John Bailey: The fishing detectives are my heroes of the banks

A red-finned river roach on opening day last Sunday Picture: John Bailey

A red-finned river roach on opening day last Sunday Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

The whole issue of the Robert Shanks Award for fishing excellence and achievement has focused my mind on what makes a considerable, even great, angler.

Surely this old warrior could be one of our near extinct wild carp from days long ago Picture: John

Surely this old warrior could be one of our near extinct wild carp from days long ago Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

I actually wrote a book under that very title, The Great Anglers, 30 years ago and it did well, proving there is an interest in the subject. My conclusion then was the very best anglers are those with a real connection with the fish and the waters they live in. It is still my belief that good to great anglers might have all the techniques and bait knowledge necessary, but it is their watercraft and ability to relate to fish that sets them apart.

In the last 30 or 40 years, tackle, rigs and baits have developed so sensationally that many big fish are caught without that dash of genius that was needed back in the day when parboiled potatoes were seen as a top carp attractant. So many of us hereabouts revere the memory of Rob, not just because he was a lovely man but he was the type of angler to whom I am referring. He could read waters like they were in big print and react to their every nuance. With carp, it was like he had a hotline to their headquarters and predict what they were going to do before they knew it themselves.

I'm not in Rob's league, but I like to think my decades of fishing have opened my eyes to some things. For example, a great mate caught a cracking trout on the 16th, the opening of the river season. We examined it down to the last spot and decided it was a natural born, river Wensum-bred fish. That type of knowledge is important to anglers who want to take their fishing to another level I think. Then there was Steve's carp caught from a day ticket water. It didn't look like any of the bigger, stocked fish that inhabit the water. It was leaner and darker and to me had all the appearances of one of the region's old fashioned, so-called wild carp. The more I thought about this, the more possible the explanation became. The lake lies very near three former, once famous wild carp waters. They lost their stocks, all of them, late last century but it must be likely that this old warrior of Steve's was transferred before the waters died. Or that at least is my romantic notion of the case!

On the same lake, in a hidden corner, there was, as usual, a good deal of otter poo. I'm obsessed with the stuff, I'll admit. There is always evidence of it at this particular lake, almost always in the same place. I've noticed this before: rather like badgers with their communal latrines, otters like to use their own public conveniences. On this particular morning, there was plenty of old, dried-out poo to be scrutinised, but also some very fresh, rich red droppings as well. I analysed it carefully and the colour itself gave the game away rather. This poo was a sludge of excreted signal crayfish, harvested obviously from the stream nearby. There were one or two mallard feathers present too, but not a sign of a fish scale or bone. I mention this because otters are still demonised by many as the slayer of fish everywhere. My experience is exactly the reverse. As an otter poo expert, I'd say our otters eat crayfish, water fowl and small mammals in that order of preference and that fish limp in a distant fourth. Of course, recently-stocked trout or carp in small shallow lakes will get hammered, but wild fish in deeper natural pits will soon build up their defences. I'll end this by saying the water in question is not otter-fenced but there are rarely, if ever, fish losses there.

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Yes, of course, Sunday was the first day back on the rivers if you are a coarse angler. The sunrise was pretty sensational where I was, although the morning was chilly and a rising wind spoiled my float control by late morning. For me, the 16th has to be about roach, river roach that is. And to complete the picture, I have to be trotting a red-topped stick float too. After all the rain, water levels and colour were both as perfect as I can ever remember on opening day and I truly shivered in anticipation. That's saying something for an old warhorse like me - and I wasn't disappointed. By midday, I had landed perhaps a dozen roach or a couple more to a weight of around a pound. They were stunning fish, red-finned reminders of why the East Anglian river roach will always be my most treasured fish species on the planet.

Mind you, I reckon I caught those roach because, rather like Robert Shanks and anglers from an older age, I knew exactly where they would be. Miles of river would have been barren of fish on Sunday and all the roach I realised would be on the tail of the quicker gravels. Whilst I did well, I could not throw off the feeling we still need many, many more roach in our rivers before we can call them recovered. For starters, it would help if the Environment Agency could explain why it vetoes the stocking of roach into rivers, something that was done successfully for centuries. To get our red-finned roach back we need some cutting of red tape, and fast.

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