John Bailey: The redfins and me - a true Norfolk love affair

Will and John Bailey with that storming roach! Picture: John Bailey

Will and John Bailey with that storming roach! Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Is there a fish species that defines East Anglia?

Will and dad, Rob, with that storming roach! Picture: John Bailey

Will and dad, Rob, with that storming roach! Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Some might say bass, but if we are truthful there are better seas to the south and west. Brown trout, perhaps, but how can we compete with Hampshire, Scotland, even Wales or Yorkshire?

Pike have had an awesome Broadland past and must be contenders. So too tench. Many of my angling mates tell me there is a glut of tench lakes hereabouts unequalled nationwide. Yes, we are blessed but, surely, it is roach, old redfins, that must clinch the vote?

Often when away, I'll mention I'm a Norfolk man when I am in angling company. Ah, they will say, big roach there, monsters even, and then they will go all misty-eyed on me. Okay, I've stretched that last bit a tad, but not by much. Roach - river roach that is - are what have made our region famous more than any other fish for nigh on a century. And I adore them from the bottom of my being.

I saw Andrew Howell, my former Post Grad Teaching Course tutor, up at Swanton Morley a few dusks ago. Though I worshipped Andy then (and do now) I did as little as I could get away with on my return to college so I could have my time messing about on the Wensum, searching for roach. There we were half a lifetime after we first knew each other: Andrew still casting a fly on the angry waters of a trout lake, me still messing about with roach.

No, I have never tired of them and obviously won't ever do now. There have been years, decades even, when I have pursued other, grander fish around the globe, but roach have always been there in me, incurable, burrowed into my heart. When Andy taught me how to teach, my dreams and my reality were both about 2lb and 3lb roach and then I saw them almost as a magical quest. They were so massive, so much bigger than roach anywhere else but there was more to it than that. It was where those fish lived that proved to be the drug. The Norfolk river flood plains at dusk, especially in the winter with the ever present threat of rain, sleet or snow in the glowering clouds above. The shriek of a fox. The apparition of the barn owl. The shuffling, grunting shadow of a passing badger, busy in the night. Successful or not, night after night, I'd return to my cottage in Lyng knowing I'd been touched by a feeling close to the devine. Sorry - roach are carrying off my heart again and my wits with it.

All things must pass. Today, messing around on rivers means searching for redfins of a pound, not two or three pounds more, but I do not care. Even eight-ounce roach, to me, are stunning, mouthwatering, all I ever want to see in fishy form for ever more. I'm not daft and I'm not alone. The other day I took Rob and son William out with me for a day messing about on the river, looking for roach. The Leonard family have just moved up to Norwich and the boys were obviously scenting redfins. It was a killer of a session. We all know what the last couple of weeks have been like. Rain, frost, high water, low pressure, easterly winds, blimey, I'm surprised a comet hasn't landed on us or a volcano decided to erupt. On our day, all the worst conditions had conspired to come together at once and by 4pm we had not had a bite, not a sniff of a roach. But, know what? I like to think the three of us had a ball. Rob and Will knew big, wild fish dance to their tune, not ours and the hours flew by, just talking about roach. That's one thing I do have: monster memories enough to bore the back leg off a muntjac.

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Then something oh so very subtle took place. With the dusk, a softening crept into the air around. The wind dropped and I noticed the river level had dropped a few inches, not much, but enough. Rob and Will picked up on the sense of a catch just waiting to happen and we all stared at that float until our eyes popped.

It quivered, lifted and buried under. I feared Will had struck too late, but he hadn't. I fretted that he was playing it for too long and it might become pike fodder, but he didn't and it ghosted to the net. Elation is too weak a word to describe how the three of us felt, I think. What I did know was that the three of us were all souls lost to the wonder of that miracle fish.

It weighed 1lb 10oz, huge for today. The good news is that the fish was by some way Will's PB roach.

The bad news is that it weighed only six ounces under that magic two pound mark, a specimen I burn to see again this coming winter. So close, such a strong message that our rivers can still do it, can still pull off the impossible. The result has been the last week that I can't bear to fish for anything but roach. I have had some guiding and though clients have hankered after pike, they have ended up with a roach rod in their hand.

I can only end by saying it is a sad time for us East Anglian anglers. It is around a year or so ago that we lost both John Wilson and Robert Shanks. Will's roach would have brought a real smile to Whizzo's face had he seen it, and perhaps he could. And the joy on Will's face when it was landed would have made dear Rob the happiest of men. Yep, the love for roach is a powerful love indeed.