John Bailey: Stick or twist? A question from the Wensum...

Ian with a 1lb 4oz roach Picture: John Bailey

Ian with a 1lb 4oz roach Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Is it my imagination or has the autumn bitten early this year?

What on earth is a dead carp doing with not a drop of water in sight? Picture: John Bailey

What on earth is a dead carp doing with not a drop of water in sight? Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

One moment we all seemed to be tench fishing and getting brown and the next it is winter woolly time with rain, gales and a sniff of frost in the nostrils. Perhaps the rain isn’t too bad. This week gone, our rivers have looked just about perfect height, pace and colour. I haven’t seen my beloved Wensum look as gorgeous and sexy for years. God, how I love that river and never more so than when she purrs along in that sinuous, silky way of hers. She just oozes seduction and the promise of roach and chub aplenty.

On Thursday and Friday last week I was with Ian and Derek from the Midlands, roach maestros through and through, and though the fishing was tough – or because it was tough – we worked our socks off for a result. I like to think I’m not too old to learn and those two days were full revelation. And reminiscence. Derek, especially, was agog to hear what the Wensum was like when she was nationally famous for her roach, a time around 50 years back. October in the 1970s was when the roaching unofficially began for all of us, the young Roaching Turks of the time. Cold nights, bright days, winds chasing in the rains, conkers and acorns underfoot and our red-tip floats trotting off into the distance. I told him of the morning when John Judge and I caught 400 roach by lunchtime (all between 8oz and 2lb 12oz) and we only stopped because I had to be at Dersingham by 3pm to play in a Blakeney football match. I described to him the dawn when John Wilson and I had seven 2lb roach from Castle Farm before the autumn sun struck the Belaugh church. But back to 2020. How did we fare in the year of Covid?

In the whole two days, we saw only one other angler on the river, even though she was in majestic form. He packed up after an hour and what a loss, I thought. The river needs to be fished, needs to be become a part of Norfolk’s angling life again, if only to tell those criminal cormorants we haven’t given up on her. The quieter and more neglected she is, the more vulnerable she becomes. But talking of predation, I have a mystery! I took off across the fields to recce a route to a juicy swim way off the beaten track. There, a good half a mile from either lake or river, lay a carp of some 14lb or so, decomposing in the nettles. The fish was barely touched, just a few nibbles here and there, but largely unscathed. An otter? But why would the animal drag a fish half its own weight so far from the water and then not even eat it? A fox? A badger? There were no tracks around. A flood? The river has not yet broken its banks as far as I am aware, certainly not dramatically. Perhaps it simply fell from a windy sky?

They say you never cast into the same river twice and that was certainly true for Ian and Derek. No matter which swim they chose to fish, it would change its form hour upon hour. Smooth glides would out of nowhere begin to boil. Current paths would change their course almost imperceptibly, but with devastating effect. One minute the float would kiss a way along the skirts of a big willow and 10 minutes later it would be steered into the fishless zones of mid-river. Goodness knows where the loose-fed maggots, casters and hempseed ended up, but rarely I guess in the mouths of our fish.

Away! Back goes a lovely chub Picture: John Bailey

Away! Back goes a lovely chub Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

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The unpredictability of the river asked us a major question, one central to all fishing. If your chosen pitch is not working for you, do you stick with it or do you up sticks and start afresh elsewhere? Perhaps you have put in a good amount of feed and you should give it time to pull in the fish? Perhaps it is better to let the fish come to you rather than spook them by chasing them high and low. Or do you accept the fish just are not there and that either your watercraft wasn’t up to it or you chose just unluckily? Ian and I tend to be wanderers. My philosophy is that chub and roach both are nomadic since the otters have come back and that you are better fishing as many swims as it takes in order to find them. Derek, though, is a sticker. He believes in building a swim, in drawing fish in and little by little persuading them to feed. I watched him for two full hours and he fished magnificently. He is a far bank maestro and one cast after another landed the float inches from the reed bed there. Never a mistake, never a hook-up, just angling perfection. You can live in a bubble and think you are good as an angler and sometimes, you just need to get out more.

Derek is a moving bait man too. He will trot until his float is dizzy and until his arm drops off. Ian and I, though, are less elegant bottom grubbers. There are times when I feel a big roach or chub will look more favourably on a bait held stationery in a top-taking sweet spot. I’m thinking a slack by reeds or rafts or just downstream of a jungle of overhanging willow. You can still use a float but lay it on. Simply fish the float a couple of feet over depth and put the shot a foot up from the hook and you have a cracking method winter long. You are fishing just off your rod tip, excitingly close, and the float twitches, lies flat, rises again and then slides away. Bingo. Every bite a coconut – if you know what I mean! One bonus is that if you hook a fish, you do not have to draw it back through 10 to 20 yards of jack-infested river. Goodness knows how many stunning redfins I have lost to voracious tiddler pike this last half century, but it is far too many.

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So how did Ian and Derek get on, these brave boys of mine? Did they emulate John Judge and me? Did they bring back a hint of the 780s glory days? They fished hard and well, but not quite. Ian had a big chub and a roach of 1lb 4oz. Derek netted roach of 1lb 2oz and was broken up by a chub. The Wensum looks the same as it did when I was a bright-eyed lad. Her song is still as sweet to me. Trouble is, the words are a lament rather than an anthem.

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