John Bailey: Angling tales you simply could not make up

The longest chub I have ever seen...if only it had eaten some crayfish earlier! Picture: John Bailey

The longest chub I have ever seen...if only it had eaten some crayfish earlier! Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Well, blooming heck... no, you couldn’t make it up.

Last week I wrote about my mate Ping Pong and his fabulous 2lb Wensum roach, the first redfin giant I had seen banked for years. I gloried in the fact this once legendary river could still shine, still produce roach of the stature it was once famous for. And look what happened next. Over my guiding years, I have put the net under nearly 20 7lb chub from Norfolk rivers. That’s great and that’s what I do, but the fact that I had never actually had one myself, despite 40-odd “sixes”, made my mates laugh until tears ran. They are not laughing now.

The story is that the Thursday just gone I was on the river with dear Professor Halligan, one of our NHS Covid-fighting heroes. He was in a swim tricky to trot with a 14-foot rod and stick float and he asked me to take over for a couple of casts and demonstrate. Second run down and the float dipped and I was into a whopper. I offered the rod to the Prof but he would have none of it and left it to me to join battle. I use the word carefully. Truth is, that fish beat me up well and truly. I held it, just, from the willows opposite. I held it, just, from the alders upstream. I held it, just, from the hawthorn bush downstream, but by now my shoulders ached and my nerves were shredded. The fish rolled and what we saw was the longest chub I have personally ever witnessed. It rolled once more and then it was done (as was I), netted and hoisted onto a mat. My heart sank. It just had no depth to it at all. It had unbelievable length and great width across the shoulders but its stomach was painfully empty. I knew I had yet another ‘six’ to add to my tally.

No. The Prof zeroed the scales with a wetted bag on, slipped in the fish and read out the score – 7lb 7oz. WHAT? I checked the recording process myself and knocked two ounces off for safety’s sake but that still came out at 7lb 5oz. Bingo Bailey had done it at last. Of course, I was concerned at the leanness of the fish and I knew that with a depth commensurate with its length I’d have been looking at a fish closer to ‘nine’ but the chub had fought like a dervish and was obviously anything but sickly. I chose to decide that for once luck had been on my side and that I would accept her judgment with good grace. Whoopee. Knock me down with a feather. I’d done it, not on the back of a planned, lengthy campaign, but every dog has his day.

My second story isn’t nearly as happy. I have always said that one of the joys of writing this column is the wonderful (generally) feedback I receive. There is all sorts. Praise, criticism, memories, successes, laments and often info on waters i have known, loved but lost contact with. So it was this week in an email from John Pattrick, a Norfolk angler I have written of with admiration in the past. John filled me in with the current news of a water I used to know like my hand’s back. After deep thought on this point I have decided not to give the name in case it might embarrass John or cause him problems. but those in the know will soon guess.

We are talking a North Norfolk lake I first fished when I was 22, which is a long time ago. Probably until I was 50 and some, this beautiful lake held the most magnificent rudd this county might ever have witnessed. My biggest was way over 3lb and at times there were ‘fours’, I know. These were extraordinary fish and the researches I made into their history suggested they had been resident for two centuries, perhaps more. So, whilst they were staggering to catch, these rudd had far more importance attached to them than that alone. Put simply, these fish were priceless examples of creatures Norfolk has been famous for and has been losing hand over fist for half a century. Had these rudd not been fish, but creatures dressed in fur or feather, there would have been an outcry over what has happened to them this century. John informed me with a sadness plain to read, that the lake’s rudd are now no more. This is a tragedy that might have been prevented but was not, even though the threat was present and obvious for years.

John, like many of us, had told the authorities (again, I will stop short of naming them) that these historic rudd were in grave danger of extermination from over-predation. For many years, the dead trees at the head of the lake had been home to a major cormorant roost and those rudd were the birds’ prime victim. Twenty years it has taken these immigrant birds from Eastern Europe to kill off an indigenous species, but they have succeeded now, John told me. During this same period the lake has silted and the water levels have dropped until the lake is nothing like the one I knew in the 70s. How on earth has this happened?

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John wrote that he offered the authorities his labour free of charge, that he would volunteer to drag weed, clear silt and cut back encroaching undergrowth. His offer was refused on grounds of health and safety. John was also told that there was no money to protect the rudd or the lake and yet, three or so years ago, at enormous expense, an eel pass was created at the dam end of the lake. What utter nonsense. For decades, centuries even, eels had got in and out of the lake without the need of a pass. The problem eels face today has nothing whatsoever to do with a lack of eel passes, but a combination of factors, many out to sea where they spawn. The truth is that eels are “trendy” amongst scientists. The authorities would have been seduced by the PR possibilities promised by some cooked-up eel protection project and any and all money available would have been wasted as a result.

We are all worried by lockdowns and what is going to happen to our fishing short term. What should worry us is where our natural fishing in this county is going long term. Good, honest, experienced, intelligent anglers like John should have their say – not just the authorities working out of their offices.