John Bailey: We all need Baldrick's cunning plans to be anglers

John Bailey and crayfish

Happy Christmas, crayfish - Credit: John Bailey

I wonder how many of us have been fishing this last week or so?

Finding ourselves in tier four has not helped. Can we travel to fish? If so, how far? Have we to fish alone or can we go with friends? If so, how many? Will fisheries be open? What about getting bait and gear? How long are we looking at? And if that lot isn’t enough, what about the weather?

Rain in buckets, winds to blow you out of your hat and then frosts hammering in the last nail. And it is not as if Christmas is ever an easy time to sneak down the river anyhow. This year has been a one-off, but even so there will have been commitments to keep every eager angler indoors.

Hence TV and iPlayer and joyous reruns of Blackadder and reminders of Baldrick’s cunning plans. Cunning plans? The phrase just about sums fishing up. I’ve played sports all my life but not one demands quite as much cunning as does catching a fish. Captain Ahab. The Old Man and The Sea. There isn’t an angler in history who has not lived and dreamed cunning plans.

I’ve had a few this so-called festive period. I pre-baited the Wensum every day for three weeks ready to empty it of monsters. I caught so many crayfish I’m surprised the water level didn’t drop. So if I couldn’t get fish to come to me, I’d go to them. Plan two was to roam and cover as much water as possible so that surely I’d come across fish sometime, somewhere. So far I have not had a bite, so plan three is to ease up, bait a swim close by and drop in from time to time in a much more light-hearted sort of way. Whether this frolicking way of fishing will do me much good I cannot yet say, but it can’t be any less successful than the previous 'pro' approaches have been.

John Bailey

There must be a river here somewhere! - Credit: John Bailey

When a plan comes together and works, it is a magic thing. I remember that great Norfolk pike angler Paul Belsten waiting half the winter for the perfect wind to drift a dead bait to a gravel bar he had discovered 70 or 80 yards out from the southern shoreline. The wind eventually arrived and so did Paul. I think the fish that was caught was a 'mere' upper double but size is not always the thing. Ten pounds or 30, what mattered was that the plan had worked.

Between us, we could think of thousands of similar stories but, equally, plans are there to be abandoned and amended. When I first started at the Norfolk Flyfishers at Lyng 40 years ago, it was one-time EDP angling correspondent Jim Knights who put me right there. That great angler and gentleman quietly chided me for using the same few flies unthinkingly. Look around you, he advised me. See what insects are hatching on the day. Let nature decide what fly you fish and where you fish it rather than sticking with a plan conceived miles from the waterside. Be light on your feet, he advised. Keep your eyes and your mind both wide open to what the water and the fish are telling you.

Nowadays, the lake where Jim plied his fly fishing is a carp water, but the best of the anglers there fish now much as Jim advised then, albeit unwittingly I’m sure. Some of them will hurtle into the car park and rattle their trolley to the swim they had in mind all week long but many others will not. These will take their time, and perhaps not even look for their gear until they have walked the circumference of the lake once, even twice. It could be hours before a decision on swim and bait placement is made and any cunning plan is way out of the equation.

In my extreme youth, I used to match fish the north western canals where one of the stars, if not THE star, was Benny Ashurst, father of the rather more famous Kevin. On a couple of occasions I sat behind the great man, watching him winkle out roach and gudgeon from an impossible peg. He was  happy to talk, to tell me that catching is all about feeding correctly, how the amount of loose feed can change day to day, even hour to hour as conditions dictate. He added that he could feed fish so hypnotically he could coax them out of the water to take casters and hemp from the cinders of the towpath itself. I believed him until son Kevin nudged me and gave me a broad wink. Whatever, a preconceived plan would have done Benny no good whatsoever, however cunningly Baldrick portrayed it.

We are all wondering what 2021 will bring us, our lives, our work and our fishing. We have to assume one way or another that there will be light at the end of this tunnel and that restrictions will begin to fall away. In my job that revolves around fishing pretty much totally, I have noticed a new passion for it that was not there five years ago. Probably because of damned Covid, many of us have taken a new interest in the world we have around us and  a revived freshness for how we enjoy it.

The anglers that I take fishing seem happy just to be out there doing it. Catching is almost a bonus and even watching a barn owl is more than enough for them. Only a couple are as hung up on big fish and PBs as they were and the rest seem more excited about how they fish than what they catch. I’m old enough to realise that this spiritually might not last but it is promising that the hundreds of anglers I talk to want to catch barbel and tench on a float and not a feeder. They are happy to pursue grayling on nymph rather than maggot and perch and pike on lure rather than bait. This has to be good all round. New approaches bring variety and add spice. They demand new tackle and new skills. They bring lustre to a sport that is far more than watching a rod tip or waiting for a buzzer to sound.

Not since the Sixties has fishing been as buoyant as it is right now. The cunning plan all of us should share is to make the most of this euphoria and not let angling slip back into the tired old ways of the past.

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