John Bailey: A cast at the past

Mick Munns in happier days with a fine Kingfisher tench

Mick Munns in happier days with a fine Kingfisher tench - Credit: John Bailey

I just looked at my texts yesterday to be told that Iris Munns has passed away and my heart goes out to her beloved husband, Mick.

What appallingly sad news, even if this delightful, kind woman had been ill for some time. Mick has been my right-hand man throughout all the years I have run the Kingfisher Club at Lyng, laughably badly I’m sure many would say, but he has generally managed to steer it back on course.

The lake and the membership could not have done without his calm, thoughtful presence and I’m aware we haven’t told him that as often as we should have done. Behind every good man there is an even better woman and in this case, that was Iris. Most of the carpers of a certain age who fished at Kingi will remember her from her club house days. Tea, a sandwich, and a lovely smile, that was Iris’ style. No matter how dire the fishing, there was always a chat with Iris to brighten the day. I know that Mick will be devastated but I’m equally sure that the Kingfisher Brotherhood will help him pull through. How can a cuppa with Mr Trett not make you smile?

A water with as long a history as Kingi cannot be without its ghosts and even the fish that have passed have left their mark on piscatorial posterity! So many of us who have fished there all our lives have watched each other grow old.

I first set foot on the banks as a fresh-faced 20-year-old when the Norfolk Flyfishers rented the place and even now I can see the greats from the past around the banks. Giants of men like Jim Knight, Michael Robbins, Jack Fitt, Bill Giles, Frank Wright... even the old, cantankerous Dan Leary. Dan caught his colossal 39lb pike from the dam wall there, which John Wilson went on to stuff for a glass case. Shame, really, but  Dan was not famous for his progressive piking techniques and of course it should be noted (as it often was) that Dan was neither a member of the  club and as often as not even an invited guest either. But let’s not allow a bit of tittle tattle to spoil memories of a wonderful water and some even more wonderful people : Iris, we’ll always remember you with love.

But I wonder what has happened to that Wilson case? For a long while it resided in one of the houses at Lenwade Mill and that is where I saw it last, perhaps 15 years ago. It really was a beauty, and hand it to Whizzo, he really could turn his hand to anything that demanded skill, patience and a true artist’s eye. Angling’s renaissance man if you like. I was reminded of this by a recent trip to the “book town” of Hay On Wye on the English/Welsh border. I was there for two reasons: the more general one was that I always enjoy a browse amongst the shelves of dusty, forgotten angling tomes that once meant so much to their authors and their readership and which can now be picked up for a pound or two.

To be honest, this aspect to a shopping expedition can be depressing, especially as dog-eared copies of old Bailey Books are generally on show. Books of mine that I once regarded with satisfaction and even pride, now are somehow embarrassing, simple reminders of those days when my locks were a glowing brown rather than the snowy white of today. Forget me. I found endless titles by the hallowed names of my childhood everywhere, men like Carter Platts, William Currie and even Hugh Falkus. I doubt if any angler under the age of 50 has heard of any of them... and come to that, I’m thinking sadly that we ought to make that under the age of 60.

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The second purpose of my trip to Hay was a little more specific, a real cast to the past. In 1910, a Major WH Booth caught a 37lb pike from the Wye close to the town and had that one set up too. A while back I had seen the case in the museum in Hereford, but this particular day I fancied tracking down the legendary carving that was made of the fish. It was last recorded as residing at a substantial house in the village of Cusop, just outside Hay itself. After hours of searching, I failed to find any sign of the house and concluded it had changed its name or had even been pulled down in the last century.

However, I did manage to locate the swim where the fish was famously caught - the Men’s Ducking  Pool, south of the town, a deep hole where the lads used to cavort in the summer and where monster pike used to convene in the winter. It looks very different now to the old photos taken around the time, but it still looks full of pikey promise and it easy to imagine the Major pulling back his Phantom minnow lure through the dark depths. The fact that he did so in May and that he was after salmon does not detract from the story. Indeed, the pike would have been thin post-spawning and would have been over 40lb if the Major had ventured out in February or March. I also learned that the Major was in fact the great-uncle of Richard Booth, the self-styled “King of Hay”, the man who opened the first book shop there and kicked the whole business off.

My new book, suitably inscribed

My new book, suitably inscribed - Credit: John Bailey

There was a last surprise for me as the day drew to a close. The greatest book ever written on the Wye was by HA Gilbert in 1929 and was entitled The Tale Of A Wye Fisherman. I’d lost my own copy, but was delighted to find a Medlar Press reprint in  a high street shop called The Great English Outdoors. Imagine my delight when the charming proprietor told me that she was in fact the granddaughter of Mr Gilbert and offered to sign the book for me.

Yes, I thought, history really was tapping me on the shoulder and perhaps like the memory of Iris, I’d like to think that  the great elements of angling really do live on in the strangest of ways.