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Cathedral of dreams for John Wilson... and those James Bond moments

PUBLISHED: 14:15 05 February 2019

Robbie Northman - shaken and stirred by a brace of strapping dace Picture: John Bailey

Robbie Northman - shaken and stirred by a brace of strapping dace Picture: John Bailey

Archant

As many of you know, a memorial service for John Wilson is being held in Norwich Cathedral on Friday, May 24.

How wonderful the city and the church are honouring our great fisherman like this and how great for our sport too. It really puts us anglers in the spotlight and I know we will give John the final send-off he deserves and that he will be watching with fondness from some idyllic roach swim somewhere up there in blue yonder.

It was always at this time of the year that John and I would invariably spend time in India, often on the great Cauvery river, though mostly in different camps out there. The target species were the iconic golden mahseer, fish I still believe are the absolute masters of the freshwater world. Half carp, half barbel, the mahseer combine all the great traits of both species to make for power, cunning and exquisite beauty. There is no fish like them but, of course, the fishing was so special for the milky warm mornings, the mist in the valley, the trumpeting elephants, the ever Micky-taking monkeys and sunsets so achingly gorgeous you pinched yourself.

Hook a big, 50lb-plus mahseer, though, and the point of the headline becomes clear. The first run of a mahseer outstrips that of a tarpon even. The fight will be long, brutal and laced with real and present danger. I witnessed epic battles, man and fish equally matched but the surging river always on the side of the mahseer. Many, many times I wondered that legs were not broken, even that lives were not lost. This was not like fishing you have seen before.

The Kengal Rapids were especially fearsome and even the extraordinary guides hesitated before fishing them. John was a top mahseer man and he was renowned for big fish there. He was tough and he was brave and Kengal was his Carrow Road. I had my “hundred” from there too but that mighty fish was my master right to the end. In truth, I simply hung onto it till my shoulders shrieked and my body was a river of sweat. The bow string tight line sliced the rod butt into shreds whilst the multiplier reel did similar to my fingers. Sometimes you ran after your fleeing mahseer. Sometimes you took to a coracle and sometimes you swam. No wonder, perched on a rock in the rushing river, you often prayed for a fish NOT to take.

Anglers asked me year upon year, how do you follow battles like that? Surely Norfolk is tame, dull even after those Indian adventures. Not a bit of it, I always replied. Norfolk fish might not eat you alive but they can still beat you up a bit. Take last Thursday. On dusk, a chub bite had me intrigued. A quick pull. A flick on the line. A sharp nudge on the tip. Five minutes went by before I felt able to strike and all hell broke out. That chub simply ripped up the river towards me. As soon as the hook was set, the line simply hissed upstream and reel as frantically as I might, I could no way keep in any contact with a fish as clever as it was strong. I got to my feet, my line still slack and there it boiled, massively on the surface before burying in the reeds and throwing the hook. My life might never have been in danger but, wow, I was shaking like I did those days gone on the banks on the maelstrom that was the Kengal Rapids.

John Wilson loved his dace. He used to say that ounce for ounce they were as ferocious as any species that swims, even the mahseer. Trouble is of course, eight ounces is a big one and at that weight you are unlikely to lose much in the way of blood and guts. A Bond fish a dace is surely not, but they have their moments. The day after my chub humiliation, Robbie Northman and I had an epic morning after these silvery lovelies.

We had a dozen whoppers, some ‘doubles’, 10 ounces or more. They all fought like mini mahseer and plenty took line, though perhaps not much!

One really gave Robbie the runaround, taking him here and there before breaking free in rapids not quite as severe as those at Kengal.

Still, for us it was one of those epic, heart-stopping moments that make fishing just so blooming, incomparably great.

So, in Norwich Cathedral come May-time, when I am thinking about John, I’ll be seeing him in my mind’s eye battling with a mahseer, or a chub or even a dace and each and every vision will be a scene from Bond to me.

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