Beginner’s Guide to Canal Fishing

canal fisherman on boat with child

Image source: Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB /
Canal fishing is for everyone










Canals are accessible, cheap as chips and found all over the UK. Better still, our canals are full of fish and great venues for anglers of all tastes, tells Dominic Garnett, towpath fanatic and author of the book Canal Fishing: A Practical Guide.

For many anglers, canals are their first childhood fishing venues. However, these classic locales are so commonplace they’re sometimes overlooked.

For many anglers, canals form a continual part of their angling life, from childhood onwards.They’re classic venues to explore, and yet so commonplace we sometimes overlook them. In fact, over half of us in the UK live within five miles of a canal.

They’re highly accessible for anglers too. Some canals offer free fishing, but most require a local angling club (or Waterway Wanderers) pass.These are as cheap as chips, though, with some at around £30 for a whole calendar year. Want a day ticket? You probably won’t have to spend much more than a fiver.

Don’t be fooled by their modest appearances and cheap prices however. These are amongst the most consistent and productive fisheries out there, whether you enjoy pole fishing or drop shotting. And while they can be challenging, Britain’s canals are endlessly fascinating and always capable of surprising us.

Canal Basics and Watercraft

colourful canal

Canals offer value and variety to anglers of all kinds











So, you live or travel near to a canal and are thinking of fishing it.But where should you start? There might be miles of water to go at.If it is a rustic canal, it could be pretty and feature filled; but if it is a busy, urban canal it could just as easily all look the same.

Your first job on any canal therefore doesn’t involve a rod and reel, but your feet, eyes and ears. Look at a map, and ask questions at the local tackle shop, fishing club and forums:

  • Where are the popular areas to fish?
  • Where are the match stretches – and which pegs produce winning nets of fish? (regularly fished areas can concentrate fish because of the bait going in over time)
  • Where is fishing going well at the moment (or tends to fish well in this season)?

Better still, get out there and walk the towpath for yourself with a pair of polarizing glasses. Do this early or late in the day and you may well see fish such as roach and rudd rising, or larger fish rolling or bubbling.

Even the most uniform looking canal will have features to discover. Wide bays will hold fish like bream and tench.The areas close to locks, walls, bridges and other structures will shelter small fish and the predators that hunt them.

Bends, overhanging bushes, barges and other features will all draw fish seeking safety and food. It’s important to get out and explore – the peg next to the car park will rarely be the best to catch from.

The “Typical” Canal

canal anatomy diagram

Anatomy of a canal

While all canals have similarities, each is unique and different. Some are very deep and clear, others shallow and muddy. All have distinct areas in common to think about when you fish them, however. Above is a cross section of a typical canal, and here’s an explanation of its features:

  1. The near margin and shelf: Don’t assume that you have to reach the far bank to catch fish on a canal.The bottom of the “shelf” on the near bank, just where the water starts to deepen, is a great place to start fishing, where you’ll find roach, skimmers and other fish. Even the shallow water very near the bank may also hold fish such as gudgeon, rudd and pike, especially if there is cover close in.
  1. The central “track” is the deepest part of the canal. Boat traffic tends to keep it clear and weed free. This can be a good place to find bream and other bottom feeders all year, but especially in colder months, when many fish retreat to the safety and warmer water of the depths. On neglected, heavily silted canals, the only water deep enough to hold many fish might be the deeper central track.
  1. The bottom of the far shelf is a key area for bigger “bonus” fish of all kinds including tench and carp. As with the slope on the nearside “shelf”, natural food as well as the bait you introduce tends to gather here. Plumb the depth carefully to find exactly where the slope ends – this is always a good place to fish.
  1. The far margin can hold surprising numbers of fish, and sometimes big ones, especially when the water is coloured or there are “features” to offer them safety and food. Species such as perch, chub and carp particularly love lurking here.

Canal fishing methods

pole fishing canal

The pole is a brilliant canal method

What is the best way to fish from your local towpath? The lovely thing about canals is that just about any method can work. However, as a starting point you cannot beat simple, old school methods such as pole and waggler fishing.

