John Bailey: Big chub, the Baftas and flushing our fish away...
- Credit: Archant
If we may, can we take this week's topics in reverse order, starting therefore with our flushed-out fish stocks?
Not that long ago, Norfolk especially was one of the unsung trout rich counties. Around the turn of the century I did a fair bit of guiding on our overlooked chalk streams and amazed a good few anglers from more hallowed regions, Hampshire included.
There were at least a dozen rivers and tributaries that I knew personally capable of giving up wild brown trout in both numbers and goodly sizes as well as occasional dollops of sea trout. Stunning rivers, sensational streams and screaming fly reels – no wonder that so many of my clients went away, heads and hearts both a buzzing.
I've often talked about local angler Robbie Northman in these columns as he is the personification of the pioneering piscator! Well, he has been out and about these last few days with fly rod and Polaroids and has had a depressing time of it. He has fished two of our upper rivers and a clutch of tributaries and has had next to nothing to report.
Despite reasonable weather, he says fly hatches have been scarce and trout even more so. Now, if Robbie can't see fish, none of us can. If he says trout aren't there like they once were, I believe him, especially as I have come to think exactly the same thing for myself.
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It's common to blame most of our riverine ills on farmers. Agriculture gets a bashing for most things when our river stocks fail and the critics look at abstraction and pollution of a score of different kinds. And yet, I can't myself help but think farmers are far more switched on to the dangers of chemicals, say, than they were in the 70s when our smaller streams swarmed with trout. A large land owner I know and trust completely agreed with me on this one. His contention last week was that the modern farmer does a fraction of the harm that he did last century. If we accept that there were more fish about, trout especially, when pesticides were sloshed willy-nilly there has to be another answer. Or at least a primary one.
My land owner and I suggest this...
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In the past 40 years there isn't a river valley hereabouts that hasn't seen a huge increase in the number of houses built in their catchment areas. In the case of the river Tud, for example, the transformation from wild flower meadows to housing estates has been almost total. Moreover, all these new houses feature dish washers, washing machines and multiple showers, baths and toilets, all discharging into our drains and sewers. Gone are the days of septic tanks, soakaways and the night soil cart. Everything ends up at the sewage works and ultimately in our ever more barren streams and rivers. We are not saying the chasing of farmers should not continue to happen, but we might look for answers elsewhere for a change.
The Baftas come next on my list. Some of you might have picked up on the fact that the BBC2 series Mortimer and Whitehouse - Gone Fishing has been nominated for a Bafta award next month. As fishing consultant for the series, old JB will actually be treading the red carpet come May 12. You'll be able to spot me. I'll be the one wearing chest waders. More seriously, how great this is for fishing. It is not long ago that the BBC regarded our sport with suspicion, if not down right horror. In part because of Bob and Paul, this attitude has changed. The suits at Broadcasting House have come to see fishing is full of good things. Friendship. Fun. Closeness to nature. A skilful art form. A sport filled to the brim with passion, commitment and frequently, if not always, white knuckle excitement. Moreover, because of the series, wives at last see why husbands go fishing. Or vice versa. We mustn't think fishing is a male pursuit only.
The Robert Shanks awardWhich brings me nicely on to Big Chub! This week's Robert Shanks Award goes again to a junior, this time to the fabulous Heidi Gallant. Heidi sent me photos of her end-of-season catches, including a monster PB chub. Let's get this straight. Heidi is a proper angler. She and her dad Matt fish every weekend. She is a cracking fisher in her own right, never just there to make up the numbers. I had the privilege of fishing with them both for tench last summer. It was a grueller. No one was catching. Heidi and Matt arrived at 8.30am and she watched her float without blinking for nine hours. It dipped once and she nailed her then PB tench and did cartwheels before getting back to the job. Matt had to physically carry her from the water at 5.30pm, by which time all the male 'pros' had packed up and grumbled their way home. What a joy that girl is. She'd win my own Bafta any old day!