Sunday, 20 December 2015

Canal Roach and Eel — Slow-n-Easy

A couple of spare hours Saturday evening just had to be used up fishing. The mild overcast weather demanded it. It won't last... Surely it can't last? But while it does it is an unusual opportunity that must be taken advantage of. 

Grassy Bend once more. And further trials of the helicopter rig with lobworm bait. 

I'd set up in the same swim as last time but was struck by the attractiveness of a boat some way along. Don't know why she was calling me but she was. Should this swim not be good then I would surely follow my nose and fish there instead.

It was hopeless where I'd sat down. In start contrast to the previous session the bobbins did not drop and all I got for my initial hopefulness was a little tremble of the left hand rod top. 

So off I went to 'Slow-n-Easy' to see precisely why she called...

This time around I cast the worms to positions a few feet off the middle and stern end of the hull and over the top went handfuls of hemp, five or six broken worms, but far fewer maggots than before because most by now had turned to floating caster. I chucked in what I had. They were no use after.

And there I sat to wait things out.

About an hour in and without the slightest indication of fish a portly fella turns up on a stroll out from the pub and it turns out he's an angler, his young son is fishing off the pub bank, and he's trying to establish the whereabouts of Tusses tackle shop half a mile up the towpath. No need to go any further. And so we strike up conversation about fishing and he sticks around a while longer...

Out of the blue the stern rod arches over bending into the butt before I get my hand on the grip when I pick it up against a hugely powerful and heavy fish tearing off down the side of the boat and taking a great deal of line with it. My immediate thought is 'male tench' but there's something worrying about the angle of the rod which is straightlined against my best effort to put a bend in it. I just cannot do a thing right there and then.

But the fight is soon over when abruptly the line falls limp and I'm believing the 2lb hook-link snapped. Casually walking up the bank winding in 20 yards of slack I find the rod veering toward the near bank and then realise that the fish is still on. 

I speed up the retrieve and regain straight contact when all hell breaks loose...

The rod jerks like some demented death metal headbanger and the tighter the line, the more neck-breaking the breakneck rhythm of this astonishing kick drum hammering becomes. 

Slow and easy this is not! 

But close contact is hard to maintain. The fish rips line off the spool one direction only to go into immediate reverse when all goes slack. Nevertheless, the hook hold is good because frantic winding throws me back in the mosh pit every time. But now it's tearing up and down directly beneath the near bank revetment trying to find a snag...

I dismiss the few species it might once have been and arrive at the only one it can possibly be — when I know that I don't stand a chance in hell of banking it. 

This roach tackle is just not capable of tiring such a monster before it surely does find some small solid thing to wrap its tail round when it will smash the flimsy line. I consider plunging the net down so it can find that and tangle itself up in the meshes, but I'm too far off to grab it. If it tears back up that way then I think it my only real chance!

The vicious pounding that the rod is trying its level best to absorb is becoming worrying now. Beneath my feet there's no real sensation of weight or linear power. Just the one of being attached to a furious ball of violent energy. Something must give. And of course, something does...

Winding in the rig I find just a single float rubber on the line. The rest is gone. The failure point is the line at the point of contact with the bead protecting the knot to the feeder. The hook-link held up. But the stress point with this rig is where the swivel meets the bead and I guess the crazed head shaking just weakened the 3lb line by degree till it gave out. 

In all the time I've fished these canals I always wondered when the day would arrive when I'd finally hook one. Thousands of hours spent dabbling with all kinds of baits that might attract one yet I'd never yet succeeded in luring one of these elusive secretive creatures and feared the moment when I finally would. But that moment had arrived and my worst fears were confirmed. On the day I was fatally undergunned. 

George Burton's account of his successful tussle with such an unexpected beast chimes with mine. Though I did not see the fish, the fight was so very unusual that I was convinced about what it was in the heat of things, and when George recounts that same jack hammer fury then I'm absolutely certain.

If only it had fallen to a zander rod then I'd have banked it for sure...


Friday, 18 December 2015

Canal Roach and Perch — The Grubs Don't Work

I could tell that the dogs needed their serious weekly walk but I had plans to get my serious weekly fishing done so I thought I'd combine both and take them to the open space at Grassy Bend where they could run themselves into the ground and I could get a few hours in . The idea of fishing bread was out of the question because it demands my full attention and having dogs about makes that impossible. Then I thought about going after zander. No need to concentrate very hard with them apart from keeping baited hooks out of canine gobs. But I plumped for two rods fishing helicopter maggot feeder rigs for roach. 

I have had some encouraging success trialing this approach on the Coventry Canal where a couple of good hybrids fell, but both times I tried it on the North Oxford it proved useless. Nevertheless, I thought I'd learn something because I'd shortened the hook links to three inches down from six or seven and added an inch of tubing to keep them stiff. I really need to make this approach work if I can because it allows fishing to be conducted during spells of heavy boat traffic and throughout the day where effective bread fishing requires being up at dawn just to get an uninterrupted hour in. 

I need an answer! 

The weather is mild and heavily overcast with intermittent rain. It is perfect even if it's grim. The approach is simple. Cast out the rigs, tighten up and attach bobbins, chuck a handful of hemp and a handful of maggots over each. And wait. 

