John Bailey: A wonderful wild Wensum brown, perhaps?

Marl Hayes with Bure trout

Mark Hayes with a Bure trout ..a stocked fish we think? Picture: Mark Hayes - Credit: Mark Hayes

The other day my great friend Mark Hayes sent me a photograph. Because Mark has the luck, or good sense, to live near the river Bure at Buxton, I expected to see a good roach or chub from that river.

But no - what I opened up was the image of a stunning brown trout, weighing a shade under six pounds and actually caught from the Wensum. Perhaps there was a slight tinge of regret that this awesome fish had been caught at the end of the coarse season on float tackle rather than on a fly but either way, a monster like this is an achievement and well done, Mark. 

Such fish are rare and precious, but not unique. Also from the Wensum my friend Anthony Butterworth had a brown even bigger than Mark’s and a third mate, the pike slayer Ian Miller, had one not far short. Three magnificent captures without doubt but, we have all wondered in retrospect, are they the real deal? By that I mean there are many wild, river bred, brown trout in the upper reaches of both the Wensum and Bure, along with rivers like the Nar, of course. However, it has to be admitted that there are plenty of stocked browns placed each season into the first two rivers at least and so the parentage of these three whopping browns can be questioned. Hmm. There are doubts aplenty.

I like the theory these bruisers are small wild brown trout that outgrow their nursery reaches up around Fakenham and sally forth downriver, scoffing bullheads, gudgeon and crayfish as they travel and grow. After just three years or so, richer feeding has moved these buccaneers on from a single pound to five pounds or more and created legends. The realist in all of us has to accept the prosecution’s case that these fish might have been stocked from a lorry, mooched about a bit, evaded capture and begun to eat minnows rather than pellets. Hey presto, the beast becomes the beauty but with a dodgy past.

Mark Hayes with trout

Mark Hayes with the original trout that sparked the debate! Picture: Mark Hayes - Credit: Mark Hayes

One major question is, how do you tell? Some of my experts have talked to me about spots. Trouble is, there is nowhere near agreement on this. Some go for wild fish having red spots, black spots, large spots, small spots or no spots at all, whilst others say exactly the same things for stocked fish. In my humble opinion, spots tell us nothing definitive unless perhaps you have photographs of all stocked fish introduced and compare them with the big fish captures, looking for a match. Unlikely.

Others have mentioned that stocked fish look paler than wild ones, lacking their vitality. Nice try, but I discount it. Any fish caught from a river that has been flooded will look washed out as its colours fade in the murky water. This is a simple survival technique and it can take a while for natural vibrancy to return after normal clarity is resumed. One authority I asked  even suggested that wild fish fight with with more power, tenacity and cunning than stocked ones. Another likeable argument indeed but I can’t see a jury swallowing that one.

In the view of most of us, it is the fins that decide the matter and are the ultimate proof. A high percentage of stocked trout have the odd fin deformation that sticks with them for life. Pectoral fins are a giveaway and can often be a tiny bit malformed or 'curly'. Anal fins the same and dorsal fins tend to be a bit truncated too, very frequently being thicker and more stubbly than the ones you see on a true wild fish. One correspondent called them “cauliflower fins.” All well and good this, but stocked fish from a good supplier aren’t all wrong ‘uns and can be fin perfect. And what about a wild fish that has been nobbled by a pike or cormorant and has escaped with the loss of half a dorsal? So that leaves us again absolutely nowhere if one of these giants is perfectly-shaped, pristine-finned, vibrantly-spotted and fights like a demon. 

Most Read

And, anyway, what does it matter, some of my experts asked? A trout is a trout is a trout they say. The excellent Simon Cooper of Fishing Breaks has also pointed out that by stocking brown trout, we take some of the angling pressure off the wild fish and give them time to fulfil their potential, which might be huge. What about the undeniable fact that almost every population of wild browns has been tinkered with at some stage over history? In truth, can we guarantee our 'wild' Wensum brown population is as genetically unadulterated as we like to think? Trout have been poured into virtually all rivers since the Victorian age and you have to fish very remote indeed to hook something unchanged since the Ice Age. 

The uncomfortable fact remains that we are all snobs and purists at some level. From time to time I find myself on a hallowed water like the Test and there the aficionados would prefer an eight-ounce wild brown to an eight-pound stocked fish. When I filmed there with Mortimer and Whitehouse, Bob longed for a wild fish, so brain-washed he had become, even though the stocked fish looked pretty damn good to me. But who am I to talk? 

Some of you will remember back to the 1970s when the Glandford Fish Farm flooded, releasing thousands of rainbow trout into the river and out into the Cley channel. Many of those fish were recaptured or ended up in coastal kitchens, but some lived on and grew into submarines on a diet of shrimps, lug, crabs and sand eels. One day, my very dear old friend Bernard Bishop told me of three such fish living in a dyke close to his house and I went to investigate.

Blimey! In crystal water, these fish were plain to see. Ten pounds and more. Perfectly formed. Gloriously coloured. Chasing every stickleback that they saw. And do you know what? I didn’t bother with them because they were escapees, not 'real' fish. What an arrogant stupid little twerp I was. Mark, let’s just be thankful for a cracking fish like this - wherever it might have come from.