When we started NACA back in 1986 we had no intention to run any fisheries, but it quickly became apparent that if we were to experiment with any worthwhile habitat restoration work on the Wensum we would have to take on at least one stretch of the river to experiment with. Since the acquisition of that first fishery at Sayer’s Meadow, the portfolio of fisheries run by the Association has grown to include some fabulous waters, most of which I have been personally involved in the management and development of as fisheries. In turn this has offered me some priceless fishing opportunities over the years and provided me with some spectacular catches of specimen fish.
Looking back at the first introduction of baby barbel we made into Sayer’s Meadow back in the winter of 1990, who could have foreseen that they would eventually grow into the monster fish they are today? Unlike many who fish for Wensum barbel, I had served something of a barbel apprenticeship elsewhere on various southern rivers before casting for the monsters of the Wensum. My first ever barbel was a 1 1/2 lb tot from the Thames in 1975 before I went on to catch bigger barbel from the Dorset Stour, Hampshire Avon, Kennet and Lea prior to emigrating to Norfolk in 1980. Not surprisingly, much of my first summer in Norfolk was spent on the Wensum around the Costessey Point area, where I soon started getting to grips with the fishing, putting several fish on the bank before landing my first-ever double at a fraction over 10 lb. Only a few short years later, we would be battling for our lives against the old Water Authorities to protect the Wensum at Costessey from the ravages of water abstraction as threatened by the construction of the Costessey Pipeline, and subsequently forming NACA to ensure that from that day on there would be at least one organisation prepared to stand up and fight to protect Norfolk’s fabulous fishing.
My involvement with the Sayer’s fish goes right back to signing for NACA’s first introduction of 6-inch babies at Lyng, after which I was happy to walk the stretch a few times each spring trying to spot the odd fish and see how they were doing.After a few years, as they got steadily bigger, I’d also try to catch the odd fish or two to chart their growth, and from then on it seemed like no time at all before the odd 6 and 7- pound fish were gracing members’ nets, and then in August of 1999 I eventually netted my first Sayer’s double at 10 lbs 5 ozs. Inevitably as it got bigger that fish was dubbed ‘The Beast’ a name which reflects its immense length and awesome body proportions.This summer that same fish was caught in July by Mark Rylands at 17.14 and a few weeks later by Bernie Neave at exactly 18 lb. Being well up in weight for the time of year, it now highly likely that this fish it will go over 20 lbs this winter, and what a milestone that will be!
I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually go on to catch most of the big barbel at Sayer’s at least once; in fact today my tally of Wensum monsters includes seventeen over 14 lbs with all but one of them being from Sayer’s. In the early years, most of these barbel tended to stay put in the two millpools, but as they grew bigger they increasingly frequented a number of swims down river which had benefited from the habitat improvements undertaken by the members.These now included a number of textbook barbel swims in areas which had previously been third-rate stretches of water that barely warranted a second glance. In fact, it wasn’t until the summer of 2000 that I started seriously focusing my efforts on fishing for the barbel downstream of the millpools, though I failed to catch anything but chub down there that year. Being spurred on by my early capture of a 12.10 the following year,however, I stepped up my efforts and was subsequently rewarded with another of 13.11. It wasn’t until the following summer, though, that we got a serious indication of just how big these fish were becoming when Chris Basford caught a massive 15.2 from a hitherto unfancied swim. I will freely admit that despite spending an increasing amount of time fishing for them, I was finding these fish incredibly difficult to catch, but gradually things started falling into place and my catch rate increased steadily, culminating in my banking a fabulous trio of fish that September which in order of capture weighed in at 13.1, 13.2 and 15.3, the biggest of which turned out to be ‘The Beast’ at its highest-ever weight at that time.
