Canal Fishing Beginners Guide

Canal Fishing – A Complete Beginners Guide

Canals are great for new anglers to begin their fishing adventures. The big attraction to canal fishing is the amount of different species in the water, and also relative easiness to catch the smaller fish that are in the canal.

You can get started fishing canals using basic fishing tackle and methods and most stretches of canal are accessible for all.

In this article we will take a look at the basics of canal fishing which will provide you all of the information you would need to start fishing at your local canal. This will be particularly useful if you are a beginner, or are getting back into fishing.

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Is Canal Fishing Free?

Contrary to popular belief, canal fishing is not free. To fish on a canal you need to have a permit. These permits however are cheap and will last for 12 months. To buy your permit, you need to contact the Canal and River Trust. Some canals are run by local angling clubs and you will need to buy your permit directly from them.

You must also make sure that you have a valid rod fishing licence.

Why Canal Fishing Is So Popular

There are 4700 miles of canals in the UK which connect many cities together. What that means for anglers is that you are never far away from a canal and they are all very accessible.

All canals were purpose built with a tow path alongside which allowed horses to pull along boats. The result of this today, is that the vast majority of canals have pathways allowing you to walk or cycle along with ease. This is great for disabled anglers who can sometimes struggle to find accessible fishing.

Canals hold a huge variety of fish including carp and pike, though you are more likely to catch roach and perch. There are lots of eager small roach and perch in canals and catching them can be great fun – especially for beginners and children.

As we have already established, the annual permit is inexpensive and the tackle need not cost the earth. A simple setup with basic tactics is all you really need to get started fishing on the canal.

Canal Fishing Tackle

The tackle required for canal fishing is very basic. A simple rod and reel setup or a pole and basic terminal tackle is all you really need. 

Keep things very simple, you realistically need a rod and reel (or a pole), light fishing line, floats, small hooks, and some shot. Of course you will need a landing net and a way to unhook the fish and also somewhere to sit. 

You really do not need any more than that. Of course as your fishing career builds you will naturally acquire more tackle, but to start out you only need very basic tackle.

To help you, we have reviewed and put together a list of recommended tackle needed to get you started which you can find here.

Canal Fishing With a Rod and Reel

Fishing with a budget rod and reel is how most anglers start fishing, and budget tackle lends itself perfectly to canal fishing. Yes, you can catch some big fish on the canal, but realistically you do not need any heavy duty tackle.

A simple budget rod and reel, with some light tackle is really all you need to get started. Light tackle is usually the best way to catch fish on the canal. 

Canal Fishing On The Pole Or Whip

Pole fishing on the canal is a very popular way of fishing and is perhaps the best approach to take as fishing on the pole allows you to fish with much lighter and delicate tackle than if you were fishing with a rod and reel.

Fishing on the pole allows you to accurately place your bait in the same spot every time and allows for excellent bait presentation.

However, poles are more expensive than a rod and reel, so not always the most suitable option for beginners.

For canal fishing, lots of new anglers opt for a whip rather than a pole. A whip is a smaller, cheaper pole.

What Fish Do You Find in Canals?

Canal fishing is very attractive to anglers because of the wide variety of fish that you can find in almost all canals. 

The most common fish you will find in canals are roach, perch, tench, bream, carp, gudgeon, dace, rudd, chub, carp and pike. In certain areas you can also catch trout and barbel.

Other fish that you can find in canals, but are not as common are orfe, bleak, flounder, grayling, minnow, ruffe, salmon, stone-loach, stickleback and zander.

What hook size is best for canal fishing?

Common baits when canal fishing are maggots and worms. Therefore, the best size hooks for canal fishing are between size 22 and 18. 

The hook size that you use, should be matched to the size of your bait rather than the size of the fish you are trying to catch. This takes a bit of common sense, for example there is no point using a huge bait when targeting small fish as they will be unable to get the bait in their mouth.

See our recommended tackle for the best hooks for canal fishing.

The Best Baits for Canal Fishing

The best baits for canal fishing are maggot, caster, worm and bread. Of course, other baits such as sweetcorn and meat work too, but maggot, caster and worm are great for pretty much all fish that are in canals. Bread and sweetcorn are great bait for roach, chub and tench. 