An hour and a half later without a touch I'm beginning to believe the approach a poor one and maggots next to worthless. Wishing I'd brought a float rod and a loaf of Warburtons along I occupy myself taking pictures of nothing happening just to entertain myself. Might as well practise something worthwhile...

I'm tapping my Timberlands to that infernal tune again. The ground beneath is getting rather sticky, but then I look down and there's a lobworm. This is the third time this has happened now.  I know it is simply that worms respond to tapping by crawling out of their burrows — a habit that buzzards exploit and that old time bait collectors called 'worm charming' or even better, 'fiddling' —  but I can't help thinking this is a sign.

I resist the urge to use it. But this time I do put it in the baitbox for later. Because if these damn grubs don't work soon enough it's going on the hooks instead!

But the trial is not yet over. A trial requires persistence. Another hour and I'll know if maggots are worth persisting with... 

The picture above is no fake. I was trying to get myself 'in swim' together with two yampy springers running about like lunatics in the same shot. A big ask. What I didn't bargain for was that the first bite of the afternoon would come just as the camera's 12 second self-timer began beeping the last second countdown. Good timing, and the very reason I take so many selfie-style establishing shots.

No one ever took a photograph of a 2lb roach bite...

But no one ever took a worse selfie with a small perch!

Nevertheless, the bite was the classic twitch and drop helicopter rig one. Maggots have their stay of execution. And I've a lobbie in reserve...

But nothing happens after. The bloody maggots are just no good and that juicy worm is exerting an ever greater pull on my gut. Just as soon as I detect a fall in the light levels I open the box, halve the poor thing, nip tail and head on either rig and cast them out.

The response is absolutely instant. Within seconds of clipping up the bobbins the right hander drops to the floor. A roach hybrid. The left hander drops while I'm unhooking it. A perch. 

The grubs don't work, they just make it worse. These fish were there the whole time but ignoring them! 

Maybe they were preoccupied with hemp?

Yet another hybrid. But at least it's got roach in it...

Perhaps. But the worms do work and make it better. The rest of the session is a blur of dropping bobbins and frantic Estelle fuelled worm fiddling securing fresh supply of this wonder bait of which I get a further two that I quarter to make eight baits just to keep pace. Unfortunately, not one bite is from a roach. All thereafter are perch around the pound mark and I believe there's seven or eight or nine of them who've tripped up...

Now all this begs a few questions, not least of which is why I have never fished for perch this way. But actually, and more importantly, why it is not seen as an essential part of perch fishing...

None of that fiddling about with disgorgers down the throat or finding the hook hold all over the random place. Each and every single one was hooked squarely and securely in the lower lip. Very clean and tidy. Surgical, you might say.

Also, why did I not realise earlier in my long life that I was an expert worm fiddler?

I could have made a bleedin' fortune!

But most importantly of all. How can I fish worm but avoid perch when it is roach that I'm after?

That is the question...

PS. If you're thinking the lobs don't work for roach, then think again...

Dan's opposite experience

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Canal Roach — Forks at Dawn

Do anglers dream of electric roach?

Thinking about this challenge I've set myself. You know, the (catching the) impossible one of banking roach over two-pounds in weight from lake, canal and river and before March 15th. Well, it seems more and more possible the more I think about it. I guess that reducing 'the impossible' to the lesser rank of 'the improbable' is only a matter of thinking things through and then taking it down a peg to 'the possible' when a peg or two further to 'the probable' is just a matter of application.

If the fish are certainly there no matter how thinly spread, then they certainly can be caught by design. 

But exactly where and exactly how? 

Stratford town waters do hold a few very large roach. This is documented fact . They have cropped up in matches from time to time. I went there with Judy on our annual Xmas shopping trip. Of course I hate boutique shopping just as much as any other man unless it's about tool boutiques and the materials tools are designed to work upon. Therefore part of our annual trip is about me using the tools of this trade upon the materials they were designed to work upon. Which is fish. 

By taking a brief couple of hours out of our day I manage to stay out of her shopping hair by go getting myself tangled up in some other more enjoyable problem at Lucys Mill . It's a family tradition that I just cannot bring myself to break with...

But I wish I had last Saturday!

Setting up at one of my best chance pegs I think fishing may not be at all easy. The water is choppy and I don't know if the rod is going to cope with the buffeting. A few minutes later there's a great crack, a splintering groan, when I turn about and witness a large tree fall into the head of the swim with a splashy crash...

You may remember it was a windy day? No doubt it was a named storm that passed through given that every little blast of winter normality is now to be dubbed thus... 

It wasn't violent enough to be anything other than an annoyance to the tourist (unless you were on a boat passing under a weakened tree at the precise time it fell on your bonce and killed you stone dead) and even to an angler it was quite entertaining.

If I ever had a bite at The Mill then it went unseen what with the rod tip bouncing about all the while. Up to the Recreation Ground where I pitch up where the wind is least. I get a quarter of an hour respite during which time I catch one small roach till the wind veers and comes directly upstream when I'm forced off. 

