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John Bailey: As Wordsworth might also have said... it’s great to be back

PUBLISHED: 16:02 19 May 2020 | UPDATED: 16:02 19 May 2020

Enoka with a first tench of the new season Picture: John Bailey

Enoka with a first tench of the new season Picture: John Bailey

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You literary types will realise that I have taken my bastardised headline this week from one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, celebrating the French Revolution.

Lee Cartwright with a stunning 27lb historic mirror carp Picture: John BaileyLee Cartwright with a stunning 27lb historic mirror carp Picture: John Bailey

Truly, it was very heaven to be back on the bank again, but many of the anglers I talked to were a bit more down to earth than good old William himself.

“It’s like getting out of prison,” was a common comment along the Wensum lakes and pits. “Being allowed to fish again has saved my marriage,” was another view, actually expressed by a woman, I promise you. “If I had to tie another fly without a hope of using it, I’d have gone bonkers,” said legendary angler and comedian Paul Whitehouse.

All true and understandable, but blimey, when Enoka and I got ourselves out very early on Sunday just gone, it was Wordsworth I was thinking about again.

“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,” the poet wrote, and that is what we both felt, free at last, watching the inky sky turn to pewter, rise and then sun-drenched gold. Everything around us celebrated. We heard our first cuckoo of the springtime. We watched the up and down flight of a green woodpecker and listened to a score of warblers in the lake’s reed beds. Even the wind turned a benign southerly, blew warm and enticed a million alder flies out to hatch. The air swarmed with them and out from the bank tench, bream and carp all swirled, rolled and porpoised as they breakfasted on the insect feast. We both caught tench to drool over, the first of the year for us and so greatly appreciated for that. You really do never know what you have got until it seems to be gone. Then Lee called us to the other side of the Island to photograph a brace of carp he had taken off the top and Enoka’s eyes popped with wonder. She’d never seen the like before, fish so big they belonged in the ocean, not a Norfolk pool.

One of the carp was a dark old mirror carp with scales down its lateral line. It looked a warrior and it was, survivor of four, possibly five decades, fraught with otter-shaped menace. You have to see fish like these to grasp exactly why we are anglers. Yes, the fish was beautiful. Yes, it fought hard and was tough to hoodwink. But it is the natural history story this fish told that is truly magnificent. It takes an angler to understand and appreciate a creature like this. Magic. Mystery. Passion. This blessed morning of lockdown freedom had it all.

I mentioned the word “passion”. Remember the best fishing series ever from way back in the 1990s? “Passion For Angling” had it all and enthralled both anglers and non-anglers alike. There was fun in the programs, escapades but above all the stunning beauty of water and the fish that live in it. Chris Yates and Bob James were the presenters, but the real star was Hugh Miles, the cameraman genius who devised the series and filmed it so heartstoppingly. Over his long career, Hugh has made seminal films for the BBC on snow leopards, otters and the like but fish are his real love and that is what makes him so special, so unique actually, amongst the great naturalists of our time.

So it was with excitement I opened a letter from him on Monday. He was returning some 50 transparencies of India I had sent him around the turn of this century. Our plan had been to make a program on the rivers of that country, but like so many TV projects, it failed to fly. Never mind. Water under a lot of bridges. What is nice is that Hugh, like many of us of a certain age, belongs to a generation of letter writers. Give Hugh a laptop and you’ll get some news. Give him a pen and you’ll get a masterpiece. In his letter, Hugh described his school holiday adventures 60 years ago on the Thurne and Bure, afloat in his dingy. He talked of bags of huge Hickling rudd, cracking bream from the upper Bure above Coltishall and 2lb roach lower down at Wroxham. The words summoned up an Arthur Ransome world of quiet villages and lost lonely rivers where a kid could get lost amidst scaley monsters. But there was more, another slant on Broadland pike history.

For well over 30 years now, doubt has been cast on the legendary catches and claims made by Dennis Pye. Dennis was a hero, no, the hero of the Norfolk pike scene in the 1950s and 1960s until many highly-respected anglers of the time began to suggest that he was being flagrantly optimistic with the truth. Such were the weight discrepancies raised by some of Pye’s captures that his stature these days has been much diminished. Hugh will have none of this. He wrote: “My first project in my film making degree course was a black and white work about a legendary pike, a 26lb beauty from Heigham Sounds, caught by none other than Dennis Pye. He was so kind to me and caught big pike to order so that I find it upsetting that anglers seem to have a down on him. I found him to be a lovely, generous bloke and an outstanding fisherman. I will always treasure the times I spent with him. I have fished with many great anglers but Dennis was perhaps the best.”

Dennis Pye is, of course, long gone, along with much of his reputation, but if there is a more sane, more sensible judge of angling ability than Hugh Miles, I’d be surprised. Perhaps it is time to go back in time and reappraise what Dennis did, what he said and what he caught. Those of us brought up to be non-believers might be in for something of a shock.


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