Building the Dream

Bawburgh Lakes - Building the Dream

Bawburgh lakes - NACA Building the DreamMy first sight of the Bawburgh gravel pits came in early 1979 when a group of lads I had started work with in 1978 had suggested that we go for a drink at the Bawburgh King’s Head, a country pub to a city boy like myself. Little was I to know then what an impact the name ‘Bawburgh’ and these lakes were to have on my future life.

My first sight of the gravel works was of what we now know as Lodge Farm Lake; a long expanse of water runningadjacent to New Road as you approached Bawburgh from the Bowthorpe estate, very little of which was even there then; but the first glimpse of the water was of instant interest to an angler like myself.

The site was being worked by Atlas Aggregates at the time, and although some people were fishing the site on avery limited basis, it was out of bounds to me.

As I continued to visit the area over the next few years I could see the developments continuing at the site by the changes of the Lodge Farm Lake, but very little of the site could be see from the road.

John Wilson launched his television programme Go Fishing, in which he featured a programme on pike fishing at Bawburgh. Fishing from a boat, John caught several good fish from areas that are easily recognisable today, although the lakes themselves have changed significantly.To say this inspired me to fish the lakes would be an understatement!

I had started my pike fishing career in 1980 when my good friend John Rhodes had suggested that he take me for a day’s pike fishing at Waveney Valley Lakes, then the Mecca of carp fishing in the region,We caught several small pike that day on ‘G’ Lake, and my love for pike fishing was born.

Bawburgh Lakes Association opened around 1988 in a partnership between Sedgewick’s Angling Club (a large insurance company in Norwich at the time) and Yarmouth and District Angling Club; I think the permit was around £18 a season.

My first visit to the lakes was as soon as I could get there!

The lakes then were totally different to the site you visit today; it was a totally raw gravel works, very few trees and little vegetation, and definitely no swims.

As the site was still being worked, the Works Bank (as we know it now) was out of bounds during the week and could only be fished at weekends. This was due to the fact that large digger machines would still be depositing tons of materials along this bank, making this area a very different site to what it is today, as you had to drop down at least a twenty foot descent to fish at the water’s edge. BLA Lake was the only lake that was available to fish at this time and the rest of the site was out of bounds, but it didn’t stop a few people having a wander at weekends, just to see the expanses of water of Lodge Farm and Colney lakes.

My first visit to the lakes was one afternoon. I had finished early at work and couldn’t wait to get down there, just taking a lure rod and a box of totally random lures; knowing very little about the lake then, it was,“Where do I start?”. As I have already said, these lakes were raw gravel works - no swims, and just a case of “fish where you could get to the water’s edge”, so that’s what I did.  The first bit of water I could reach was along the river-bank side of the lake close to the car park. Out went a four-inch Lazy Ike plug. First cast and I was into weed straight away - something that would become a big feature of these lakes over the next few years and contribute immensely to the richness of the water quality and to the growth rates of the fish themselves.

Second cast - bang - I’m in! What a feeling - the water I have been aching to get on for years, and I’m into fish straight away. It turned out to be a lovely conditioned fis that had probably never had been caught before at around 11 lbs.

I continued along the bank, coming to an area known over time as the Bush swim and now Burgess. Casting out there, I had a follow from a fish that I just glimpsed but couldn’t make out the size; however, what rolled in front of me 30 seconds later left me in no doubt that this was the place to be: a fish easily over twenty pounds probably the largest fish I had seen at the time.

The winter fishing got under way at Bawburgh with many of the fish being caught, the most notable being around twenty-six pounds. Bawburgh Lake was now becoming firmly recognised in the area as a ‘pike fishery’; however, this lake was not proving to be as kind to me as I had hoped. But over the next few years, I managed to tally up some good catches of fish. The water became a notable ‘doubles’ water where you could catch several mid-to-large doubles in a day.

This was fantastic gravel pit fishing for the time and the twenties were still there,my largest from the water going just over 23 lbs; however, even then the cracks were beginning to show.

The club that was running the fishery at the time, Yarmouth and District, was unable to really develop the fishery further due to restrictions of lease, and so the fishery that had been a pike-fishing dream for me began to dwindle and fade from prominence, until the fishery closed in 1996 to my great sadness..

Bawburgh lake sunsetTHE DREAM REBORN
Whilst continuing my hunt for big pike around other waters in the region I had been fishing at Kingfisher Lake at Lyng, and during the summer months had tried for the carp and bream. A meeting on the bank there was to rekindle the Bawburgh dream.

