Fitting tribute to the legend that is John Wilson

John Bailey
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
7:03 AM

The Saturday just gone, a band of anglers and their partners gathered at the Wensum Valley Hotel to say goodbye to Norfolk’s angling legend, John Wilson, who is due to set sail for Thailand in later October. I think everyone was of the opinion that John’s going could not be left unrecorded. The simple fact is that no one has done more for angling than John over the last 30 years. John’s angling achievement has been utterly remarkable.

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The Wensum Valley provided the most glorious supper – thank you for that – but a price has to be paid and old JB was forced to his feet to make a speech. I can’t really do better than repeat the opening story here because, I feel, it illustrates perfectly the core of the man who is John Wilson. I was 20, still at university, desperate to catch a Norfolk chub. My usual tackle dealer told me to try one of the rivers ‘my lad’. Fat lot of use that was, eh?

John had just opened his legendary Tackle Den down Bridewell Alley and I wandered in there, a little apprehensive. I needn’t have bothered for, when I repeated my request, he drew me a map of the Waveney, including a place to park the car, the stile to climb and the swim to fish. He recommended a lump of flake on a size 8 hook and the coming Sunday I landed two fine, fat threepounders. It’s that type of generosity that made John a favourite of us all, the angler who inspired generations.

I think if we look back to the last three decades of the last century, John was very much first amongst equals. John was the brightest light amongst scores of very good, very well-known anglers, men and women who made the Norfolk angling scene the starry place to fish at that time. Norfolk, under John’s guidance, was at the centre of innovation. Goodness knows how many ideas that we now take for granted were conceived and brought to fruition during that dramatically productive period.

John has many skills, but it was his exuberance as a presenter that probably won him most acclaim. John was a natural in front of the cameras. Of course, it helps that he is the consummate angler whatever the discipline, but it was his ability to put information across in such an engaging way that made him so special, so unique and so nationally famous.

John’s endless series of fishing programmes were very important for the sport at that time. We have to accept that if a sport is not on TV in this day and age, then, amongst the young in particular, it’s simply not considered cool. For many years, John was responsible for an upsurge in the sport and it is stuttering now in at least some part because of lack of prime airtime.

John kept us all royally entertained for 20 minutes with his stories. It was a warm, generous atmosphere allowing his abilities as a raconteur to shine out. Mind you, after 60-odd years an angler, John is unlikely ever to run out of the most fabulous of tales.

Mention a country, and John’s fished there. Think of a fish, and John will have caught it. Name an angler, and John will probably have fished with him. Yep, John has had the richest of lives and, as far as I can see, this move to Thailand will only extend, enhance and enrich it.

So, good luck to John and his lovely, supportive wife Jo on this new chapter that unfolds before them. I’ve no doubt they will make a success of it just like John has made a success of everything else in the decades that I’ve known him.

I ended my speech with another, well-known, oft-told story from our Indian days. It is, however, worth repeating for this last time.

As ever, I’d followed in John’s footsteps out to the Cauvery in southern India and even fished with his favourite guide, Subhan. Subhan took me to a rock where John had done particularly well the previous year and, as the Indian sun set, I had the most colossal of bites, which I missed. Subhan looked tense, angry, and, worse, scornful. He cast for me again, threw me the rod and sat down to wait. The second bite all but pulled me off my rock, but again, it was missed. This time my little Indian friend could not contain himself but danced furiously next to me, incoherent with rage. The only words that I heard were, “John Wilson doesn’t miss bites. He’s a GOOD angler.”

That pretty much says it all.

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