An army of men stationed in military order wielding a bristling forest of sticks that reach from towpath to far shelf gradually disappearing into the hazy distance. A more natural mental conflation of classic venue and classic technique is hard to imagine and what anyone would believe the ideal picture of such a competition to be. Think canal — think pole...
I've lived in Coventry for five years now and fished its canal once, twice, often three times a week ever since. Never have I used a pole. I've toyed with the idea but never thought to save enough cash to buy such an eye wateringly expensive tool for the job and have a go myself. I believed it unnecessary. I could pack myself and my gear into the two foot safe zone by the water's edge, fish out of 'Harms Way' behind where the thought of having costly crushable carbon flying backwards across the danger zone fills me with trepidation, and so the idea never formed into a plan.
Yesterday all that changed. Norman picked me up just before noon for a second crack at the roach, only this time the experience was to be something of an eye opener because for the first time in my life I was about wield my own branch of the carbon forest. Yes, after a lifetime of turning his back on the very idea, Jeff Hatt Esquire was about to be introduced to the fine arts of the long pole.
The venue was Electric Wharf in the City, a stretch renowned for match winning bags of roach. It has the advantage of a large area of grass under the footbridge behind the pegs where a pole could be easily shipped back and forth and no doubt part of the reason Norm chose it.
Of course I had no hand in setting up. All I had to do was watch as he rigged and readied the unfeasibly lengthy thing, shipped out a large cup of liquidised bread and attached various stuffs to the scaffolding of the seat box where I was to sit and fish. When it was all right and ready to his satisfaction, I carefully mounted my station and the lesson commenced.
The hook was invisibly tiny and the microdot of bread hung off it ridiculously miniscule. The float was a frail little stick of a thing with a swollen belly that I thought would be lost from sight by the time it cocked and settled. The line by comparison with the rope I consider quite fine enough for the most delicate fishing was the flimsiest gossamer stuff. The rod though, was the largest and most unwieldy I'd ever laid hands on...
The swim was fast becoming a scum trap by this time with all the rubbish from the surface in both directions piling in and building up. With a rod I cope with this by casting out, teasing the line around major obstructions and sinking it quickly with a sharp underwater tug. There was no need for that now but getting the bait out still was fraught with problems because as the length of pole over water increased so did the magnification of any movement in my hands, an inch or two here becoming a foot or two there. That meant tangles every time I misjudged a lift over a floating can and whenever the butt dropped off the rod bag cum roller it slid over behind.
Norm kept a beady eye on passing trade while I wrestled with the unfamiliar movements and operations I was performing — there was no way I'd have been able to keep tabs on Harms Way with so much food for thought on my own plate. Shipping in was far easier than shipping out and that became a smooth enough operation not to have to think about in no time at all. What was amazing was that the sight line of the pole made seeing the tiny float very easy because I always knew exactly where it would be. All those years of wondering about the yawning discrepancy between a pole's massive scale and the float's apparently too fine antennae were over.
What I hadn't bargained for was that I'd catch fish too, and quickly. The first was a skimmer and the second a roach and they came pretty much as soon as I'd successfully got the bait out and kept it in place for a minute or two. They were every bit as tiny as the bait and terminal tackle and the roach the smallest I have ever caught from the canal by half.
The water was brown with suspended silt and that was both a good thing and a bad one because the day was very bright under a cloudless sky so the pole would not be casting shadows over the head of the fish but it was also very, very warm for the time of year and that always means one thing — boats had passed through earlier and more were sure to come later because nothing gets boaters burning diesel like balmy weather does.
Sure enough, within just half an hour of starting we heard the chug of engines round the corner.
In my experience this sounds the death knell for any bout of successful mid-canal bread fishing because groundbait in the boat track is dispersed by turbulence and the fish — at least those in the size range I always target — don't come back. I've never been able to rescue what was a cooking track swim after one has passed through and usually move along shortly after, however, this being a match length session and a match style lesson, I wasn't about up sticks but tough it out till the final whistle.
|The countdown commences|
I'd mastered manual operations well enough to need little supervision by then so Norm switched into calculator mode and began taking time and motion notes. Whenever a boat went through he'd take the minute past the hour and then wait for the water to clear before cupping in more bait when the countdown to the first bite began.
That's what match angling's all about isn't it? Time. I was doing well between boats but my clumsiness meant that I was catching a mere fraction of what a seasoned match angler would have extracted during the same window of hyper-critical opportunity. I reckon he'd have had perhaps five fish out for my every one with no trouble at all and by the whistle have built a bag well into double figures where I was heading for low singles.
As the sun set behind the canalside buildings the air chilled and the whistle was finally blown. Norm hadn't wet a line in all that time but after nigh five hours I was fast becoming a physical wreck having attempted to wet mine all afternoon...
The throat was dry from concentration, the left leg ached from supporting and moving all the weight whilst my right leg acted as pivot, the left arm ached and the left hand had fixed into a cramped claw.
Thankfully the right hand could still roll the occasional fag and the right arm lift a cup of Norm's coffee supply to the parched lips. The eyes were surprisingly unfazed though, the sight line the pole provided having made watching the orange blip of the float easy.
At the weigh-in I'd caught precisely 1lb 12oz 12dr of roach and skimmers which Norm assured me is often enough to win outright in a tough winter canal match. I'd have come last today though because I could easily appreciate how the fishing on this particular day would have given a net of ten pounds or more to the angler skilled, fast and fluent with the pole, rubbish to contend with or not.
For the last few hours we moved all the way back to where we'd fished on the first session last week where I got out the big gun — a quiver tip rod fishing a pre-cut bread disc something in the order of twenty times larger than those microscopic dots I'd fished the whole day long. In went a couple of handfuls of mashed bread and within ten minutes of casting out the hard won net of blades was trounced by a single bream twice the weight followed later by a second less than half its size but still ten times larger than any fish caught earlier.
It had been a fascinating session where I'd learned an awful lots beside technique. If I were to ever fish a match on the Coventry Canal I would certainly use a pole because I now know I'd be lost without one on a peg where only small fish were around to catch but, I'd also have a rig made up with exactly the outsize terminal tackle I use ordinarily because contrary to popular match fishing lore where expertly presented microbaits are the order of the day and the determining factor of play, very, very big bread baits do a great job of selecting match winning big fish over the same patch of ground bait where the blades are rooting about and that's now an established fact that simply cannot be ignored.
I'm sure that earlier in the day, an occasional change of rig and bait size from micro to macro would have doubled, trebled and even quadrupled my bag if just a few large bream were about and roach to the maximum size the swim held — and around these parts that might well be pound plus up to two-pounders — would have fallen too.
For my own purposes in the future though, it was the fine control at all distances, the ability to put a bait right amongst trailing brambles where tench like to be and the swift sureness of strikes when roach fishing that I think might make a huge difference to my approach to the canal's specimens. Once the muscles get used to the new tasks asked of them, much of what I struggle to achieve when it really matters most would be a cakewalk.
I'm sold on the idea. All I have to do now is buy one...
If I can ever afford to!
If I can ever afford to!