John Bailey: Surviving the age gap

John Bailey with a beautiful common carp - fish which can live as long as man. John Bailey with a beautiful common carp - fish which can live as long as man.

by John Bailey
Friday, October 26, 2012
2:16 PM

Recently, the annual Tackle and Guns Show took place in the Midlands, the showcase for both the angling and the shooting trade.

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I always go to see old friends and renew acquaintances that would probably die otherwise over time. It’s a great meet and greet experience and it reminds you that the tackle trade is, actually, full of really good, solid, committed people. One of my best ‘meets’ this year was a guy who runs the Woldale syndicate in Lincolnshire.

For those of you of a certain age, Woldale will immediately mean just about everything that’s glamorous about our early carp fishing history. Of all our historic waters it probably ranks only just behind Redmire in the annals. It’s wonderful to hear that Woldale, apparently, is as special as it was in the 1950s, when Richard Walker, Maurice Ingham and the rest of the carping heroes of mid-last century fished there. Not quite as good is the news that some of these very old, very special fish are being taken by otters at quite a rate. Whatever way you look at this, legendary fish of 50, 60 and even 70 years of age deserve a happier end.

Even anglers, never mind non-anglers, often fail to realise just how long particular specimens of particular species can actually live. Carp are not the only ones to make it to an age quite respectable for a human being. Eels are legendary for their longevity. The feeling is that the record fish are frustrated females that never return to spawn in the Sargasso Sea but, instead, remain for decades in their freshwater home waxing fat. Once again, 50 years might well be normal for these massive snakes and three score and 10 is not always out of the question.

I’ll never forget a particular Wensum bend bream. I caught it over three different decades and it had piled on weight each time. I guess that fish couldn’t have failed to have reached 40 years or so the last time I saw it. And who knows, he (or she?) could still be creaking around today. Rather like me.

In most of our waters, I guess that very frequently there are fewer fish than we care to think. This realisation dawned on many of us back in the ‘70s and the ‘80s when we began to recognize recaptures more objectively.

Pike are particularly easy to recognise as previously caught fish if you have some decent photographs. Those leopard markings of theirs are as unique as our own fingertips. If the same 20lb pike, for example, keeps being re-caught from your local water then it’s a pretty safe bet that there aren’t many others lying low and evading you. It’s the same with barbel, chub and even tench and carp. And if you’re lucky enough to stumble across a big wild brown trout in one of our miniature chalk streams, then it has to be handled with kid gloves. Chances are it’s top of the class and will take a long time to be replaced should disaster befall it.

It’s sometimes disappointing to catch a fish that has been landed by someone else before, sometimes on several occasions. However, recaptures can tell us how brave fish are, such born survivors, clinging onto such a hard life. That stab on the back or slash of scales tells of a cormorant attack withstood in a fish’s youth. The ragged tail speaks of an otter close to its prey, but frustrated in the end. And how about the roach with pike damage healed over? What traumas did all these fish undergo? These type of wounds speak of a tooth and claw world. They also mark these fish out as being special, fish that can be watched for through the remainder of their lives if they are caught, of course, or observed close-up in clear water.

We haven’t even talked about the perils of drought, flood, abstraction and pollution. And never forget, at the beginning, there’s more than a million to one chance against an egg ever making it to the adult fish. That two pound roach, therefore, or three pound perch, truly is a living miracle in the natural world.

Fish have characters. As carp anglers especially will know, some fish are mugs, caught more often than their peers. At the other end of the spectrum, some fish, I’ve found, are all but uncatchable and can live out their lives unsuspected by us anglers clueless of their existence. I believe this is especially the magic of some pike, but more of that in my pieces as the winter seeps in.

You’d think that fish of the same species would act in much the same way, but they don’t. Take barbel. I recently met up with Karen Twine, an EA fishery scientist, working on her PhD on barbel populations of the River Ouse. Out of 20 electro-tagged barbel, it was fascinating to learn that some shoaled and others didn’t. It was also extraordinary that most of the fish stayed close to home whilst just two or three were almost constantly on the fin, nomadic as a Bedouin trader of old.

Also at Tackle and Guns was the excellent Martin Salter of the Angling Trust. My own allegiance to the Trust is well known and I’d love everyone who reads this column to join immediately. But I guess you won’t. Before anyone spends £20 these days, there have to be incentives. And Martin has come up with this idea. How about a Club Passport Scheme? The idea is that if you join the Angling Trust, this will give you the opportunity to buy a limited number of day tickets on club waters throughout the land – go to www.anglingtrust.net.

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