John Bailey: Fisherman naturalists – it’s a thinking man’s game

John Bailey shows barbel can be caught and can be fin perfect too. Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey shows barbel can be caught and can be fin perfect too. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

I never want anyone to think that I write these pieces out of some kind of privileged insight into our watery world. I write about what I see and it just so happens that I see a lot of waters on a pretty much daily basis.

John Bailey shows barbel can be caught and can be fin perfect too. Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey shows barbel can be caught and can be fin perfect too. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

I never left my teaching post at the Norwich School 28 years ago to fish full-time, but that is how it has happened. And, though there are bad days, I'm hardly complaining about my lot. In 1946, Anthony Buxton published his classic book, 'The Fisherman Naturalist'. I bought my copy in a second-hand bookshop in Fakenham in the late '60s and I was completely smitten, totally carried away. I suppose then I wanted the life that I have now. Inspired by Buxton's writing, I somehow felt that if I could get closer to nature and to the water, I'd happen upon a deeper understanding. I realised then, as I do now, that the genius angler, which I'm not, has a feel for the water, for the fish and for the aquatic habitat in the very deepest of ways. It was Buxton's book that taught me this truth.

I mention all this today because of a heated and potentially damaging debate in the online angling world. Simply, big fish are much more difficult to catch now than they were last century. I am talking, of course, about big wild fish, not those that swim their existence out behind otter fences. And this is the crux of it all. Are our big fish harder to catch because there are many fewer of them because of otter predation, or have they become hard to catch because we are worse anglers?

There is a section of the angling brotherhood that is pressing for an otter cull and would have us wearing otter pelt gloves and hats on the waterside. This is potentially a minefield, opening us up to public condemnation and, conceivably, political and legal sanctions. And in my view, blaming the otter for a dry net is the easy way out. Failure and success in fishing are far more complex issues.

From what I see on my daily aquatic wanderings, the return of the otter in East Anglia in this century has made fishing waters unprotected by otter fences much more difficult. Indeed, in the early days of the otters' reappearance, there were several if not many big fish that fell foul of them and were killed. It's now my honest belief that in most waters, remaining big fish have learnt to suss out the otters' threat and the otters find them almost impossible to catch. There are exceptions, but over the last two years, I can honestly say I have only seen one decent fish that has definitely fallen to the otter. That is hand on heart.

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Unquestionably, though, the return of an apex predator has made all big, wary, wild fish much harder to catch. I think it is absolutely true that many fish are simply not caught because of our own angling limitations, mine included. My own take on this is that we simply have to relearn how to catch big fish. What we thought we knew about them back last century very frequently doesn't hold true today.

In the 80s, I wrote a book on chub fishing. I think it was a pretty fair tome at the time and was certainly based on many years of practical chub fishing experience. Whenever I look at that book today, however, I realise that probably 90pc of it I would consider wrong. The chub has changed its habits, certainly in East Anglia, beyond all recognition. It behaves like a completely different species and I have no doubt that is because of the reintroduction of otters. Chub cannot afford any more to be as unguarded and trusting as they were when I wrote that book about them.

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It doesn't matter whether we are fishing the sea, game waters or coarse water, the message is the same. Tackle, what you have on the end of your line and your approach are all vital, of course. But, above all these considerations, it will be the Fisherman Naturalist who wins out most often in the end. It is that ability that I first appreciated all those years ago, to be able to read waters in each and every dimension. You can't just see fish in isolation. They react to everything around them, whether it be wind, rain, snow, ice. Or otters.

To become a Fisherman Naturalist, you have to spend a lot of time watching your lakes or your rivers and thinking about what you see. It's all a question of immersion into the natural world. I would say to those online-Charlies bleating about a cull that wearing an otter skin hat isn't going to help us at all, either as fish catchers, or as fisherman in the eyes of the world.

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