John Bailey: The glorious 16th ... and John Wilson’s verdict

John Bailey and John Wilson enjoy a merlot and a reminiscence Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey and John Wilson enjoy a merlot and a reminiscence Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Yes, the Saturday gone was the Glorious 16th of June, the start of the river open season and the most iconic date in the diary of all us natural fish lovers.

A traditional sixteenth when you are only watched by the sleepy-eyed cattle Picture: John Bailey

A traditional sixteenth when you are only watched by the sleepy-eyed cattle Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

I'd set the alarm for 5am but, as the birds in the roof began to chirp long before then, I yielded to the dawning day and hit the road to the river.

The valley existed in a deserted world and not a soul had left a footprint along the river. I was alone in Eden with the sleepy-eyed cattle only. It wasn't quite the misty, golden daybreak of a Waltonian dream, rather grey, mizzly and not overly warm, but none of this dampened the river's song for me. Very bliss it was to be alive on such a fisher's dawn.

Trouble was, I didn't catch much, or even see much either. By seven in the morning, I'd picked up a chub of three pounds or so, painfully scrawny after spawning, and missed a tentative bite. I did see a group of much bigger chub that kept very much on the move and a very skittish barbel of around four to five pounds. There was no sign of roach whatsoever and even a change from pellet to maggot didn't produce a dace, perch or even a gudgeon. The margins were unusually devoid of fry and perhaps that was why only a single kingfisher darted past me by the time I pulled off at nine.

Over an excellent and much-needed first-of-the-day coffee, I mulled over a slightly flat start. Of course, immediately after spawning, fish disperse often far and fast and it takes time to locate them again. Chances are I'd just been looking in the wrong places. That's what I thought, that's what I hoped. The season, I reckoned, still had a long way to go and I'm sure, to one degree or another, I'll be proved correct on that one.

Filming with Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse was nothing if not hilarious Picture: John Bailey

Filming with Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse was nothing if not hilarious Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

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It happened that Norfolk's own Izaak Walton was on the same river, the Wensum, that 'glorious' Saturday morning. Yes, John Wilson was back from his Thailand home for a week or so and how could we not meet up for a drink that evening after everything we had shared long ago? I owe John a lot. I met him when I was at university and when he had just opened his legendary Tackle Den down Norwich's Bridewell Alley. It was easy to fall under his spell and for six or seven years we fished together many, many times. John turned me from a lad who loved to fish into a man who actually could fish. His generously imparted knowledge opened the way to my own angling and writing career and I'll always thank him for that. I could not have had a more charismatic mentor during that period of my life.

I also needed to apologise to him. In the period roughly between 1995 and 2010, John constantly prophesied the danger to our natural fisheries that otters and cormorants would eventually pose. For years, he faced regular condescension and even derision from a sizeable number of fishery scientists over his views on predation and I never gave him the wholehearted support that he deserved and which I owed him.

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And he was right. As we sat with our merlots before us, John reported that he had seen even less on the river than I had that 'glorious' morning.

'Think back to the early '70s when we first met,' he said. 'Remember how all our rivers were teeming with fish then. In just the span of our adult lives, fish populations have crashed. The biomass of fish in our rivers is a fraction of what we once knew. I don't take any pleasure in seeing my predictions come true. I wish I'd been listened to and I wish we'd done something to save our rivers whilst there had been time to do so. Now, I just can't see how it's going to work out in the future for us, and young anglers coming after us.'

Neither do I. John will be back in Thailand now and we'll have to go it without him if we are going to make a difference. I do believe in the power of nature to revitalise and repeatedly this century I have seen our rivers produce healthy populations of young fish. Predation, though, has turned those windows of hope into yet more false dawns.

I do believe we can still save our natural fisheries, even on our beleaguered rivers, if we can convince the statutory bodies that predation is an issue they cannot continue to shirk. Like John, like so many of you, I am passionate about our rivers. It devastates me to see their fish stocks pretty well abandoned.

If you want to see some great natural fishing and how much fun fishing can be, can I urge you to watch BBC Two tonight at 10pm? Mortimer and Whitehouse – Gone Fishing is a delight and I was overjoyed to be involved throughout the series in the role of angling supervisor. The filming was, simply, eight weeks of angling mayhem with two of the nicest, zaniest, funniest fishermen on the planet and I think the results might just show our sport in the light that we all want to see it enjoy. As I was in some sort of charge of the fishing, much of the series was Norfolk located, so watch carefully and you might see places you recognise.

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