My Greatest Angler

John Bailey

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So here we are again in the midst of Covid Crisis and all we can do here at Fish and Fly is hopefully provide a bit of entertainment to help you through yet another lockdown. My part? Well, I really do feel it is a privilege to think there are folks out there willing to read my ramblings, and what I have done is to trawl through endless conversations to come up with topics that might entertain, amuse or instruct. In my guiding life, I do get endless questions thrown at me, not all to do with why we are not catching fish! One of the big ones that reoccurs repeatedly is all about the great anglers I have fished with. I guess I am well placed to answer this one, or at least come up with suggestions: I have built my life around fishing and that means inevitably I have fished alongside thousands of anglers, one way or another. I also travelled intensively between 1989 and 2014, and that introduced me to a whole raft of new ideas and new approaches practised by remarkable anglers I would never have heard of otherwise. I even wrote a book entitled The Great Anglers back in the Nineties and that alone led me to meet scores of “names” from the last century. So where does all that get us?

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A young John Bailey with Broadland pike heroes Reg Sandys,
top left, and Bill Giles, next to him

I’m going to be completely honest in all these Covid Crisis pieces and tell you exactly what I think, not always what you might expect to hear. First, I can only talk about potential great anglers I have seen in action. That’s because I don’t have the least idea how “great” past heroes actually were. Were the Trent Otter, Halford or Skues really any good or did they write a good game? I ask this because I have fished with several “names” who really were rubbish, in my eyes at least. A good example would be when I joined the Norfolk Flyfishers forty years ago and pike fished in the winter with some of the older members who had been true Broadland Heroes to me in my childhood. They were nearly all of them lovely men and I remember them dearly, but as anglers, predator anglers anyway, they were desperately limited in their abilities. They caught huge fish in numbers post-war but that had to be because the Broads then were thick with twenties, thirties, and even forties. It made me realise that many a great angler’s reputation has been built on nothing more than being in the right place at the right time, nothing more, nothing less. If an angler locates monsters, fishes for them endlessly with stereotyped methods and baits until success comes along, does that make the angler “great” or simply dogged? When we see reports of monsters, we should always bear that important distinction in mind perhaps?

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Fred J. Taylor and Dick Walker

Second, I make no distinction between “great” game anglers and “great” coarse anglers. In my eyes, a great angler is just that, whatever the discipline. I don’t know a whole lot about match or sea angling but I include them as well. “Greatness” is something that stands out, if and when you are lucky enough to witness it. I have seen carp, trout, tench, bass and salmon anglers who have taken my breath away equally.

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Fred J. Taylor

Thirdly, there is a tendency in angling to dismiss or at least question greatness. Much of angling is done individually, without the spotlight of publicity or attention… though this is less so in social media days. It can be easy to underestimate any angler’s abilities by saying his or her successes are built solely on the time they can devote, on the waters they can fish, or the money they can throw at their fishing. True. I have already said as much. But from what I have seen over sixty years there are great anglers in the same way there are great soccer players, cricketers or tennis stars. Fishing is a sport and as such, there are those bad at it, average at it and brilliant at it.

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The great pike man Fred Buller

Fourthly, I’m not wholly convinced that “greatness” should purely be about skill with the rod. Perhaps an angler’s overall impact should play a role? For example, I have seen the late great Fred Buller fish. He was a solid angler I’d say rather than being outrageously gifted, yet he changed the landscape of angling hugely. He did this in part because he was a lovely, captivating man, but also because he had great intelligence and an insatiable appetite for angling knowledge. His books changed the face of pike and salmon fishing and that surely qualifies his position in any hall of fame?

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Pete Thomas with Clarissa!

Fifthly, “greatness” is subjective and very much in the eye of the beholder. For example, I have been fortunate to watch both Chris Yates and Rod Hutchinson fish for carp. Both are considered “great” of course but their deserved “greatness” rests on very different foundations. Chris was casual about tackle and bait but electrifying when it came to watercraft. Rod was no slouch in that department either, but put far more of his energy into the gear, approaches and baits used. If I had to vote for one, I’d go for Yates but many more would plump for Hutchy with equal validity. “Greatness” in angling will always have to be measured by varying and personal yardsticks.