Last chance is the 'S' bend at the Lido because there's an island there that should shield me. There I have two half-pound roach and both give the most unlikely bites. Massive rod-wrenchers they were.  Unusual for a fish that takes bread so delicately and warily under the usual run of weather. Just as well because otherwise I'd never have seen the little delicate plucks that roach ordinarily give.

No luck on the river two-pounder front though. And it was not expected given the atrocious conditions...

Whenever a comment is posted on Idler's Quest then I get notification of it in my inbox. This one came through yesterday, but despite the alert this comment does not appear on the post. Some sort of Blogger glitch, I guess. But it does need to be published because it contains news of a very important capture indeed if you are Jeff Hatt currently looking at the North Oxford as his best chance venue for a 2lb canal roach. 

I'm not at all surprised that such a fish was banked there. I've narrowed down the impossible to the probable precisely because of such captures. What is surprising is that it was caught by Jim Hogben but not George Burton!

A third angler fishing the NOXC for roach? Never. 

And succeeding to bank big ones into the bargain? Blimey. 

That's no small beer, let me tell you. And Jim's fish is up at the top of the pile too. I believe it ranks at equal third place alongside those banked by George and myself at the same weight and below George's famous 'two' and my infamous near miss at one-fifteen-eight. If three anglers can manage that kind of a fish on a tough venue where roach of any size are caught at a rate of about one-per-man day, then you just know that I had to get cracking at Grassy Bend...

And I did. And it was very interesting if it wasn't exactly successful. And I'll tell you all about it tomorrow. Or the next day, I promise.

Tomorrow morning you see...

Forks at dawn. 

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Dominic Garnett Crooked Lines — Life's a Ditch

The second greatest danger posed to those writers published by mainstream houses is that they may begin to anticipate the editor's scissors and cut their cloth accordingly, losing all power over their own creative impulses in the process, and churn out ill-fitting commercial rags that bring in steady predictable revenue. 

The first great danger is that they may choose to turn against all that, stick two fingers up at the established order and go their own way, losing all control over the commercial process, in the process, but labour with love tailoring fine things that may not find a rail in the shop to hang upon and deal with precarious remuneration...

It's a stitch up!

But it's Dominic Garnett's world...

Crooked Lines is self-published. That means that the author takes a great risk with his own cash paid up front in hope of future sales enough to cover the project overheads and then turn a profit from which wages are drawn. The great thing about self-publishing is that every penny of profit is the property of the author. He is not scraping a paltry 10% royalty on net price from a publisher but taking 100% of gross revenue. Therefore every book sold after break-even point is reached puts dinner on the table and gas in the tank. Should enough profit be made then there's surplus that can be ploughed back into the business of making the next book without drawing from personal money.

Of course there's HMRC to take care of should the year pass allowances...

But it's a great business model should all go according to plan.

Of course, self-publishing is tarred with the bog brush of the self-indulging amateur. Most self-published books are well meant, but are ill conceived and badly received because they lack the lustre of professionalism the publisher lends. They don't shine.

However, there's a very good reason why Crooked Lines had to be self-published. Because this is a book about rejected material important to the author that failed to make the arbitrary grade required by publishers then how else would it ever be published unless by this route?

A risky venture and a brave one that in principle could work out. But would it also do what a book must and prove itself not only worthy, but a damned good read...?

The cover artwork I thought wonderful and it came with a matching bookmark. Really outstanding.

But was this the polished skin of a ripe turd?

Well, no. That's not what stink it hid because the introduction was an invigorating blast of fresh air. Mr Garnett gets it all off his chest and does not pull his punches. Matt Hayes wades in at the foreword with a swipe across the complacent corporate mug he knows so very well. The tone is right and really sets the pace. I've taken the bait and I'm hooked. And then I begin dipping into chapters scanning a few paragraphs in advance of proper reading when I get the distinct impression, and quickly, that Dominic has found something very special indeed...

His voice!

He's arguing with me and I don't agree with him. There's something that chimes over here but I'm knocked off my perch over there. I'm fighting against a crooked line. What's going on? An angling writer expressing an unexpurgated personal point of view?

Only Chris Yates is allowed that privilege. Surely?

I like this. I don't read books that aren't argumentative. Who cares what someone says when all they say  is what you want to hear? The stories are ripe with expletives. These aren't gratuitous, though. They're absolutely necessary and lend the immediacy that fishing prose forgot it could wield. None of that watery eyed, tweedy pin and cane prissiness here. This is dirt real!

There's a chapter that makes me yearn for the coast and the huge mullet of the Essex salt marsh. In Coventry they're four hours and a million miles distant but I vow one day that I will return to try again. There's crawling about in drains and ditches in Somerset with 'Norbert', bucket and bike style catch and release in Poland, char fishing by way of a drill in Norway, and the capture of a canal carp of middling proportion in fact, but of enormous proportion in the truer game of things. I've been there and done that and agree with the sentiment entirely...

But there's that 'Scales of Madness' chapter that I simply don't agree with.

The only way you are going to know if you'll agree with me, agree with him, or have your own entirely personal point of view on the matter — is buy this book.

