John Bailey: A lot of talk, but where in the action in our Norfolk rivers?

John Bailey with John Wilson discussing action on our rivers.

John Bailey with John Wilson discussing action on our rivers. - Credit: Archant

We all love to catch fish, the bigger the better. Mostly. The trouble is that, without smaller, younger fish coming through, big ones will eventually die out, leaving us with precious little to catch.

The upper rivers worry me intensely. We seem to be seeing fewer and fewer roach, dace, small chub and perch as this particular winter wears on. I decided to set my stall out for smaller fish over 10 sessions, mostly on public waters, just to see how I got on.

I fished the Upper Bure, right down to Horstead Mill. I tried the Wensum in the city itself, at the excellent Bridge Inn stretch in Lenwade and up in Fakenham town. I found myself on the River Yare, just off the southern bypass, and I even looked for what remains of the River Tud.

Here and there I caught a few wild brown trout in the Fakenham area, a stocked brown trout lower down and a few gudgeon. But that was it. I realise that you can drop on a shoal of fish at this time of the year and make merry, but the overall conclusion was a drab one. In short, our upper rivers are losing fish hand over fist, year upon year.

Of course, this is not a new problem, it is one that has dogged us most of my own adult life.

John Wilson and I talked endlessly about this situation in the '70s and '80s and towards the end of that period, my SMALLEST river roach one year was nearer three pounds than two!

John was furious that all anglers and angling authorities did was talk. Talk, talk, talk he used to say and no bloomin' action.

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Now it is even worse. I spend a lot of my life fishing but even more, it seems, talking conservation.

We have the Environment Agency, Natural England, DEFRA, the Norfolk Rivers Trust, the Norfolk Anglers Conservation Association, the Your Fisheries Partnership, the Catchment Sensitive Farming Scheme, the Wensum Working Group, the Broads Authority, the Angling Trust, the Catchment Based Approach Project and endless other groups too numerous to mention.

Let me stress that this problem is not restricted to river silver fish. What, for example, has happened to the wild trout stocks of the upper Glaven? Even the Norfolk Rivers Trust, based there, admits that the decline has been catastrophic.

So what's going on? Is it water quality? Diffuse Water Pollution? Is it lack of fly life? Is it lack of woody debris? Abstraction? Crayfish? Compacted spawning beds? The influence of canoes? Or is predation?

This is the probable answer that most environmentalists appear to shy away from, an issue it seems that is too hot to handle. The modern answer this century to declining fisheries is habitat based. It goes that if you get the environment right, the fish are bound to thrive. For 20 years, though, we have seen that this is not the case. We have seen re-emerging fish populations that have then inevitably been decimated by predation. Possible physical restocking of upper rivers and a measure of predator control just have now to be looked at.

What is for sure is that John Wilson was right. We do not need more data. We do not need more monitoring. What we need is action. And we need action now.

Still, nature always does have the power to amaze. Whilst the dace might be a disappearing act, it seems that the Wensum gudgeon are back everywhere.

After an absence of years, I am catching my beloved gonks from Fakenham right down to the city. It is like millions of them have been dropped into the river from a spaceship! They are all of a good size and mature enough to suggest they have been in the river, hidden for years.

Mother Nature, eh? Just when you think she's croaked it she has the power to amaze.

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