Tuesday, 1 December 2009

On Roach: Canal Roach and Ruminations on Shoal Behavior

I have never fished for any other fish so capricious, so fickle and contrary than large roach and no other fish that requires more artfulness on the part of the angler if he is to be successful in the catching of them.

Roach possess an intelligence that is not entirely located in the individual, that is to say that the individual fish of a shoal each have a limited range of responses to external stimuli that cannot be called intelligence as such but en masse they do possess shoal intelligence that is located in the total presence of all, and this collective awareness is far greater than that of any individual, indeed I believe that the sum total of the combined intelligence of a shoal of roach is greater than with any other fish, in this respect I reckon they are peerless.

Other shoaling fish simply do not compare to them, take the bream for instance, another fish that shoals in large numbers. Isaac Walton noted that bream have their sentries, fish located upon the fringes of the shoal that keep an eye out for the safety of all. But, a shoal of feeding bream will happily devour whatever is placed in front of them without regard for the safety of shoal or individual once preoccupied with the feed, sentry or no sentry. An angler may take as many as the shoal consists of before exhausting his sport. This is rarely the case with roach though there are recorded instances where such behaviour seems to have occurred and most famously for the camera when in one episode of the great series ‘A Passion for Angling’, featuring Chris Yates and Bob James. James proceeds to capture a procession of big roach, with no less than ten fish over two pounds with some scraping the three falling to white bread flake. He seems to have taken the entire shoal of fish! But these occurrences are very rare indeed as James, a hardened roach angler of long experience would no doubt, testify. Large roach are almost always hard to catch even when located and the taking of any more than a brace of such fish from any given shoal can be regarded as an achievement.

Perch hunt in packs (a shoal too but one that is based upon the principles of individual profit over shoal cohesion) and once on the feed all the individual members of a pack of perch will smash into any bait they like the sight or smell of thrown their way and with impunity. Very large perch are often complete individuals, lone fish that have turned cannibal, and who will devour their own children if need be. However roach are never loners no matter how long they live and how large they get.

I have seen roach behave in ways that convince me that they are the most difficult of all British fish to catch on rod and line. Anglers rarely have the opportunity to observe roach in their natural environment but if they do they should take the time to study their behaviour closely for the watching of roach is the most instructive possible way of learning something about them.

A shoal of immature canal roach can be hundreds of members deep, in fact these shoals often comprise of a mix of fish with rudd and small bream swimming alongside the roach so they are not really roach shoals in any true sense. They swarm just under the surface during the spring and early summer, dimpling the surface as they feed upon surface detritus. Later in life the fish do eventually separate and the species go their separate ways, but it must also be noted that I have once or twice observed small shoals of fish in the half pound to one pound range that are still comprised of the same mix of roach, rudd and bream.

Nevertheless a typical shoal of maturing canal roach comprises of roach exclusively and of members of widely differing sizes, fish from a few ounces up to about half a pound all swimming together is the norm and in some numbers. Mature shoals tend to be smaller, from just three or four but up to thirty or so members and usually comprised of fish with a less marked discrepancy in size between the largest and smallest members. The typical fish in these shoals is about three quarters of a pound or so in weight, there are usually a number of half pounders attached too, but with some of the larger fish going to a pound and a half and sometimes, with rare fish that are approaching and even just exceeding two pounds.

However there are shoals of roach present in the canal that exceed all reasonable expectations of it. These always small shoals, uncommon though they are, I have observed on rare occasions, and the size of the individual fish that these shoals comprise of can be truly astonishing. I once found and fished for, a small shoal of roach the largest members of which were well above the three pound mark, and that fact is nothing short of incredible as the Coventry Canal really is not, in any conceivable way, the Dorset Stour, I can assure you! How do I know that these fish were the size I observed them to be you may well ask? Well, I hooked and lost at the net a fish that would have smashed my own personal best for roach by a huge margin. I never found them again, though I still keep my eyes peeled…

A mature shoal may rarely comprise of like size members all of the same year class. I once had the rare opportunity to observe such a shoal at close quarters one bright early morning on the Coventry canal.

Overnight in early summer the canal often clarifies to the point where the bottom in the near margins is not only visible, but clearly so. Naturally any fish in that quarter of the water are also visible too. I had been walking along the towpath with the dog and watching roach of a few ounces up to half a pound or so, swimming in typically small mixed age shoals of ten to fifteen members, attempting to come near to them, to approach them by stealth and had failed miserably in all my attempts; every time I came within a few yards of them they would calmly swim away from the danger only to return to their station soon after my retiring to what they considered a safe distance. These fish were active, moving around, but not feeding.

I peered into the water half way across the cut and in the cast shade of a near bank tree saw a large shoal of fish laying motionless two feet below the surface, all facing the same direction and all equally spaced apart. What was remarkable was that all the fish in this particular shoal were of the same year class and almost identical in size, just ounces separating the largest from the smallest, and there were a lot of them, at least forty members and probably more, but more remarkable still than the sheer number of fish was the fact that all the fish were well above a pound in weight.

Large roach are the leaders of the shoal, assuming dominance over the smaller fish by taking their place amidst them, in the centre of the shoal, where their fellow subordinate members afford them maximum immunity to direct attack by their predators. The largest fish rarely leave the cover of a myriad of other bodies surrounding them, working on the sound principal that the flanking members will always be first in the line of attack so long as they maintain their station at the dead centre, and big roach do this with what appears to be unerring precision. I have observed shoals of roach in shallow streams swimming up and down the one short stretch, up to a certain point and down again thirty yards to another certain point and maintaining this tour this for the whole hour I was there and presumably for the rest of the day, and never once did the largest fish lose their positions at the centre of gravity of the shoal.

