John Bailey: Proof that even the experts can have a torrid time
PUBLISHED: 14:35 11 October 2019 | UPDATED: 14:35 11 October 2019
I have just finished a three-day disaster mission. My heart is in my boots, my confidence shot to ribbons. I wonder if I will ever see a wet net again.
That is the elemental thing about guiding: you put yourself and your knowledge irretrievably on the line. When the day works and clients and friends are smiling, well, it's just the best feeling. When you have endured three whole days without a single fish, as I just have, it's like your gut has been removed. The horror is only made worse when the guys with you are dear to you. The pain actually hurts, but I always know I'm asking for a comeuppance. After all, I'm staking my reputation, my livelihood even, on the vagaries of wild creatures, on fish that lead their own lives in ways we only partly understand. As I have always said, until fish learn to speak English we will always be casting into the dark pool of semi ignorance.
On so many occasions the line between success and failure is so very thin. Day one and Richard, Alan and I were on a carp lake of more than moderate difficulty. During the session, both of them experienced a pick up each, but both failed to materialise into a hit and a fish on the bank. Were the leads too light to set the hook I wondered? Were the all-important rig set-ups not spot on? Were the hooks not quite razor sharp enough? Were the baits not sufficiently attractive or did they ring alarm bells? Were the carp too wised-up to swallow our baits and our plans? Or were those fish merely picking at the bait, curious but actually hungry? It is, after all, a mistake to think that all fish are ravenous all the time. More questions than answers again, but the end result was dry nets and a quiet drive home.
On the second day, we hit the river, in search of chub. I chose a stretch that had been red hot back in March and had a good track record all the 40 years I had known it. I set the swims up nicely, dribbling a handful of mash, corn and pellets into 20 swims along a mile of bank. After giving the river an hour to settle I was back with the boys, intent on putting affairs right. We fished very well, with the right gear, with good bait and as quietly as men can fish. We tried every one of the 20 swims with true anticipation and, as you have guessed, we caught nothing. Zilch. Not a bite. Zero. My head was in my hands. What answer on earth could I give?
Perhaps the bait was wrong? We used bread primarily, the bait that had caned the place in March. Was the memory of that too fresh in my chubs' minds? Were we targeting the wrong area? Fish move. A lot. Could those chub have been miles upriver or down? After two blank hours, should I have upped sticks and taken them elsewhere altogether? Had an otter been through the swims early doors, before we had arrived? Make no mistake, big, wary fish like 5lb chub will lie low for hours after Tarka has paid a call. Nor could I quite escape the niggle over the caravans opposite. Had the workers living there given the stretch something of a bashing, even though they said not and they had no permission to fish? Once again, plenty of questions unanswered.
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Third day and I was sure the pit would save my bacon. Tench or bream, I didn't care. As long as we had something out with fins, I for one would be a happy angler. I had baited big time the night before, in a big swim with a great history to it. Again you have guessed it. We sat for nine hours over motionless indicators and floats that refused to sink. Not a sniff of a fish did we smell. My excuses were wearing thin, I knew. Had I put in too much bait? Or not enough? Was my bait program wrong and should I have used different ingredients? Was the swim choice wrong? But why did we not see a single fish rise, roll or splash day long? Why, in great autumnal conditions, did the lake look like it had been vacuumed out of all its fish stocks? What on earth had gone wrong this time?
It has not been a bad year for me overall. Plenty of decent fish have come my way, but I do wonder how many times we really fail to understand what is going on out there. Perhaps we only catch a fraction of the fish that inspect our baits, flies or lures? Perhaps we endure endless near-misses as it were and perhaps there are times when fish run a mile at the clumsiness of our offerings?
No matter how successful and experienced we might think ourselves to be, perhaps we are only scratching the surface of our natural fisheries? Apart from the three days I have described, I have failed lamentably this year with crucian carp, sea bass and wild river trout. All three species have given me the complete run-around, even though I have caught a good few of them in the past.
There are those who would say this is one of the many glories of what we anglers do. After all, they'd go on, it is called fishing, not catching, and much of the time I would agree with them. It is these three days though that have broken my spirit and made me wish that just for once the pursuit of large wild fish could be easy. I'm leading a so-called River Masterclass shortly and in my present state I'm thinking how very dare I contemplate such a vainglorious attempt? I'm going into it half broken and have no idea if it will be a fish-filled success. Only they know the answer to that!