John Bailey: Angling’s endless addictions and attractions

Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer - two football fanatics who bond best when fishing!

Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer - two football fanatics who bond best when fishing! - Credit: John Bailey

It’s fairly bone headed to compare football and fishing, the two sports that have driven both my life and the lives of virtually all of my friends, but comparisons highlight what we love about both.

Footy, like fishing, is generally so accessible. When I was young, every Norfolk village had one team, perhaps even two or three, whereas if you played rugby or hockey you’d have to travel so far to find an opponent you might not be home until midnight. Put on your football boots and there would be 10 derbies within pedalling distance. You might be playing on a cow patch with a ref recruited from the village pub, but it was a game. At an even simpler level, a couple of pullovers for goalposts, a tennis ball and even a couple of lads can enjoy a kick-about.

Where I think fishing has it over football is that you become better as you age. I have a Blakeney FC first team player of the year trophy on my shelf dating to the turn of the century, but I was well past my sell by date by then: two decades on and as an angler I fancy myself to be on the up rather than on the down.

One thing great about this is that even as an oldie, you can still experience those adrenalin rushes that lift a sports person to dizzying highs. Think bulging nets in both sports. It’s great to score the winning goal in a North Norfolk cup final, but even that hardly compares with the ecstasy of seeing the fish of your dreams on the bank. I’ve seen anglers catch fish that have substantially changed their lives. That sounds OTT crackers, but, believe me, it’s true.

Variety is the spice of life. Personally, I have played football on those cow patches and at Carrow Road, even at Celtic Park, but it is still the same game when it comes down to it. Yes, I’ve played, badly, against Chris Sutton and he might have been quicker, stronger and more deadly than that old lad just got off his tractor, but both of them are still trying to put the ball in the net.

Angling, though? Blimey, you’ve got shore fishing, boat fishing, match fishing, fly fishing in lake or river, predator fishing, lure fishing, carp fishing, night fishing and fishing for nigh on a thousand different species of fish. You could fish for a thousand years and still not get to the bottom of it all. I haven’t even mentioned adventure fishing yet. True, in my day, there might have been the whiff of carnage when you went to play some of the teams in King's Lynn, but still nowhere near the danger an angler might face on the Orinoco, the Congo or rafting the white water rivers of Nepal.

Thinking back to my years of angling travel, I can honestly say I faced death on five occasions. Playing against Briston in the late 1960s might have scared the bejesus out of you, but a cracked rib was the worst fate I ever suffered there.

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Companionship is a big element in both sports without doubt. How often do you hear the football pundits talk about team spirit and players sweating blood for each other? For years I played with Norfolk legend Brian 'Bosun' Baily ( no relation and different spelling) and even when we played in the cup at Norwich Prison I knew he’d hospitalise anyone who dared kick me. But, you know what, when we fished together the bond was stronger somehow. We’d sit on the banks of the river Glaven after perch or trout and we’d talk and get to know each other to a degree that was fathomless. Think Mortimer and Whitehouse  and Gone Fishing and the way they mardle on  for hours together. They couldn’t get that degree of intimacy if they were getting chunks kicked out of each other by Bodham’s version of Billy Bremner. 

This is a column that could extend right through the pages given over to horse racing, darts and even football itself if I’m not careful. I haven’t mentioned the endless art that we see in angling, the vast library of literature around it , the glorious paintings, the superb photography it inspires and even the forgotten skill of fish taxidermy, though I’m sure there are several football players we’d like to see stuffed before the end of the season.

The bottom line is that I, my mates and all of us have been so very lucky to have enjoyed the richness that all sports bring us. And don’t the cataclysmic events of 2022 make us realise that in a way we have never done before?