Gareth Purnell joins Bob James on the banks of the River Wye to find out what makes the Passion For Angling star tick.

Q: You’re here on a stretch of the Wye you rent at Eaton Bishop on one of your corporate angling days – tell me about how these developed.

A: I’ve ran them on and off ever since Passion For Angling. You get a reputation within the industry and once one or two big London companies pick up on you I guess it gets talked about. I’ve never really advertised it much. About two years ago I decided that I needed a website, but I’ve never got around to finishing it! If it could be done five days a week it would be a very nice living but you simply can’t. You have to sort your tackle and bait out and you have to recompose yourself each time for the next trip.

Q: Do you always come to the Wye?
A: Mostly in summer, yes. It’s such a stunningly beautiful place, holds loads of chub, barbel and big perch and we can drive all the way along the bank here. In winter I take anglers to the Kennet and the Test. I receive more business out of Passion For Angling now, yet the series was on the BBC 12 years ago. Someone said to me at the time: “You’ll do well off the back of that, but it will take about 10 years.” I didn’t really believe him but it’s true that I get more people talking to me about Passion now than at any time previous.

Q: What do you put that down to?
Hugh Miles, the brilliant BBC wildlife cameraman, Chris Yates and I agreed at the time that we’d never try and do anything like that again, because it would be compared to Passion. To try and do Passion again would be impossible because it has reached almost legendary status. It’s actually become more in people’s minds than it probably is. It’s a bit like Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing. You couldn’t possibly do anything like it again.

Q: How did you get involved in Passion?
I lived on the side of the Longford Estate on the Hampshire Avon and Hugh Miles was making a programme there called Tom’s River, about a year on the Avon and named after the bailiff, Tom Williams, who was retiring. If anyone can ever get hold of a copy I can promise that it’s the most wonderful one-hour programme. I obviously knew Tom and I ended up helping out with it. At Christmas, Hugh’s wife called me and asked what she could get him as a present. I suggested Chris’ book Casting At The Sun, which, in my opinion, is still one of the greatest fishing books. We found out later that on Christmas Day and Boxing Day he sat completely enthralled in this book.

Bob has fallen in love with the River Wye.

Q: And was that Hugh’s inspiration?
A: Hugh had always wanted to make a fishing programme and Chris’ ‘poetry’ was the missing ingredient, which he felt would bring the reason why anglers fall in love with angling to the public. At the same time, Hugh was aware of my ability to catch quality fish. The rest is history. At the start, Hugh’s idea was that I would do most of the fishing and Chris would narrate it with that lyrical turn of phrase he has. However, Chris is much more competitive animal than he appears to be. 

Q: Didn’t you catch something ridiculous like 20 2lb roach for the Passion cameras?
A: There you go – that’s how legends grow! It was 10. It was on the Castle stretch of the Longford Estate, a fantastic roach water. The film was my perfect excuse to get on there for a whole week at the very best time, at the end of the season. We went to the bottom of the stretch, where the fish always hung around at that time, with such expectation, but sat there for a day and didn’t even smell a roach. I then worked my way up the stretch and, eventually, the day before that catch, I found some just below the Castle Bridge and had 27 roach, one of which was a two-pounder.

Q: But that’s not exactly where you had them, is it?
A: I met Hugh at dawn the next morning on the Castle Bridge (Chris doesn’t do early mornings!). I recall it like it was yesterday. There was a mystic winter mist rising off the river and Hugh remarked that he could hear the fish rolling – but they were above the bridge. So I slotted in there, where a carrier stream came in. It was an absolutely classic spot where the river widens but it’s shallower in the middle with a hard bottom. I’ve now come to accept these types of areas as superb roach swims on the Avon and the Kennet.

Q: Why did you leger rather than float fish?
A: There is deep water either side where most people trot, but the roach are actually in the middle, in two and a half feet of water over the hard gravel. They do this to avoid the cormorants. I put two feeder rods out, made from really soft fly rods with quivertips spliced in, with flake on the hook and long tails. If you see the programme, I let the tip go around miles before I pick it up. Big roach respond really well to that. When people are getting little bites they tend to go for shorter and shorter hook links, but you need to do the reverse with big roach. They need more slack. I went on to have what’s still my best-ever catch of specimen roach.

Q: What can you say about the split with the Anglers’ Co-operative Association (ACA)? It’s never really come out what actually happened.
A: I don’t think it ever can in all honesty. I think it was some sort of conspiracy that had been going on and I was stupid enough not to realise. All they needed to do was say: “Look, you’ve done it for 10 years Bob, we think that’s long enough.” I would have said: “Great.” I’d had enough of it anyway. It’s bloody hard work trying to raise money for any sort of charity.

