Keep off the rivers! For three months each year if you’re a coarse angler

There has been a clamour for some time now to get the close season on rivers either moved or removed altogether, most recently in Angling Times 11/2/03. My letter in reply is in today’s issue (25th February 2002). The arguments being put forward appear to me to be based more on emotion or greed rather than logic. I would like to look at each argument in turn and see if some facts can be brought to bear on the case. I shall look at the reasons for keeping, moving or removing the river close season as well as the problems facing angling clubs today. The main proponent of moving or removing the close season is John Williams of the Birmingham AA, supported by Des Taylor. The Environment Agency has been pondering whether to hold a referendum for some time.

This is a complex situation because the case for moving is different to the case for removing. There are precedents for close season river fishing in this country; some legal, such as Devon fishing a few years ago, others are borderline – the any method trout fishing once prevalent on Yorkshire rivers. And of course we have the fishing available in Ireland, Denmark and Sweden to name but some of the places where such fishing is legal.

The Case for Moving

The case for moving from 15th March to 15th June to say 1st December to 28th February begins with the well-supported argument that due to flooding, the rivers are unfishable for much of the winter. Add cold snaps, and you might be lucky to get a perfect river once a month. The heavy hit of two extremely wet winters out of three backs this up though it is not always the case. A study of river conditions over a longer period would probably show that you have to be unlucky to lose more than four weekends most winters, in other words we have been unlucky. The BAA is most affected by conditions on the Severn. The Severn in flood is an awesome beast. Few other rivers are affected so badly and for so long.

The Case against Moving

If the close season were moved to the spring then the best of the winter dace, roach, chub, barbel, perch, and pike fishing is lost. Many anglers, and I’m one of them, much prefer to be fishing on a river in winter if at all possible rather than the static inactivity of still water angling in cold weather. Those for moving the close season would be more than balanced by those against it. Whether it would be possible for individual clubs, water owners, etc, to choose their own closed period has not been stated. On a more local basis grayling fishing is usually only available in the game fish close season so this would be restricted to a month or two.

The Case for Removing

The main BAA case for removing the close season is based on the ever-diminishing numbers of anglers that continue to fish rivers. The BAA has seen its membership slump from a peak of 60,000 thirty years ago to 11,000 today. BAA head John Williams believes that allowing all year round fishing on the rivers will stem the tide. My counter argument is that if those same missing anglers are not fishing the rivers from June to October what makes him think that they will want to fish them in April and May? He rightly points out that venues such as Moorlands and Makins are full week in week out, and that the BAA are going to provide fishing of a like standard for its members. This is to be commended. There is, I fear, no magic quick fix to getting anglers that prefer the predictability, convenience and absolute fish catching of the modern commercial carp pools back to rivers.

Times Have Changed

The dilemma faced by many clubs is that the vast river holdings, legacy of the Seventies when the rivers were heavily used, are still requiring rental payments though the rivers are deserted. With day ticket revenues a tiny fraction of that previously enjoyed it is not easy to see a way out of the mess. This applies to many river fisheries all around the country. Many small clubs that used to hold all of their matches on rivers now hold none on those previously used lengths. Unless a landlord is prepared to reduce a rental then the club may have little choice but to let the fishing go. This whole area is drifting out of the scope of the close season argument but as it is fundamental to the problem I’ll continue with it. This situation is affecting the Trent, the Witham, the Severn, the Thames… the list goes on. I’m afraid that changing the close season is unlikely to fix the problem.

Before I move on to the real close season issues let’s remember what the club match fishing that took place twenty or thirty years ago on these rivers was really like. It should be possible to see the difference compared to the fishing found on the modern pools.

In about 1978 Ivan Marks analysed the weekly club results in Angling Times. From memory 5lbs would win half the matches, and frame in most of the rest. Even 3lbs would frame in about 30% of the matches. Despite the advances in tackle match results on rivers and canals at club level are not any different nowadays. Compare this with the results in club matches on commercial pools today. Winning weights over a hundred pounds, weights of thirty and forty pounds are commonplace. In my own club in Dorset, winning weights of a pound were common on the river – sometimes much less (I won one match with 2 drams). Heaven help the also-rans, they mostly blanked. Now on stillwaters summer winning weights are often fifty or sixty pounds; I’ve fished half a dozen of these matches this season and averaged nearly twenty pounds – no carp, just roach and skimmers. How many club match anglers are keen to go back to the old standard of angling? There is now good parking, no long walks and comfortable pegs, with breakfast available on the commercial waters.