Let me tell you, it will be a well spent tenner. And bought soon enough you'll put a well deserved bottle of admittedly cheap plonk on the author's Christmas dinner table, a gallon of petrol in his motor so he can drive out to some new fishing adventure, and just a little over in the way of ploughed back profit to cover the first words about the experience in volume two of Crooked Lines.

Buy at the author's website

Buy at Amazon

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Itchen Grayling & Roach — Chalk & Cheese

I'm on sure footed terms with the Lower Itchen Fishery now that I've completed my sixth trip. I'd call myself 'in training' till my tenth, but I'm not bemused by it these days. The sheer quantity of stock swimming there is no longer surprising. It is now a problem to solve. A brick wall in front of the worthwhile things it promises — the 3lb grayling and the 3lb roach. Neither of which are impossible, but made all the more difficult to approach because of daunting number.

I'm seeing it for what it really is. Purely and simply — it's a 'commercial'. 

Inside the fort...

That is never more apparent when you've spent a couple of long hard days fishing the free stretch below Gaters Mill as I enoyed in the expert company of local rod, Simon Daley, back in 2012. That is a true coarse fishery with occasional wild migratory game fish to make things an interesting challenge. Most migrants that fall are taken away for the pot, as you'd expect. They do not dominate proceedings and grayling are uncommon therefore roach fishing, though not easy, is a simple matter of building a swim throughout the day by accurate, constant, regularly timed feeding of what amounts to an enormous amount of bait over the session and hopefully reaping the rewards of patience. It is not a party certain to be spoiled by gatecrashers. And when they come along then it's usually chub often of some size...

I've seen it done well and thirty pounds of roach fill a net. I've done it myself inexpertly, and though I struggled to do well, I still put together ten pounds fairly easily with a good few pound-plus fish to make things feel upwardly bound. Roach there are not the elusive ghost they are upstream. They are the backbone of the population. 

Things above the mill are something else entirely. Heavy feeding there just cannot work. As with any commercial fishery stuffed bank to bank with millions of fish of all shapes and sizes, overdoing that attracts entirely the wrong crowd and reduces the chances of selecting the best from it. Roach are not party animals. They will back off...

James Denison trotting the free stretch early morning 

I think that James and Brian may have enjoyed themselves more if they'd stayed 'free' because I don't think they were entirely happy with what was in store. It is a tough prospect. Commercials are that if it's   specimen fish you are after. If they are there to catch then it means thinking through the problems they present very carefully and coming up with a plan.

I thought I had one...

I'd never crossed over the footbridge to explore one of the carrier streams till today. The difference  with the main river was something of a shock. Ambling through dairy pasture a convoluted gentle-paced watercourse lined with trees meets a gushing boiling torrent of sparkling clear water tearing across shimmering chalk gravel. Its character is absolutely nothing like that of the main river and not at all like a chalk stream either. At their confluence they were chalk and cheese. 

It felt familiar. Like a Warwickshire brook. In contrast to the main river where hopefully a a pluck or more likely a wrench will come to bread often within seconds of casting out, I was struck by the lack of immediate bites. Had to work hard at finding them just as I would have to when fishing my local River Sowe. It was too placid for the paternoster feeder rig I'd tied up for the main river. Free-lining by stealth might have scored. As with the Sowe where I always free-line bread, anything more than a single shot splashing down here was clearly too much of a disturbance for my target species.

But I really didn't expect to catch them anyhow. This was just a dabble. To ascertain depths and features and future potential. And besides, the day had dawned bright and clear and the only real chance of roach would come around dusk. Between times I was going to work hard for a good grayling but I stuck it out in the carrier for a good while longer and was rewarded with a few tippity taps here and there and a one pound chub. I'm sure on a future trip on an overcast day or even better, one shrouded in thick mist, that time spent creeping about and staying low might well throw up a surprise or two. Because it really did look to be prime small stream roach territory. 

When I left the carrier behind and crossed back over the bridge I went out on a nearby jetty and dropped bread into angrier waters. The tip wrenched around violently and after a bit of a tussle, in came the first of what I expected to encounter from time to time throughout the rest of the day — the Itchen Standard Brownie. 

What I didn't expect was that from the end of that jetty I'd haul ten in the next hour! 

This swim was alive with them. The best at around the three-pound mark gave me no end of trouble tearing about in lunatic fashion but the smallest at a pound and a half and all the rest between were no different. I was hoping for one of the big cocks with their lurid plumage and outlandish kypes who'll spend half the fight up in the air. A battle like that is something else. But they occupy pools so it seemed I'd not have that here...

It was great sport but it paled quickly being far too easy. Nevertheless there was a bonus grayling at 1lb 6oz between them all so I had my fill of trouty fun and earned myself 36 challenge points too. 

Mick was having a great time trotting maggots and then corn taking grayling of ever increasing size and enjoying the once-only thrill of beating a personal best over and over again in the same day. Because before his first cast when I assured him he certainly might (and actually did!), he'd never caught one before. Mid afternoon he hit the ceiling at 1lb 8oz...

It's a challenge to do better than that...

Mick Newey. Banking a new PB most likely!

The rest of my morning was spent in pursuit of one of those dusky three-pound grayling. They are possible. But most unlikely amongst so many competing greedy mouths. Here and there, there's places that really feel as if the big fish might come. Quieter. Deeper. Smoother. Fewer.

