Long read: Wigan’s a great Lancashire town, rightly famous for many things, writes national fisheries and angling manager, John Ellis. But for anglers, it’s synonymous with hard-working Danny Martin, who has represented his local team for nearly 20 years.
If you've ever eaten a tin of baked beans, it's likely it was packed in Wigan. Marks & Spencer had its headquarters in the town in the early days. The rugby league team are internationally famous. In the round ball game, Wigan won the FA Cup not long back.
The Leeds & Liverpool Canal and Wigan Pier, made famous by George Orwell, are the stuff of legend, and it might surprise some that there are a plethora of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in the Wigan area. It's nowhere near as grim as critics like to paint it.
While locals speculate whether their MP, Lisa Nandy, could win the Labour Party leadership race and become a future prime minister, the angling world is pondering a different big question. Can another young leader, Danny Martin, rally his agile troops to victory, or at least a podium finish on the Grand Union Canal in the upcoming Division One National? They're not without a chance.
In sport, joining your local club is usually a good route to long and successful participation. Living on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal, Danny first went fishing with his father, Tony, who then encouraged him to join local junior club, Leigh Ospreys, in his early teens.
In Danny's first four matches he recorded a top weight of 4oz, predominantly made up of smaller fish! It mattered not, for those Lancastrian canal fishing genes had been switched on and Danny decided he wanted to climb up the fishing ladder.
A natural talent
Under the leadership of Kenny Buxton, Ospreys was the obvious place for a youngster to acquire fishing skills. What Kenny, like many more, was doing in that era is what we are replicating with Let's Fish! today – a fun introduction to fishing, without the pressure of having to buy equipment or know where to go
Ospreys brought out Danny's natural talent. He made their team, debuting in an Anglo-Welsh Knockout on Lymm Dam, where with 12oz he finished last in the 3-peg section, but just 12 drams off winning it. That's exciting competition, where every fish counts.
There was a plethora of matches for juniors back then, including the National Federation of Anglers (NFA) Cadet, Junior & Intermediate National, the NFA North-West Championship, the National Junior Angling Association (NJAA) National, the NJAA Challenge and the Anglo-Welsh Knockout. Danny finished sixth individually in the Intermediate National on the River Soar in 2002. It set him up nicely for a great achievement the following year in his first adult National at the same venue. In 2004, he won Intermediate National individual gold on the Shropshire Union Canal at Knighton with 6kg 740g of chub. But being part of a successful team is what really makes Danny tick.
Making his adult National debut
The Wigan team, sponsored by Crown Tackle & Bait, first competed in the 1997 National, finishing runners-up on the Basingstoke Canal. They were sixth on the River Witham in 1998 and third in Division Three on the Boston Drains in 1999, when bookmaker Billy Knott had them down as pre-event favourites. After consolidating their position in Division Two, the year 2003 represented a breakthrough moment both for the team and for Danny (it was also the last year that Embassy cigarettes sponsored the National Championship). To some, he was a surprise team pick at the tender age of 17.
To cut a long story short, Danny and his 11 trusted teammates struck gold that day. Danny recalls the details of that match as if it were yesterday, something only those who have the competition bug will fully understand. He can roll off the names of his teammates in ten seconds flat: captain Barry Smith, Ant Marsden, Mike Davies, Barry Whittle, Paul Robinson, Steve Royds, Shaun Keavney, Steve Burgess, Marc Ellement, Shaun Birchall and the late Dave Massey.
Wigan and the Nationals in the Danny Martin era
It’s quickly obvious the Wigan team have been contenders on any canal National venue. Narrow and shallow ones or deeper, wider versions. In case you’re wondering, in 2013 the team’s Sam’s Tackle sponsorship came to an end. They reformed as Wigan Match Group, dropping down to Division Two for 2014. This fortuitously enabled them to fish on the Leeds & Liverpool, where Danny took his second team gold and an individual eighth spot.
The following year saw Danny draw on the bream and take a sixth individual finish with 29kg. His biggest National regret is that the team weren’t in Division One for the 2017 Shropshire Union match. They were in the form of their lives and, with the draw-bag gods on their side, could have struck gold. In the end Ted Carter Southport took the honours and with it the opportunity to represent England in the World Club Championships the following year.
After just missing out to the Crewe Match Group in Division Two in 2019, Wigan are back in the top division where they belong. To quote Danny, “our squad is a mixture of youth and experience, mostly experience.” They have every chance of a medal on the Grand Union. The venue has not seen regular big matches for a few years now and might just suit the Wigan style. They are not a team who will play the percentages and be delighted to end up in the top half. Rather they will approach the venue with methods in mind, which if they work to plan could take them all the way to the title. The downside is that if the draw-bag is unfavourable or they have misread the venue, they will finish well down the field. We shall see in August.
When he needs a rest from the cut and thrust of the competitive circuit, Danny chills out with a spot of specimen hunting. His local haunt of Pennington Flash is a tough nut to crack. Danny has patiently waited for and landed bream to over 11lb and roach and perch to 3lbs-plus on the quivertip. He's also seen bream in the crystal water which he estimated at 17lbs. As for catching a fish of such size, it might be an easier prospect to win the Division One National.
The importance of match organisation
It's dawning on anglers that if this wonderful sport is to survive and thrive, it needs all those who can do so to make the sacrifice and put something back. With support from fishing colleagues, Danny started running matches as far back as 2010. Assisted by Mark Grimshaw, he has organised many successful canal matches in the Leigh area in recent years. It was here where both Benny Ashurst and son Kevin Ashurst, the two greatest Leigh anglers ever, first learnt to fish.
In a few weeks Danny will be running the two-day Leigh Canal Festival, sponsored by Leigh Tackle & Bait and tackle company Matrix, with close to 100 competitors lining up. Some of the money raised will be donated to the Leigh Ospreys. Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if the club used part of these funds to help develop teams to enter the National Junior, Cadet and Youth Canal Angling Championships?
Danny is a great believer that big junior championship matches with 150-plus kids lining the towpath are the way forward to help kindle interest amongst competitive young people in our sport. Let's hope his successes will inspire the next generation, in Wigan, Leigh and beyond, to follow in his footsteps
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