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30 tips to improve your canal fishing coaching

Early 2022 brought the sad news of the passing of Wellingborough coaching legend, Pat Byrne. This article was originally compiled by Pat with support from Bryan Dray and John Ellis, shortly after a Let’s fish training day. What better tribute could there now be to Pat’s legacy than to take on board some of the tips Pat gleaned that day, which contributed to him becoming one of the most inspirational Let’s Fish coaches of all time.

Pat Byrne coaching a family at a Let's Fish event

1. You don't have to be a coach to want to continue to improve your fishing knowledge

Many of these tips are relevant to all anglers regardless of how long they have fished for, so hopefully there is something here to help you improve your results both on canals and other similar natural fisheries. Age is no barrier to learning, it's never too late to become an even more proficient angler.

2. The spacing of pegs to put the odds in your favour

Short term success for a coach at a Let's Fish! event is having each pupil land at least one fish, hopefully several, during their allotted time (usually 55 minutes, although it may occasionally be shorter e.g. if siblings are sharing a slot or longer, e.g. at Let's Fish development events).

Where the coaching location allows, it's vital on canals and similar natural fisheries to place coaching stations at sensible distances apart. Ideally, the spacing would be at least 25 metres, although sometimes the chosen venue or available sightlines don't lend themselves to this distance.

3. Keeping noise and skylining to an absolute minimum

Eager parents (and even some unthinking coaches) have a habit of standing up at the water's edge. This inevitably frightens away the naturally wary, wild fish from the inside line on the canal, thus reducing the number of bites your participants might end up getting.

One partial solution now being adopted is the provision of chairs which observers can place upstream and at the rear of the towpath. Every little helps, as someone once said.

Those participating in events like the national and regional celebrations should also be aware that over-enthusiastic spectators and parents can inadvertently have the same impact.

Eagle eyed observers may have even noticed how few fish are hooked on Facebook live when the crew are directly behind the participant and how often one is hooked in the seconds after the ‘skylining' crew have departed.

Using chairs to reduce peg disturbance

4. Climbing the fishing ladder

Our objective as Let's Fish coaches is to create life-long anglers or at least get people into (or back into) the sport for an extended period. The philosophy of Let's Fish! is to start off by learning how to catch decent numbers of small or medium sized fish of several species at cheap, easily accessible venues close to where people live.

Just over eight million people live within 1,000 metres of a canal. Starting off as a specimen carp angler with bivvies and multiple rods, or as a matchman with a £1,500 pole and a £1,000 seat box without an understanding of the fundamentals is not the best option in most circumstances. Emphasising the need for expensive kit won't do much to recruit the masses into our sport. What would the sport give for a decent quality canal starter kit. The best we can do is to point you in the right direction.

5. Think like a coach, not like a match angler

In a match or pleasure fishing session you naturally want to catch as many fish as you can, as quickly as you can. But the goal of the coach is to keep the coaching peg alive all day, a somewhat different challenge.

Often, it's easy enough to catch fish when the first pupils arrive, but as the day goes on, it gets far more challenging. Management of the peg for the whole day is a skill the truly great coach must master if they possibly can.

6. Don't fish your peg before the first pupil arrives

It's tempting isn't it, getting there early and sneaking a quick fish in your direct coaching area when nobody is looking. But when you stop to think about it deeply, you are not increasing the odds of keeping the peg going all day by doing this, rather the reverse is true.

If the coach has a good first hour on his/her own, they have probably reduced the prospects of a good first hour for their first pupils. The chances of the late arriving participants catching anything at all are futher reduced. Simon Mottram doesn't even feed any groundbait until he sees that his first pupil is about to arrive at the coaching station. We advise you to do likewise.

