John Bailey: Another river season rolls on by

John Bailey trotting the Wensum at Lyng

John Bailey trotting the Wensum at Lyng - Credit: John Bailey

So, March 14 came and went, taking with it the end of the river open season for coarse fish.

I wonder how many of you were out this last weekend in weather comparatively kind for this time of the year? I wonder what river you might have been on and how well you know the rivers we have here in the East? I wonder if you have been seduced by the allure of the comparatively easy stocked pits and ponds we have seen emerge and that makes me wonder how many river skills have been lost and forgotten?

How many anglers under the age of, say, 30, can trot a stick float? How many have touch-ledgered, stalked chub or freelined bread flake under trees or bridges? I saw a few anglers out the weekend just gone, but we were a grey-haired lot and that broadly answered my questions. 

I don’t doubt that the call to scrap the river closed season will be heard again this year or next or very soon. I’d defend the keeping of it on upper rivers to the death, simply because our fish there need all the help they can get and targeting fish on or near their spawning beds can never be defended.

I do accept the timings of the closed season could be looked at, though. Roach, chub and barbel, if we had any, are probably eight weeks or more away from their egg laying and I’d possibly be happy with a closed season beginning on April 1 and running until June 23. That would give us an extra week on the bank and the fish an extra week to recuperate and spread back along the river. I’d also urge the Environment Agency to ban canoes from the upper rivers until July at least and give the eggs and fry on the shallow gravels some chance of life. As for the totally different tidal rivers, perhaps the whole question of the closed season could be looked at independently - though I see the problems and issues here.

I, and everyone I spoke to, found the fishing tough those last days. I spent my time on the Wensum and though it ran low for March, temperatures were high and there were no obvious excuses for the struggle it became. For me and my gang, finding fish was the issue, but I suppose that is stating the blindingly obvious and it’s a given that you can’t catch fish that aren’t there. We chanced upon pockets of chub and roach simply because we remained very mobile and whilst Ian had a cracking 6lb 8oz chub, most of the fish were small. I remembered those back ends to the season in my youth and could have wept.

A couple of friends of mine spent the weekend down on the Test at Broadlands and their story could not have been more different. They trotted maggots throughout the two days and had a fish or a bite most casts. Roach - and big ones - dace, chub, grayling perch, they had the lot in vast numbers. It didn’t matter where they worked their floats, they told me, the fish just kept on coming. But, of course, there is an experienced keeper there who knows how to bring on and protect stocks and my mates paid significant money as a result. You always get  what you pay for in life and when did you last pay more than a few quid a year to fish on our rivers? In fact, did you pay anything, because only on one stretch did I have to fork out a measly tenner for a whole day’s entertainment? The fuel to get there cost way more than the fishing and that surely is not the way it should be, even in these terrible times of inflation. At this point, I’ll admit personally the very best of what remains of my river fishing is down to the generosity of dear friends.

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Anyway, to finish this meander around March, Saturday I was fishing at Lyng in the very swim I had my third ever 2lb roach over 50 years ago. I have to say the beloved Wensum looked even better than it did in 1970. The dredger has been long gone and the river now has its character back. The spring air was thrumming with insects whilst the water had colour and pace. I trotted with all my heart and had roach in plenty, but in sizes from whitebait to small smelt. Many of them bore cormorant scars and the carpers on the adjoining lake told me that at least 15 of the birds had been resident there winter long. Cormorants will be back next year and the years to come and what chance those tiny fish ever making it the time it takes to mature?

There are so many tragedies in life today, but this is one in its particular way. Our skewed view of what proper conservation is about will be the undoing of the countryside we have known here in Norfolk for centuries. BUT, having said that, Sunday, saw us catch some wondrous chub so I don’t want to end this piece in my usual curmudgeonly way. Where there is life there is always hope!