John Bailey’s tribute to angling master John Searl

I was desperately sad to read in last week's Angler's Mail of the passing of John Searl.

John's name might not mean much to some Norfolk anglers but it really should do.

John was responsible for two of the finest books, in my view, of this century. A Brush with the Avon and Chalkstream Roach – the Ultimate Challenge were wonderful recollections both words and drawings of a life on the southern chalkstreams.

Rather like Rob Olsen, Chris Turnbull and Robin Armstrong, John was both a gifted, intuitive artist and a genius fisherman.

He was also a lovely, lovely man. For several years, I was a member of the legendary Longford syndicate on the middle Hampshire Avon, just beneath Salisbury.

This piece of water was made famous in The Passion for Angling series and is just as wonderful in reality as it was through the lens of Hugh Miles.

I had some wonderful days on this crystal clear stretch of water, often just content watching the fish, half realizing they were beyond my ability to catch.

Most Read

Days were made particularly special by many of the Longford members that would come down to the mill, have lunch, walk the banks and generally chat the long afternoons away.

Longford was one of those places in the world where I found it possible to relax, probably because of the generous company I enjoyed there.

For me, John Searl's name is synonymous with roach. It's no secret that I adore the species and John did, too, so we had an immediate rapport.

If you can find a copy of Chalkstream Roach on Ebay, then I'd recommend you buy it. I wrote a less than deserving introduction to it...made even less glamorous by the misspelling of the River Wensum on two occasions.

However, the book really comes to life because of the passion within the pages. The photographs and the drawings are gobsmacking. If ever a book makes you realize just how special a two pound river roach is, then it's this one.

I never managed to get John up to Norfolk with me, to look at the River Wensum, especially in the summer when it runs clear and slow. There, sometimes, it's possible to watch big roach in the way that John spent a life doing down on the Hampshire Avon.

I remember some years ago being on the river with Steve Martin, assistant editor of Total Coarse Fishing.

It was one of those moments that John Searle would recognize. I poked my head over the reeds on a stretch of river just above Lenwade. In crystal water hung a roach of generous proportions and extreme beauty.

I trickled in maggots and it responded. I took everything off my line apart from a size 18 hook and a matchstick for a float.

One plump maggot was enough, dropping slowly through the curling water column.

The big roach came up, sucked and after an agonizingly white-knuckle fight was landed. It was a John Searl moment all right and though the roach wasn't perhaps quite two pounds, in all but weight it had ticked every box.

Anglers have to be replaced, that's the nature of our sport as it is in life. It's a common lament amongst clubs and syndicates everywhere that the age of anglers is getting steadily older as the years pass by.

I'm not happy that I'm amongst the youngest of members in some of the clubs to which I belong.

That is not a good situation – although it sometimes makes me feel a little more frisky than I have any right to be.

Angling does need new blood and if you can bear me bringing the subject up again, that's why it was so good to be present at the recent wrap party for Fishing in the Footsteps of Mr Crabtree.

It was moving in the extreme to see the five male Peters meet each other for the first time.

There was a certain trepidation to begin with before the boys all flocked off to play pool and then the conversation just flowed and flowed.

They formed a little swarm for the next 24 hours, swirling around inseparably together whether in the Kingfisher clubhouse or on the riverbank, or by the pool table.

All their chat, when I overheard it, was of roach or perch or barbel or maggots or worms.

It was great to see these bright-as-a-button kids just absorbed in each other and their experiences of angling.

Angling is a great thing to do. One of the relations of a particular Peter confided in me that the filming experience had done wonders for his schoolwork.

Being a star for a couple of days had increased his confidence and given him a completely new dimension on school and life both.

Within weeks he'd become the head of school. His work had improved beyond recognition.

Fishing had helped him find his true position amongst his peers and that has to be a colossal tick for what we're doing.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter