John Bailey: Can Martin magic out a Norfolk mullet?

Even harbour mullet like these can be impossible to catch

Even harbour mullet like these can be impossible to catch - Credit: John Bailey

The other day I received an email from Martin Salter, one-time Labour MP and Commons angling spokesman and now chief policy advisor at the Angling Trust.

That's a pretty stellar career, I think you’ll agree, but he wears his accomplishments lightly and he is above all and at heart a down-to-earth angler with few airs and graces about him. And, blimey, can the man fish? A Thames roach man at heart, there aren’t many fish Martin hasn’t tangled with at times, and here he was asking me about mullet.

It seems he was up here, staying around the Burnhams, and fancied a bit of mullet magic. What could I say to such a man? I prevaricated in my reply, saying truthfully that I was more a Wells to Cley chap myself with limited mullet experience further west. But you can’t say no to Martin and in the end, I had to come clean and admit that though I had mullet experience aplenty Stiffkey way, I hadn’t actually ever caught any. Or at least only three that I can remember, all back in the 70s when I was happy to walk the muds for miles and get up whatever time the tide came in. Not that my burning enthusiasm did me any good when it came to catching.

I told Martin what I knew, which wasn’t much, and he promised to report back, which he did. Zilch. The locals told him he was wasting his time, but I could have done that, of course. As far as I know now, he is back in Reading or wherever and Norfolk mullet can breath easily again.

Back at the AT, Martin has had bigger fish to fry, speaking figuratively of course. A while back the Trust mounted its Anglers Against Pollution campaign and they have achieved a splendid result as a consequence. It has long been a scandal that the Environment Agency as good as never checks up on farm practises, but as a result of Martin’s initiative, they have now pledged to employ 50 extra agricultural inspectors.  That catch is better than any mullet could possibly be, if the hook doesn’t slip as it were, and the EA carries its promise through. And gives these new inspectors teeth to get a meaningful job done.

Most of us only have experience of the Agency sitting on the nearest fence it can find, so perhaps we should not be cheering yet.

The Exe, beautiful indeed but impossible to fish

The Exe, beautiful indeed but impossible to fish - Credit: John Bailey

Talking of tricky customers, I have recently returned from Devon’s river Exe where the native brown trout make our mullet look like dopes. This all took place during the recent heatwave when the water was ankle deep, vodka clear and every pebble was illuminated by the searing sun. Very, very occasionally, I’d catch sight of a sizeable trout snout poking out from a tree root, but the hope of one taking a fly was smaller than that of Martin emptying Brancaster Staithe of mullet.

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Absurdly long leaders made no difference, not even with tippets down to three pounds or less. The tiniest dries and nymphs must have looked like haystacks in water like that. A French leader failed, as did a Euro leader, though I must admit to being unsure whether I had got that last one even half right. If anyone has fished it successfully, I’d love to know.

When I got home, however, I was told quite forcibly on social media I should have not fished at all. In such low, oxygen-starved water forcing a fish to struggle for its freedom apparently raises its heart beat to unsustainable levels. I accept that totally and I am humbled. In temperatures exceeding the high 20s, we should consider the correctness of fishing at all, certainly for salmonids.

In my defence, I knew I wouldn’t catch and was more interested in the mechanics of what I was doing than the possible result. And to my credit, I refused to go back after the pub when it was cooler and the fish would have been easier. No, I thought, that would really be sneaking up on them unawares and not a job for me. You see, deep down, I’m a decent bloke really.

I suppose we have to consider whether the recent heat was the sort of one-off occurrence we remember happening time to time all our lives or whether this will become more common if climate change continues as predicted. So far, many anglers self regulate with fine discretion.

At Kingfisher in Lyng for example, if the carpers arrive to find their quarry spawning, they simply go back home. Many if not most pike anglers put away their predator rods until October when waters cool down and the fragile pike are less likely to suffer from catching. It is this sort of concern that makes me proud to be an angler, but if the planet’s climate is turning more hostile long term, then perhaps the EA will have to jump off its fence and pass legislation?

How would that look? Would air or water temperature be the deciding factor and if the latter, who would do the measuring? And, surely, waters all have their differing influences anyway? A chalk-fed river will necessarily have a lower temperature than a river depending on rainfall? And what of fish species? Is a tench fine when a trout is on its last legs? Is a brown more susceptible to heat than a rainbow or is it the other way round? Is a wild-bred fish more capable of bearing heat than a stocked one? And would the sea be included in all this? Blimey, those mullet would be doubly safe if we weren’t even allowed to fish for them if the sun got hot!

But that’s angling for you. More questions than answers and that is how it has always been, ever since Professor Mullet set the exam papers.