Casting an Urban Fly Line on the GUC
As an angler of nearly 50 years the Grand Union Canal in the Hertfordshire area has always been a venue I have had a real special affinity with. From my early days with my grandfather and father gudgeon bashing along Grove Mill Lane to now a more strategic approach of ultra-light lure and fly-fishing the GUC offers the chance of some tremendous sport to the discerning fly fisherman.,
Whilst memories often get more “colourful and nostalgic” over time I do recall many a balmy summers day on the canal, as an avid schoolboy angler I would pedal my bicycle excitedly form my home in Garston, with my rod securely fastened to my cross bar, to a section of the canal where I had spotted the shadow of a double figure pike. I never did catch her.
About 5 years back I made the conscious decision in my angling life to concentrate on the elements of fishing that give me the most pleasure. It started out as an experiment really to see how many species I could catch on the fly. After the first few sessions, I was ready to scrap the whole idea, even with a gentle breeze in my favour I am hardly an expert fly caster, indeed if there were points awarded for artistic impression I would not be worrying the medal engravers, but I persisted despite hooking up on most of the hedgerow and moored narrowboats. When I did manage to present a fly effectively what was fascinating was that fish were interested, almost drawn to the sound of the fly hitting the water. I quickly adapted a style that mimicked an offering falling from a tree or a bush in the margins and the fish came.
What is evident today on the GUC is the ever changing backdrop, gone are the factory facades of the mills most notable being Dickinsons and Croxley to be replaced by waterfront apartments. Interestingly I noticed the appearance of several “private property” and “no fishing” signs around these developments, some more professional looking than others, affixed to bridges that are adjoining public rights of way. Often these signs seem to prohibit access to areas that back in the day were prime spots, indeed now a stalking approach with a fly rod would be ideal. I have made it my business to be fairly familiar with the laws of trespass and rights of way, as my style of fishing is opportunistic, experimental and often in places others would not venture. I am not for one minute suggesting that we all go and legally challenge the validity of such signage but it would be very interesting to see if the “landowner” understood their responsibility and duty of care of such areas that are adjoining a publically and with correct documentation, navigable stretches of water. And yes these stretches contained some very big fish.
My first love is the sea fishing, lure or fly fishing for the many sporting species around our coast, but living inland that is saved for the full day sessions when I venture to the coast. I have fished many venues around the world some more exotic than others but I still have fun on the GUC and its magic continues to attract me. It has almost legendary status amongst my angling friends and so often overlooked for syndicate type waters promising specimen fish with the GUC often providing superior sport. I can vouch for the canal holding probably more specimen fish that most of the surrounding waters in this area, but location is the key, then finding out what time they are eating and what is on the menu !
I have done my time sitting behind baited rods with alarms set, I no longer enjoy watching a float for hours on end, I have embraced the roving fishing method, often ultralight and I have had some real surprises from the GUC and its backwaters this past year.
My outfit of choice for the GUC is a 4wt 7foot rod SX floating line and a “short” 6 foot, 6lb flurocarbon leader. If I am fishing a larger fry pattern fly and pike are likely I add a 6inch trace of a fantastic wire leader material authanic wire which I sourced when in Canada, “knottable” and very supple, the fly action is not as compromised as you would think by using this material. The fly patterns range from traditional nymph patterns that work very well for the chub to the “bonefish” type patterns for the perch and pike. What I have found is that the more movement in the fly then the higher likelihood of an aggressive take. Nymphs with a steady figure of eight type retrieve will catch, but I have found faster jerky type retrieves seem to trigger more of a response. My diary reveals that my chub have predominantly been caught on a white fly pattern, the perch on red and pike on something that flutters a bit in the water and more catches on a stainless steel hook than a bronzed hook.
Its not just the traditional predators that are partial to some fluffy stuff in the GUC, on their day bream are almost difficult not to catch, particularly in the spring time, very aggressive and territorial when they have the mating rituals on their mind. They will chase down a fly, whether they see it as a food source or its just an aggressive response to something that could restrict its chance of getting it on with a mate I am not sure but they will certainly take the fly, forget your misconceptions of bream and their inability to put up a fight, hook an aggressive fish that has chased down your fly on a 4wt outfit and you have a battle on your hands !
