John Bailey: The science and psychology of fishing

“The Vicar exudes quiet confidence.” Netsman JG looks on.

'The Vicar exudes quiet confidence' - netsman JG looks on - Credit: John Bailey

Many years ago I travelled almost exclusively for my fishing, before COP26 had made us guilty about getting to the corner shop in anything but shoes or on a bicycle.

India was a twice yearly event for me, very often leading gangs of hopeful mahseer anglers. My right-hand man on these trips, Alan, developed the habit of studying the team members at our Heathrow check-in and writing down on a piece of paper the names of those who would catch well, those who would catch reasonably and those who would barely catch at all. This list he would give to me and, unseen, I’d lock it away in my documents case. On the last evening of these expeditions, he and I would sit by the camp fire, retrieve the list and analyse its triumphs and failures. Over 15-plus years, Alan had a success rate of 95pc. How did he do this? Was it magic? The gift of second sight? A whisper from the Gods of The Mahseer river?

No, of course not. What Alan used was science, or, at least, pseudo science. He delved into the psyche of those anglers, watching their body language, how they related to their companions, what they talked about and even how loudly they talked. He studied their clothing, their manner and even if they helped weaker, older anglers with heavy luggage. He noted their weight, their apparent physical fitness and combined all this to forecast how they would cope in the melting pot of the jungle and deal with the tensions and challenges that they would all face.

I’m perhaps ashamed to admit I do something similar now far from the heat of India and although I’m nowhere near as accurate as Alan, I do have my moments and my own predictions are not far from reality.

I am talking exclusively about wild fish here, and they do not get wilder than that carp/barbel mix, called the mahseer. Wild fish are unpredictable fish, fish you have to work for, fish you have to scheme for. Wild fish present a true, eternal, untameable challenge and it is for that reason, angling for them will always be ultimately unknowable.

Salmon are a fine example, sea trout and wild browns too. Big, old carp that have lived their 40-year lives in vast lakes and pits and owe their huge size to no angler’s baits. Bass and mullet, ghosts of the creeks, wanderers on the tides. These are creatures who exist despite humans, not because of us. Creatures who live their lives in ways we can only barely understand.

It’s not all gloom for the Professor as this fine barbel attests

It’s not all gloom for the Professor, as this fine barbel attests - Credit: John Bailey

Pike too. Especially big ones. Pike are always moody, but as they age, they become impossibly discriminating, hard to fool and catching them regularly is a skill beyond most. Hence, now, the Story of the Professor and the Vicar. The Vicar is, by his own admission, an average angler yet, over several years, has amassed a pike record second to none with many 25lb-plus fish to his credit. How has he done this?

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Of course, he fishes waters where fish of this calibre are present, that’s a given. Beyond that, he gets the 'science' right. His rigs are sound, his approaches are sensible and his baits are well presented in proven locations. But, as Alan, would emphasise, it’s his psychology that puts him at the head of the pike queue. He exudes confidence in a quiet, unassuming way. He knows he has ticked the right angling boxes and he is content to wait, watch and wallow in the wonderful water world around him. And success, session on session, surely comes.

The Professor is a fine man, a fine angler and a fine companion and yet he spends most of his time netting whoppers for the Vicar. How does this happen? Whilst the Professor has the 'science' of angling far more finely honed than the Vicar, Alan would say it is his  head that lets him down. The Professor’s rigs, approaches and bait presentations are as expert as they come, but he lacks the Vicar’s confidence and belief that success will follow. He wants too much. He works hard, even brilliantly, but with desperation as the pikeless hours tick by. In a way not even Alan could explain, the brittleness of his desire pushes those big pike ever further away from his dry net.

This is not fair, but it is an inexplicable part of angling life. The good news is that if the Professor sticks with it, then inevitably that '30' will come his way. Even if the Vicar has a couple in the meantime, the phrase “every dog has his day” will kick in and the Professor is way intelligent enough to know that. He just has to wait. As an admirable river Tyne guide said to me recently: “ I like a blank day. It just takes you a step nearer a successful one.”  

You see: it really is all in your head!