John Bailey: John Wilson, waterfowl wars and an angler’s week

Josh and his stunning 38lb common Picture: John Bailey

Josh and his stunning 38lb common Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

This coming Friday morning sees John Wilson's memorial take place in Norwich cathedral.

Though John was a north London kid, we all think of him as a son of the county so it is hard to think of a more fitting venue to lay his legacy to rest.

I'll be there and perhaps I'll see some of you to mull over the details of an extraordinary life. It will be poignant for me: in another life I taught at the Norwich School and the cathedral will bring back a decade of morning services. Most of all, though, I'll be thinking of John, especially the young Wilson, the radical thinker that he was, the pioneering angler that changed the way I and many of my contemporaries looked at the sport. TV made John a household name, but before that, in his mean, lean and younger years, he really was the man, the questing angler that fired my generation. There's a move to dub John the "greatest angler who ever lived". I don't think he was and John himself would have laughed at the suggestion, but his significance was immense and will be enduring.

John always fancied himself as quite the naturalist so he would have relished the week I have just had by the water. As the spring crescendos the water fowl wars have been stepping up mightily. It is a hard life out there, make no mistake. On Monday the swans glided past with six cygnets in tow. On Tuesday morning, the adult birds were alone, the night having taken their young. When otters are about, danger never goes on holiday.

I have been watching a pair of great crested grebes for weeks now, ever since their glorious mating rituals of the late spring. Getting on the housing ladder is proving miserably difficult for them. They are on their fourth lake now. They have been chased off two by otters, from one by geese and now they are setting up shop once more. This latest nest I fear for, built on water lilies that provide the flimsiest of foundations. I just pray their pluck results in a brood of chicks, but I'm not holding my breath as I watch their dawn to dusk strivings.

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On Sunday coming, I am off to speak at the Barbel Society AGM in the Midlands. I have nothing but time for this specialist group. To me, they seem to have the right balance of fire and patience. They burn to promote the most exciting river species that swims, but they realise that madcap schemes aren't going to achieve results. I have been asked to talk about my years of barbel fishing on the Wensum, something that coincidentally I was introduced to by John Wilson himself. I fear Norwich's river is typical of most smaller English barbel waters in that it is struggling to survive. There are many of us who remember the Wensum as a mighty barbel river between 1975 and 2010 when monsters were caught. Believe me, in the shallow clear waters of a chalkstream like the Wensum, just to see a barbel is a gobsmacking event. When there were barbel the size of porpoises in the river, you could only gawp.

It is as much a tragedy for East Anglia's flora and fauna that the barbel have all but gone as it is for fishing. There are those who say that barbel are not indigenous to the Wensum so their loss is not a tragic thing, but I disagree totally. It is a tough call as to whether barbel were about a millenia ago, but so what? Through our life times they have been a vibrant, exciting addition to our waterscape and it is appalling that the statutory bodies are doing next to nothing to address the issue.

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John railed about the latch of remedial barbel action taking place before he died and for that alone he deserves his place in the pantheon of the greats. It is not good enough to say that the Wensum is a river in ecological trouble and cannot support big fish like the barbel. That is tosh. Yesterday, the deeper runs around Lenwade were sending up great fat juicy mayflies the size of sparrows almost. The swifts, swallows and terns were having a field day and it was just a pity the fish were obvious by their absence. In memory of Wilson, we really should be shouting this from the roof tops.

On a happier note, I'm out with Rob Shank's Award winner Heidi Gallant and dad Matt on Saturday. If you remember, I have promised a prize rod should she break her tench PB on the day. I think that means she will have to put a fish in excess of five and a half pounds on the bank. That's far from impossible and I'm already preparing several possible swims ready for the big challenge. There'll be three smiling faces if Heidi pulls it off and even the tench will be grinning I guess. I'll let you know how we fare of course.

This week, the award just has to go to the quite brilliant young Norwich angler who is Josh Fisher. Josh took a 38lb common carp on a worm a few days back, right under the nose of a posse of carp professionals. He labelled the fish a bit of a fluke but I disagree. You only have to look at his big fish list to see Josh is a serious talent and after all, carp have been eating worms forever. And of course, he still had to land the thing once hooked. It must have looked like the Titanic! Josh's prize is to come bream fishing with me in the summer when he is after a fish in excess of 15lb. Bet he gets a 16...on a worm of course.

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