Sunday, 13 May 2012

Canal Roach - The Sun's Burning Your Eyes Out!

Over the last four years I've got so used to fishing the local canals in the late afternoon, through evening time, and often an hour or so into darkness, that I'd all but forgotten that they are actually open to custom, the full 24 hours of the day. It's easy to forget such things. It's easy to dismiss such things. But nice to be reminded of such things by someone who fishes the early hours as a matter of course.

A fortnight ago now I met up with George Burton at his preferred hour, which is the coldest part of any day, on the North Oxford Canal. We met at 5.30 am, I fished just a few short hours before I had to go, but George toughed it out and stayed on for a while. The results were remarkable to me. No waiting around for half an hour for a first bite, as per my usual experience, just bites straight off the bat. And, we both caught bream, a species I have never encountered at the place we met to fish, in what must now be hundreds of hours spent there whilst angling after its big roach.

Sunday morning I decided to rise early and go back, just to see if such instantaneous results would be replicated at what I have always thought to be a tough place where bites come along at a frequency of only one in every three sessions, and then almost invariably from roach, and big roach at that. 

When you catch a stamp of fish of a certain size, it means something. With roach, if you are catching fish that average a pound, which is the average for the Coventry Canal where I fish it, more or less, then you are going, at some point, to catch a fish of a pound and half. You are not going to find it at all easy catching a two-pounder though, because that fish will be one of a thousand lesser animals, any of whom will probably nab your bait before she does. Consequently I have more or less written off the Coventry Canal as a venue for such a fish because the odds are so long. My best from there is exactly a pound and a half, but I don't expect one larger any time soon.

I'll still fish it though, 'cause I like it...

They are in there, and that's a fact. Two and a half-pounders have been weighed and documented in matches. They are few and far between though, and because there's no easy way to spot such fish in a canal that is invariably coloured a nice murky olive green (the very same colour of river water that roach anglers adore) the quest for one is akin to playing a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. You turn up, sit down, bait up, and cast. Any peg is as likely to contain a two-pounder as any other, and considering that there are no fewer than two hundred 30 yard match pegs between each end of my Coventry Canal beat (as far out as I will ever walk) and that only a few are likely to hold such fish at any given time, it's not going to happen unless by serendipitous chance.  

However, I have not written off the North Oxford Canal, because that place throws such a stamp of fish at the angler that a two-pounder is a certainty given enough time spent in the hunt, and there a three-pounder is that fish in a thousand. They are far fewer in number though. Roach do not exist there in anywhere near the same quantities as found in the Coventry Canal, a canal that is (or used to be) one of the most famous canal match roach fisheries in the country because of the quality and quantity of its fish. No, the Oxford Canal contains far fewer where I fish it, but they do grow larger with an average weight across my hard-earned captures, of a pound and seven-ounces, and that's a stamp of fish that more or less predicts stocks of few, but potentially huge fish. 

Quite why this discrepancy should exist between two fisheries that come together just a few hundred yards from my preferred spot for large roach is not clear. That both populations are visibly different is just as remarkable, the Coventry Canal fish being near identical to Warwickshire Avon roach with their deep red irises, red fins, dark backs and bright silvery scales, whilst the North Oxford Canal fish are less bright in the scale, orange in the fin and almost completely lacking red pigment in the iris. 

There is only one lock between both populations, and that a 6 inch stop-lock. A stop-lock is what it says on the tin -- a lock that stops water passing from one canal to another. However, it does pass one lock load at a time, and in the late eighteenth century when they were built, from one rival canal company to another, the one with precedence allowing the other to join it only on strict condition that it build its canal to meet theirs at a height of six inches or so above their level. So, in effect they gained one often precious lock load of water from the competitor every time a boat passed through either way, but never passed it back again.

That continuous traffic over hundreds of years should have allowed the roach populations to merge by the passage of at least fry between them both, but it doesn't seem to have happened. Then again, the abundance of pigment in Coventry Canal roach and the relative lack of the same in Oxford Canal fish may have much to do with the fact that the Coventry Canal gets clearer and clearer the closer you get to the City, whilst the Oxford Canal, at all times except the very early morning, is the colour of builders tea due to the incessant boat traffic.

