John Bailey’s 10 tips to become a great angler

In this article i look at my top tips for how we can all be good and even great anglers if we want to improve enough and if we think about the whole process deeply enough. I’m proud to have known many anglers who I have watched going from decent, to good, to fantastic. In my book, they are the real heroes and you could easily join them.

I’ve always said that if I haven’t been working, I’ve either been fishing or playing football. I’m going to mention the World Cup to try and show what I mean about greatness. I enjoyed nearly all the matches but what I was aware of constantly was that in my view good footballers were only a hair’s breadth away from being great. Think about the Japan Belgium game. Japan so nearly won it because they were good, organised, motivated players following a well-schemed-out plan. In fishing or in football, you can achieve all your objectives if you follow certain basic rules. I have talked about what i see as the foundations of how to catch more fish,so here i am going to concentrate on some of the intangibles that can propel you on the road to greatness.


So many of us are held back by the fear of looking silly. There is a great amount of peer pressure in some forms of angling and I’m like many people in that I don’t want to look stupid. But who cares? Does it really matter if you’re catching? Rob Shanks, whom I’ve often talked about, is not only a tackle dealer but a great carp angler. I’ve watched Rob spend an entire session not putting a rod up, just walking, watching, thinking. Most of the other carp anglers on the lake have dashed to a swim, thrown up their bivvies, whopped out their boilies and sat back to snooze. You might think Rob is an odd one but, given the time that family and shop allow, he catches shed loads. Don’t bother about how you look. Concentrate on what you catch.


I’ve got to flag up Chris Yates here. He is typical of those great anglers who have an affinity with fish that is impossible for me, or for anyone, to put into words. They just click with fish, sense how fish are feeling and thinking and it pays massive dividend. A lot of great anglers have fished from childhood and I guess that’s something to do with it. They were brought up with fish in a way that anglers taking up the sport in middle or older age just can’t get their heads around. You don’t have to be an angler from childhood but I guess it helps when it comes to feeling at one with the water and the fish that the water holds.


            In large part, you become a fish whisperer by simply watching the water. If you do this long enough and intensely enough, you will begin to start seeing fish that you never knew previously were there. The great anglers know this. Richie Macdonald once told me that his binoculars were the most important part of his kit and a string of bubbles sighted at a hundred and fifty yards could change his season. On the other hand, a great mate of mine, sadly passed away, was Bernie Neave and he was eagle-eyed at watching fish just a rod length out. He could interpret every bubble, every swaying reed, every twig rising from the bottom. Watching the water and interpreting what you see is a fabulous gift and is one that can be learnt if you take the time to do so.


This is a vital one. All the great angler I have known have good kit, good bait and good methods. They’ve worked to put all these together and then they totally forget about the mechanics. They’re just not bothered about the hardware anymore, it’s the fish and the fishery that consume them. Too many anglers fret about their gear session in and session out. It’s a complete waste of your energy and it deflects you from what you should really be thinking about. Get gear, bait and approach right, then move on to the important bits.


I’ve already alluded to this aspect talking about Robert Shanks and Richie Macdonald. The fact is that if you just rush to the water, set up like a lunatic and get fishing, you are going to miss ninety-five percent of the opportunities throughout your fishing life. At its most basic, you might just miss some feeding fish in your haste. More importantly, you won’t sense what the water is telling you, you just won’t go with the flow. The more you strategise, the more you sink into the rhythm of the river or the stillwater, the more confident you will become and the more your ideas will flourish.


Now, importantly, I’m not talking here about the Alan Wilson approach which is to sit in a good swim, in a good water for months on end. I’m talking about taking your challenges with you in your head. Think about what you want from a water before you fall asleep, or on the tube, or in your lunch hour, or in any idle moment. You might be at work or on the motorway or wherever but in your soul and in your mind you are back bankside. If you live your fishing this way, it becomes part of your psyche.


All the good to great angler I have known set themselves up so that they can be mobile and can move at a moment’s notice. They’re not anglers who rush to what is supposed to be the best, going swim. Rather, they will take each fishing situation at its face value and plot where the fish are going to be. if they pitch down in the wrong place, then they are not so bogged down with stuff that they can’t get up and keep searching for where the fish are feeding. Rod Hutchinson would listen to weather reports and drive to a different part of the country or even to a different country depending on what they said. That’s extreme but you won’t catch a great angler sitting in a swim that his gut tells him is not going to produce.


Great anglers are like lions. They might spend the majority of their life asleep but, deep down, they’re watchful, waiting for waters to spring into life. A change in wind strength or direction. A sudden, intense cloud cover. An approaching storm. A change in barometric pressure. There are a score or more of natural phenomena that will spark the great angler out of lethargy and into life. Most big fish come during small windows, during short feeding spells. The great angler is alert enough to profit from these.


Start with the margins. Many, if not most, of the greatest anglers have been experts close-in. It’s when you can see fish and when you know a piece of water intimately that you can make proper advances. Often huge advances. One of the truly great anglers of the modern era was Lenny Bunn. Lenny was a carp angler who took Norfolk apart, Redmire apart and then the whole English carp scene apart. He was the co-inventor of Black Magic, the forerunner of all modern baits. But above all, Lenny was the master of the margins. He never put baits out at random, only in tight feeding areas, often with a pea-shooter or perhaps even down a drainpipe. Along the margins, he could use his mastery of close control and above all, read the fishes’ exact reactions. This intimate approach can teach you huge amounts about fish, how they behave, what they like and what they’re afraid of. It’s an essential step to greatness.



            Unlike football, fishing is a sport where you often get better as you get over. There are a lot of promising anglers who simply burn themselves out. The Angler’s Mail through the decades has been full of fishermen who have made a splash, if you’ll pardon the pun, but disappeared after a season or two. Really good, verging on great anglers, have long track records. They are in fishing for the long haul, for life. There are plenty of young anglers I admire tremendously but it’s words of wisdom from the oldies that I’ll really cock my ear to. Rock on Archie Braddock my old friend.


  • Master the basic skills and then, confident, move on to fishing’s endless subtleties and satisfactions.
  • Don’t bog yourself down with the mechanics of tackle, bait and rig. Be happy with what you decide upon using and then clear your mind for the important stuff.
  • Eyes. Binoculars. Polaroids. These are your most essential aids so learn how to use them.
  • Matt Busby once said it only takes a second to score a goal and it’s the same in fishing. You are better spending four hours watching, thinking and feeling and then make one successful cast. Great anglers live a quest, a water, a single fish can even inhabit their dreams. The more your fishing becomes a part of your mental world, the better you will be at it.

John Bailey