John Bailey: Wessex road trip taught me a lot about world of roach

A fine looking roach like this would fit the bill for Christmas. Picture: John Bailey

A fine looking roach like this would fit the bill for Christmas. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

My passion for East Anglian rivers is undimmed and East Anglian roach are my obsession but just sometimes I feel the need to get out more.

Last week I hit the road in search of roach and in search of roach wisdom. My route took me south to the area we roachers call Wessex and the rivers Avon, Stour, Test and Frome.

Just south of Salisbury, I called in on the legendary Hampshire Avon river-keeper, Peter Orchard, who told me that roach are coming back strong to his beat, in large part because of a breeding programme. Habitat here is perfect for the returning roach too and by the look of the armoury in his Land Rover, Pete knows how to defend his redfins from aerial predation.

Leaving Peter, I headed further south to Broadlands, that renowned estate on the iconic River Test. For a day, I fished in the company of another dedicated river-keeper, Jon Hall. Jon's major concern might be wild brown trout and salmon but he is a fisher through and through and roach mean the world to him.

Did I have a single cast at Broadlands without a fish or at least a bite? I think not. Roach, dace, chub, grayling and perch came to the net in an endless stream of pristine quality. Don't think I'm a river maestro. Broadlands was lined with truly great centrepin and float anglers that day, all catching as many or more than me. Jon looked on warmly and told me it didn't matter which swim my float travelled, it would bury in all of them. Extraordinary.

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Then it was virtually to the south coast itself, to the tidal Frome and from there to the historic Throop fishery at the very bottom of the Stour. For two days I was a guest of the Fishery manager, Brian Willson and what an inspiration he proved to be. We fished a half a dozen areas and a dozen or more swims and caught roach in all of them. And, I am forced to say, I have never caught roach quite as beautiful as these Throop wonders. They had a roseate glow to them, a blush of crimson I have never seen in a lifetime of roach adoration.

If their quality were exquisite, then their quantity was astounding. There were as many fish here as there had been at Broadlands and in those two days I caught as many roach as I would expect to in two months up here in Norfolk. Again, I was not alone. There were accomplished river anglers all along the beats, all catching these gorgeous roach. I even hooked a double figure barbel on my size 16 hook which I would have landed but for a roach-sized net. No wonder I drove the long, tedious way home in a fish-filled dream.

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As you would expect, this has all made me think. From a fishing aspect most of the anglers alongside me were using floats heavier than I would normally contemplate but, then, flows on the Test and Stour are far more muscular than we see up here. Also, I tend to be a mashed bread man when it comes to loose feed. Down south, to a man, they were on liquidised bread straight out of the blender.

The number of river anglers I fished with astounded me. I met long lost friends and made new ones, even signing a few faded Bailey Books in the process. All were catching, all were happy and most were paying good money for the privilege. Peter Orchard's Avon at Longford and Jon's piece of the Test both cost realistic amounts to fish. And so they should do. You get what you pay for in life, never more obviously than you do in the life of a roach fisher.

Those fishing fees pay for Brian, Jon and Pete to be on the river pre-dawn to post dusk, caring for the roach and protecting them from harm. Here in East Anglia, estate and riparian owners see little financial return from their river fishing and the result is plain to see.

In nearly a week of travels, I saw one cormorant. On my first evening back on the Wensum, I counted 98, all hunting for supper. Is there anything else to add?

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