John Bailey: Where have all the fish got to, man?

John Bailey angling Enoka with chubb

Enoka with a whopping chub from happier times - Credit: John Bailey

My dearest pal Ping Pong (don’t ask... men never tire of nicknames at any age) has just been quoted for a potential salmon fishing trip to Russia - £7,000. 

Throw in flights, tips, drinks and a general sprucing up of his gear and you are looking at nigh on ten grand for the week. That’s a lot of maggots. Especially when you remember that even in Russia you can’t guarantee salmon. 

I’m reminded of a press trip to the Kola Peninsula with some Americans many years ago when we caught exactly nowt between the lot of us.  

“Where are the flipping fish, man?” Yes, that’s pretty much all I heard for 10 days of non stop thrashing of the water and just imagine if the experience had cost them £15,000 into the bargain. 
 
Coincidentally, I have just received some bargain offers for beats on Scottish rivers like the Tay and Tweed. They are dirt cheap. Why I could have a week for as little as £2,000 and at that paltry sum, who cares whether you catch salmon or not? And the answer will very probably be “not”, which you have to accept as soon as you head your car north on the A1. 
 
Way down the fishing fiscal scale, I’ve spent a whole lot of time blanking myself this week.  

I know the nights have been chilly but for this time of the winter, the days have been benign and it was reasonable to expect a fish or two. Chub, after all, will make a mouth at most baits in far worse conditions than these and it has seemed like whole populations of them have simply been vacuumed into thin air. I rate myself a pretty good chub angler, as I should be with 50 years’ experience, but they have had me stumped well and truly. Wrong bait? Wrong method? Wrong swims? Wrong approach? Are they up in the shallows or are they still above the mills? Have predators driven them away-or worse? Pollution? Can’t be the timing as I’ve fished both dawn and dusk, as both the sun and then the moon have been on the rise. “Where are the flipping fish, man?” 
 
At least I haven’t forked out a thousand or two for my chubless week so there is a bright side of sorts. But is there in reality? I’ve barely seen another soul, certainly not any anglers. Dog walkers yes, and joggers and even a stoic canoeist but otherwise these river beats have been deserted, forgotten, unloved and untended. At least up on the Tay and the Tweed there are any number of folk trying to make the salmon runs better and, often, investing big sums to make that very thing happen.  

You might call that self-interest but at least there is action and that is the point. As I see it, on most of our lowland coarse rivers there’s no money spent, there’s no interest shown, there’s no action taken and year on year, things have been getting worse until we might have reached the point of no return. Perhaps I haven’t become a rubbish chub angler overnight? Perhaps there just aren’t the chub there to be caught? 
 
Simon Cooper in another of his inspiring Fishing Breaks newsletters has just pointed out the futility of the Environment Agency enforcement activities. I know a couple of the officers well and they could not be nicer blokes and I am sure, privately they despair of the flak jackets they are forced to wear and to the paucity of prosecutions for licence evasion the EA actually initiates.  

Some 300 cases got to court last year and a million of us bought licences. Fines anyway were usually derisory and the real villains, like the water companies, were generally left well alone. The whole shebang is a nonsense and the EA and its fishing licence just have to be re-evaluated. We all know this. We all mardle on about it. When are we actually going to DO anything about it? 
 
It is also hugely disappointing that Orvis, the US tackle giant, is closing down its remaining UK stores. You might remember one in Norwich, at the bottom of Timber Hill? Well, they are gone now, bar one in Stockbridge. I know that shopping online is the thing we all do but what does Orvis’ thinking say about the state of UK game fishing today? Think back to the 1980s when Norfolk alone had around 20-day ticket rainbow venues. Where have all those anglers gone now? 
 
We live in problematic times as citizens and as anglers both, but I remain optimistic. Angling has not been as popular or as acceptable for years as it is right now.  

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What we need to do is grasp opportunities and, what’s the phrase today, stop kicking the can down the road.