John Bailey: Mug fish, mug fisherman... and a question of Trust

PUBLISHED: 11:46 28 November 2017 | UPDATED: 11:46 28 November 2017

John Bailey with friend Adam Ford  - if you think pike are ‘mugs’ don’t expect to catch many! Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey with friend Adam Ford - if you think pike are 'mugs' don't expect to catch many! Picture: John Bailey


Is it just me, or are so-called 'mug fish' increasingly a capture of the past?

I suspect the very term ‘mug fish’ was coined in the 1970s when we brave young specimen hunters had a clever answer for everything. Certainly ‘mug fish’ seemed more prolific in those days, chub that came out half a dozen times a season, pike twice in a day and carp you could rely on playing ball. I once caught an estate lake tench four nights in a row. Bo, the celebrated Wensum barbel back then, was caught an estimated 60 or 70 times in her lifetime. Bo? Bo Derek? The perfect 10? No bells ringing? Guess you have to be over 50 and had to have been there to get that one.

But the point is that Bo and her ‘mug’ mates seem to me to be fish of history. Notable fish appear to be ‘hard’ now and sometimes ‘impossible’. Catch a good fish today and you will have earned it, for sure. Make no mistake, that even applies to pike, perhaps even more so with pike. A big pike these days is certainly no ‘mug’.

Why? Rivers certainly and many still waters are often clearer than they were in the ‘70s and ‘80s and flood water definitely clears faster today than it once did. Perhaps our methods and baits have so improved fish have had to grow more wary to compensate and remain safe. Perhaps there are simply fewer big fish than there were, so they can afford to be more discriminating as competition decreases.

Predation plays the biggest role, for sure. When mug fish were plentiful, otters were pretty much unheard of and cormorants rare as dace teeth. Today, big fish have to be constantly on red alert to the otter threat and fish below two or even three pounds face daily cormorant persecution. A roach will never be safe even if it reaches two pounds so it will be nervy, hard-wired, spooky and completely un-mug-like all its life.

In fact, the only mug on my fishing radar seems to be me, JB himself. Let me explain. Six days ago, I did an afternoon’s filming for the Angling Trust, the sport’s only real credible organisational body. I ought to point out I have been a so-called Angling Ambassador for the Angling Trust for some years but have never really got behind it, often being openly critical of it. I only even consented to the filming because it gave me the platform to talk about predation and on that score you couldn’t have made the script up.

As the afternoon darkened and the cameras rolled, the skies over Ringland, Taverham and Lenwade were black with cormorants. If you watch the film when it comes out on the Angling Trust’s website, you will be horrified. It truly was like something from a Hammer Horror movie. No surprise there, but as the sun sank, an otter popped out of the pit we were filming on, ran past an astounded crew and slid into the Wensum.

Quite an afternoon, but it was my conversation later with Mark Lloyd, CEO of the Angling Trust, that made this particular ‘mug’ feel stupid. I have dragged my feet with the Trust and now, at last it seems I get the picture. The Angling Trust is pretty much the only body we have that can fight for us on anything like a large scale or a national stage. It is to the Trust the media go when they want information. It is to the legal department of the Trust clubs and owners go if their waters are polluted and they seek financial redress. It is the Trust that challenges government, water authorities and even EU fishing quotas. If the Trust isn’t worth 50p a week of true anglers’ money, then I don’t know what is.

Money, I now realise, is not the only or even the main issue. The Trust, Mark told me, has 11,000 individual members – 11,000 out of a supposed two million or so fisher folk. The letter ‘A’ doesn’t stand for Angling but for Apathy.

Let’s look at it like this and go back to the cormorant problem all our UK fisheries face. If the RSPB (of which I am a member) decides to challenge any suggestion of a cull that the Angling Trust might put forward, then membership numbers count. Is a democratically-elected government going to pay heed to an organisation claiming one million members or one admitting to 11,000?

As a birder and as an angler both, how can I explain these different levels of commitment to our totemic organisations? Perhaps there are more ‘mugs’ amongst fishermen than amongst the fish we hope to catch?

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