John Bailey: Old fishermen never die...

John Bailey, scruffy as a scarecrow, happy with his winter barbel

John Bailey, scruffy as a scarecrow, happy with his winter barbel - Credit: John Bailey

You know the old saying, but I’ll repeat it anyway - old fishermen never die... they just smell that way.

That’s exactly how I felt a couple of evenings back when I was plodding the riverbank, gear in hand, making for a winter barbel swim that has come to obsess me.

A young girl, perhaps 20, cantered past, giving me a look that could only be described as haughty. Then a rather smart country couple walked their equally high pedigree pooch in my direction, greeting me with frozen smiles and a wide berth. Even the dog looked wary and decided against giving me a sniff. But could I blame any of them? In truth, with my tattered moon boots, my distasteful over-trousers, my ancient jacket and my baggy beanie, I made any old scarecrow look as swish as Roger Moore in a Bond movie.

I settled into the bankside reed bed, cast out and considered what I was, what I had become. I was still the same old-fashioned specimen hunter that I had been in the early 70s, I had to accept, along with the fact I had hardly moved on into the new century a single jot. Fifty years ago, all us young bucks wanted to look rough and tough and ready for the worst the UK winter could throw at us. But now, how many of us are left? John Wilson’s disciples are all of us a dying breed of big fish-focused fools, all 50, 60 or more, destined to trudge the river banks of our old age. I pondered chasing the canine couple, explaining I had been  a teacher, I own a house, why, I even write for a newspaper, but I decided against it. They’d never believe me. I’d look desperate and, besides , who cares?

It became cold, very cold indeed, but I witnessed many minor miracles. The sunset was breathtakingly glorious, like God had designed it for me alone. It flared for 10 minutes and then was gone, but it had illuminated my soul. My robin came to see me a few minutes before dark, a perky little creature I have trained to peck at broken up boilies. No wonder he’s as fat as a little piggy. A flight of long tailed tits silhouetted the crimson sky and a charm of goldfinches settled into the alders to my left. The river ran bright, reflecting the light in the west and the whole world was mercifully hushed. Not a single thing could I see to remind me that I wasn’t back in those days of my youth, not a house, not a car, nothing but the emerging, eternal starts above.

Blimey, it was cold by 4.15pm, so freezingly so that I began to wonder if my barbel quest were not in truth a sign of impending madness. But, I thought, barbel and river roach are not that different, part of the same broad family and back in my young 'speci hunter' days, I thought nothing of sitting until 10pm or even beyond for a great , silver 2lb red fin. In one of my books of long ago, I wrote that dusk until 11pm are the best times for big Wensum roach and that often the only bite will come at 10pm, as the rings are freezing into ice.

In another volume, I recorded that bright nights of a big moon are often those when you simply must sit tight, until midnight even, if a big roach is to come your way. Yes, I really did that way back then when the roach fever was on me, and I was not alone. My fishing partner for a long while was a policeman, Roger, and one January night his shift finished at 10pm and he went straight to the Bure, above Buxton Mill where it runs broad and deep. My phone rang at 1.30am. He had a big roach in the sack and would I drive the icy roads to photograph it? And wasn’t well known Norfolk angler John Nunn’s personal best roach of 3lb 3oz taken deep into a wild winter night when it was so dark he couldn’t see his hand before his face?

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Would I ever be that tough again, I wondered, back by my barbel swim? Or, indeed, that crazy? As it happened this particular night just gone, I had no need to test my mettle or my sanity. It was still just light when the rod keeled around and I found myself fighting a fish that made sparks fly. It seemed to be a see-saw battle that would never end and my sigh of relief was quite audible as I drew it finally to the net.

I was home by a little after five, in the shower a quarter past and the wood burner was lit before six... just the way I now like it!