A Beginners Guide to Match Fishing

Ever fancied testing your skills in the match angling scene? It can be a great buzz, not to mention a sure way to improve your fishing skills. Dom Garnett has some useful advice and match fishing tips to share, with additional pictures from Jamie Lee.

Dom Garnett fishing on riverbank

They’re not for everyone, but matches add an extra excitement to your fishing.

Although it’s something I do once in a while rather than every week these days, I can highly recommend match fishing as a way of improving your angling skills. Many readers associate my name with humorous fishing stories and my exploits mixing coarse and fly fishing methods; but it is less well known that in my younger days I was very much smitten with match fishing.

My first efforts began as a teenager back in the mid 90’s when I arrived at a canal fishing contest with my ragged-looking seatbox and pole to take on the grown-ups. I learned an important lesson that day: if you’re friendly and ask questions, even the guys who want to beat you will often share information and set you on your way.

On that particular match, I amazed myself as well as the regulars, as my catch of mostly perch and eels scooped a section win – and I instantly understood the buzz of match angling. Nearly thirty years on, I am a more occasional match angler, but many of the lessons stuck and are still with me today.

How to Start Match Fishing

Before you even begin to enter competitions, it’s important to consider if you’re ready for it. You needn’t be a champion, but matches are no place for a complete beginner. A good rule is to start by looking for matches fished on venues you know and where you are confident of catching fish.

There are two main types of match to enter: a club match and a so-called open match. Open matches tend to be held on well-stocked day ticket fisheries these days, and are called ‘open’ because they’re open to everyone.

Entry fees and prizes can be high. The money involved may draw some very skilled anglers, as well as locals who know the water like their own back yard. Not ideal for someone starting out.

Dom Garnett with net full of fish

Matches are won on weight of fish, rather than numbers or individual specimens.

A club match is likely to be a far better first experience. These are held by local fishing clubs, often on more traditional waters like rivers and canals. They’re usually friendlier, involving fewer anglers and lower entry fees and prizes.

Lower prizes mean that the anglers tend to be more helpful and the atmosphere is more relaxed. There will still probably be some very good local anglers, but you have a realistic chance to compete on club level.

Match Fishing Methods and Waters

Man sitting by lake fishing

You’ll need to be versatile to compete in matches; but pole fishing is often essential

One of the first rules of match fishing is that you must be prepared to adapt your methods. It is no use fishing the waggler if all the winning weights are coming on the method feeder, for example.

Of all the methods you’re likely to need to compete, the pole is probably the most important. This is simply because it offers unrivalled finesse and presentation at shorter distances. That said, local club matches might just as easily require you to catch on the stick float or the method feeder, or use baits that you wouldn’t normally consider.

In short, match fishing will quickly challenge your skills and force you to improve at various methods. You’d be sensible to pick matches that suit your strengths at first, but you’ll need to be a good all-rounder if you want to develop.

Match Fishing Rules and Essentials

So how does a typical fishing match work? You must let the organiser know you want to fish. You’ll need to book a place, and pay an entry fee. The entry money from each angler goes into a pot, with the winner and runners up getting the prize money.

There may also be “optional pools”. These are additional prizes you can compete for, if you are feeling confident.

Matches are usually organised into groups of anglers called “sections”. For example, a match of 24 anglers might be divided into three sections of eight. This ensures some fairness, because even if you draw in an area where it is very difficult to win outright, there will still be a prize for beating your neighbours.

Every match has its own rules, so do familiarise yourself with these. If you fail to do this, the official regulations could lead to disadvantage or even disqualification to you!

One classic example I can think of is a local club with a special rule on pike. In most club and open matches, pike don’t count. But my local club’s canal has so many tiny jacks, they include these in the tally.

In one of the biggest annual matches, a visiting angler caught a pike of 5-6lbs. Not knowing the rule, he immediately released the fish that would have won him the whole event! The moral is simple: know the competition rules!

The Draw

Before the match, you’ll be allotted a numbered spot (better known as a “peg”) at random. The draw is always exciting. You can try to be early or late in the queue, but most of us like to be early, because this way you have a chance to draw any peg still available in the match.

Cross your fingers and go for it. Ask the other competitors where your peg is if you’re not sure, and if it is a good spot. You’re likely to get different opinions, but don’t despair if it isn’t a “flyer” (the term match anglers use to describe a really good mark where you have a chance to win the match).

You might also draw a lot called the “scales peg”. Each section requires an angler to act as an official at the end of the match who will weigh each competitor in the section.It is an extra responsibility but it’s also a good way to see what’s being caught, and chat to other anglers at the end of the match. Do point out to others if its your first time, because they are sure to help you out.

