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John Bailey: What makes a great angler

PUBLISHED: 12:53 31 March 2019 | UPDATED: 12:53 31 March 2019

Oscar Jackson with his super carp! Picture: John Bailey

Oscar Jackson with his super carp! Picture: John Bailey

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I wrote about my part in the record grayling capture a few days ago and the reverberations continue, most importantly with a letter in the angling press last week from Paul Mildren.

Without a rod in your hand you can explore the river to your heart’s content Picture: John BaileyWithout a rod in your hand you can explore the river to your heart’s content Picture: John Bailey

Paul is not an East Anglian and has kept largely under the radar, apart from catching the previous largest grayling in history, a mere four ounces under the fish I was involved with. Paul’s letter was through and through fascinating.

He has fished the same stretch of that Wessex chalkstream where both big fish came from for years. He knows it down to the last pebble and quite obviously loves it down to the last frond of weed. Paul questioned the wisdom of weighing fish in plastic bags like we did, worrying that the method might not be pinpoint accurate. Suggestion registered. He also informed us that he had caught the very self-same grayling twice, once at a weight just under the one captor Simon Ellis and I recorded. This fact rather backs up Paul’s assertion that there are very few fish along the stretch of river in question and that to catch one, never mind a record, is quite an achievement.

To me, this all goes to prove Paul’s uncanny relationship with this river. It is a personal, sort of sixth sense thing. Paul has moved into a zone that not many anglers enter, a piscatorial Narnia that so many of us never guess exists and would not dream of looking for. This is the essence of angling greatness that takes a lifetime of study and experience to arrive at. As I see it, in your teens and 20s your angling ideas stem from the text books, the internet and what you are told. In your 30s, you are developing your own theories. In your 40, these theories become beliefs and through the final few decades of your life you are refining, re-evaluating and even sometimes binning them if they don’t measure up. It is a great journey and one I am happy to say a reader of this column is embarking on.

Last week, Daniel Brydon of Wensum Valley Angling, and I announced the inception of the late Robert Shanks Angling Awards. There has been great feedback already on email, social media and by word of mouth.

Take the time to explore the river this closed season Picture: John BaileyTake the time to explore the river this closed season Picture: John Bailey

Robert Shanks Angling Awards



The most exciting front-runner was an email from Norfolk’s Craig Jackson.

“I’ve just read the article in the EDP and I think the Robert Shanks Award is a lovely idea. I knew Robert a little and he was always great to speak to and always said hi. My son, Oscar, and I started fishing last October and have become obsessive over it. Oscar has just hooked, battled and landed his first carp all by himself, an immensely challenging and proud moment for him and me both. I’ll share our images through the spring to show how Oscar is progressing as a new angler. Wishing you all the best with the Award, Craig Jackson”

Perfect, Craig. Exactly how Daniel and I are hoping this Award will work out. Father and son fishing, exploring, bonding. A youngster taking up the one true sport that can last a lifetime and provide so many fresh experiences, right up to the very last session of all. I wonder what advice Robert would give Oscar as he sets out? I’m guessing but he might say ‘take your time, Oscar’. Do what your dad and other mentors advise, but think things through for yourself. Read what you can. Get out on the bank as much as you can but make every adventure count. Think why you succeed or fail. Consider how the tiniest details can make the largest differences to what you catch.

Above all I like to think Rob would say above all WATCH. Don’t rush to get a bait in the water but when you do, try to make sure it is the right bait, in the right position and presented in the right way. I remember well meeting Rob at Lenwade’s Charity Lakes a few years back. He was there for a night session but had rolled up in the early afternoon to build up a feel for the water. Together we walked slowly, carefully around the lake, peering into the margins under the tree fringes. Rob dribbled in fragments of bait here and there and , little by little, the lake opened up for him. Fish began to appear from nowhere, as if by magic. Truly, Rob was a wizard who had conjured them out of invisibility. It was approaching evening before Rob decided on his pitch, his bait, his approach but of course he caught. It was inevitable: he just had this genius that comes from deep knowledge and almost extra sensory perception. Oscar, if you get to be just half as good as Rob Shanks, you’ll be pretty good indeed and that goes for me, Daniel and Paul Mildren just as much.

Following on from this, my last word is to urge you to get on the riverbank when you can this closed season. There is so much to watch, so much to learn. Without a rod in your hand you can take the time to absorb what the river is all about, how your fish are actually living. The Saturday just gone, I did this very thing and I tell you, it was one of the best sessions I’ve ever enjoyed.

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