So who are you on the banks: hunter or ambusher?

John Bailey with his dawn tench caught with wonder watercraft. Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey with his dawn tench caught with wonder watercraft. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

I seem to eat, sleep and dream fishing. I certainly do enough talking about it and only the other day, two anglers of note cropped up in conversation.

The first is a great friend, Stuart Crofts, a truly magnificent fly angler from the north of England, which might explain why you haven't heard of him. But you should. Stuart is one of the most intuitive, inquisitive and intellectual fly anglers of our generation. I've fished with him a fair few times over many years, notably in Slovenia when he was competing for England in the World Championships, and I've always been in awe of his ability to read the water, pick out exactly the flies upon which the wildest of trout are feeding and mimic them exactly. Thereafter, his fly placement on the surface of the river is an absolute joy to behold; he's like a magician, believe me.

Alan Wilson also made an appearance in a conversation the day after. Alan I met many years ago, back in the '80s I believe it was, when he was camped out on Star Tops Reservoir in Hertfordshire. At the time we met, Alan had been there 24/7 for something like four entire months. He'd racked up an enormous list of enormous fish! In fact, I've got a feeling that somewhere in there, there had actually been a record tench to boot. Again, like a day out with Stuart, I was left with nothing but admiration. How much sweat and groundbait Alan had poured into his triumph, I can't even begin to calculate.

But. Is it too subjective to suggest that there is a difference between these two anglers' triumphs? Stuart, of course, is the supreme hunter. He travels light, he's always on the move, he's always watching, observing and reacting to conditions. He hunts his prey down. Alan, of course, is the reverse. He lays out a carefully prepared, often expensive trap and sits back to wait for a big fish to blunder into it. He was probably asleep at the time the record tench actually took his bait. I don't think Stuart Crofts ever sleeps.

I'm not one to talk. More of my time these days is spent fishing with bait than fly and a lot of my time is spent just heaving groundbait into carefully prepared swims. So if I criticise Alan in the least, I criticise myself a whole load more. However, over the last few days, I have been guiding a few short, sharp sessions and I've learnt to go back to my watercraft, much like Stuart Crofts. I've been forced to look at the lakes we have been fishing with new eyes, penetrating eyes. I found it is quite possible to go to a hard lake, often quite heavily fished, and within three hours put a decent fish, even a big one, on the bank. It's often the tiniest clues that give fish away. It doesn't have to be a massive carp porpoising out the size of a sow. Over these few days, just a twitch of a reed gave a big common away. Just a single bubble led to the downfall of an 11lb-plus bream. In neither case did the common carp nor the bream require more than four hours at the waterside. Both fish were PBs for their captors and both captors left with smiles the size of a planet. That's how I like things to be.


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I pulled it off for myself, too, the other autumnal morning. Now that the nights are lengthening and the dawns are cooler, all cyprinids will feed later, towards sunrise. It's knowing where. I chose this morning because the night had been crisp with little wind. I got to the lake and it was like a mirror but shrouded in mist. I walked round the bays and, bingo, I found what I was looking four. On one of them old, spent bubbles hung there like washed out diamonds in their millions. The bubbles were old but they indicated that carp, tench and even bream had fed in the area hard during the preceding hours of darkness.

The bulk of the fish might well have deserted this particular bay but, I was sure, not all of them. I waited, I watched and, after 20 minutes saw the tiniest sprinkling of bubbles coming freshly to the surface. A bait was placed, a float dipped and soon I was holding a quite gorgeous tench. The sun now was up, I'd left the house at 5.30am and I was back for breakfast before 8am. That's the way of the hunter, I guess. It's making the most use of watercraft and taking that skill, peculiar to angling, to its ultimate degree.

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The iconic angling writer, Bernard Venables, said to me during his last days that the watercraft he discussed in his book, Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing, was aimed for kids. However, what he hoped, he said, was that it would start children on the right path in their fishing. His belief and his hope was that children would rely on watercraft rather than the latest baits, rigs and gimmicks.

I fear the angling world has rather moved on since Mr Crabtree sucked on his foul-smelling pipe. It's a shame. In the annals of angling wisdom often lies the true path to angling success and satisfaction.

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