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John Bailey: Where do you stand on the closed river season debate?

PUBLISHED: 08:00 23 January 2019

Spawning is a very different process on the big tidal rivers Picture: John Bailey

Spawning is a very different process on the big tidal rivers Picture: John Bailey

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As many of you will know, the Environment Agency has embarked on a consultation period to decide the future of the coarse river closed season.

It is on the smaller , upper rivers and streams that I suggest the closed season is so vital and must be maintained Picture: John BaileyIt is on the smaller , upper rivers and streams that I suggest the closed season is so vital and must be maintained Picture: John Bailey

It offers retention, abolition and modification. In future it suggests that the rivers might be out of bounds in the second half of April, May and June. I don’t know what you think of all this but judging by the way my social media platform has gone crazy over it, you’ll likely be thinking something. Much of what this column contains, therefore, are the views of hundreds of anglers and conservationists who have contacted me one way or another. Thank you. It is obvious very many of you share my river passions.

Most of us agree wild river fish need protection, not exploitation. In particular, all our upper rivers face endless problems from otters, crayfish, abstraction, diffuse water pollution and almost anything else you care to name. These are fragile, vulnerable environments that can easily be terminally harmed. We also have to remember that there is barely any artificial stocking of these upper stretches these days so all recruitment of numbers must rely on successful spawning years. As we all know, from April to mid-May at least, roach, chub and barbel congregate on the shallow gravels prior to, during and post spawning. There is a feeling that if angling were allowed for them at this time, spawning success would be severely threatened. I would go along with this.

Tinkering with the dates in the way the EA suggests enthuses few of us. Dace and pike spawn early so closing fishing at the start of April would endanger them. Roach can spawn as early as the first week of April so I see them endangered as well. At the back end, most spawning is done with by early June most years so it seems harsh to close off all this month to anglers. The present closed season running from March 14 to June 16 seems therefore a decent compromise to many of us. After all, it has existed for 140 years and has stood a pretty decent test of time, surely?

However, it has been made quite clear to me that all rivers are not equal. The Bure at Blickling is a very different river to the one at Horning. We can hardly compare the Wensum at Fakenham with the tidal Yare. In short, our rivers change beyond recognition along their journey to the sea. Whilst fish are brutally exposed on the shallows of the upper stretches in the spring, it is a different scenario by the time those rivers reach Broadland and the big open marshes. In these vast, deep, coloured lower rivers, no one knows when or where the coarse fish spawn. When they do, it is likely done in unknown broads and dykes where anglers cannot follow. In short, fishing during the statutory closed season on rivers like these is hardly likely to do harm.

I’m not happy discussing the economic benefits of scrapping the closed season as some have done. However, for Broadland, this is a consideration. Takings of tackle shops in the region can rise 10-fold between June 1 and June 16 I am told. The same goes for boat hirers I presume, along with B&Bs, chippies and pubs? In an area where the economy is so related to angling, this has to be a consideration, especially when the angling is not doing harm. There are sporting benefits too. If the closed season is scrapped on the lower/tidal rivers, matches can continue at a prime time, again without endangering stocks unduly. Matches are never held these days on the upper rivers so they can remain aloof from this consideration I guess.

So where do I stand after all is said and done? My present thinking is that the decision of whether to fish or not should be left to those controlling the river fisheries in question. This brings the power and the responsibility back to the anglers themselves, a move surely in tune with this Brexit age of ours? I would suggest, though, as a precaution that the EA fishery experts be consulted in each and every case and that their ratification would be needed for all future closed season abolitions, retentions, or modifications. How would this work? For example, I control several miles of the upper Wensum and with the agreement of the EA and with the agreement of those who have the say over adjoining stretches, I’d keep things exactly as they are. However, Norwich and District or whoever might think the present dates do not fit in with their completely different lowers stretches of river. They would be free to discuss modifications with the EA to come up with different dates or even none at all in some places.

Of course, neither my suggestion nor any other is going to please all the anglers all of the time. Any solution is open to abuse, but I like to think my thoughts might generate fresh interest, commitment and love for all our rivers and the fish they hold. Handing out more responsibility to the anglers themselves might just prove the answer?

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