From Rugeley with love: Fishing the Canal Pairs Match Series

There are few things I love more than a session on a classic canal, with light tackle and a whole gallery of species that might turn up. These venues take me back to youth and first ever attempts at match fishing. You know, back in the 1990s, when the scene wasn’t all about smashing out mega weights of carp. How truly refreshing then, to see canals get their own showcase series nationally with the Angling Trust/ C&RT Canal Pairs. With my own happy recent return to match fishing, I just had to give one of the heats a go this year.

Canal pairs match fishing series

With an inner city fishing project in Liverpool to visit, I fancied a stop en route to fish the pairs event on the Trent and Mersey Canal at Rugeley (above). The Angling Trust’s Alex Clegg would be my team mate for the day. At one point part of the England youth talent pathway, I knew he’d be a useful angler and was more concerned about my own performance than his to be quite honest. Especially given that I’d been up at four AM that morning, to hurtle up the motorway for the draw. A combination of half dead and pretty damned excited probably describes my state best.

Preparations had been pretty detailed. Alex had sent me a brilliant list of notes on the canal and the baits needed, which read like some chaotic recipe involving pints of squats, leam and measurements in metres. Even for a canal angler as keen as me though, it would be a step into the unknown. I was told roach and perch would be the dominant species. Catching a good number of smaller fish would be vital for points, while those in the very top places would probably have caught bonus fish like bream or chub. In a team effort it would be a case of keep the bites coming and look for bonus fish sparingly, rather than gamble all out for the individual win.

We joined a scrum of around 70 anglers, a good turnout, and somehow managed to be nearly last in the queue. I had no idea what the pegging was like, only that the organisers had double spaced the swims, which is always welcome to avoid argy bargy. Just as well we were given a couple of hours to get there and set up, because I had no idea where I was going and initially just got lost in the industrial estate nextdoor trying to reach the canal. Quite stressful.

It was a bit of a hurry to reach my peg, number 171, which didn’t mean a lot to me. In the kerfuffle to get sorted I also realised that in spite of remembering everything but the kitchen sink, I had managed to lose my pole cup. Quite a vital tool in a canal match- but the car was a long way away. By a stroke of luck -and kidness it must be said- one of my neighbours had one that fitted! Phew.

canal fishing pairs match 2018 2019

My peg (above) looked ok but not amazing. I was a little unlucky, as my neighbours both seemed to have far bank features, whereas mine were less defined. The odd trailing bramble, but nothing that really came out over the water. The rushes on the near right looked nice, but didn’t have much depth. Humph. What the heck, I would set out as planned, with three lines of attack:

  • Main line at 10-11m, bottom of the far shelf. To be fed with 50/50 leam/VDE Supercup groundbait and squat, with a few casters. Fine rig (0.3g float, 0.08mm line and fine wire 20 hook)
  • Bonus fish line right across at 12m, chopped worm and caster, tighter to cove. Heavier rig (0.5g float, o.14 line, size 14 wide gape hook)
  • Inside line, fished just down the near side of the track at 4-5m (0.5g float, 0.12mm line, size 16 hook), fed with worm and left as a get out of jail card.

pole cup match canal

Straight from the all-in, I put in five small balls of groundbait on the main line, and a cup of around 6 chopped worms and two dozen casters on far and near bank lines. I started light on the main line, hoping to get some small stuff early while waiting for the rest to settle.

It took around 10 minutes to get the first touch, which was a tiny roach. Several more followed, along with one or two slightly better. I was feeling a bit more settled now after the stress of getting to the peg and rushing to set up in time. I kept flicking in small helpings of squat and caster just to try and keep the fish there, opting to be positive. Every so often it would go quiet- and I suspected perch might be bullying the little silvers. Twice, I put on double fluoro pinkie or red maggot and caught a perch immediately.

So far, so good then, but with the next little lull I went straight on the chopped worm line on the far bank. Immediately I had a good bite… which turned out to be a tiny gudgeon. Match or no match, I love these fish and I took it as a good omen, or at least a reason to smile. I had a small perch next put in, followed by a ruffe (surely these should be worth bonus points?). This was already turning into a bit of a safari! Feeling like there were numbers of fish on the worm line, I rested it for later, but not before adding more chop and caster.

