More to be gained from a good roach river than just pleasure

3337 – Float maestro Andy Field proves there are still Wensum roach to be had.

3337 – Float maestro Andy Field proves there are still Wensum roach to be had. - Credit: Archant

Mark Winkle, the UK's top roach historian, has just sent me a copy of an article from the Angling Times dated April, 1966, writes John Bailey.

1497 – A young JB with a fine Wensum roach from the ‘70s.

1497 – A young JB with a fine Wensum roach from the ‘70s. - Credit: Archant

The story was of a trip to the River Wensum, made by Leicester Likely Lads, Ivan Marks and Roy Marlowe. These top match men of that era had huge nets of roach up to around two pounds on a dismal day with a biting wind. It's a blissfully nostalgic feast of black and white piscatorial history that left me yearning for my early teens. More importantly, there are so many points of interest I barely know where to begin.

I actually recognise the swims being fished, even though 49 years have elapsed. The tree silhouettes are quite distinctive, as are the contours of the bends that the lads were fishing, but what has changed is the fact that the banks in the photograph are lower and flatter than they are today.

In fact, the years immediately following 1966 changed Wensum roach fishing almost entirely. Soon after this article was published, the viral disease called columnaris hit roach stocks nationwide and the Wensum was severely damaged.

However, as numbers of fish decreased, their size rocketed. The Angling Times article mentions the peak Wensum roach weighed around 2lb 10oz in those days. Eight years after this piece, many of us were catching quantities of two and three quarter pound fish and eventually three-pounders.

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From the 1970s, the stretch Ivan and Roy fished was continually deep dredged by Anglian Water. The so-called spoil, in truth, the gravels and goodness of the river, was heaped on the bankside and that is why they remain raised and artificial to this day.

In 1966, however, the banks were level and pristine and the river ran its natural course between them. Once the Wensum was dredged, however, it was little better than a canal and during winter floods it simply surged towards the city. Smaller roach were swept away in the deluge and their numbers have never returned to those 1966 levels.

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The point is whether this matters to anyone bar a few roaching diehards? Well it does. It doesn't matter where you look in our environment, if we lose one species the rest of the community doesn't do as well. Otters, herons, grebes, kingfishers, pike and perch amongst others all find it harder to earn a living now that Wensum roach are on the wane. There's also a financial consideration. In a few weeks, I'm meeting with the Environment Agency, along with John Carrick. John is a farmer and conservation of the highest repute and he has known the river even longer than I have, which is saying something. His ideas are spot-on and though we disagree on minutiae, that's how things should be and always are in environmental discussion.

My point at this meeting will be that there is a massive surge of interest in river fish and float fishing for roach in particular. If we could turn the river back to what it was in 1966, we would see a stream of anglers coming from all over the UK and even from Europe to enjoy it.

The financial knock-on for clubs, riparian owners, guesthouses, pubs and tackle shops would be considerable, especially in the winter when roaching is at its peak and tourism at its nadir. I'll certainly be suggesting ways to bring back our roach at this meeting and I will report back on results.

Roach to me are the most precious pearls of nature. For many, many others they could represent very significant pounds and pence. From every standpoint, our county's treasured species deserves to be cosseted.

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