John Bailey: Lessons learned from a wintry week of feather and fur

John Bailey and John Gilman celebrate a wonderful winter pike Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey and John Gilman celebrate a wonderful winter pike Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Every year I am fortunate enough to gain access to a small broad that has yielded some super pike to me and my gang this century.

It is an occasion we all look forward to. The promise of a big fish is part of it but not the whole. We love the quiet, the lost ness of the watery wilderness, the feeling of going back in time even to Hereward's day. That's why it is called fishing what we do, not catching I guess.

Our last trip, on that bitingly cold Saturday, did not disappoint, despite day time temperatures failing to rise above two degrees. I was deep frozen all session long but, heck, who cares when there are winter wonders in the air? Best of all was the briefest of sightings of a goldcrest in the reeds. I glimpsed an exquisite vignette, a passing picture of perfection that was over far, far too soon. Still, I was sure of what I had seen and the tiny bird brought a rush of badly-needed warmth to my heart.

The pleasure of the goldcrest was somewhat offset by the absence of a barn owl visitation. For as long as I can remember the broad has been home to these glorious birds, the symbol surely of the pike angler's wintry afternoon sport. We all of us looked and looked for the familiar vision of off-white and dusky gold that comes out to play as the sun sinks. We looked in vain and the afternoon sky darkened for us that much more quickly than usual there. You would not be disappointed, however, if you had happened to be a cormorant fan. The sky was black with them come the approach of dusk. A score of them wheeled around and around the pocket of water waiting for us to leave their larder in peace. I am sure they were settling for the night the moment our cars disappeared down the track.

Bond, the longest serving of all my piking pals, had a new-fangled Deeper Pro Plus to show off. I'm sure many of you know all about this strange black ball that you cast out and which transmits all manner of data onto your mobile phone as you retrieve it. I'm easy with the device, largely because it rarely tells me what I don't know already to be honest. No. That's too cocky. I do get surprises and Saturday was no exception. In short, we didn't locate a single fish more than 10 yards from the marginal reed beds. The open water was completely barren of fish, big and small. Every single thing with fins was almost as hard into the rushes as that goldcrest had been.

Of course, that is hardly surprising when you consider. The one thing fish must do is to survive and with flocks of predators around that means getting deep into cover. What an ass, and a dead ass, a roach would be to be found out in open water once dusk descends. The second revelation the gadget revealed was that all the roach were small, certainly less than six inches. It is probable that the total biomass of the broad has not changed, but instead of hundreds of big roach, there are now thousands of very small ones. Larger roach simply get cherry-picked by hungry cormorants, it is probably as simple as that. Our suspicion too is that pretty much all the bream have gone too. That is not surprising when you think bream shoals prefer to hang far from the margins, in water that gives the species scant protection. True, there might be a handful of big adults left but in all probability the breams shoals of centuries past here are all but a memory.

I recently acted as consultant on the second series of BBC2's Mortimer and Whitehouse Gone Fishing. All round the country the message was the same. Larger fish of all species in every type of venue are on the decline since the appearance of waves of European cormorants 25 years back. I spoke to brown trout guides in Wales and salmon gillies in Scotland who are at their wits end over this. The cormorant is a nationwide threat to our aquatic eco systems and we must do something about them, and soon. Please remember I speak as a member of the RSPB and every wildlife group going so I am not simply some blinkered angling firebrand.

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We did turn the information from our Pro Plus to some fishing advantage. By lunch we had seen enough for us to start fishing four-inch roach deadbaits no further than three yards from the bank. Half a dozen pike to 15lb came our way to be capped by a glorious mid-20 for huge mate John Gilman.

I know he drove home sporting a smile as wide as the sun that failed to make an appearance. A goldcrest and a cracking pike had made our day. Just a shame about the rest.

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