FOR A MAN who has done most things in the angling world, you might expect Matt Hayes to have mellowed with age. What exactly comes next after a career spanning multiple TV series, the Drennan Cup and endless impressive captures, from giant pike and carp to marlin and salmon? There’s still a lot to do, you sense, although his perspective has evolved.
“I savour my fishing more than ever now,” says Matt. “As a younger man, perhaps events took control of me. I saw a gap open, but I was ever so driven. Perhaps my one slight regret was that I didn’t take enough time to stop and appreciate my angling.”
These days, however, he’s doing just that as he goes through the archives with a retrospective book and undertakes renovations to the family fishing business. It’s all go at the fishing lodges and bar on Norway’s River Gaula, where he admits that “life is never dull”.
“We’re creating an entire wall with pictures of great memories and some amazing fish,” he says. This will soon include a life-sized painting of his catch-of-a-lifetime, a spectacular 4ft-long salmon weighing around 55lb. That said, chub, carp and other species are also firmly in his all-time favourite captures list, currently being made into a book.
So what makes a truly memorable catch for an all-rounder of six decades?
Golden days and shifting perspectives
“Ultimately, as you evolve as an angler, I think you want to catch fish in the most pleasurable or difficult way,” says Matt. “It can’t just be about the weight. It has to be about the story, the journey, how you stretched yourself and what you learned along the way.”
It’s these criteria that inspire his forthcoming book of greatest captures, and he’s the first to admit some of the choices will surprise people.
A 4lb trout, for instance, might not cause everyone to drool, but its capture involved intimate detective work to match the hatch, along with “perfect presentation in the tightest of spots!”
As for coarse fish, his first-ever 7lb chub on the Dorset Stour is perhaps the favourite.
“It was a very tactical capture,” he reflects. “Although not the biggest, there was a high degree of difficulty. I’d found a group of large fish patrolling a channel area. I’d tried to see if they’d stop for bait, but whether it was worm or meat pieces, nothing worked. I then tried pellets, and noticed they would accept tiny ones – but would only stop very briefly. It took an age to get into position without spooking them, and I had to use a set-up like a zig rig. Eventually the exact fish I wanted took the bait and I struck and landed it – that will always stay with me.”
Fly fishing has perhaps been his most treasured evolution in fishing, however, and not just for the aesthetic – he swears by its effectiveness for many species, especially predators, and a 30lb pike on the fly also makes the list for his book.
Returning to England’s Rivers
While Matt’s family and working life are now firmly in Norway, a part of his heart always remains in England. Does he miss fishing back in Blighty, we wonder?
“I certainly do miss it, yes!” he says. “I often think about floatfishing for tench, or being on a classic bit of river. I tend to miss it most in the winter, because you can go stir crazy over here! I’ve tried ice fishing, but the novelty soon wears off.”
Matt does make it back to England as often as he can, however, to scratch the itch and keep in touch with his roots. “I went lure fishing with my old mate Mick Brown not so long ago” he reveals. “I also went for chub on the Nene and had a roach not far off 2lb from the River Windrush.”
Looking at the state of British rivers, however, any cosy nostalgia quickly evaporates. Matt’s assessment is frank: “In 50-plus years as an angler, I can honestly say that this is the worst state the rivers have been in. It’s affecting so many people and so many waters – we’re not talking about the odd local stream but everything, including the most iconic waters in the country, such as the Thames, Severn and Wye.
“Just take the Wye. It’s possibly the greatest British river of all, and yet it’s being poisoned to the point where it’s a running sewer. Or look at the Severn, where aquatic life is so poor, studies have shown that in some stretches fish are entirely reliant on anglers’ baits.”
Crisis or opportunity?
While Matt is scathing about the abuse of British rivers, he is also adamant that there is progress to be made and a clear case for systemic change. As he puts it: “This is the most serious crisis in generations of angling, but it’s also the perfect cause to unite us!”
In his eyes, there are clear, albeit tough, answers to the current malaise. First would be to give the angling world a governing body that is completely free of the shackles of the Environment Agency.
“We need an organisation that can connect powerfully with the ordinary angler and hold the government and EA fully to account. I’m not convinced you can do that with the Angling Trust as it is. The intentions are right, but the delivery and self-reliance are out of step.”
Anglers have a huge distrust of the EA, Matt believes, not least of all because it’s been so unaccountable and toothless at protecting England’s rivers. In turn, being “joined at the hip” with the Angling Trust in terms of funding then hampers any far-reaching effort to unite anglers into one powerful body.
Action on pollution, to take a particularly sore spot, has been woeful from the Agency, with shamefully low conviction rates for offenders and employees even reportedly instructed to ignore low-level incidents.
“Don’t get me wrong here – the Angling Trust did a great job to keep people fishing in the pandemic. And I think Fish Legal does amazing work tackling polluters where the EA fails. But we’re nowhere near where we need to be in terms of bringing anglers together – and that won’t happen without a stronger and more autonomous force to unite angling.
“To be frank, it feels like anglers often don’t have a voice. Big issues are ducked, too much money is recycled into bureaucracy and there is a major disconnect. We’re losing the PR battle, and the number of people who are disengaged is a massive issue.”
It’s been a long while since Matt Hayes was our cover star at Angling Times, but perhaps the reconnection is timely, given the whole river pollution debacle. As one of Britain’s most celebrated anglers, he welcomes our coverage of the big issues, such as sustainability, sewage and broadening our base. “It’s a more fragmented world than the one I cut my teeth in – but we need the sport’s main outlets to focus on the big picture and not just escapism. On that note, I’m really pleased to see Angling Times back on the campaign trail. We need a place to unite and share ideas. Angling Times has a very long tradition of being that place.”
As for what the future holds, he’s convinced we have more power than we realise to “hold the government’s feet to the fire” and fight against the things we cannot simply lie down and accept.
“As a group, angling has the potential to be one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country,” Matt adds. “There’s a huge opportunity here to firmly grab hold of the narrative, but we’re being held back by the inescapable fact that our governing body’s main funding source is an organisation that anglers fundamentally don’t trust.”
On the potential power of anglers
“We should be able to go forward as a huge block of people, willing to say ‘unless you address our needs you’ll lose all these voters instantly’. If we spoke the right language to rally anglers, that’s the representative power we could have.”
“My son, Josh, is already a keen angler at 13. He has just started salmon fishing and has been casting well. Unfortunately we had low water and they closed the river and then he had to return to school.”
On the shocking state of water quality in the UK
“We pay tens of millions to fish. All we expect is clean water to fish in. Is that really too much to ask?”
On the current sewage debacle
“Anglers should be in the driving seat with river pollution. It’s unacceptable, and this is an issue that should unite anglers all over the country”
What advice would you give today’s big fish angler?
“Simplify your approach and stay mobile. Walk right around the lake and, if you can, find fish that are active. Observe as much as you can – and be prepared not to fish until you’ve appraised the situation fully.”
On the closed season
“You could drive a bus through some of the anomalies, but by and large the principle is correct and I see it as positive. Heavily fished stretches need a break, just as it’s healthy for anglers to pause so they can reflect and look forward.”
On looking back and life in Norway
“I’ve had a lot of fish and the river here owes me nothing. If part of my life is now taking pictures, giving others great memories and sitting in a bar to tell some stories, then that’s fine with me.”
Follow Matt Hayes on Facebook, Instagram (@matthayesfish) and www.matthayes.tv