John Bailey: Where else could you win kettles, spoons, china, legs of mutton ... or a calf’s head?
PUBLISHED: 11:21 10 March 2020 | UPDATED: 11:21 10 March 2020
Sunday saw the grand final of the Reepham Fishery Winter League competition – 12 teams had been battling it out for four months and over eight stages to get to this position and also to get ever closer to the £1,200 winner’s cheque.
Many of the best matchmen in East Anglia had been involved and it ended up being won by the Angling Direct team with Wensum Valley Angling in second. Do tackle dealers' teams have an advantage you might wonder? Certainly Wensum Valley must have been confident because along with R&J Pipeworks they sponsored the whole competition so there is a clue perhaps. Whatever, this is an important event in the region's match calendar and the weights of fish that have been caught leave many of us mind-boggled. Daniel Brydon told me the winner on Sunday would expect to catch well in excess of 100lb of mainly carp. I haven't seen 100lb of fish all winter so well done to owners Rick and Kellie Broadway for providing such an angling oasis.
Reepham's success is pivotal in our match angling arena today. The river in Norwich has been famous for holding brilliantly organised Open matches for years, but this winter, these were cancelled. Seals, high water, predation, who knows, but catches slumped to such impossibly low levels that it wasn't even worth bringing along a keepnet. Open matches on some of the tidal stretches of our rivers have still been held, but with such extremely patchy results that the number of entrants has been badly down. Fortunately the summer Open matches on the tidal rivers look like being better attended, though many of the anglers will be coming from the Midlands or Essex and the south. At least Broadland still has that appeal it seems, a halo of promise, that legendary land of fish-filled waters.
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Some of the winter matches on the Fens have attracted comparatively large numbers of entrants and the local club scene still ticks over with matches 20-strong or thereabouts. It would seem though that the days of the mammoth matches in East Anglia might well be over. The match scene today is probably at its strongest in the North and that is where it all began, way back in the mid-19th century. By 1860 or so, the factory, mill and mine workers routinely got Saturday afternoons off work and a slight rise in prosperity allowed sporting activities to be widely enjoyed for the first time. The often-polluted canals and rivers of the industrial heartland contained few fish over inches or ounces so matches were initiated to spice angling up. And money crept into it as well. These were still hard times and prizes of cash were very attractive. More frequently in the early days of matches the winners could expect to carry home kettles, spoons, china, legs of mutton and in one instance I stumbled across, a calf's head.
I have been largely Norfolk-based since childhood but my first nine years were spent in Greater Manchester, where the match scene had not greatly altered from Victorian times. It was the mill workers who taught me to fish, often during the club matches I so adored. Cars then were all but unknown in the working class North and we all piled onto coaches that wheezed their way to the Weaver, the Trent and even as far as the Fens. We'd set off from Stockport town centre way before dawn broke, in part because buses then were not known for their speed and in part because of the age it took to stack the wicker baskets and an equal number of crates of brown ale. The drive home was an endless procession of pit stops and we kids would be met by parents angry over homework not done and because of a giddily late night before a school day.
There is a general consensus that our region needs more venues like Reepham that keeps the match fishing torch alive. To put it bluntly, now that many natural fisheries have declined, more bank space on the commercials is required. Here, anglers and their cars are safe and so too are the fish, which is why there are big numbers of them remaining to be caught. Reepham Fishery would, I believe, like to expand and create more water in waste ground nearby, but this has not been easy to achieve given some hard-to-fathom environmental objections. Even though I am dedicated to conservation I fail to see the problems. It is true that heavily-stocked, smaller waters can produce nasty overflows, but Reepham has been immaculately run over the years and surely deserves any benefit of the doubt.
It is not only the match boys who love Reepham-like venues. Holiday anglers still flock here whenever they know fish are waiting for them and that has to be good for local economies in doom-laden times. And think of those great advantages Reepham offers: convenience, safety and serious fish stocks to be caught. All these considerations are serious ones for families, especially for those with kids who are would-be anglers. Children are allowed no freedom to roam these days, but at least they can fish without fear where there is good management.
Of course, the commercial fishery does represent yet another departure from the traditional, natural world that has been a part of angling for ever, until now. Or is the whole idea of anglers wallowing in wildlife something out of folklore? If you had tried to tell a Victorian Sheffield steelworker that seeing a sunset was more important than winning a calf's head, I guess you would have had a swift comeuppance!
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