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Fred J. Taylor

So, at last you say, what are my personal yardsticks? I love anglers who show fluidity in their movements, who fish intuitively, who tear up rule books, who read the water, who put watercraft and fish behaviour first, and tackle and bait second. For me, “great” anglers have a confidence born of knowledge, skill, experience, practise and assurance. They fish in a tight, untroubled, unhurried way. They catch fish mere mortals like me either consider uncatchable or did not know were there in the first place. Having said all that, I guess I have to name names?

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Bob Church

I’d nominate Bob James or John Wilson to fish for my life. Both have shown me their extraordinary genius to catch fish any which way, whatever the conditions, whatever the impossibilities of the situation. Equally, I’d vote Howard Croston, Paul Procter and Bob Church as master fly anglers with an unequalled greatness at putting trout on the bank. Mind you, I’d personally rather watch Stuart Crofts or Jeremy Lucas at work, because they show me that sublime ability to meld with the river and read what all the signs are telling them. They are elegance in motion, much like my vision of Hugh Falkus when I fished with him for sea trout in the later years of his life. Hugh’s relationship with a sea trout river at night I would describe more as poetry in motion than simple elegance. It was like being with an owl, or a heron, or some supernatural being. Yes, he was that, blindingly good.

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Jim Gibbinson

I once made a film in the Himalayas with Paul Boote, co-author with Jeremy Wade of the classic, Down The Crazy River. Paul showed another aspect of greatness to me… ruthlessness, an unstoppable desire to get things done, to get fish caught, to dictate the way any session would go. Today, I see the same relentlessness in Alan Blair. Alan is a joy to have as a companion for the day, but what makes him great is that, like Paul, he does not take no for an answer from any fish that swims. He would probably disagree with me, but I’d put Mark Everard, Professor Roach, in something like the same category of greatness. Mark displays some of the same oozing confidence, that assurance that fish will succumb. Again, you’d never fish with a more lovely man, which is a good job considering he will out-fish you nine times out of ten.

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Robbie Northman

Today, I’d rate Josh Fisher and Robbie Northman as “great” as any anglers I have witnessed in action. They are both thirty or thereabouts, and have the experience and the drive to put them at the top of their game. They both live for the sport but vitally, like Wilson or James, they are true all-rounders and attack any situation on its merits. If catching a devilish hard chub depends on a lure, fly or bait approach, it doesn’t matter to them, they are equally adept. Interestingly, neither would dream of fishing without Polaroids but more vitally, both love to wade, to get in there with the fish they are pursuing. There’s something in this, the melting of the divide between land and water that great anglers can accomplish in my experience.

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Dick Walker

I could go on forever but you’ll be pleased that I won’t. I would love to comment on Walker and Jeremy Wade but I have seen neither fish, so I cannot. It’s the same with match anglers. I would rate both Ron Lees and Ivan Marks as great because I did watch them in action, often, but I have not been fortunate to be around Bob Nudd or Kevin Ashurst on the bank.

All I’m hoping is that you’ll agree with some of this but perhaps not everything. Any and all of your observations are just as valid as mine so share them please, and let’s make Covid more bearable together.
 

Mrtrout

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Some legends and household names there John, very interesting.
The finest angler I ever met was engaged to my elder sister.
He could fish an upstream worm like no other and his effect on me at ten years old was amazing I looked at him as a God.
He winkled trout out on the smallest streams you could imagine, and some pretty big ones too.
I tried to emulate him but never really did, but he was a massive impression. he’s one fella I’ll never forget.
Steven.
 

Mr Notherone

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I don't know what defines greatness and frankly I'm not that concerned, but one name I would add to your illustrious list is Peter Stone. I never met him, but he influenced my early fishing more than anyone.

As a boy I was obsessed with course fishing and his illustrated teach yourself book of the same name was a bible to me. Peter wrote prolifically for various magazines and at least a dozen books. His 'Old Father Thames' is now one of my favourites.

He was great friends with Walker and I think as a specimen hunter he should at least get a mention alongside the likes of Walker and Taylor. By all accounts, he was also a true gentleman.

I'm now exclusively a fly angler, but if it hadn't been for Peter, I might not be fishing at all.
Jon.
 

ohanzee

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Brace yourselves, mine are from a Scotland long before catch and release, and the acceptance of law regarding trout.

Two contenders, one a whole family with 11 children that lived in a 3 bed cottage, they survived almost entirely on poaching, at any given time of year the kitchen was filled with a seasonal bounty, a random selection of rusty chest freezers in the garden were run from extension cables.