I didn’t know Chris Turnbull at the time, but his enthusiasm was obvious, and during the conversation the name Bawburgh was mentioned. As anyone who knows me will tell, I can talk for hours, and with passion, about Bawburgh Lakes, even in those days, and things haven’t changed. Chris explained that NACA had been invited by Atlas Aggregates to place a caretaker team of bailiffs on the lakes until the future of the lakes was decided. In return for looking after the pits we would be able to fish there until the angling arrangements had been sorted out. No second thoughts were needed and my mate Mike and I were signed up as the first bailiffs of NACA Bawburgh lakes.

Back on the water, November 1998, we now had a chance to discover the other lakes at the site, the ones that, so many years before, I could only cast a gaze over and wonder: Colney 1, Lodge Farm and four other smaller pits. Again I couldn’t wait to get down there as I had done ten years before. The chance to fish virgin waters - not often does that chance occur in your angling life-time. I went straight to Colney 1, seemingly the largest sheet of water on the fishery.

Chris was already there but wasn’t having much luck. I found an area on the Bowthorpe bank side; again no swims, just where you could get near the water. Things started slowly, but I decided to have a recast, and before my bobbins had been set, line was being pulled out of my hand. Straight into the fish and what a fish - 19.04 and in pristine condition. I sacked the fish to allow me to take photos and cast the bait out again, but as I began to lift the 19.04 out of the water the alarm sounded once more on the same rod. Back into the water went the sack’ and I was straight into another obvious double.

With a fish in the sack, and playing a good double, things were looking good but it just got silly as the alarm sounded on the second rod. Striking this rod, the fish felt smaller, so my attention returned to the double, which I was now able to slip the net under, with the smaller fish also coming to the same net. I managed to release it back into the water and weigh the double at 16.12, a true brace of pristine double-figure pike and I was happy.

Chris, obviously noticing the commotion, had moved swims and was now fishing just down from me. After a short time, he was into a fish that later weighed 18 lbs. All this seemed pretty hectic stuff, but although several good fish were being caught, no really large fish were being taken. A 22-pounder from Colney, mid-doubles from Lodge but Bawburgh was still struggling to recover from its decline of the previous years.

A management steering group was set up from members of the bailiff team to manage the lakes. This was backed up with a fisheries sub-committee of NACA for all the fisheries that NACA managed at the time.

The lakes opened up to members the following spring.

Many articles have been written about the tench fishing at this time, so I shall not cover this further, and with our stocking program of carp just starting, much interest in the lakes began to grow, but it was still the pike fishing that remained my passion. By this time the pike fishing had begun to improve very notably on Lodge Lake, with several good fish coming through. I was managing to take some nice fish over twenty pounds from Colney 1, and then it all got serious.

Colney One - 27.061st October, 1999, ‘One Pec’ was caught at 30.01 and later falling to several anglers still around this weight, it was obvious that there was something not quite right with this fish. She didn’t have the same weight fluctuations a large pike would have over the course of the winter; however, I had decided this year of all years to concentrate all winter on my chub fishing, and only managed a couple of pike-fishing trips.

But due to the rivers being flooded and the then risk of foot and mouth disease, I had pulled off the rivers and had decided to have one last trip for the pike at the end of the season. This time, fishing with my mate Kerry Walker, we took the long walk around Lodge Lake to fish the horse field bank, Kerry setting up on the point swim and myself fishing into the bay.

It was a gusty day, and it took time for the bobbins to settle, although there was still a tendency for them to bleep every so often, which caused me to continually check the lines. Having just checked them again, 10 minutes into the session, I sat back down to make some more traces when the right-hand alarm gave three bleeps instead of the usual one, straight up to the rod. But before I could pick it up, line was steadily peeling from the reel and I was straight into a heavy fish. I was only fishing the margins so the fish had little room to run before she was under my feet. A couple of mighty swirls at the net and Kerry had her buried in the mesh.

Peering at the fish Kerry shouted:“You’ve got One Pec!” and some expletives to go with it. In that moment I walked away from the water and just laughed my head off, knowing that the fish would be over thirty pounds, and knowing that after all the hard years of pike fishing to try and catch a fish of this size, there she was. It didn’t seem real. She weighed 30.14, only thirteen ounces heavier than the previous October, which didn’t seem right; however, she was fit and fought well.
Photos taken, I slipped her back and she was eager to swim away, but as she did I wondered if I had reached a pinnacle in my fishing and if I would ever catch a fish of this size again.

Sadly,‘One Pec’ died that summer, some four months after her last capture, a possible casualty of being spawn-bound but vividly showing us all the rarity and fragility of these huge fish.

