John Bailey: How an angler wastes an afternoon

And away... this barbel barely left the water

And away... this barbel barely left the water - Credit: John Bailey

Donkeys years ago, I used to possess more fishing books than I do now and there were days when I’d settle down and simply lose myself in them.

My shirkings were made worse by my friendship with Michael Robbins and David Clarke, of North Walsham and Ingworth respectively. Both are remembered as Titans on the conservation scene, both had vast angling libraries,  both allowed me to browse to my heart’s content and how the afternoons would ease along in a piscatorial paradise.

That was then. Today, my angler’s afternoon passes in the modern way, watching YouTube films in an endless stream of mindlessness. I began my marathon after lunch, tore myself away before dinner and realised my brain had turned to mush. Seductive is hardly the word, addictive more like, but now as I begin to ponder, perhaps my idleness has not been for absolutely nothing.

I began by watching material on the  Norfolk rivers, the Glaven, Wensum, Nar, Stiffkey and Yare. There’s just so much effort going into their restoration, you realise. So many groups, so many associations and so many experts all wanting to see our upper rivers  return to an almost prehistoric wilderness. The hero of this work is the brown trout, the perfectly-formed and finned wild variety that all conservationists strive to see return. The only problem is that these are generally small and anglers might not be quite as keen, especially if these trout live in a world so full of woody debris that dibbling a fly is difficult and casting one an impossibility.  I worry especially now I hear Natural England and the Environment Agency might be reviewing licences to stock fish into SSSIs. How much longer can we hope for a decent trout or two on rivers like the Wensum, whether it be stocked or not?

Eels got a lot of screen time this afternoon of mine, especially elvers. Of course, 50 years ago spring was the time of the year when all our mills and weirs and bridges teemed with them. Tiny, glassily transparent creatures, freshly run from the sea and numbered not in hundreds or thousands but in millions, perhaps trillions even. Despite all the blood, sweat, tears and money spent on eel passes and the like, one gloomy voice intoned just THREE elvers had passed though a Norfolk mill last year. Blooming heck, I thought. Let’s watch some fish being caught instead.

There’s a very excellent magazine out there called Classic Angling (I would say that - I write for it) and in the last issue the editor called for more style in the clothing of coarse anglers especially. Too right. These geezers hoiking out carp and barbel were a right lot of Steptoes. But then I looked at some images of me piking last winter and Wurzel Gummidge looked a snappy dresser by comparison. Would angling be taken more seriously as a sport and be more attractive to kids if a tad more style became a consideration? You’re never going to get a Kingfisher carp angler looking as though he’s stepped out of A River Runs Through It but we could all try harder. If you see a Beau Brummel lookalike strolling the Wensum this coming season, it will, of course, be me.

More seriously, I wondered watching these films , when did it become the norm to fish with two rods (or more) in nearly every coarse fishing situation? Back in the 70s, we deemed two rods often halved our chances rather than doubling them, and we were right. Twice as much casting, twice as many splashes, twice as much line in the water, twice as many chances of messing up and scaring the fish. Film upon film seemed to suggest we fish so blindly, so blinkered by what the perceived wisdom of the day holds to be true. Does anyone fish today with a float rather than a feeder, I wondered? Does every bait conversation have to begin and end with a boilie or a pellet?

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There’s more, much more, but a last consideration will have to do. What I watched were continuous processions of fish coming to the net. What I listened to were commentaries lamenting supposedly slow days when it seemed to me they should have been labelled Red Letter ones. Are our expectations today just too high? Should we take success for granted and should we tend towards treating fish as commodities? One element made me scream. I timed one barbel being paraded in front of the camera for an ugly three minutes. “And away” is now become my lifelong mantra, so, perhaps, an afternoon not wasted after all!