Old Canal Capers

The ed, Gareth Fareham, takes you back to sunnier days for a little recap on a summer trip

The numbers and little graphic symbols had stared back at me relentlessly… day after day of no wind, sun icons and steadily increasing temperatures. It was making me sweat just looking at them. Mid France was still in the high 30’s, and the South was already up into the 40’s, locked in a heatwave and the sort of temperatures that news reports were covering and assessing as a major health warning. Looking back at the news reports, over 500 people had died in the June heatwave in Europe and with little shade on some those big southern reservoirs and barrages we just didn’t fancy it much, in fact, it just seemed a relatively stupid idea, that and my van has no air con.. After the difficult trip in late May when we were scuppered by spawning, we considered another crack at the canal stretch instead as we had only done a quick two nights there back in May. Despite the weather warnings, the next trip still couldn’t come soon enough. Fitting the trips in around work and everything else is often a bit of a juggle, and consequently they get booked in months in advance, in fact all the years big trips had been in my diary since January or February. With no real way to change dates or play things by ear according to the conditions, we were stuck with July 18thcome what may as a departure date. From what we could see we would get a few nights of  bearable temperatures before the really hot weather arrived after the weekend, so in the end we decided to stay further north to avoid the worst of the heat and just see what happened, maybe try stick it out for as long as we could manage.

With a van full of water and non perishable food supplies, we hit the road, expectant and buzzed up as ever. With no early tunnel crossings, we ended up on a slightly later one, which was nice insomuch as I didn’t have to drive through the night, but it did mean that we struggled to get ourselves sorted and rods out before dark. The first thing we noticed when we rolled up was that the levels on the canal had dropped, and the weed had increased dramatically. Everything had that oppressive mid-summer thickness to it.. the air was heavy, still and the water looked lifeless. On the brightside, the areas we had fished back in May didn’t look like they had been touched, the grass was overgrown and big froths of cow parsley and thistle clogged the little rabbit runs we had used last time to get down to the waters edge. As the light was already falling we figured we would give it a night or two and see what happened, if it didn’t look like the one, we had another canal stretch much further east we wanted to go back to as well that held some real giants.

'On the brightside, the areas we had fished back in May didn’t look like they had been touched, the grass was overgrown and big froths of cow parsley and thistle clogged the little rabbit runs we had used last time to get down to the waters edge'

A LATE ARRIVAL

First thing was to quickly check the old spots from last time and try and get some clips in before the light went so we nipped down with just a marker rod each. After a dozen casts, and creeping up as close as I dared to the woodwork, it seemed there was far more weed around than previously, and whilst I was getting clean, firm drops and a short foot long glide on some casts, just a foot or so either side, or a little bit short and it was heavy canadian. I wasn’t as happy with them as I wanted to be, but knew that if they were really tight, I’d be fine. I’d already whipped up a couple of short, soft boomed hinges the day before as I had a feeling it would be a late set up, so I looped and steamed those on quickly, balanced up some Krill pop ups amongst the thick duckweed festooned margins and got them out there. Thankfully it all went pretty smoothly, although knowing I needed to practically kiss the branches it was a bit nervy after the last trips escapades in here but somehow within just a couple of casts I had them sweetly out there, getting beautiful, resoundingly clean thuds on both and the flouro sunk down deep under the duckweed carpet. Quickly followed by 50 or 60 salt and GLM encrusted sixteen millers, one by one with the match catty into the rings.

FIRST MORNING GLORY

Sleep didn’t come easy, despite the big drive and long day of efforts I often struggle to settle on the first night, whether it is the caffeine build up or the anticipation I’m never sure. Two or three times in the night I was woken by a fish crashing, but the density of the treeline and the darkness of the night meant their exact whereabouts couldn’t be pinpointed, the thick weed absorbing any tell tale ripples as well. One of them sounded like a swan had jumped out of the tree… A couple of liners had me scrambling out during the night, knowing I was locked up and a take could be as little as five or six bleeps. Each time though the little bobbin made its way slowly back down into the grass and settled back to where it had come from, they were about, that was for certain. I tossed and turned, and the hours ticked by.