The following seasons proved very special for the pike fishing at Bawburgh Lakes. The ‘Works Lake’ produced a much sought after thirty for Steve Hunt, at 32.08, while two fish had come through in the small but productive Colney 2 Lake and were being caught in the mid twenties. But it was Bawburgh Lake that was really doing the business. At one point, we estimated over a dozen fish over twenty pounds were present, with several of them over twenty-five pounds and many other doubles being caught from this lake. There were also multiple captures of twenties in a day, and fish of 28 lbs and 29 lbs being caught. Two regular anglers were known to have caught thirteen twenties from the fishery in one season, and I took eight fish over twenty, with a brace of 25.04 and 22.12 in one evening. Gravel-pit pike fishing shouldn’t be this good, should it?

However, the fragility of these fantastic creatures was again to haunt the fishery.The following summer, one by one, large pike were being found dead in the margins of Bawburgh Lake, seemingly succumbing to a form of fungal disease, and the following winter, the pike fishing was notably harder.

Remembering the demise of the fishery some ten years previously, I was determined not to see this happen again.

At this time, Chris Turnbull, having an ever-increasing work-load of NACA business taking up every minute of his day, was looking to step aside from some of the duties of the fishery. I was eager to take on the fishery, so with the help of a great team of bailiffs,we continued to build the fishery step by step.

Having had fifteen years of experience at the lakes, and again remembering the problems the pike had encountered in this time, I wanted to form a strategy that would protect the pike as much as possible, although still allowing them to be fished for. The fishery had just turned into a syndicate, with only a few anglers fishing just for pike, when we began to introduce some measures that I hoped would guarantee a sustainable stock of large pike.A two-rod rule produced some of the greatest opposition, even from within. Two angler limits on some waters, strict minimum tackle requirements for pike fishing, and then the bold decision to shut Bawburgh Lake for two years!

Colney One - 30.10I’m sure some people began to doubt my sanity, but there were good reasons behind this idea. Bawburgh Lake had been in decline, but had, within five years of NACA taking over the lakes after its brief closure, produced some of the best pike fishing many of us in the area had ever encountered.

Could this be reproduced again, but this time to order? Now there were added safeguards to protect the fish once they had been through their period of neglect, and we had the capacity, in the other lakes, to allow fishing to continue, and the backing of CEMEX to be able to close the whole lake to pike fishing.

That following winter there was a strange eeriness about the fishery; not being able to fish the water was a horrible feeling, but the belief in the idea and the protection of the fishery was the utmost priority.

My plan for the season was to take on the formidable Colney 1 Lake. I believed this lake to be capable of giving me a 29 lbs fish; a weight that I had never been privileged to catch. First results were slow, very slow in fact, with my son Cal taking the largest fish before December at 16 lbs; however, things were to change dramatically.

28th December, with the first snows of the winter, -2.5 degrees, and just into dark, my first large fish of the season at 25.05.A great start at last, but I had already seen the fish I was fishing for as my mate Shayne had caught her earlier in November at 28 lbs. Surely this fish would give me the weight I wanted, if only I could catch her at the right time.

Another couple of sessions had produced fish to low doubles but I had now started using a tactic which I was convinced would produce large fish, and had produced some patchy results over a number of years. However, this time, fishing only three areas of the lake at least three times a week began to bring Colney’s largest fish to the net with a 27.06 followed two days later with a 23.08. Four days followed with no fish, but things did improve, with a six fish catch, the largest at 26.10. Two days later, a 23.02. A pattern was definitely taking shape. If the fish weren’t in one area I could find them in another. A 25.06 quickly followed and with only one of the fish being a repeat capture, Colney was certainly showing its pedigree for big pike. But still I hadn’t caught the fish I was looking to catch - the 28-pounder from earlier in the year.

Undaunted, I continued with the sessions taking another fish at 26.02. I knew of two fish that had been caught by friends, one at 22 lbs and another at 25 lbs, that I hadn’t caught that season and was eager to see in my net.

A few sessions followed without any runs. Was my luck running out, I wondered? Things got worse when just in to a session I lost two fish to hook pulls, telling myself they were small fish and it was bound to happen. I was having a hard job convincing myself when I was redeemed by a small jack, quickly followed by another. The weather was beginning to turn foul, so I made a quick recast to get out of the rain.

