John Bailey: A sweet and sour start to summer fishing

Ian’s carp

Ian’s carp - Credit: John Bailey

I always think of July as the real deal summer, the month it truly gets going.

Perhaps this goes back to my teaching days when I longed for term to be over and I could leave the school gates for eight glorious weeks of fishing freedom. Never think teachers aren’t gasping for the holidays as deeply as the kids!

But life being what it is there are always bumps in the road, July 2021 being blown in by nasty north westerlies. Anyone who has read this column for umpteen years knows that north and easterly winds, summer or winter, make me as miserable as a car full of escaped maggots. You know what it is like in Norfolk, especially Holt/Aylsham way when the wind comes from Cromer. The temperature drops, a fret hangs in the air and you can all but taste the tang of salt. Worse than anything, the fish loathe it. Fly life is non-existent, the waters cool and virtually everything with fins goes into one, big, long sulk. 

Back before the return of our otters, I used to adore the north Norfolk estate lakes and they gave me many of my happiest angling memories, but they were often crucified by a blowy northerly. It was like all the carp and tench had been vacuumed out of the water and you could sit for days without a sniff of anything more than a bootlace eel... remember those days when elvers in their trillions still wriggled their way up every stream each May?

Today, much fishing is about our gravel pits further south and whilst they might not have the Arcadian beauty of the estate lakes, they do give you depth, and depth does you give you a chance in the times of the northerly. The key I’ve found is to find a piece of water that has at least some respite from the teeth of the wind, probably a sheltered bay or a bank facing south and girdled with alders and willows. Here there’s a chance that flies might be hatching, there will be some swifts and swallows at work and tench, especially, might be having a mooch around. Perhaps even a carp.

It was on such a swim that old friend Ian Rotherham found himself back on July 1. Nestled there in the reeds, all camouflaged up, he looked for all the world like an oversized bittern, but at least he was warm and the water before him was untroubled by that damned wind. On parky days like these you often don’t need to get on the water at the crack of a benighted dawn and Ian and I didn’t really see much sign of fish until late morning. By then, an amount of bait had gone in, but not too much, and the odd patch of very promising bubbles began to rise lazily to the surface. There was more bird activity, warblers flitting, a cuckoo calling, and they are always good signs of life awakening. 

Now, Ian is a retro kind of angler, and I mean that with affection. He catches some great fish because he understands them, but when it comes to gear and bait, he tends to look backwards when he can. I like that. I liked the fact that he was using butter beans for bait. I liked his bamboo rod, his centre pin reel and his vintage quill float. To some it would have looked quirky: increasingly to me, this approach is endearing. I’ve started doing some work with the vintage tackle company Thomas Turner and whilst I’d advise you to look at their website, I don’t want you to think this is becoming an advertorial. No, I’m simply realising that nice, characterful tackle not only works but works with a kind of charm that modern, hi-tech stuff has lost in its search for super efficiency. Back to Ian’s day as an example..

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The bubbles approached his float which began to stir uneasily. It rose a fraction, settled again and suddenly was gone. That cane rod simply arched from tip to butt in the most perfect of battle curves. Every lunge of the fish was cushioned and absorbed with a sort of soporific ease that meant that carp, a big one, got nowhere. The ‘pin did more than its bit too. Who needs a fixed spool reel’s clutch when you can have an educated, experienced thumb on the rim of a whirring centre pin’s drum? This was a masterclass in how to play an angry common in the most graceful, unhurried of ways with gear full of soul. In the end, an end which was never in doubt, the carp weighed in at mid-20s and it went back with an astonished beat of its tail. Job neatly done.

Before you think I’m going all Edwardian on you, I’ll explain my thinking. Ian’s reel was an up-to-date version of the old Coxon centre pin. It had the nice touch of a mahogany back plate with a threepenny bit inset into it... a 1960 coin, the year of Ian’s birth. But much more than that, the reel was built by the modern ‘pin master Gary Mills. It is a masterpiece of engineering, a true work of art. That reel will be purring after we are all gone, believe me, and contrast that with the modern influx of Chinese reels flooding the country. You can’t even by spares for these flimsy things when they go wrong, as go wrong they do with depressing frequency.

Which would you rather do? Buy a class reel that works beautifully and is made by an English craftsman or a heap of cheap metal that originates somewhere near Shanghai and might let you down as soon as it leaves its box? Cost? By the time you’ve bought half a dozen samples of foreign junk, you could have bought a modern masterpiece that your great grandchildren will be using. 

There’s been a bit of a row between members of the Barbel Society and the Angling Trust over the question of otters and their spread. I have affection for both groups and I hope a compromise will be found.

I mentioned obliquely that otters did the shallow estate lakes a load of no good, but they seem less deadly in deeper gravel pits. Also wild, naturally-bred fish learn to avoid otters very, very quickly in my experience... and I’ve been watching this process minutely for 20 years or more. For sure, there will be times when otters have us crying, but by and large I’ve personally come to accept them. Izaak Walton moaned about them 400 years ago and I guess we’ll be doing the same 400 years hence. But at least Ian’s centre pin will still be doing the business even then!