John Bailey: Should we start a campaign for our ‘streamy ladies’?

PUBLISHED: 06:02 11 December 2019

JB and James Buckley enjoy top grayling sport on the Test. Picture: John Bailey

JB and James Buckley enjoy top grayling sport on the Test. Picture: John Bailey


In these columns, as in my angling life in general, I don’t always get it right.

JB and James Buckley enjoy top grayling sport on the Test. Picture: John BaileyJB and James Buckley enjoy top grayling sport on the Test. Picture: John Bailey

My piece on this page last week praising Anglian Water raised the roof in some quarters. I am quite accepting of the charge I might have let AW off the hook in some areas of its operations but when it came to their treatment of the Wensum and our drinking water, I had to report as I found. And that is that I think they are doing a good job here at least.

Nor do I ever have the conceit to think I make a huge difference. For example for a good number of years I have written that the return of grayling to our East Anglian rivers would in some places be a good thing. These gorgeous "ladies of the stream" would surely enhance our winter river fishing just as they did hereabouts a century ago but I'm not aware of a single grayling to be caught within a hundred miles of Norwich.

I read that there are 27,000 full time jobs in UK angling today and I am often asked by youngsters how to land one of these. I think you can forget the media these days, I answer. The angling magazines and TV programs of even the 90s don't exist anymore and I'm not sure any aspect of social media has replaced them financially. That leaves the tackle industry.

I worked for the one-time giant Hardy for a number of years and I'm not sure it was more fun than making biscuits would have been.

JB and James Buckley enjoy top grayling sport on the Test. Picture: John BaileyJB and James Buckley enjoy top grayling sport on the Test. Picture: John Bailey

There is angling retail of course. The number of independent shops has collapsed so that means working for one of the "angling supermarkets". (Or is there just one of these at the moment?) If you don't fancy this, then for any angling mad youngster, the route has to be fishery management in one form or another.

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When I made "Fishing In The Footsteps Of Mr Crabtree" for Discovery, my pupil was James Buckley, a truly great lad and one who has gone on to make a name for himself on angling's social media. He also went to Sparsholt College to take a diploma in fishery management and now, not yet 20, he is an under river keeper on the renowned river Test in Hampshire. I visited him the other day and just happened to have a fly rod and grayling flies in the back of the car. What an amazing coincidence that was you might be thinking!

We had a couple of spectacular sessions together, even though the weather was ferociously wet and windy. Nothing could detract from the beauty of the valley, the clarity of the chalk derived water of the Test and the glamour of its heavenly grayling. Fishing for them on a weighted nymph really was as good as it gets. We walked and stalked till we found a fish and then it was all about scheming a plan to catch it. Where to place the fly? What depth to present it at? How to control the flyline and leader in a blustery wind? How to spot the lightning take and then how to play big feisty fish on gossamer gear? Each fish was a challenge and each capture a prize beyond compare. We laughed at the weather and relished the joy those buccaneering "ladies" gave us.

JB and James Buckley enjoy top grayling sport on the Test. Picture: John BaileyJB and James Buckley enjoy top grayling sport on the Test. Picture: John Bailey

That is one reason why I have pushed for their return to some carefully chosen East Anglian rivers. Grayling flourished in the region between 1880 and 1940 and I can't think why judicious restocking would not work again. Casting a nymph for grayling is not beyond any angler, a fly fisher or not. Flick a grayling bug four or five yards and on most streams you are well in business. A basic grayling outfit can be bought for £150 all in so it is not a sport for millionaires exclusively. Think as I might and I can't come up with any sensible objection to them, especially as grayling are their best between November and March when river trout are spawning and out of bounds.

There is a second reason I'd like to see grayling return. One reason the Test is so fabulous and so full of fish is that it is looked after. Fishing the Test costs money and that money goes to paying James and his two fellow keepers. The three of them work full time to look after about five miles of river and that is why the banks are great, the gravels are great, the fish numbers are great and the sport, winter and summer, is great.

Three full time men to look after 5 miles of river? I don't think there are three full time men or women looking after the entire river bank mileage of East Anglia. Of course Environment Agency teams have schemes here and there but, once completed , the river has to look after itself again.

The EA just does not have the finances to manage every river yard every season of the year. And, of course again, there are stretches of river that are looked after well by volunteers - WACA take a bow - but the fact remains you can't beat a fully trained, professional work force that is bankside 40 plus hours each week, come rain or shine.

In most areas of life you tend to get what you pay for. A problem is, surely, that the vast majority of East Anglian riparian owners make not a quid from their rivers and most probably see them as a costly burden. If those rivers made their owners a proper amount of money, then they in turn might be properly looked after by keepers trained and paid to do the job. Grayling winter fishing here in the east might just bring in some cash that could then be put back into river improvement. It wouldn't revolutionise matters but it might be some sort of start.

For those of you interested in a bit of grayling fishing over the next three months or so, I couldn't recommend it highly enough. You will have to travel and I'd point you towards the websites of Fishpal, Fishing Breaks and the Wye and Usk Foundation for reliable starters. All three organisations offer great grayling opportunities for between £20 and £80 per day. I think that is money well spent: I'd just like to see it spent on rivers here so we could look after them in the ways they deserve.

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