John Bailey: The end of a great Norfolk angling initiative

John Bailey with Buckley father and son and perhaps one of the last barbel from the era of NACA barb

John Bailey with Buckley father and son and perhaps one of the last barbel from the era of NACA barbel stockings. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

There was a great deal of angling excitement in the air during the early 1980s when a good number of madly-keen East Anglian fishermen realised that waters couldn't look after themselves like they had done previously.

A few of us, all in our early 30s, founded The Cromer Ridge Angling Preservation Society, fondly known as CRAPS. Our objectives were to understand and reverse the decline in many of the estate lakes in the north of Norfolk. Sad to say, we hardly achieved the world, but CRAPS was a start and by 1984, it had become subsumed into a more dynamic organisation, Save the Wensum Action Group or, of course, SWAG.

This second movement was fired by the discovery of polluted groundwater in the vicinity of a major chemical factory adjacent to the Norwich ring road. The ramifications were enormous, with implications touching on the future of the Wensum itself and the health of the city's water supply. I became intimately involved and these were dark and even dangerous times with a drama it's hard now to believe. In essence, SWAG became a battle between those who cared passionately for the river and the valley environment and the business interests.

After a two year see-saw battle, I suppose we have to admit that SWAG was ultimately defeated, but it had gone down fighting, head held high. Virtually all those concerned with CRAPS had played an integral part in SWAG and I don't think our enthusiasm to better our fisheries had been punctured in the least. It would seem not because the next step was to form the Norfolk Anglers Conservation Association, better known, of course, as NACA. NACA was driven by legendary names from the later 1980s, perhaps most notable of all, Chris Turnbull. It was an organisation of flare, drive and imagination, especially in its early years and a lot of what NACA did was groundbreaking.

At its height, NACA was inspirational. Hundreds of East Anglian anglers became members and it even ran a glossy, high-quality magazine. NACA also provided for its members some sensational fishing, Bawburgh Lakes in particular breaking national records. This was all fine and dandy, but what NACA did above all was to show that anglers were active conservationists and could work for the greater good.

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I'm talking primarily here about the way that NACA took on the stewardship of the River Wensum at Sayers Meadow in Lyng and turned the stretch into a groundbreaking example of how rivers should be managed. Truly, Sayers Meadow throughout the 1990s and the earlier part of this century was an example to river anglers everywhere of how modern management could reap dividends.

What NACA did at Sayers Meadow was to focus on the modern emphasis of habitat. Riffles at Sayers Meadow were established along with endless amounts of woody debris and even channel reshaping. Perhaps, above all, NACA worked hard to help establish the viability of stocking, with small barbel which grew from tiny tots to record breakers. What NACA established at Sayers Meadow caught the eye everywhere. The Environment Agency were willing partners in the experiment and bought into its successes. Throughout the UK, Sayers Meadow proved that anglers could work together to help themselves, to help their fishing and to help the environment. Never did we founder members of CRAPS ever anticipate that it would develop into something so grand and so groundbreaking. All credit to the scores of East Anglian anglers who contributed to this remarkable success story.

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A couple of weeks back I heard the desperately sad news that NACA is to be disbanded after what was, in the main, a glorious 30-year history. The group had its detractors, for sure and, from time to time, courted controversy but, in retrospect, I feel it ought to be held up and admired in a shining light.

Nor could NACA's demise have come at a worse time environmentally. I think most of us would agree our rivers are beset by even more problems than they were in 1986/87. There are endless dark clouds gathering over our valleys and we anglers have to look somewhere for salvation.

CRAPS, SWAG and NACA have all gone. Perhaps the Angling Trust can be the body to bring us hope in 2018 and beyond?

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