Our upper rivers still need us to give some tender loving care

In the Eastern Daily Press's angling spread on September 4, Chris Bishop asked, 'Is the upper Wensum in fine fettle?'

His heavily hinted conclusion was that it isn't. Now, every word that Chris writes I read with interest, especially when he's into a topic as vital as this and as close to my own heart. His walk around the upper Wensum at Fakenham with veteran, Barry Burton (I prefer Evergreen!) was poignant. It was largely unproductive, too, and he and Barry saw very little in the way of fish or, come to that, in the way of anglers. I know only too well where both chaps are coming from. How many times have I walked the Wensum these past two sunny months and seen next to nothing and felt the icy hand of despair?

Like every other older angler, me included, Barry obviously has golden memories of the river as it once was. Angling is a sport that encourages memories and that is one of its many riches, one of the reasons, I guess, that it has such deep and venerable literature. My own memories can be misleading, however. When I look back to the great roach days of the '70s and '80s, for example, I tend to block out the seemingly endless blank sessions I suffered during that time. It's the great days that spring to mind, the leviathan roach coming towards the net through the gloom, or watching huge shoals of golden and red finned fish in the crystal clear water as the sun rose over the valley.

Blimey, everyone has an opinion when it comes to the upper rivers and I understand that this is major problem that the Environment Agency and fishery scientists always face everywhere. How we discriminate between memories and hard fact is never easy and almost always too subjective for scientists. So many memories are anecdotal and golden-tinged and barely ever objectively quantifiable. That's just how it is.

I do have my own, roaching records from 1972 to about 1988. They list the places I fished, the times I fished, the conditions in which I fished and the roach that came my way.

They make interesting reading for the angler, without doubt, but scientifically, I guess they have little more than quirky interest attached to them. Dunking bits of bread flake into deep bends along a river isn't really what you call a serious, scientific survey.

Today, I'm truly baffled about the Wensum? I really don't know where it is at present or where it's going to.

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You cut and run, or you stand and fight when it comes to issues of conservation. Today, the Wensum has more support than it ever had. Think of the River Wensum Restoration Group. The Environment Agency is working as hard as funds allow to improve it stretch upon stretch. Jordan, Cook, Seaman, Todd, Carrick, Baker, Smith, Hurst and endless other names make up a really strong squad of caring landowners all committed to their riverine duties. There is a realisation in 2013 that the Wensum is important in a way it never was in 1973. It's also worth emphasizing that abstraction is controlled in a way it was not then and it's also worth applauding the fact the Environment Agency is putting back the gravels that it once used to so assiduously extract.

As Chris points out, the one thing the Wensum, in common with all our upper rivers, needs is fish. The modern mantra in conservation is that if the habitat is right, the fur, the feather and the fin are sure to follow. This approach seems to work far more regularly and reliably with mammals and birds than it does with fish. In more ways than one, fish populations are slippery customers and hard to predict.

One of the best examples of what I'm saying I believe to be found on the River Wye. There, the Wye and Usk Foundation has laboured manfully for a decade to improve the river so that it can, once again, host great runs of salmon. There's no doubt that they have made the upper reaches of the Wye far more hospitable to returning salmon but that doesn't mean to say that many salmon have actually returned. I don't think there's a single ghillie left on the River Wye who wouldn't give his back teeth to see a hatchery built there and the river stocked with salmon smolts.

My absolute belief is that it is imperative to get the rivers back to as healthy a state as you possibly can but then, certainly when it comes to roach and other coarse fish, you need to put in the fish. When stocks are so low that they cannot self-generate, you simply have to give them a hand.

It's not like our region is short of roach. There are scores of pits that I could take you to today, after your breakfast, where tens of thousands, if not millions, of our treasured fish could be removed for the betterment of those stillwaters and for the rebirth of our rivers. Of course, such a bold policy needs the Environment Agency to be brave and to stand up for what is basically commonsense. I see these pits, all alongside rivers like the Wensum, as bank saving accounts. In years gone by, the Wensum has flooded and stocked these pits with its roach. There they have grown massively in numbers and sometimes in size. Today, put simply, the Wensum needs them back and needs to withdraw her earlier deposits. I applaud the money spent on our rivers. Now we just need to put the fish in.

Fish in our upper rivers are a very good thing indeed. Fish are good for kingfishers, herons, otters and, of course, us. Like Chris, I'd agree it would be a splendid thing to see more anglers back on the banks of the Wensum and that's where they should be for nothing beats river fishing in my book. It wouldn't take that much to make us all that happy again as we reputedly were in the 1950s and '60s.

As to my weekly last cast, as it were, I'd say it's a privilege to live around the banks of a river, as I do the River Glaven. Only yesterday, I espied a fine, fat, smooth newt plodding from the wood pile around my stove. Where there are newts, there is always hope.