John Bailey: A few harsh lessons from the last days on the river

John Bailey scenting some chub scales found on the bank. When they are fresh, you can actually smell

John Bailey scenting some chub scales found on the bank. When they are fresh, you can actually smell the fish vividly. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

As the river season flows towards its end, all the angling there becomes more tense, more pressured.

You want fish, but, too, you want to drink in every sensation, imprint every memory, learn from every lesson. Some of these lessons are good, some, sadly, are not quite so good. Monday, March 5 was one such day spent on the River Wensum.

The day before, you might just remember, saw the afternoon pelt with hard, freezing rain that melted the last of the snow and poured it into our rivers.

Temperatures sank like a stone and this proved deadly for some.

On the morning of the Monday, I was out guiding, walking the river, none of us catching anything, none of us even scenting a bite.

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It was easy to tell why. Two sets of scales from recently killed chub were bankside and, just around the river's bend, we actually witnessed an otter hunting for a few minutes.

Quite evidently in the river that had become a refrigerator, the chub, all the fish come to that, were easy targets. I know I support otters to a large degree but, believe me, I was sickened to my stomach.

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There were a few moments to brighten that dark, deadly day. I saw a bittern rise from a reed bed just ten yards away from me and my guests. That's a sight indeed.

I also flushed out a dark brown and black ground bird, about the size of a partridge which I simply couldn't identify.

It was only a five second sighting but I like to think myself a good enough birder to have pulled off that particular recognition. But, sadly, the day ended badly, centred around the half-eaten corpse of a water vole. There were otter spraints all around. Let's not forget that the otter is the king of the omnivores.

Wednesday 5th saw the river in a kinder mood. Steve and I managed to fluke out a few chub, including a personal best five pounder for him.

Still the water was cold and the bites were gentle and even though I've witnessed thousand of takes on a quiver tip, I have to say throughout the day I was constantly baffled.

I guess one of the hardest jobs in coarse angling is to decipher exactly what is happening on a quiver tip.

Are those bites from fish? Are the pulls simply induced by the current or by pieces of floating weed? Anglers have debated in anguish for decades. I guess the general rule that if the pull round is slow, gentle and steady, something in the water and not scaly is probably the culprit.

If the take is jagged, the tip jabbing round, then you are almost certainly looking at a fish. The question when to strike remains and my instructions were blatantly and palpably wrong several times during the course of the day.

I've been catching chub for 40 years and it is sobering to remember that you can still get it demoralisingly wrong. That's angling for you. The true teacher of humility.

Saturday 10th March was a strange one. During the morning, the river was going down steadily and mouth-wateringly.

During the early afternoon, it came up a foot, the water temperature dropped and the colour turned to coffee.

We'd had enough of chub. If you can ever say such a thing. We had decided to fish for dace and roach on the float, feeding maggots.

I'm afraid to report that this day, too, was something of a disaster. The tragedy is that on our rivers now you are more likely to catch a fish of over four pounds than under four ounces. To make things worse, what fish we did catch, and they were pitifully few, had all, repeat all, been attacked by cormorants.

When are we going to wake up to the fact of the cormorant invasion?

And I include anglers in this question as well. But the main culprits are the fishery scientists, the people employed to enhance our river systems, not see them decline.

We are soon going to be asked to pay for our new Environment Agency rod licence, which is fine. But it's how the money is spent that I query. For me, the mantra of habitat is old, overused and worn out.

I'd like to demand that our licence money is spent in three ways. First up, a third goes to habitat. A second third goes to breeding and stocking new fish. The final third is spent on predator control.

It's just as simple as that.

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