John Bailey and pal Simon with his best pike catch of 24.5 lbs.

John Bailey: Anglers playing the numbers game

by John Bailey
Thursday, January 10, 2013
2.49 PM

We live in a world of PBs where sportsmen of every discipline talk about personal bests. I’ve heard the term used in business and even by a novelist of my acquaintance. In fishing, I guess, the search for the PB which exercises so many of us found its root in angling after World War II.

The advent of the Richard Walker school and the belief that big fish could be caught by design rather than sorcery changed the whole way we looked at specimen hunting. As a result, PBs became a part of my life when I was around eight or so!

There was a period through the 90s when I staunchly stood out against weighing fish. I had a feeling then that pounds and ounces really weren’t the important issue in our sport. I thought they even detracted from the core values. I still believe that to an extent but I’ve married the belief with the ownership of scales that take me from a quarter of an ounce up to sixty-odd pounds! I think that will see me equipped for anything I’m likely to catch within the UK in 2013.

This whole piece, however, was inspired by a New Year’s Day email from a highly regarded friend of mine. It’s well known that I do a fair bit of guiding and Simon is absolutely one of my most beloved of clients. He’s around my age and a hugely successful city lawyer. He’s ferociously intelligent, constantly keeps me on my intellectual toes and every day with him is immensely rewarding. This is what he wrote.

“Hi John, happy New Year to you and I hope you had a good one.

“I’ve been playing with numbers and have had the simple New Year’s Resolution which is to catch two of the following three during 2013. A two pound roach, a six pound chub and/or a three pound perch. I think I know which are the most possible, I hesitate to say probable!

“The maths is that for the six species I actively target – barbel, chub, perch, pike, roach and tench – I’ve worked out that my PBs average 46.3pc of the current records. I would get to 50pc if I got the two targets. There are other ways of doing it but these are the most obvious and have the benefit of being lovely round numbers. And, of course, I would be thrilled to bits at catching any of them. So no pressure!”

Wow, as Simon says, no pressure then! I find it interesting that a guy of Simon’s standing should be so interested in the minutiae of figures to this extent, but I guess it makes sense. I suppose it reinforces every minute that Simon spends on the bankside. He’s extraordinarily busy so if every day away from work and family is made to count like this, it takes on an extra force and focus. I’d be very worried about this approach if it weren’t for several other important factors.

Vitally, Simon absolutely relishes the capture of any fish whatsoever. This is important. If he were to catch a one pound 14 ounce roach, for example, and be disappointed with it then that would make our days out unbearable and tarnish every roach session with likely disappointment. Simon also extracts every last ounce of pleasure from everything that is happening around him on any particular fishing day. He enjoys good company, good food and good wine after the day is done. He enjoys the scenery, the serenity and the wildlife around him. He thinks deeply about each and every session that he’s completed. He enjoys analyzing where he went wrong or what he did right.

Above all, he has an easy acceptance of what his fishing life throws at him and a nice sense of humour when the gods laugh in his direction. For example, in the spring of 2011, he was using his now infamous squid rig for tench at the Kingfisher Lake in Norfolk. Halfway through the morning, he hooked a fish which broke him leaving us all a little demoralized. There was no particular reason to think that the tench was a massive one, however, and a few guys even suggested the culprit might have been a jack pike captivated by the novelty of the rig...a mix of plastic maggots hanging from a central core of red foam. Squid rig? To me it looked more like a tarantula!

The next day, one of the carp syndicate boys hailed me as I passed. Simon’s rig was lying on the roof of his bivvy, retrieved from a fish he’d landed just an hour previously. The fish had really beaten him up it seemed. For a long while, my carping friend thought that he was into a 20 or even a 30 before he netted a tench of ten pounds four ounces. This fish would have comfortably beaten Simon’s PB.

On my return to Simon’s pitch I wrestled with what to tell him. However, I presented the returned squid rig with all honour due and told him the whole story. He was delighted!

He was just thrilled that he’d actually been in momentary contact with such a monster fish. It also reinforced his belief in his weirdly conceived hook bait, too. Nearly a win-win situation then.

So perhaps Simon does have the answer. He fishes very, very hard indeed for a well-defined objective. This gives his fishing a real edge, a way of upping the whole adrenaline surge if you like.

Yet, he retains his sense of balance, his perception of all the good things that happen during a day with a rod in hand. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for all of us in 2013. On the one hand we make every second of our fishing session count, yet we never lose sight of what being an angler is all about in the widest possible context.