The pole is especially good for canal fishing because it lets you fish quite fine tackle accurately.Even if you have only just started angling, a short pole or “whip” fished line to hand is a cheap, fun way to get bites. A pint of maggots and a simple float rig are all you’ll often need to catch.

For the more advanced angler, the long pole is a brilliant method, allowing you to fish accurately at any distance and present your bait with complete precision, tight to the features.

If you don’t own a pole, the waggler will also work on just about any canal. Avoid starting out with thick lines and large floats however. Try light line and a hook length of 2-3lbs to start with, using small hooks (typically sizes 16-20). With this tackle you’ll be able to catch plenty of fish such as roach, perch and small bream.

Canals are versatile waters. Some canal anglers target specimen carp, and some will even cast a fly. But perhaps the biggest recent revival in canal fishing has been with lure fishing. With only short casts usually involved and predators from small perch to giant pike all catchable, you can have an absolute blast with anything from traditional plugs to dropshot gear, covering a lot of water.

Typical Canal Species: My Top 5

canal caught roach

Roach are beautiful and widespread on virtually all canals











There are stacks of species you’ll find in canals; one of the joys of these waters is that each is a genuine “lucky dip” and almost anything can show up. That said, some species crop up again and again, and offer reliable sport just about everywhere. Here are five to catch all year round:

  1. Roach: Common as muck, but always easy on the eye and great to catch. The small ones are easy but the big ones are a genuine challenge. If your canal is clear, bread is a brilliant bait to try; if it’s coloured, pinkies and groundbait are a great combo.
  2. Bream: From just about any canal, bream give you the chance of catching a real net-filler, or even several! Try the deeper water in the main track with worms or casters.
  3. Perch: While you’ll find various predators on UK canals, the one that seem to do well everywhere, from clear rural canals to city stretches, is the humble perch. A whole worm over chopped pieces is a great method to catch them – or you can try small jigs or drop shot tactics.
  4. Carp:  Many UK canals now have carp to a good size. Finding them is half the battle. If you only have eyes for a big carp, larger baits such as tiger nuts and boilies are useful to dissuade the smaller fish.
  5. Tench: Canal tench are beautiful and hard-fighting fish well worth any angler’s attention.Try an early morning session with baits like casters and sweetcorn.

Top Canal Fishing Tips

canal caught bream

Canals are not just about tiddlers. Specimens such as this bream are there to be caught, once you suss them out.











Use your eyes and feet to locate the fish on your canal. Time spent walking, asking other anglers or studying Google Earth are all worthwhile. Be prepared to walk and you can find spots that are rarely fished.

  • You don’t need loads of bait to fish a canal, as you might on a heavily-stocked water. Try introducing just a little pinch on a regular basis and you won’t go far wrong.
  • Do keep tidy on the towpath. Avoid leaving items of tackle sticking out that could be walked or cycled over. Pole anglers can try shipping back sideways along the bank rather than directly behind, or breaking down into sections rather than unshipping all in one go.
  • If you are struggling to get bites on the canal, try finer tackle and smaller hooks. They’re often a good idea for fish such as roach and skimmers.
  • Don’t be alarmed by boats; most of the time they don’t spoil the fishing. That said, you should always be aware and watch your lines. If they really do your head in, try fishing early and avoiding busy times.
  • For bigger fish such as carp and tench, you could try pre-baiting on your local canal. Try cheap baits such as stewed hempseed and frozen sweetcorn, or boilies for carp.

Further Reading and information:

The Canal & Rivers Trust are currently the main body for canal fishing in the UK.They run a great value ticket called The Waterway Wanderers Scheme, offering many miles of canal fishing nationwide for just £20 (or £10 for Angling Trust members).

Canal Fishing: A Practical Guide by Dominic Garnett (Merlin Unwin Books, £18.00)
canal fishing coverPacked with useful tips and stunning photography, Dom’s book is a great read on tackling these classic waters whichever style of fishing you enjoy. Covering all the major species, with methods from old school to modern, it is also has a huge amount of handy information, with history, local hotspots and specimen fish records from virtually every canal across Britain. Available on Amazon, or try the author’s site for signed copies, and Dom’s regular blog.



All images courtesy of Dominic Garnett unless otherwise stated