John Bailey: Christmas roach brought hope to my lowest times

John Bailey still gets as much joy as ever out of catching roach on the bobbin on his favourite Norfolk waters. John Bailey still gets as much joy as ever out of catching roach on the bobbin on his favourite Norfolk waters.

by John Bailey
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
1:02 PM

In many ways this is the Christmas memory of my life. I hope you’re not going to think it too personal but perhaps at this time of the year when it’s all carols, choirs and tinsel, we can afford to be just that little bit more sentimental than usual.

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I’m going back to 1974, just a handful of days before Christmas that year. Just out of university, with plenty of time, it seemed, on my hands, I’d been fishing a stretch of river hard.

I’d fallen in love with it deeply. I was always alone and there was something about its deep, dark intimacy that sets my nerves tingling even today when I think of it. There was, and is, a small, isolated country church opposite my favourite swim. This is important to my tale.

On this particular evening, the church was holding an early Christmas service and it glowed, yellow and mellow in the pitch December night.

I was fishing my usual bend under the alder tree with methods that would probably seem primitive these days. My indication was a dough bobbin and, as the worshippers were breaking into Silent Night, the bobbin wavered its way up to the rod butt.

A huge roach was responsible. On my scales it weighed two pounds 13 ounces. Nearly three pounds. Almost unbelievably massive for me in those days.

I can visualize that roach now, in the torchlight, under the stars, with my little church of worship as a background. So exquisite was everything, so precious the memory that it has stayed with me all these endless Christmases since.

That evening was very still, very quiet, even mild as I trudged over the meadows back to my mini van. My feet might have been dragging in the sodden grass but my heart was soaring.

It was during that month that my mother was diagnosed terminally ill with my father to follow her soon afterwards. It was because of them that I decided to make my permanent home in Norfolk and I’ve been here, more or less, ever since.

As it happened that roach itself had experienced and weathered potential disaster.

Some of us oldies will remember the dreaded disease columnaris that decimated Norfolk roach in the late ‘60s. Countless thousands of roach died during those years yet, my Christmas fish had survived albeit with the loss of scales and even a couple of fins.

I drove to Blakeney hoping somehow that bold roach could be a totem, a harbinger of good fortune and recovery from the brink. It didn’t happen for my parents but that fish gave me hope that particular Christmas that there can always be hope.

I lost my mother and, for many years, my river roach too. That’s why, in large part, they’re just so important to me today.

We can’t afford to squander our county’s icons and it’s wonderful to see roach coming back to rivers nationwide.

It’s what true, real angling needs far more than massive carp stocked in commercial pits.

• It’s time to report another Christmas gift. There’s a North Norfolk estate lake that might just be resurrected from the oblivion that has befallen so many of these historic, aquatic jewels. The lake now is moribund but there are sensible plans for it.

I feel if this one water can be restored, it can act as a model for many others where disaster similarly has befallen. There is nothing much we personally can do about melting ice caps or China’s power stations but we are in a position to do our best for our environment back home.

If everyone, everywhere did their bit, what a different world we would inhabit.

There’s much to be thankful for and very many people to thank.

Our rivers do seem to be coming back. There might be hope for our estate lakes. Increasingly, many of our pits do seem to be looking after themselves. We’re seeing more bass along our coasts. Our wild brown trout are being encouraged on very many of our small chalkstreams. There are many good commercials to ease newcomers into the sport and satisfy match men and those of us needing a quick fix.

In short, for the East Anglian angler, it’s looking pretty good, I think, for 2013.

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