John Bailey: We anglers see wonderful things

John Bailey carp water

Hardly how you would expect a carp water to look - Credit: John Bailey

Remember Tutankhamen and the moment Howard Carter went to open his tomb?

Remember how he peered into opening made and was asked what he saw? “Wonderful things,” he replied, with the understatement demanded of an English gentleman of the period. What’s this got to do with fishing, then, you ask? I’ll explain. 

A week ago exactly I was driving very early along a frost encrusted road towards the distant hills in the west where a wild carp lake was supposed to lie. As I approached, the cloud built up, the temperature dropped further and a brutal wind blew in snow from the north. By the time I arrived at the hidden lake, the moors around it were dusted in white, whilst those high hills beyond looked as remote and forbidding as the Himalayas.

Wild carp

A wild carp, a treasure uncovered. - Credit: John Bailey

This was no weather for carp, wild ones or not, I knew, but the scene was still breath-taking in its savagery and remoteness. I have not exaggerated this session one single jot and whilst the float never dipped, other than bowing to an especially violent wave now and again, I did not regret a single painful moment. There was not a soul to be seen day long. Only me, the angler, witnessed these “wonderful things.”

Next day, Thursday, the weather was more benign, with even hints of springtime sun and a calling cuckoo. On a second lake, again one at altitude, the wild carp were more obliging, even if not ravenously on the feed. Mid-morning, a fish fell for a floating fly tied to look like a dog biscuit and was landed after a fight that exhausted angler and fish alike. How a 4lb fish can pull like that is beyond me, but there it was, resplendent in light that hung over it like a halo. It was perfect, as if each scale were carved by some maestro woodworker.

A famous angler, who I just cannot name as yet, looked at it and said “this is like uncovering treasure”. So you see, I did live a Howard Carter moment and I have seen wonderful things. All anglers do.

Robbie Northman’s spectacular trout

Robbie Northman’s spectacular trout - Credit: John Bailey

This week as well, Robbie Northman sent me an image of his latest Norfolk trout. It too is treasure uncovered. It is large for sure, but but that’s not the OMG thing about that fish. It is iconic because it is wild and perfect and and so extraordinarily difficult to find. 

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You only uncover treasure if you stick with it and try to the very final whistle. Robbie alone knows how many miles were covered and how many hours were spent to land that trout. That wild carp came along almost at the cost of springtime frostbite. Carter had all but dug himself into a grave of sand before King Tut came along. There’s a lesson here, reinforced by the three days of a tench quest up the Wensum valley. Professor Carp, aka Steve Halligan, had picked a swim in the reeds, fishing the shallows the far end of the lake. There were fish present because he saw them roll, even bubble, but day one not a bite came his way and it looked like he had backed the wrong horse here. 

Day two and he went back into the reeds, put in more bait, saw even more fish over it but once again a blank was his reward. Day three , his last, and Steve could easily have upped sticks for an easier swim, but he stayed put. Stubborn or inspired was the question in our minds, one answered by a score of 20 fish, most over 6lb. He had come good in spectacular fashion and going along with the theme of this piece, dug up a veritable treasure trove. 

Another angler to strike gold, or silver or even silver plate this week was Daniel Brydon, boss of Wensum Valley Angling. He mailed me the great news that he had won the Jimmy Randell Memorial match at Reepham fishery with 130lb of small carp caught on maggot and pole. Great that Daniel has his name on a “treasured” trophy, great too because Jimmy taught him so much at the outset of his career as a match angler. I’ve shied away from match fishing myself because I have watched Norfolk competition men like Tom Boulton fish and have realised I could never come near their level of skill and knowledge. There’s a proud tradition of match fishing in this county and it’s good indeed the torch is still being carried. Well done, Dan, and let’s not forget that this triumph came after years of hard work and refusal to accept second best. 

A further jewel I have dug up again is a book this time, Silver Shoals - Five Fish that Made Britain. It is by Norfolk “treasure” Charles Rangely-Wilson, the guy I am forever praising for his restoration work on the Nar and for his role in founding the Wild Trout Trust. This time it is as an author that I am in awe of him and this is a book I nearly lost at the net. I bought it when it came out in 2018 and I didn’t think much of it at first but, goodness me, have I changed my opinion on second reading?

Reading is like fishing: sometimes you have to stick with a book or a swim to uncover gold. Charles covers eels, salmon, herring, carp and cod as his species and whilst I relished his references to Norfolk first time round, I hadn’t then realised the depth of scholarship in the book or  how pertinent it is to the crises we face in angling today. I used to hate Charles because of the huge sea trout he caught Stiffkey way some years back. Now I can just loathe him for the beauty of his writing. 

The book makes me wonder what sort of angler I am and you are too? Do we go fishing just to chill and turn off from the anxieties of our lives? Is fishing a bubble where we can all escape into our own special world? Or do the mounting perils that fish face today confront us, anger us, make us want to do something positive to help. Charles has done something special with this fine book - damn him - but what he has also done is to prod us all into realising we can never take for granted the fishy treasures that have so blessed our lives so far.