John Bailey: The great angler debate rumbles on

Bob and Paul

Just imagine the joy of fishing a Covid-free summer with your best friends! - Credit: John Bailey

Like so many of us here In Norfolk I was deeply saddened by the passing of Roy Webster, whose life this paper remembered so fondly.

Rightly so, although in truth, I was always terrified of the man. In my earliest days of writing for the Eastern Daily Press he told me I’d never make much of a writer. When I met up with him delivering bait to John Wilson’s shop he informed me my catches of roach were overrated and that I shouldn’t give myself airs and graces.

The times he watched me play football he’d hunt me out after the whistle to say I’d been rubbish. I, like most of my peers and team-mates, never disagreed with any of his judgments and even began to look forward to his comments with relish. As a kid, I needed to be cut down to size and as I grew up it was good to be pushed, to be driven to improve. Roy told it as he saw it and he goes down surely as a great, a great character in the grand old Norfolk tradition.

Look back a generation and Roy was leader of a pack of great Norfolk characters. Michael Robbins. Jack Fitt. Jimmy Hendry. Sid Baker and even Dennis Pye. Many were loved, one or two were not, but you cannot deny that these old pirates made their mark and made fishing fun in a way that has been largely lost. Perhaps we are just too polite these days, too tolerant, too eager to keep our heads down and go unnoticed. I don’t remember Roy ever wanting to keep out of trouble and that strength of character and belief will always be great in my eyes.

I mention once again the concept of greatness in angling because it seems a debate so very many of us are interested in, if my new life on website forums is anything to go by. I can write about techniques or baits and barely an eyebrow twitches. Suggest someone was or was not a great angler and the keyboards explode with indignation, anger or just sometimes, with applause. It’s nice that many of us have little truck with “celeb anglers” nominating as great those who have been mentors, especially in an early angling life. Grandparents, dads, uncles and kindly next door neighbours come in for endless greatness awards, and rightly so. It was Ron Bennet who played that role for me. Ron was a mill worker and taught me the use of a slipping clutch, showed me my first dawns and put up with my endless questions for no reward but the desire to set a lad on the right road. Ron was my first great, he changed the course of my life and the tragedy is that in today’s mixed-up world his altruism would be regarded with nothing but suspicion.

Of course, innovators come high on the Great List and Richard Walker is always close to the top. The man who changed the face of specimen hunting, stillwater fly fishing and caught the long-time record carp is always going to be in with a shout. The inspirers have their champions too. John Wilson got us to love fishing through his programs just like BB and Bernard Venables did with their books. But what I am realising is that the pace of change is so great today that history begins yesterday. For most of us over the age of, say, 45,  Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing will always be our angling bible: most anglers under 40 though have never heard of the bloke. As books increasingly go the way of the dodo a lot more of the great angling names of history will fade to dust I’m afraid. Izaak Walton has been famous for over 300 years and his Complete Angler has sold about as many copies as the Bible in that time, but I bet his royalties have been on the slide this century.

The debate has made me increasingly aware that great anglers rarely operate in a vacuum, but owe their renown to circumstance. Walker, for example. Would he have been as famous without the post war development of nylon line? He’d have struggled to land that carp of his on horsehair line and he would never have got to Redmire in Herefordshire to fish for it had it not been for the modern accessibility of the motor car. Some anglers make a splash because they happen to be fishing the right waters at the right time. That’s why Roy Webster was so right about me. I just happened to be living post Uni close to the Wensum which at that time was spewing out monster roach like a sausage factory. 

One famous angler said to me this week that Covid could make more of us great in meaningful ways. It’s been a lousy time for nearly all of us. Matches can’t go ahead. Travel is restricted. Carp have been battered by frosts. Even the fantastic Norfolk Fly Fishers have been kept off their lake by a demoralising succession of floods. Yet, my famous angler said to me, imagine a balmy day this summer. We’ve all had our injections and we can fish where we want, with whom we want. We will be just so happy to be there, watching a float or a fly, that we won’t give a damn what we catch. This might sound like pious claptrap but I think he’s right. There’s no such thing as greatness in angling, really. It’s a sport about fun and the feeding of the soul and weirdly it might be Covid that helps remind us of that.