Which is precisely why George, and now I, have decided that the best approach to the Oxford Canal, is to wake up before the boaters start their daily chore of going up and down without apparent purpose, and then snatch a few precious hours of beautifully serene canal fishing. Because passing boats, and roach fishing with bread, do not mix well.

I arrived at 4.30 am and set myself up in the same swim that George fished before. It looked right somehow, for a good fish. In went a ball diced into eighths, of one whole slice of Warburton's best mashed in canal water, and to the centre of the boat track, and half a ball of the same off the end of the rod -- close up, and not far off, only because at the hour I arrived, I couldn't see the float across the way at the far bank shelf where I'd normally have the second rod fishing. 

I didn't get immediate bites. I didn't get any bites at all in the first hour, and a quarter past the hour is the point where I move along to another peg. Just as I was about to, just as I had packed everything away in readiness, the close-up float vanished and I was attached to a thumping, gliding fish that just had to be a roach. It was, and a good one too, possibly even scraping two pounds. Whooooo....

But then it wasn't a roach, and then it was again. Huh?

I netted it, banked it, and peeled back the meshes. Inside was a roach the like of which I have never seen before from any canal, but roach is certainly what I thought it was. It had the same washed out orange fins, the same lack of pigment in the iris, and the same metallic light grey scales as the usual Oxford Canal roach, but the body shape was radically different.

This was seemingly a pure river fish, not a canal fish, and not even a local river fish if that was true, but a distant one, one from a fast-flowing stream. Perhaps it hails from the Windrush? That's in Oxfordshire... 

The whole body shape of the fish was wrong for a canal roach. It was compressed in the same way that all the few roach I've caught from the River Itchen were compressed, that is, high-backed, deep-chested, keeled, and narrow, not shaped like a rugby ball, as the usual run of local canal and Warwickshire Avon roach are, bless em'.

I checked out the possibility of a hybrid. I wish I'd never bothered...

Hybridised with a bream, it would have a tell-tale excess 'branched ray' count in the anal fin. Roach always have 12-14 of these rays according to (?unreliable) Internet sources, or is it 9-12 nowadays?  They all seem to tally their beans differently, some counting, and some discounting the forked ray, or even counting it as two branched rays! It gets even worse when you look at academic sources who count 'fin spines' and 'soft rays' separately, giving as many as 3 spines and 9-13 soft rays for roach. They don't mention forked rays or branched rays though. It's a bloody mess!

But a perennial problem...

However, a bream has anything from 24-30 rays, so the mix of genes ensures that the hybrid's anal fin, no matter how 'roachy' or 'breamy' the fish might appear to be, will always contain more than a true roach or less than a true bream, 15 being the absolute minimum apparently, but 17-19 more usual. Depends very much on how, and what, you count though!

I counted them in the field as best I could. This fish had 13 rays, including the double-branched one counted as one, I think, and probably the spines counted as rays too. It was therefore, a pure-bred roach...!

OR, was it actually an ide? I've never seen one, I wouldn't know. I don't mind if it is, it'll be a new species for me. It wouldn't matter a jot, as it's far from my best, be it roach.

What I failed to notice at the time was its odd scale patterns. You can see it clearly in the picture above, where the upper body scale rows converge upon the lateral line scales, and vanish in the process. What the photo doesn't show, but another does, is that the same kind of discontinuity occurs below the lateral line where my right hand fingers are placed. To compound matters, the flip side of the fish is not exactly a mirror image. Such things are the sure signs of a body that has grown oddly, which might explain the deep compressed body of this one.

All in all, a very curious fish indeed. Somehow out of place, and though very handsome, a bit of a mutant.  But fishing around here, that holds no surprises for me, having caught plenty of mutated specimens under the power lines that festoon the sky around Hawkesbury Junction. 

Perhaps it's the electric atmosphere penetrating the water that makes them grow larger, and turn freak occasionally?

It does have an effect. Once, Judy and I were walking under the lines in crisp frosty weather and holding hands. All of a sudden it was as if our skins where they touched had started to throb rhythmically! We walked out of range, and the effect stopped, walked back under, and it started again. Imagine living under that effect all your life! It must be what turns the local resident boaters completely bonkers in the end. And they all are, believe me...