'Sleep didn’t come easy, despite the big drive and long day of efforts I often struggle to settle on the first night, whether it is the caffeine build up or the anticipation I’m never sure'

First light came far sooner than my sleep deprived state would have liked, and I admit although it was only the first morning, I was slightly despondent it hadn’t happened, having felt so happy with the rods and the way they had gone out. I laid back under the brolly, relishing the cool morning air and the respite from the temperatures, not quite ready to get up and fire up a coffee, but just enjoying the mornings calm and my hazy, sleepy state. My worries were unfounded though, and it wasn’t long before the calm was broken as the left hander cracked up into the blank and it whipped sharply out of the clip, clearly no liner this time. Bundling through the mozzie mesh to the rod buckled double in the rests I held firm, and she swung out and left, away from danger. Shortly after, the first of the trip was safely in the net, a lovely dark mid twenty mirror.

RAKE'ATHON

The harsh reality of daylight revealed the full extent of the weed - Marcus had been tormented by a night of liners on his one single rod, and unhappy with the shockingly bad line lay he had into the spot that had become apparent as the light had come up, the line now tight and strung out on top of thirty yards of canadian before ‘lobster potting’ down onto the spot. It was pretty savage all the way across to the spots on the far bank, and it was obvious if we wanted a few less liners and a couple more bites we would have to do some work, so the day was spent with little rakes clearing some better channels for a decent line lay.

BLACK GOLD

The rods went out sweet that evening, followed by another 50 or so salt and GLM crusted up 16's and we sat back to take in the calm of the canal, having not seen another soul apart from a few dog walkers and lone cyclists since we’d arrived. That night, Marcus’s liners continued, but no bites, but my spots produced another three the next morning. Just before first light I had a brutal battle with a big tailed common, shortly after I lost one to the snags, and then that was followed up by another nice mirror with little wilted fins and tail. The common was an animal of a carp - the battle was savage, and more than once it locked me down solid and we played the waiting game under full compression, before once again she’d kick out and ruck, stripping line off me at horrendous angles through the big ball of weed up above my leadcore. At some point in the fight I had managed the always tricky task of fumbling into my waders, and slid down the treacherous bank into the deep rocky margins, getting close enough to strip some of the weed off and to try to get a better angle on it. Eventually she was within netting distance, and I awkwardly shuffled the net under the big ball, lifting as I did. It was almost all in when a gunshot crack pierced the night and I stumbled backwards, the net having snapped off clean at the spreader block. Before I had chance to do anything the rod was almost torn from my grasp again as she made a last ditch bid for freedom whilst I floundered. After another few surges, she turned and let me lead her back to the big ball of weed, this time the netting was even more fraught as I used one hand initially with the tip at a frightening angle, and then finally dropping the rod and grasping the net arms with both hands. I just about managed to get it up clear of the water before she thrashed back down into the deep margins, spraying me as she did.

'I awkwardly shuffled the net under the big ball, lifting as I did. It was almost all in when a gunshot crack pierced the night and I stumbled backwards, the net having snapped off clean at the spreader block'

Not the biggest carp I’ve ever caught, but beautiful ones nonetheless and around the thirty pound mark, and without another angler for miles around. With the loss worrying me, I replaced both of my short leadcore leaders for much longer 3-4ft ones, in the hope that if it came into contact with the mussel encrusted snags again it would have much better abrasion resistance and I’d be safe. The plan to rake the spots seemed to have worked a treat, and whilst some anglers seemingly worry about the disturbance caused, I have always found it seems to have the opposite effect, with the carp often being inquisitive and the raking turning over the bottom and releasing hidden food from the silt and weed. Even on such a small, intimate stretch if snaggy canal, they’d moved straight back in onto the bait and spots within 12 hours.

