John Bailey: We’re fishing from the same boat

Almost exactly a year ago to the day Mick Munns was catching tench at Lyng and JB was hunting wild b

Almost exactly a year ago to the day Mick Munns was catching tench at Lyng and JB was hunting wild brown trout in North we have our memories Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

April Fool’s Day, eh? If we’d been told last April 1 that a year on we’d all be in lockdown with our fishing and our lives facing an uneasy future, we’d have scoffed.

You don’t catch us with that one, we’d have said. No way. No chance. But here we are, sitting at home, watching the daffodils grow outside our window panes, imagining trout rising and tench bubbling without us there to make the slightest move on them.

A week ago, the waters run by the Wye and Usk Foundation all along the Welsh border were pronounced still open for business, but that was before the Angling Trust asked the government for clarification. The answer was pretty clear: hang up your rods, or else. So that is that. Time has been called on all our sports by this virus, the great leveller of our age. Perhaps that is the only virtue of the disease. We are, after all, in the same boat, though some would say they are rowing in a more leaky one than others.

Whilst I feel sorrow for every one of us in these difficult times, my heart goes out to the commercial fishery owners. The phone at Reepham Fishery is ringing off the hook with requests for bookings that simply cannot be taken. At Rockland Mere, the trout are sipping buzzers the moment the easterly wind relaxes, owner James Harrold tells me. April and May just have to be the prime time for stillwater fly fishing and the odds are none of us will see any of it this year. When, and if, fisheries open again it is likely to be during the summer and we all know what temperatures in the 30s do to our trout. I know older anglers who feel they will never get this spring back.

Life isn’t great for our fish suppliers. I had the pleasure of teaching Richard Boulton, owner of West Acre Trout Farm, many years ago at Norwich School and, as I’d expect, he is toughing it out. Some of the big reservoirs are still taking his fish, he says, and he has room to hold plenty more in readiness for the world spinning back to normal. Fish food supplies have been a worry, but a 20-ton delivery from Germany has eased his concerns. Sometimes it takes a crisis like this to realise just how interdependent we all are in this global economy of ours.

Tackle shops aren’t exactly rejoicing. Daniel Brydon of Wensum Valley Angling told me that anglers are still ordering the smaller items like pole winders, but not the poles themselves. Still, out of adversity comes enterprise and Daniel has started his Corona Voucher scheme. Phone him on 07766 658948, order a voucher and he’ll give you up to 25pc of the value on top as a freebie. Who knows? That might just be the chance you need to buy that rod you have always thought just out of reach. The angling magazines I write for aren’t doing well either as the newsagents close and circulations wither. And as for my spring tench guiding, well, you can imagine how well that is doing! So, as my old fishing chum Will Baker sometimes said, things are “not good” but there are bigger worries for the world lying ahead.

The Sunday Times last weekend carried a headline “Poaching Threat as Safari Trade Collapses.” A friend of mine, Paul Goldstein, runs eco-camps in Kenya and he is worried that the cash switch-off will drive wildlife workers into poaching. If a man is not paid to protect wildlife, then he will earn his family’s money by killing and selling it. Even the finest sensibilities cannot overcome the sight of a starving child. I have seen this happen in the angling world. Between 1990 and 2012 I helped establish fishing camps in India that were a complete win/win initiative. Erstwhile fish poachers secured regular employment as fishing guides. Stocks of fish rose, the jungle was protected and we even set about founding a school for the river children. Then fishing fell foul of the Green lobby out there, was banned and the camps fell into disuse. My friends in Bangalore tell me the rivers are being dynamited, the jungles being hacked back and the work of a quarter of a century has been lost.

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Having time, though, can be an enormous gift and privilege. I have rediscovered my landline and old telephone book and what a joy it has been to talk to friends from way back.Remember the name ‘burbot’? The slightly eel-like fish that used to inhabit the Fenland rivers until perhaps 1950 or so? Despite a hundred quests and a thousand rumours the species has been declared extinct in the UK for the past half century. Perhaps not. According to my nutty professor, the burbot still lives on in the deep glacial waters of an unnamed lake somewhere north of the Scottish border. This isn’t much of a clue as there are more lochs than the sky has stars, but the story has legs for me. Whilst I have never seen an English burbot, I have caught (and eaten) them in the mountainous regions of Siberia and Mongolia where the waters are ice cold. A theory is that Fenland burbot perished because of climate change so it makes a type of bonkers sense they could still be clinging on somewhere to the north in the UK. You could say losing burbot was no big deal. They are not particularly glamorous, they don’t grow especially large and they taste like wood pulp. But what a wonder it would be if burbot did exist, unknown, unguessed at in this world where we think we know everything there is to know. For me it would be a sort of fishy miracle... and don’t we need something like that? And, no, this story is NOT an April Fool... honest!