Using groundbait is often a very wise choice when fishing on the canal. Fish are used to the ground and water being churned up by boats. The cloudiness of the water allows them to feed more confidently as it is harder for predators to see them.

As well as safety, groundbait allows you to lay a bed of feed in your swim to keep the fish there. Bread crumb or breadcrumb is a great ground bait. Adding dead maggots, hemp seed or sweetcorn to your groundbait can be very effective.

Canal Fishing With Maggots

Maggots are the most popular bait for fishing on canals. Maggots are a cheap bait and fish absolutely love them. 

Single or double maggot on a small hook is very effective. Regular loose feed to attract the fish to your bait is required. Three or four maggots every couple of minutes (little and often) is a great tactic to get the fish in your swim competing with each other for the bait.

Maggots are great for just about any fish that live in canals and are the perfect bait for beginners as they attract all species and you can quickly bag up on lots of smaller fish when using maggots

Maggots are not just for small fish though, it’s still possible to catch larger fish. Often you will find that you are catching a lot of smaller fish and then a larger fish come along.

Using dead maggots as loose feed a great way of making sure they stay around your bait. Maggots of course can wriggle away. The bottom of the canal is often churned up leaving lots of soft silt on the bottom that live maggots can easily wriggle into. 

Canal Fishing With Casters

Fishing with casters is a great tactic for catching large perch, roach, skimmers and tench. 

Single or double caster, or maggot and castor can lead to a very successful day fishing with some good sized fish. Also consider fishing caster over a bed of hemp which can be a really deadly tactic for large roach and tench.

Canal Fishing With Bread

Bread punch or break flake is widely used by anglers when targeting large roach, particularly in winter. 

Learning to fish with bread can take some getting used to as it can be difficult to hook. This will take some practice and experimenting.

When using bread punch you can hook the bread directly. A 3mm or 4mm bread punch is about right for canals.

When fishing with bread flake, fold the bread around your hook, leaving the hook point showing and gently squeeze the bread onto your hook. The key with bread flake is still leaving it looking natural so it’s important to to leave it looking fluffy.

Liquidised bread is also a great way of getting fish feeding confidently in your swim. Not only does it offer a great bed of food for the fish, but it makes the water cloudy. Cloudy water allows the fish to feel safe knowing that predator fish such as big perch and pike will struggle to see them.

Canal Fishing With Worms

Worms are great baits, in particular for big perch, chub, bream and occasionally eel. Worms are natural food for fish and they are used to eating them all year round.  

Chopped worm is a great option for your hook bait. As worms contain lots of oils, when chopped the oils leak out into the water and the fish come looking. 

Hooking the tail of the worm is usually the best option as the tail usually wriggles the most

Chopped worm, combined with maggot or caster is a great option.

Canal Fishing With Sweetcorn

Sweetcorn is a great bait for catching roach, tench, bream and the occasional chub. As sweetcorn is bright yellow, it’s a very good bait for attracting fish. 

As its name suggests, sweetcorn is also very sweet and it gives off a very sweet smell which fish can sense in the water. As well as being bright and easy to see, fish will smell the sweetness in the water and go looking for the sweetcorn.

Sweetcorn is a very good bait to be fished over a bed of groundbait or hemp seed. 

Canal Fishing For Perch

Lots of anglers begin their angling adventure by fishing for small perch on canals. Small perch on canals are very common and catching them is a great way to get started,

You can often catch small perch very close to the bank so you do not need to be casting out too far. Larger perch are often in slightly deeper water in the middle of the canal.

Simple float fishing techniques are usually best for canal perch of all sizes, though larger perch can also be caught when spinning.

Maggots and worms are usually the best bait for perch.

Perch are a predatory fish and dispute their small stature they will often aggressively attack your bait. Perch have large mouths and will often swallow you bait, so you will need a disgorger to safely unhook them.

Canal Fishing For Roach

Roach are shoaling fish, which often means if you catch one there are usually more in your swim. You will often find there are one or two big roach in a shoal with lots of smaller roach. If you can keep the roach in your swim, then you have a good chance of bagging up.

