Canals taught me to fish light and tight for top results

Light gear is a must on low, clear rivers, especially for big wild fish Picture: John Bailey

Light gear is a must on low, clear rivers, especially for big wild fish Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Before my parents retired to Blakeney a lot of my fishing as a kid in short pants was on the North Western canals of Greater Manchester.

A stunning roach caught on spider’s web line Picture: John Bailey

A stunning roach caught on spider’s web line Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Up there a size 22 hook was regarded as an anchor and line of one and a half pounds breaking strain as nothing short of hawser rope. Mind you, a scrap of a gudgeon was the norm and a four-ounce roach was a triumph on those bleak waters and when I came to Norfolk my young eyes could not believe the number and size of the fish they were seeing. After some heart-breaking smash-ups, I soon learned to tackle up for our East Anglian whoppers. Funny thing is that half a century on, I'm returning to my northern roots with some piscatorial success.

We all know good matchmen can catch fish out of a bucket and fish the rest of us out of sight because they possess a whole range of skills. Their presentation is spot on. Their feed patterns are uncannily precise and effective but, above all, they know how to fish light and tight and land big fish on gear that most of us would blanch at using. Matchmen fish for bites and in this they succeed to an extent that should make the rest of us take note.

I do a lot of trotting and when the river is low and clear I've been starting to think back to those rock-hard canals where we used to use a match stick as a float. Quite literally in part because we couldn't afford much else! The point I am making is that you might not believe the difference scaling down from a 3BB stick float to a 1BB float can make. If the day is windless, trotting a pole float can be even more effective. That is an understatement. It can revolutionise your catches. Especially if you modify the disturbance made by false striking and take care how you retrieve that float through the swim at the end of the trot. Aim to reel it in close to your bank and bring it back slowly and carefully to keep disturbance to a minimum.

It is precisely the same with ledgering a bait. On our shallow upper rivers, a lead or a feeder can destroy a swim with a single cast. If flows are not in flood, two AAA shot up the line from the bait will hold bottom. You might need to go to three of them sometimes, but not that often in my experience. Also, if you space those shot out, six inches apart, the line is neatly pegged to the bed too, right where the fish cannot feel or see it.

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As I have written before, my pike season has been turned around since Christmas by ditching heavy leads, big trebles and traditional floats. My thinking has been that big pike are just as clever as big chub and carp – clumsy gear just will not do for fish that know what our game is all about. I've started fishing closer in on all my pits so I have greater control and can use lighter gear. I've started using a single treble rather than the usual doubles. I'm using smaller dead baits. I'm using 2SSG or 3SSG shot up the line, rather than on ounce or three of lead. I'm ditching floats entirely and watching the line like a hawk, striking at the slightest tightening or drop back. Sometimes, I'm even feeling for a bite with the line between my finger tips. It is exciting and it is effective.

I have been grayling fishing a fair bit this winter and have begun to make some progress with the so-called French leader technique. In essence, you are doing without any fly line on the water at all. You are getting up close to your grayling or trout and placing a fly before them with barely any disturbance on the water whatsoever. You just watch that leader like a hawk for any movement out of the ordinary and lift into your fish. I thought the Czech nymph method was tops, but going French blows it out of the water.

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I wish I did more sea fishing hereabouts and knew more about it. I'll admit to my ignorance, but when I lived up at Salthouse I'd quite often go down to the beach and spin for the bass with nothing more than carp gear and do well. I could cast huge distances and I never got near being broken up. The fight was pulsating too. If the mackerel were close inshore, I'd go for them with nothing more than perch gear and have scintillating sport. And a mackerel on a 4-weight trout rod gives a fight better than a 5lb rainbow.

I'm out guiding pretty much five days a week and not often do I see anything to contradict a word of what I have written here. My mental health depends on seeing my anglers happy and going light and tight means I have been happier than I have ever been. All I would say is that the fish always comes first and none of us must ever go so light we cannot land the fish we hook with complete safety. Now, go and experiment!

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