My Greatest Angler

J

John Bailey

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So here we are again in the midst of Covid Crisis and all we can do here at Fishing Magic 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?


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?


Fred J. Taylor and **** 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.


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


**** 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.

The post My Greatest Angler first appeared on FishingMagic Magazine.

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grayson

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I enjoyed your book JB , and it is tempting to reflect again on what great means, and who deserves to be endowed with that status . And it can mean so many different things - is a successful track record in catching big fish in itself enough ? Of course not , as with the right technique , the right waters and with adequate time , any competent angler will create a tally of big fish which will impress the impressionable . There are those who measure another's qualities simply by a list of impressive weights , and that is enough for them . Not for me it isn't .

There's various categories of greatness -

Innovation - this is the easy one - and because I'm a baby boomer nobody comes even close to Richard Walker. I did try to use his abbreviated name but I just get **** instead . How very snowflakey ... (Incidentally , I was horrified to be told by a chum that the 8lb tench I had caught was 2 lbs bigger than Walker's best . A testament to climate change and better habitat - certainly not my abilities.)

Influence - the water gets muddied here because the impact of the influence is largely dependent on the scale , but not quality , of media output. I can think of several very well known anglers who have been spouting the same hackneyed old tut for years but who still seem to exert a powerful influence on their readers. In my fishing world , relatively unknown names like Hans van Klinken and Stuart Crofts have exerted a much greater influence than much more well known figures, as did that wonderful man BB .

Profile and Popularity - John Wilson would be on many lists , not for his writing (which was workmanlike at best) , his catches (which I m sure were impressive but not unique ) but simply because he was that bloke on the telly . Is that enough in itself to endow greatness? It's a moot point .

Writing - a great fishing book creates a permanent legacy . Books of instruction may help their readership , but date quickly and are often very , very dull to read. But the books of angling's great writers - Haig Brown , Fallodon, Plunket Green, Sheringham , Ransome, Odell Shepard and , more recently, Yates and Gierach - don't date . And you don't need to be an American fly fisherman to enjoy Gierach , nor a carp angler to enjoy Yates . Of modern writers , nobody comes even close to Gierach

Match guys - Marks was and Nudd is a genius at his craft . But - and you can call me Mr Purist - competition fishing is devalued by the fact that its essence is beating the other guy .

Ultimately , it's subjective . FWIW , the three anglers whom I have most admired , and who have influenced the most are unknown to anybody outside their circle . But they shared four things - unlimited enthusiasm, a determination constantly to improve, sublime watercraft and the confidence to trust their own judgment . And all had the power to inspire others -me included

PS - JB never fished with Skues so can't judge, he might even have been a bit rubbish ? Come off it - judge him by the quality of his writing - a lawyer's attention to detail but with a twinkle in his eye - and by his originality of thought , iconoclasm and lasting legacy . Sure , some brat probably can show off a longer cast on Tik Tok but ....
 
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john step

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I think the most gifted angler I personally knew and fished with was Charlie Landells. He only surfaced a few times into the public eye on the odd AT publication or TV slot in a rare angling programme.
He could catch chub out of a bucket of tap water.
He was one of the founders of the Chub Study Group.
He moved to be near the Hants Avon and was well known for his love of using slugs which he actually bred in quantity.
 

Keith M

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Two of the best anglers that I’ve fished alongside were Ivan Marks and the recently deceased Keith Spear who I’m sure could catch a double figure Barbel (or any other large fish) from a rain puddle he was so good. Both of these great anglers were very approachable and were willing to help anyone around them who asked.

Keith
 
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peterjg

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Keith Spear was undoubtedly an extremely good angler, he was very knowledgeable and would always help. I have known two carp anglers who were superb anglers, they consistently caught big carp instinctively from very difficult waters.

A good angler is someone who can catch their chosen target regularly on differing types of water - and enjoys it!
 

Peter Jacobs

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In the modern era then my vote would go to "the man in red" Jan Porter.

Jan successfully made the switch from highly respected match angler to a highly respected specimen fish angler.

I was fortunate enough to have fished with Jan many times in Norway, Sweden, France and the uk and he was one of the nicest people I know to fish with and socialise with.

Jan was taken from us far too soon . . . .
 

theartist

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Bit biased here but have fished with the greatest of the lot and it's a no brainer - My Dad

At times neither of us knew what were were doing but he taught me the basics and we learned together. What he did teach me was priceless -To look after what you caught and to leave the place looking just as good as when you left it.....and that's all I needed. Not once did he ever snap at me or raise his voice (despite countless nooby tangles) and never has his enthusiasm waned. Fishing was all about fun and will always be so for me as a result. I have been so so lucky to fish with that man and hope to do so again come summer. Legend.

Ps I wouldn't hear the last of it if he ever read this, but he knows ;)
 

whitty

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I chatted to Charlie Landells a few times when I was a member of Christchurch AC,how he could enjoy using such disgusting things I dont know....

I'm not positive but a roach angler whose name I think was Dave Howes,i've not many so knowledgable,his portfolio of roach snaps and information on roach was immense. Ken Giles,an artist on the float(nothing to do with his match fishing successes)and a true gent,Peter Stone,D ick Walker and Fred J Taylor,then later Chris Yates whose combined successes impressed us all so much back in the day.
 