Over the following years, while I tried to restrain the intensity of my efforts, it would be true to say that, as soon as June was out, Sayer’s became my main summer venue and consequently my tally of big fish grew year on year with my PB. constantly increasing until in 2005 it stood at 17.7. Having by the end of this summer caught most of the biggest fish on a number of occasions, I was in something of a personal quandary regarding how much more time I wanted to spend after these fish. Don’t get me wrong I still loved every second of every minute spent in their pursuit, but it has always been a personal philosophy of mine to move on to pastures new every few years. When you have personally invested as much time and passion into nurturing a fishery as I have at Lyng, however, the perimeters of your involvement are very different to those of simply falling onto some good fishing then milking it for a season or two and moving on. Besides this, there were two ambitions I still held at the fishery: one was to catch a seldom-caught monster I’d never seen on the bank that I had dubbed ‘The Visitor’ due to the infrequency of its capture, the other was to lift my personal best to over 18 lbs. Little did I know what fate had in store for me when I set out on 6th September. One thing I did know was that The Beast had recently been out to my good friend Jim Bigden at a massive 18.14, and I knew exactly where she was residing, and another thing I knew was that I’d had a big fish feeding in an entirely different swim the day before which I was fairly certain was ‘The Visitor’.
I’d taken another big fish that day that weighed 14.8 so I was absolutely confident that I had my feeding strategies and bait presentation well worked out, and believe me catching any of these big fish was by this point in time far from the easy proposition it can be earlier in the season. Nevertheless, I was absolutely confident I’d have them both out sooner or later. One thing I was not prepared for, however,was the possibility that I might catch them both in the same afternoon; nevertheless that is exactly what happened. Despite every effort made by the chub to get hooked and ruin my swim, ‘The Visitor’ fell to my trap in the middle of that afternoon and weighed in at 16.14 then, after moving swims,‘The Beast’ followed suit a couple of hours later providing a new personal best of 18.6. At a combined weight of 35.4 they are now officially recognised as the second biggest UK barbel brace to date, though I personally know of one unpublicised Gt. Ouse brace that was bigger.
As I pen this offering in July 2007 I am not sure exactly where to pursue my barbel fishing in the future. I will carry on occasionally fishing the Trent, because of the mystery such a big river holds and because I have in no way mastered its demands, and I will carry on fishing the Wensum at Costessey and elsewhere when conditions are right because undoubtedly there are some big fish there that I have yet to catch.As for Sayer’s, while for the present time I’m intending to ease off my attention on these fish until there are some new big fish for me to target; already there has been one other winter 17 out that I have not caught before and there are others quickly coming up behind it, so I’ll be surprised if I can restrain myself from a making a least a few visits this year. Of more personal importance to me right now is our urgent need to find a way of bolstering the recruitment levels of barbel throughout the Wensum to ensure that this fantastic species doesn’t end up recorded in history as something that disappeared in the same way as the big Wensum roach boom went in the 1970s.
While undoubtedly NACA can take most of the credit for the success of the Wensum as the barbel fishery it is today following the downstream migration of barbel that has occurred after our introductions of fish at Lyng, barbel are by no means the only success story of our fisheries.With pike, it has always been a mystery to me why so few fishing clubs actively promote pike-fishing codes of practice and enforce rules that positively protect their pike stocks.While ‘old school’ club committees undoubtedly see pike as unwelcome predators, the winter income generated by good pike fishing is something most fisheries should welcome. NACA has always understood this and tried to set a good example of positive pike fishery practice. That we have run some first-class pike fisheries over the years is self-evident with at least six of our waters producing pike over 30 lbs at one time or another. Now despite pike fishing being at the top of my fishing priorities through the 1980s and ‘90s, and despite catching 65 pike over 20 lb over the years, I have never been lucky enough to catch a thirty-pounder. I say ‘lucky’ because I have netted three different 30s while sharing a boat or bank space with various friends when they made their lucky acquaintance with such fish, leaving me to play the bridesmaid’s role with the camera. In fact, an unusually high percentage of my ‘20s’ were over 25 lbs, with seven over 28 lbs; nevertheless still that ‘30’ managed to elude me. While I may not have been as lucky as I’d like to have been in that hunt for a ‘30’ I can hardly claim to have be unlucky as a pike angler, particularly in light of the catches I’ve enjoyed from a variety of NACA’s waters, particularly in the early years.The success I enjoyed on the stretch of the Upper Bure we once ran at Lamas Reach is a good example of this. I don’t recall fishing there more than 4 or possibly 5 times in all, yet on three subsequent seasons I took the fishery’s biggest known fish from the same swim on the first cast.Weighing in at 25.4 in 1996, 26.8 in 1997 and 29.10 in 1998, this was one fish I was more than pleased to be aquainted with. Falling onto the big pike that inhabited Sparham Pools in February 1998 before the news got out on the grapevine was another highlight in my pike-fishing career. Before that particular bubble burst I was fortunate to take some fantastic catches from this incredibly pretty water, with six fish weighing over 26.15, including my personal best of 29.12. It was, of course, predictable that the same fish would be caught at over 30 lb by another angler only a week later, but that, as they say, is how the cookie crumbles. In fact, during February 2000,Tony Bidwell, Simon Johnson and myself took three different fish weighing over 25 lb from Sparham Pools and it is a total mystery that none of those fish ever turned up again the following season. It is also a mystery that this fishery never again managed to find similar form as a specimen pike fishery, despite being stuffed full of prey fish of all sizes.
