John Bailey: A fishing photograph strikes gold

John Bailey with Mahseer

Different days - sadly Stephen Marsh-Smith is no longer with us - Credit: John Bailey

Like you probably, I haven’t been able to do much actual fishing the week gone by, but that doesn’t mean fishing has been far off.

I actually dreamed of catching a big roach last night, as I had done two nights out of the last five! I also got all stirred up by a photograph of me guiding out on the Cauvery river in India, sent as a kind of New Year’s card by an old friend.

There were three points of interest there, apart from the drama of a fairly exotic scene. First, the spectator on the right, momentarily looking away, was Stephen Marsh Smith, founder of the Wye and Usk Foundation, who sadly died in 2020. During the trip, we had serious, but civilised, discussions on the question of restocking rivers from the Wye to the Wensum to the Cauvery itself. We had the same conversation 15 years on, six months before he died, and still found room to disagree, such are the snail’s pace advances in fishery science.
The fish was pretty spectacular, even though you cannot see its full majesty. It was a 70lb mahseer, the type we used to call golden but which are now labelled 'hump backed' , one decision finally made by fishery scientists and yet another many of us would question. Like all its brethren, the fish was electrifying and took us a mile down river in a fight lasting close on two hours. Half a dozen guides and river keepers were needed to dive amidst the rocks to free the fish continually and keep the gear intact. This was not pole fishing for F1s.
But most importantly and poignantly, I was reminded of Subhan, the Indian guide at water level with the fish. There might be a few of you reading who have heard of Subhan, or even fished with him. He was arguably the greatest of the Indian fishing guides and that for my money means the greatest of all fishing guides. He, too, passed away perhaps a decade ago, but not a soul who fished with him will forget. I know there are those in angling circles who question guiding, but perhaps they have not sampled it or have gone with the wrong guide.

Subhan got it spot on. He informed. He taught. He entertained. He inspired. He became a guru as much as a friend and in the wild torrents of the Cauvery, it is not too much to say that on occasion, he saved lives. It was Subhan, when I met him in 1991/92, who inspired me to flirt with the job myself. I’m not a patch on the little Indian maestro I know, but I am glad I did. Guiding has taught me as much as I have taught my clients, though “ friends” is the word I prefer for that is what most have become. Most of all, in these undeniably tough times, guiding has made me realise what is truly important and what perhaps is not.
Another Christmas message came from Neil, a lovely man from the north east I guided for many years. He always came east with his brother Ian and they were devoted, as close as a hair and a hook. They had wives and families but it was the bond of brothers that was their life force, that kept their flame eternal. Then, out of a clear blue sky as they say, Ian died. Neil still fishes. He tells me about each outing, about how he catches his fish now for Ian alone, about how he writes their watchwords “One Last Cast” in the sand of the bank at the end of every session.
Not too long back, I took a man and his wife down to the Wye to help make the husband’s dream of a barbel come true. Although only in his 30s, he was suffering from a terminal heart defect and time was ebbing. He caught two barbel. Each time I supported the rod for him whilst his wife helped him with the reel. She wanted a child by him and at night we discussed the wrongs and rights of leaving a child without a father, a mother without a husband. I recently learned there was no child. Now there is no husband. Those barbel were the last fish that brave couple ever managed to land.
In this column, I often mention the brilliance of the newsletters produced by Simon Cooper, boss of Fishing Breaks. There is never one that doesn’t lead me to make a coffee, scratch my chin and have a good old ponder. Simon’s latest brainwave is to provide a School For Fishing Guides. He fears that fewer youngsters are going into this noble profession, for such it is, and that the art might well die out.

Perhaps I should enrol, I guess some of my friends are thinking, and I’d like to know what the course entails. Because most of Simon’s pupils will operate on the lush chalk streams of Wessex, I guess there will be a lot of fly recognition and casting instruction involved, but I wonder how the important elements of bonding and chemistry will be covered. The unique thing about a day, a week or a month with Subhan was that you did not just emerge as a better angler but as a better human being to boot. Simon is quite bright enough to know anyone can learn to tell a bluebottle from a wasp and that it is people skills that matter so I will be intrigued to watch the School’s progress. Knowing Simon, I’ll rest assured he’ll get it right.
Boris tells us that we stand on the cusp of greatness. In the The Newsletter to which I refer, Simon tells of a Welsh farmer who hideously polluted a river on his land with slurry from the farmyard. Three miles of water were destroyed with the thousand brown trout which lived there. The fine for this crime against nature was about 27p per fish Simon worked out.

In the past two days I have come across three separate fly tipping offences in the stream where I am fishing. I had been staking the area out to catch the culprit red-handed until I was warned about being tipped up myself and that the average fine for such a heinous slap across nature’s face is around £150. Simon finishes by saying “our current leaders hum the climate change blues as the rivers turn from pure to poison".

Let’s hope Boris subscribes to Fishing Breaks then.

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