7. Why elasticated take apart poles are superior to whips

A few coaches still insist on using flicktips and a length of line the same length as the whip itself, regardless of the nature of the peg or the wind conditions. In the majority of coaching situations, this is not best practice. By using soft elastic tensioned correctly, (number 2 or number 3) it's essentially impossible for a pupil to try to swing a biggish fish straight to hand which typically ends up bringing disappointment all round, not to mention another trashed rig and extra homework for the coach.

When the fish back off and move a little further out (and they almost always do this at some stage) it's easy enough to add an extra section or two of take apart pole. In summary, it almost always pays to use an elasticated take apart pole for natural venue coaching.

8. Always think 'is this bait presentation as natural as it can possibly be?'

Natural bait presentation is the key to successful canal coaching, indeed to the vast majority of fishing situations. By fishing a whip to hand you may end up with far too much line between the whip tip and the float which the inexperienced Let's Fish participants are simply realistically unable to properly control. Thus, the float will not move through the peg properly, the bait won't appear to be natural to the fish and a bite is unlikely. It almost always pays to use an elasticated take apart pole for natural venue coaching.

9. The use of two basic canal rigs for coaching

At mottification training days, Simon uses two basic rigs for narrow canal coaching, the standard bulk rig of around 0.3 grams and a lighter spread out rig for use when bites tail off and the coach really needs to earn his stripes. Hook size in both cases is a 20 or a 22.

With Simon having fished canal most weekends for the past 30 years with countless match wins including being half of the winning pair in both the 2014 and 2021 Canal Pairs final. Why try to improve on Simon's basic approach? It's definitely important coaches have both kinds of rigs set up and ready to go, switching rigs as necessary. The same advice would be equally applicable to participants fishing on their own and in our celebration events.

10. Putting the rig in correctly and frequently

Trashed rig

The pole rig should be introduced smoothly in a pendulum motion rather than in a horrible heap. It's noticeable how quite a few bites come quickly on the drop or as soon as the bait settles. Putting the rig in correctly also significantly eliminates the risk of tangles, which is never a bad thing. We've yet to meet an angler or coach who celebrates in delight at getting into a tangle so why not coach the technique correctly and reduce this risk significantly. The coach who looks forward to an evening's rig repair after a hard day's coaching is a rare beast indeed. Simon perfectly illustrates how to present the rig in this useful video.

11. Spare rigs set up and waiting

Making up spare rigs on the hoof isn't fair on participants and nor is watching coaches hastily creating rigs improve the prospects of most new participants gaining the fishing habit.

By having plenty of pre-made rigs ready to go, you cut down significantly on lost coaching time. Not only are you coaching more professionally, but on those hard days when bites might be scarce, those vital few minutes of extra fishing may make all the difference between attracting someone into the sport, or not as the case may be. As we all know, this wonderful sport with all its associated health and wellbeing benefits needs as many new entrants as it possibly can.

The same applies to some extent to hook-lengths. It's easier to tie these up in advance so in the event of needing to change, it's a ten-second job.

Spare top kits at the ready

12. The role of groundbait on canals and the best narrow canal mixes to use

Groundbait acts as a dinner table. It's introduced to attract fish into a small area where you plan to catch the fish, but you don't want the fish eating it, for rarely do we use groundbait on the hook.

Simon Mottram advice, and indeed that of pretty much all top rate canal anglers who consistently win at the highest level is to avoid fish meal groundbait on canals. Groundbait choice is ultimately a personal thing, Simon's preference being a mixture of Sensas Canal Black & Lake. Simon has also had some encouraging results with some of the Sonubaits range for this Telford based company also produce a range of top notch non fishmeal groundbait.

Sensas groundbait

13. Mixing groundbait at home

Many coaches like the idea of mixing groundbait at home, either on the morning of the coaching event or even late the previous evening. It's one less thing for the busy coach to have to do on the bank, which is never a bad thing. There is so much that needs doing on the morning itself, so anything that can be done in advance may as well be ticked off the list.

