John Bailey: Life of a Norfolk angler... the exploding years

John Bailey with chub

A chub to be proud of in any era - Credit: Joh Bailey

I finished last week’s column with the portentous words: “I met John Wilson and my fishing life changed forever.”

Until then I had been a lad who enjoyed his fishing with pals like the great Joe Reed, soon to become Blakeney Point warden. Wilson changed me into a man who had to fish, had to catch, had to succeed. Long before John became famous, he possessed huge presence and charisma and was not a chap to be gainsaid. His legendary shop, John’s Tackle Den, became a crucible of angling ambition for all us young bloods, John stoking the heat. 

Wednesday was John’s big night back in those days. I’d pick him up from his house in Taverham every Wednesday, June until October, and we’d fish until it was time for me to take him back to open up the shop. Then I would skulk back to Blakeney to sleep whilst JW had to be bright all day and then be a dad to Lee and Lisa on Thursday night. Together we discovered such endless treasures as the black bream of Upton Broad and the whale-like chub of the Wissey.

Looking back, I don’t really know if those bream were black or those chub were Mobys as our myth and reality blurred somewhat, but the monster roach of the Wensum were real enough. Weeks after we had met, John ushered me into the back room of The Den where he had a big barrel filled with water. Magician like he scooped up a massive 2lb 7oz roach before my very eyes and that was it. Barely into my 20s, I would be a roach man for life.

I remember crazy Wednesday nights - 7pm we pitched up on Bream Corner on the Bure at Horstead, behind the butcher's shop. By 9pm, JW wasn’t “feeling it”, and after being chased by the butcher’s dog, we got to my van and drove north to Gunton Park lake. We were fishing by 10pm, but soon after we cast a biblical storm rolled in from the south and that was when I first realised John was terrified of lightning.

Off we went, this time to Upton Broad where, in pitch blackness, we got into the tiny boat there, Umma Gumma was its name, and pushed off into the watery no man’s land. The kerfuffle of setting up four 12-foot rods in a 10-foot boat was enough to convince JW we had scared every bream in Norfolk so off to Wolterton Lake we motored to catch the dawn. Sunrise was a stunner, I remember, but the growing light revealed the inconvenient fact that the tench were in full spawning mode. So, after 12 hours of tackling up and travelling, not a bite was to be had apart from one cracking perch I wrinkled out from amongst those orgiastic tincas. 

And then I was living in Balaclava Cottage, in the centre of Lyng-on-Wensum and roach obsession was my beating heart. For 12 years, whilst I was teaching at Sprowston and Norwich School, the centre of my universe centred on Elsing, Swanton Morley, Worthing, Lenwade and Lyng itself. I shared that cottage with fellow roach fanatic John Judge and during the mid-70s there were few weeks when we did not catch some 2lb roach and sometimes several. All this made the phrase “living the dream” seem like the understatement of my life. September to March we were out every night on those dark, deserted flood plains with teaching  little more than an inconvenience between roach sessions. 

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But, then, this was the great age of Norfolk specimen hunting. The county attracted some of the big names of the time to relocate, men like Dave Plummer and John Watson, and they drove all our ambitions to the limit. Steve Harper caught an 11lb barbel from the Wensum, immense at the time, and a whole new world opened up as a result. 

Andy Davison took his record bream from Beeston Lake and as the Thurne returned to form, the pike record came back to Norfolk. Add Felbrigg rudd, Blickling tench and the rapid rise of gravel pit carping into the mix and yes, these were the exploding years without doubt. Stillwater trouting took off with over a dozen day ticket fisheries and the consolidation of clubs like the Norfolk Fly Fishers, whilst in the sea there were still big cod to be taken off the winter beaches. Would any of us go back to those days? In the blink of an eye is my guess. 

Yet, the warning signs were there and some of us saw clouds on the horizon of our angling Utopia. In the early 80s the Cromer Ridge Angling Preservation Society was formed, CRAPS in short of course. Names like Steve Harper, again, Dave Humphries and  Angling Direct founder Martyn Page had realised that the legendary estate lakes in the north of the county were in steep decline. Very shortly, CRAPS was subsumed into the far larger and more dynamic Norfolk Anglers Conservation Association that in itself emerged from the Save The Wensum group. You would be right to say that individually we were a ruthless, self-seeking lot of ruffians, but at least we saw the early woes in angling and came together as a force to remedy these. I doubt if any other area of the UK sported such a collection of committed, passionate anglers dedicated to fighting for fish.

Famous angling artist Chris Turnbull personified the whole movement and became its driving voice for nigh on 40 years. The tragedy is that the pressures exerted on our waters by the demands of modern society have by and large rendered these efforts often futile, but those concerned should be proud nonetheless.

In 1989 I left teaching, or teaching left me, and for 20 years the Norfolk angling world was not enough. I first lived largely in the Scottish highlands and then began to travel and fish most of the year in over 50 countries, most notably throughout India and Mongolia for months annually.

It was a wonderful, unforgettable period and I count myself the luckiest of men, but by 2010 or thereabouts the wanderlust burned out and I was happy to be home in Norfolk, appreciating the joys we still have here. This last decade has been perhaps the most satisfying of my life and of course, writing these columns has been at the heart of it all.