What Would Spring Fishing Be Like

The question that must be addressed properly is what is the fishing actually like on rivers in the spring? And what long-term impact would spring fishing have on rivers?

My own experience of spring fishing suggests that the fishing is going to be patchy at best. It is true the rivers are often in fine mettle, but the fish are shoaled up tightly and spawning, and therefore not especially interested in feeding. Dace are usually back to normal by May along with pike. Perch seem to spawn not long after the dace and probably would be back by May. Roach are willing to feed in March but by the end of April have shut up shop and are not really back to condition much before July. Chub are pretty much the same. There is a very strong case for chub getting protection until July rather than allowing the cramming of huge numbers of starving, spawned out fish into keepnets in June. I’m not sure about barbel. I suspect they would feed until the end of April, maybe into May, then disappear until July. Certainly the condition of the fish is something that is going to be well below par for all species for a month at some time in the spring.

Before a tightening of the byelaws in Yorkshire there was often a hammering of the tightly shoaled chub and barbel in the name of any method trout fishing. It was recognised at the time that this was perhaps not the most intelligent way to manage river fisheries. It was a bit rich to hammer the fish at their most vulnerable time and then complain that the fishing’s no good though at least the fish weren’t retained in keepnets.

Having touched on the subject already it is time to ask whether lifting the close season means totally unrestricted fishing, ie, keepnets? Matches? Would there be protection of spawning fish by restricting where anglers can fish? Or when they can use keepnets? The law protects spawning fish at the moment though this is commonly flouted on stillwaters. There is no doubt that the fish density is much less in the average river compared to a managed still water. Would allowing all year round fishing cause the continual hounding of exceptional specimens in small rivers?

Recognising the Problems Affecting River Fishing

I think we all recognise the multitude of problems facing river fishing, anything from cormorants, pesticides, excessive flows, pollution, aging fish populations, signal crayfish… the list goes on. Those are the fishes’ environmental problems. The anglers environmental problems are poor access and insecure parking, difficult banks, long and awkward walks, inconsistent swims and a water that may be shared with boats, dogs, swimmers, not to mention the effects of flooding, weed, drought, etc. Add in the fact that the angling skills needed to floatfish rivers need more competence than float fishing on stillwaters, skills that have for the most part been lost and it becomes apparent that trying to force anglers back onto rivers is a lost cause. Book a match on a river and they will vote with their feet.

I think that we should proceed very carefully before we add to those problems by hammering the fish that are left in the rivers.

What of the Future?

Possibly the future for rivers lies with specialist anglers, and those anglers like myself content to floatfish, travelling light, enjoying the pleasure of a wild environment. The majority of the club match anglers have left for greener pastures, never to return. The big question is whether those left fishing the rivers bring in sufficient rental to justify the clubs holding the water. The answer is definitely ‘no’ in some cases. In other cases these stretches will end up as syndicate waters, others will remain unfished.

The challenge for clubs wishing to retain their river fisheries is to make their river fishing sufficiently attractive so that the rents are paid. To assist this the parking must be adequate and safe, with well-maintained river banks. All clubs, associations and anglers need to join forces with the ACA, NFA, SAA and Environment Agency to drastically improve the fishery potential of our beleaguered rivers. My conclusion is that removing or changing the close season is not the answer.

On the stillwater side the BAA, I hope, will take the opportunity to create the type of stillwater fisheries that their members really want to fish. It would be good for angling if a lot more imagination were to be applied in the design, so that the uniform, tightly pegged, featureless moonscape puddle is avoided. How about twenty yards between pegs, thirty or forty yards of water in front of you, trees, lilies, islands, variety of depths?

I suspect that I have asked more questions than given answers. The forum is open to John Williams or Des Taylor or others to respond with the answers.