The Champion Roach Fisher of all England
In the early 1870s, a titanic clash of fishing cultures was brewing, a collision of ideology and technique that many realised could only be solved in a fishing match between the best of the Nottingham and the Lea men. In the late 19th century, roach were the fish in fashion and two completely different styles of catching them had evolved: the Nottingham men used a free-running centrepin reel, casting their bait to wherever the roach were thought to be feeding; the Lea men used long roach poles, with no reel and a fixed line, their method relying on feeding the fish in until they were under the rod tip.
William Bailey, author of The Angler’s Instructor, was king of the Nottingham men and not only claimed that he was the champion roach fisher of all England, but was actively scornful of roach pole fishing. You can download a copy of his book from the library by clicking on this link. The London anglers had little trouble selecting a suitable challenger in the form of Joe Woodard, who was well-known as an expert pole fisherman. The stage was set.
By common consent, the match was held over three days, a different location being fished on each day, each contestant being allowed to choose a location, the ‘decider’ being selected by Greville Fennell, author of the recently published The Book of the Roach and the encyclopaedic The Rail and the Rod (downloadable from the library, if you click here) who also acted as referee. The prize was £100, then a large sum, winner take all, the money being put up by a Mr. Hughes. A coin was tossed at the beginning of each day, the winner being allowed first choice of swim, Bailey, as it happened, losing all three, though this had no influence on the result.
Woodard’s day was fished on 12th December 1871, on the Pike and Anchor water at Ponder’s End on the Lea; the weather was appalling, with ice on the river and Bailey suggested delaying for an hour, but Woodard insisted on sticking to the rules and he began fishing on time, although Bailey waited an hour before wetting a line. That conditions were grim can be judged by the result: at four o’clock, when time was called, Bailey’s catch weighed 2 lb. 8 ½ oz. while Woodard’s was only 1 lb. 5 ½ oz, but all agreed that the match had been fair, and having convincingly trounced their foe on his home water, the Nottingham men went home confident of final victory.
For the second day, Bailey chose Weston Cliff on the Trent - when the contestants arrived at the water, the river was in almost full flood and a howling gale absolutely lashed the water, driving spray into the face of anglers, referee and onlookers alike. At one stage, the wind became so wild that Fennell had to hang onto a tree to avoid being blown into the river and Woodard had terrible trouble with his 19 foot Sowerbutts roach pole, the bigger gusts using it as a lever to spin him around, while a few simply blew it out of his hands. But if Woodard was having problems, Bailey was in dire trouble, because he couldn’t find fish, catching several dace, a perch and a ruffe before taking his only roach of the day, and that no size, for it weighed in at 3 ½ ounces. Woodard only caught two roach, but they were better specimens and won the match for him at 17 ounces. It was the London men’s turn to be jubilant, but everything now rested on the final round.
The third day was fished on the Stour at Bures Mill in Suffolk, in an atmosphere of what can only be described as intense anticipation. The first two days had proved nothing, beyond trying the endurance of everyone who attended and the patience of the two anglers, but when Woodard and Bailey arrived at the water, the weather was perfect. To cut a long story short, Woodard, fishing with paste, caught nearly twice as many fish as Bailey, finishing the day with 212 roach weighing 30 lb. to Bailey’s 101 weighing 10 ½ pound, the latter having spent a good deal of time unhooking small perch that had found his worms enormously attractive.
There were hopes for a rematch, but it never occurred, although Woodard successfully defended his title of Champion Roach Fisher of England against several other challengers over the next decade.