Time to plan your festive campaigns on the river bank

John Bailey with another Christmas gift, a fabulous pike from years ago. Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey with another Christmas gift, a fabulous pike from years ago. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

We all want a whopper for Christmas and if you're lucky enough to catch one, the event can stay with you all your life.

What happened to me at around 10am on the morning of December 23, 1984 is as fresh now as it was 30-plus years ago.

That Sunday I was on the pike lake an hour before the deliciously mild dawn broke. There was a drizzle in the air and a moderate wind chased the heavy clouds over the surrounding hills. That day was my first using a drifter float, a very new method in those days. The idea was to get a small bait over 100s from the bank into territory that I had never fished before. In fact, nobody had.

As it became light, I began my first drift, the great orange sail of the float showing well in the gloom. After one or two false starts, I found the depth and soon I was drifting my bait over plateaux and gulleys the length of a football pitch. After three hours, at a distance of 120 yards or more, my float, that great neon sail, disappeared. Its going was so quick, so complete that in that grey light I felt unsure, almost unnerved. I wound tight, ironing out the loops and meanders in the yards of line. I felt the tension grow. I was direct to the fish. Then I moved back from the water, the rod arching over my left shoulder. It stayed there, hooked over and held in a half circle. Nothing moved and doubts crept in and then, in my hands, the rod became alive. At that huge distance, I was actually into a fish.

The line tightened and rose through the water and out there, amidst the cloud and the drizzle, my largest ever pike, even still so to this day, erupted like a volcanic explosion. The fight sometimes went the fish's way and sometimes mine but, after more than half an hour, it was at the bank. The heroics didn't end there. The mesh of the landing net began to tear with the weight of the pike's white and cream belly and I leaped into the margins and cradled the giant onto the land. The fish weighed 36lb 6oz, a weight that has often been recorded as two ounces lighter than that, but now I can tell the truth afresh. What a fish. What a day. What a memory.

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I don't just tell this story for self glorification. There is a deeper justification. Very many of us are looking at a decent period of time from work next month at Christmas and now is the time, if you're an angler, to make a plan. That's what I did all those years ago and it worked for me.

First of all, you just have to consider the family obligations, I know. Christmas is a time for those you love and a time for giving but, if you're crafty about it, you might see little windows, especially early and late, when you can creep off unnoticed, out of the general hubbub for just short periods.

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You've got to consider what you would ideally like to catch. For me, that day, it was a pike and many Christmases have seen me after the same species. But roach can be cracking, too, in December, and why not a big perch, especially as there are so many around at the moment? Christmas, too, is the time for chub, they're getting big, brassy and weighing heavy.

The longer term weather forecast plays a big part in what you might want to catch. If it's looking cold, you might plump for chub or perch perhaps, especially early and late. However, if the forecast is for milder westerlies and air temperatures of eight degrees or more, then roach on any of our rivers or pits just have to be a possibility. And as for pike, well, you just never know. I've tried to second guess them so many times I have pretty well given up on that one.

Geography is important. If you snatch a couple of hours away around dawn or dusk, it doesn't make sense to be travelling for more than 15 minutes or so. Think of an accessible water close to you with a decent fish or two and I'd consider it deeply. And remember, over the Christmas period, waters are likely to be blissfully free of your colleagues and competitors.

Again, to save time, make sure all your gear is ready to go. You want everything made up and tangle-free. Ensure, too, your vehicle has got plenty of fuel and your bait is all there waiting for you.

I've always loved Christmas, the buzz and the excitement that surrounds it. However, as an angler, a big or even a good fish can make it just that little bit better. There's another memory, from Christmas Eve 1973. I was down by Bylaugh on the mid-Wensum as a carol service was beginning across the water. As the voices rang out, my little dough bobbin of those days soared to the rod butt and I hit into one of my first Titanic Wensum roach. I drove home not in my minivan but in a cloud of euphoria. I can't wish any of you anything better this coming Christmas.

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