John Bailey

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Bingo. Just as I hoped, My Greatest Angler has sparked not just discussion, but discussion that has made me rethink beliefs I have held for a long time. But before I get too deep, mention must be made of Clive Smith and Ken Giles, reminders made by rob48 and Whitty. I bet they will remember David Hall, who passed away a year or two back. David had a huge impact on me as publisher of Coarse Fisherman which became my spiritual home as younger writer. David was a stalwart in the match world and he always hailed these two as his stars back in a time when matchmen could really fish! That’s good enough for me.

But things get really interesting with Peter Jacob’s introduction of Jan Porter into the arena. As Peter so aptly says, Jan could beat almost anyone at any game and catch almost any fish anyhow but, best of all, he was a lovely human being to boot. I met him on numerous occasions and he was so nice and so unassuming he took your breath away. Peter, I have almost decided that is the key. No matter how good an angler is, if he or she is a complete arse then he or she just cannot be called great in the sphere of angling. Be brilliant but do not break the 'Brotherhood Of The Angle' is now my yardstick. So, who is/was nice AND stunningly great at fishing? I’m keeping this positive and only considering the heroes, of whom I now come up with Peter Stone, Archie Braddock, John Searle and Jeremy Wade in the “celeb” world. There are others, Fred Buller for one, and others will spring to mind but thank you Peter, I’m now looking at this question in a new, kinder light.

Which brings me to theartist whose homage to his father I found true and immensely moving. What makes angling so rich and three-dimensional is that there are millions of people loving it and practising it worldwide, and many are great in a myriad of ways, yet remain wholly under the gaze of scrutiny. Theartist’s Dad is an angler who remains anonymous and yet has done angling the greatest service by keeping it alive, generation to generation. There is nothing as great as that.
 

whitty

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John,I don't know if it is above your remit,but it would be brilliant if you could post on other threads that you feel you have input,someone with possibly a different thought process,or angle than most of us is always of interest...
 

grayson

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If complete arses are ruled out - as they certainly are in my very subjective list - then the sainted Hugh Falkus can be excluded . I was , if not an admirer, certainly a respecter of the man until the utterly charming local chair of STA recounted his experiences with HF .

But there's an old saying - judge the art and not the artist - and it is worth bearing in mind here.

I will mention one further angler whose writing had a great impact on me - John Darling. He just fizzed with enthusiasm , and IIRC he gave up a 'proper' career and worked as a security guard in London as it fitted in so well with his bass fishing on the South coast.

Another chap whose enthusiasm was infectious was the lovely Geoff Bucknall , who died last year . An iconoclast like Walker , he wasn't afraid to be the contrarian and , in print , held his corner against all comers . I met him at an angling show (NASG do , was it? ) in the Seventies and after two minutes' tuition from him I increased my PB fly cast to 42 yards. I doubt if I have come within 15 yards of it since ... I last saw Geoff at the wild and scary Cow Green reservoir , at the top of Teesdale, where he'd taken a party of shell shocked looking Kent anglers up there . He loved the North Pennines and , of course , he retired to live up there.

I will nominate one more ,for his relentless cheerfulness , undisguised delight in active forms of fishing and his success in lure fishing - Steve Collett. He wrote, at best , like a fourteen year old and had the sense of humour of a ten year old but I sensed a good man beneath the bluster and ...err bantz. He certainly fired my love of light lure fishing
 

Ray Roberts

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If complete arses are ruled out - as they certainly are in my very subjective list - then the sainted Hugh Falkus can be excluded . I was , if not an admirer, certainly a respecter of the man until the utterly charming local chair of STA recounted his experiences with HF .

But there's an old saying - judge the art and not the artist - and it is worth bearing in mind here.

I will mention one further angler whose writing had a great impact on me - John Darling. He just fizzed with enthusiasm , and IIRC he gave up a 'proper' career and worked as a security guard in London as it fitted in so well with his bass fishing on the South coast.

Another chap whose enthusiasm was infectious was the lovely Geoff Bucknall , who died last year . An iconoclast like Walker , he wasn't afraid to be the contrarian and , in print , held his corner against all comers . I met him at an angling show (NASG do , was it? ) in the Seventies and after two minutes' tuition from him I increased my PB fly cast to 42 yards. I doubt if I have come within 15 yards of it since ... I last saw Geoff at the wild and scary Cow Green reservoir , at the top of Teesdale, where he'd taken a party of shell shocked looking Kent anglers up there . He loved the North Pennines and , of course , he retired to live up there.

I will nominate one more ,for his relentless cheerfulness , undisguised delight in active forms of fishing and his success in lure fishing - Steve Collett. He wrote, at best , like a fourteen year old and had the sense of humour of a ten year old but I sensed a good man beneath the bluster and ...err bantz. He certainly fired my love of light lure fishing
I used to use Geoffrey Bucknell’s shop in Lewisham and had many chats with him. I also used to fish from his boat, which if I remember correctly was called Cygnus M.

