Above are the British Canal Records for fifteen principal coarse species, a list compiled last year by myself with the much appreciated help of others — Mark Wintle and Russel Hilton of Tales from The Towpath, especially.
It was not an easy task! Information was sketchy to say the least but in the end it began to look like a real record list with serious targets to beat. What started out as a project whereby I'd have a few realistic targets to aim for soon turned into a list of proper challenges to test the mettle of the finest angler. My aim for this year is to get myself back on it! I did have three or four records early doors because I couldn't find reports of anything better, but they didn't last for very long once the net was cast wider...
I don't know about you but I think that fishing for an overall British record has become something of a farce in recent years. It's almost impossible to aim at any and those that try tend to waste away their fishing lives in pursuit of one. How many years does a monkish angler have to camp out at Coombe Abbey Lake fishing four rods around the clock chasing a British Record zander before his faith caves in under the weight of the inescapable fact that it simply doesn't have one in it anymore, if indeed, it ever did?
The great deterrent is sheer cost. Chase almost any British record you care to mention and especially those who may live in syndicated lakes, chalk streams and the like and the pursuit will set you back the best part of your entire income unless you're lucky enough to live nearby to the water. Factor distance into the equation and really, our dreams of record fish are smoked and kippered.
The canal records are a different kettle of fish altogether. They can be imagined and be caught by design because canals themselves have changed beyond recognition since the zander got in. Their presence has created fisheries where almost anything is actually possible even if we may not think it very likely. Wherever they are we find comparatively few small fish, which are their preferred diet, but good heads of larger ones and with the exception of grayling (which is freak of circumstance) no-one can say what the ceiling for any of the species is because truly, no-one knows what canals are capable of producing these days.
The largest pike I ever saw, I saw locally. Coventry anglers will know of the 'forty' cased above the counter in Lanes Tackle shop in London Road. Well, every time I go in to buy bait or hooks I look up and see a fish about the same size as the one I witnessed that day. It was astonishing and would have beaten the current canal record of 31lb 14oz, easily. Not that anyone will ever believe me! Large pike are legendarily exaggerated... but, there was a scrapyard just beyond it and in it was a car. It was the length of its windscreen...
At 2lb 4oz I see the canal roach record as one of the most precarious and bound to fall if only anglers would put their backs into the job of catching one larger. The header at the top of every page on this blog carries a picture of what is to all intents and purposes a two-pounder caught by myself a few years ago now. It was a young fish then and if it's still alive today it will be a record breaker I really do need to get back out and pursue seriously.
It's the one record on the list I feel I really do deserve to have because till just recently when George Burton of Float, Flight & Flannel caught the bug I was about the only angler in the country actively fishing canals for big roach, and succeeding too if my average of 1lb 7oz on the Oxford Canal is anything to go by (and it is because it's amazing anywhere except at a certain few exclusive pits I can't just go and fish at the drop of a Hatt...)
I truly believe that 2lb 4oz, though a very large roach by any standard, is nowhere near what the canals are capable of producing today. That big two or even three-pounder is there to be caught. Zander, well, they make it a certainty because by pruning the bush back hard they allow the fruit of survival to grow plump on abundance.
Tench, Now there's a challenge. At 8lb 8oz the record is a big fish to beat from most anywhere but from a canal you'd think it impossible. Not so. Last year I had a five and a half pounder — a good fish but a stripling from any half decent pit, however, if I mention its weight to anyone in the know where canals are concerned then it turns out to be a very large tench indeed because canal tench well below three pounds are the norm, above is a very good fish, but those breaking five almost unheard of.
It's as if the clock has turned back and catapulted us into to the seventies when a five-pound tench really was the specimen desired by any serious tench fisher. Again, my 'five' was a relative youngster and so I can't wait to find out what this summer brings if they are growing on so very well. Let's put it this way, I'll not be bothering fishing pits for tench at all, because with such potential on my doorstep, why would I waste my time camping out behind bobbins and buzzers pursuing a known 'double' when I can float fish for an imagined 'six' or even a 'seven' from the kind of venue where the capture of one half the size of the British record would actually be an enormous achievement?
In a way I think canals do take us back in time to days when fishing was a freedom unencumbered by astronomical prices or unrealistic expectations and still embroidered with imaginative speculation about monsters lurking in almost every conceivable place. They are, for the most part, free fisheries, they're all over the country too and none are likely to become 'dead-man's-shoes-syndicates' no matter how big the fish run. I don't know why people don't fish them very seriously when they offer so much limitless scope for adventure — maybe the pioneering spirit of angling really is dead in the water nowadays? Is it true that if a 'bench mark specimen' hasn't been caught from a venue before, then no-one will believe they're there to be caught at all?
Well it takes someone to prove they do and I suppose it all depends then on what our notions of 'a specimen' are. My idea is that a specimen is a specimen relative to its context, that the country-wide context in which the overall British Record sits is unrealistic and even something of a joke, but that the context of the canal system is realistic, democratic, open to all, non-exclusive, pretty much cost free and actually a great deal of old-fashioned fun without being in any sense, dated.
Give me a report of a big canal perch and I'm on the edge of my seat! But a report of yet another known big fish bored to the boot-worn banks of yet another secret squirrel venue with the carefully manicured trophy shot bereft of any sense of place? Yawn. I used to be interested, but nowadays I find myself nodding off because its another kind of fishing that appeals to my senses — y'know — the delicious idea that one just might be in there and is worth the experience of trying for rather than the rather less savoury fact that one is known to be about but must be suffered out.
As for silver bream, well you know what I think about them! Of all the fish on the canal record list I believe it's the one that stands a realistic chance of actually breaking the British record if they grow at the pace of four ounces per year they've shown round my way over the past few years. Keith Jobling's 2lb 1oz monster is 70% of the British record and one of the largest ever recorded outside a certain venue down south, but it's not a one off, it just can't be. They must be more numerous than we know, and if only they could be caught more regularly we'd have a truer sense of their potential...
The only way for that to happen is for more anglers to fish canals seriously and discover what they hold. With only a handful trying the data set is pokey, but with a hundred doing the same the secrets will out and records start to tumble. I expect my exhortations to fall on deaf ears though. Tough, wild, unrewarding, hard work, problematic and too challenging by half. Yep, that's canals all over.
But when you slip the net under a breathtaking specimen never caught before, or even one never suspected to be there in the first place, then you'll be on top of the world because without having to lose over and over again just to get there, it always feels as if you're winning...