Fishing Heroes

Fishing Heroes: Mr. Crabtree's John Bailey

First in our Fishing Heroes series, we interview John Bailey, of Mr. Crabtree fame

Toast Entertainment Group
John Bailey with a barbel on River Wye

Fish Around Fishing Hero:
John Bailey, angling since the 1950s.
How did you get into fishing?
Just something I felt I had to do… it was deep in me somewhere. It sounds all mystery and imagination, but I had a very real pull towards water from aged around about three. It was something I simply couldn’t resist rather than making any conscious decision.
What do you remember about your first day on the water?
Nothing! All that time back, the first two or three years really merge into a type of fishless, tangled frustration. I can remember endless bleak days on canals trying to get a float in the water rather than ever seeing it go down. Still, I’ve no doubt that the toughness of those early years help see me through hard times today. I think if you have it too easy too early you simply get spoilt.
What’s been your best, and worst, day on the water?
Those are equally difficult to answer! I’ve had literally thousands of great days and selecting a specific one is simply impossible. I can’t really remember a particular disastrous day even though I’ve frequently been so wet and so cold it’s been a miracle to pack up. That’s a feeling shared by many anglers I’m sure! In all honesty, it’s hard to remember a bad day on the water in truth… there’s always something that lifts the spirit or that teaches you a lesson.
Do you go angling with friends, family or alone?
I virtually always go with somebody. I’m either guiding, doing a photoshoot or making TV. The chances of me going on my own for more than an hour or so a season are very slim indeed. But I’d have it no other way.
Where is your favourite UK fishing location and why?
In the UK, I have to say the one water that always thrills me is the River Wensum in Norfolk. I first fished it back in the ‘60s and I’ve been in love with it ever since. For me, it’s the perfect river.
Abroad, I can think of scores of venues that I adore. I’d be hard pushed to decide between India, Mongolia or Greenland to pick my absolute top. However, I’m rarely more happy than when fishing my favourite river for barbel in Spain. So perhaps that’s the answer.
What is the most you’ve spent on a piece of angling kit and was it worth it?
I appreciate that I am hugely fortunate in being sponsored by great tackle companies like Hardy and Greys, so I tend not to have to fork out myself these days. This is a privilege I take very seriously. Possibly my most cherished rod-reel combination would be a Hardy Marksman Float rod along with the Hardy Conquest centrepin. I suppose together they top £700 but they make 50%  or more of my fishing an absolute joy.
And the biggest waste of money?
Well, rather, see above. I do have quite a stash of three and four pound test curve carp rods that feel like jousting lances and have never seen the light of day. If I’d had to part with good money for these I’d feel somewhat miffed.
What is your go-to bait?
If I could only fish with one bait for the rest of my life, it would probably be a lobworm. Or possibly bread in one form or another. It’s a very tight decision.
Which fish is your favourite quarry?
Like many anglers, it’s simply what I’m fishing for at the moment. If I had a knife to my throat, I’d probably say roach are my favourites followed by barbel, chub, tench, crucian carp, pike and perch in that order. But I’m really not sure because I love rudd and dace and brown trout and salmon... impossible question really!
What do you wish you could do better?
Pretty well everything! I’d like to be able to Wallis cast efficiently. My double hauling isn’t up to much, and modern carp rigs leave me somewhat defeated. If there’s one thing that I would say that I’m good at in a general sort of way, it’s having an affinity with the fish and the water that I’m fishing. I’m not saying I’m up there with Chris Yates but I’m on the same planet.
What’s your finest fishing moment?
Well, just probably landing a 100+lb pound plus mahseer from the head of some rapids in front of an audience of perhaps 10 gobsmacked guides and anglers. I suppose it was the drama of that 15 minutes that will never leave me. We had to tighten the clutch on the multiplier so hard that not an inch of line could be given. I still had to dig my thumbs onto the spool, though, to stop the massive fish getting over the lip and into the white water. As a result, I was losing skin and blood at an alarming rate. My guide has his arms around me pulling for all his worth to keep me on the rock, so great was the pressure from the fish. All in all, it was one of those historic ‘moments’ and sort of cemented my reputation out in India.

If you could go angling for a day with any three famous people who would they be?
I’d like to go out with Henry VIII because I’d like to discuss with him his absolute motivations in the crisis years of the 1530s. I was fortunate enough to meet Ted Hughes but I never fished with him and I’d like to put that right. He not only had a supreme feeling for the water but it would be good to get his take on many of the controversial areas of his life, most notably Sylvia Plath, of course.
More realistically, I’ve enjoyed Jeremy Paxman’s company from time to time and I think he’d be a fun fishing companion. If I could really spoil myself, I’d have another day with dear old friend Geoffrey Palmer who I’d adore an outing with and bring Jeremy along to provide the picnic.
If I were describing angling to an alien...
The art of trying to fool a fish and to catch it on a rod and line is the most absorbing of all human achievements. There is no other way of getting into the mind of an almost unknowable creature and no better way of understanding the workings of our most miraculous element, water. Angling combines pretty well every captivating challenge and intense emotion. It’s a constant adrenaline buzz and intellectual high enjoyed in the most wondrous places on the planet.

For more about John and Mr. Crabtree, please visit

You can also purchase "Fishing in the Footsteps of Mr. Crabtree" book from

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