Carp are another species that in the GUC can be a fly anglers quarry. Local angler Alan Emery who fly fishes the GUC on a regular basis recently took a fine double figure fish, he often refers to it as an element of luck that he hooked his latest Carp, but Alan knows the waters of the GUC as well as anyone I know and can identify the potential location of the fish, then present a fly exactly where it needs to be. On a spring or summer evening, scaling down with a small dry fly taking chublets and some very fine dace off the surface is very possible. People are not aware of the dace population in the GUC, probably some have caught one and quite easily assumed it was another of the numerous chublets that are in great numbers. Incidentally the British canal record for a Dace is currently open and any angler catching a specimen over 8ozs are invited to apply particularly through Apsley you have a very good chance of a dace approaching that size off the surface on a warm summer evening.
Casting on the canal towpath can prove a little tricky with hedgerow pretty close behind you. You can find stretches that open out allowing a full cast to be performed, but as one might expect the fish holding areas are in the more in-accessible areas, but the adapted roll cast or catapult cast, even with my very basic skill can soon be classed as “effective”. On the GUC fish are often found in the margins and close to the channel shelf so a cast of 15ft puts you in amongst the fish. Crawling through undergrowth, strategically placing your fly amongst tree roots and waiting patiently may often have to be the tactic rather than a full blown cast across the other side of the canal, however each on their day will have its place and on the GUC you need to be active, hunting the fish, a roving angler will certainly outfish one who remains in the same spot and if the sun is shining stalking fish is another great way of passing a few hours.
I am often maligned for giving away fish locations, but to me fish are nomadic, moving locations with changing seasons and at the end of the day wild animals. It is not hard with a bit of watercraft and a few well-spent hours giving an area a recce for a seasoned angler to be able to identify hotspots on the GUC. It may not surprise some of you that local “hotspots” tend to be near canal entrances, by bridges and outside local pubs ! The areas that get the most fishing hours. Trust me the fish are fairly widespread along the whole canal.
The stretch of the GUC through Aplsey up to Berkhamsted is some of the best fishing available on a canal in the UK. Through every cut I know of spots that have produced specimen fish in very good numbers. That said there is a pattern, and I find that the clarity of the water is key, whilst I have caught on the fly in muddy waters my confidence is always much higher if the clarity is good. There are certain sections on the canal where you can normally expect good clarity; areas that have good flow and where rivers enter tend to be the best areas. You have to mindful of how popular the canal is with boat users, walkers and dog-walkers not too mention the numerous runners and cyclists that utilize the tow-path for their leisure pursuits. I too use this waterway for the same pursuits and it is important that we respect other users particularly if we want to swing a fly line and leader around ! Without doubt the best time to fish the GUC is first light onwards up until things get a little too busy both in terms of the fish and their willingness to co-operate and the space around you to make a cast onto the water.
So far the resident population of both rainbow and brown trout in the GUC have avoided my quest to tempt them on a fly, it may well surprise you that the canal holds such stock but rest assured they are present, thriving and in good numbers. I have caught several rainbows and a good number of browns on lures throughout the sections from the Winkwell pub down to Kings Langley I have also caught a solitary rainbow from the canal in Rickmansworth (within the M25). How they have come to be in the canal is up for debate, the browns obviously have a natural route via the River Gade, River Chess and River Bulbourne where they have been stocked, one must assume that the rainbows have escaped from somewhere, maybe even Boxmoor ? The optimist in me still likes to believe the myth and legend that maybe the River Chess still harbours one of the only breeding stocks of rainbows in the UK, whilst I am advised by the good folk at the Wild Trout Trust this is highly unlikely, I have caught a 10oz rainbow and I do not know anywhere that stocks fish this small.
In summary the GUC in our area offers the fly fisherman plenty of scope and the opportunity to catch specimen coarse fish. In certain spots you can often lose yourself and imagine that you are fishing a Hampshire or Dorset chalkstream, there are a couple of areas where on hot sunny days the sport can be as exciting as bonefishing on the Florida Flats, maybe I am getting a bit carried away now, but if you have a spare couple of hours and want something different give it go, you may well surprise yourself.
If anyone would like a guided session I would be happy to accompany you, put you on some fish and point you in the right direction…its then up to you to catch them !
All the Best