John Bailey: A snapshot of seven fishing decades
PUBLISHED: 06:10 25 April 2018
Shortly, I’m giving an angling lecture and it occurred to me at my almost biblical age there might be some benefit in running through the angling years of my life spent here in East Anglia.
I guess this piece is putting my foot on the first rung of the ladder, letting me see if there’s sense in the idea.
To be honest, the 1950s is a decade of the flimsiest memories, probably rose-tinted. I seem to remember hot summers, gravels teeming with minnows and tiny roach taken from Holkham Lake. Now, it all seems wonderful but I guess I’ve forgotten the tears of frustration, the years of never-ending tangles.
The 1960s flood back in much clearer focus. That is when I caught my first tench, oh joyous day. In the Glaven, the Stiffkey, the upper Wensum and tiny streams that flowed into the North Sea everywhere it seemed, there were wild browns to be caught by a lad with a seven foot rod and a can of worms. There appeared, too, to be crucians in every pit and pond you could cast a maggot in. Wild carp, too, those lean, grey, thrilling specimens that would come along and break your four pound line with gay abandon. In the sea, off the shingle beaches of the Norfolk coast, there were mackerel in shoals I couldn’t believe.
The 1970s were great times. There were still those huge, Wensum brown trout lurking in the mill pools which I saw but could never catch. During winter nights, my mates and I caught creamy-white cod off the surf-thrashed coast of Cley and Salthouse. With the wind screaming and stars sparkling, those were the greatest of nights. The chub were just emerging on the Norfolk and Suffolk rivers, too, but it was the roach that made those years. Those legions of massive two and three pound roach that infested every yard of running water it seemed. Those mornings, blissful dawns indeed, when big fish rolled all the way towards the rising sun. There were herons then aplenty and lapwings called on the flood plains. They were the great days.
By the 1980s, the dredging that had begun to eat away at our rivers had gathered pace. The roach were on the way out on most of our rivers but, now, it was the brave decade of carp, big carp everywhere. The estate lakes were still riding high with big rudd, tench, bream and perch all to be caught from the most beautiful of surroundings. The Broads were coming back, especially the River Thurne system for pike. This was a time when thirties once again abounded and a forty was round the next bend in the reed beds. The barbel were doing well, the chub were growing apace but the roach, though big, were in terminal decline when it came to numbers. As for the sea, I hadn’t taken out my cod rods for a decade.
By the 1990s, at least the dredgers had gone from the rivers but the estate lakes were well in decline. In the sea, catches faltered and the Broads were up and down but with some great bream, perch and pike to be had in pockets. It was during this decade that the cormorants really began to emerge as a factor and, it wouldn’t be long before the otters, too, took their place at the table of predators.
We are into the second decade now of this new century of ours. The Noughties were, of course, otter plagued. At some stage, it seemed that wherever you went, rod in hand, the otters had been there before you. There were times when we all cried over the carnage. And yet, alongside the tears, there was joy. The big gravel pits seemed to be coming into their own with a never-ending procession of massive tench, bream, carp and even stillwater roach. If the rivers were teetering, it seemed that the big stills, estate lakes apart, were flourishing.
Would I choose a single year to go back to, to relive in full? I guess the late ‘60s would have to be appealing. Oh to be able to fish the Thurne system for an entire winter for pike. Or, I’d quite fancy 1974 when, for the first time, I felt truly at ease catching East Anglian river roach and when there seemed to be countless thousands wherever I walked and cast. Or, perhaps I’d choose 2006 or 2007. There were still fabulous rudd at Felbrigg and East Anglian chub, for me, were probably at their peak. There were still barbel to be caught then, too, and I’d just discovered bass fishing in the height of the summer months. There were even a few big Wensum roach to be caught if you knew where to look and it seemed as though the perch were well and truly back throughout East Anglian waters.
What’s your greatest fishing year, I wonder? Would you choose to go back in time, or are you happy with what we have now to enjoy? Has our fishing lost more than it’s gained, or are we content with what we’ve got? The only thing we can say for certain is that year upon year, angling has changed and no-one can tell where the future will take it.