John Bailey: The dilemmas of angling are all part of a wider world

At last! After years of trying, JB gets himself that Wensum barbel he has dedicated himself toPictur

At last! After years of trying, JB gets himself that Wensum barbel he has dedicated himself toPicture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

One day last week I was on the upper Bure, where I found a shoal of dace. I had to give up after the first two were snatched by jack pike.

At the same time exactly, Robbie Northman was fishing the middle Wensum and had sourced a relatively rare roach shoal. He landed one fish and then the jacks were all over the swim, forcing him to quit. Later that day Geoff Durham was on the lower Wensum, onto a roach shoal as well, but after three fish he, too, had pike trouble and had to leave. We have a problem!

This summer's clear water has allowed me to follow the fortunes of two good-sized upper river roach shoals, made up of 200 or so fish each between perhaps four ounces and a pound and a half. I haven't fished for these, simply watched their lives unfold, one shoal in the Yare, one in the Wensum. Because the shoals were the only ones for miles I soon saw they attracted attendant posses of jack pike up to 8lb in weight. It was like watching ship convoys being shadowed by submarines. Over the course of 10 weeks, those rare shoals of fish have shrunk to less than half their original sizes so it is a case of them being hammered by jack pike in the summer and cormorants in the winter.

Geoff and I have emailed endlessly about this because we are of an age, we have seen it all before and we care, passionately. What to do? Do you fish at all in fear of concentrating silver fish and attracting pike to the feast? Do you risk hooking a fish, knowing it is instantly more vulnerable to attack? Do you use far heavier gear than you would normally, simply so you can play the roach hard and often swing even a pound-plus fish out of pike attack territory? Or do you do something about the numbers of jack pike themselves? Or is this playing God in a world where we are ever more realising this is a dangerous option?

Of course, it is worth remembering that when roach numbers were high, in the 1950s for example, pretty well all pike were removed, many ending up on the table. My mum made fish cakes out of them. I'm never saying this was right practise but…?

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Whilst Geoff and I will continue to beat ourselves up about this, I notice a group called Fish 21 is conducting a survey into what baits we use. A large amount of what we put on our hooks in this day and age comes from fishmeal and the sea. Krill is especially prevalent in a lot of modern pellets and boilies of course, but should we be so 'hooked' on a bait so essential for the whole marine environment and food structure? We might not be consuming as much as the fish farming industry, but we are still hardly helping life out at sea are we? A few of my friends have just come back from a great session on the Wye using sweetcorn so should we look back to older baits that have less detrimental impact perhaps?

In the heat of the high summer, many rivers were closed because of lack of dissolved oxygen and fear for the fish if put under stress. That was good, but could we do better? Do we need keepnets in this day and age, apart from in matches of course? Do we all treat our fish on the bank with the care the very best carp anglers show? With the pike season approaching, are our unhooking techniques truly up to scratch?

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We anglers like to think of ourselves as guardians of the stream, but how much do we care really and how much do we do in practise? In the mid-Wensum valley, it now looks as though a massive waste recycling unit might be built yards from the river. Everywhere else in Europe such a thing would never happen because of the likelihood of pollution, but we allow things like this to happen here. Why? Why didn't we anglers do more and campaign tirelessly for the region's most iconic river? Are too many of us too happy to sit behind otter fences or on the banks of artificially-stocked trout waters taking the 'I'm all right, Jack' approach to our fishing life?

Ok. Enough already. I'm happy and amazed to confirm reports that a few weeks back I caught my first Wensum barbel for years. The fish was 'only' eight pounds or so, but the point is it exists and the Wensum can still support wonderful fish of many species. It is highly likely that fish had been stocked by the Environment Agency some years back but had survived and grown into a stunning, vibrant adult capable of bringing tears of joy to the eyes of this particular adult angler. The lesson is surely clear. We need more juvenile barbel going into a river that can obviously play host to them. We need then to protect them from predation and above all, ensure that river, and all our rivers, stay free of pollution in the decades to come.

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