John Bailey: Burbot, Baftas, chalk and cane

John Bailey on the Glaven chalk stream in Norfolk

There has been wondrous work carried out on another Norfolk chalk stream, the delightful Glaven - Credit: John Bailey

It's early on the morning of May 2 as I write and still a frost on the ground with the promise of a less than springtime week coming up - so it's a good job I have things on my mind that don’t all involve actual fishing.

For example, great pal and great fishery scientist Mark Everard has been in touch about a plan to return burbot to the Wissey in west Norfolk. I’ve never seen a Norfolk burbot, of course, as they probably died out here in the 1960s, but I have caught them in Siberia where I needed to eat them to survive.

That is no fisherman’s tale, but I wish it were: they tasted like cotton wool mixed with wood pulp and a dash of well chewed gum. I’ve caught wet sponges that have fought better and as for their looks, think strips of old mottled shoe leather. I accept they probably don’t speak that highly of me, especially when I question Mark’s sanity in wanting to see the odious things back in our glorious county once more. Why not concentrate on a return for the grayling, the glamorous, alluring lady of the stream? Most of us would like to see more barbel or roach or almost anything with fins providing it doesn’t begin with a 'b' and end with a 't'.

But there’s sense in everything Everard does and the idea is, as I see it, that if burbot were to return, then they would become the ultimate canary in the mine. First, a burbot return would attract public attention and if they were to survive, it would prove the Wissey a fit, healthy habitat for them. The reverse is obviously equally true: if the stocking were to fail, then that might suggest that work on water quality might be required with some urgency (or that more thought on predator control is necessary, some would say). Whatever, the plan is firmly rooted in the modern scheme of things, entailing biodiversity, rewilding and all the other terms that baffle us these days.

I bet country life was not as complex back in the day burbot ruled the Fens. Some of you might have grandfathers who caught the things back in the distant days of war time and just afterwards and it would be good to know if Norfolk burbot were superior to their Siberian cousins. Almost certainly is the answer to that one I know. And they were probably caught on rods made of good old cane , which brings me to the Thomas Turner website I have just become involved with.

This specialist company deals in vintage and retro tackle (no, I don’t know the difference either) and they have for sale a couple of Chapman-built cane carp rods, the 500 and 550 models, that I owned and worshipped back when burbot might just have lingered on hereabouts. In those days I think they cost five guineas, about two days work on a farm is my guess, and they had an exquisite action that made them perfect for carp, chub, sea bass and even a conger eel I caught in the harbour at Nice on the Mediterranean. Fishing should be about fun as much as results and I have a real hankering for one of those rods to take me back to the days when Norfolk estate lakes were full of 3lb tench that made my young arm ache. Ah, an old man’s memories eh?

Not every water in north Norfolk is in decline, though. The magazine of the Wild Trout Trust, Salmo Trutta, has just arrived and in it is the stirring story of how Charles Rangeley-Wilson and friends have transformed lengths of the river Nar. Charles is a great bloke, a true Norfolk treasure and author of such angling classics as Silver Shoals. I’ve taken issue with him in the past over the poverty of his tench records, but there’s no doubt he loves trout and knows how to succour them. He’s been working tirelessly to restore the Nar for 10 years and the work seems to have paid off handsomely. I won’t go into the technical details of the work as they are beyond me, but we all should listen when he says “the majority of our natural chalk streams are effectively lost or so changed as to be lost”. We should applaud when he writes “we have returned to the river its gradient and gravel. It is amazing how energetic  a chalk stream is when you give it back these things”.

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Now, I have nothing but praise for this whole enterprise, but answer me this. Charles thanks the Holkham estate, the Norfolk Rivers Drainage Board, Natural England and the Norfolk Rivers Trust, amongst others, for their help in the restoration of a trout-filled chalk stream. How come when we look at stretches of coarse rivers, hardly anything even remotely like this work is considered or carried out? Is it because of Charles’ undoubted charisma, knowledge and hard work? Is it because coarse anglers in the main don’t give a damn if they have a commercial to go to? Is it down to finance and the fact there is more money in trout than dace? Or is it because there is more kudos in working on a river running through the Holkham estate than there is tending to the battered old Wensum on some common somewhere?  I’m very well aware that bodies like the Wensum Anglers Conservation Association have done what they can and stalwarts like Tim Ellis and Chris Turnbull have worked wonders but have they ever received the sort of money and support than Charles has enjoyed?

Mortimer and Whitehouse on the Bafta trail

Up for a Bafta - Mortimer and Whitehouse fish the Test, another cherished chalk stream - Credit: John Bailey

Recognition is a hard thing to achieve and that is why I was pleased when the director of Mortimer and Whitehouse, Gone Fishing told me the series is up for a Bafta again. It has been been nominated before, which at least one of the stars finds surprising as the programs are steadfastly middle England and non political. I suspect that is what many of us like about the series, but they are failings that will probably see it miss out again. 

Let’s look on the bright side though. We anglers might not get our Baftas but we might still get our burbot back.