John Bailey: Angling art in all its forms

Pictures of Paul Cook in his workshop and his creations of genius.

Paul Cook in his workshop - Credit: John Bailey

Just off the A47, roughly between Swaffham and Dereham, there lives something of an artistic genius.

Okay, I know the term is commonly overused these days, but I think the cap fits the head of this man, called Paul Cook.

Not heard of him? Perhaps you haven’t, but quietly, modestly, he’s been producing minor masterpieces that the cognoscenti of the piscatorial world rate as highly as the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Whether we are looking at hand-built cane rods, floats, float tubes or breath-taking illustrations, Paul Cook is the name that collectors are searching for.

Paul Cook's creations of genius.

Paul Cook's creations of genius - Credit: John Bailey

Paul came to Norfolk from Hertfordshire some years back to escape the hustle, bustle and devastating traffic of his native Watford. There he had trained at the art college and, vitally, as a glass etcher after an exhaustive five-year apprenticeship that had taught him the skills to take with him during his life’s work and journey.

As the demand for decorative pub windows dwindled , the number of collectors baying for Paul’s floats and rods grew and now he finds himself closeted in a country view workshop creating magic. When I met up with him recently after a number of years, he seemed well, happy with Norfolk and content to be surrounded by beautiful things, the products of his hands and his boundless imagination. I sense this is a fulfilling life and Paul is safe in the knowledge that his work will remain an inspiring legacy for decades , perhaps centuries to come.

Paul Cook's works of art

Paul Cook's works of art - Credit: John Bailey

I have a few Paul Cook floats and I’ll probably buy a handful more, despite the price going up (not Paul’s fault. Did you know that the price of cork, for example has spiralled these last months and even a small pike float will soak up seven pounds worth of the stuff?). And I admit that I actually put mine on the line and use them on the river time to time.

There’s a big debate about this amongst those who admire his work. There are those who argue that these floats are works of art and should not be put at risk by using and losing them. I argue that you barely ever lose a float and that I’d swim for a Cook one anyway. And more importantly, Paul is a float angler who learned his trade on the river Colne and now plies it on the Wensum when he can. Surely, I say, he knows what it means for a float to slide away to the power of a battling fish. A float is all well and good in a display cabinet, but it was born to fish, and fish it should. I suppose you pays your money and takes your choice.

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Angling has coughed up some real artistic Titans over the years. These are generally men, but let’s never forget Norfolk painter and sporting legend Shirley Deterding, who has a dash of genius, that word again. They find their outlet of expression in the sport they love. Paul Cook fished since he was a lad and so did the other great angling artists like David Miller, David Cowdry, Rob Olsen and going further back, how about Bernard Venables himself?

But then angling’s skills are arts in themselves. Spey casting. Dry fly fishing. Long trotting. These are all demonstrations of control and physical prowess that belong on a stage like the Olympics, to be seen by all those who doubt that angling is a sport in the first place. Mind you, in angling, as in life, all is not always what it seems and there are murky areas to both of them.

I got embroiled in a heated debate this week that involved me on one side, great mates Ian Miller and Paul Whitehouse on the other (I’m not name dropping. Paul is an angler way before he is anything else in life, except perhaps a loving dad).

I went out to a tough lake with another mate who must remain nameless at present. Now this bloke can REALLY fish. He walked around, scratched his head and worked out where all the carp were. Unfortunately, they were crammed under the one impenetrable canopy of alders on the entire water. It was nigh on impossible to get a bait and the required amount of feed into branches without using a bait boat, banned on this water, so he came up with another solution. I thought a sweep had come to town or that a septic tank needed emptying somewhere. All around my mate, lengths of black tubing two yards or so long were festooned like we were in a builder’s yard or somewhere. No, this was a bait pole and on the very end there was a small boat-like container screwed on. The idea was that you put your bait and rig in this contraption and floated it out to the danger zone, simply adding on as many sections as you needed to get there. Blimey. Never seen anything like it, all that plastic on the surface, and my mate told me you can target areas 90 yards distant with this set-up if there isn’t much wind to blow it all over the shop!

Well, once I’d got over my shock, I watched eagle-eyed. Matey’s pitch was 35 yards off, so easy-peasy for him , especially considering the light breeze. The bait container whistled back and forth like the Isle of Wight ferry and eventually he dropped a couple of baited rigs tight to the spot, a foot into the tree fringe. He said he’d sit on the rods, screw down the clutch, hit bites instantly and walk back to keep them out of danger. He did it all like clockwork. He had four fish whilst I didn’t have a sniff.

I told Ian and Whitey all this and you’d have thought I’d gone fishing with the Devil. Nets and poison next! Why not use dynamite? Why bother with a rod, just electro-fish them out! Ban him. Shoot him even. I don’t know where I stand, honest. I love angling and all its arts but I like to see a fish on the bank for a change. Isn’t there a song going “art for art’s sake but a fish for Gawd’s sake?” Or have I got that wrong too?