Q: I guess it all leaves a bad taste in the mouth?
A: I think they ended up doing themselves a whole load of no good. But I achieved plenty while I was there. It went from being a fairly little-known organisation when I started there with my wife, Jane, to an organisation very much in the limelight, with a lot of support from all sorts of quarters it didn’t have before. When we started, the ACA had to pay to attend shows. By the time I left it didn’t pay to do a single show. It was easy for me because people knew who I was.

Q: Tell me about your introduction to angling.
A: I used to watch people fishing in Wimbledon Park in Surrey. I would sit there watching blokes chucking stuff in by the float and every so often a fish would come out. I thought it was a magic trick. My auntie walked me up there once and she’d bought me a little model train. I was watching someone fishing and not catching anything, so I started throwing the pieces of the train into the lake towards his float because I thought that’s how it all worked!

Q: Was that the first lake you fished?
A: You weren’t allowed to fish there until you were 18. The first was a Farnham AS lake. I bought a book entitled New Fishing For Londoners and it mentioned that Cut Mill was ‘noted for large carp’. I went there with my tank aerial and perch float. I had a little reel that I’d bought from an ex-army store. The guy in there had asked what breaking-strain line I needed. I told him I wanted 44lb line, because that was what the carp record was! I was going carp fishing!

Q: So when did you start to get it right?
A: A chap called Harvey Ellington, the editor of my local newspaper, took me under his wing. His fishing mate was a bloke named Morris Wigan, who wrote the most fabulous fishing books in the 1950s and was quite a cult figure in angling at the time – and I got to go fishing with him. He took me onto the Teme and it all grew from there.

Q: Was there a time when you started to take things more seriously?
A: Really, it was from the beginning. If I do something, I always want to succeed at it. Harvey took me to a few carp lakes but most of what went on in carp fishing then were just yarns. No-one was catching them consistently. I was massively impressed with them as I watched them swimming about and wanted to know more about catching them. At that time a 20-pounder would have been a monster but there weren’t any carp magazines and you had to try and learn things yourself. We started fishing with freelined, part-boiled potatoes and would spend a whole weekend for one run. Then you’d miss it because, as we now know, the hook was inside the potato!

Q: When did you feel you cracked it?
A: My own breakthrough was on a lake that I discovered on an outing on a school trip. I threw in my sandwiches and within minutes carp came up and started taking them. The next week I was there with my rod and I had 11 double-figure carp, at a time when one was brilliant. That’s really when I realised that it was possible to catch them. It was a psychological breakthrough for me at a time when many people thought that carp were uncatchable. I then returned to other places and started to catch them.

Q: You were right there at the revolution in carp angling…
A: I was fishing with the likes of Bruce Ashby. Two big things happened. We realised that you could put a lead on the line and still catch carp, so we could fish at distance. Before that we’d all been freelining near the edge because that’s what had been dictated in the books. A great deal was written by people who weren’t actually catching any fish but no-one dared to challenge them. Then, in the early 1970s, the lid came off. The other big breakthrough was the boilie. We went back to Wimbledon Park Lake, where we were lucky if we got one run a weekend on potatoes, and we had three in one evening! The tougher skin allowed us to side hook them and now the hook was showing. There were groups of anglers all around the country who suddenly realised that a lot of the so-called rules were rubbish. Then, along came the hair rig and that was simply devastating.

Q: Finally Bob, how would you describe yourself as an angler now?
A: I’m not a specimen hunter anymore. I catch bigger-than-average-sized fish. The secret to doing this is to fish venues that hold bigger-than-average-sized fish. Half the methods and tactics I use now I got from match anglers. A great way of catching 3lb tench is a great way of catching 8lb tench and that’s a lesson we can all take with us.

Sound Bites

What’s your favourite venue in England?
At the moment it is Testwood Pool at the bottom of the River Test, which has the most amazing quality-roach fishing that I know of.

If you were a fish, what would you be and why and where would you live?
I’d be a barbel in the River Wye, which is one of the most fantastic-looking rivers in the country. It’s 160 miles long with no obstacles, so I could swim from one end to the other unimpeded.

If you could only fish one method and one bait for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Stick float, centrepin and bread.

Who is the very best angler you have come across and why?
It has to be Billy Lane. I remember him fishing a match on the Hampshire Avon having never seen the river before and he won it with a river record that still stands. I promised then to listen to what match anglers are doing when targeting bigger fish.

What do you regard as your most special catch?
It has to be the 10 2lb roach for the Passion For Angling cameras.

What angling ambitions do you have left?
I’ve still never caught a 3lb roach, although I’ve caught lots at 2lb 15oz. I’m not sure I will ever fulfil it though, as I’m not going to target them on gravel pits.

Angler File
Bob James
Age 56
Hometown Chideock, Dorset
Occupation Angling guide, writer and consultant for Sharpes