Fly fishing rod

John Bailey: The secret to being a good fisherman

Published:
06:00 26 January 2022



It’s been almost exactly 30 years since I started my guiding career, if you can call it that!

I started out as a complete amateur and while some would say I haven’t progressed much, there are lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Firstly, as a guide, you don’t fish unless you are asked to do so for some reason, like teaching a particular technique or demonstrating a casting maybe.

The simple fact is that you get paid to see others catch rather than the other way around. This grew to be no difficulty whatsoever and a huge bonus. The complete sublimation of your own selfish desires is not a bad thing as you get older and many have honestly said that it really is better to give than to receive. And, when a guide succeeds, he gives a lot.

Non-fishermen cannot begin to understand the euphoria that catching a much-desired fish can bring. I’ve learned that no matter who you are, no matter how powerful your life is, the adrenaline rush a monster generates is unlike any other “high”. Forget scoring a hat trick at Wembley, scoff at a lottery win, that moment when your fish of a lifetime stares back at you from the net is the height of emotion.

The second lesson is that observation presents you with a multi-dimensional picture of water and what is happening in and around it. Your focus is not just on your float or your fly or whatever, but on whatever nature tells you.

You notice that the gulls repeatedly dive over part of the lake and deduce that this is where the prey fish are concentrated. You see a patch of “flat” water in the middle of the ripples and you know that a large fish has just disturbed the bottom silt as it searches for food.

If you have the good sense to have binoculars with you, you will see a patch of bubbles or a plume of brown-stained water screaming as you feed the fish. You notice the slightest change in wind direction or speed. You will notice the thickening or thinning of cloud cover and even the slightest change in temperature and you will know that all of these subtleties have a huge potential impact.

Lesson number three is that as you watch yourself, you really realize how fatal obvious mistakes become. Hit a box. Hammering in a rod rest. Shouting. Stand tall and create a silhouette. Not noticing the position of the sun and casting a shadow. A heavy step. Even the slamming of a car door. Novice mistakes, all of them, but never eliminated by some mostly unsuccessful anglers.

Lesson number four is similar but something a bit more sophisticated. Let’s take what I think I know about pike.

Contrary to what many think, years of pike guide have made me realize that pike are as hard to fool and as easy to scare as any other species of fish.

I know trevallies can seem ridiculously stupid and there are times when even big fish throw caution to the winds, but my advice is that if you just wait for those times your rods will be idle.

Would you hunt a cunning chub with huge triples, a three ounce leash and a float the size of a small balloon? Why would you think a 20+ pound pike that has seen it all should be any different?


No matter who you are, the adrenaline generated by a big fish is unparalleled.
– Credit: John Bailey

Why do you think you are losing leads or retrieving bait that shows teeth marks but was never properly caught?

I always advise my anglers to treat big pike just like that cunning old chub.

Small sinkers, preferably a few SSGs if you are not fishing from a distance. One rod instead of two, so there are fewer lines in the water and so you can give that bait your full attention and strike at the slightest sign of a pick-up. Lightweight floats, even wagglers, rather than the traditional old Fishing Gazette plugs. Small but strong trebles and even better single hooks. Perfectly presented baits and as fresh as you can find them.

It’s just one species where my observation has revolutionized my approaches but I like to think I’ve changed the textbook on tench, barbel and roach for sure.

I really hope this doesn’t come across as bragging, partly because I’ve observed that most braggarts aren’t great anglers.

It’s more like I’m trying to say I’d be a bit of a fool if those 30 years of watching hadn’t taught me anything and that sometimes it’s good for any angler to step back, take some time and to try to figure it all out, fascinating fishing thing!