Reviving some great roach memories, which are far better forgotten

John Bailey with a fine river roach.

John Bailey with a fine river roach. - Credit: Archant

Trust Roy Webster to remind me of a particular challenge match from so long ago. (EDP October 29, Fur Flies on River Wensum as Class Prevails Yet Again.)

A match, I say. It was a mismatch from the start. The Norwich Matchmen were taking on us poor Norfolk Specimen Hunters nigh on 40 years ago. A long time, yes, but it all burns bright. I wish it didn't.

Roy is right to highlight the skills of veteran matchman Stan Karn who won on the day with a staggering 43lbs of glorious roach. We were staggered, all us Specimen Hunters because this weight was 10lb more than the seven of us managed to total between us.

Stan fished beautifully on the upper Yare at Cringleford that day and Roy kindly omits to mention that I was the only competitor to completely and utterly blank. In his piece, Roy does underline that in angling, as in life, class always tells. Cheers, mate. I can remember each hour of that desperate morning as my float refused to go under, as my tip declined to go round. The runners were telling me exactly how well everyone else was faring, particularly, of course, Stan himself. My spirits and self-esteem, once so high, simply sank into my boots.

John Wilson, the Specimen Hunters captain, took me back for Sunday lunch and kind words, but even he and the roast beef couldn't cheer me up. I was really nothing more than a kid, I'd just started teaching at Sprowston High and knew that I'd come in for a miserable rollicking from the kids.

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After four decades I agree with Roy that if you want a job done, call on a matchman. A matchman can catch fish out of a bucket whereas a specimen hunter probably couldn't hook the bucket itself. This is all the more the case with those brilliant all-round matchmen of the old school like Stan himself and the Matchmen's captain, Roger Harris. I have no doubt that the greatest anglers I ever brushed rods with were the match anglers of that era, some on the national stage, some local and some who hovered in between.

I think a major question is whether we could expect either now or ever again in the future, to catch 100lb-plus of beautiful roach to over two pounds in a single morning's fishing. I guess we'd be extremely lucky, but why? After all, the upper rivers of the 1970s were treated abysmally by Anglian Water. The Environment Agency today is far more river-friendly and there can be no doubt our rivers are far better homes for roach than they were then. If we could control feathered predation we could be quids in. That 1970s match was fished on the back of the region's great roaching age. Perhaps in a few years, we'll see similar or better results riding on the renaissance of a new one.

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What might help a few readers today is to admit where I went wrong that November morning: it was bright with an early frost, indeed the first cold snap of the winter. Conditions, in short, we're all going to face very shortly. I'd been told the swim was a potential winner and that fired me up, especially when a decent roach rolled in mid-stream, along the deep, slow glide in front of me. These two things encouraged me to overfeed by a massive amount. I piled in maggots and mash blindly over-confident of a good result. In fact, I expect I emptied my peg in the first five minutes. The mash, especially, can have calamitous results in conditions like these. My advice on any swim, on stillwater or river, is to feel your way in this coming, cold period. And that's especially the case if the water is clear that long ago morning.

Oh yes, it's all crystal to me now. I should have trotted through the different baits at different depths for at least 20 minutes before even thinking of feeding. That's what I would always do today. Then, if feed is called for, just sprinklings of hemp and, especially, casters.

I remember debating casters all those years ago, but you've got to remember I was a rookie schoolteacher living on sixpence. Have I ever lived to regret parsimony quite as keenly I wonder?

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