Fly fishing rod

John Bailey: Taking the Slow, Slow Approach

Yesterday, I put my first barbel in a long time. Hooray!

It was small, I accept, but perfectly formed and size isn’t all we’re always told. It was quite a magnificent fish, a miracle of nature, but it was the manner of its capture that particularly pampered me. I’m not bragging, honestly, but I went back to how I used to barbel fishing and it worked for me again and maybe highlighted a few good lessons along the way.

I baited very carefully after giving it a lot of thought. Thinking that there weren’t many fish in the swim, I took it easy, introducing 20 10ml lozenges mid-morning. An hour later another 20 and an hour later the last 20 being 60 inches, all over three hours or more before I started fishing. I wanted any fish present to accept the pellets with abandon, without suspecting a thing.

Then there’s always the splash factor to consider. I know there are times when the big sinkers and feeders don’t make a difference and the fish feed anyway, but not in shallow rivers I would say. Splash a manger in that knee-deep swim and I knew my chances would be dead in the water. So four SSG shots spaced six inches apart between each one, I knew, would hold bottom, but come in with minimal impact and disruption. Plus, these SSGs may just look like free lozenges falling from the sky – but that might be too thoughtful, I’m aware of.

The penultimate piece of the puzzle was the final rig I needed to be successful. I KNOW that bolt-on platforms work and in some circumstances fish will hang on themselves, but very often scary fish do not fall that way. My barbel would not tolerate splashing from a heavy pellet, so I had to present a pellet that it would take with confidence. Any resistance when the fish picked up the bait would result in instant refusal and that was my challenge. A light hook. A retro glass quivertip stem, soft as a stick of rhubarb. A three-foot tail between the bait and the groundstroke. It was my plan.

And finally, I had to make that first casting count. Believe me, in lean water situations, the more you throw, the more your chances decrease. Barbel, any fish, just feels that everything is not as it should be. Mistrust becomes mistrust becomes fear becomes panic. My lozenge came in with a whisper and I waited, my thigh sunk into the water, the rod held as still as possible. Ten minutes into the casting start and the tip has pushed and circled around, confident as you please. Accomplished job. A baby girdles a barbel in the net.

I took the time to recount this capture not to prove how good I am (because I’m not) but to make a point. I believe we are on the cusp of a lot of things in this country. Maybe Covid has changed our mindset and maybe we want more out of our life than 18 months ago. Interestingly, the surge in fishing license sales is partly attributable to women, and younger women, entering the sport and wanting to learn the art. Do they want to sit on a box for 10 hours, hang a maggot feeder, and watch the sky and a static spike? Do they want to spend three nights in a bivouac while waiting for an alarm to wake them from their sleep? I suspect not. Newcomers, women or not, want action, interest and participation. They want to be physically and mentally engaged. They want excitement and new skills. In fact, they want to fish like it was before bolt rigs and buzzers destroyed our fishing to pieces.

Paul and Bob … at work
– Credit: John Bailey

I am extremely proud to play a small part of the Mortimer and Whitehouse series, Gone Fishing on BBC2 because I think the programs have been, to some extent, responsible for this increase in the popularity of angling. Those who have not angled now see some interest in it. Those who thought it was a bit of a dirty waste of time might have rethought. That’s obviously partly because Paul and Bob are adorable, funny, and genuine, but I also believe they fish the good old-fashioned way that viewers can relate to. We just finished the fourth round and the boys fished with floa, fly and lure. I had them feeder fish once for a short time, but they didn’t participate much and we came back to visual and tactile stuff that makes fishermen hunters and not dodgers.

There are dozens of angling skills that make fishing a great sport. Let us mention a few. Dry fly fishing. The buzzers and the nymph work with a three-weight wand. Learn to cast Spey or use the French leader. How about fishing for poppers, working on jigs and bringing rubber lures to life? Then there is the trotting with a stick or freeline or touch ledgering float. How about casting on the beach, fly fishing for bass, mullet and mackerel or even take to the sea in a canoe to hunt a tope? (Not for common sense, I hasten to add). Sight fishing for bony fish if we want to get exotic or just trick a carp into taking a slice of crust of bread in the reeds. I’ve loved football my whole life, but it’s just about controlling the ball, playing a game, passing, tackling, shooting and directing – there are 40 ways to catch the chub on your own!

Here is what I would say to these new people who are entering the sport. Buy good equipment to get started. A few good rods and reels and essential bits and bobs, but then focus on what you want to catch and how you want to fish. Don’t dwell on the endless complexities of knots, rigs, and bait, because it’s personal watercraft and understanding the fish themselves that make fishing what it is and it’s an endlessly compelling way to spend your best days by the water. Join the sister and fraternity of thoughtful anglers and you will never look back!

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