John Bailey: Happy dace are NOT here again

john wilson dives into the wensum

John Wilson enjoying the Wensum! - Credit: The John Wilson Fishing Enterprise

I’ll admit it. It’s Valentine’s Day as I write and I haven’t been fishing for a whole nine days.

Many of my sessions these days consist of only an hour or two, but not even one of those has been enjoyed... or endured. More than that I haven’t even considered going out and haven’t been tempted by even a whisper of inspiration.

The gear has sat in the shed and good riddance to it, I’ve felt. But why would that be? Yes, the weather this early part of February had been been diabolical, but that hadn’t stopped me in the past. I haven’t got my diaries with me in the farm where I am staying, but I am fairly sure winter 1978/79 was tough one. We had more snow for sure but nothing that year stopped me getting out. I was into the Nar then. There were some clonking dace  and I made the long journey from my home at Old Costessey Mill every moment I could seize. Twelve ouncers were common, a good few kissed the pound mark and they all looked stunning against the frozen banks and the bright blue west Norfolk skies.

So what’s gone wrong these 40-odd years later? Am I simply too long in the tooth to face biting north easterlies and temperatures well the wrong side of minus? No, I really don’t believe that. I still love dace and still know they would be happy living in the Arctic and extremely happy to feed in what we have just gone through. It’s simply that I don’t know where I could start to catch a decent dace today, no matter how much I might long to. Considering I’ve been out scores of times this winter before the freeze and registered barely half a dozen bites from anything, I can excuse myself of geriatric cowardice I’m thinking. The plain truth is that I would have been bonkers to have left the fireside most hard winter days this century.

Richard Smith has come back into my life during the long hours I have been sitting in, dividing my life between my IPad, my books and India versus England on Channel 4. I met Richard back in the early 80s or thereabouts when he was one of the first bright young fishery scientists working then for Anglian Water. He’s gone on to make a name for himself, but we had lost touch for decades until I received a raft of very welcome emails from him.

I guess Richard has been as housebound as I have been these frosty days because he has been going through his photo collections and sending me some of his star images. There are a few of the two of us sufficiently long-haired to have featured in a Wham! video but the most exciting are of dear old John Wilson.

I say “old” but actually these are of him as a young man, a teenager even. It seems that JW had given them to Richard years ago in an attempt to prove to him what fishing had been like hereabouts in the 60s and I can easily understand that. As I recall, the hardest job when talking to Anglian Water 40 years ago was trying to make them understand what we were losing, and indeed, what we had already lost. The scientists of the day, Richard excluded, dismissed our memories as rose-tinted and JW’s photos were obviously delivered to provide hard evidence.

wensum scandal

A copy of my article lamenting the death of the Wensum 40 years ago - Credit: John Bailey


The tragedy is that we anglers recognised the disaster unfolding all that way back and were protesting about it then. Much good has it done us. One of Richard's slides was a copy of one of my articles for a fishing magazine railing at the decline of the Wensum. That was nigh on 40 years back, at the time the Save The Wensum Action Group was initiated to fight the plan to abstract the river at Costessey Pits. SWAG really was a force. Heroically led by Keith Larke and ably backed up by Chris Turnbull , John Wilson and even me amongst many others, it exposed all manner of questionable dealings to the point that Anglian Water  took us seriously. But, again, I can only repeat that much good has it done us when I am singing the same old song and there are hardly any dace left to tempt me out on a chilly Norfolk afternoon.

Richard is not the only fishery scientist to come my way this week. I have been talking in depth with Jack Perks and Dr Mark Everard, the latter known in the river fishing world as Dr Roach. I’ll begin with Mark and his drive to get river fish back to the UK by widening the debate massively. His stance is that pleading for single fish species is bound to fail, as history has rather proved. He is working to show that roach and dace are indicator species and their absence is telling us that we are getting it wrong as a society. His researches into ecological systems and sustainability are revealing that if we get our river regimes right we can have better water, more water, less flooding and as a bye product of this, more fish. His dream is to get burbot re-established into the river Wissey and this is not as crackpot as it might initially seem. His point is that if the Wissey could be improved from source to sea - as it were - it would both benefit all society and provide a home again for Mr and Mrs Burbot.

Both Mark and Jack are also working to make fish attractive to all of us, not just anglers. For as long as I can remember nature lovers have loved everything in nature apart from fish. A member of the Survival team at Anglia told me in the 90s that he would make a film about bats or bugs or anything but fish because the public just isn’t interested in them. Jack is crowd funding a film to reverse just that. His underwater filming is extraordinary (you might have seen him at work on Country File) and he aims to reveal to a wide audience the grace and beauty that only we anglers recognise in our fish species. This might just work and it might come to pass that Jack and Mark begin to succeed where John Wilson and the rest of us have so spectacularly failed all these years.  

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