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John Bailey: From the Test, to a wrasse plea - my angling week

PUBLISHED: 14:28 02 June 2020 | UPDATED: 14:28 02 June 2020

John Bailey looking for fish on the Test Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey looking for fish on the Test Picture: John Bailey

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I’ve travelled 500 miles this week – for work I assure you - and spoken to a score of amazing anglers.

Mullet in size and quantity - but how on earth do you catch them? Picture: John BaileyMullet in size and quantity - but how on earth do you catch them? Picture: John Bailey

I’ve had good news and bad and I’m back in Norfolk scratching my head over much of it. Good news, of course, is that match angling is allowed again. Competition fishing is immensely popular and the region has a history of star performers dating right back to Ken Smith, winner of the old national championship. John Wayne, Roger Smith, Tom Boulton, Glen Hubbard, Daniel Brydon, Tony Gibbons... the list is really endless, but I’m just glad that now all anglers, whatever their discipline, have a fair crack of the whip. Let’s just hope there are no dreaded virus spikes and we all have an uninterrupted summer on the banks, wherever they are.

The banks down in Hampshire on some historic rivers like the Test have been running in blood, quite literally. We think we have periodic poaching problems up here, but go south and the situation is horrifying. Gangs of up to 20 armed poachers are running amok on a nightly basis. Thousands of trout are being taken on long lines and in nets. Water keepers are being shot at, having their cars vandalised and their families threatened. Last week, two keepers, two policemen and a police dog were so badly injured in a fight the men were hospitalised and the dog has had to be retired. There have been car chases and one keeper has had to move house, the intimidation became so severe. The situation has been described as completely out of control and we would do well to keep an eye open on any developments hereabouts, I feel.

What a tragedy this all is in both human and environmental terms. Many of the best beats on the southern chalk streams can be let for over £1,000 a day – huge money, but much of it is channelled back into looking after the river environment. Fish absolutely abound.

Yes, some are stocked, but many are wild, nurtured in rivers that are professionally cared for. Bird life is extraordinary too, in large part because agricultural practises work in harmony with the rivers rather than to their detriment. Again, money talks. I even found water vole colonies that reminded me of the 60s down there, a sight I never expected in my life again. However, the best water keepers in the world have not been able to save these hallowed rivers from the floods of the winter. I saw a dearth of weed growth. Worse, much of the silt in the rivers had been washed away, taking with it huge amounts of invertebrate life. As a result, the famed mayfly hatch of the chalk streams was pretty much non-existent and the fishing suffered mightily. Once again, I am sure similar forces have been at work on all our local rivers where fly life has been spasmodic and where fish of all species have been hard to find.

Given the rivers were hard going, we ended up investigating the coast from roughly the Isle of Wight in the west to Hastings in the east. Blimey, there are some fish in the sea down there. In crystal water I saw bass to perhaps 12lb, wrasse close to any and all rock clusters and mullet just about everywhere there was placid water. What is more, those mullet appeared to be catchable, unlike those along the north Norfolk coast that have made my life a misery over endless years. Am I rubbish? Am I missing some obvious angling trick? Are southern mullet simply more stupid than ours up here? I’d love to hear from Norfolk mullet men and women who know more than me... which is not a lot at all.

I’d especially like any information on where there might be a few east coast wrasse lurking. I have heard of one or two colonies over the years but I confess with shame that an East Anglian wrasse I have never seen. These are scintillating fish and I’d love a wrasse hunt locally. I promise on my life any tips I’ll take with me to the grave. I realise wrasse are hugely localised in vulnerable groupings that can easily be disrupted. I’d just like to see a single one then I would be on my way, I promise.

The last weeks of sun and drought have affected fishing, fish and fisheries everywhere, both south and east. I’ve looked at well over a score of rivers in the last 10 days and all have been low and slow. Fish have been lethargic and vulnerable to predation. The growing passion for kayaking is only making matters much worse on all small watercourses. I do not necessarily blame those with paddles because I feel ignorance has a lot to do with it, but how on earth do we get the message across that a great deal of harm is being done? Surely the Environment Agency has to look into this abuse?

I don’t know about you, but these long periods of baking weather make me fundamentally uneasy. They take me back to the hot summer of 1976 when the Wensum looked like it was coming from a single tap. It is useful to remember that even back then climate change was a live issue. That year I went to listen to Sir Peter Scott lecture at the UEA. His message was that by the year 2000, Spain would be a part of the Sahara desert and Norfolk would be a dust bowl. I can never quite get those words out of my head and at times like these I often fear the great man only got his timings wrong, not the message.

I also fear that pike suffer more than we realise in periods of low oxygen. I suspect it is not only rainbow trout that find the going tough and much damage may lie hidden. Certainly, a good deal of lake fishing for tench suffers and I have had a lot of emails bemoaning blanks since we have been allowed out again. Funny. It does not seem long ago since all we wanted was to get fishing again, hang the net result. Perhaps we should remember our finer feelings of a month back and be happy we are not chased by gangs of gun-toting poachers intent on nicking our maggots and sandwiches.


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