John Bailey: There’s a balance to strike when it comes to tackle shops

John Bailey prefers the wild, wet Wensum to the manicured ponds that are the future according to som

John Bailey prefers the wild, wet Wensum to the manicured ponds that are the future according to some. - Credit: Archant

A short while back I was saddened to hear of the demise of the Sheringham tackle shop that I have enjoyed using for so many years.

All of us were welcomed by the perennially cheery Sue, were invited to choose from a well-stocked shop and always entreated to, 'Enjoy your fishing' when we left. Sue wasn't quite the traditional tackle shop owner but she made you feel at home, at ease and would help whenever she could. The passing of her shop won't ruin my sport for me but it's changed it just that little bit.

I work as a consultant for Hardy and Greys and, as a result, I'm in fairly close contact with the tackle industry. There is a feeling that shops like Sue's are very probably living on borrowed time. The concept for the future is far fewer but far larger tackle emporiums probably centred in major urban environments. The one-stop angling store does offer advantages, for sure, but there are caveats.

For example, will these superstores continue to sell bait? We all know it's a tiresome job keeping maggots fresh and looking after casters and will large enterprises see jobs like this as being commercial viable?

How about hands-on advice? I recently went into a city superstore where I have to say that if I had been a beginner, I would have come away baffled, confused with very low self-confidence. One of my fellow customers, I guess pretty experienced to judge from his badged-up clothing, looked at me at one stage, shrugged his shoulders and asked where on earth do we both start?

A lot of my fishing was shaped by veteran tackle shop owners like Len Bryer in Fakenham. As a lad, Len used to terrify me with his rather strict, army-like bearing. I seem to remember the shop as a fug of tobacco smoke but that was the norm then.

The point is, as a lad, I was looked after and set on the right path. I was sold the right gear and told to fish in the right places. It's fortunate for Fakenham that they still have the shop in the Bryer tradition but a lot of towns now don't. This is a problem for adult, experienced anglers and it's even more so one for novice anglers, kids and beginners. It's a problem that must be solved if beginners are ever going to enter the sport.

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What's also happening in the angling trade is that more and more companies are being absorbed under multi-brand umbrellas. The big names look set to swallow up an increasing number of smaller ones until there are perhaps just three or four mega tackle companies left in the UK.

In part, this makes sense. It rationalizes the industry and should keep down costs. There's a chance, though, that it will begin to inhibit our choices. Also, the more remote tackle companies become, the less easy they are to deal with on a face to face basis.

It's always nice when you have smaller tackle-making concerns that you can actually ring up and chat with. Andrew Field, champion float-maker, is an example and so would be Edward Barder the legendary rod-building maestro. You probably wouldn't have the same ease of conversation if you tried to get through to the head offices of a mega company based in Chicago.

In an Angler's Mail edition a couple of weeks back, Matt Hayes was talking about the way that fishing waters are going to go in this new century. He was suggesting very adamantly that the river fishing that we now know and enjoy will be dead within five years. He was proposing that we create more top-class specimen stillwaters that are run on an exemplary basis.

There is sense in this. These waters, as Matt describes them, wouldn't be commercials in the common sense of the word. My feeling is that they would be run sympathetically with wildlife in mind. They would be stocked with top-quality fish, often of trophy size. Rules would prevent exploitation of these fish and maximise pleasure for everyone.

All okay, I suppose, but doesn't it smack a little bit of Big Brother? The whole concept of stocking fish, imposing rules and managing wildlife somehow doesn't sit that easily on my shoulders as an old Norfolk boy. Surely, one of the real delights of angling is the pursuit of wild fish in wild environments that often live below everyone's radar? Think of the wilderness of the Thurne system, of a lost Norfolk estate lake or a lonely upper river and you'll see what I mean. The chances are you won't find any fishermen there or even any recognizable swims. If you're lucky enough to land a fish, it won't have a name or be recognized from its capture a couple of weeks previously.

I don't know how far you take projects like Matt is suggesting. I've been offered endless freebie trips out to Thailand where waters like this exist on a super basis. I'm informed that I can expect several fish a day of different species in excess of a hundred pounds in weight. I can have food and drink brought to me on a regular basis and, if I so desire it, I guess I could be carried to my swim on a litter. I'm sure this is an attractive proposition for some but it doesn't appeal to me much, used as I am to tramping the wet, wild flood plains of the upper Wensum.

I'd like to think there would be a balance. Okay, we might have more angling megastores in our cities but perhaps the very best of tackle shops like we see in Fakenham, Taverham and East Dereham, for example, will remain and will flourish. Perhaps we will see super-commercials as Matt Hayes suggests. I still like to think, though, that the more intrepid of us will still be fishing our wild rivers in ten years' time, too, and still catching some excellent fish.

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