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John Bailey: The agony and ecstasy of big fish hunting

PUBLISHED: 17:35 27 January 2019

Perhaps this would not have been my seven pound chub but how I lament its cruel passing Picture: John Bailey

Perhaps this would not have been my seven pound chub but how I lament its cruel passing Picture: John Bailey

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The other weekend I was up on the coast talking to some really cracking Eastern European anglers there.

They weren’t too bothered what they caught, they said. It was being there that counted and, no, they would NOT be taking under-sized fish home for supper. No way.

Despite some bad press, they were as conservation-minded as anyone, they told me. I believed them, of course, and I rather envied them. They were not driven to catch gob-smacking fish but were content to drink in the glory of the carpet smooth sea laid out before them, the milky light and the soft sighs of the pebbles shifting in the surf.

Not like me. I was in the middle of a determined chub hunt, a search for a monster, the longed-for JB seven-pounder. It doesn’t really matter whether I ever catch that fish or not, but it is another of the goals I have set myself since childhood, from the first day I woke up and called myself a “specimen hunter”.

Back to the story and I was on the Wensum in the midst of the last snap of cold weather. It was a normal day, I was walking, watching and baiting when I came upon a seriously big chub, or what was left of it, lying there on the bank. It might not have been my ‘seven’ but either way it had been a stunning fish, a magnificent example of our Norfolk wildlife. My heart sank into my boots. My day was ruined. There is something so starkly final about the site of an otter kill. It is a death that is stripped bare, humiliating somehow. It’s like the fish is hung, drawn and quartered and left for all to see.

I’d been baiting that swim along with a dozen others most days for two weeks. I’d been breaking down the suspicions of the chub, preparing them to be caught unawares and to fall headlong into my cunning trap. I’m not proud of the ethics here. It is more ambushing than hunting, I know. This is a style of fishing that is far removed from placing a nymph between the lips of a discriminating wild brown trout or a buzzer spot on the route of a cruising, insect-sipping rainbow. This is a fishing approach completely unlike the constant demands made on a matchman as the hours tick away and new situations develop. It is not like trotting, drop-shotting or any of the scores of fishing tactics that are hands on and thought provoking from the start of the session until the last cast. In my defence, I’d say there are two ‘buts’ however.

The first ‘but’ is that big fish are quite simply magnificent in my view. To see one in the net is worth almost any sacrifice. The vast majority of the population, even anglers too, never guess such miracles of creation exist. The specimen fish is our own secret, our hidden gem in the natural world of Norfolk flora and fauna. A big wild Bure brownie. A Broadland crocodile of a pike. A pit common carp, 30 or 40 pounds, vast in a sheen of golden scales. A 2lb roach, silver and crimson finned, too big to be real, surely? A Fenland rudd, more beautiful than any setting sun. A sleek, lithe barbel, a honeypot crucian, the list of wonders just goes on and on and I am one of thousands who can never get enough.

The second ‘but’ is that there is something to be said for sliding into the life of a water, either running or still. Think of my chub-baiting regime. Day upon day, it pulls me out there, covering five, no, more like six or seven miles of upper river. Every journey is uplifting, teaches me more and more about the aquatic environment in 2019. A specimen hunter lives and breathes the target water. He or she gets far more than just a snap shot of what is happening, how the water is working. You settle into the rhythm, every sighting means something more and more as you learn to join up the clues nature is laying before you. Catching your big fish is just the exhilarating cherry on this most succulent of cakes.

There is even a third ‘but’ perhaps. I am thinking that the type of intimate water wisdom I am talking about is ever more relevant as the years unfold. The Wensum Valley is my spiritual home for sure and when I was a kid it was a largely rural place, even as far down as Drayton or Costessey. Times have changed, and fast. Housing estates have grown like Topsy along with ring roads, traffic supermarkets and items of litter planted in every hedgerow. This is a river valley and these are fish trying to adapt and survive in a world that changes around them every single day. Some fish make it, others like my chub do not, but watching them and trying to understand them is proving to be one of the most extraordinary experiences of my fishing life.

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