John Bailey: What do fish really, really want?

Ranunculus in all its glory... when you can get there before the swans

Ranunculus in all its glory - when you can get there before the swans - Credit: John Bailey

A little while ago I was talking to my Parisian sister-in law who told me about the draining of the previously-reeking Saint-Martin canal built in the early 19th century on the orders of Napoleon.

The Emperor designated it for drinking water, but, apparently, it had become little more than a dumping ground and when it was cleaned it was full of furniture, bicycles, First World War shells, rare coins, a car... and fish. It was full of fish. Brimming with them, even carp to nearly 50lb and roach of mammoth size too. Such profusion, despite the hell hole in which these fish lived.

Now, this conversation was brought to mind when I read an email from the Broads Angling Service Group (BASG) that was agog with all the groups and partnerships and actions being initiated to save our rivers, the Wensum perhaps notably.

There was talk of Action Groups, Catchment Groups and Ecology Groups and plans for 'Bioblitzes' (whatever they are) and endless groups monitoring just about everything there is in a river. It just struck me that all this well-meaning burble has been going on for quarter of a century, during which time more chat has meant ever fewer fish. I have no doubt BASG means well and is wholly genuine. The events on the Saint- Martin canal simply make me wonder if we have a clue what fish actually, truly need for a successful life?

I’ve always said that if fish could speak English that, along with some unpleasant recriminations, we’d learn a lot more about them. However, I am thinking that if we learn to watch and truly think about what we see, then we are getting close to the gist of what our fish would say anyway. Fish need food, protection and successful sex and little more. Considering the numbers of fish there, it would seem the stinking Parisian canal gave them more of what they need than the meticulously-monitored Wensum that can barely succour a shoal of decent roach.


Beautiful, yes, but never overlook the damage overly large numbers do - Credit: John Bailey

Food? One of the biggest issues here is the near-complete demise of the invertebrate-harbouring weed, especially ranunculus, along the Wensum over recent years. All the aforesaid 'groups' have looked into this conundrum for years and not come up with much of use. My best ever Norfolk angler, Tim Aldiss, came up with a whole lot a couple of summers back. I don’t know if Tim has degrees in biodiversity, ecology, water management or whatever or if he just listens to the fish. What he saw was that the vastly-increased number of swans is eating the Wensum ranunculus to complete extinction, a fact river keepers are witnessing on the Wye and Test where ranunculus is as rare as it is in Norfolk. What Tim did was simply fence his ranunculus beds out of the swans’ reach and, hey presto, the weed and the invertebrates came back quick as magic. No need for 'groups' or monitoring , just some chicken wire, lump hammers and river understanding.

Protection? Again, obvious if you look and think about what you see. Carp anglers at Kingfisher Lake tell me that there were a score or more cormorants on the adjoining Wensum at Lyng every day throughout the winter. That amount of carnage equates roughly to a dozen roach per bird per day and no small river can sustain that level of destruction on an annual basis. Even if by a miracle, a roach escaped for 10 years and reached the iconic 2lb mark, that fish would still not be safe. All you need to do to corroborate this is to get down to the river at Lyng next November at 5am and see for yourself. So, yes, I’d join a 'Protection Group' any day.

Roach spawning on the Wensum two years ago.

Roach spawning on the Wensum two years ago. Sadly the weed was destroyed two days later by swimmers and canoeists - Credit: John Bailey

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Successful sex? In seven or eight weeks, chub and any mature roach miraculously left alive, will be 'at it' along the rivers. They’ll find little weed to shed their eggs upon (see above), but the gravels will have to do. Sadly, this riotous fish fun will coincide exactly with the first of the summer’s canoeists, kayakers, swimmers and general mucker-abouters. The shallows will be trashed and any and all of the fish eggs produced will be crushed or scattered downstream in the flow. Why isn’t there a 'No Canoe Group' I seriously wonder?

I have deemed it wise to share this piece with four river keepers outside the county. They and I all agree that less abstraction, less pollution, better river management and more public awareness are all core issues for any river, but we equally agree that immediate, direct and bold action can produce huge and swift benefits. Sometimes you just have to talk to the fish, in English or French, and hear what they really, really want!