John Bailey: Women anglers to warm our winter hearts

Heidi Gallant

Will Heidi Gallant progress to become one of our great women anglers? - Credit: John Bailey

I apologise unreservedly to Teisha Aldiss for not mentioning a single lady in my column last week on the subject of great anglers.

It was an appalling oversight and rightly picked up on by Teisha, a fine river hand herself, as she would be, coached by a husband like hers. Or should that be the other way around?

Of course, it’s an old story this one. It was remarked upon last century that an extraordinary number of big salmon, especially, were women-caught and endless theories were put forward for this. The seductive power of female pheromones understandably came out top of this beguiling list but some of us thought that women are more likely to listen to guides, follow hard-won advice and get on with the job with more fortitude than their whingeing male companions.

Shirley Deterding and Audrey Robbins are two examples of Norfolk women who have been able to fish the pants off male anglers for decades. It’s the same in the coarse world. At Kingfisher, Jenny catches more carp than Stuart and back in the day, Maureen caught more big fish than her noted Norfolk husband Arthur Clarke. So I stand corrected Teisha. Sorry.

Moving on, there has been a photograph doing the round of social media that shows two anglers with their catch from Elsing Mill on the Wensum in  the early 1900s. These two fine fellows are posing with some 70lb of fish on what looks like old sacking. There are a couple of jack pike in the photo, true, but the vast majority of the fish are roach. At a rough guess I’d say there were in excess of 20 roach over the “two” mark lying there waiting to be fed to the pigs or whatever. I’m not being condemnatory here because this is how things were done then. The past, as they say, is a foreign country and even in the 70s there were plenty of pike and eels fortunate to be returned with their heads intact.

The whole power of the picture for me lies in its demonstration of what the Wensum roach population was once like. Even in the 70s when there were lots of fish in the river, John Wilson and I would struggle to catch more than four “twos” in a session. This photograph reminds me of the story of that grand old angler Jack Fitt  who caught 22 roach over the “two” mark from Bintree in the 60s. That is made even remarkable when you think Jack took them after lunch on a February afternoon. Jack , lean as he was, wasn’t one for stinting himself so I guess he got down there around 2pm and considering he was float fishing, he would have packed up not more than three hours later. That’s a 2lb roach every eight of nine minutes, probably less when you think he liked his flask and pausing for a chat.

It’s probable then that when I first got to grips with the Wensum in 1970 or thereabouts it was already in decline, but  there were still remarkable sights to be seen. In 1975/76, just upstream from Lyng Mill, a shoal of roach camped there for the most of the winter. I was living in the cottage by the old fish and chip shop in the village and every day, rod in hand or not, I’d visit that shoal to gawp. It stretched for around 150 yards - I paced it out - and it filled the river from one bank to the other and from the bed to the surface too. There were thousands, tens of thousands, of roach hanging there, a huge percentage over one and a half pounds, right up to double that weight. I could tell of similar sightings at Lenwade and Swanton Morley, but the sad fact is that that by the late 80s this extraordinary roaching era was over. Roach hang on in pockets along our upper rivers, but you don’t need to be an angler to ask what the hell has happened during our lifetime. Red squirrels or roach, the naturalist in me and all of us should weep with shame that we have let these things happen.

Going back to our Elsing Mill massacre, the obvious absentee is a single, solitary chub. I have written before that they only arrived in our rivers half a century later, and thank God they did. I’m writing this as I often do, on Sunday morning before publication on a Wednesday. There are just a few snow flakes in the air and I am thinking we might get a ton of snow or we might not.

What I do know is that for the next five days the wind will be from the east or north east and that we will be lucky to see temperatures climb above freezing day or night during that time. What a winter, eh? Covid has been way bad enough but the weather has been as dreadful as I can remember for us anglers, male or female. That’s not quite true of course. 

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Winter 1962/63 made what we are going through seem like a few weeks in the Caribbean but the unremitting cycle of frost and flood has made this one a struggle we’ll be glad to see the back of. My heart goes out to the fly fishers up at Swanton Morley where their lake has been gobbled up by the encroaching river over and over again. You get to a certain age in a Covid winter when you just want a mild day or two with westerlies and feeding trout to brighten your life and then this lot of foul stuff shuffles along. May, though, will come. I promise.

robbie northman

Robbie Northman and his 7lb 10oz chub - Credit: John Bailey

Until then, as I have said, we still have our chub. Robbie Northman’s lousy weather specimen of 7lb 10oz has brightened my winter for sure. It’s his story but Enoka and I played our part in the capture of a Bure fish that shows there’s life in our rivers yet!