Maggots, caster, bread and sweetcorn are the best baits for roach. To get the shoal of roach feeding confidently, little and often loose feed is a good way to keep them interested and in your swim.

Liquidised bread, groundbait and hemp are really useful options too for laying a bed of bait. Not too much though, as you want them to be hungry for your hook bait.

To give you the best chance of catching roach, you should use light tackle. A low strength line with a small hook is usually the best tactic.

Winter fishing for roach on canals can prove to be very successful when fishing.

Canal Fishing For Tench

Catching tench is a little harder than catching roach and perch. Tench are often shy fish and stay in the safety of the reeds. You will usually find tench at the far bank, under trees and in reeds and lily beds.

The best baits for tench are maggots, casters, worms and sweetcorn. Tench are mainly bottom feeders. A good tactic for tench is laying a bed of hemp seed or groundbait.

The best time for catching tench is usually early morning and late evening, in summer and late spring. 

Tench are strong fighters so you will need stronger tackle than you would need for roach. As tench tend to stay closer to the reeds for safety, as soon as they feel the hook you have to be careful not to let them snag you in the reeds and underwater hazards. Stronger tackle will help you guide the tench away from these.

Our tench rod buyers guide will help you find the best rod for catching tench.

Canal Fishing For Bream

Fishing for bream is very similar to roach tactics to a certain extent. However you may want to use slightly heavier tackle as some bream can grow quite large.

Bream like deeper and discoloured and cloudy water. Parts of the canal with heavy boat traffic that churn up the water is often a good starting point when fishing for bream.

Bait wise, maggots, casters, worm and sweetcorn are all good baits for bream. 

Like roach, bream are shoal fish so when you find them, you can often bag up. 

Smaller bream, called skimmers are sometimes referred to as nuisance fish as if you hit a shoal of them you can be catching them all day which is not helpful if you are not targeting them. Though if you are targeting them, or just happy to catch whatever is in the water, then finding skimmers is a good sign.

Canal Fishing For Pike

On canals, wherever there are fish, there are usually pike. Pike are predators and like to eat other fish. Larger pike have also been known to target ducks too.

If you are targeting pike, then you should ideally use a strong rod such as a carp or a dedicated pike rod. However, you can still catch pike using a lighter match rod, you just have to be more aware when playing the fish.

Using a wire trace is vital to ensuring you land pike, as their sharp teeth are likely to break your fishing line.

Both live and dead baits are very effective for catching pike. If you are permitted to use a live bait, they usually must be fish caught from the same fishery. Therefore you should also take some tackle to catch some small roach to use as light bait. 

For your dead bait, strong smelling sea fish are usually very effective. You can also buy flavored and coloured dead bait for extra attraction.

Also effective baits are lures and spinners. If you are going lure fishing for pike, travel light so you can walk up and down the canal looking for the pike rather than staying in one location.

The colder months in late autumn and winter and usually the best for catching pike. When it is cold most fish are usually looking for deep water where it is warmer and the pike will usually follow them there. 

Locks, marinas and boat yards are usually deep so they are good places for pike to be stalking other fish.

However it’s not just winter where you can catch carp. If bites from roach and perch suddenly dry up. If you see quite a few fish jumping out of the water, or if you see lots of silver flashes in the water, this usually indicates pike are around. Take the hint and change your tactics to target pike.

It can be common for pike to take a roach or perch when you have hooked them. Any sign of a fish struggling or a fish in trouble is an indication of an easy meal.

If you do catch a pike on your normal match gear, don’t panic. Take your time and gently play the fish. Depending on where the pike is hooked, it may not be able to bite your line. 

If you are fishing for smaller fish, you’re likely to be using light tackle and a small hook, so take your time to tire out the pike and bring it in slowly.

When you do catch a pike, be careful as they have very sharp teeth. It’s always wise to carry a set of forceps with you where pike are in the water as you never know when you may catch one.

Canal Fishing For Carp

Surprisingly there are some big carp on canals. When fishing for carp you will need more heavy duty tackle than you would for small roach and perch. 

Standard carp tactics come into play when looking for canal carp. Meat, boilies, pellets, sweetcorn are great baits for carp. In the summer you can catch them on the surface and the pellet waggler method is also very effective.

