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John Bailey: In praise of one of our pearls of nature ... the roach

PUBLISHED: 15:56 22 October 2019 | UPDATED: 15:56 22 October 2019

A Norfolk roach to make your heart sing Picture: John Bailey

A Norfolk roach to make your heart sing Picture: John Bailey

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Last week at this time I stood on the majestic Junction Pool watching the mighty Tweed throbbing its course to the sea.

The mighty Tweed at the Junction Pool Picture: John BaileyThe mighty Tweed at the Junction Pool Picture: John Bailey

This is a sight to stir any angler to the core, so vibrant and dashing is the water beneath you. For me, it was a view tinged with nostalgia.

I had last fished there in 1979, again in October during my school's half-term week. I had paid a week of my teacher's salary for a day's salmon fishing, but the so-called "silver tourists" weren't anywhere in evidence. Rather than waste my time and money, I informed my grizzled and soon to be shell shocked ghillie that I wished to put away my salmon rod and pick up one for roach. Roach! Roach? The man was aghast, stunned, speechless, but it was a great decision on my part. By the time the early dusk drew in, I had netted over 20 roach, a few just kissing the 2lb mark. They were all slabs of silver, eyes cherry red and they fought like Rob Roy's men in the icy torrent. How I loved roach then and how I love them now.

I'm not alone. Most of last century, roach came out as the nation's top fish in poll after poll. In 1960, it was estimated that 95pc of the angling population fished habitually for roach. Boys, men, grandpas and grandmas too all fished for redfins on canals, rivers, reservoirs and good old village pits and ponds. Forget carp, and there were very few who were pike specialists either. No, we were a nation of roach fishers.

But let me go back 40 years: 1979 was a good roaching year for me. I caught two-pounders from the upper Wensum, Waveney, Wissey, Yare, Bure, Babingly, Glaven, the Hampshire Avon, the Dorset Stour, the Irish Blackwater, the Tweed, the Tay and the Wye. I hasten to add I am not blowing The Bailey Trumpet here. Teaching allowed me time to pursue my passion and more to the point, the UK was bubbling over with red-eyed monsters. I could do no wrong. A talented monkey could have got a few. Little did I, or any of us, know we'd never had it so good. Nor would we ever have it again.

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Exactly 40 years on, my ghillies last week on the Tweed confirmed they had not seen or heard of a roach there in long-term memory. From what I gather, it is much the same on the Tay and my Irish mates say the Blackwater is a shadow of its former self. The Wye still produces roach here and there, but not in the numbers and sizes it did and the last time I saw roach on the Glaven they were seven tiny ones in Glandford mill a few years back. I hear Winkton on the Avon is producing a handful of twos and I wouldn't rule out the Stour entirely, but you wouldn't go to either river confident of a netful. What in the name of the river gods has happened?

Of course, it is not only roach that have deserted the Scottish rivers: salmon numbers have crashed as well. Ian Farr, a Tweed legend, told me he heard what sounded like a landing helicopter on the pool outside his hut just a year ago. He looked out and saw a flock of cormorants over 100-strong hoovering the water of fish. Young salmon waiting to go to sea cannot survive such onslaughts and neither can trout, grayling... or roach. It's simple. Fish stocks, whatever the species, wherever the river, need to be protected. Where there is protection, there you will find fish. And if there are not enough fish present to kick-start a regeneration, then stocks need to be augmented until the river can be self sustaining. Fishery scientists in Scotland, in Norfolk, everywhere dispute this, as they have done for quarter of a century.

In their view, habitat is everything. Get that right and the fish are sure to follow. Well, they have had their way for all this time and numbers of roach, of everything in rivers, have fallen catastrophically. The time for re-think surely has come. The question is how the Scottish ghillies who make their living from the rivers can make their voices heard? And how we anglers in Norfolk can get something done as well.

Last week, when I left you, I was in the doldrums. My guiding week had been a flop, no, a disaster and I had a River Masterclass coming up. Me? A River Master? You had to be joking. I told the three brave lads who attended that if they wanted to fish bread punch, Wallis cast or trot waggler floats, then I was not the man to teach them. They accepted my limitations with good grace and we proceeded to have a cracking two days together. By some miracle, all three caught fish, good fish and one even caught a ROACH, a good one at that. It might not have weighed two pounds quite but it was over one and a half pounds for sure.

Whilst I could hardly claim 1979 was back again, at least that brave, beautiful fish made for a glimmer of light at the end of a long, black tunnel. What it proves to me is that our rivers have the capacity still to nurture fish like these and that we do have the habitat big roach can flourish in.

What is also interesting is that the riparian owner where that roach came from lives on site, right by the river. And, know what, he makes sure that cormorants never come within a country mile of the place.

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