John Bailey: Exploring angling’s explosive eras

Andrew j Davis watches great pal Richard Masters test out a rod of his

Andrew J Davis watches great pal Richard Masters test out a rod of his - Credit: John Bailey

I’ve always been riveted by the way the development of angling has not followed an even, steady path but rather been catapulted forward by periods of intense activity.

These eruptions of piscatorial knowledge take place when groups of talented anglers come together and combine their talents to propel the sport into whole new realms of understanding.

Let me give examples and point out immediately that often geography plays a major part. Take the lift-off of still water fly fishing that took place in the 1950/70 period in the Midlands, around Northamptonshire in particular.

The opening of the big reservoirs for trout fishing inspired Cyril Inwood, Dick Shrive and Bob Church to pioneer still water approaches we use to this day. For the specialist anglers amongst us, how about the Herts Chilterns Group of the 60s and 70s? Jack Hilton, Bill Quinlan, Bob Buteux, Pete Frost and notably Frank Guttfield forever changed the way that we pursued big fish then and even now, many of us would say.

I’ve always been beyond passionate about river roach and it is quite possible to see a strong thread connecting the great roach fishers on what we loosely call the Wessex rivers. Captain Parker forged a path followed by Owen Wentworh, Gerry Swanton, Peter Wheat and more recently, John Brough and Dave Howes. As a kid, I devoured everything that Wentworth and Swanton wrote and their knowledge helped all us Norfolk young roach wannabes in the 70s.

Of course, I still haven’t mentioned the greatest angler of modern times, Richard Walker.  Before he died in the 80s he had collaborated with men like Maurice Ingham, Peter Thomas and, latterly, Chris Yates to change the whole face of carp fishing. Walker was everywhere, even contributing to the still water trout scene, but his influence on pike fishing was also immense. He was an integral part of the team that pioneered loch pike fishing on Lomond in the 60s and along with Fred Buller and Ken Taylor made us realise the importance of environment to pike growth.

And this is where the Norfolk connection comes in again. Walker and Buller both fished with and communicated with our own piking stars of the 50s and 60s, pikers  like Bill Giles, Reg Sandys and Frank Wright. In their turn, they had been influenced and learned from men like Jim and Edwin Vincent, whilst modern pike names of the present such as Nick Beardmore and Paul Belsten would admit, I think, they are following in a proud tradition of piking laid down nigh on a century ago.

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I had a strong insight into this whole process last week at the excellent Redditch Tackle Show. This is a brilliant occasion for old timers like me or for anyone interested in plastic fishing tackle that doesn’t come straight from China. At Redditch you’ll only find cane, leather and quill and a mountain full of fishing memories, and I love it! I particularly loved a recently hand-built cane rod called the Avocet, constructed by that master rod craftsman, Andrew J Davis. What a beautiful, stunning, exquisite piece of work that rod is. And its history is worth exploring too.

Nottingham and the Trent catchment have long been one of angling hotspots. In the mid-19th century, William Bailey was a Trent expert who mentored the great JW Martin, better known as the author The Trent Otter. Martin fished with lace maker Henry Coxon who found eternal fame as the designer of the Aerial centre pin reel. Coxon became an angling partner to FWK Wallis and together they pioneered barbel fishing on the Hampshire Avon’s Royalty fishery, Wallis catching the record barbel and scores of other big fish. Wallis was also the inventor of the so-called Wallis cast and the hot rod of the pre-wars years, The Wallis Wizard. By 1953 or thereabouts, the B James rod company decided the Wizard could be improved upon and the rod all young big fish anglers desired was born... the Avocet.

A close-up of my 'dream' Avocet

A close-up of my 'dream' Avocet - Credit: John Bailey

Davis’s modern interpretation of the Avocet is by common consent even better than the James rod of 70 years ago, and, yes, Davis himself comes from Nottingham. Oh my, I waggled that rod and almost felt it bending to the power of a tench, chub or barbel. I dreamed of it, checked my bank account and dreamed of it again. So, if there is a Santa out there, I hope he knows I’m dreaming still...