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John Bailey: Are chub pointing the way forward for our fisheries?

PUBLISHED: 11:28 31 July 2018 | UPDATED: 11:28 31 July 2018

Summer chub can be big, as John Bailey and great friend Tim find out Picture: John Bailey

Summer chub can be big, as John Bailey and great friend Tim find out Picture: John Bailey

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I know I write a fair bit about chub, but what else is out there for us to do, especially in the dog days?

Succulent slugs. What chub can resist Picture: John BaileySucculent slugs. What chub can resist Picture: John Bailey

All my friends tell me that beach fishing is in a period of complete doldrums and not all of us have a boat to explore further than casting distance. Stillwater trout fishing is a no-no in this heat-ridden summer and trout on the rivers, given the temperatures, should probably be left alone, too, many of us think. On our natural lakes, tench have gone to sleep and, on the ones I know, carp have slowed down too. Commercials serve a rightful purpose in today’s fishing but they’re not for everyone so, what’s left? The ever-obliging chub, of course.

I’ve always admired the chub, but never more than this endless Mediterranean summer. The rivers are inches deep and more crystal than glass but still the chub will come out to play. Yes, they are the one species that can be caught but, my, they’re hard. They just have to be. They are the survivors of our rivers when so many other species have hit close to the end of the road. Chub are masters of disguise, keeping to the reeds, to the overhangs and to the undercuts. They flit past in full sunshine barely ever giving themselves away and until the winter and floods come, they never sell themselves cheaply. I once thought all chub would fall for bread or cheese and I now know how wrong I was. Today, in water this warm, I’d always go for a natural. A lob, a dead minnow, a slug, a dead frog, even, believe it, a dead mouse from a garage trap worked last year. I simply let it flow down the reeded margins and it was snaffled within five yards. And heaven forbid you use a line more than five pounds breaking strain. Or, you pinch on shot larger than a BB. Or your shadow falls on the water. Or your voice booms out or your tread is less than heron-like. All these things will leave you chub-less.

Let’s not forget that chub were stocked into our East Anglian rivers 60 or so years ago. Until then, as far as I’m aware, they were absent but what a hit they have been. What most people don’t know, or forget, is that the upper Wensum was considered the country’s finest grayling river until the 1920s and ‘30s. A hatchery around Fakenham, introduced tens of thousands from the 1880s until the Great War with phenomenal success. War and subsequent agricultural depressions closed the hatchery down, but there were still pockets of these enchanting fish to be caught along the river until the mid-1980s, almost a century since the grayling’s artificial introductions.

In the earlier part of my Norfolk fishing life, the statutory bodies that controlled our fisheries spent a great deal of time, money and effort on restocking. You’ve only got to read Broadland Tom, the story of water bailiffs in the middle of the last century, to realise they spent half their lives carting fish from waters where they weren’t needed to waters where they were. Go back further in time and you will find the estate lakes of North Norfolk were stocked in the 18th and 19th centuries from all over the region. Felbrigg Lake got its rudd population from Hickling Broad, for example. So, until the last 20 years or so, restocking was seen as an integral part of our fishery scene as it had been for centuries.

I’m proud to know Robbie Northman from North Walsham, the most amazing chub whisperer of his generation Picture: John BaileyI’m proud to know Robbie Northman from North Walsham, the most amazing chub whisperer of his generation Picture: John Bailey

Today, it seems the fishery scientists who tell us what we can do and what we can’t, pour scorn on this concept. Restocking is a word almost as dirty in the modern fishery vocabulary as pollution. Modern thinking comes down solely to the question of habitat. Get waters working in harmony with nature, the reasoning goes, and the fish stocks are bound to follow. The trouble is, they don’t.

I’m not a fool, believe that or not. I realise habitat is central and that our rivers, lakes and seas have to be fish welcoming and sustaining. However, in so many natural waters, levels of fish populations have got so low, they simply can’t maintain themselves. And, if there is a bumper spawning year, within a year or two, cormorants will have wiped out most of the little scaly success stories anyway. Oh. I forgot. “Fish predation” is another phrase you use in conversation with the professionals at your peril.

The Herefordshire Wye encapsulates this discussion between ‘on the bank anglers’ and the fishery scientists perfectly. The Wye and Usk Foundation (WUF) has been given countless millions of public money over the past two decades to improve the Wye catchment as habitat suitable for salmon. A fortune later and there are demonstrably no more salmon in the Wye now than there were before WUF set out. They might argue to the contrary, by the way, but most anglers would agree with me. The salmon guides down there, or those who are left, point to the fact that the Wye’s heyday as a salmon river in the 1930s coincided with massive restocking from a very productive hatchery. For the life of these guys, they can’t understand why a hatchery and habitat improvement can’t go hand in hand.

Along most of the stretches of the five or six East Anglian rivers I know well, I’d say stocks of most fish have fallen so low that a habitat designed by the good Lord himself would not save them. Because my working life leads me to the rivers and stills daily, I know where there are pockets of roach, dace, perch and brown trout but that’s all they are, pockets. Until we start restocking in earnest, I fear that even these pockets will be devastatingly empty in the coming years.

We still have our chub, though, in declining numbers perhaps, but those that remain are still big, brave and just catchable, providing you have more cunning plans than Baldrick himself. Bubbles was once my angling nickname. Perhaps being known as Blackadder’s stooge would suit me better today?

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