Earlier this year, at the start of the UK coarse fishing season, Angling Direct met up with John Wilson MBE, who, having moved to Thailand in 2013, was spending a few weeks back in his home county of Norfolk. Many of the team are of an age where John Wilson, through his series Go Fishing, served to light the fires of what would become a lifelong obsession with the sport, and a passionate search for the next specimen catch, whatever their chosen species happened to be, from the river elites of barbel and perch, to the challenges of carp and pike. Customers and team alike were curious; would Norfolk's best-loved angler return to the Broads, the coast, and the rumours of barbel possibilities of the county that had never really let him go? On the 13th November, the answer was given; John Wilson, MBE, died in Thailand, where he had lived for the past five years at Bung Sawan, a house and grounds he had created to be an exotic version of his Lenwade home, Lake House, which was stocked with huge specimen fish, including Siamese carp, and run as a private fishing resort. We hope his eternity proves to be one long, secluded barbel run, with sleek specimens ready to snap up his bait, and put his tackle through its paces, before finally agreeing to “come to Johnny” - a catch phrase that still echoes in the minds of people commenting on Facebook announcements from the BBC and ITV News, many of whom acknowledged they'd never been into fishing, but had always liked John Wilson. For an entire generation of anglers, John Wilson opened up the rivers, and tempted them to tackle up, cast out, and see what their local waters would yield. That's the moment you start to realise you're getting old; when the legends of your childhood start to pass on to whatever comes next.
A Life Well Lived
With at least 20 books to his name, as well as the enduring success of Go Fishing, and a certain notoriety in respect to his views on otters, which destroyed the entire stock of fish he had grown on in the ponds of Lake House, several times, John Wilson's name also graces a range of entry level fishing tackle, a lasting legacy of his passion for bringing youngsters and novices into the sport, and enabling them to find the same pleasure from it he had always enjoyed.
Always a favourite of the angling press, and guaranteed to generate interest from anglers and nostalgics alike, John Wilson's life was characterised by passion and dedication, the two driving forces that led him to plan and develop two vibrant, flourishing gardens, maintained around statement fish habitats and superior specimens, firstly at Lake House, in Lenwade, and then at Bung Sawan, its Thailand echo, as well as introducing barbel, a species that always held a place in his heart, into the rivers and waters around Norfolk, and off the Broads network. With some Norfolk anglers maintaining an unshakeable belief that there are still good heads of barbel lurking in quiet Broads backwaters, just waiting for an angler with the skill and patience to lure them out, it's unlikely the legend will die with the man.
John Wilson himself acknowledged that the fish he grew up catching weren't there any more, that the spots he would head to on Go Fishing, the spots he wrote about in his books, weren't producing the way they had been in previous years, and yet he proved that skill, patience, and tactics that might seem old fashioned to the modern carp angler, with their array of complex rigs, and new bait flavours being developed all the time, could still bring an angler results worth waiting for, and a picture-perfect catch that was more than worth the effort.
To the last, John Wilson, MBE was an angler, and the reason that many people who are currently building careers in and around the sport are here in the first place.
The Next Generation
John Wilson was all about traditional angling, and an accessible archetype for anglers of all ages, and a reason that many people, from a variety of backgrounds, came to feel that fishing was the sport for them. With his passing, will there be another angler with the same enduring appeal and quiet competence? Here at Angling Direct, we certainly think so; there are plenty of anglers who've got what it takes to lead the sport into the future, and plenty to keep anglers active for another sixty or seventy years. Keep checking in with our blog, subscribe to our YouTube channel, and perhaps one day you'll be nodding sagely to an angling celebrity, and telling your mates; “I was following his fishing on ADTV well before he was famous”, or waiting for a popular angler to sign her new book, remarking that you first came across her through a post on the Angling Direct blog.
RIP John Wilson – you leave behind a legacy, and a strength of passionate enthusiasm that can be relied upon to take our sport forward.
As you might expect, many members of the Angling Direct family knew John Wilson personally, and wanted to share their memories of him in tribute. This, from Martyn Page, brings vividly to life just how important John was, not just to the sport of angling in general, but to the current presence of Angling Direct in particular;
A Tribute From Martyn Page:
I first got to know John back in the 1970s after he had come to Norfolk from the Lee Valley area and set up his tackle shop in Norwich. We immediately hit it off and most lunch hours would find me in John's Tackle Den sharing ideas on how to catch the various species of specimen fish that Norfolk is home to.
It was the era of specimen groups, and John was a member of the Broadland Specimen Group, which as well as John, included some great and experienced anglers. I was honoured when they asked me to join the group, and we went on to catch some incredible fish for the time, particularly Broadland pike, tench, roach and barbel, sharing our findings as true friends together, to help us all catch more and bigger fish.
John and I often talked about the role of a tackle shop, which we felt was so much more than just a place to buy the gear. We felt it should be the centre of an angling community, helping youngsters and newcomers in particular, but also a social hub for all anglers. It, of course, led to John’s passion for filming, to impart knowledge beyond the walls of his shop. In many ways this was formative of my early thinking behind the Angling Direct community and the current AD TV YouTube channel.
Eventually John’s commitments to filming and writing became such that I was honoured when he offered to sell his tackle shop to me.
This was a step forward and within a short period I had acquired the other main tackle shops in Norwich, which we consolidated into one large store, the birth of the modern tackle shop, and of Angling Direct. John, supportive as always of our vision, was there on opening day to cut the tape and present the opening speech to several hundred anglers, who were waiting at the door. I think they came as much to see John, probably more so, than the store itself. As always he stayed on to talk, sign autographs and help out, in his element promoting angling.
There can be no angler who has promoted our wonderful sport of angling so much in this day and age, indeed probably ever, and none more known and respected by both anglers and non anglers alike. An icon for the sport whose enthusiasm was totally infectious, I am sure he alone has dispelled the myth for so many non anglers that fishing is about sitting in the rain, bored, whilst waiting for a bite from a minnow.
John, I am honoured to have known you as a friend and angling companion. Your legacy to angling will live on in so many ways including through Angling Direct and that early, shared vision of the purpose and responsibilities of tackle shops. In the meantime I know you will be hauling monsters from that large pond in the sky.