A couple of the younger brothers taught me to guddle trout in the burn that ran past our primary school, they made it look as easy and natural as reaching under a bank.
When a night mission was planned the whole family went, not uncommon to see a cars full of salmon, not quite the skill appropriate here but they could fish too, just giving a bit of context.

I only ever saw two of the brothers fishing properly on one occasion, it wasn't for fun in the way we all do it, it was to settle a bet, someone claimed there were trout in an old quarry, I fished it dozen times and swore blind it was devoid of anything but pike and minnows, two of the brothers set out to prove the existence of a mystical huge trout, they cast a lead weight into the depths and felt the bottom to establish where trout would be, then settled down for the night, they caught one trout of 7lb and lost another apparently bigger(the one you lose is always the biggest) and won the bet, trout were seen but it was the only one ever caught there to this day.

The father of this family did a bit of fly fishing and tied his own flies by hand without a vice on the bank when he arrived.

The other contender was called 'McPhearson', a friend of my fathers, he had grown up on an estate with a game keeper father, his approach to fishing was a lesson to modern fly fishers, I went with him twice with my father, he didn't appear to have gear, just an old rod and some hooks and junk that lived its entire life in the boot of his car, and tackling up was more of a rummage and make do affair, he didn't distinguish between bait and fly fishing and fished a fly with the same rod he bait fished with, once cobbled together he went looking for the bait under stones, anything seemed to be bait, a gadger was gold, that was a guarantee of a trout but if nothing was found he would just stick a fly on, it didn't seem to matter much which one either.
My father by comparison was a 'proper' fly fisher, on the first trip he fished up the river first while we watched, he got a tug but no hook up, when he reached to top of the run he came back and McPhearson took a turn, he took a fish pretty much straight away, then half a dozen more through the run, he didn't cast in the normal sense, more of a delicate flick, I learned the difference watching him, my father covered every inch searching, McPearson wasn't as random, he flicked very specifically and would keep flicking his bait into particular bits, he had never fished this bit of river before but knew exactly where the fish were.

Both were an influence on me in starting fishing, local rascals rather than real anglers but I'd argue that a need to supply food makes the more skilled hunter.
 

doobrysnatcher

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my inspiration is peter o reilly i never met him/ but through his books fly fishing in ireland and flies of ireland my whole world changed i set out to become a fly fisher man,because of him ,i learned the basic skills of how to fish a fly and later i was inspired to tie a fly ,i do wish to have met him if only to thank him ,
in reality though it was a guy called johnnie flash who took me under his wings and thought me how to fish a fly
 

arkle

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Having met most, though not fished with any of the above Dick Walker was the equiv. of Eric Clapton at least in my eyes during my teens in the 70's. Another name that John will know very well is Paul Boote.
 

scobo

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My dad and his mate taught me pretty much everything I know about wild trout fishing and without them I might not have started fishing at all but Paul Young's tv programs during the 80/90's also kept my interest up.
 
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BobP

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Of them all I consider Richard Walker to be a true all round great angler. His first book influenced my carp fishing enormously in the early '60's. He taught us that big fish can be caught by design, something that modern specimen anglers do today. They stand on the shoulders of a giant. He also taught that "observation plus thought equals fish" and that constantly influences everything I do in fishing.
 

PaulD

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The man who fuelled my interest in reservoir fishing was Tom Ivens, I discovered his book in the mobile library van when I was about 14 years old. Like Dick Walker, he was one of the great popularists of our sport but there were others who did so much to develop what we now take for granted - Cyril Inwood, Arthur Cove and Dick Shrive.
 

Hardrar

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One of my oldest friends, that I rarely see now, as he’s retired to the North West of Scotland, was the greatest Angler I have known- mainly because he could catch copious volumes of big fish on any day, any method, any branch. He was a prolific match angler both Beach, Boat and Coarse as well as an avid Game Angler.
He used the most rudimentary of gear, certainly no tackle tart, but he had this magic touch. He used to almost go into a trance and seemed to know to strike without any obvious indication. He never had the best of health and suffered badly with diebetes related issues, including eyesight.
We were once trotting for Roach and Rudd in Summer on a local beck- he reeled in to recast and a huge Pike shot out of a Reed bed and grabbed his Porcupine quill float. It’s teeth got caught in the quill and he landed it without much drama on 3 pound Nylon and a fine trotting rod. He lifted the fish up and just said to me where’s the camera when you need one! I weighed it at over 13 pounds on my Salter scale. He just grinned and returned it. He was always calm and cool about everything.
 

