Of all the shoestring fishing adventures I’ve been on, my proposal to go and invade canals in every corner of the country must surely go down as one of the most unhinged. I’m tempted to say it was a masterpiece of planning and execution; but what it actually entailed was far more strange and spontaneous. A tale of random tip-offs, Bates Motel accommodation and B-roads negotiated in my dodgy, second-hand van. There are two approaches to finding new and interesting fishing. One is to go by the guidebook; the other is the murkier but altogether more interesting world of studying maps, making phone calls and chasing unlikely leads. The latter is what turns me on as an angler. And where canals are concerned there is a rich seam of mystery. Local rumours tend to replace hard fact, while half of the controlling clubs don’t seem to know exactly what dwells in their own waters.
How do you decide between swims and species over some 2000 miles of water? It’s a thorny one. Perhaps it was just as well that my co-pilot Russ Hilton has a slightly more organized head on his shoulders. We wanted the stranger species (like crucians and chub) as well as the usual suspects; we also wanted to find very different venues to explore and photograph, both industrial and rural. A hit list was drawn up. The van was filled up. Not just with fuel, but a rattling assortment of tackle. Camera lenses, sandwiches and bait then followed, including pints and pints of maggots and casters, and the biggest sack of worms I’d ever seen in my life. So what did we glean from our road trip? Here is my breakdown:
Canals can be mind-alteringly beautiful
Anglers as a whole tend to get most dewy eyed over rivers, but I’d argue that our canals can be every bit as beautiful. Why do we never seem to celebrate them as much? It beats me.
Right at the top of the pile in terms of beauty would be our rural waters- and the canals of Wales would most definitely make my own personal short list. The Monmouth and Brecon must be one of the most regularly bypassed waters by travelling rods. But for the price of a couple of pints of beer, you can find fantastic fishing, with some cracking roach and genuine surprises waiting. The Montgomery or “Monty” is another Welsh wonder. There is some decent townie type fishing, but the rural sections are just magical. You could walk for miles. Coming to think of it we did. It is so beautiful you could stick it in an art gallery. I could compose an entire slideshow purely of spring scenes on this waterway. Wild and shallow in many places, it’s very much a roving angler’s water. Definitely a place to take a fly rod for roach, pike and even the odd chub. Last but not least, I would also place my own local Grand Western Canal on the list of sublime looking cuts. Hit the place early on a summer’s morning amidst the lilies and if you have anything resembling a soul, part of you will never want to leave.
Other canals are as industrial as they come (but still full of fish)
In total contrast to our most idyllic cuts, there are plenty of others of a much more urban character. We headed north in search of towering chimneys and former heavy industry and certainly weren’t disappointed. GrandUnion_Carp It was photographer Tom Balaam who showed us a couple of spots that were the ultimate in industrial scale. The Leeds and Liverpool at Saltaire is at the finer end: vast walls and towers stretch upwards. Talk about a place of grandeur and history. We also found both gritty waters but also great fishing on the Sheffield and Tinsely and Huddersfield Broad canals. These sort of venues are the ultimate lesson in not judging a book by its cover- or a fishing venue by its assortment of smashed windows and litter. Roach, perch, pike, chub, carp… you name it, you can catch it.
Expect the unexpected
What is the oddest thing ever to have been caught on a canal? The wider answer doesn’t even begin with fish. One of my friends had an unopened and nicely chilled four pack of Fosters in a boat marina. Another caught a trainer- and then another to make up a rather fetching pair on the next cast on the local canal. The almighty lucky dip that is canal fishing is one of its true charms. You could catch absolutely anything- and in an era where so much fishing is known and mapped out that’s something to celebrate. The book itself contains rumours, oddities and records including canal barbel, wels catfish, flounders, koi carp and even salmon. Talk of a 40lb canal sturgeon could have been the best tale of the lot, but turned out to be an April Fools Day prank. Even so, the verified captures are weird enough.
Our own adventure contained the best of both worlds. I caught something that might politely be described as “something for the weekend” in central Huddersfield; and then on the very next cast a stunning, utterly wild looking trout of a pound and a half. Few passers by believed me and I can still hardly believe this catch myself.
People are strange (and brilliant)
In so many ways, canals are at the heart of British life. Like the local football team, even non-supporters are always curious to know the latest form. We had so many random conversations, and found that wherever we went people were friendly, funny and curious. One phenomena that exists everywhere is the local know-it-all. Sometimes it is a chap who actually fishes; just as often it is someone wandering about half-cut at one in the afternoon who simply has to give you their all-knowing advice. Certain truths emerge, whether you’re on a towpath in Birmingham or Glasgow. I am always fishing in the wrong spot, I’m informed. The fishing was always better ten years ago. And every canal has a local monster, described with outstretched hands and wide eyes rather than any concrete measurements. Joking aside, the road trip left me with a really positive feeling about this country. We are fed a daily diet of fear by our media, but the vast majority of Brits are great people: tolerant, talkative and endlessly great company.
Another highlight of the trip was the sheer variety of regional accents, from the friendly drawl of a Brummie, to the chewed vowels of a Yorkshireman. Wherever we went, myself and Russ were fascinated by the regional slang and enjoyed making our own shoddy imitations of the local dialect.
Canals are severely underrated (and cheap as chips)!
On an equally upbeat note, I can honestly say that our canals tour was an eye-opening discovery at just how healthy these waters are. While it’s true that some waters still have issues, the vast majority are in rude health. They’ve never been better in many cases- and if you don’t believe me, just read Des Taylor’s foreword. The major headache for an author was the sheer variety of sport on offer. You could venture onto your local towpath with a long pole, carp tackle, a lure rod or even fly fishing gear: all of these methods are valid ways to do battle. Nor are the fish necessarily small. On the contrary, there are some incredible beasts that feature in the book- detailed in both venue by venue lists and perhaps the first ever attempt at a definitive UK Canal Record Fish list to be made in print. The most exciting part of all however is that there are many, many more fantastic fish out there that have never been caught. So much of our canal network is unexplored, often virgin fishing. Better still, it’s cheap as chips. On what other waters can you find a season ticket for as little as ten quid? If fishing as a whole has become rather lacking in mystery and innocence, canals are the perfect antidote. The book aims to be a celebration of these brilliant fisheries, which continue to be a source of endless enjoyment to anglers all over the UK. As a vital part of our history but also our present, perhaps it’s time we made more of these wonderful places and the unique charm they possess for the angler? Further Info: Canal Fishing: A Practical Guide (Merlin Unwin Books, £20.00 Hardback) Dom’s new book covers all methods and species, with beautiful photography, a wealth of knowhow and an extensive guide to canal venues all over Britain. It is released May 1st. You can order on Amazon, or get a signed copy direct from the author at https://dgfishing.co.uk Canal Fishing on Film! You can see a special quarter hour feature on canal fishing with Dom on the Basingstoke and Grand Western canals on YouTube. For footage of silvers, perch and tench, with a range of tips and eye opening facts go to www.youtube.com to watch “Canal Fishing with Dominic Garnett”