It must not be imagined that when I say centre of the shoal I mean actually at the centre of some kind of circle of fish, for roach do not form circular shoals, no, ‘centre of gravity’ is what I really mean, for it is a more precise way to describe what they actually do. Imagine this small stream full of fish going up and down all day long. The threat to the large fish is perceived by them to come from certain directions, in this case in broad daylight, principally from above and from birds, for the water is no more than a foot deep. The secondary threat is from the alternating head and tail ends of the shoal as it moves up and down, for predators may lurk in the water just beyond the limits of the shoal’s constant cycle of upstream/downstream motion. The smallest threat by far is from the flanks; the stream is so small here that the banks are very close by, any threat from either flank of the shoal has not appeared yet, and probably will not in the future as the shoal has passed this way all day long so far and without attack from either of those directions.

As they swim the very small fish at the head of the shoal reach the outer limits of the ‘swim’ and turn tail, and all the roach at this precise moment also turn about face, the head and tail fish of the shoal forced to swap from vanguard to rearguard action in an instant. The small head fish now race forward toward danger as the shoal forces them along, the fish at the rear having to wait for the momentum of the shoal to pick up, and the large fish instinctively keep station at the point of the shoal where body density is greatest, the centre of gravity. In point of fact the shoal viewed from above is shaped remarkably like a fish, with its rounded head, tapering body and its tail of stragglers, and in this ‘fish’ the biggest of the shoal are positioned right in the gut behind the protection of the gill plates.

The only time that large roach abandon this central station is when under actual attack when they will flee together from danger and take up station elsewhere, the rest of the smaller shoal members who do survive the attack relocating their shoal and falling into line, shoal cohesion fully restored and safety assured for the leaders. They will flee in this way even from perceived threat, say you coming a little too close for comfort for them, because the shoal as it breaks ranks presents numerous targets in the form of the small stragglers who comprise the outer part of the shoal for the predator to strike at which actually breaks the concentration of the attacker who may well have been after a larger more satisfying lunch, into splinters.

This principle was discovered during the second world war when enemy planes in close formation under fire proved harder to hit for gunners than the stragglers who could be picked off quite easily by comparison – and the reason was that the planes that held tight confused the gun teams, the range of one plane, the altitude of another and the air speed of a third, confounded together into a lame shot at nothing but the clouds.

What really amazed me was the time I observed the self same activity as just described in a shoal of huge proportion for its location in a stream no more than six feet across and very shallow indeed, a remarkable shoal of approximately one hundred and twenty individual fish ranging in size from less than an ounce all the way up to a pound a half and more or less exactly comprised of half roach and half perch…!

This truly was a case of the lamb lying down with the lion.

The general run of fishing on the canal is the catching of the odd fish, sometimes a brace, on lucky days three or even four. I have yet to surpass five in the one session. This is in marked contrast to sport on other fisheries where many fish may be captured in quick succession on the day. One could be led to believe under normal conditions of coloured water with very little visibility and hardly any surface signs of life erupting from below surface that the canal does not actually contain much in the way of roach, but nothing could be further from the truth, the canal has a very good head of wild roach indeed, only they rarely show themselves in any useful way and fishing is for the most part, fishing blind or straight from the bag of hard won experience.

It is little wonder that the canal sees very few serious anglers on the bank, those hardy souls who brave it usually pot luckers wielding a cheap telescopic rod or locals like myself who really don’t care much about the quantities involved in their convenient fishing, are used to its difficulties in fact but know that quality fish will turn up from time to time and who tend to fish their favoured pegs regularly. When a serious angler does venture on the cut it is usually a match angler tempering his skills in hard waters or the occasional specimen Zander angler who knows that the canal does contain his target in large numbers and with individuals of considerable size possible. I am certainly the only angler fishing round my way who specifically targets the big roach in fact my track record for canal roach, though not what I would call good, is certainly better than that of the other anglers whom I meet on the bank and talk to - always asking whether or not roach have figured in their catches, and they almost invariably haven’t.

Why this should be the case on the canal, with so many roach swimming around in its waters is not clear. That they do not feed on my baits unless they are really hungry is obvious to me, perhaps the canal contains a superabundance of freely available foodstuffs and if this is the case the lack of anglers fishing and putting in baitstuffs would tend to compound this problem, them all being an unnatural addition to their diet or at least one to be very suspicious of. The only bait that I have used that the fish are used to taking as part of their natural diet is lobworms, for many of these do find their way into the cut in wet weather, falling into the water from both towpath and far bank. And I have caught fish on very large ones too, indeed for the roach in winter this bait is the only one that I have found successful and it tends to produce the largest fish by far.

This is not the case on rivers nearby where roach can be caught easily on foods such as maggots or bread or hemp, foods that they rarely see unless offered up by anglers and in the case of hemp in the barbel free stretches that I fish for the roach, hardly ever at all. Canal roach are different, every bit as wild as their running water cousins but far less obliging; even in the smaller size ranges, fish that on the Avon can be positively suicidal in their feeding habits, the canal roach are hard work, indeed the smaller sizes of fish are quite rarely caught with the usual run of fish being from a half to three quarters of a pound and in the depths of winter the average for me has been well over the pound, in fact in the harsh winter of 2008/9, despite catching just a handful of fish for my efforts, it was a very respectable 1lb 7oz and that is high anywhere, a figure that is comparable to that of even the very best roach fisheries in the country.

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