John Bailey: The angling battle we must not lose

What healthy river looks like - barbel viewed from Hay Bridge on the Wye Picture: John Bailey

What healthy river looks like - barbel viewed from Hay Bridge on the Wye Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

I’m writing this piece far away from Norfolk, in Herefordshire. All my life it has been the Wensum for me first and the Wye here in the west second.

Now? Well, I’m not so sure. Yesterday we were in Hay and obviously I suggested a turn down to the bridge there, across the Wye, with Wales lying upriver. Nestling against a parapet were seven barbel, glorious in their silver and golds. But a few yards away, out in the sunlit waters, hung a further 11, some flashing like bronze swords as they fed and frolicking. Eighteen barbel then? But wait. Where the water deepened under the trees another fish rolled and at least 20 torpedo shapes drifted into view. Forty barbel, all in one sighting, at the first place I happened to look. Are there 40 mature barbel in all of East Anglia, I wonder? I’d say not by a big score, unless one of you knows better than I.

So what? What does this view from a Welsh/English bridge have to do with us Easterners? Pretty much everything. Last week I wrote about canoeists, the Amendment to the Agricultural Bill and the basic lack of knowledge when it comes to the smaller riverine environment. I was gratified that some of this newspaper’s readers took up the baton, most notably Terry Lawton, eminent fly fisher and author. Terry sent an email to all his colleagues in his trout fishing club and included the stark warning that “the very future of trout fishing on the Wensum is at stake”. He might have included the futures of trout fishing on the Glaven, the Bure, the Nar and just about every river where a canoe can scrape its hull.

Terry ‘gets’ the dire situation we face, but not all his readers did. Some replies he received still concentrated on the nuisance factor wild swimmers, kayakers and canoeists pose. Indeed, here on the Wye, flotillas of canoes have irritated anglers since the 1960s, but this river is broad enough and deep enough for actual, lasting damage not to be done. Such is not the case on the Wensum. You trouters who replied to Terry have to realise this: every canoe crashing its way down our upper rivers is doing incalculable damage, creating environmental chaos that cannot be undone. This is not a matter of inconvenience, ladies and gentlemen. It is, as Terry said, a matter of life and death for your sport. Terry stressed he has personally written to his MP about this and also to Earl Cathcart, who sits in the Lords and has fly-fished in Norfolk. I have contacted an MP and former cabinet minister who likes to fish (and received a bit of a brush off) but how many of you have done anything at all? My guess is probably barely any of you.

Apathy has been the name of the game in angling for all my lifetime at least. Anglers like to moan and whinge (as do I) and then do precisely nothing at all about it. Part of the problem is that many of us fish ponds where trout and carp can be stocked from the back of a fish supplier’s lorry. In this depressing modern scenario, what is happening to the aquatic environment is of little concern because it is possible to buy a part way out of disaster. It is those of us, still a majority I’d say, who worship natural waters that face obliteration. I use the word carefully. If the amendment to the Bill goes through, virtually every water course everywhere will be open to canoeists, kayakers, boarders, wild swimmers, cyclists, ramblers and picnickers. This will be an irritant for sure, but it will also wreak havoc on our rivers and that is what we face in the immediate future.

There are at least two problems here.

Since Covid, enjoyment of the countryside has reached new levels, and in part rightly so. After the government locked us up for months very many of us appreciated the therapy the outdoors can offer once we were released. Suddenly, cycling and canoeing claimed the moral high ground to the point it seems every citizen can do what he or she wants, wherever he or she wants to do it. The consequences of this expanding freedom are completely ignored. Secondly, since lockdown has been relaxed, the numbers enlisting in the canoe club (or whatever it is called) have soared. In the same period, I am not aware that many more thousands of fisher people have rushed to join the Angling Trust, our equivalent. Whilst canoeists are sensing an approaching fight for our rivers, anglers appear to be oblivious to it all. If you cannot be bothered to write to your MP, then for the sake of us all, stir your stumps and join the Angling Trust. Just go on their website and perhaps tell them of your concerns and why at last you are actively doing something to address them.

Stuart Brooks, of the trout syndicate on the Bure, has also been back in touch and is very well aware of the perils we face. He added that what wild brown trout remain all seem to be eating signal crayfish and growing outlandishly big as a result. It is well known perch, chub and barbel (if there were any) wax fat on crays and it is good to know that browns are profiting from the feast. None of us likes the tsunami of imported signal crayfish that has overwhelmed us, but it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. But even more interesting are the fishing diary entries sent to me by Mike Cubitt. They date from the early 1960s and they relate to Wensum catches in the Drayton/Hellesdon area of the river. The sheer number of fish caught by Mike as a lad are staggering and make us realise how far the river has fallen from those heady days. But, above all, Mike wrote of plentiful grayling back then, a species widely regarded as a barometer to the health of any river. The knowledge that there might be half a dozen mature barbel left in the Wensum in 2020 and not a single grayling should give us all pause for thought. The question is whether, like Terry Lawton, we are going to do anything about it.