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John's top 12 greatest canal anglers of all time

Who are the top 12 specialist canal anglers of all time? Who would be on your list? John Ellis, our national fisheries and angling manager, takes a look at who, in his opinion, should be on the list.

Ivan Marks fishing

Ivan Marks (pictured) John's pick as the greatest ever angler but not one of his top 12 narrow canal picks.

(A multi-page series of stories)

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To be a true contender, one needs to have been at the very top level in your chosen discipline for a decade or two, ideally for a lifetime.
John Ellis, national fisheries and angling manager

‘Beauty', it used to be said, ‘is in the eye of the beholder'. Likewise, choosing an all-time list is ultimately a matter of personal opinion and in any sport it's hard to compare participants from different eras.

Analysing the results

Competition results are but one measure of angling greatness but as in most sports, it's results that count, particularly compared to those achieved by your peers given similar circumstances over a period.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a list of all canal competition results for the past 100 years? John Essex quickly discovered when he embarked in his epic History of the National Championships book, that most results have been lost to history. We should be grateful that we've the Matchman of the Year run by Anglers Mail most years from 1977/78 until 2015/16. Consistency in this competition and perhaps more recently in the steadily growing Canal Pairs championships certainly makes you a contender as must representing your nation at international level or knocking consistently on that door.


To be a true contender, one needs to have been at the very top level in your chosen discipline for a decade or two, ideally for a lifetime. One of my picks, perhaps the most naturally gifted of all the anglers in the list, drops down a few few places for having left the sport too early. Another contender makes my final list, because if he stays fit and healthy for a little while longer, he will go on to break one of the toughest records in the sport that absolutely requires a lifetime of dedication and commitment to achieve.

All round ability

It's likely that to make most people's list, any contender will have had success on a wide range of canal venues using a good spread of techniques for the various species. On top of that, they will also be very competent on rivers and stillwaters; so, for my picks I am looking for narrow canal experts who would be winners on any water.

Wider contribution

To be at the top of any sport requires dedication and often a high degree of single minded selfishness. There are certainly those match anglers out there who in the heat of battle arguably need to tweak their communication skills.

How special was the great Ivan Marks who knew the importance of engaging with the crowds, most of whom were keen club anglers? Ivan predicted in 1988 that if we remain insular and don't promote (match) angling in the wider sporting marketplace, then the sport as we knew it then wouldn't exist in 40 years. Some of the great anglers I have chosen have contributed to the wider wellbeing of the sport in areas such as match organisation, club officers, coaching, developing the next generation etc.

Who to leave out

Kim Milsom, Dave Roper, Dave Brogden, Will Raison, Vinnie Smith, Alan McAtee, Sean Ashby and Ian Heaps; there's' some great England internationals who spent some of their formative years on canals who I reluctantly omitted along with two team managers, the two Marks (Downes and Addy). Ray Mills and the 1978/79 Matchman of the Year Billy Makin were a feared duo and the largely forgotten Bob Fuller a household name in the 1930s through to the 1950s. Darren Massey the ever-consistent Shakespeare, now Cadence captain misses out on the grounds of not always being the most accurate of weigh estimators.

Heading south and Dickie Carr, Graham Smith, Derek Young and Peter Vasey all deserved to be in the selection mix as did a host of north west stars; the likes of Frank Holding, Alan Meyer, Andy Billington, the list could go on. The 12 position was in many ways the most difficult to select and Lewis Breeze, Danny Martin and Jason Cunningham were both pencilled in at one stage. With youth on their side, they may well appear when I next upgrade my list. Jason's just got involved in the Let's Fish programme and is an absolute natural, instantly recognising that a coaching event is a different proposition to a match fishing day.

So here's my list:

Do you agree? Share your comments with us on our Angling Facebook group.

Last Edited: 14 June 2019

photo of a location on the canals
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