14. Initial feeding of groundbait

Many coaches have certainly been guilty of over-doing things on the groundbait front in the past. Motty starts off with just two small balls, introduced accurately using a pole pot, making sure that both small balls end up on the same spot.

Typically, the first bite should came around five to ten minutes after this initial groundbait introduction, which shows just how quickly fish move into the chosen catching area. It was noticeable too that virtually all the bites come when the bait was on top of the groundbaited area. Therefore, it follows that the participant needs to be shown where the groundbait area is, so they begin to learn the habit of consistently placing their rig in the right place.

15. Knowing when to top up with groundbait

Simon didn't top up with groundbait as often as people would have envisaged and when he does it was with truly tiny amounts, again cupped in for accuracy. Each time he did this, a few more bites tend to ensue.

Interestingly, when a boat passes through, he assesses how much disturbance there is in the catching area. If it was minimal, he does not add more groundbait. When two boats cross in the peg and one crosses the coaching line, then a top up is quite likely to be needed. Some Let's Fish! coaches have been guilty of killing their peg through overfeeding in the past. That's a useful tip for participants in celebration events too. Fish are like people, once they are full of food the last thing, they want to do is eat yet more food.

16. Freezing unused groundbait

Another little tip is that unused groundbait can be put in the freezer for use on another occasion. It won't be quite as active though with fewer particles in the water. Also do make sure nobody in the family, even hungry teenagers mistake it as being for human consumption though. For eating grounbait is something we would not recommend.

Pinkies bait

17. Pinkie then squatts

The aim of a Let's Fish! session is for pupils to catch a fish, ideally several of more than one species. Size of fish is unimportant at this stage in the pupil's angling career, so at Let's Fish we use baits which put the odds in the coaches favour or securing the most bites during the day.

Simon's go-to hookbait on the heavily boated canals is pinkies. When bites tail off he moves to single squatt and 'hey presto', a bite almost immediately. He emphasises checking the bait after every missed bite, for, as we all know, you don't get anything like as many bites (perhaps even none) on a canal with chewed bait.

Squatts bait

18. Squatts as loosefeed

If you fill the fish up with excessive loosefeed, that might be that for the day, so the 'little and often' mantra is the successful formula for canal coaching.

Simon cups in just six to ten squatts every two minutes or so, just to keep things ticking over. If squatts are not available, which alas is the case in some parts of the country, feeding pinkie is the other option. In many ways they are almost as good. They are certainly easier to throw accurately by hand. When using pinkies you would introduce no more than two, three, or at the very most four pinkies each time. It was this disciplines approach that helped Charlie Beetham become a fishing champion in 2020.

19. Accurate feeding (with pole pot)

Accuracy of feeding cannot be emphasised enough. We have all seen the coach and their participants who ends up with bait going all over the shop. Accuracy of feeding is especially important in windy conditions when the loosefeed tends to end up all over the place if thrown by hand.

In still conditions, Simon is happy to feed squatts accurately by hand and somehow, they seem to land in a tight ball. He must have had plenty of practice at it.

20. Keeping the lid on

Squatts can dry out in hot weather and float on the water surface, making them useless for loose feeding. Simon had two suggestions to prevent this happening. Firstly, only put a small proportion of your supply into the open sun and then add a tiny amount of water to these. Secondly, use a bait cover, which keeps direct sun off the bait, slowing down the drying out process.

21. The deckchair or carp fishing seat (at least for the pupil)

It's important that pupils sit with the correct deckchair or carp fishing seat while fishing. In reality, this means the use of some sort of modern seat-box so the participant is able to adopt the optimum upright body physiology. Or put it another way, there is risk of muscular-skeletal impacts by encouraging incorrect posture. How the coach sits is less critical.

22. Making sure the participant fishes with the correct hand.

Coaches need to be careful that their pupil doesn't try to fish with the wrong hand, i.e. natural right-handers should hold the pole in their right hand and vice versa. Oh and never forget, whether the participant is left hand, right handed or truly ambidextrous, it's the participant who should be doing most of the fishing, not the coach. If Let's Fish attendees really want to observe coaches fishing, they can pop along to an Angling Trust Division 2 national where several Let's Fish coaches teams are represented.

