John Bailey: From the Wye to the Wensum the issues are still the same

John Bailey did crack the Wye as this fine barbel proves. Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey did crack the Wye as this fine barbel proves. Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

I've just come back from the River Wye, in the west, my other river passion. Yes, the Wensum in the east and the Wye in the west are my rivers I like to think, and I've known them since childhood, short trouser days.

On the Wensum, my parents used to drop me off at Bintree Mill when they lived in Blakeney. On the Wye, my parents used to leave me there for two weeks every summer in the early '60s when they went off down to Devon. You couldn't do that with a young child now, but then I was safe as houses and adored every single second of freedom on the river. So happy days on both rivers and it pains me to see them in some sort of trouble today.

Superficially, the Wye and the Wensum are very different water courses. The Wye rises in mid-Wales and ends up in the Bristol Channel after over 100 miles or so of travel. The Wensum is far more gentle of course, finding its beginnings just above Fakenham and meandering down to Norwich through the rolling countryside of Norfolk. The Wye takes run-off from mountains to feed it whereas the Wensum remains a pure chalk stream. The Wye, too, can be mighty in flood and even in low water is twice the size, no three times the size, of the Wensum. However, there is more to the story.

It's a common theme to say that rivers have declined during our lifetime and this is true of both my riverine loves. On the Wye, as you'd expect, all the focus and all the money goes into salmon stocks. The Wye for generations was our most famous English salmon river and some of the old stories I love. Huge fish, 30s and even 40s, ploughing their way up towards Wales, often caught by lamplight and carried home to great houses along this beautiful valley. I caught my first salmon ever from the Wye, too, but my last from the river came out over 30 years ago. You don't see many salmon here now. The big debate down here on the Wye is whether salmon should be stocked as smolts, young fish, to help the native fish. The 'professionals' still preach the habitat message, maintaining that if the Wye is fit for salmon then salmon will return. They overlook the fact that during the great days of the Wye, the hatcheries worked at full bore to provide hundreds of thousands of smolts each year.

It's barbel that interest me now, both here on the Wye and at home on the Wensum. Wensum barbel we know all about. Their future has to be seen as hazardous. For so long, Wye barbel stocks were considered impregnable. As I drove home eastwards, I wasn't so sure. The simple fact is that over the last 15 years, my view, and the view of Wye anglers I trust more, is that barbel numbers are in rapid decline.

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I'm not going to end on a dismal note like this. The Wye, like the Wensum, is still magnificent, compelling and a joy to fish. I saw barbel caught, some real crackers to nearly 10lb and, I'm told, there are still super runs of those beautiful Twaite shad throughout May and June. Sea lampreys still come up the river to spawn and, in places, dace stocks are still buoyant. There are plenty of wild brown trout and grayling in the upper reaches and the beauty and splendour of the river are both eternal.

Perhaps the key is in those last words. My over-riding belief is that if we care, then we have really got to fight for our rivers everywhere in this country. We have many people and many bodies being paid to look after our rivers and we need more, firm, positive, proactive action both in the west and the east as well as north and south. There is just too much talking, that's what I'm told down on the Wye and that's what you will hear up on the Wensum. We've got enough data. There has been enough research. What anglers want is action now. If this means that fish have to be stocked, then so be it. There's a lot of talk about genetic purity these days but what is a pure Wye salmon?

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Historically, most of them came originally from Scotland or the River Rhine. As long as they're big, beautiful and salmon, anglers don't really care much about their ancestry.

Don't get me wrong. I adore fishing stillwaters but, like many anglers, I really believe that our sport needs healthy rivers to flourish. And at this moment in time, our rivers need us just as much as we need them.

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