How was my partner doing, I wondered? Thanks to mobile phones, it’s never difficult to have a quick catch up. With my hatred of modern ringtones, though, mine sounds like a duck. Great when you’re at home, pretty daft when you’re by water, as every time the local ducks make a racket you check your pocket. But how the devil was Alex doing?

Alex Clegg canal match fishing Trent and Mersey canal
Well, he had quite fancied his peg on arrival. There was a boat to one side- and lots of small fish topping. The slightly less encouraging bit was that it was shallower than expected when he plumbed up. Only two and a bit feet right through, which perhaps explained why he was catching only tiny “plip” roach. But hey, at least he was catching.

Back in my peg, the main line kept blowing hot and cold. I’d really hoped the roach would be more consistent, but they kept doing the Houdini. After a few more biteless put-ins, I switched to double red maggot and immediately the float buried. it was no “pair of eyes” this time! Elastic burrowed under the water at an alarming rate and, like the tip of the pole, my heart bounced. What the heck was this? And why oh why did I have to hook it on the most pathetically delicate of rigs?

For a few seconds I thought it might be a big bream. After all, even these dozy things can feel quite threatening on a number three elastic. However, it then ran hard for the far bank, dismissing that theory. Once I persuaded it back into the main track I took a few deep breaths and let it plod about while I got the landing net in position. It must have taken another couple of minutes before I even saw it. What a cracking perch! I breathed a bottomless sigh of relief when it hit the net. I’d have guestimated it at around a pound and a half. Could this be the fish that turned an average day into a good one? Whatever came next, it had been a bloody exciting battle to spice things up.

canal match fishing baits

The rest of the match was a case of rotating lines and baits. Boats got more regular and this didn’t help. After each disturbance I topped up each line with a small helping of groundbait or chop. I also kept putting in some loose feed near in, trying this line on around the two hour mark. Immediately, I had a perch, then another. It seemed to be a false dawn, though, and I probably should have wasted less time on it rather than keep returning for a look, beacuse it only produced one other tiddly perch the whole match.

The real disappointment was the roach line, though. I tried going down to squats on a 22, or chasing a metre further out, but nothing really got the bites coming very regularly. Had I fed too positively? I’m not sure. By switching to bigger baits every so often, I at least added the odd perch to the underwhelming supply microscopic little roach. Meanwhile, my neighbour seemed to have a better feature and several bonus fish in his peg- including a big bream, I suspected. Even so, I thought I’d do decent on section points so it was still all to play for.

Predictably, the last 90 minutes were a battle. I went right down to the unexplored water in my peg at 13m at one point, but a helping of pinkie and worm brought no more fish. The only late surprise, in fact, was another nice perch from the far bank, this time around 3/4 lb, the reward for trying double worm section on the hook. That was about it, but what would the scales say?

Canal fishing match catch perch chopped worm

At the final whistle, I felt like it had been an enjoyable match. If anything, I was probably a bit too positive with the feed, given the lack of roach in the peg. Nevertheless, I felt like I’d fished a fairly average peg quite well to end on 4lbs 11oz of fish (above), that big perch really helping. Judging by the weigh sheet I was looking at mid to upper section- an 8lb plus skimmer net threatened to win the whole match, while others had struggled for 2-3lbs of bits.

Alex, meanwhile, had worked his socks off for 3lbs 7oz of mostly tiny roach. A good result, given that he’d managed around 100 fish for that weight, in quite a shallow peg. Our dreams of getting to the final were over, but it had been an excellent day out and a new challenge from my usual canal matches in Devon. Given two tough pegs, I felt we’d played it quite well, too. We’d just ended up with an Everton type finish in the pecking order, rather than a Man City. Even so, it had been a day full of excitement and I’d loved it. In fact, I wish I could fish these style of matches more often. I must say, the pegging was well spaced too and I found all the other anglers incredibly friendly and helpful- well angled and best of luck to all those who qualified for the seried final.


For those of you who love a bit of sport on the canal, you’re sure to enjoy my hardback book from Merlin Unwin on the subject Canal Fishing. The result of extensive research and a lifetime of angling on canals, you’ll find just about every method and species covered, along with a special guide to the nations canals, complete with hotspots and specimen fish records! CLICK HERE

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