John Bailey: Those last-gasp wonders are a part of fishing too

Joe Muskett and his Hippo of a carp, winner of the Rob Shanks Award this week Picture: John Bailey

Joe Muskett and his Hippo of a carp, winner of the Rob Shanks Award this week Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

You can talk about any event in sport not being over until The Lady sings, but the fact seems to fit particularly well in fishing and football.

Mark Husson’s monster grayling Picture: John Bailey

Mark Husson’s monster grayling Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

In Fergie days, it used to be The Red Devils that saved themselves by a thread. Norwich City have perfected the feat (almost) this term and lately lesser lights like Liverpool and Spurs have pulled irons out of the fire in the dying moments. Those "irons" can just as easily be "rods" if you are an angler.

Some vital elements produce these last-gasp winners and catches. First, you never give up in either sport and how could you if you had Roy Keane and Gary Neville on your tail? You might be down, but if you go down fighting until the last, you probably won't go down at all. That's how it is on the bank. The angler who is clearly whacked mid-afternoon is not going to hack it as a challenging evening draws in.

If you hammer on his door enough, any adversary, wearing boots or fins, will eventually weaken and give out chances. In football, you can tell the shift by opponents' body language, internal squabbles and a "lost" look in the eye. In fishing, it might be to do with a change in the light, a mellowing of the air, the scantiest hatch of flies or the roll of a single, gently feeding trout or tench.

Third, you need the ability to push on the opening door, sometimes heavily so. It's no good having Ajax at your feet if you can't hit a barn door with a banjo. It's no good having fish in front of you ripping the lake apart if you can't put the right bait to them in the right way and then hook and play the fish successfully. Now I think, there's a fourth requisite: it's all about being brave, going for it and throwing away the rule book many times. There are many times a good cliche has saved a session at its last knockings.

Billy Bishop helped make Cley famed for bitterns again Picture: John Bailey

Billy Bishop helped make Cley famed for bitterns again Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

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Back in February, I was guiding Mark Husson down on Dorset's river Frome. He'd had a stinker of a weekend but the Sunday afternoon and evening I devoted to him alone. For five hours, in dropping light and bone chilling temperatures, we explored each swim, every method. In the dusk I felt I could see Keane shaking his fist at us, a snarl on his lips, and we never gave up. On what had to be the very, very last cast, Mark's fly was nabbed and after an epic, nerve-jangling fight I netted a three-pound grayling for him. It was like '99 and beating Bayern all over again.

It might seem I am always on the case of commercials, but I am not. One of those warmer evenings, I bought a ticket and got down to the mouth of a bay as big, big rainbows were coming up for buzzers. For two hours I was lost in a world of the highest possible drama. I was so close, then so far. I tried every pattern, every trick I could dredge up from my memory, but in near darkness, the line zipped tight and the rod buckled. I was way the last angler to leave and that too made the capture special, and especially mine alone.

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You could easily de-glamourise all this, putting everything down to hard work alone. Remember the quip, "the harder I practise, the luckier I become"?

Perhaps that's all it is. For instance, this month I have been clearing a tench swim right at the bottom end of the lake. It has been a killer. For two days I sawed down scrub, my arms like pistons. The third day, I dragged out half a century of muck from the bottom with my rope and rake till I stank of old sow. For the next week, I fed religiously dawn and dusk, each bait-up involving me in a two-mile walk carrying a Desperate Dan type bucket of tench food. Then, when I finally got my friend in there, he had six tench in six casts. So perhaps there is no mystery about it, just serious graft. No. In football, in fishing, in life as I say, it's the hard polish that allows the magic to shine.

The Bafta Awards were announced at the weekend and there was no prize catch for Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer and Gone Fishing, for which I was consultant, I couldn't be there to share. As everyone close to me knows, I've been suffering tonsillitis, reading a lot and moaning even more. One of the books I have been propped up with is Cley Marsh and It's Birds by the former warden, Billy Bishop. It is getting on for 40 years old now but it strikes modern chords and is a miracle of common sense. I was honoured to know Billy and his family and he sometimes must have found it hard to take instruction about how to treat the birds on his reserve from people who knew a fraction about them. If you can find a copy in a North Norfolk book shop, I'd advise buying it quick. It is a remarkable insight into a world of conservation long gone.

Both Daniel Brydon and I agree on this week's Rob Shanks Award. It has go to Joe Muskett for the capture of an ancient Wensum pit carp, weighing 32lb and described as an Old Warrior. Brother Jack got a call at dawn to say Joe had got "a hippopotachunk" in the net and could he go photograph it. I guess that is exactly what that dinosaur looked like in the mists of morning. Rob was all for fabled creatures from the webs of time so well done Joe on a cracking capture.

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