Skip to main content

The charity making life better by water

Lessons learned

From home-made tackle to team chats around the tea urn at work, Andy Fairclough has been on a continuous quest to improve his angling skills over the years. As one of the leading Level 2 coaches in our Let’s Fish! programme, Andy shares some of the defining moments of his ongoing education.

A heron stands in shallow water, surrounded by long reeds and bushes.

Probably the single most important lesson any angler can learn is the importance of being as quiet as possible by the waterside. You only have to watch a heron fishing to understand how stealth will allow it to get close enough to catch its dinner! As anglers we should try to emulate its quiet approach by the water's edge.


The unforgiveable sin of standing right behind another angler, or worse, on the top of the riverbank in full view of any fish. My earliest lesson in the error of this was on a trip to the Upper River Severn with local legend Cyril ‘Squibber' Welch.

Merrily returning from exploring the river upstream, I sauntered along the top of the bank to see how many chub the great man had caught. I was yelled at and told in no uncertain terms to get off the top of the bank. Chastened, I crept down with my tail between my legs, but it's a lesson I have never forgotten.

Andy as a young man with a catch

Any coach that has attended a ‘Mottification' day will know that Simon emphasises the need for a quiet and organised approach. It is something that the best anglers always do, but is perhaps not appreciated by many people. You won't catch a fish you have scared.

Pictured: Andy as a young man with a catch

Watching and learning

Like most young boys I was gradually ticking off my list of species that I had caught. One that was missing was a bream. The obvious place to catch one was from the Shropshire Union Canal at one of the popular ‘bream holes' or ‘wides'. Fortunately, an opportunity arose to watch some of the best anglers in the country on my local canal.

It was the late 1970s and the Wyche Anglers had drawn against the Birmingham Anglers Association in the East Anglian Cup KO competition. With a home draw, the Wyche Anglers took them to the canal at Marsh Lane Wide at Nantwich.

The Birmingham team at that time boasted several international anglers and most were household names, the stars of their day. Pedalling the four miles from home on my bike to watch these big names, I eagerly made my way along the bank amongst the spectators. Many other local anglers were also eager to watch the likes of Clive Smith, Ken Giles, Max Winters and a young Mark Downes.

Like all the best anglers, they made it look so easy. Scooping a ball of ground bait containing squatts then catapulting it three-quarters of the way across the wide. Each ball seemingly on top of the other. Their effortless and accurate casting landing on top of their ground bait, the frequency at which they reeled in yet another fish. It looked so easy. I had to try it.

Returning sometime later with my home-made ground bait catapult (most tackle was home-made, to a degree, at that time), I soon found out there was more to this technique than meets the eye. After several fruitless attempts I eventually managed to get some ground bait further than my feet!

Skimmer bream caught by Andy Fairclough

Casting the light bomb proved just as frustrating, it took a good four attempts to get it anywhere near the ground bait. However, my perseverance was eventually rewarded in the shape of four skimmer bream, all between 8oz and 12oz in weight.

Subsequent trips enabled my skills to improve, and gradually more and better fish came to the net.

Team fishing

After leaving school I entered Crewe Locomotive Works as an apprentice electrician. It didn't take long to find out it was a hotbed of fishing, and pretty much any other hobby or sport.

Tackle was manufactured, modified and acquired in considerable amounts. The main erecting shop was the focus for the many match anglers. During the lunch break they would gather by the large tea urn to discuss forthcoming matches or last weekend's results.

After being involved with other teams, I was invited to join the Crewe Pioneer Anglers, many of whom were my colleagues at the Works. At the time they had a very strong team, with the likes of John Wright, Brian Forster, Andy Harper and several more great anglers, so my fishing skills and knowledge quickly improved.

Once, Andy Harper turned up at a team meeting with a small pane of glass and a bottle of clear liquid. I remember watching in wonder as he poured the liquid onto the glass and let it sit. Carefully removing what looked like a piece of plastic bag, he explained that it was PVA [polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) is a water-soluble substance that can be woven to create a small mesh bag]. He made small bags of maggots with it to feed across into the ‘swan pits' on the Trent & Mersey Canal at Middlewich, a popular match venue at the time. This was quite some time before PVA became commercially available at tackle shops. It has since become an important item of tackle.

A close encounter

Many lunchtimes by the tea urn and Friday evenings at the Crewe Pioneers club were taken up discussing the exploits of one man, Billy Makin.

Billy Makin: matchman of the year report

Almost every week Billy had won yet another canal match. If it wasn't him, then his friend Ray Mills had won. Much debate ensued over their success, particularly the pinkie over ground bait method that they seemed to use. The press reports said regular helpings of ground bait on a rock-hard, clear winter canal. Surely not? The debate rumbled on for months until one day, by chance, I found out the answer.

One November day without a match to fish, I found myself driving over the canal bridge at Knighton when I noticed two anglers fishing. Intrigued, I went to see what they had caught. Imagine my excitement on finding it was none other than the man himself, Billy Makin, and Ray Mills. There before me were all the answers to the sometimes heated debates.

I watched as they both caught a gudgeon with every cast, using long rods and centre pin reels. The Billy Makin Canal Grey floats they were both using never stopped going under. And yes, ground bait was used, just ordinary brown crumb, small thumbnail pieces fed regularly. The best and most important bit was the pinkie on the hook, as Billy explained it was the only maggot in the swim.

I sat behind them for two hours asking questions, which they happily answered, and came away with a method that was winning many, many matches at the time. Although most of Billy's success was pretty much before the pole began to dominate canal fishing, it is still worth reading the articles he wrote all those years ago. One of his biggest pieces of advice was on keeping quiet!

Keep it simple

Many of the best anglers I have known, and indeed some that I have watched, have one thing in common: they keep things very simple!

There is no need to overcomplicate your fishing. The latest tackle is no guarantee of catching more. I have watched good anglers with rubbish-looking tackle catch far more than people with the most expensive kit. Remember, it's what you do with it that matters!


Find a place to fish

Enter a town or postcode into our fishery search tool to find good local fishing spots


We'd love to tell you more

Our newsletter is packed full of exciting updates and stories of how our charity keeps canals alive.

Last Edited: 17 June 2020

photo of a location on the canals
newsletter logo

Stay connected

Sign up to our monthly newsletter and be the first to hear about campaigns, upcoming events and fundraising inspiration