No mention of specimen fish from NACA waters can ever be made without mentioning the massive bream that have been caught in Bawburgh Lakes, particularly the two different fish from Lodge Farm and Coney One Lakes that both broke the national record. I was personally privileged to be present to witness two of these fish at their recordbreaking weights, including the Lodge Farm monster to Kerry Walker at 18.9 in May 2001 and the 18.15 Colney Lake monster to Mark Neal in May 2004, a fish that was caught shortly after at an identical weight by Vynce Mann.
My own involvement in fishing for the Colney One bream in fact started in April 2002 following the capture of two fish by carp anglers on opening day of the previous season, these being a 16.4 to Lee Cooper and a 15.11 to Mark Stewart. The few sightings I’d had of bream rolling on the surface of the lake at the time suggested that the shoal was large enough to present a serious fishing opportunity. It also suggested the most likely area to locate them in. Despite this, it wasn’t until my second visit that I located the huge plateau they had been rolling over. After spodding the area with a large amount of mixed particles,Tony Bidwell and I sat in the adjacent swims on Reedy Point with bream rolling over the baited area and the bobbins jumping up and down in response to line bites. It wasn’t until dawn, however, that one of the bobbins finally stayed up and Tony reeled in our first bream from the pit. Weighing in at 17.8 it would be an understatement to say that its size surpassed all our expectations. As for myself, it took me another month of fishing three nights a week before I hooked my first Colney bream, but at 17.1 I wasn’t complaining.
Today there can be no doubt that bream are few and far between in both Colney and Lodge Farm Lake.A few massive fish are still present in both waters, however, as was proved by Jim Bigden when he landed a 17.5 from Colney this May and a carp angler who earlier this season returned what was described as a massive bream to Lodge Farm without weighing it. words fail me!
Having written two well-received books on specimen tench fishing, I suppose it is inevitable that most people see me as being predominantly a tench specialist. In fact, while I’d travelled far and wide in search of big tench in the 1980s, throughout most of the ’90s my tench fishing stayed in the doldrums due to my being in the position of being a single parent.Through this period I managed to catch the occasional 7 lbs tench from Ringland and Earsham Lakes, along with a couple of bigger fish from a visit to Sywell, but by and large my long-term quest for a double-figure specimen was on ice.
In fact, I’d reached the point where I thought I’d never catch one; however, one lake in Norfolk took my fancy as having the capacity to produce tench approaching double figures, that being Bawburgh Lake. At the time, no fishing was allowed at the lake, and everyone I spoke to who had fished it told me that such fish were a pipe-dream. When NACA opened the lakes in 1998, however, and I landed a brace of tench weighing 11.2 and 9.6 from its weedy depths, no-one was more surprised than me.That my first double should be the first ever double from a local water with no recognised form for big tench more than made up for my years in exile from the big tench scene.
Since my capture of that fish I have put a fair bit of time into pioneering the tench fishing on each of the three large lakes at Bawburgh.This season I landed my 10th double figure tench, nine of which have come from these fantastic lakes. This season my best day’s fishing included a brace of doubles weighing 10.12 and 10.9 backed up with others of 9.11, 9.11, 9.2 and 8.15. Catches like this are spectacular by any standards, but I have no doubt that there will be many more and far bigger specimen tench to be caught over the next few seasons; I just hope that I remain fit enough and keen enough to make the most of it. ?