John Bailey: Disappointment of fish lost drives us all on

Last night, I'll come clean, I had a deal too much to drink. I was with some of my oldest fishing mates and the talk, as well as the alcohol, seemed unquenchable.

I'm having a little trouble remembering everything but there was one conversation that ran for an hour or more. We all looked back over our lives to the greatest disappointments, to the biggest fish lost and to the angling disasters that had befallen us.

Make no mistake, a lost fish can be as dramatically exciting as a landed one. Too much success and you get glib, complacent and probably don't work as hard at your fishing as you should be doing.

As a kid, the fish that broke away leaving me feeling more destroyed than any other was a colossal eel, hooked, played and lost at little, lovely Letheringsett Lake in August 1962. It was a hot, cloudless day, the worst conditions of all you would think for a big eel. But my line rattled out, the bale arm clicked over and my poker-stiff, glassfibre boat rod actually bent for the first time. It carried on bending. The corks broke in my hands. In truth, my tiny frame just wasn't up to this challenge. My wrists began to crack. My shoulders felt on fire. And then, thrashing on the surface, the eel appeared 20 yards away from me. I can still see it. Huge. An aquatic boa constrictor crashing the lake to a foam. The hook straightened. My young world simply fell apart.

In the 1970s, 1972 to be precise, it was a sea trout that made my heart melt like a snowflake in the sea. I was upstream of Cley sluice gates, on my beloved little river Glaven. It was late. I remember I was bouncing a worm – or was it a small dead roach – around one of the bends up towards Wiveton Bridge. The bait was seized. In the failing light, I followed this massive, silver, sea-run fish further and further down river. I crossed bridges, I jumped dykes, I followed the fish over three, then four fields. It took me through a tiny copse and, then, we were at the sluice gates themselves. Through these I could not follow and after a last three colossal jumps, the mammoth fish disappeared to the sea and to safety. I wept.

In the mid-1980s, I devoted myself to pike on the River Thurne system. The rumour was that massive fish were returning after the prymnesium attack of 15 or more years earlier. I fished two whole winters without any success whatsoever apart from the odd jack of a few pounds or so. Then, one quiet day in March, up on the celebrated Dungeon Corner, I almost had my chance. My large herring was picked up but, before I could strike, it was put down again. I gave the fish minutes in which to return but it never did. Upon retrieve, the dead bait was punctured, lacerated even. I fished the rest of that season out but then I never returned. Of course, from then on the Thurne's results were legendary. I'd missed out on a fish I will never know how big.

In the 1990s, my heartbreak was all about a Wensum chub that I'd seen and stalked over several consecutive summer days. I have a feeling it was a massive fish that I'd spotted back in the 80s and never expected to see again. It was a cunning customer. It refused all big baits. Even at night, its guard never went down. I was forced to fish lighter and lighter with smaller and smaller baits. Then, late one morning, after spending two hours setting the fish up, I hooked it on a size 18, one maggot and a two pound bottom. For 30 seconds I held that fish away from the bushes around but, inevitably, the fish won out in the end. I still curse myself for going so light but, even today, I wonder if there were another option.

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In the noughties, and not that long ago, I still blanch at the thought of a lost Wensum barbel. I spotted the fish way, way from the known barbel stretches. This fish was a rogue, a loner, a giant of the species. I tracked it down over the course of eight bright, clear summer days. It was immense. I nearly picked it up on a bounced worm but it turned away. It showed interest in cheese paste. It eventually hoovered up maggots, but I didn't want to make the same mistake as I had done with that colossal chub.

So, one evening, I decided to settle in and fish for it into the darkness. Once again, the bait was a big lobworm, positioned exactly on the gravels where the barbel liked to feed. A three pound chub came and went and with it, I feared my chances had gone, too. But no. a little after 11pm, the tip twitched, thwacked round and I was left in no doubt whatsoever that the monster was on. I'll avoid a tedious tale of this way and that, upstream and down but I'll tell you that right at the end, when the fish was coming to the net, the hook just popped. I still feel the devastation.

How big were those fish? Well, I was tiny when I lost the eel but I still, deep down, know it was over 10 pounds in weight. As for the sea trout, I'd seen a lot of fish in that period up to 15 or 16 pounds or so and I feel my guestimation of 20 pounds or a little more cannot be far out. The pike, of course, I'll never know but I'd guess it was 30 plus. That chub is still something of a mystery. I've caught chub to just under seven and I've seen plenty much, much bigger in the water. But nothing quite like this one. I'd say nine or even a bit more. And as for that barbel! If that wasn't a 22-pounder then I've never fished before in all my life! Do I care about these lost fish? Of course I do but I'll ever be grateful for the excitement and the memories they've given.