Fly Fishing For Pike On Canals And Small Waters

From pint-sized rivers and drains to classic narrowboat canals, smaller waters offer some cracking pike fishing on the fly. Canal Fishing author Dom Garnett shares a wealth of tips and tricks to getting the best from these delightful fisheries.

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The biggest waters might steal the headlines, but smaller venues offer cheap and accessible sport for pike.
Image courtesy of Dom Garnett

With so many British anglers living within a few miles of a canal, these waters could very well be described as “bread and butter” fishing. However, I don’t want to do them a disservice because the sport on offer can be truly excellent. Admittedly, most canals contain few really large predators, but they often have good numbers of fit, aggressive pike to provide year round sport, along with the odd surprise.

Canals, in particular, have a special place in my heart. In fact, I may never have got into pike fishing without the local “cut.” Virtually every time I went to catch a netful of small roach and perch, one of these predators would crash the party, stealing a fish on the way in or even attacking the keep net. Inevitably, I eventually decided I wanted to get even and land one.

Although I grew up as a bait or lure fisherman on these waters, it was the fly that was to become my absolute favourite method. On so many levels, it seemed the ideal way to fish the canal. You don’t need silly heavy tackle for one thing; an eight-weight rod suffices. Nor do you need to cast miles – and in fact some of my best fish came from right under the bank.

So where should you start when it comes to canal fishing for pike? Here are some tips  that also apply to fishing for pike on drains, fens and smaller rivers.

Which fly rod is best for pike on smaller waters?

On so many smaller waters, the pike are modest sized and you don’t need a ten or eleven weight rod. Much of the time, I use a nine or eight weight, which is fine provided you don’t use huge flies. In some ways the weight class is just a number – so do go for a rod with some backbone (a pike or saltwater model is ideal and currently I’m using the Airflo Bluetooth 8/9 for my small water fishing which so far seems a pretty decent rod without a silly price tag).

Fly lines, leaders and traces for pike

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A nice fish from the towpath. Typically, canal pike will be in the 1-5lbs stamp, while a “double” should be regarded as an excellent catch.
Image courtesy of Dom Garnett

In terms of fly lines, go for a dedicated pike model if you can afford one. You want quite a meaty taper to turn over the flies. However, if you’re just starting out and only have a trout fly line, you’ll still manage with smaller pike flies. 90% of the time a floating line is all you need for smaller waters; in fact I’ve only ever switched to a fast intermediate on the biggest ship canals that are over ten feet deep.

Leaders must be robust because there’s always the potential for a surprise monster. There’s no advantage at all in using lighter leaders, so go for minimum 20lbs fluorocarbon. I tend to use about seven or so feet of this, attached to a wire trace. My traces are Authanic wire, or another knotable wire, but I don’t use big clips and swivels: a small, neat leader ring connects leader to trace, while a small but tough snaplink connects to the fly.

How long should a wire trace be for pike? Mine are always 18” minimum, because otherwise a good fish could wrap around and find leader to cut. I also find the ends of the trace tend to kink first, so if I start long I can retie once or twice, without ending up with a riskily short trace.

Best pike flies for smaller waters

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I choose smaller than average pike flies for fishing canals. Here are some of my designs.
Image courtesy of Dom Garnett

So many of the pike flies for sale are massive great things. Fine for big waters and ten weight rods, but a pig to cast on lighter gear. So my advice would be to scale down to hook sizes from say 2-1/0 and flies from 3”-5”. Don’t think for a minute you need to use big flies to catch good pike!

I carry a few different sizes and colours. Natural hues are a good starting point, in roach or perch colouration. If the water is a bit dirty though, orange or pink are excellent high-vis colours. Last but not least, I think black is the all time most underrated colour for pike. Few anglers use it but it has saved me a blank several times.

Where to find pike

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Pike can be anywhere on weedy, feature rich waters. However, the “shelf” on each side of the canal, along with any pieces of cover, are ideal starting points.
Image courtesy of Dom Garnett

Canals can vary quite a lot, but the golden rule to finding pike is to keep moving and searching until you locate them! It’s no use fishing just one or two spots. All kinds of features will attract them, from overhanging bushes to bends, wides and deeper areas.

On rural canals, you might find the fish right by bankside reeds and undergrowth. On just about any water, the “drop off” on each side (i.e. just as the margins fall away to the central “track”) is also a key ambush point. That said, in the dead of winter you may find pike right in the deep centre of the canal too.

Concentrations of prey fish are also worth looking out for, of course, although you may well find the pike a few yards, or even a few swims away, because unless it’s feeding time they will seldom be right in amongst the shoal. But explore everything, because quite often a seemingly featureless spot produces pike too.

Fly retrieves for pike

Perhaps the commonest mistake for beginner pike fly anglers to make is lashing their flies in ultra fast. If the fish are up for it, or you can see prey panicking, this can work. But most of the time, a slower retrieve is called for – and I like my fly to be “busy” and erratic but not too fast. A “picky” figure of eight retrieve is quite often effective.

Do experiment, however, because pike have definite “moods”. Sometimes it’s as if they are excitable and want to chase; other days they are temperamental and need more time to lash out.

Follows, takes and hook ups

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Canal pike tend to be small on average- unless you’re lucky, like The General.
Image courtesy of Dom Garnett

Do pike always follow a fly out of hunger? I don’t think so. A lot of the time, they’re just being curious, territorial or perhaps even irritated. This could explain why quite a few fish will follow but not take. Even so, you can increase the odds by doing two things.