23. The use of fine lines and reducing the impact of the wind

Rarely if ever are conditions perfect for bait presentation. Simon explains that fine line (0.10 diameter mainline or similar) makes float control easier, as the wind has less impact on line of finer diameter compared to thicker lines. Don't forget too that the hooklength should be of a finer diameter than the mainline.

24. Go with the flow

The flow can do funny things on canals at some locations, moving this way and that, sometimes going the opposite way to ‘normal' for brief periods. A big influence on bait presentation can be an upstream or downstream wind.

With an upstream wind, take great care not to let this influence the float's movement downstream through the peg. It's not easy for the pupil to master this. The key thing to remember is that the bait needs to travel in the same direction as the water near the canal bed. Dotting the float tip down low really helps with this. The downside of this is that some pupils might not find it as easy to spot bites, but on balance it's better for the pupil to have bites they can't easily recognise than to end up having no bites at all.

25. Working the rig

New coaches are frequently amazed at how often Simon would put the rig back into the catching area if he didn't get a bite, leaving it for no more than two or three minutes at most, often less. Canal fishing is certainly not for the lazy coach or pupil.

Motty and his worms

26. Chopped worm

A good tip for a challenging venue is a chopped worm line well away from the main catching area. On the most difficult of coaching days a couple of bonus perch can be extremely welcome and a real talking point to boot. You can even encourage the lucky participants to send their photos to the Catch of the Month competition of the Canal & River Trust Facebook page.

27. Avoiding the use of keepnets whilst coaching

Peg disturbance does need to be kept to a minimum and the disadvantage of putting fish in a keepnet is that excited pupils and curious parents will naturally wish to look at what's in there from time to time. Lifting the net in and out is certainly not going to attract fish into the coaching area, rather it will tend to frighten them away. So, for that reason alone, keepnets aren't a good idea at Let's Fish introductory days.

28. Fish first, technical details later

Successful coaches are adaptable coaches who analyse their own successes and the areas where they can continue to improve. One such example given by Simon was that initially he used to start off by explaining rigs and plumbing the depth in quite some detail to someone who had never ever fished before.

After a few outings he realised that he was trying to teach this stuff too early in the pupil's angling journey. He noticed a proportion of participants had simply switched off. What a newcomer is primarily interested in early doors is landing those all-important first few fish. The technical detail can come later once a participant has committed to enrolling for the Let's Fish gudgeon or similar award.

29. A welcoming wave

There are a small minority of anglers out there who still want to blame boaters for their lack of fishing success. And yes, there are the very occasional uncaring boater who refuses to behave courteously but the more rapport the angling community can build up with boaters, the more likely they are to share the space sensibly, which can only be a good thing for canal angling.

A friendly wave and greeting costs nothing and can go a long way to putting angling in a positive light. And who knows, maybe the boater might have always secretly fancied having a go at fishing and will be encouraged to enrol at a Let's Fish event.

30. Its easiest to correct mistakes before they become engrained habits

Some inexperienced coaches have the attitude along the lines of ‘any old technique will do'. That's not the approach of a professional. Imagine a snooker coach saying it's OK for a pupil to hold the cue the wrong way around or a football coach to think it's fine for an outfield player to use a hand to control the ball. Once acquired poor habits are quite hard to break and it rarely gets any easier with time. Its best to spot participants errors and work on correcting them asap.

Pat and his coaching team

Finding out more

If you ever have the chance to attend a 'Mottification' session, grab it with both hands. You are guarantee that you will pick up some some useful to make you an even better coach There is a useful video here which does cover some of the things I have highlighted in this article.


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Last Edited: 04 April 2022

photo of a location on the canals
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