John Bailey: Watercraft is what makes fishing wonderful

John Bailey on the Wensum

It doesn’t matter how much woody debris there is, fish get displaced in high water - Credit: John Bailey

For anglers of a certain generation, over 40 say, watercraft was taught as an essential skill.

This was probably due to the influence of Bernard Venables and his classic cartoon strip, Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing. The eponymous hero taught his son Peter how to angle and the real lessons revolved around understanding how water and fish both work rather than what bait and rigs to use.

I suspect if old Crabtree could be drawn back to life, Peter would be loaded down with boilie recipes and the minutiae of the Ronnie Rig. You can never turn back the clock and the modern approach works for heavily-stocked waters, mostly with carp, but much has been lost. You see, fish are just so darned interesting , such a fascinating form of wildlife that it seems a tragedy to many older anglers that their subtleties are overshadowed by this obsession with angling’s ironmongery. After all, if fishers don’t love and study fish, who will? Certainly not your average so-called naturalist who can’t tell a trout from a tench, a cod from a carp. But I digress.

Once you get to know Ronnie and learn about his rig, it’s sort of job done. You whop on a bait, wham it out and sit back, go on your phone and wait for an alarm to tell you it’s fish on. I’m not being fair, I know, and there are a lot of cracking carp, trout  and match anglers who can read a water like Sunak can a balance sheet - we hope - and it is these folk who will never tire of the sport, who are in it for life. My laborious point is that you can think you know about watercraft, but then you realise you don’t have a clue and that after donkey’s years, you’re right back to square one. Catching fish is fine, but it is understanding them that is the enduring puzzle and passion that keeps oldies like me hot for more.

There are watercraft rules that everyone knows. Fish like shade, sanctuary and structure like trees, bridges, weed and bottom contours. Fish dislike extremes of temperature and need well-oxygenated water. Spawning, feeding and protection from predators are the dominating issues of any fish’s life. All these considerations help an angler coming to a water and deciding where to set up with the best chances, but there really is one aspect of fish life that has eluded me until just about the last year or so. That’s a very long time that I have been ignorant of how far your average fish actually moves, often on a day-to-day basis and not just seasonally.

The Broads are a cracking example. We all know that prey fish tend to head for boat yards as it gets cold. It’s long been understood that winds and salt tides have a huge bearing. Experts like Paul Belsten can tell you how the moon affects fish, but a year or so ago Steve Lane from the EA staggered me when he revealed just how far bream and pike travel around the Broadland system on a constant basis. Their wanderings might not be quite up there with those of the albatross, but these are fish with enormously complex lifestyles, nonetheless.

In Kazakhstan, beluga sturgeon leave the Caspian Sea and swim thousands of miles up the rivers to spawn in the Ural mountains. In India, mahseer use the Ganges like a motorway, travelling much of their life from the plains, up the tributaries that lead into the Himalayas and back again. Blimey, their fins are often worn away by the constant fight with rocks and rapids and the wear and tear inflicted by thousands of miles of struggle. A Wroxham pike might not be quite as dashing, but even he has got a lifestyle that needs a passport almost.

The Wensum has been and always will be my first and foremost love. Compared with a brawling monster like the Ganges, which I also have adored, she looks drab, insignificant and barely worth a lifetime of study, but anglers know the truth. What a fascinating stream she is, in fact, and how she has changed even during my comparatively short lifetime. Today she’s struggling to cope with abstraction, herbicides, fertilisers, effluents, cormorants, signal crayfish and endless pressures undreamed of a century ago. Above all, perhaps, I am now totally lost trying to understand her flow patterns, which are increasingly all over the place. She comes up and down like a fiddler’s elbow. More than that, she can be nicely in her banks upstream, but yet all over the flood plains a couple of mills lower downstream. She can be the colour of coffee, the colour of gin two days later. Whist she might look a tame little country chalk stream, she is in fact volatile as the Volga and how the fish respond to all this I just do not know.

What I have believed for a very long time is that during these Noah-type floods we are seeing fish are being pushed downriver, especially small ones. This has to be to some extent true and was surely more pronounced in the bad old days of dredging when every bend and weed bed was regarded with suspicion and rooted out by the machine’s grabbing bucket.

Today, habitat is much improved, but I can tell you that whole populations of fish observed in the autumn have now been swept away to goodness knows where. It seems that it doesn’t matter how much sanctuary there might be, the floods will nail the fish in the end.

But bizarrely, fish will go upstream too. Fishery scientist Karen Twine told me years ago that the barbel she had tagged routinely climbed weirs and sluices rather than being flushed through them. Three years ago, a mate caught a very recognisable chub at Alderford and a season later I caught it at Swanton Morley so that fish had navigated obstruction at Lenwade, Lyng and Elsing in its search for new home. Fascinating indeed. What wonderful creatures fish in fact are and how we anglers need to get that message across.