John Bailey: Season of mist and mellow angling

John Bailey with roach

A scraper two roach - massive today, barely worth a second look in 1971! - Credit: John Bailey

It’s that time of the year when the nights pull in and the days of summer begin to seem a memory.

There’s dew on the riverbank, the orchards are heavy and the very best of the fishing year awaits us.

But before careering off with my tackle, I like to read the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust report that comes out annually around now. When anything aquatic is mentioned, game fish tend to predominate, but what is good for the trout is good for the chub so it’s all one to me. Shame we are not more like the Europeans, the Danes for example, who like all the angling disciplines equally and make little distinction between game and coarse, but that’s just me riding my old hobby horse again so I’ll gallop on to the point.

Beavers. Chances are that with the rewilding mania that now afflicts us, these creatures might soon be coming to a river near you. I suppose it is mainly anglers who read this column and we might have a more pragmatic attitude towards beavers than the general doe-eyed public who love anything furry that they consider ripe for a good cuddle.

The GWCT report makes a few stark conclusions. Most obviously, beavers change the river landscape considerably, just as you would expect they would. The dams that they build hold rivers back so that they seep out to create large areas of wetland. This boggy swamp is great for mosquitoes and perhaps for absorbing floodwater, but it is evidently not great for the river species we know and love. In the East, our dace, trout, chub, roach and our few remaining barbel, like to nose a vibrant current and browse over clean runs of gravel. The report suggests that beavers can put paid to that scenario, and fast. 

I have seen beaver-rich rivers in Canada and it is true that their activity is not too damaging, but there is one important point to remember. In Canada, the rivers are huge, brawling bodies of rushing water that power along. That beavers create pockets of calm along their course is of no consequence and is probably of benefit to wildfowl in particular. But here in the East? Well, you are having a laugh if you compare the rivers of British Columbia with the trickling ditches our Norfolk rivers have become.

I’m afraid that if we consider the hideous abstraction that has so reduced our rivers and then add beavers to the mix, we have a recipe for complete riverine disaster. Or at least those of us who like to see even the slowest bit of moving water might consider that so.

Most Read

There are two things I do not get. My first puzzle is why these Carrie Johnson-type naturalists want to reintroduce creatures like beavers with such a passion whilst they seem quite content to let our countryside suffocate under a tide of agricultural pollutants that have killed off nearly everything we took for granted as children. Personally, I’d rather see grasshoppers again, or clouds of butterflies, or carpets of wildflowers before worrying about beavers. Thinking rivers, why don’t the Westminster Greens worry about escaping sewage, rising phosphate levels and the hideous cocktails of insecticides rather than fretting about whether this is a good time to bring back wombats or whatever?

My second query is this. We are all aware that if it could, the Environment Agency would do away with all the mills and weirs along our East Anglian rivers so that fish could pass up and down more easily. To an angler and naturalist who has known the Wensum since 1959, this fantasy has more holes in it than a landing net. But keep me out of it: if the EA is so adamant human-made dams must go, why is the Agency so seemingly acquiescent when it comes to dams built by beavers? I’m not a sea trout, but if I were I’m not sure that I’d find much difference between scaling an obstruction built by a medieval miller or one constructed by a creature with big teeth.

But onto nice stuff, eh? I fished recently with dear Frank who emailed me to thank me for some glorious days on the river. He then added how much he enjoyed my stories. Blimey, I thought. Is he being sincere here or am I just a boring old fart that rambles on interminably about any old nonsense that comes into my woolly head? In the knowledge that he is known widely as Honest Frank, I’ll risk a further story here.

It is September 1971 and I am working in the summer vacation at a farm near Saxthorpe. The night has seen thunder storms that have settled into a steady deluge by the time I arrive in the farmyard where I’m told it is too wet for the potato machine to operate and I have the day off. As ever, my gear is in the mini van and I hurtle off to North Elmham mill where I settle under a tree by the race and lay on with over-depth float and a lump of flake on the gravels. In no time, I land roach of 2lb 1oz, 2lb 3oz and 2lb 7oz, whereupon I decide to set my hat at something bigger. The van gets me up to Carricks beneath The Falls and I walk downriver until I nearly reach the farmhouse. The rain has subsided somewhat, but the river has risen a foot and is carrying just a hint of colour. I trot a float down the glorious run there that is 50 yards long, five feet deep and trundles over polished sand and chalk. Two big roach roll as I set up and first run through I hook into a silver beauty of 2lb 11oz. A clonker of 2lb13oz follows an hour later and by now I know the tide is coming in at Cley.

By 4pm my van is parked by the Glaven road bridge and I walk up the left-hand meadow until I come to the first bend, keeping an eye open for the bull there all the way. Water is churning in from the Point and there are already smaller sea trout showing so I freeline a couple of lobworms. I return a couple around the pound mark and then hook into cartwheeling giant of nearly 8lb which I confess I knock on the head to take home to mum. Apologies but we did things differently 50 years ago when there were fish everywhere! A perch of 2lb13oz finishes off my day to perfection and I am home by 7pm, in time for a shower, supper and night in The White Horse.

My perfect September day... with never a beaver to be seen!