John Bailey: Angling in times of crisis

John and Ian with a cracking chub. What a great way to say farewell to the old river season Picture:

John and Ian with a cracking chub. What a great way to say farewell to the old river season Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

In the week since my last article in these pages the world, as we know it, has changed. Seven days ago I could write freely, with the coronavirus little more than a dark cloud on a distant horizon, but how could that be the case now?

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But is angling safe, all us fisher folk are wondering? Perhaps. This is what Jamie Cook, chief executive of the Angling Trust, has added to the website: ”Where appropriate anglers should carry on fishing and encourage others to do so. Angling gets people out into the fresh air and away from crowded, indoor situations where infections are more likely to spread.”

True. Surely we can all self isolate in our bivvy, or by a tench lake or on a distant bank of the Nar? Perhaps if we walk halfway to Blakeney Point we can wield a rod soon for bass and see not a living soul but a wide eyed seal or two hundred? Yes, the Angling Trust must, for once, be right and we must keep fishing.

And of course, we have fished through times tougher than this. Forty years ago I was given an ancient, bamboo, two-piece fly rod by Henry, an old friend. I was told that it had belonged to his father, a man he had never seen. Henry was only a few weeks old on July 1, 1916 when his father died on the battlefield of the Somme. The rod that the father had taken out to France finally worked its way back to Henry and the family many years later, long after The Great War had ended. But, you see, even in the trenches, angling had its role to play.

My grandmother had been taught to fish by her father as a child and during the Second World War, as a 60-year-old, she took her tackle out onto the River Aire in Yorkshire to catch gudgeon and perch for her family, friends and neighbours. She was a game old bird was my Nanny and over a decade later she was happy to walk five miles to the canal with me and teach me the ways of fooling sticklebacks on snippets of garden worms. Her beloved son died in that war but in fishing she found comfort and food both. Those were times when life was truly cruel.

Many of us will remember that the early 70s were far from being a breeze. My first ‘proper’ job coincided with the three-day week. For six weeks I was told to visit the office at 8am, deal with mail and then lose myself the rest of the day. I’d take off my suit, pull on my fishing clobber and run to the car where my gear was stowed. Six full weeks of fishing heaven and getting paid for it into the bargain. “Too good to last”, grumbled my father, and he was right, of course. It wasn’t long before I knew what redundancy felt like. Let’s not forget how close petrol rationing came either. In fact, somewhere I still have my fuel coupons, unused. True, but it was a near-run thing. I got as far as booking a room at North Elmham’s Railway Inn every Saturday night so I could fish the Wensum for the weekend without travelling. We’re not quite at that point, yet.

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And what about the foot and mouth outbreak early this century? Waters all over the UK were pronounced out of bounds if they lay remotely near cattle pasture. For example, we were kept off the river Wye for the whole year and the only river fishing I could find one holiday was a few miles of a tiny Cornish salmon river. Many of my favourite lakes were closed and the whole summer was one of gloom for anglers and horrors for the farmers. I know we all felt life would never recover, but I suppose it did.

So, there we are and none of us knows how this latest situation will play out. All we can do is pray we will be out there when the seasons for trout and tench open and be back on the rivers post-June 16. What the virus has done is rather detract from end of the season thoughts and analysis. What has 2019/20 been like for you I wonder? I guess anywhere fish are artificially stocked sport has been fair to middling, but what about wild fish in natural waters? What’s the shore fishing been like over the winter? How have the pike been bearing up? Have the rivers, the upper ones especially, shown any signs of improvement? It is about the time that the Environment Agency will be knocking on the door demanding our money for new licences. How do you feel about that? Do you feel the Agency is working on our behalf? Can you see areas where there has been a demonstrable improvement in our sport, ones that can credited to the EA of course? Do you think fish poaching has been tackled? Have there been any notable stockings of fish carried out? Where on earth does the EA stand on the subject of predator control? I don’t think there is an angler who doesn’t think something must be done about this. Sadly, I don’t know a fishery scientist who agrees with us.

Like the two wars, coronavirus will eventually come to an end, but I suspect we will wake to a changed world, much like our forebears did in 1918 and 1945. Perhaps it might be just the time to take a deep breath and look at what we have been doing with our world. Good might yet come out of bad, I am hoping.

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