The fastest water and the shallowest too.  Brimming with small grayling

Feeder fishing is good for that. Explaining precisely how seemingly rapid swims up top can be placid and even-paced down low. But when I finally did find a place where I felt that an hour more might just produce that dream, the entire rig including the feeder and the good grayling it'd hooked, was devoured by a pike. 

Brian tried for the gatecrasher with a float fished dead roach while James tried to tempt grayling rising in hoards to his free offerings of red maggots. 

Jeff Hatt and Brian Roberts watch James Denison not catch grayling easily
Interesting that he found it very hard to hook them. They were absolutely determined to mop every last one up but were ignoring the baited hook fished mid water. Very cute. And something of a lesson in how to avoid grayling and catch roach because it was clear that grayling are either not great mid-water specialists or are very good at spotting a baited hook.

Which suggested a question I'd never considered before.

A shame it was a question that didn't occur to me right there and then...

Ooh... Should I camp out for roach, or just go camp?

It was high time to go all out for roach but should I ignore them today and just keep going at grayling?  This was a tough call. I didn't think it was a good day for roach to be honest. The weather had been highly unsettled and extremely changeable the last few days, had been bright all morning, but would turn again by evening with thick cloud and high winds approaching fast.

Against my better judgement I made what I feared would be the wrong decision. 

So I made my way downstream to the slow flowing lower beats and on the way thought about setting up a rod for the job of trotting caster. But I couldn't decide if this was a ledgering bread kind of day or the trotting caster kind. So I set up both.

Well, I plumped for trotting. Feeding hemp and caster regularly and lightly I began fishing well under depth. Bites were not forthcoming. But inching the float up by degree and lowering the bait through the bite-less zone till I was fishing near bottom at around 7 or 8 feet down, then they suddenly arrived. They were from grayling and minnow. And as the feed increased in effect the grayling increased in size and the minnows vanished. But they were still grayling. Not roach.

A trout was next. A very tricky and determine trout. But roach were not going to come along unless by sheer luck because time was running down, the weather had turned for the worse, and I really should have started trotting far earlier in order to feed off the small fish. However, it was the same story for all. They could not be caught on the float. Unusually, around dusk not a single ripple caused by roach was seen anywhere by anyone. It was as if they did not exist.

Packing down when I couldn't see the float I went down and joined Mick fishing out the last light in the windy weir pool. He'd had two small roach there on ledgered maggots. I mentioned that it was very unusual that apart from the pounder I'd caught in the carrier, nobody had found the larger chub that had always shown in the latter part of the day on all my previous trips.

His tip bangs hard over as I speak and in comes a four pounder! 

And that was that. Completing my stillwater-river-canal 2lb roach hatrick in the same season was never going to be anything less than 1% of the possible, but it's going to be 99% impossible to find the river roach from my midland venues. One best chance of securing the two up advantage had passed me by and right now I can't think of another but that of working tremendously hard and striking very lucky at Stratford upon Avon town waters, or, arranging a train ride back down to Southampton and cracking the free stretch of the Itchen.

Nevertheless, it was a very enjoyable day spent with great company. I learned much for the future and have a carrier to explore by stealth next time around.


Only on the way home did the question — that if answered earlier might have changed my fortunes — finally arrive in my thick head.

'What if I forego easily won bites and fish the apparently dead zone above the grayling's reach'? 

Not an easy thing for a self-confessed biteaholic to contemplate...

Friday, 27 November 2015

Canal Zander & Pike — Embrace the Void

If there's one thing about living right by a canal full of zander that I consider a great bonus then it isn't that I can go catch loads of them at a moments notice, but that I can go experiment with hooks and rigs and baits and what not without incurring overheads. If you have to travel far and then pay for the privilege of fishing for them, then understandably you'll just want to catch if you can and will choose the most reliable method known even if its success rate is actually horribly low. Experiments cannot be afforded. 

I don't have to worry about all that. My greatest cost is that of half a slice of bread with which to catch skimmers for my bait... 

The void between MX and PT is critical. A membrane of flesh covers it. 
The picture above is the skull of Perca fluviatilis, the European perch. It is well worth studying if you are a predator angler because this skull is the typical one of the Perciformes. All members of this huge order of fishes have similar skulls, or at least all members have the same bones in the same configuration with the same linkages between articulated jaw parts but with often very large differences in skull morphology. Marlins and sailfishes, for instance, are Perciforme but so are ruffe and sand eels. It's difficult to imagine that such vastly different fish are related at all, let alone that they all share a common ancestor. But they do.

There's just thirty or so Perciformes swimming in British waters but only a handful that attract the attention of anglers both as quarry and as bait (and often as bait for another Perciforme!). There's perch (of course), ruffe, bass, mackerel, the various sea breams, sand eels, wrasse, and the subject of this article, zander.

You'll notice the absence of pike. Pike are not Perciforme but Esociforme; a very small order of fishes that includes just two families — the pikes/pickerels, and mudminnows. By contrast, the Perciformes comprise of 160 families, 10.000 species, represent an astonishing 41% of all bony fish and are the largest order of all those animals with articulated spines like us — the vertebrates.  

