John Bailey: The ultimate specimen

There was comment in last week's EDP angling columns that struck me with its startling accuracy.

Dave Gladwell, talking about the River Waveney, wrote of, 'Those beautiful one pound plus roach the float angler craves for.'

Craves is exactly the right word. Not long ago, the roach was the nation's favourite fish. To catch river roach of a pound or more on the float was always seen as the ultimate angling pleasure, challenge and achievement. Let's get it straight. There is nothing better than fishing a river, fishing it with a float and fishing it for roach. You can forget your carp, your barbel and your tench even. There is simply nothing as exquisite as the roach.

All my angling life, I've been obsessed with roach. As a tiny kid, in the north, they were all I dreamed about and to the present day the infatuation has never even dimmed. East Anglian river roach are what my fishing life is really about. I think it's in large part because roach are survivors. I think most of us slightly grizzled and long in the tooth know exactly how roach populations have struggled and fought to be still with us today.

It must have seemed to the roach that every hand was against them. The deep dredging and appalling river management of the past made their homes virtually uninhabitable. Pike have been a constant menace to them and, latterly, throw cormorants and otters into the mix and you will wonder how any roach have survived to give Dave something to fish for and to write about.

Roach are stunning to look at, they're incredibly cunning and difficult to fool and to the connoisseur, they're quite gob-smacking when they get over a pound and a half or so. Yet, it is this resilience that makes me admire them most and it's why I wept, almost literally, last night when I was playing a really good fish from the Kingfisher stretch of river towards the net. That roach, I swear, had to have been 2.2 or even 2.4 when a mid-double pike appeared from nowhere and in a volcanic explosion of water engulfed it. Consider. That fish could easily have been eight, nine or even 10 years old. Every waking minute of that roach's life would have been spent aware, on the fin, constantly watching for menace from every point of the compass. It was only when encumbered with my line and hook that his defences were scattered and its long life of vigilance was over. Of course, it was not really my fault, this disaster. This was nature red in tooth and claw.

Whilst I know this, I'll admit I packed up on the instant, drove home under the most bleak of clouds and fielded depression for 24 hours or more.

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There's a lot of good news. Dave writes of the one-pounders in the Waveney and that lovely river isn't alone. For the first time for a long time, I'm seeing 'ones' and even scraper 'twos' from all manner of beats and stretches on East Anglia's rivers. This is potentially wonderful. Our rivers have long been under-used because of lack of fish and how tremendous it would be to bring young anglers especially to the riverbank and teach them the glories of trotting the summer float.

On a clear river when the light is bright, you go looking for your roach and their potential swims.

In essence, as Dave says, you're really searching out deeper holes along the river where the weed is less plentiful and where the roach like to nose the current.

Mills, bends and the deep dark runs under willows and alders are favourite. It doesn't matter if a hole like this is only five or 10 yards long at most, there's enough room for you to trot that little stick float. Generally, I'd always advise using a float heavy enough to control, providing it's well shotted.

On these occasions, though, when the water is low and clear and the light values are high, I try to use a stick as light as I can conceivably work with. It's simply that the more weight you use, the more splash and the more disturbance you make and the more those 'ones' and 'twos' will be aware of your threatening presence.

I ground bait more heavily now than I used to back in my 1970s heyday. A typical four-hour session will see me use perhaps half a white loaf and a can of sweetcorn, all mixed together in the most runny, slushy soup imaginable. I nearly need to spoon this out into the swim, an egg-cupful or thereabouts each and every cast. The cloud of white, bejewelled with the yellow pearls of corn make it impossible for the roach to resist.

Once upon a time, I didn't consider weighing a roach until it seemed to be pushing towards the fabled 'three'. Today, though, I'll quickly weigh a roach that I think is over a pound in a well-wetted plastic bag with just a puddle of water remaining in the bottom. This way the roach remains moist throughout and goes back without a scale dislodged. These days, a 1.3 means as much to me as a 3.1 in years gone past. After all, these 'ones' are our sign towards a fabulous roaching future if we show real care, concern and commitment to our river environment. Again, thanks, Dave, for those words. You know when a real angler speaks from his heart.