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John Bailey: The fishing debate that never seems to go away

PUBLISHED: 06:29 07 March 2018

John Bailey still enjoys catching his spring tench. Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey still enjoys catching his spring tench. Picture: John Bailey


Ever since my childhood, and that’s a depressingly long time ago, the debate over the validity of the closed coarse fishing season has raged from time to time.

Twenty years or so ago, the closed season on still waters was, of course, largely abolished. I wasn’t keen on the move then but I’ve come to appreciate it hugely now, so this does show I can move with the times. Recently, however, the question of a closed season on our rivers has reappeared and there are plenty of anglers out there calling for a debate, even a referendum on the matter. Frankly, I’m not too keen on referendums these days and I suspect one in fishing would be just as disastrous as one in politics. Still, it doesn’t do to be muddle headed and I’ve looked carefully at the arguments for abolition.

It’s rightly said that lifting the closed season on stillwaters hasn’t had a cataclysmic effect. It’s even possible that by keeping bait going in through April and May, several species are better fed and better able to spawn during June. It’s also true on many waters, like the Kingfisher Lake at Lyng, that anglers tend to pull off voluntarily when they know that their beloved carp are spawning. This is a humanitarian act that reflects well on fishing as a whole.

It’s also argued that the fishing industry would benefit financially if the rivers were kept open between March 14th and June 16th. I’m far from convinced, though, about this argument. I think it’s fair to say that the big money these days is in carp fishing and in match fishing and both those sides of the sport continue happily during the springtime period. Finally, it’s mentioned that there is rarely a closed season on rivers on the continent and they seem to be doing very nicely. I’m not too sure about that one and I’ll come back to it in a minute.

You’ve probably gathered from my tone that I am pro-retention when it comes to the closed season on running water. Without a doubt I am. I live very close to the river. There is a four-mile stretch there between two mills and my conservative guess is there are about 60 chub present in it. Come the middle of May, all those chub pretty well will assemble on a stretch of gravels just beneath a very small bridge that carries a lane over the water there. The chub are very visible to anyone passing by but, of course, at present they are protected. If they were not, I’m quite sure the word would get around and those fish would be targeted. It’s hard to see how their traditional sporting routine would not be seriously, even disastrously disrupted.

There’s a huge problem here. Sixty chub in four miles of river. That’s hardly prolific is it? You are more likely to catch a chub over six pounds than you are to catch one under six ounces. This all shows, surely, that there aren’t enough young fish surviving and growing on to maturity and it would be completely wrong to make the chances of their success even more slight.

I have to stress that this one example of chub is not unique but common on rivers everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you look at running water in our region or further afield to, say, the River Wye, the story is the same. On the Wye, from mid May to late June, all the barbel are on the gravels and if you could fish for them before June 16th, they’d be an easy target and spawning success would once again would be the sufferer. Very quickly looking abroad, I have a small cottage in Spain and at the foot of the village there runs a river with Spanish barbel present. Over the last few years, the authorities have stopped fishing for a three-month period around the spawning time so that the fish can procreate in stress free conditions. If the Spanish have woken up to a closed season, it’s not the time for us to go to sleep on it, surely.

I’ve come up with approximately 15 major problems that our river habitats face. As anglers, we are one of the few pressure groups that recognise these problems and fight for their solution. To me, it seems that if we also fight to abolish a closed season on rivers, we somehow lose the moral high ground. If we are so uncaring, so determined to catch fish at all costs, it makes our high sounding protests sound a little more hollow. Furthermore, most anglers and environmentalists would broadly agree with my 15 disastrous headings. Surely, as anglers and lovers of fish and water, it’s hardly right for us to add a 16th problem to the already onerous list?

I look back on many, many March 14ths spent riverside with bitter sweet memories. You will all be there with me in spirit. A mild, spring-like day. Daffodils along the bank, greening willows nodding in the breeze. The air is warm, benign and it’s full of insects once more feeding both the fish and the reawakening birdlife. It’s as though the fish are ravenous after the harsh winter just gone. That last chub or big roach is something to be wondered at, treasured, committed to memory. The walk off the river is painful, agonisingly slow. It seems so wildly unfair that you can’t be back there for weeks, months even.

But surely there is an answer? What’s wrong with buying a cheap fly-fishing outfit? Why not join one of the region’s game fishing clubs that offers trout fishing on our upper reaches for minimal cost? That way you can get out on the river in the glorious spring. Swap your maggot box for a fly wallet and you’ll find that life is just as good.

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