However, carp are not in all canals and particularly not in every swim. To find good carp swims you ideally should take a walk along the canal and look out for good “carp swims”. Just like in lakes, carp like a lot of cover.

Look for swims with overhanging trees on the other bank. Specifically look for areas that do not get much foot traffic – this can be hard as most canals have a lot of foot traffic.

Moored up boats can be a good feature to target when looking for carp. And you should also look for deep parts of the canal and fish at the bottom of any ledges that you can find. In particular try and fish the ledges that drop away from the far bank that have any overhanging trees, large bushes or reeds.

Canal carp are different to lake carp in that they do not always stay in the same place. Whilst they do often return to the same areas, it can be more of a waiting game for them.

Consider pre baiting the same swim each day or every few days for a week before fishing there. This of course is easier if the canal is near to your home or if you pass it on your way home from work.

Pre baiting a swim will keep the carp coming back to the same place knowing there will be food there. Of course, if you are pre baiting, use big bait that only a carp could realistically eat like boilies or large pellets. There is no point pre baiting with maggots that any fish could eat.

Catching carp on the canal requires patience. In truth, as a beginner you may be better not targeting them at all, and just fishing for other fish in the swims where carp are likely to be. Use baits such as pellets and sweetcorn. These are attractive to other fish too, as well as carp.

Check out our comprensive article on attracting carp to your swim.

Canal Carp on the surface

If you are canal fishing in the summer, a good tip for locating carp is using floating baits such as dog biscuits or bread. You have a few options here. 

You can either talk a pleasant walk along the canal, throwing in dog biscuits and seeing if a carp takes them. That’s the most obvious indication that carp are in the swim.

Another option is simply fishing your swim as normal for smaller fish, but frequently firing in dog biscuits. Again, if you see a carp taking them then you know they are there.

Bridges are great for anglers. Find a bridge that you can safely stand on, looking down at the water. Stay there for a while watching the water and looking for indications of carp. If the water is clear enough you may be able to see them. Again, throw in some dog biscuits or bread to see if any carp take them.

Canal Fishing In Winter

Canal fishing in winter can be a struggle. However it can also be very rewarding if fished right. Fish naturally aren’t as active when it’s cold to save energy, but they still need to eat.

There is a fine balance between attracting fish to your swim, and overfeeding them. Little and often if often a great tactic for loose feed to keep fish in your swim. 

You should really limit how much loose feed you throw in, and not as frequently as you would in the summer – until you get lots of bites then you can slowly increase your loose feed, but not by too much.

Once you notice a drop in bites a common response is to feed more – try to resist this. Ease off with your feeding and rebuild your swim slowly. Less is more.

Opt for smaller baits in winter and also consider brightly coloured baits. Pinkies or brightly coloured maggots are really useful for this.

Big Canal Roach In Winter

A popular tactic favoured by anglers is targeting big roach with bread. 

Roach love bread and particularly in winter bread is a great bait to catch them. Small bread punch with a groundbait of bread punch can be deadly, particularly on clear canal waters.

Keep your tackle as light as possible as roach are delicate feeders and bait presentation plays a huge role in winter roach fishing.

How To Find The Best Swims On Canals

Canals are very long so you might think it will be hard to find the best swims. It’s really not. 

Some swims are better than others, but often you can find lots of fish in standard/normal stretches of canals. There are however some things you can do to try and find the best swims.

Bridges are often good places to give fish cover. Look for any overhanging trees, bushes or reeds on the far bank as they offer great security for fish.

Other places to consider are marinas and boatyards. These offer lots of cover underneath the boats and are often deeper. 

In winter, consider swims closer to towns and cities. The temperature in city centres is usually a few degrees higher and this can make all the difference in fish behaviour.

Travel light and if the swim you are fishing is not working, simply move a little further up or down the canal and try somewhere different. Simply moving a short distance can help you find the fish.

Look to see where other anglers are fishing. If there are certain areas that are very popular, that’s usually a good sign that it is a good spot for fishing.

Canals are often linked to other canals and rivers. The point in which they meet can often be a great location for fishing.