JohnH

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A couple of true innovators from the world of fly fishing who should be added to the list are Dr Bell of Blagdon, who pioneered imitative fishing on stillwaters, and Frank Sawyer who did the same for deep nymph fishing on chalkstreams (it's likely Skues' nymphs were more what we would now call emergers).

I go along with Bob's assessment of Dick Walker. A catcher of fish, innovator and communicator supreme for over 30 years. I met him a couple of times at Damerham in the 1970s. He must have had the patience of a saint with herberts like me who used to interrupt his fishing. On one occasion he kindly offered me some valuable advice I still use to this day.
 

BobP

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There are, without doubt, many very good and knowledgeable anglers. I took as my benchmark those who have influenced others beyond their immediate circle - those in the wider public domain. Walker did that, as JohnH observes, over a 30+ year career in angling.
 

suzuki15hp

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Although my late father was an angler, he didn't teach me. He was an angler by default, through marrying my mother, who had angling brothers. One of the brothers, my late uncle Davie, was the one who influenced me.

At the age of 6, my father, uncle Davie and me visited friends, who used to have a holiday hut next to the river Devon, in a field just below the Frandy Reservoir in Fife. My uncle Davie had his fly rod with him and he had the patience to show me how to cast and we caught a few small trout in the river. The vivid memory of that day has stayed with me, and I was soon to have my own fly rod and continuously pestered my father to take me fishing.

I fished with Davie many times throughout his life, and on reflection, he was one of the most gentle and patient anglers I have ever seen. He showed me that having a great and relaxed day out was the essence of angling, and I was always amazed that catching fish seemed to come easy to him.

My dream boat partners for a day out on Corrib, would be my late father and uncle Davie, both of whom would have been awestruck with the sheer beauty of the place and I'm pretty sure my uncle Davie would have out fished me with ease.
 

Overmiwadrers

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My angling mentor for many years was dear departed Dad he always encouraged me ( not that i needed encouragement ) . Looking back many years I had the pleasure to meet the Carp Angler Jack Hilton on a number of occasions he was always very helpful and would always spare time to help. In the early 70s at boarding school I tried fly fishing and a chance encounter with the local undertaker ended up with a season long one day a week instruction course. Without his instruction I might have never stuck with it.
Reading wise Dick Walkers books always inspired me . These days I am lucky that i fish some nice waters and I enjoy the company of others on the bank. These days I fish a few times a season with a Friend who is streets ahead of the crowd in terms of innovation and thinking a little differently . As well as good company I always come away from the day learning something . I always learn something as he is very free with sharing knowledge.
 
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Scotty Mitchell

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Every angler I have fished with, has given me something to take away whether it’s do’s or dont’s but easily the biggest single influence is the Old Man. Unfortunately he can’t now bank fish, nor can I boat fish, so we don’t fish together any more, but he still has the knowledge.
I’m lucky to fish with anglers I respect hugely, Sam Davies, Pete Moir and Martin Smith. I’m always learning from them.
From written word, Bob Wyatt is the Daddy for me.
 

JohnH

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Bugger Off! ? 😂
Very droll ! No, it was some practical advice. At the time I used to carry 2 rods when fishing small stillwaters - one now does me, as long as I have 2 or 3 varied fly lines on spare spools. On this particular day the rod not in use was on the ground next to me. Walking by, Dick stopped and said "...ah, this chap's what I call the tackle dealer's friend". He then pointed out that sooner or later someone was likely to tread on the spare and break it, and advised that when carrying 2 rods it would be better to prop the spare up on a bankside bush, my fishing bag or even a large tussock of grass so it was clearly visible .
 

Paul_B

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Very droll ! No, it was some practical advice. At the time I used to carry 2 rods when fishing small stillwaters - one now does me, as long as I have 2 or 3 varied fly lines on spare spools. On this particular day the rod not in use was on the ground next to me. Walking by, Dick stopped and said "...ah, this chap's what I call the tackle dealer's friend". He then pointed out that sooner or later someone was likely to tread on the spare and break it, and advised that when carrying 2 rods it would be better to prop the spare up on a bankside bush, my fishing bag or even a large tussock of grass so it was clearly visible .
I had a plastic stand for my spare rod, a small one like the ones used in beach casting, I'll have to knock another up as I left it for someone.

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