John Bailey: Watching, not catching, can pay dividends for any angler

John Bailey generic angling picture

Take your time to watch and learn. - Credit: John Bailey

It is almost exactly 30 years since I began my guiding career, if you can call it that!  

I started out a complete amateur and though some would say I haven’t progressed much, there are some lessons I have learned along the way.  

Number One is that as a guide, you do not fish unless you are instructed to do so for some reason, like teaching a particular technique or demonstrating a cast perhaps.  

The simple fact is that you are paid to see others catch rather than the other way round. This has grown to be no hardship whatsoever and a huge bonus. The complete sublimation of your own selfish desires is not a bad thing as you age and many have said truthfully that it really is better to give rather than receive. And, when a guide is successful, he or she is giving a lot.  

Non anglers cannot begin to understand the euphoria that the catching of a longed-for fish can bring. I have learned it does not matter who you are, however high powered your life, the adrenalin surge that a monster generates is like no other “high”. Forget scoring a hat-trick at Wembley, scoff at a lottery win, that moment your fish of a lifetime looks up at you from the net is the pinnacle of emotion. 
Lesson number two is that watching presents you with a multi-dimensional picture of the water and what is happening in it and around it. Your focus is not only on your float or fly or whatever but on everything nature is telling you.  

You notice the gulls diving repeatedly over one part of the lake and deduce that is where the prey fish are concentrated. You see a “flat” patch of water amidst the ripples and know that a big fish has just disturbed the bottom silt as it forages for food.  

If you have the sense to have binoculars with you, you’ll see a patch of bubbles or a plume of brown stained water that scream out feeding fish. You notice the slightest shift in the wind direction or speed. You’ll take notice of cloud cover thickening or thinning and even the minutest change of temperature and know all these subtleties have huge potential impact. 

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Lesson number three is that by watching you really come to realise how fatal the obvious mistakes become. Banging down a box. Hammering in a rod rest. Shouting. Standing and creating a silhouette. Failing to notice the position of the sun and throwing a shadow. A heavy footfall. Even the bang of a car door. Novice errors, all of them, but yet never grown out of by some, mostly unsuccessful, anglers. 

Lesson number four is similar but something a tad more sophisticated. Let’s take what I think I know about pike. 

Contrary to what many think, years of pike guiding have made me come to realise that pike are as hard to fool and as easy to spook as any other fish species.  

I know jacks can seem ridiculously stupid and there are times when even big fish throw caution to the winds but my advice is if you wait only for these moments then your rods will be idle ones.  

Would you hunt a wily chub with huge trebles, a three-ounce lead and a float the size of a small balloon? Why would you think that a 20-pound plus pike that has seen it all should be any different?  

John Bailey angling picture

It doesn’t matter who you are, the adrenalin generated by a big fish is unparalleled. - Credit: John Bailey

Why do you think you get dropped runs or retrieve baits that show tooth marks but were never properly taken? 

I always advise my anglers to treat big pike exactly like that cunning old chub. 

Small leads, preferably a couple of SSGs if you are not fishing at range. One rod, rather than two, so there are fewer lines in the water and so you can give that one bait all your attention and strike at the slightest indication of a pick-up. Light floats, even wagglers, rather than traditional old Fishing Gazette bungs. Small, but strong, trebles and even better, single hooks. Perfectly presented baits that are as fresh as you can find them. 

That is just one species where my watching has revolutionised my approaches but I like to think I have modified the text book on tench, barbel and roach for sure.  

I really hope this all does not come across as bragging, in part because I have observed that most braggarts aren’t great anglers. 

It’s more like I am trying to say that I’d be something of an idiot if these 30 years of watching hadn’t taught me anything and that sometimes it does every angler good to stand back, take time and try to figure the whole, fascinating fishing thing out!