Darkness comes quickly at this time of the year, so checking everything was set for fishing into dark, I settled down, but the two bleeps from my left-hand buzzer had me straight to the rod, and I was soon into the fish. Again she felt heavy. The bait was picked up in the margin and that’s where she has stayed, so as I applied pressure, trying to draw her up in the water, she began to move. Too late, I felt the tell-tale signs she was coming up: in semi-darkness through the rain, this huge fish tail-walked four feet out from the bank. Keeping everything tight but convinced I’d lost her, I wound down to feel she’s still there. But I’d done with messing; so loads of pressure and she’s nearing the net.A last powerful surge before the net folds over her and she’s safe.

Peering into the net at this huge fish that I have been privileged to catch I could see the tell-tale mark I’d been looking for. It is the 28-pounder from earlier in the season and I’m thinking she must be 29lb by now, so carefully into the sling, but the weight isn’t right. She doesn’t weight 29! I checked the sling and re-zeroed the scales and now its starting to sink in - this fish has gone 30.10. Photos taken, she’s slipped back and I’m numbed by this capture, the first authenticated thirty from Colney and I rate it as the most memorable of all my pike caught to date, so much so that I pull off the lake that evening.

With a month to go before the end of the season, and still numbed by the capture of the Colney fish, I looked at Colney 2 Lake, as the two largest pike had been caught several times that season by several anglers, but rumours were rife that there were many twenties now resident in the lake. As the fishery manager, this was something I needed to find out as I had my doubts, and believed the fish all to be repeat captures.

But with a couple of short sessions producing nothing I was starting to wind down my pike-fishing campaign of 2006.

With two days of the season to go, I settled myself down on one of my favoured swims on Colney 2. A bright sunny afternoon, light winds, just a pleasure to be there. The weed was starting to come up in the lake so the baits had to be positioned carefully, which meant several casts to get it right.

Everything set, I settled down to enjoy the sun, only to be startled by a scream from my right-hand buzzer.

Straight to the rod and a heavy fish fish is on. Knowing what is in this lake, I was already excited, and played the fish carefully. After several lunges, she was soon in the net and obviously a huge fish. The water was quite low that year so after unclipping the trace, I broke down the net to have more control over the fish, but as I tried to lift the net at arms length, I suddenly realised “This thing’s not going anywhere!”, so I climbed down to get a better grasp of the net and then it became obvious that this fish was really huge.

Colney Two - 31.02On the scales she goes 31.02 and is the fattest fish I have ever personally seen, and measures only 39.5 inches long. I recognise her as a fish I caught two years previously at 22 lbs - what a growth rate, and in superb condition.

The Colney lakes, 1 and 2, had given me seven twenties followed by two thirties in just over two month’s winter pike fishing; Norfolk gravel-pit pike fishing had become very special at Bawburgh Lakes.

Winter of 2007 we again opened Bawburgh Lake after its two-year closure, and the hopes were high that the plan had worked and stocks were well on their way to recovery. I always felt the nature of the water would be changed by this closure, and I wasn’t proved wrong, with the fishing being incredibly hard; however, the pike that I personally caught were in superb condition so early signs were good. Not many fish were reported that season, however, after the season ended I was informed that a fish over thirty had been caught along with another mid-twenty, all in fantastic condition, so I felt that the process was starting to show results.

With the season of 2008 upon us, the pike fishing was proving incredibly slow on all the lakes, possibly due in some way to the spring and summer flooding the lakes had experienced, unbalancing the ecosystem of the lakes. And Bawburgh Lake was to prove just as difficult as the previous year; however, the early capture of a fish of 30.05 being identified as the thirty from the previous season, the excitement began to mount.Another ‘unknown’ fish of 27.02 caught by Darren Stolworthy started the realisation that there were other large fish coming through, and the lake started to gain people’s attention.

Several fish to mid-twenty started to show after January, but the fishing on this lake remained difficult, whereas Colney 1 again started to produce the big fish I had seen before. And with a fish of 29.12 being caught from Lodge Farm Lake, the proof that the policies to produce a sustainable stock of large pike were delivering.

But the knowledge that a large fish, with possibly together with others, was in Bawburgh Lake was all consuming.

However, fishing several sessions a week could not bring me the results I’d hoped for, and thinking back to twenty years before, the lake was being as unkind to me as it had then.

A ‘phone call early one morning was to bring it all to fruition, but not for me: for my mate Shayne. The fish was massive at 33.05 and 44 inches long, a fantastic-looking fish and everything I’d dreamt of for Bawburgh Lakes, and after the photos were taken, back she went.

The policies of the fishery and the work of the Association have undoubtedly created an environment for fish to grow to this size and be protected once they are there.

And the dream of greater things to come is still alive.

Chris Oakley