Starting the Match

Fish bait being added to water

Accurate baiting up is a must, but you must only feed once the match has started!

In the time before the match starts, set your tackle up, get comfortable and carefully assess your peg. Plumbing the depth is a vital step here, both to suss out where the fish might be and to get your float rigs set at the perfect depth.

Every match will have an allotted start and finish time, signalled by a whistle, hooter or a good old fashioned cry of “all in!” or “that’s it!” to start or end proceedings. Before the opening signal you must not bait your hook or introduce any bait at all!

Once the match starts, most anglers will start by feeding some bait. You can certainly overdo the amount you put in, but it is usually good to be positive, not to mention as accurate as you can be. More on this in our tips section!

The Main Event

During the match itself, concentration and the ability to read the peg are vital. Few match anglers have only one plan, because even a usually reliable tactic might not go as planned on the day. This is why anglers tend to fish several different “lines” in the same swim.

You might try a short line at just four metres to start with, for example, but also put some bait further out. Really skillful anglers will sometimes juggle as many as six different areas, moving between them when bites dry up in each patch.

Contests tend to last four or five hours, but shorter evening matches are also popular in some areas. Keep track of the time, and plan an overall strategy. Five hours is a long time, and on most venues you’d be very lucky to keep catching for the whole contest from just one peg.

Anglers with catch net

Catches are weighed at the end of the match. Now is a good time to see what has been caught and ask your fellow anglers a few questions. (pic: Jamie Lee)

Match Fishing Tips

The world of match fishing is a varied and challenging one, but some golden rules apply to most matches.

  • Perhaps the best tip is not to be too disheartened if you fare poorly at first.
  • There is a lot to learn, but by listening carefully, asking questions and watching others, you are sure to improve. And even if you don’t become a regular match angler, I guarantee that the experience will make you better at fishing.
4 fishing rods

Preparation is key in matches. Here, an angler has set up several rigs- marking accurate depths in correction fluid is a classic match angler’s tip (pic: Jamie Lee).

  • You can learn a lot just by watching skilled anglers at work. It’s not as much fun as fishing, but just doing the rounds at an event, or perhaps even going to a contest as a spectator can be a great way to pick up tips and learn new skills.
  • Little details count for a lot in match fishing. Whether it is having your float dotted right down, feeding bait accurately, or practicing unhooking fish and rebaiting quickly and efficiently, the small things add up.
  • Always think about where you can improve or save time, even if it seems quite a small difference. In the end, no match angler has a magic wand. But the competitor who does lots of things a little better than the average angler will gain a big advantage!
  • Practise very much makes perfect in match fishing. Even when pleasure fishing, you can be trying out different rigs, baits and approaches. For example, what happens if you step up your loose feed? Can you tempt different species by making your rig sink faster or slower? Does a change to a bigger or different bait result in a better stamp of fish? Keep asking these questions and your results will improve.
  • Perhaps the most important skill in match fishing is feeding. Doing this accurately is crucial. Feed too much and you could kill the swim; feed too little and the fish might go to someone feeding more aggressively. Do experiment and try to gauge what the fish want on the day. Usually little, often and accurate is a good way to start.
  • Presentation is another key part of match fishing. Finer lines and smaller hooks tend to earn more bites. You don’t have to fish with gear that risks a break off every other cast, but it is worth refining what you do. Get into the habit of using lower diameter lines and smaller hooks than you might for a pleasure fishing bash. For shy-biting fish, it can make a huge difference.
Fish in net

Cute presentation is a must, because it will get you more bites.

  • Think about your swim and the different areas or “lines” you fish carefully. By keeping these at different angles, well away from each other, you can avoid inadvertently spooking your quarry as you play a fish. For example, if you have a line simmering nicely at five metres to your right, the last thing you want to be doing is dragging fish through it every time you get one on your ten metre line.
  • Keep a diary and note down your mistakes and successes and what you learned each match.
  • Last but not least: the best thing about match fishing is that you never stop learning. Do chat and compare notes with others, while reading all that you can. Sources like Angling Times and Match Fishing Magazine are excellent, not only for match results but for tips and advice from the best, such as Dave Harrell, Steve Ringer and Bob Nudd.

Further Info

For more features, photography and a range of books and gifts, check out Dom Garnett’s new website at www.dgfishing.co.uk. For match reports and results, head to simplematchfishing.co.uk. And if you’ve got any good match tips or stories to share, let us know on our Facebook page.

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