Had I hooked a really good perch? Not on this occasion, the culprit turned out to be a beautifully conditioned chub, which played out like a summer sea trout but without the leaps. There was another similarity to sea trout.
In the proceeding couple of weeks I had observed, in tiny streams linked to the canal, a huge build up of fish, previously completely absent in spring and summer, which now seemed to be waiting for winter rain to run over fixed weirs into the man-made waterway. Wow! All the evidence pointed to a migration within the chub population of the canal and neighbouring river catchment. Was I the first to discover this mass fish movement and is Total FlyFisher the first publication to report about it?
This early winter chub took a Leadhead on the drop. Mike found evidence of a migration of some of these fish in and out of canal systems.
Canals are man-made, of course, but behave very much like slow lowland rivers. They have a source and sink but also have gradient, needing to be overcome with lock systems, so have flow! It seems unimaginable than man hasn’t introduced chub to many of these waterways and no doubt the species, in its need to reproduce, creates a run as it attempts to find gravels in adjoining streams and linked rivers. Or have river chub explored neighbouring canals for their huge potential food source and calm water and, over the centuries, created a ‘natural’ yearly run into some of these large water bodies? There is so much we still have to learn about wild fish and their behaviour.
Keeping a tight line on the skittering roach takes some doing because many wriggle away off the barbless fly. It’s great fun on light gear all through the season.
Mike Handyside writes about environmental fisheries matters. A flyfisher for more than 40 years, he has specialist knowledge and extensive experience of rough-stream management.
Pics: Dave Lidster and Mike Handyside