John Bailey: A fond farewell to the bravest angler of all

Robin and Keith - and tench of course!

Robin and Keith - and a lovely tench - Credit: John Bailey

I’m still in a state of shocked depression, even after three days of receiving the news of Keith’s death.

He’s suffered from Parkinson's ever since I’ve known him and each succeeding year has seen a worsening of his condition, slight, but perceptible all the same. But to be honest, such has been the man’s resolve and determination to fish on, that I haven’t ever been properly aware of this and rather have somehow presumed that he was ultimately indestructible.

I’ve been guiding for exactly 30 years now and many friends (you can’t call them clients after you have shared the ups and downs of the riverbank) have passed on, to my deep regret and sadness. And it’s a sobering fact that funerals are accelerating in number as the century progresses, but none of my losses has compared to this one. For me, Keith, small, suffering and 70-something, personified exactly what makes an angler and every single session I enjoyed with him showed me why we go fishing at all.

Keith loved the Kingfisher Lake at Lyng. He’d arrive in the car park, smile as wide as the beaming sun, and we’d figure out how to get him to Island, Treasure Island as it was to him. Sometimes his smashing son Robin and I would half carry, half heave him the quarter of a mile there. If Darren, the wonderful custodian of the place, were around, we’d lever him into the mule and drive him around, his frail little body bouncing as the antique vehicle negotiated the ruts.

Once we even strapped him onto a carper’s barrow and pushed him around, sitting atop a bivvy and bucket of boilies. For Keith, it didn’t matter how he got there as long as he did, as long as he could get to the tench heaven he’d been dreaming of the winter long.

There’d almost always be a bit of a kerfuffle once we’d unloaded him. Keith had been an angler of considerable ability and Parkinson's hadn’t dented his pride one jot. For a long while, he tried with tears of frustration to set up for himself and it was only little by little that he trusted Robin, initially, and then me to do the job for him.

Robin, Keith, Enoka and tench of course!

Keith, Enoka - and a tench, of course! - Credit: John Bailey

As the years rolled by, we settled into a routine that seemed to suit. I’d cast the heavy feeders out 50 yards or so. Robin would hit a take and hustle the tench over the weed covered bars, Keith would then man the rod for the last crucial 20 yards and if Enoka were present, she’d net the fish. It was a team effort that kept us all engaged and amused and the days passed in sun-drenched and tench-filled contentment. Looking back now, I realise that contentment only half conveys how precious those times were, how irreplaceable.

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Let’s not get too carried away here, though. The sun didn’t always shine. The tench didn’t always bite. Heaven help Robin if he reeled in a tench bigger than any of Keith’s. There were tackle disasters and fish that dropped off. There were heart-stopping times when Keith fell into nettle beds - or even just fell in. And pain was never far away, kept just at bay by pills and injections delivered at the swim. Keith got tired. He got grumpy. He got hot and then freezingly cold. But never once did he give in. Never once did we not have to drag him to that barrow and lash him on for the return journey. Never once did he say that he wasn’t yearning for the next day, the next trip. Never once was his spirit dented, his soul quashed. Wet, bedraggled, sore and aching, he was always up for it in a way I’ve rarely seen in the fittest of fisher folk.

So, yes, there are a score of reasons why this is the hardest column I have ever had to write and now that I am accepting the pain of loss a little, I am reflecting on this. It strikes me that with Keith’s passing, we have lost a true angler. I don’t mean a good angler or an angler who enjoys a day on the lake. I’m trying to say that Keith was a through and through angler, a man who had to fish, a man who had fishing stamped right down to his core. Keith was Mr Fishing and he was one of a breed that is, I fear, disappearing fast.

I’ll be devastated if I don’t fish with Robin at least once a year on into the future. We’ll have fun, have a natter and keep Keith’s memory alive in the only way he would have wanted. But for Robin I know these sessions will be nice, nostalgic, not full of the burning need that inspired his dad. In losing Keith, we have lost another angler who knows what fishing is truly, utterly about. Keith, dear old friend, you really are irreplaceable.