John Bailey: Ways to avoid the anguishes of angling

John Bailey, and that feeling of exasperation can mean only one thing... Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey, and that feeling of exasperation can mean only one thing... Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

You work really hard to catch your big fish.

You locate a water where the fish of your dreams lives. You pay for a ticket or syndicate or club membership. You spend time watching where the fish lives, where and when it feeds. You might spend money now on pre-baiting if the rules allow. You might start getting up silly o'clock or staying out late or even all night to catch it.

The fish dominates your consciousness and gets a hold of your dreams. After a session, a week, a month or a season even, you finally hook it and it is like your life depends on it hitting the net. Trouble is that it often doesn't do that. As a guide, over and over, I see that disaster never goes on holiday. A hooked monster sometimes holds the whip hand. A fish is never yours until it hits the net and is hoisted ashore. Only then can you breathe, high five or throw your hat in the air. In fact, I have come to learn from years at this game, if it can go wrong, it probably will.

Yesterday I was with a dear mate trying to catch a barbel from the Wensum. I had set my heart on banking this fish and I desperately wanted Ian to do the deed. I had set the swim up perfectly over four days previously and had the big fish feeding happily on Robin Red pellets. We set up with spot-on gear and crawled into position.

I fed pellets in one by one, with two-minute gaps in between. The recent rain had coloured the water a tad and spiced up temperatures so my hopes were high. And justified. Forty minutes in, Ian's rod hammered round and he was into a monster that surged across the pool. Ian applied perfect pressure and looked coolly in control. After 15 seconds the hook fell out and our world fell apart. For once, Ian's anguish had nothing to do with angler error. That barbel was lost through sheer hard luck, something rare in the big fish game.

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As I say, as a guide I see a whole lot of fish lost and reason number one is a badly-set clutch. Or a bad clutch. Never save money on a reel. A cheap reel with a poor clutch will let you down exactly when you don't want it to. Even with a good, reliable clutch, you have to set it right at the start of each and every session and then check it often. Yes, clutches can stick in hot or cold weather, in rain or under sun. I like a clutch to give line under not too much pressure at all. You have no idea how many hooks pull out if the clutch is unforgiving or even jammed. It is a whole lot easier to tighten a clutch set too loose than it is slacken a clutch set too tight.

Of course, before the clutch comes into play, the strike has to be right. Timing is key. Whether your heart's desire is a trout taking a dry fly, a perch snaffling a plastic lure or a carp taking a biscuit off the top, get the strike a second too early or too late and you are doomed. Don't panic. Keep a clear head and think the timing through. These are the most vital few seconds of your fishing life. Above all, whatever the method, the bait or lure, don't snatch at a strike. It should be a firm, gentle, progressive sweep backwards with you always in control.

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The fish is hooked. It is awesomely powerful. Your gear is well chosen and your clutch is well set, but the fish is still nearing a snag or thick weed. Your heart lurches and your pulse beats in your temples. Now is not the time to panic for sure, but above all, now is the time to be brave. Come down on that fish hard because more big fish are lost by playing them softly than by being tough with them. You do not want your dream to be lost because you were timid, because you lost your nerve. If you do lose the fish in the end you want to hold your head high and admit you were beaten by a formidable foe, not because you wimped out.

I mentioned the obvious fact that your gear must be well chosen and well up to the job in hand. I'll plunge into controversy here and say for much of my fishing I would not consider a barbless hook. They are fine for commercials where fish come along one after another. I have some faith in them for tench, but I would never use them for trotting in rivers say, especially for roach. A few years ago, I used barbless hooks all winter season for roach and I lost well over 50pc of the fish hooked. I know what I am doing, I like to think. That was a fair test and I have learned my lesson. I would never jeopardise the welfare of my fish either. I reckon micro barbs are more than humane and much game fishing research seems to prove barbless hooks repeatedly pop in and out of a fish's mouth like a pin in a cushion.

A few days ago, in heavy rain, a guided client and I tackled a rising river for roach. After hours of effort, my friend hooked a cracker. It plunged, it rolled and it spat the barbless hook free. I was wet, stung, bitten and gutted for me and my client, a lovely man indeed. Above all, I lamented a Leviathan lost when it could and should have been netted safely. Don't let angling's anguishes dog your days too, is my heartfelt advice.

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