John Bailey: A week of extraordinary fish and of fisher folk too!
PUBLISHED: 17:37 02 July 2019 | UPDATED: 17:37 02 July 2019
Some of you might remember that back in February I netted a huge southern grayling for one of my clients on a guiding gig.
That fish was accepted by the British Record Fish Committee (BRFC) last Monday at 4lb 8oz.
I've taken a certain amount of pride and huge satisfaction for my part in the story, obviously, but that is not the point of this column. No, it was my long conversation with Nick Simmonds, secretary to the BRFC that has got me thinking. Imagine this. Nick sits in an office surrounded by all the files on all the record claims made in the UK since 1957! What a gold mine for the big fish historian, and no wonder Nick has so much to say on the subject of leviathans.
I asked him where he thought the next British record might come from. He felt it might well be a barbel, from the Thames, a river very much on the up when it comes to this pulsating species. I can see his point, of course, but over the last few days I have begun to consider that the biggest fish might well come from waters in trouble rather than in rude health. Take that grayling: almost certainly it was one of the very last of its year group and results along that river were otherwise depressingly poor the winter just gone. If you catch the lone survivor from an historic year class then you might be in with a chance of immortality. Let's look at East Anglia's record fish past and see if there is any sense in this?
I remember Beeston Lake outside Norwich held the bream record briefly 30-plus years ago. It was one of a tiny shoal of fish that were definitely approaching their natural end. Think of the Reverend Alston's brace of records from Ringmere back in the 1930s. In a summer he caught mammoth rudd and tench from a Breckland water prone to drying up altogether. Talk about a venue on the edge - much like that pike Mecca, the river Thurne System in Broadland. In the past half century or so, the Thurne and its neighbouring broads have held the UK pike record two, if not more, times, yet the system of waters is at the mercy of fish wipeouts every summer. The killer algae has struck this saline-loaded area with devastating effect ever since the late 60s and probably before that even. When the majority of pike are extinguished, the handful of survivors can grow bigger than sharks... well, tope anyway.
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Hereabouts, we have a big history of huge dace, records even. Yet, when you look at the rivers involved, by the 1990s I'd suggest numbers of dace were falling, allowing the whoppers room to flourish. Just like my near 4lb Wensum roach landed in the late 1980s, by which time it was one of the few roach left in the river. The situation is mirrored by the story of Wensum barbel. In the early years of this century, fish of record size were landed, topped by Chris Mack's giant of 21lb 2oz. There were plenty of almost equally colossal fish, but as we all know, the river was in dire straights in many ways. The barbel were getting old, otters were prevalent and numbers were dropping year upon year. These were glory fish caught amidst the ruins of a once fine river.
So, my hypothesis is that whilst we haven't caught much in the way of records recently (though I did catch a WORLD record roach/bream hybrid 10 years ago from a Norfolk estate lake - woohoo!) that does not mean there are not hidden, unsuspected treasures out there. Robbie Northman and I saw a chub last year that had to be 9lb, even in the summer when its weight would be at its lowest. Six years ago, I watched a colossal perch attack a perch that was being played at the Kingfisher Lake. I nearly netted both fish but the larger one managed to shake the smaller one free. I say smaller. It weighed 3lbs 6oz and its attacker had to have been twice its size - at least. Who is to say there is not a last record-shattering barbel or roach hiding in one of our rivers, or perhaps a conger-sized eel in a forgotten estate lake or farm pond? Perhaps I'm bonkers but I always live in hope. Life and fishing are more fun that way.
One angler who has had more than her share of fun is Norfolk's Shirley Deterding. Talking records, I guess this spirited, generous, brave and talented angler has caught more big fish from more countries than any other East Anglian who has ever lived. I like to think I have knocked about a bit, catching fish from 64 different countries, but Shirley could double that score. I've personally seen her out-fish and out-walk men in three continents and when you take into account she is also a revered shot and a celebrated artist you have to give her record status. Her book, Living On The Wild Side, comes out soon. It could be a revelation.
The winner of the Rob Shanks Angling Award this week goes to young Taylor Ruskin for a cracking bream from Brundall marina. If dad takes him into Wensum Valley Angling, Dan Brydon will sort him out a prize. Mind you, the real prize would be to have half the life in fishing that Shirley has enjoyed.
I know I'd settle for that and not think twice.