On the one hand we have a narrowly specialised order that evolved many millions of years ago to exploit very particular niches and have remained almost unaltered since. On the other we have a burgeoning explosion of species each of whom evolved to exploit particular niches amongst a myriad of alternative situations and no doubt continue to do so to this very day. 

The Perciformes are, by any definition, one of the most successful orders of animals that ever populated this planet.

The skull of pike. Notice the lack of voids around the jaw
Pike aren't related to perch, nor are they related to zander (in fact zander are more closely related to wrasse than they are to pike, which seems preposterous but is true). So, the old 'pike-perch' name for zander is most misleading, though it still persists in usage. It's remarkable that bait fishing for zander is for the most part conducted as if anglers were fishing for 'pike-perch', that is to say they are fishing for zander with pike tackle as if zander were actually a perch/pike cross. 

You wouldn't fish for large perch with pike tackle and even if they grew to double figures you still wouldn't, and that's because perch fishing and pike fishing diverged centuries ago. 

The skull of zander. Notice the large void behind the jaw

Our approach to zander, though, has yet to split fully away and develop in its own right and so it remains tightly bound to pike fishing practises because the history of zander fishing is so very brief, sprouts from pike fishing in the first instance, and is yet to evolve into a separate and distinct branch of the sport.

Standard pike fishing dead-baiting approaches applied to zander are not appropriate. The only thing they share in common is that they both eat fish...

The Coventry posse established that many moons ago when just about every blogger about these parts was fishing for them but experiencing disastrous returns on (admittedly small) investment with treble hooks. So we were driven to explain why so many runs were missed without the least indication that a fish was there in the first place, when a thud was felt it might drop off a few seconds later, and when a fish seemed well hooked then one in every two (or three) might shed the hook mid-fight or at the net. 

We were losing up to 90% of chances on a very bad day. 60% on a good one. It was all wrong.

Because the canals are very easy for us all to reach and therefore we could experiment at will, within a year answers were forthcoming. It was found that the mouth of a zander was the entire problem. It just has so little flesh in it that standard treble hooks could not cope. Even in large sizes the three individual hooks were still small and worse, the hook was impaled in the back of a bait and could not turn. So they'd just skate off the bone and only find a hold by accident.

The answer was mostly a hook size and bait size thing. Small slices of fish lightly pricked through the flimsiest piece of skin by single hooks were found to be successful. And these hooks had to be large ones to work best. Sizes in the order of 2 - 2/0 were about right. This approach brought our zander fishing into the realms of normality where loss rates of 20- 30% were acceptable. And then acquired skills might improve it further. 

Missed runs were fewer and fewer between, bumped fish far less of a problem, and it soon became apparent when on occasion five, six or seven runs on the trot were fluffed then it was a pack of very, very small fish that were the culprits.

When I tried an established bass (a perciforme) hook in size 2/0 under a float I found that I'd hook zander always through the void behind the jaw and experience 80% success or greater with them.

But I'm one of those who believe loss rates should not be incurred at greater than 5% for any kind of fishing, be it barbel, roach, or great white shark...

I assure you, the picture above is no advertising gimmick. That is a real hook — the 'Mustad 39937NP-DT Giant Demon Perfect Circle Hook' — and one that will set back the big game shark hunter wanting mako, hammerhead, bull, tiger and great white on his personal best list, circa £150. 

God Forbid they should ever lose one! 

It illustrates perfectly what a circle hook is and what a circle hook does. Imagine that a great white hits a bait and takes it down the throat along with this hook. The point is set at an angle of 90 degrees to the shank and there's a six inch gap between. Because the point is facing in this direction it cannot easily catch on anything unless it hits something to turn around. So the hook is drawn out of the smooth gullet and back into the cavernous mouth where steady tension brings it to the closed jaw. Because the line is pulled against a very large float, the shark's forward motion draws it into the very corner where both jaws meet when it turns and catches around one of them. Against a float that would be the top jaw most likely.

But it only pricks. The fight is what makes it penetrate because there is no striking necessary, in fact that would be a mistake because unless the line is pulled backwards it won't come to the scissors of the jaw as it should.

I draw your attention back to the six inch gap. That's critical. Should a shark with a jaw thickness much, much greater than six inches take the bait (imagine that!) then it's not going to work very well unless it finds thick flesh and Mustad are just going have to create an even more preposterous hook!

But sharks have rubbery mouths. Zander bony ones...

Imagine we take a more reasonable sized circle hook, say a size 2/0, and then try to hook it up to various gauges of metal piping. It can only be hooked fully around pipes with exactly the same gauge of the entire gap or less because the metal is not going to give at all. 

But when a circle hook meets up with a (less than impenetrable) jawbone and wraps round it then the point will be driven in gradually by force. Not very far, but enough. And when they lock up there's nothing a fish can do to shed them. The barb is quite unnecessary, in fact. Once coiled around the jaw they just don't fall out of their own accord, in fact you can slacken off if you like. Take a tea break and let a shark do what it will for a few minutes! 

