A man of experience
I first fished the Grand Union in 1973 aged 12, and I've fished on a canal most weeks since then. The Grand Union is my ‘local' and as a youngster I used to walk five miles to the Long Buckby Wharf section with my mates. Our early version of a match was known as the gudgeon race: the first to 10, 20, 30, etc, to keep everyone competitive.
I soon joined the Daventry Angling Club, where junior secretary Johnny Mack passed on many skills. I have good memories of plenty of gudgeon-dominated matches in times gone by. Many of these were run by Pat O'Connor. Dave Berrow and Simon Nickless were the two top masters of the art and the men to beat.
I'm confident that there will be next to no gudgeon captured by National competitors this year because of the problems this stretch has had with zander, which prey on gudgeon first. Any team targeting gudgeon will finish last.
A changing venue
The Grand Union catches in the 1970s were dominated by roach, gudgeon and ruffe, with relatively few skimmer bream. Boat traffic was lighter, especially in 1976 when the canal was closed in that hot summer. Blisworth Tunnel was closed for major engineering work in the early 1980s, which also impacted on boat numbers and the canal went clear. Back then, 2lb was a decent enough weight that would put you around the halfway mark in a section.
The 1980s saw the golden era of the rod and line and squatt approach. I can't see a team relying just on squatt and pinkie making the grade this time around, as there are unlikely to be many small roach weights recorded.
Arrival of zander
Zander had not reached the Buckby summit pound when Dr Phil Smith was undertaking his doctoral studies into the species in the 1990s. The first classic sign I noticed, more than a decade ago, was the disappearance of gudgeon over two or three seasons. Roach then virtually disappeared, except for isolated pockets of fish weighing between 3oz and 1lb plus. On a positive note, larger bream started to show.
Therefore, I think it will be the bream that dominate catches in the upcoming National. The skimmers average 12oz but there are plenty of bigger fish of up to 3lb. Individually, someone could land 30lbs plus, especially if it's a cloudy, windy day which encourages the bream to really have a go. On most pegs, patience will be the key, but the first 40 minutes will be vital because that's when you need to get a decent fish or two in the net.
The Canal & River Trust first started to tackle the zander issue on this year's National venue way back in 2015, with some financial support from the controlling clubs. There are now some signs that this investment is paying off, as last year small roach began to appear in catches in a few areas after a general absence of the best part of a decade. Has this National come a little too early for the out-and-out roach experts? The balance of probability is yes.