John Bailey: Christmas is coming ... so let’s talk tackle

I applaud The Vicar, not for his latest Broadland pike but for his taste in tweed! Pictuire: John Ba

I applaud The Vicar, not for his latest Broadland pike but for his taste in tweed! Pictuire: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Thomas Turner, the revered vintage tackle dealers, have their Christmas catalogue to view – and if you go on their website, you’ll drool.

Or you will if you are into fishing tackle and all its various qualities. All of us own tackle that we use and perhaps even love. We might appreciate a rod or reel for its fish catching qualities alone. Or perhaps it was a gift. Or you’ve had it so long it has become a best friend on your best days out.

It has been said that choosing a rod is like choosing a partner – you hope it will be for life. Certainly a rod can grow so much a part of you that it feels like a new-grown limb and losing it, you feel, would cause physical as well as mental and emotional pain.

Do you remember when you were a kid and you so longed for an item of tackle that it hurt? In 1962 I thought that if I didn’t get my hands on a Mark IV cane carp rod I’d die. Or take up chess. It was designed by Richard Walker, the fishing god, who was right up there with Bobby Charlton, equal top of my league of heroes. Well, the clock is spinning back alarmingly every time I click on to An aerial centrepin reel made by maestro Gary Mills, or even better, if possible, by Chris Lythe. Perhaps a Hardy travel fly rod that I could take to the glamorous grayling rivers of the north of England when -if – lockdowns are a thing of the past?

Oh, my Lord, I’m back in the world of my childhood when a tackle shop smelled of dubbined leather, polished brass and newly-varnished cane and crow quills. There was such a shop on Holt high street I recall. You could but half a pint of gentles there, not maggots in those more genteel days, a packet of hooks to gut and then pedal to Selbrigg pond where you could catch rudd and perch until the shadows fell. There would generally be a couple of old-timers there (about my age now or younger), sitting on wicker creels, puffing on their pipes to keep the midges away, the only curse there was on that pond of delights. They wore fusty old tweed jackets always, ties mostly, and they were always on hand to help me out should I hook a jack pike on a retrieved rudd. Often the elder of the two would cycle back to Cley with me as I made my way on to Blakeney and tea. Is this the allure of old tackle I wonder? Do collectors pay thousands of pounds sometimes to buy their way back to a time when our lives appeared purer, less frenetic and certainly more simple? For many anglers, memory means a lot. I have handled a fly box owned by the dry fly hero Frederick Halford and I experienced a thrill that was like a bolt of electricity through me. For some, beauty perhaps is all. Hardy Perfect reels were not named by accident. Perfect they are in every way, objects of desire and delight that well merit their king’s ransom cost. Or how about Edward Barder’s built cane rods? Barder is the undisputed magician of cane today and when I saw a barbel rod of his down on the Wye this summer, its beauty was so exquisite I all but swooned. Of course, it caught its owner no fish, but who would care about that when you could caress such a siren of a rod as the shadows slink in?

Tackle in the coarse world especially began to lose its way post-1970, perhaps when cane gave way to glass and carbon and reed and quill were replaced by plastic. A fibre glass box is hardly a wicker basket and polyester has none of the majesty of tweed. Yet, if it is efficiency you want in your tackle, we’ve never had it so good. Carp anglers can cast to America with beefed-up rods and big pit reels. A 15-foot salmon rod today weighs a quarter of the greenheart and whalebone weapons the Victorians were stuck with. Lines today are wondrous compared with even those of my childhood and fly lines notably speed their way through the guides as though they are jet propelled. Pick up a quiver tip rod now, made by Drennan say, and it is light as a blade of grass. Yes, tackle today is wonderful. It catches us more fish for sure, but I’m sure friends of Thomas Turner will ask whether it still possesses soul?

Me, well, I have a collection of centrepins, floats, cane rods and veteran fly tackle that I cherish. I look at these gorgeous creations with pride and a fondness verging on true love. They are caressed, polished, admired and subtly shuffled about to find their best profiles. Conversely, I have a mountain of gear in the garage that is modern and which I actually use. This is an unadulterated rubbish heap. Rods stand in jumbled stacks and fixed spool reels languish in buckets smelling of feeder mix and dead bait juices. Mice have been nesting in the mound of hi-tech clothing and they venture out to dine on the corks of my tench and trout rods. And I don’t really give a hoot. All this lot is serviceable, usable and above all, instantly replaceable. It’s all made on a machine in China rather than on the bench of a lifelong craftsman. It doesn’t care about me, why should I care about it, if it does its job of course? Once it stops doing that, it’s out, replaced by the newest space age invention that’s here today and gone tomorrow.

Most Read

How long does it take you to tackle up and then tackle down again at the end of the day? I fish with those who wipe down every rod before end-of-session bagging and even buff their floats before they go back in the box. I don’t bother with any of that. My rods are made up, ready to go, stuffed in the back of the car and that’s where they are thrown at the end of the day. Providing the lines, knots and hooks are good to go, that’s all I care about. There is no love lost. These are purely the tools of my trade.

So, in my heart and soul I’m with Thomas Turner and his mates. I applaud float makers like Andy Field, reel crafters like Gary Mills and rod artists like Edward Barder who are keeping the spirit of true tackle alive in angling today. I’ve got myself so excited thinking about Christmas presents, I guess next time you see me on the Wensum, I’ll be in jacket and tie. Now, where’s that pipe?