John Bailey: Is it a case of the bigger, the better for most anglers?

A Wensum beauty of 2.12 pounds. Picture: John Bailey

A Wensum beauty of 2.12 pounds. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

We can talk about all the lovely things in angling, friendship, the environment and the fascination of understanding fish.

John Bailey with the last of his super roach. Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey with the last of his super roach. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

I can write about all the wonderful things that we witness, the lakes smoking at dawn, the kingfishers blue-bulleting past, curls of smoke from a kettle, the drama of a screaming reel or the exquisite rise of an evening brown trout.

All these wonders are fundamental to the joy of being an angler but, at the end of it all, I have to admit that even at my age, after all these years, it's the prospect and the allure of big fish that drives me on. It's the same for so many of us.

What is it about big fish? Obviously, very many times, it's their jaw-dropping beauty. The impact of big fish is immense. It's their uniqueness. They really are the Special Ones.

Big fish are the stuff of our dreams and we always, I trust, realise the privilege that we share when we set about catching them. And, of course, only anglers are aware of how mysterious and how magical big fish are.


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They represent our own natural history show. Anglers are alone in being able to get under the skin of big fish and working out how they tick, how they survive, how they thrive.

I have a load of big fish puzzles revolving around in my mind at the moment. First up, possibly, is the question of big brown trout reappearing in some of our rivers.

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Can we really see a return to the 1950s and 1960s when brown trout of six and seven pounds plus swam, relatively common, in our upper waterways? I like to go to The Swan at Ringland and look at the big fish there, set up on the wall.

It just could be that as minnows and gudgeon begin to reappear in legions along the Wensum close-by to the pub, we might see fish like that again. Blimey, I hope so.

Big chub completely and utterly fascinate me. Why is it that on some of our rivers, some of the chub populations show massive shoulders, deep bellies, extreme length.

What makes these fish, super-chub, so different to their leaner, thinner, shorter brethren in other stretches of sometimes the same river? We are quick to mention a diet of crayfish but perhaps the really big, bull-shouldered chub are simply predatorial.

Or is that too simple an explanation?

Big pike have always fascinated me, like they do virtually all of us. But, again, why is it that so many of our East Anglian pits just cannot produce the monsters, the grandmothers, the fish of twenty-five pounds plus? Even filling them with protein-rich rainbow trout doesn't always do the job, it's too simplistic an answer. There are pits that I fish that in theory should be big pike rich, yet, an emaciated eight pounder is often a good result there. To me, it remains even after all these years, a complete mystery.

Big tench are an equal fascination. Why do some pits produce fish of eight and nine pounds plus and on other lakes, you struggle to get a five pounder? It's not all down to boilies and carp anglers filling the place in with high protein baits. Once again, the answer is far more complex. I like to think about the age of the pit, its fertility and so on but at the end of the day, I'm no further down the line with any answers.

And, yes, of course, we come to it. My dearest love of all, big roach. Are our rivers today actually capable of producing the numbers of big roach that they once did, back in the '60s, '70s and even into the '80s?

It's tempting to think that if we can control predation, 'twos' will slide over the net in a steady procession but have things just gone too far downhill on many of our streams? Perhaps there just isn't the food anymore. Fly sampling seems to suggest that most invertebrate populations are on the way down. What a tragedy this would be if our most emblematic species were to wither.

Many, many years ago, John Wilson and I were founder members of a group called The Freeliners! Very hippy, I know. I can't remember exactly but I think the list of trophy weights went something like this. Carp, fifteen pounds. Bream, five pounds. Tench, four pounds. Chub, three pounds. Pike, twenty-five pounds. Roach, I seem to remember, a colossal two pounds twelve ounces!! I think, on balance, I'd quite like those days back again.

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