John Bailey: Learning to fish anew, with some help from Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse

Bob Mortimer, Paul Whitehouse and JB enjoy a pike caught on a tiny bait. Picture: John Bailey

Bob Mortimer, Paul Whitehouse and JB enjoy a pike caught on a tiny bait. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

There are many anglers here in East Anglia who do so much for their sport, but often under the radar, men and women content to let their good work do the talking.

Tim Ellis is very much one of these, a deeply intelligent, observant and concerned river watcher who has done great things for stretches of the Wensum. I hope he won't mind my summarising a recent mail he sent to a local MP in the hope of it landing on Environment Secretary, Michael Gove's desk sometime in the near future.

In this email, Tim headlines the problems of the Wensum and all East Anglian rivers. These are over abstraction, diffuse water pollution, over-silting of spawning gravels, the legacy of seriously-damaging deep river bed dredging, over predation of fish stocks by cormorants and otters, the effect of invasive alien species like signal crayfish, the decline in invertebrate life and intrusive pesticide pollution.

What Tim might have added is that the problems of the rivers spill over into the lakes along the valleys, too. Many of the issues he so forcefully highlights affect the whole catchment area of rivers, streams, ponds, pools and pits. The fact that Norfolk County Council seems recklessly intent on forcing through the construction of a waste recycling unit on the banks of the middle Wensum only adds to this cocktail of horrors. In short, without pristine water, a whole environment begins to implode. This is what perceptive anglers and countrymen like Tim Ellis are worrying about, way ahead of professional naturalists who aren't nearly as aware of the impending catastrophe.

The show, though, must go on. Whilst natural fish in natural habitats are harder to locate and to catch, they are still there if you appreciate that times are changing. Barbel and roach have never been so nomadic in the 40 years I have fished for them. Chub spend most of their time under marginal vegetation, or lurking in undercuts, or submerged alder roots. You have to take these changes in fish behaviour into the reckoning if you are going to catch them.

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On many of the stillwaters I fish, life has changed just as radically. As I have written before, cormorant predation has meant that silver fish are individually far smaller than they were just a few years back. This has suited several predatory perch populations but in some waters pike have had to change their feeding priorities massively. In very many of the stills I fish, pike are now eating smaller pike, if they are big enough to do so, or larger numbers of smaller silver fish. These latter are often only two inches or at the most three inches long.

The upshot is that baits of four to 10 ounces aren't necessarily what even big pike are looking for. Over the past two years, I have had great success with much smaller baits than I would have ever wanted to use back last century. This has involved completely new approaches, especially regarding terminal tackle. Single hooks, small trebles, hair-rigged baits, lighter leads, lighter floats and lighter, better balanced lines, rods and reels have all triumphed.

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I wouldn't like to fish light like this for pike at long range because of the dangers of bringing fish long distances over gravel bars or through dormant weed beds. However, as the shoals of small silvers hide in the marginal reed beds for most of their life, this is where the pike are hunting and where I am very happy to fish for them. Hooking a twenty pound pike two rod lengths out is a less hazardous task than bringing one in from over eighty yards distant.

I'm not saying we use lighter gear unthinkingly or whenever there is any danger to a hooked pike. I'm not saying pike won't take a 12oz herring and at distance, too. What I am emphasising is that in changing times our fishing has to change too in order to be successful.

Recently I was out with great mates Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer. The latter took a magnificent pike on a roach barely an ounce in weight. Bob played it beautifully with gentle hands and the fish caused us not a second of anxiety. In the net, the single hooks dropped free of the jaws in seconds.

All in all, it was a lovely piking experience but in some ways, sticking plaster, if you like. There are ways to catch fish in these troubled times from troubled waters. But, like the excellent Tim Ellis, I'd like to hear the Environment Secretary telling the statutory bodies to pull out their fingers and actually get things done to save our waters.

I can't finish this without commenting on Sunday's Countryfile which ran a report of a bittern restoration programme in Cambridgeshire. It's all right bringing bitterns back, but not to waters that aren't fenced. Don't these naturalists realise that otter like bitterns every bit as much as they like bream!

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