The impossible quetsion – is fishing better nowadays?

John Bailey with a glowing example of one of our most volatile species, the perch.

John Bailey with a glowing example of one of our most volatile species, the perch. - Credit: Archant

As some of you know, I am the presenter of TV's Fishing in the Footsteps of Mr Crabtree.

One of the delights of this privilege is that so many people, kids in particular, get in touch with their questions through the Crabtree website. One of the more common questions is whether fishing was better back in the time when I was a lad or if it offers more today. It's a tricky one to answer. As far as carp and commercials go, we've obviously never had it so good. However, you've also got to say that the wild fish stocks in our rivers, ponds and estate lakes are nowhere near what they used to be. I also add that in my day, far more waters were open to kids than is the case now and, even more importantly, as children years ago, we had the right still to roam, untrammelled, free of constant parental involvement.

I truly believe this is one of the greatest tragedies of the modern day. If a child is not within five yards of a responsible, certificated adult, then hell breaks loose. For me and my peers, fishing was a way of getting rid of adults and exploring the natural world by ourselves and on our own terms. It's by doing this that you meet real challenges and forge your own solutions. But hey-ho, enough of the boring old fart syndrome!

And of course, when it comes to talking about how good fishing waters were or are, it's never quite that simple is it? The truth is that waters are so dynamic, they are ever-changing, ever-volatile.

I have a long memory of fish populations coming, thriving and then declining. In many waters, some fish populations change annually. If you don't recognise this, you miss out entirely or you don't fish hard enough to exploit the harvest.

Any readers my age can remember endless legendary waters in East Anglia that are no more. Wolterton Lake near Aylsham is perhaps the most perfect example. In the 1970s, this was the most famous (and most beautiful) tench water in the land and was a magnet for the top names of the day. My guess is that it is decades since a tench came from the place which fell into complete decline a quarter of a century ago.

I barely dare mention our river roach that made the Wensum, Bure, Yare and Waveney so famous for 30 years at least from the 1950s and '60s. I doubt whether any of us will catch 52lb-ers in a season from our rivers ever again. Though I'll keep my eye open just in case.

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Perch populations are perhaps the most difficult to predict. Perch are short-lived as a species and very fragile, very vulnerable to bad handling. At the present, there are endless lakes and rivers in our region providing fish between two and four pounds in weight, but they will not be here forever.

Already, on a couple of my waters, I fear I have seen the best of things. The perch have declined in numbers in one and in the other fish are looking distinctly battered and battle worn. These specimen perch are just not going to last.

If perch stocks are transitory, pike aren't far behind. Pike populations have a pattern of boom and then bust, even if they are left strictly alone.

However, if you throw bad angler handling, predators and even saltwater pollution into the mix, you understand why big pike are to be treasured, more precious than any hoard of gold.

At present, a lot of stillwaters are 'suffering' from an over-population of silver fish, ironic when our rivers are so desperate for them. These countless numbers of roach, especially, are often to blame for poor visibility in stillwaters.

The roach also follow the carp stocks around at spawning time and hoover up just about every laid egg. Carp recruitment is negligible and the population, left to itself, gradually winds down. You see how potential good news can turn to bad and how delicate are the mechanics that allow our waters to tick.

Think about signal crayfish throughout so much of the Wensum. We're all appalled, obviously, but, in fact, the crayfish are making up the bulk of the otters' diet along many stretches, thereby giving a ghost of a chance to those fish still remaining and trying to repopulate. This time, it is a case of bad news turning to good.

There is a commonly-held view in the circle of environmental experts I mix with that if the aquatic habitat is restored then fish stocks are bound to revive. In my experience, they don't. At least not necessarily.

Nature is a great striver, but she often works in mysterious ways. She appreciates a helping hand and top-class water quality is all part of the equation, but there is a lot more that goes into the mix when it comes to producing a good fishery.

To end on a high note, how great it is that the fabulous wild Wensum brown trout seem to be returning. Well done to Terry Lawton and the Bintry crew for that.

There are better dace stocks than we've seen for years, in places.

I spoke to a couple of anglers who can't wait for the bass season which they are anticipating with relish, so we'll see about that one.

Let's all have high hopes then for 2014.