John Bailey: When a roach is more than a roach

Pingers and his 2lb 2oz beauty Picture: John Bailey

Pingers and his 2lb 2oz beauty Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

It has been a good time for my friends.

Daniel Brydon, of Wensum Valley Angling, won the Kevin Ford Memorial match at Barford Lakes with a huge 170lb net of carp. Kevin, aka Choppy, was a great mate of Daniel’s so I’m guessing this success was especially sweet for him.

It was certainly richly deserved for we should not forget what a sterling service our tackle dealers have provided in these tough times. Robbie Northman continues to pluck great fish from the coast and the Broads alike and Jon Trett has had a string of common carp in these autumnal days that beggars belief. Perhaps the one thing all these guys share is passion. Fishing is so ingrained in them it just powers them to success. If that sounds a little brutal, he-man like, I don’t mean it to be. All love their sport so deeply and meld with their quarry in a way non-anglers could never understand.

And so I come to Ian Miller, aka Ping Pong or Pingers for short (don’t ask me why adult anglers have silly nicknames because it just happens. Perhaps all fisherfolk have simply never quite grown up?). Pingers is a bit like Tretty in so far as he can chill and soak up the wonderful world of the waterside one moment but fish hard if he scents a catch around the corner.

On the day in question, the Wensum was in fine fettle, high but not overly so, coloured but not chocolate. Air temperatures were good and there was no wind to blow leaves off the trees and make trotting a float a fool’s errand. With everything on his side, Pingers decided to go for it and fish like a dervish for once. I’ll come clean and confess that a true 2lb Wensum roach has been the Holy Grail for all of my gang these last eight years, back when I had a scraper two from Swanton Morley. Of course, we could have had fish of this calibre from any one of a number of pits, but for anglers of our generation a running water roach is the only true roach and that is all there is to it.

I can’t say these eight years have been tough. We have obviously enjoyed the actual art of angling and we have had plenty of near misses along the way. We have learned to value a 1lb roach as a triumph in its own right and we have had a good number to just ounces below the magic mark. Yet, compared to 40-odd years ago when I reckoned on catching over 50 Wensum twos a season, then, yes, it has at times seemed a disheartening slog.

But back to the story! By lunch we had all banked a decent number of roach to 1lb and a few ounces. Sport had been brisk and trotting a red-tipped stick float is a delight in itself and we were all in a happy mood. Sort of. I guess deep down we all sensed if ever there was a day for the two then this had to be it. Pingers especially so. He skimped on lunch, didn’t fire up his legendary Kelly Kettle and after the briefest sandwich picked up his rod, net and maggot pouch and was off up river. Fifteen minutes later I came across him, thigh deep in the margins, net in the water and arm raised in triumph. I took the quickest of glances and knew we had it, the roach of dreams. I ran, actually ran in gallumping great chest waders, half a mile to the car and back to get the scales and we gathered around for the ceremony. I wetted the bag, Tesco’s if you must know. I zeroed the scales. Simon slid in the fish and attached the bag handles to the hook. I hoisted the scales, bag and fish into the air and we all gathered round, held our collective breath and waited for the needle to settle – 2lb 2oz exactly. Everest had been climbed. We had walked on the moon. A Wensum Two. The Roach Boys are back in town.

Most Read

There is so much to say about that one fish, all 34 holy ounces of it. First, trotting with white or red maggots in a slightly falling river is the best way to roach fish. We knew this in 1970 back when we had 12-foot rods that felt like rhubarb sticks compared with the light, rapier, carbon 14-footers of today. We knew that air temperatures between eight and 12 degrees were spot on, especially when the colour was dropping from the river. If you could just see two white maggots in 10 to 12 inches of water, then the big roach would be about. You’d want a nice steady push of water, a surface that looked like it had been ironed, not all churning and lumpy. Four to six feet in depth was always about right with a bottom of clean sand, gravel or even chalk. Ideally, you’d have three to four pints of maggots with you, all fresh and sweet smelling, so you could bait freely and build a swim over a couple of hours or more. You tried to be on the water at dawn when a window would open. Failing that there has always been a hot period around 2pm and again at dusk when you’d fish until the float was lost in the gloom. Back then, we knew there was nothing to beat that moment when the float went, the rod bent over and a big roach kicked sullenly and heavily 20 yards down the run. That was the moment of complete elation that lit Pingers’ historic day and will stay in his memory for evermore.

Of course, the Wensum in 2020 is a different beast. There are those fishery experts that say the river is so much degraded now it cannot actually produce roach of historic size any more. This giant gives the lie to that bit of nonsense. What stops our roach getting big is predation. Winter after winter, any roach has to run the gauntlet of cormorants if it is to survive. That Pingers’ roach was eight, 10, perhaps 12 years old and it is a living miracle it has lasted that long. It is significant that it came from a stretch of the Wensum where the banks are at their busiest with lorries, street lights and general hubbub that these voracious birds do not like. What the Wensum, and all our rivers need, is a catchment cormorant licence. Most anglers know this and it just seems that it is beyond our capabilities to get our act together on this one. What this roach proves to me is that if you give a wild creature just a glimmer of a chance, then it can grow, prosper and light up our lives.