John Bailey: Angling and the magic wheel

Roger Brookes, fish carver extraordinaire with his John Dory

Roger Brookes, fish carver extraordinaire, with his John Dory - Credit: John Bailey

The writer David Profumo sent me a change of address notification the other day and this drove me to look up that marvellous anthology he compiled with Graham Swift nearly 40 years back, The Magic Wheel.

Whilst I am name dropping great authors, can I add that I interviewed Graham Swift back in the 90s for a Radio Four program and a more generous, thoughtful, angling-mad Booker Prize winner you will never find. 

But, anyway, the title of the book is taken from a poem of 1835 called The Taking Of The Salmon by Thomas Todd Stoddart. It refers to the dash of the salmon creating “the music of the reel” and likens it to the sound of “the magic wheel”. You have to read the whole verse to get the full impact, but I hope my précis gives you the gist of it.

There is something magic about a reel, a centre pin at least, at full bore when a crazed fish is trying to pull the spool off its spindle. However, I like to think there is something else going and perhaps the title is about more than a piece of kit.

I have always been struck by the way one happening in an angling life seems to spread out to reach and encompass another one. It is a little like a stone being dropped into a pond: the ripples form a magic wheel of beauty that radiate out to wash over the pond’s entirety. Another, less poetic, way of saying this is that one thing leads to another. And this is how my own Magic Wheel happened this week.

I first met David Profumo on a press trip to Canada to catch salmon from the awe-inspiring Miramichi river. He was a lovely man, we were a merry crew, it was just the salmon that were a bit odd. The expedition was timed to coincide with the return of spawned salmon (kelts we’d call them) to the estuary, and instead of dying like they would here, these fish feasted on a type of sprat and grew healthy and strong again. They might have been salmon reborn to the Canadians, but they were still kelts to us and it never seemed quite “right” somehow to be fishing for them.

So, salmon were on my mind because of David, but that self same day, I was asked to do a bit of research into carved, wooden salmon that were all the rage between the 1860s and the 1930s, give or take a few years. Good examples from those decades can command thousands of pounds at auctions and  a friend had found one, a bit beaten up, in an old salmon fisher’s hut, down in Herefordshire. Its tail had largely gone, its eye had fallen out and its mounting board had been consumed by woodworm. As it was, I knew it would be worthless, but I began to think about the whole craft of the fish carver and remembered there is one master still at work in the UK to this day.

This thought drove me to look up James Ellis’s details in my copious but chaotic address book. Now, Jim Ellis must be Norfolk’s greatest living all-round field sportsperson, with the obvious exception of Shirley Deterding, of course. There is hardly a creature on the planet that Jim hasn’t tangled with at some time or another and he hasn’t won the nickname Jungle Jim by staying at home Mileham way all his life.

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Over the years, I’ve relished every minute in this fascinating man’s company, but it is as an angler that I have known him best. His rod, his gun, his camera have accompanied Jim the world over and I remembered that he commissioned the carving of a giant Nile perch and a yard-of -silver sea trout taken on two of his various expeditions. There was also the most beautiful carving of all, I recalled. When Jim netted a small pond on his land , all he found was one large crucian carp there along with a male great crested newt. He had the carp carved with of course the newt coiled around its shoulders.

Extraordinary detail on Roger Brookes's John Dory carving

Extraordinary detail on Roger Brookes's John Dory carving - Credit: John Bailey

But who was the carver of these masterpieces, the man keeping the ancient craft alive? Aha, right next to Jim’s details, I found it..”Carver... Roger Brooks.” An internet search led me to a phone number and soon I was en route to my carver’s country cottage. The event was everything you would have imagined and hoped for. A tiny, time forgotten village. An oak-beamed house of great antiquity. A workshop groaning with oddities and memorabilia and its Master, a woodworker of great skill and huge charm and modesty. My day there flashed past in a haze of fish talk. It soon appeared that over our equally long lives we’d known the same anglers and been fascinated by the same fish species, but never quite had our paths crossed. And his work! OMG! The detail. The painting. He’d even finished a quite glorious John Dory  and made it look more alluring than when it swam the seas.

Roger confided that he is slowing down a little and being choosy about future commissions so there won’t be shoals of his creations swimming out of the shed forever. However, he has taken to Gone Fishing with Paul and Bob and said that if I or they had a particularly special fish we’d like to see for eternity, or what we have left of it, then he’d get his tools out for us!

Now, it just so happens that Whitehouse and I had been talking about the wondrous perch and lamenting that we hadn’t been seeing or catching enough of them these days... even during all the years of filming Gone Fishing, we’d only had a couple of big stripeys to show for our efforts. A carved perch, I thought. Hallelujah. We must have one of those... but how? From where?

That’s when the Magic Wheel turned again! I remembered that Norfolk’s best young angler, Robbie Northman,i s coming to fish with me this Friday. He’s bringing his lure gear with him and he has the whole river to go at so if I am ever going to have the photos and measurements of a monster perch to give to Roger, then Friday will be that day.   

So, thank you, Mr Profumo, for getting in touch and spinning my angling wheel again. Magic or what? You decide.