John Bailey: Mortimer, Whitehouse and me on the Norfolk Broads

Robbie Northman, Bob and Paul.

Robbie Northman, centre, with Bob and Paul - Credit: John Bailey

Some of you might have watched Mortimer and Whitehouse on BBC2 a few days back when Gone Fishing came to the Broads.

An interesting one this for me as the grandiosely-titled Fishing Consultant for the series. Was I too close to the area to see its charms? How could I possibly draw any lessons from it after my lifetime in the area?

In the event, I enjoyed the filming and ruminated long over the edited product, the episode that finally made our screens. My eyebrows raised even before the cameras rolled during the pre-shoot meeting on June 15 when the director explained he wanted a wistful Arthur Ransome feel to the program: not a member of the actual crew had even heard of Swallows and Amazons, never mind had read one of the books. What do the under-30s actually know these days apart from what is on their phones, Whitehouse wondered?

Whatever, June 16 and I spent my first opening dawn of the new season on Broadland for many a long year, probably since the days of breaming on Upton Broad with John Wilson in the crazy little boat there called Umma Gumma, if my memory serves me right.

This year and I was on the tidal Bure at Woodbastwick, well before the light really began to glow in the east. Little by little, the rosy-fingered morning crept my way as the sleepy river began to smoke and its quiet surface turned pearlescent. How very, very beautiful it would have been, but for the thunderous approach of a biblical plague of midges and mosquitoes which made me remember why it had been 40 years since I had 'enjoyed' first light in deep Broadland. But there were perch about, hunting hungrily in the margins, and we all know what striped monsters the Bure can produce. The show might be saved by one of those, I thought, especially in the very evident absence of any rolling bronze bream that I had pre-baited for the previous evening.

Yes!! Whitehouse nabbed one of those soon after the crew arrived, after a hearty breakfast, and well after the sun had driven the last midge to hide out the day. It was a belter, perhaps 2lb, but it never made the cut and you just never know what is going to survive the edit. Mortimer’s ruffe stayed in though and perhaps rightly so. How many anglers have a seen a ruffe and even know what one is I wonder? Perhaps if anyone under 30 should be reading this the answer will be 'no', much like Arthur Ransome Who perhaps? Minnows, sticklebacks, bullheads, loach, ruffe and gudgeon, there’s a glory in jam-jar fish that is well worth celebrating.

The Bure was well and truly humming at 9am, with cavalcades of cruisers that did indeed make it look like the river rush hour as Bob himself commented. Big boats and small boats, music and shouting, an Armada of chaos that slowed down the legions of skimmer bream we had been catching with a slimy regularity. What a staycation summer it has been and perhaps, as we face fuel shortages and all manner of insecurities, there are many more to come.

Gone Fishing on the Norfolk Broads

Paul and Bob fishing the Bure and landing a decent pike that again did not make the edit! - Credit: John Bailey

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A while back when the river closed season was debated, it was suggested that the tidal rivers, with some restrictions, might remain open year round. In truth, given the mayhem of this tourist playground,  even an old fuddy-duddy traditionalist like me can’t see much would be lost environmentally by letting this happen, though of course who knows what it takes to change the bye laws these days?  And lest anyone accuses me of being on the Environment Agency’s case yet again, let me say some of the Fishery boys came to meet Bob and Paul and what a cracking lot they are. I think if they were given their head, we’d see a more sensible Agency all round).

From madness, the episode moved on to mystery and the glory that is the upper Thurne. Now, I’d die to defend the river closed season up there and a real bonus was meeting up again with the warden of the area, the excellent Richard Starling. Did the episode encapsulate the true magic of the place? I don’t know for sure, although the drone work gave us all an eagle eye view of the marsh wilderness that was at times stunning. How drones have changed the landscape for programs like this when, previously, the budgets would never have stretched to helicopter filming.

What also staggered me was just how many fish there were up there and how stocks are so recovered in even the most volatile of environments. Give nature half a chance and she bounces back with an energy to amaze us all. Blimey, when the Boys caught a 3lb bream up there it fought like a good ‘un , way above expectations. Then, of course, it sank exhausted into the net displaying all the qualities of what Bob (who is NOT a fan of the species) called the “obliging manner of the bream”.  

I guess there were more dramatic things I could have tried to set up in the county. I could have suggested bass off the coast and even a hunt for a tope. Or a trout from a restored chalk stream in the west, but Broadland in many ways is our jewel, especially to the wider world beyond King's Lynn or Newmarket. So it was right to showcase it and I hope some viewers will be tempted to travel east soon as a result and bring their money to the area. (However little local residents might applaud that sentiment).

It was also right that Norfolk’s young angling hero Robbie Northman got his place in the sun driving Bob and Paul up the Thurne in that boat that nearly broke down. Boats, eh? Like children and animals, never work with them.

The start of the episode showed the boat carrying Paul and Bob into view beginning to belch smoke, but what was not filmed was Robbie’s heroism. In real life, with a death defying leap, as the flaming boat grew close to shore, Robbie hurled himself on board and doused down the danger. The under 30s might not know their Swallows from their Amazons but some of them show quick thinking and bravery way beyond that of their erudite seniors it seems!

 Paul and Bob fishing the Bure and landing a decent pike that again did not make the edit!