He retained Bob Cox as a skipper and Bob took our fishing club out about once a month for years as did John Rawle.

Geoffrey Bucknell had an ambition to catch a blue fin tuna (tunny) from the North Sea. Many people at the time thought he was nuts. He wasn’t nuts but a just a few years ahead of his time.

Sea fishing with Bob Cox and John Rawle was a revelation and we were lucky to be in at the birth of up-tiding. I would nominate this pair as my greatest inspiration.


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John Bailey

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Yet again I thank those who are contributing to this piece. The whole concept of what is meant by great is ripe for examination in this modern age. For example, I watched Arsenal v Newcastle in the FA Cup the weekend just gone. It was appallingly dire to my eyes, and yet we are told by the pundits that Premiership footballers are “greater” than they have ever been. Really? Do any any of us over the age of 50 actually think that?

Of course, we live in an age of celebrity obsession, which brings me tentatively to grayson's comments on the “niceness”, or not, of great anglers. I want to be positive about all of this, so I will agree that there cannot have been a “nicer” angler than Geoffrey Bucknall, who I met several times and was always an unfailing delight.

However, Hugh Falkus is a different case, and here again we enter the realms of subjectivity. Hugh’s reputation was a complex one, BUT I have to say he changed my life. When I left teaching, when I wondered if I could ever make my way in the freelance world, Hugh took me under his wing and gave me confidence, advice and inspiration. When I was writing The Great Anglers, I went to the Lakes for a teatime meeting and left four days later! Four days that saved my world.

There is a strange spirit in the world of angling “celebs” or “greats” as they would call themselves. Some - not all - have the most extraordinarily high opinion of themselves, to the point you would think meeting them was akin to an appointment with royalty, Obama and Mandela rolled into one. I guess this comes about because of the proliferation of endless TV channels, YouTube and social media, and the almost ceaseless exposure available if you want it enough. Perhaps this new world of instant “knowledge “ makes any valuation of angling greatness impossible in the modern age, simply because so much is unreliable. As an example, I was amused to read an attack on one of the Predator sites where I was accused of appalling behaviour on a water I had never heard of, never mind fished.

I feel dissatisfied with this on reflection. Perhaps we all agree Walker was best and leave it at that?!
 

Peter Jacobs

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Personally John, I'd totally agree on Richard Walker . . . . not only was he an excellent angler but he was free with his knowledge and friendship and innovative to boot . . . but then so was Jan Porter . . . grrr, you go me going again ;)
 

grayson

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The tunnel vision of some anglers is extraordinary - while fishing has been part of my life, I do have other interests , as well as a desire to keep up with current affairs. I fear that some youngsters feel not only defined by what they have caught , but they fail to appreciate how utterly absurd that might appear to ' civilians' .

I don't follow football at all , but I know a lot about motorsport , and the petty wars being fought on line over whether Lewis Hamilton is GOAT or not are risible . They're also an instructive example of what has been called 'chronological superiority' - the belief that each successive generation holds that it is the cleverest and most gifted in history . Bollocks of course , as for people of my age it can result in some millenial brat telling me that some Tik Tok carp sensation must be a better angler than an angler such as my one time colleague Maurice Ingham , and that would simply never do .
 

chevin4

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I feel there are great anglers out there who do not seek the limelight, dont write books or articles for social media and you wont see them holding specimen fish in the magazines.

Clive Day is a brilliant pike angler who has arrived in Ireland via Stevenage and Norfolk.
I fished with him quite regularly on the eighties he only fished at weekends and rarely had a day off work in the week. I remember taking him to a difficult water near Milton Keynes which had been hammered the regulars were struggling. He took the water apart on his first visit, and did the same on another rock hard lake nearby.

He did well at Abberton where the 'names' were struggling. His dedication was extraordinary after a hard weeks work in construction he would drive of to the Fens early on Saturday fish sleep in his car and return late on Sunday. Once he moved to Norfolk he also caught his share of big fish on club waters. He was well into his fifties when he decided to move to Ireland and last I heard his drive and determination remains undiminished.

Of the well known anglers Tony Miles has always impressed me in many ways he reminded me of the great Richard Walker.
 

Mark Wintle

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The big problem is that there are great anglers and very good anglers; separating the two is far from easy. Anglers like Peter Stone or Jan Porter in my book come into the very good category; great company, excellent at catching fish and contributing to the media, but others' contributions were far greater which is why the likes of Richard Walker, Billy Lane and Ivan Marks get into the great categary. I met and fished against Jan, super bloke, beatable (! - well, I beat him) but not even the best Trentman/Notts. Fed angler, certainly don't forget the likes of Trent legend Jim Sharp, Wayne Swinscoe, John Dean and John Allerton (probably the most successful English match angler by a mile), and as for Pete Palmer fishing a waggler....
Quite a few anglers made their reputations on the coattails of Richard Walker.
For my second roach book I attempted to define some of the greatest roach anglers. I asked around quite a bit over 15 years and these were some of those mentioned: Bill Penney, Capt. Parker, John Bailey, Dave Howes, Cardiff Mark, Mike Townsend. Dr Redfin was often mentioned but none wanted him included; I cannot print the remarks of some I asked.
 
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