John Bailey: How the humble sausage saved my season

John Bailey with his last-gasp chub... and the sausage that caught it. Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey with his last-gasp chub... and the sausage that caught it. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Very early, before dawn broke on the last day of the river season, I lay waiting for the alarm, mulling over the March 14ths of my past.

The story of George came easily to mind, the ancient member of my northern fishing club when I was 10 or so. He always came on the coach and fished all the matches, but at weigh in, we'd find him invariably fast asleep.

'Nowt. Not a sausage,' he'd always say.

One year in the early 1960s, on the last river Sunday, my club went to the Trent and my mates and I decided the wheeze would be to creep up to George once he'd nodded off, reel in for him and replace his maggots with a fat, half sausage. It all went fine and dandy, but when we followed the scalesmen along the bank, we found George up and about, pacing the bank eagerly.

'Got a blooming big chub,' he said. 'And hanging out of its gob was this huge great sausage.'

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It took a long while before I could see the funny, rather sweet and undeniably just side of the story, but I'm glad that I did in time for last week and the last day of the river season. Of course, it's no surprise that chub like sausages; in fact they like just about everything edible on the planet, but I was grateful to George that he came back into my life when he did.

It just so happened at breakfast in the guest house that morning that great fishing pal John Gilman had ordered sausages. So, for old times' sake, as well George's, I decided to nick one for later if the river proved to be tough. It's as well that I did. Though the air was mild on the 14th and the river was dropping, the day didn't look like going out with a bang. Some decent roach early on were a joy, but the chub refused to make an open mouth at anything much at all. By mid-afternoon, I found myself on a long straight which, to be honest, I didn't wholly fancy.

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I remembered the sausage. Half of it went on a size six hook with just a couple of SSGs to keep the line down. In fact, I pretty well freelined that sausage, letting it drift with the current for a full 15 minutes, doing everything right apart from getting eaten. Right at the end of the run, a large alder had fallen half into the water and that is where the take occurred. In fact, the pull was so savage, it half pulled my arm off and the chub scrapped like it never wanted to let that sausage go. In the end, I landed it, but not without a bootful of water and a great deal of embarrassment at being beaten up by a chub that wasn't even a personal best. It certainly wasn't my longed-for seven pounder but it wasn't that far off and it made for a last golden memory of the passing season.

But not quite the last memory as it turned out. Best mate, Ian, had tackled the mill pool above me, which was still a maelstrom of high, foaming floodwater. He'd done what I didn't dare to do. He put on a float big enough to carry a maximum three SSGs and had used it to trot an evil-looking back eddy. Ian pumped in maggots, worked like a Trojan, and as the sun began to dip, hooked into a fish that took him a whole 22 minutes to land. It was another six-pound plus chub, fat as a sausage but taken on two red maggots.

There are two lessons, if you like. A big, smelly bait freelined is more than a chub can resist. And secondly, no matter how violent the current, a heavy but well-balanced float can still deliver the goods.

A couple of weeks back I wrote in defence of keeping the river season and I was far from the only voice in a national angling debate. Perhaps the most sensible view, I feel, has been aired by ex-MP, Martin Salter, now working for the Angling Trust. Martin has been advising us to keep the closed season, but make the dates rather more appropriate. As most coarse species, apart from pike, spawn from mid-May, Martin has suggested fishing until the end of April and perhaps starting again the last week of June. These dates would protect the fish and still let us go fishing for what might prove to be the best six weeks of the river year. This might be a compromise that protects the fish and gives some anglers what they so obviously want.

I failed to see a single kingfisher that last day on the river and that bothered me. In fact, since the Beast from the East roared, I don't recall seeing one at all. However, the bailiff on the stretch did call me over and pointed to a tangle of alders and willows. I looked in as he told me to and there, feeding heavily were perhaps 100 siskins. What busy, beautiful little birds. My heart lifted.

Is there any sport, any human activity, that brings us so close to the heart of nature as angling does, I wonder?

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