It was only an 'average' Oxford Canal 'roach' though, differences aside. It weighed in at exactly one-pound and seven-ounces, the hoped for near two-pound mark nothing but net puff caused by my expectation of the long, deep body sliding over the rim also carrying plumpness, which it didn't. 

A big bait for a canal, but you know what they say...?
I had no more bites in the next half hour so decided to move along. I stopped off at a place where I'd seen the faintest signs of fish moving whilst on a dog walk a few days previously. Any signs of fish on these canals usually shows a safe bet peg, even if you visit a week or two later, they will still be around I've found. As soon as the far bank rod was cast the float buried. Interesting. Second cast it happened again. I missed both bites though. 

The boat track rod was cast in a lull. I should not have bothered with it when the far bank line seemed to be cooking without any ground-bait bait placed as yet. Sure enough the far flung float rose in the water and slowly vanished, the strike meeting fish, and a good fish too if it were a roach... but so often 'big roach' turn out to be bream (because canal bream really do fight back!) and it was in this case.  A right old warrior too, ancient and scarred all over, but not quite big enough to worry my canal bream PB newly set just a fortnight hence.

Next fish was another surprise, but one that is starting to lose its novelty, having banked three now in the last months. That (?once) rare local canal creature, the rudd. Unlike the roach, this fish displayed the self-same characteristics of the two other rudd caught from the Coventry Canal nearby. It was silver, and the fins were blood red. It also trashed both my lines in its haste to get off one of them. Not a large fish, but welcome all the same, and I do hope they proliferate and give us local canal anglers another worthwhile target for the future.

"Never take a picture of a fish in direct sunlight"
I break my own rules, evidently...
It was now 7.59 am. and I'd got in no less than three and a half hours of uninterrupted fishing on a cool and misty, but by now, lovely bright sunny morning. Another bite from the same line hooked a far more powerful fish than any yet encountered. It could only have been a tench, but I never got to find out for sure because the hook pulled. Then came the first boat, so that was that.

I can't be bothered to deal with them anymore...  

So there we have it. Getting up early is good for just about every part of the angler's body and soul. I felt fresh and warm as I peddled homeward, full of beans having caught a few fish and one a valuable addition to my ever expanding collection of canal oddities. No gruff expletives were uttered under the breath as props churned my carefully nurtured swim to hell, no tired slumping home along the towpath after another thwarted attempt, and there was the certain knowledge as I passed the woodchopping boaters by, that I'd had the best part of the canal fishing day all to myself while they were sleepwalking about in the land of nod.

Now why didn't I think of this earlier?


  1. Lovely piece Jeff. It sounds like an exciting few hours. There's nothing quite like being by the water as the sun rises. It's a magical time of day. I'm not a particularly enthusiastic early morning person by any stretch of the imagination, but if it involves wetting a line and I force myself out of bed - it's always worth it!

  2. Ditched Apple and reverted to Microsoft in the hope of getting through...

    Two Shakespearian months late to catch an ide methinks but it certainly looks like one!

    Fish colour, and associated depth of colour, is apparently, I have noted over the years, a somewhat chameleon-esque trait in that canals with a fine milky-tea-like suspended silt content and heavy boat traffic like the North Oxford, some of the Grand Union and Stratford Canals produce pasty, pale, colourless fish whereas those with clear, dark water and dark silt contain very deeply coloured fish very much like river fish, such as the Birmingham/Worcester and Staffs/Worcs or part of the Trent & Mersey. I think the colouration of fish varies through summer and winter too as boat traffic declines and builds, though how long the process actually takes I've no idea. The same is apparent in clear dark lakes and murky ones of course

    No roach for me this week either, but I was seriously challenged...see latest post 'The Interlude'


  3. It is exciting Ben, there's no boats! I always used to go early morning tench fishing when I was a kid. There's nothing in fishing so good as watching a float amongst bubbling tench with mist on the water, is there?

    George, the most striking example of this I ever saw was a zander I caught on the Coventry. All the zander I, or any one else ever caught, were all a pale greenish colour, but this one was black backed and really dark flanked. It was a traveller who'd probably come up 5 miles from the gin clear water near central Coventry. It couldn't really have come from anywhere else as thats the only clear water canal for miles around.

    I see you've taken up the rod, though I really think a roving pole approach might be something worth investigating further. I keep meaning to buy one and try it out that way. One day!