MORE MIRRORS

As the afternoon wore on I watched the skies nervously as the clouds thickened and darkened on the horizon, a breeze picked up from the south west and the air freshened and before long it started to spot with rain. The distant rumble of thunder loomed ominously in the background and I watched the live lightning strike map on my phone as six big swathes of electrical storms pushed up through northern Europe, the last few weeks of intense heat and stifling temperatures ramping up the volatility of the weather. I’m starting to become convinced that the electrical storms are following me around Europe… after getting knocked out cold by a bolt years ago, I’m a little nervous around it these days and whilst they say it never strikes twice, I’m still usually a little concerned. After a wild couple of hours that afternoon and a few hours of relentless lightning and thunder booming overhead, it finally passed and we got the rods back out for another night, hopeful the rain would have freshened things up a bit. It was to be Marcus’s turn that night, with a lovely dark mirror for him, and a smaller common for me.

'I watched the live lightning strike map on my phone as six big swathes of electrical storms pushed up through northern Europe, the last few weeks of intense heat and stifling temperatures ramping up the volatility of the weather'

 

We had been checking the forecast every day, and by the Wednesday it was due to be up around 40 degrees, not ideal for fishing, and certainly not ideal for a canal without a tree in sight for shade on the bank we were fishing. To be honest, our only thought was ‘fuck that’ and already having caught a few nice ones and got the majority of a film together we decided to fish just one last night and head for home the following day before the heat got too much. Because of the snag fishing, we had been pretty much ‘locked’ to our rods for most of the trip so far, but that afternoon I had gone for a wander to shoot some film and landscape shots for the video. With fresh eyes when I got back I decided to switch up my rods for the last night, having only picked up the one bite the previous night and feeling like I probably should have had more. After a quick lead around, I soon found another beautifully smooth glide just a foot off the front of another big set of snags just down to my right and feeling like the fish might have gravitated that way, I switched one of my rods around to cover the new spot. Three or four casts saw it thunder down onto the little hard spot just off the front of the dense snags and I followed it with the usual 40-50 crusted up Krills using my little match catty for accuracy and just doing it one by one to avoid spreading bait all over the place.

SAVED THE BEST FOR LAST

By first light, I had two incredible mirrors bagged up waiting for shots. One from each spot, with the new one doing the biggest fish of the trip and one of the bigger mirrors from the stretch. That one nearly didn’t see the light of day, the bite was savage, and in my sleep addled daze, I had run straight to the other rod first, completely confused when I arrived at the lack of an LED glowing, it took a few seconds to realise before I spotted the other one glowing through the long grass away in the distance! Running down to the rod the tip was folded double when I arrived and immediately there was that awful, heavy grating sensation of line against wood. I inched backwards, carefully gaining a bit until it locked up solid. Fearing the worst I walked as far down to my left as I could to get a different angle on it and unbelievably, after a few minutes of stalemate with the rod held at full compression, I felt a few thuds, and then it was back on.. the rest of the fight was less dramatic, but it was obviously a better fish from the weight and heavy plodding and then finally, in the torchlight, she had slipped over the cord and safely into the net, last night buzz! Just after first light, the other rod was away and after a less dramatic battle, another black old mirror waddled into the net, festooned in weed, with the little hinge rig firmly held in the bottom lip. After waiting an hour for the light to get up a little, we shot them both before the hard sunlight hit. Both black as the ace of spades, and with very different characters. The bigger one was a long, leaner mirror with classic proportions and a lovely wilted bottom half of its tail, the second, a short, deep and dumpy one with crusty old weathered skin. It was the perfect end to the trip, there always feels little better than packing away with wet knees I think and the drive home that day was sweet and all the less painful, despite the lack of air con in my van! 

None of the ones we caught were massive, and you might think a 1200 mile round trip for a few twenty pounders is a long way to travel, maybe it is, but it was a mega adventure as always, and other than a few dog walkers, an old medical professor we chatted with each day to and from his way to work, and a few pelotons of cyclists, we saw no one. Talk on the way home from the trip was the same as it always is, just making plans for the next one. This time though we hoped autumn would be in full swing and we’d be surrounded by the rusty glow of leaves on the turn and some big weather fronts piling in.

'None of the ones we caught were massive, and you might think a 1200 mile round trip for a few twenty pounders is a long way to travel, maybe it is, but other than a few dog walkers, we saw no one'


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