John Bailey: Is there a best way to fish?

John Bailey angling

It’s not what you catch.. but how! - Credit: John Bailey

I’ve had an almost constant debate with myself over this question since 1980 or thereabouts.

That was when I wrote a letter to the great fishing magazine of the period, called with simple clarity, Angling, and received a stinging reply.

My idea was that to entrap a well-known, very large Wensum pike, a few friends and I should position a dead bait outside its lair and then take turns to sit it out on shifts until the pike gave in, took the bait and got caught. To me, then, the plan seemed a logical solution to a problem, but the editor certainly did not and wholly rejected the idea that the end justifies the means.  

He was a man I had respected hugely and I was shattered when he dismissed me as a poor sportsman, a cheat even. He made it perfectly clear that to wear a pike down like this was attritional warfare that had no place in angling or sport, no matter how big the fish. I was a young man then and easily discomfited and I have never stopped asking myself questions about the purity of how we fish ever since.

Yes, it’s a debate that has never gone away in my head and my heart, not even to this day. For example, I have just been preparing for a tench and bream marathon session on an estate lake, whose location I need at this stage to keep secret. I have spent over three hours putting together a battery of rods for both the float and the feeder and fitting half a dozen reels out with new line. There were, of course, endless boxes and bags full of all those vital bits and bobs to sort out too and I hadn’t even begun to think about the bait. I had a fair bit in my store, but I still needed to visit the seed merchant and tackle shop... a further two hours of my day taken care of. When you add the time taken on replacing batteries for buzzers and repairing seats and so on, the equivalent of a whole day’s work had been consumed and I had not even wetted a line. How could this possibly be right? What would that editor from my past have made of this OTT approach?

I used to be passionate about climbing on those occasions I left Norfolk, of course! My hero for many years was Reinhold Messner, who climbed the world’s 8,000m peaks solo, carrying next to no kit and summiting in lightning speed. What he did was in stark and exotic contrast with the route traditional expeditions adopted, relying on Sherpas and camps strung up the entire mountain. Quick and clean, pure and simple were the essences of what Messner did and I loved him for that - so what have I been doing in my tackle shed these last hours? In this instance I have turned my angling into the very opposite of the beauty  Messner brought to rock climbing. 

But, at the same time, I have also been doing more fly fishing than I have indulged in for quite a few years. I have been exploring new streams with a five-weight rod, tiny reels, a box of flies and net. The whole caboodle weighs less than a pound I’d say and takes a good three minutes to assemble and put in the car. I’m off and fishing in the time it has taken me just to get my tench float rods out of their bags and check the rings and whippings. Moreover, when I have got to the water, it hasn’t been the case of lugging a container ship of kit around, but donning wellies and heading for the distant horizon. This, surely, is what purity in angling is about, the way of fishing that ancient editor would have smiled at? But is it?

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Smitten as I have been by all this, I have gone back to my game fishing bookshelf and immersed myself in one of my favourites, Itchen Memories by GEM Skues. Skues was a solicitor between the wars but especially famous for his books on chalk stream techniques and his development of nymph fishing. Itchen Memories was his last book and is a wealth of stories, reflections on one of England’s most hallowed rivers. It is a delight, a beautifully written memoir of a gilded life spent on a sparkling stream. We know Skues had his personal problems, but these seem to melt away as he pitted his skills against the wily dusk-time trout, clever enough to keep  his dignity (and life) for several seasons.

Yes, I have enjoyed every story, every fishy encounter and even the pace of the book has soothed me, slowing me down to those less hectic times we all like to think reigned back then. It is only of late, almost at the end of the book, that I have begun to feel a little impatience. No two stories are exactly the same, that is true, but they are all very similar. The same beat. The same methods, by and large. The same characters. The same species, all brown trout. Almost exactly the same weights , between 2lb and a little over three and even the “four-pounder” doesn’t quite make it as the scales relax and record two ounces under. The whole scene painted by Skues is cosy, perfect and I’m beginning to feel, insufferably boring.

The end result of all this is that I have never been happier to call myself the all-round angler. I have never cared whether I catch a tench or a trout, a roach or a rainbow, a salmon or a sea bass. In fact, the more species of fish I catch, the happier man I become and a fish certainly doesn’t have to wear that slightly ridiculous adipose fin to make me value it. (I’d quite like to meet the snob who came up with the term 'coarse' fish one night on a dark river bank. I hope he can swim). But equally, I’m now happy to accept that editor of mine was right to give me a rollocking when he did. I feel now there is a right way to catch fish, whatever the species, or at least a better way. Consider that pike I wrote about 40 years ago: it would be more elegant and fitting to hook it on a lure or even a fly than on a mouldering dead bait. Roach, chub and barbel on a float trotted down quick, dancing glides. Carp fooled into taking a piece of bread crust amongst the marginal reeds. 

I needn’t labour the point. I’ll cart my skip full of stuff, sink and all, for this tench session coming up and I’ll probably repeat the process every now and again but in the main, from now on, I’ll try to make that editor proud. I promise I will...