The first is to speed up if you see a pike following. The opposite response seems natural, but you are trying to get a reaction, not invite the pike to study the thing. Another trick is never to rush the end of the retrieve. Count to five before you lift out – and always give a few final twitches and a nice lift. Often this final burst of movement will convince a pike to lash out before dinner gets away.

Some takes will be savage and impossible to miss. Others can be more subtle and need striking. I’ve heard anglers make the case for doing this with the line or the rod. I like to do both! It sounds OTT, but pike have very bony mouths and we’re using heavy tackle so it’s safe to be bold. Pull the line firmly and shift the rod low to one side – striking upwards will often just pull the fly straight out of the mouth, rather than burying it in the “scissors” of the jaw.

Casting in tight spots

Of course, one of the challenges of canals and bushy small waters can be the lack of casting space. You’ll rarely need to cast more than ten to fifteen metres, but even that might be tricky. Side and steeple casts (where you throw the line high above an obstruction behind you) are often important. You can also work diagonally to win more space.

If you’re really struggling though, don’t panic. If there’s cover close-in you can often win a take or two by literally just flicking the fly around the margins, which is a good area. Too many of us are so busy trying to hit the far bank it’s easy to forget this.

Talking of close-in fishing, do approach each swim slowly and carefully. I usually start a step or three back from the bank and my first cast will be right into the near margin. I’ve learned to do this after spooking many pike in the near margin over the years – don’t believe anyone who tells you pike don’t spook!

Notes on pike conservation

As well as these tips on catching pike, I also wanted to include some notes on releasing them safely here. The vast majority of fishing waters will insist on a large landing net and unhooking mat, which you should always carry. It’s inexcusable to risk scratching or dropping a fish on the bank because you couldn’t be bothered to bring a mat!

You’ll also need minimum foot-long pliers or forceps to remove hooks from pike, and I recommend going and learning the ropes with an experienced angler if you’re just starting out.

Pike can fight hard and can be deceptively fragile creatures, so do play the fish quickly rather than exhausting them. The same goes for release; don’t handle or keep them out of water any longer than you need to (my recent guide to fishcare skills is a handy read on this subject).

Fantastic sport!

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A well-proportioned fish, from a modest day ticket water.
Image courtesy of Dom Garnett

What can you expect with a typical canal? Well, they vary a great deal. The best canals for pike tend to be weedy, with fairly clear water. Those with lots of prey and cover can be prolific, and a dozen pike in a day is possible. As a general rule, I find overcast days best on clear canals and drains, while the first hour of daylight is the best time of all (lie-in addicts take note!).

Other canals and drains can be more coloured and difficult, but you may still get some joy. Indeed, you’d be surprised how well a pike can find your fly in poor clarity. Where visibility is low, you might want to go a bit bigger and brighter though.

Of course, some canals simply don’t have a huge head of pike and you may have to do some homework to seek out the specific areas they like, or rely on trial and error. Others may be dominated by other predators such as perch, or zander on the muddy, busy canals. These are another challenge altogether – but that’s another story!

A summary of top tips for fly fishing for pike

What tackle and equipment do you need to fish for pike on the fly in canals and smaller waters?

  • You don’t need heavy tackle – and eight or nine-weight rod will suffice (a pike or saltwater model is ideal).
  • In terms of fly lines, go for a dedicated pike model if you can afford one.
  • If you only have a trout fly line, use smaller pike flies.
  • Leaders must be robust – go for minimum 20lbs fluorocarbon. Dom uses about seven feet attached to a wire trace.
  • Don’t use big clips and swivels. On Dom’s set up, a small, neat leader ring connects leader to trace, while a small but tough snaplink connects to the fly.
  • For pike, use a minimum 18” wire trace.
  • You don’t need big flies to catch good pike! Scale down to hook sizes from 2-1/0 and flies from 3”-5”.
  • Use natural coloured flies for clearer water, and try orange or pink in poor visibility. Black is the most underrated fly colour for pike. Try it and see!
  • Be ready with the right equipment for safe catch and release – a large landing net, unhooking mat and foot-long pliers are essential.

What techniques help when fly fishing for pike on a canal?

  • Keep moving to find pike – try underneath overhanging bushes, bends, wides and deeper areas.
  • There’s no need to cast miles – great fish are often found right under the bank.
  • Don’t retrieve too quickly – most of the time, a slower retrieve is called for. Dom likes his fly to be “busy” and erratic but not too fast.
  • A “picky” figure of eight retrieve is often effective.
  • Lots of follows but no takes? Try speeding up to invite an attack response.
  • Don’t rush the end of your retrieve. Count to 5 before you lift out and give a few final twitches before you lift out.
  • Strike low and hard to one side, rather than upwards.
  • Don’t believe anyone who tells you pike don’t spook!

Read more from the author…

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Find out more about catching these fish – grab a copy of Flyfishing For Coarse Fish, available in both hardback and digital editions.

If you’re interested in exploring Britain’s fantastic variety of canals, or indeed tackling coarse fish on the fly, Dom’s books represent a wealth of inspiration and advice! Find both Canal Fishing: A Practical Guide and Flyfishing for Coarse Fish available in signed hardback at www.dgfishing.co.uk or as digital editions from Amazon UK. If you live in South West England, Dom also offers guided fly fishing days for pike and other species.