John Bailey: Angling In the age of ethics and the environment

stocking trout through a funnell

There’s nothing wrong with stocked trout funnelled down a pipe into a lake but we have to protect wild, spawning roach - Credit: John Bailey

I was fishing, just, in the 1950s and all I thought about was how to fill a jam jar with sticklebacks and minnows and I guess all the adults that mentored me only altered in their desire to fill their own nets with roach, gudgeon and perch.

I cannot remember a single conversation from those times that worried itself with anything more than how to get a fish to bite or to find new supplies of cigarettes. I know Rachel Carson published her shattering exposure of insecticides , Silent Spring, in 1962 but that decade too appeared to pass with few hand-wringing moments amongst the endless anglers I fished with then. The terrible winter of 1963 depressed us and resulted in fish kills, but I cannot remember anyone labelling it the end of the world and a signpost of climate change. 

I’d hazard a guess and say it was the 1970s when a few anglers were beginning to think outside the maggot tin. It was becoming clear to some that whilst industrial rivers were becoming cleaner, rural rivers were running into problems. This was the decade that otter numbers were being slaughtered and a few anglers began to whisper darkly of strange substances like organophosphates getting into our waters.

By the early 1980s, many Norfolkians were realising the death the dredgers wreaked with their gouging buckets. By the end of that decade, the cod of centuries were disappearing and the lugworm diggers I had worked with in 1972/73 were hanging up their boots, pails and forks. Stocked fish, both rainbow trout and carp, were now becoming a norm on the angling scene and perhaps for the first time ever, we were talking worriedly about the decline in wild fish numbers. The dry summer of 1976 had shaken many of us. At a symposium at the UEA shortly afterwards, Sir Peter Scott had avowed that Norfolk would be a Sahara in 20 years. The modern era of angling anguish had arrived.

wild spawning roach

Wild, spawning roach need to be protected - Credit: John Bailey

Now, many of the anglers I talk to hardly ever mention fish, certainly not catching them. We are a mass of anxieties over ethics and the environment. The rights and wrongs of catch and release? The validity of keep nets and live baiting? The question of stocked fish and the need for a closed season? And as for environmental concerns, well, we have the worries of abstraction, chemical run off (50 years after Silent Spring), predation, devastation of weed growth, invertebrate crashes and now of course, the new craze for re-wilding.

I recently was sent an email detailing the EIGHTEEN organisations now charged with looking after the Wensum and other important rivers in our region. It would seem that today, half of us spend way more time on committees than on the river bank and the concept of angling as a bit of harmless bucolic escapism is dead and buried forever.

It is increasingly apparent that the plethora of conversation bodies is doing no good whatsoever and is simply existing to gobble up funds and time. What we need is one massive, powerful body to speak for fish and fishing. Birders have the RSPB with a membership of 1.2 MILLION. Even the Butterfly Society has 40,000 paid-up subscribers. Angling? Well, we have the Angling Trust and out of the million plus who pick up a rod, less then 20,000 have joined. This is an outrage that surprises no one.

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Anglers are divided, apathetic and in the main, tight as a caddis grub in its case. You’ll have guessed this is a plea - or harangue - to join the Trust and already hands will be thrown up in the air. Some will be saying now is the time to pay the bonkers EA licence fee, club memberships and syndicate charges. No way is there £20 or £30 spare for the organisation that has recently saved our bacon in this latest lockdown. 

That’s right. I have seen the email trail the AT conducted with government this year and because of that we have kept out our rods out whilst golfers and tennis types have had to put away their sticks and rackets. The Angling Trust has proved repeatedly it will take on the EA, the water companies, Natural England, Defra, the Scottish Government and anybody else who threatens our fisheries. Under the umbrella of the Trust there is Fish Legal that crucifies polluters continually along with initiatives like Anglers Against Pollution, Anglers Against litter and the All Party Parliamentary Group For Chalk Streams- of which the Wensum and Nar are two. 

Several facts are inescapable. In this day and age, angling has to have a representative voice , however much  we might just want to be quiet and go fishing. The Trust has amply proved its voice is loud when needed, persuasive when required. I’d say with conviction that outside the Wild Trout Society, this is the only significant organisation helping fish, fisheries and fishers to any great extent. I’ve always been suspicious of financial leakages in angling conservation bodies, but I’m as convinced as a surly git can be that the Trust only uses money for specific, agreed purposes. Even the HR manager is part time at the Trust and that in my book makes them positively Scrooge like. 

Of course, the Trust is not perfect and has to improve and it acknowledges that fact. But rather than moaning about it, let’s help it and help our fisheries in the process. If this particular tight old git is going online to join, so can you!