When used for more reasonable predators such as pike and zander then the same principles apply. I've trialled them recently and can report 100% success thus far. Well, 100% percent success after remembering not to strike as I did with the first two runs under a float when I dragged the hook out in error. Since then I've banked five fish by them (3 zander, 2 pike) without any trouble at all. 

The last zander was taken by a further experimental approach. I'd gone perching down the cut but had a rod made up in the quiver that I'd used on the river a few days prior to the session. It was a simple running ledger rig with a two-ounce lead and a size 1 circle hook. I had an idea. 

What if I put out that rig, hung a stick off the line as a bobbin creating time enough for the bait to enter the mouth without resistance, and just let any fish that took the bait drag the rod in? My theory was that the circle would be taken to the scissors by the weight of the lead because the fish would always be swimming directly away from it whatever direction it went. Then the hook would prick as the line was pulled tight to the rod top. And all I had to do then was pick up the rod and wind the fish in.

I never saw the bobbin rise. I was fully focussed on the perch float and only noticed the bite when the rod began inching toward the water. 

It worked brilliantly!

But it was very lazy...

Rewind to the skull picture and see why it was hooked in bone with minimal penetration

Because it swam off above a lead, then of course the fish was hooked in the bottom jaw but did not actually penetrate flesh. It was coiled around it but locked fast anyhow because the point buried in the bone and tension did not allow the hold to fail. I wonder now if I should keep going with the lead approach but also try another variation on the theme on a second rod? 

What if I use a large float...

And I think it will have to be one so very bulbous in order to create two ounces of drag that it makes me look like a bleeding idiot for using it! 

Might that work better ensuring that the hook can always embrace the void?

I have no shame. I'll try anything once...

Or twice!

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Zedvember the 54th — Southern Fairies v Northern Monkeys

Originally a one-off 50th birthday bash never intended to be repeated, the Zedvember thingy has proven itself a useful social gathering for committed and casual canal 'predheads' alike falling as it does at the juncture between the very end dregs of the summer season past and the first fresh blasts of the winter to come. My birthday is no longer the point.

It was always an excuse anyhow!

Winding down in preparation for the tough but promising months ahead and winding each other up in the process is what it's about.

A high minded thing in principal.

But in practice it becomes simpler and simpler minded over the course of the six hours between noon when it begins... and pub time around six when it draws to a close over the course of a beer or three and shared bags of pork scratchings.

A motley gang of grubby weather beaten anglers descend on my patch of the Coventry Canal, where firstly they'll chew the fat in earnest pursuit of fresh gossip, news of half-baked baiting theory and radical but dubious rig experiments, discussions about untenable claims made about predatory fish signed off and published by the unscrupulous editors of our national rags, personal stories of fishing woes, and of very near successes, the pros and cons of crayfish infestations. And the like.

Boasting is not an issue...

That is never a good idea ahead of zander fishing!

Those who have done well through summer are slapped on the back...

And then things'll progress from best through worst when they'll turn the air blue with tales of outlandish medical horrors involving the injection of nasty chemicals into, and outsize implements thrust down the knob hole, badly timed bawdy jokes, smutty humour and what not in the way of descending quality and ascending hilarity of banter.

Between times they'll think about thrashing the water to foam in pursuit of zander.

But never actually get round to it...

Well, that applies if you're local and have zeds at your disposal, 24/7. 

Not if you make the long journey up from the South where zander are rare, tricky or unavailable at worst, available on a pricey day ticket at best, and are the primary thing should you travel to where they're both wild and abundant, and also free. 

And that was never more apparent than it was this Sunday the 22nd November at the Mecca of the Schoolie Zed, Hawkesbury Junction.

Six anglers in fifty yards. Dan, James, Brian, Mick and Lee. And myself, of course

Mick Newey, Keith Jobling, Dan Everitt, Martin Roberts, George Burton and son Harvey, Lee Fletcher, Ivan Scallon, Sean Dowling and myself, are, according to James Denison, 'Northern Monkeys'.

Compared to 'The Smoke', all country North of Watford is clearly a big small place to a 'Southern Fairy' such as James and brother Richard, Brian Roberts, Russel Hilton and Ben Hennessy....

You've seen their faces often enough. Here's their backsides!
Lee, Keith, Dan, Martin and Mick

Good grief it was cold in the chill wind. And my early morning fears were well grounded because no one caught a thing for a very long time indeed. I worried that nothing would happen at all because it was rock hard.

Granite hard, not sandstone hard, mind.

This session was igneous!

Dan was my touchstone of hope.

Probably the most experienced canal zander angler in the country, he'd warned early that an hour before dusk was everyone's only chance.

And then best taken by way of a length of soft plastic...

Cheers for the pic, Mick!

Our 'Rubber Guru' was correct.

Right as the light began to fade, at last Russel had a zander on a small roach dead bait. And I believe it might have been his best ever? So he and Beth hadn't journeyed to this post industrial wilderness and endured the perishing cold and the tricky fishing for nought.

But would he retain 'best zed' and win the match outright with just an hour remaining?

There was all to play for if Danny was to be believed...

Brian then latched a pike to a shad and was in process of post-catch ritual just as I approached.  A great result and one that gives hope that the double-figure fish have returned after long absence from the local scene because it weighed ten-pounds on the nose. A great looking fish too!

