John Bailey: Is our glorious 16th still an angler’s heaven?

June 16, 2019 and best friend Ian lands a cracker!

June 16, 2019 and best friend Ian lands a cracker! - Credit: John Bailey

Today is the day, the legendary 16th of June, the dawning of the new coarse fishing season, the moment many of us have been yearning for since the rivers closed back in March.

Over the years I wonder where your 16ths have been victorious? Where have your dreams been realised, where have your deep-laid plans exploded with success? On which bank sides have you hopped around, happy as a child again, punching the air with unbounded and to some, inexplicable, joy? To non-fishers, the 16th means little more than a date in the diary. To you and me, it is better than Christmas.

Me?

1969: Bayfield lake. Three tench caught by the damn weighing 10lb between them.

1972: Saham Toney Mere and two wild carp before breakfast, winkled out from the dense reed beds whilst trying to control the punt there the size of the Titanic.

1975: Felbrigg Lake with Joe Reed and a bag of rudd big as golden platters.

1977: Ormesby Broad , my first 5lb tench, caught on a float from a little dinghy captained by my teaching colleague at Sprowston High, the great John Nunn.

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1979: My first ever barbel from The Point at Old Costessey when I lived in the Mill House there.

1986: My first 6lb tench from Blickling Lake, on a worm, in sight of the Hall as it emerged through the mists. 

June 16

A June 16 reward for best friend Ian - Credit: John Bailey

You’ll notice these successes are from years long gone and I might have got the exact dates a tad muddled, but you get the gist. A Norfolk wonderland. Early summer, a time and a place where dreams can be made. Of course, time puts a patina on every memory. I forget those dreadful June dawns that have been cursed by bleak northerlies blowing down lakes that have shuddered into complete inactivity. I forget the moments when I have emerged through the retreating shadows of night only to find an angler in my baited swim with a smile on his face and a clutch of monsters in his net. I forget the 16th my van broke down on my way to Melton Constable lake and the steaming hot one when I found the carp already spawning and uncatchable. Mind you, I won’t forget the morning when I found a man, whose name I will not repeat, sitting on the gravels of the Wensum at Costessey with a net full of 40 chub, all battered and exhausted from their spawning finished only the day before. Another season opening that did not end well!

Since 1995, the power of the 16th has been diluted. That was the year when it was decided that still waters could remain open through the spring and that only rivers would be closed. Like many traditionalists, for a while I stood firm and put away my rods until June, but I  succumbed in the end and even this year, 2021, I’ve enjoyed two massive four-day tench sessions already. In truth, they were so successful I’m sort of tenched out as they say and even though I’ve been looking forward to this very day, it’s not been with the longing I knew in the old days.

Mind you, I’m still full of anticipation and I won’t be buying today’s Eastern Daily Press until later this afternoon, if I can still find one. No, should you be reading this over breakfast, I hope to be camped out this very moment on one of our tidal rivers doing battle with big bream, perhaps even fish close to doubles that fight white knuckle hard in a strong flow. Mind you, my car might break down, or I might find someone in my prepared swim, or the weather might be foul and I might be back in bed this very moment. That’s fishing for you. you can never tell quite how it’s going to pan out in the end. 

One angler who won’t be out this morning is my dear friend BC. Is there a nicer man fishing in this county of ours? I can’t think of one more modest, more caring of his catch, more concerned with how he catches rather than what he catches, than BC. To have known him many decades has been my privilege. BC has taught me a hundred times over how to appreciate the little things that happen on the bankside that make our fishing lives so special. He’s shown me that the size of a fish is no way to measure its merit and whilst this might sound like a cliche, when BC says it, you know it rings true. I’ve watched BC fish with a sensitivity that I recognise but could never match and whilst I rate him one of our great anglers most of you would never recognise his name if I chose to reveal it. 

Yes, BC is my Hidden Hero, no mistake, but why are his rods idle this morning? His email explaining this decision was a sad one indeed and made me fear we might be losing such a talent, such a voice of reason. In short, his spirit sounds to be broken. Over the years he has witnessed such a decline in wild, natural-bred fish stocks that he just doesn’t want to suffer any more disappointments. It is absolutely not that BC has buried his head in the sands of inactivity. He has been vociferous over the years about the decline of our rivers and he has worked tirelessly on any number of conservation projects. The man has just had enough and evidently feels the damage is too deep to reverse and too profound to personally endure. There are shades of John Wilson here: BC doesn’t want to escape to Thailand, but he does want to escape from the ravages he sees around him. 

God knows how many times I have felt like him, but what I would say is that hope springs eternal and nature can be bouncier than a rubber ball. Over this century, I have seen countless shafts of light at the end of the tunnel, endless green shoots that might signal recovery and regrowth. These might have come too late for me, but BC is a younger man and I’d love to think that in 20 years he’ll be out on the 16th and roach will be coming in a constant stream to his net. In the meanwhile, I’m just keeping my fingers crossed for some Bure bream that might very well be making my arms ache this very moment in time. Wish me luck if you will!