Well, of course it isn't, life will go on, but if we forget about all the bull, this might be a good time to reflect on what has been and what might be in the future. Hence, the title of this article. With only six months to go, I hope to dig deep into my crystal ball and look at where specimen hunting may be going.

Piscine train spotting So what is specimen hunting? Well, I suppose that if I were being unkind, I could liken it to a form of piscine train spotting. We have the same poor complexions, the anoraks and the note books stuffed with a facts about the numbers we have collected. The watery variety is a little bit less predictable (although not much) than the privatised railway timetable. Knowing where and when a big fish will come along is not an exact science (Hey I think I have been travelling on Virgin trains too long!).

So the aim of the game, is to catch as many big fish as possible and to eventually catch the biggest fish you possibly can. The purpose? Well, I suppose it really comes down to impressing your mates and a sense of personal achievement. It really is difficult to explain unless you are a part of it, like most activities I suppose.

The times are a changing I think it is fair to say that specimen hunting as such has peaked in this country. Apart from a few notable exceptions, membership of specimen groups is declining or static. This is largely because some species have become far easier to catch over the last twenty years. Carp, which were not so long ago considered uncatchable are now stocked the length and breadth of the country. In many waters they are stocked at elevated densities, which make them far from difficult to catch. Carp also grow big. Twenty pounders are common and this is an impressive sight, compared with a two pound roach. It is hardly surprising, particularly in the society we find ourselves in today that the biggest and easiest fish to catch is the most popular.

Back to the future

To give you some idea of the changing face of specimen hunting, I have carried out some analysis on the numbers of fish reported in the Angler's Mail magazine during 1997. This can be compared to data for the Angler's Mail and Angling Times collated by Jim Gibbinson for the 1980-81 season and reported in his book 'Modern Specimen Hunting'. These results cannot be compared directly because of the different magazines used, but I think the general trends can be seen quite clearly.
SpeciesQualifying weight19801997

You will notice two obvious omissions from this table, carp and catfish. To be honest, I did not have the heart to count all the 20lb carp documented in the Mail, there were literally hundreds, compared to the 109 reported by Gibbinson. As a rough estimate, I would guess one thousand carp in this one magazine alone! Catfish are omitted for a different reason. There have been so many illegal introduction over the intervening years that the results only reflect the increase in illegal stocking - something that I do not wish to condone.

Obviously, these results can only be loosely interpreted. What percentage of specimen fish are ever reported to the magazines? I really have no idea, but I would think that the percentage is much higher amongst novice anglers than it is amongst specialists - this will have a significant effect on some of the results I will discuss later. Let me qualify that statement, as it could be misconstrued. Catching a single big fish is a fantastic achievement, and something that anyone can be proud of, but you soon learn that naming waters in the press and drawing attention to regular catches of big fish can lead to increased competition in your fishing. Carp anglers are also more likely to report the capture of a stray big fish of another species, so the rise in carp fishing may also have had an influence on the number of fish reported.

To put the results in perspective, during the autumn of 1997, I caught a total of 17 chub over 5lb, none of these are included in the figures. So it is easy to see how the figures can become easily distorted. Also, certain species are featured more heavily at certain times of year, for example, pike get more coverage during the winter months. Still, I think that these results do tell us something. Certainly, the capture of specimen fish is becoming far more common than it was twenty years ago. This is most certainly due to the realisation that specimen fish are catchable with a little effort. A realisation which has led many more anglers down this path in the last decade. Also, without doubt, specimen fish are more numerous now than they were in the past.

So what can we learn from this table? Well, it certainly shows some significant changes in the availability of different species. The well documented increasing availability of tench and bream in maturing stillwaters can be clearly seen, as can the influence of artificial rearing on the number of specimen barbel. What is also interesting is the relatively small increase in the number of pike caught and the halving of the number of specimen roach caught.

Many of the changes seen can be put down to the availability of the fish. Tench of over seven pounds were unheard of only forty years ago. Today they are relatively common, and a better specimen weight might be 9lb. Most of the tench and bream featuring here were caught from either gravel pits or reservoirs, waters that did not exist a few decades ago. The increased use of agrochemicals and the availability of good quality waters is certainly the main reason for the increase in abundance of these species. Whether this is a sustainable pattern I doubt.

Specimen barbel are now also far more numerous than they were in the past. There are several reasons for this. In the late 1970's barbel were artificially spawned for the first time using pituitary hormone to bring the fish into condition. This technique is now commonly used with a number of species, and has lead to an explosion of coarse fish being made available for stocking. In my view, this has lead to the irresponsible stocking of barbel into many environments for which they are not suited. Although the stocked fish may survive and appear to thrive (i.e., attain specimen sizes), few progeny are produced and so the populations are reliant upon continual stocking. I must point out that this is just my personal opinion, as there is virtually no information on the long term success of stocking available (and with current cut-backs in Environment Agency spending, there is little chance of any research being carried out). What is fact is that in many stocked rivers females outnumber males (males do not reach the same size as females and rarely achieve more than seven pounds in weight). On some stretches of river it is unusual to catch a barbel of under this weight.

The results presented arguably show that specimen fish are far more common than they were in the 1980s'. As specimen hunting as such did not exist much before this date in any really recognisable form, it is unlikely that there would be much use in looking for trends extending further back in time. The results then can be interpreted as showing for most species a rise in the number of big fish caught. But what of the maximum size, the record weights for each species. For these, a different picture can be seen for most species. Most have crept up slightly, but in almost all cases, the changes have been nowhere near as marked as the change in the number of fish caught. This then perhaps highlights the increasing number of anglers fishing specifically for specimen fish, and the fact that for most species, changes in the environment have not had a great bearing on the maximum size of the fish.

There are some exceptions to the above theory. Zander are a good case in point. Having only been introduced in the 1960's, they are still spreading, still finding suitable habitats, and so are still far from the maximum size we know they are capable of attaining in other parts of Europe. Catfish, and probably also carp, can also be placed in the category of fairly recent introductions, which are unlikely to have yet reached their ceiling weights.

Other species are likely to increase a little, most probably as a result of habitat and climate change, leading to better conditions for growing outsized fish. This does not necessarily require hot weather, as has been stated in the past. In fact, cold weather is likely to grow the biggest fish, as the fish will waste less energy producing eggs and sperm when the temperature is cold. Cold and very variable weather will also reduce the number of young fish surviving, which will lead to a reduction in competition - again leading to an increased chance of one or two outsized fish being produced. The following table summarises my feelings on the potential maximum sizes of coarse fish in the UK.

Species Maximum weight Barbel 18lb Bream 18lb Chub 9lb Eel 12lb Perch 6lb Pike 45lb Roach 4.5lb Rudd 4.5lb Tench 15lb Zander 30lb

To finish this, the first of two articles in this series, I would like to make a point. Despite the numbers of big fish appearing in the press increasing dramatically over the past few years, membership of many specialist groups has declined quite dramatically. I suppose there are many reasons for this, but if you want to protect your sport, go out and spend a tenner on membership of your favourite species group, or if you are like me and fish for all species, join NASA (yes, they have a web site!) - you will not be disappointed.

Next month I will discuss the results in more detail. In particular, I will look at when, where and how these fish were caught.