Best pike was in the bag most likely (unless my crafty 'Lazy Rig' would do the business for me at the death...)

But would James break his canal zander duck?

It didn't look likely when so many experienced locals had failed to raise a sniff all day long.

Time was running down fast. But in stark contrast to the slacker Monkey contingent, each of whom have probably banked many times over what zander the industrious Fairy crew have combined, they were all hard at work flicking jigs, here, there and everywhere. While 'we' kicked back, and jawed.

In the last desperate moments of extra time...

Brian missed a savage take, but James knocked it past the keeper!

At last James nabs a Cov zed

This was what I'd hoped for — the visiting team taking home their hard won gongs with James finally catching a zed from this canal after his previous abject failures.

It was just a little un'.  But Mr Jimmy Denison just didn't care a jot what size it was.

And why should he?

This was a personal victory!

But that was that. The brief spell of activity was over in less than an hour and it was soon time to invade the pub, pull a few pints, and retire to our heated 'fishing' hut on the banks of the cold canal, where the social continued in noisy jollity till every last rod had retired home one by one.

Here, there, near and far.

Dragging my gear inside the pub and propping it near the bar's roaring fire,  Judy and I hung about for an hour or two, warmed ourselves with a few more pints, and then walked the inky black mile through the wooded cut to home.

My thanks to all who attended. It was not easy fishing. About as tough as it ever gets, I reckon.

But it was, as it always has been, and always will be with you lot about.

A hoot!

I really think you must have enjoyed yourselves just as much as I enjoyed your excellent company.

See you all again next Zedvember, I do hope!

Monday, 23 November 2015

Canal Roach — Highly Unlikely

In advance of the annual excuse for a blogger's chin wag next day, Russel Hilton and girlfriend, Beth, motored up from Exeter to stay over at ours the Saturday night. We all went down to Warwick for a Chinese sit down meal in the evening and then retired to bed prepared for an early morning rise and the gift of a possible two-pound roach courtesy of George Burton.

Judy enjoyed a lie in. Beth came along...

I was full of anticipation. I'd never fished the venue before and there was the very real chance of good fishing should things go well. George wouldn't take us along to a dud. This had a proven and established pedigree for very good roach sport and somewhere along its short length likely does hold those fish of our dreams. 

But it was cold. The canal was liquid though frost dusted the ground. I would have far preferred a thin sheet of cat ice, in all honesty. That would have meant the water temperature had fallen so far it had bottomed out around the three to five degree absolute lower extreme when in still frigid air a fine sheen of ice crystals forms on the surface just as soon as the air above drops below freezing point. When that happens the temperature of these canals will remain more or less stable for months on end rising and falling just a few degrees as weather changes, the roach will have acclimatised fully, and will feed reliably early morning and often throughout the day and night too. 

However, these last few days of cold wintery weather following unseasonably warm conditions has produced a cliff edge drop in water temperature that has not yet hit the deck. Best appreciated when mashing bread in canal water for ground bait, just a week ago it was a comfortable operation. Now it means drying fingers and thumbs carefully and hiding them away in the armpits for a few minutes afterwards otherwise the chill turns them into a team of ten uncoordinated fumbling idiots incapable of precision work. 

It can only be a bad thing where cold blooded creatures are concerned. Well, not for them. What they'll do every year twice over — once in springtime and again in late autumn — is adjust to sharp and sudden rises and falls in the ambient temperature. Both are as bad as each other for anglers, though, because this necessary adjustment period really affects feeding patterns. There'll be a time each day when they will, but you have to be there in the one hour when that happens. And who knows when that will be?

Would it be around dawn on this Sunday the 22nd November? 

George put me on a likely ticket. A swim where large fish often show themselves by topping at the surface. It was dead still there. Rarely is a canal swim that. There's always some kind of water movement to contend with produced by one agent or another. This morning I could leave the line unsunk and it didn't drag the float under. But neither was it moved by the agent of change I wanted. Bites were failing to materialise.

But an hour in an extremely rare event occurred when as predicted a large roach rolled. 'Rare' because they really don't show themselves very often, and when they do it's usually some way off and out of reach unless a move is made to them. 'Extremely' because this was just a few yards away from the float. Whenever this had happened in the past it had meant an imminent catch because there were active feeding fish right by my baited spot. And it had often occurred within short minutes...

I was in with a very real chance of tripping one up. Transfixed by the tip of a motionless float that might well shoot in the air the very next moment, I sat like a coiled spring in anticipation of that sudden and decisive motion. But time wound down. And down, and again, till I knew the opportunity had swum away.

Both Russel and George struggled too. Beth wrapped up in swaddling layers but gamely reading a book in gloves really should have stayed in bed! Though George did eventually bank a small roach right after losing a low pounder, which indicated that roach were indeed willing even if they weren't exactly obliging if you could just put a bait right under their noses. 

All this put a dampener on my sincerest hopes for the coming afternoon. With a dozen or so arriving at Hawkesbury Junction around noon, if roach were not prepared to forage then what were the chances  that the zeds would go on the prowl?

I thought it highly unlikely.