John Bailey: A fishing photograph of a forgotten age

he Dee image that sparked my interest

The Dee image that sparked my interest - Credit: John Bailey

I’ll be in Norfolk today,  when this column hits the paper and website.

I’ll be trying to catch a humongous carp, but my mind will be here and there,  a large part of it in mid-Wales. It’s all down to a photograph you see, discovered in an old house there, a hall really I suppose.

The image had survived the damp and had been framed, but looked largely forgotten today. Indeed, the owner had to think a while before concluding it had been taken in 1920 or thereabouts and showed his grandfather and great uncle with an extraordinary catch of 27 large salmon from the river Dee.

The lads look, what, early teens, smartly dressed and reservedly proud of what has to be an historic catch for anglers of such tender age. I couldn’t help but speculate. The Dee has historically been a back end river so probably the fish were caught on an autumnal weekend home from school or even during the October half term?

I wondered about the method and gear the boys had used to amass their catch. Had they spun for those salmon, perhaps with a Devon minnow, Malloch casting reel and heavy trolling rod? Or had they used the fly, with a greased silk line, fished close to the surface in the manner popularised by Arthur Wood a few years earlier? Our young anglers certainly seem prosperous enough to have wielded the best split cane rods matched perhaps with Hardy Perfect reel. Yes, you see I am beginning to take a real interest in older tackle, especially when I can link it to the anglers of a past age who actually used the stuff. Then it becomes alive for me as the architect of countless fishing dream days.

Anyway, that is how the Dee could be 100 years back, a truly phenomenal salmon river. There are still salmon in the Dee, but a day’s catch of 27 fish? You might as well hope to catch Nessie. From mid-Wales I was off to the border of that glorious country with England, to fish the Wye that runs between them both. A century back the Wye knocked even the Dee into a cocked hat when it came to salmon catches, but not today. Have you watched the George Monbiot film on YouTube called Rivercide? You must if you care about rivers. The proliferation of poultry farms in the Wye catchment has resulted in a tsunami of chicken poo getting into the river and its tributaries with a resulting explosion of phosphate levels.

Enoka holds our Wye barbel... finally!

Enoka holds our Wye barbel... finally! - Credit: John Bailey

I found the Wye running like green pea soup, a thick sludge of algae that was driving oxygen levels down the scale, smothering the weed growth and killing off invertebrate life. There were reports of dead salmon all along the river and I even laid off trying to catch one of my beloved barbel for several days, so toxic had the river become. When weather conditions improved, Enoka and I finally wrinkled one out, but blimey, how hard was that? Only 10 years ago, this river sparkled and flashed with big barbel rolling everywhere. You don’t have to go back a century to see just how quickly we are tossing away our heritage.

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Most of this travelling is to do with my work as consultant for Mortimer and Whitehouse, Gone Fishing which is coming back to BBC 2 very soon. Okay, in some small way, this is a plug for the show but there is more to what I have to report. It doesn’t matter where you travel in the UK, we are messing up on river management. Paul, especially, would love to make stronger environmental statements in the show, but as this is considered entertainment, he is dissuaded from doing so. But believe me, the carnage we have witnessed on our Norfolk rivers is happening just about everywhere.. and quickly too.

I realise I’m only a humble angling correspondent and my job is not to be political, even if I did understand politics that is! However, as a simple river man, you have to ask what is going on here. I fished with an engineer working on HS2 on my travels, a man who reckons that it will cost way over the projected £50 billion forecast. How many sewers could be updated with that type of money and how much effluent would be kept from entering our rivers? Is not the future of our water supplies more important than a passenger getting into Leeds from London with a few minutes shaved off the travel time? 

Going back to that carp I hope to be catching this week, perhaps even at this very moment as you read on, I know I’m a lucky lad to be given the chance. I’ve had a good few Norfolk carp quests in my time, notably perhaps my pursuit of Lenwade legend, Eric the leather 40 years ago. I failed with Eric through lack of nerve at the crucial moment and it happened like this. I think it was 1984 and I know it was July, just before the Norwich School broke up, where I was teaching and sadly not a pupil!

A humid night , cloudy, stiflingly warm and still. I’d tracked Eric down the lake to a place overhung with alders where the water was all but black. I’d never seen Eric feed off the top before but that night I trickled in dog biscuits, a new bait then, and as the minutes passed, Eric’s greed and confidence both grew. A little before true dark, his whole head was above the surface, as though he were pivoting on his pectorals and the biscuits were going down with gob-smacking slurps. Yes, this was my moment and I bottled it. I convinced myself my line wasn't up to the job and I opted to return the following night with stepped-up gear. Of course, I was there and Eric was not. I never got a chance at him again that was nearly as good and my failure was complete and deserved.

I like to think I’ve not shirked like this ever since and that night taught me a lesson I learned well. It’s that old saying, “I’d rather die regretting what I’ve done rather than what I’ve not done”. We only get one shot at a big fish and at life. And at saving our rivers for our kids too.