John Bailey: How to solve a problem like the Wensum?

How the Wensum in Norfolk used to be reported

How it used to be... - Credit: John Bailey

A couple of days back I was surprised to have a call from the Angling Times.

For many years I had been a columnist for the now defunct Anglers Mail and if you think Norwich/Ipswich hostility is keen, it is nothing like the rivalry that existed between angling’s two red tops.

That’s history; what is not is The Question! Why had the AT, as it is known, not had a Wensum fish of any note reported to it for a whole three years, I was asked? After all, our noble and iconic river has for all my lifetime been counted as one of the great five fishing rivers of the country, so why this present dearth of captures? Sure, there are a couple of shadowy characters out there catching an odd Wensum cracker now and again, but when you consider I had six bites in 80 trips between December 2020 and March 2021, you’d hardly describe the old river as prolific.

Well, what to come up with, I thought? Knowing that he had been an AT man, I did say that a large reason for John Wilson moving to Thailand a decade ago was that he felt physically wounded to witness the decline of his favourite river. Moreover, the fury he experienced at seeing her being disregarded and maltreated ate away at him for years. Things have not got better since and as far as the Wensum and the vast majority of our rivers are concerned, the story has been one of disaster since the mid-70s, getting immeasurably worse this century.

The Environment Agency emerged 25 or so ago and the new breed of fishery scientists told Wilson and all of us that the problem was all about habitat. They said if the Wensum and the rest of our rivers were restored to good ecological health, then the fish would be sure to follow. That is the song that we have been hearing ever since, only it seems that the fish are deaf to it. Of course, we anglers, and naturalists too, know that good habitat is core. We are not fools but the passing of the years has shown that the better the Wensum has become in terms of health, then the fewer fish that swim in her.

Of course the Wensum has serious issues to contend with. Abstraction needs to be more closely monitored. There is all manner of pollution domestically, agriculturally and industrially. Norfolk is a far more populated and developed county than it was 50 years back and that has taken a toll. Having accepted all this, to be quite honest, I’d say that the river is in far better shape than she has been for a very long time. Dredging, the scourge of the 70s and 80s, has pretty well ceased and the river looks good with bends, meanders, tree cover and gravels emerging to greater extent than before. It’s true there are fewer mayfly come late spring, but my amateur kick sampling suggests there are still good numbers of fish food invertebrates along the Wensum beats that I know well. I don’t like the surge in signal crayfish numbers and I think there are a few too many otters, but I can live with all this.

So, I said to the Angling Times, if we accept that the Wensum still has life in her and that habitat is no worse than it has been, and probably is better, then why aren’t the roach, chub and trout back? The fishery scientists are still preaching habitat and that there need to be more riffles, more woody debris, more gravels and that even more data needs to be collected. But the song has become tired and its words meaningless to my ears, just as it had to Wilson’s years back.

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About the time John left for Thailand, very many roach were moved quietly from pits adjoining the Wensum into the river. There, for three years, they were protected from winter cormorant predation and the results were staggering. The roach fishing was, for a while, as good as it had been in the Wensum’s heyday, but then for a variety of reasons, the experiment was discontinued and the river dropped off again. Get habitat as good as possible. Get fish in. Protect those fish. You get the your river back.

That’s what Wilson told me and that’s what I told the AT. Of course fishery scientists won’t like this as their jobs depend on there being no silver bullet. Of course, it will cost money and extreme vigilance and hard work. Of course we need to work on the issues of pollution and abstraction and even keeping canoeists off spawning beds in the spring. Of course this is a project that must never be relaxed and of which we must never grow weary.

And the chances of me being listened to? Well, I said to the Times, just about as good as Wilson’s were I’m afraid and I’m half minded to book my own ticket to Bangkok.