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John Wilson – the early years with a genuine fishing legend

PUBLISHED: 17:00 20 November 2018

John Bailey, right, with John Wilson Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey, right, with John Wilson Picture: John Bailey

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Our angling writer John Bailey remembers John Wilson, one of the sport’s great experts, who died last week

My problem is that from the mid-1980s John became everybody’s friend.

John was wickedly good at most things to do with fishing but it was his skill as a communicator that took him to the top, as it were. It was this skill that made every angler, every viewer, think of John as a fishing chum, someone they knew inside out. Of course, this was not the case and like all familiar faces on TV, John had his private side but, of course, that will remain exactly that, private.

Having thought all that through, it seemed to me that perhaps the most exciting element in the John Wilson story is to be told in the early years, in the 70s when he first came to Norfolk and opened that legendary shop of his, John’s Tackle Den.

There will of course be old-timers like me who remember back that far, but for many the real thrill of those early days will be fresh and new. For me, the period 1972/78 saw some of the most exciting seasons of my fishing life. Thanks to John that was when I and many other young angling bucks really grew up and turned into proper fisherman. I’ve had a pretty good career in angling myself and I will say here and now, I owe a lot of that to John Wilson, make no mistake.

I first walked into John’s shop in June 1972. I was struggling to find chub to catch and you must remember they were a relatively new species to the area that far back.

I’d tried to ferret out “info” in a couple of other tackle shops without success, but John was all smiles and generosity. He sent me on my way to the Waveney, all kitted out with gear, bait and several maps of the best swims. I landed my first East Anglian chub within half an hour and I was a Wilson disciple on the spot.

I’d finished at university and was up in Norfolk doing a teaching diploma at UEA so I had blissful time on my hands in those early days. I found myself in his shop most days and we took it in turns to fork out 50p for coffees from the shop just down Bridewell Alley. I’d watch him paint floats, whip rods, serve customers and dish out advice for hours. Little by little the shop became a nerve centre of all fishing lore, a hub for us brave new world anglers who fancied ourselves as Specimen Hunters. Wow, look at us, we thought.

John was god for me and plenty of others. If I wasn’t in the shop, we would be on the phone and if we weren’t on the phone, we were fishing. There were plenty of seminal moments but one was that first summer when he pulled me into the back room where there was a large tub of water. He fished about with a maggot riddle and like a conjuror with a rabbit , produced a huge roach. Two pounds seven ounces of gob-smacking beauty. I looked at it transfixed. Until then roach of ounces had been big for me and this fish was on another planet. John and I were out the next Sunday morning and I caught another monster of 2lb 2oz. That was it. Thanks to John I was off on my big roach career with John as my guide for many years to come.

What a roach angler John was. I know he could turn his hand to pretty much any style of angling you care to name and he caught Whackers from dozens of countries, but it was on the rivers with trotting rod in hand that I care to remember him. That is how John did too. When I saw him this summer, he agreed that after all was said and done, he had always been at his happiest guiding a float down a roach swim on a crisp Norfolk or Suffolk dawn.

There were other highlights in those years, true. John made waves with tench at Wolterton lake. He caught his first 20lb pike off the Broads and big bream from Upton and Alderfen. He was a master with the chub and we both explored the early days of barbel together. But it was roach that defined what we all did, certainly from September to March each and every year. We lived in a trance of red and silver. Half the time we were exhausted from early starts and midnight finishes. Remember, too, John, by this time, was father to toddlers Lee and Lisa as well as coping with a fast expanding business. We barely had time to breathe such was our passion for roach once the leaves began to turn.

I began to teach, moved into a cottage by the middle Wensum and John would come by for dinner most weekends. The talk was all roach and, soon, the dream of the three-pounder. This was our Holy Grail, the source of our dreams, the impetus to get us out there one freezing dawn after the next. We had wild theories, passions for this bait or that and total belief in one river after another. It was madly compelling and all-consuming and I loved John for getting me so hopelessly addicted.

John never got that fabled river ‘three’, though he came so excruciatingly close on a hundred occasions. He did go on to do everything else in the angling world and that is perhaps when you, dear reader, began to watch his stellar career.

That is great, but I’d like you to picture him as this younger man on fire with a passion for roach, rivers and frost-rimmed dawns. There is talk of a memorial to John, and rightly so. I truly believe the only one he would really appreciate is a movement to bring roach back to our rivers through action rather than endless words. If we could ever see our river two-pounders back again, I know John would be looking on with that beaming smile on his face.

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