In reality the political scene, whether related to angling or any other topic, has not changed. Politicians and their lackeys promise everything to everyone, but very little ever gets done and so nothing really changes when anglers want improved fisheries and the environmental necessities that would guarantee those improvements.
This was brought home to me recently when I watched the excellent documentary on BBC2 about salmon farming. Titled "The Price of Salmon," Julian Pettifer presented the programme without prejudice, and showed the secrecy that still exists regarding anything to do with aquaculture. It forcibly reminded me of the difficulty of obtaining information relating to commercial fish farming on our rivers, over 25 years ago, when I was actively trying to paint a true picture of the damage that the industry was doing to our river fisheries. One could not find out the volume of effluent from the fish farms, or the composition of the effluent, or any related factors as, unbelievably, it was forbidden to disclose such information under the Official Secrets Act. Although on the surface it would appear that such bans on information have been lifted, the programme showed that this was not so. It seemed to be BSE all over again, the real problems associated with salmon farming are still kept under raps, and possible dangers to health are not forthcoming.
Pettifer interviewed several scientists. One of them stated that the government would not accept the damage that the proliferation of sea lice, due to salmon farming, was causing to wild salmon and sea trout. I quote his words, "It was hushed up".
Further on in the programme, while interviewing another scientist who was studying the sea lice problem, hanging around were two 'minders' from the Information Department. The inference was that if too much was said people could lose their Jobs.
Yet later, when interviewing a spokesman from the Food Standards Agency, which one assumes is in existence to give the public the true facts about what we eat, a Press Officer was also present. When Julian Pettifer tried to press the spokesman into an answer as to whether eating farmed salmon three times a week would be dangerous to health, the answer was absolutely perfect for a politician.
"Eating salmon once a week is good for you."
"But what if you eat it three times a week?"
"Eating salmon once a week is good for you."
Pettifer continued to press for an answer, at which stage the Press Officer turned off his recording equipment. That does not give one much confidence in statements by the Food Standards Agency.
Apparently the pellets fed to the caged salmon are produced mostly from fish netted at sea which have assimilated large amounts of toxins, such as PCB's, PBD's, (dioxins), which interfere with the immune system. Farmed salmon have been known to have ten times the amounts of these poisons than wild fish. All of these things are accumulative, so it follows that if one had a taste for salmon several times a week, as only farmed salmon are easi1y available, one might be putting one's health at risk.
It is not true to say however, that nothing has changed in the last 30 or 40 years with the fisheries themselves, especially river fisheries. The unwillingness of government to properly address the problems associated with fisheries has resulted in the deterioration of many river fisheries, especially with regard to migratory fishes. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and their obsession with the over-production of food, including proteins, often far in excess of requirement, has caused endless problems to our rivers and their natural ability towards maximum biomass, and maximum reproduction. When salmon are entered into the equation, over exploitation at sea, and in some rivers, estuarial exploitation, can be added to the aforementioned problems that the species suffers in this modern age. Certainly salmon fishing has changed, and deteriorated terribly during the last few decades.
Here in the south, when I was a young man, at this time of year I was eagerly looking forward to the end of the coarse fishing season for two reasons. Firstly I would expect to get some good fishing in at season's end with good roach fishing, chub fishing, and pike fishing, mostly on my beloved River Stour, and if conditions were good for a salmon, i.e. there had been a recent flood, or I had heard of good early catches on the River Avon, I would try for a 'springer'.
Anglers who have caught springers wi11 appreciate the magic that a big early fish, as bright silver as freshly minted coinage, can generate to the lucky captor. We southern anglers who had the luck to be able to fish for springers, knew that they were in with a good chance of a big fish. Rivers like the Stour, Avon, and Frome would yearly, in the early months of the year, produce their crop of thirty pounders, with a forty pounder or two chucked in for good measure. I remember in 1966 when I caught my first thirty pounder, that the first ten salmon that year that came from the Royalty Fishery, in the first week if I remember correctly, were all in excess of thirty pounds. Some years, the average weight for Royalty fish for the whole of the salmon season, was above 201bs. 'Absolutely Fabulous'!
The Avon record was a huge fish, only 4ozs below 501bs, and I have seen two salmon in the Parlour Pool of the Royalty Fishery that I am certain would have topped 501bs. One of those monsters was seen on a day that my friend John Denman and I, had booked the pool to fish for barbel and sea trout. We spotted the fish lying alongside the bank where we could easily have put a lure or bait to it. Apart from the fact that we did not have the pool for salmon fishing, we both decided that if we had hooked it, the chances of landing it were so small that it was best to leave well alone. We were both young and eager, and I must confess that if it had only been a mere thirty pounder we would probably have tried for it.
The numbers of big fish in those days was amazing for such small rivers, when compared to the mighty Tay or Tweed, Scottish rivers which also gave up many huge fish to its anglers. Even the Test and Itchen ran some 301b fish, and a few 401b sa1mon have come from those noted chalk stream trout rivers. Although the Test and Itchen have deteriorated so badly as salmon rivers, there is still the chance of a very big fish. That is one of the attractions to me that salmon fishing brings, in that one never knows what the next one will be in the spring when the river is often too coloured to fish to a spotted fish. (There's a pun there somewhere). One expects a fresh fish that nobody else has ever hooked. Unlike modern coarse fishing, where one hardly ever catches a big fish that hasn't already graced somebody's net.
Why I say there is still a chance of a big fish, is that as recently as 1997 I spotted a huge salmon in the River Test. I hooked it first cast, and had it almost to the net when the hook came out. We have not killed salmon for about ten years due to their scarcity, and thus I was using barbless hooks. I am not usually too aggrieved when a fish comes adrift, but I was in that case as I am sure that it was a forty pounder, and after playing it for about 20mins up and down the river, I expected to land it.
About ten days later I spotted another big fish. It was nowhere near as large as the first one and much harder to hook. Eventually it took, but only stayed on for a couple of minutes, and made me think of interring all barbless hooks. It returned to the same lie for almost a week, and was extremely easy to see as it had a long white scar along the back, from the dorsal to the tail. Probably a couple of weeks had passed before I saw it again, when I saw it swim downstream into the salmon ladder. The ladder is extremely turbulent and I could not see it there, and obviously assumed it had dropped downstream. I was rather upset to find it dead in the salmon ladder the following morning. It weighed 31lb, and further convinced me that the ear1ier fish that I had lost exceeded 401b.
As the salmon was devoid of an adipose fin, I knew that it was a fish that had been placed into the river as a parr or smolt from a broodstock programme that the Environment Agency, and the Test and Itchen Association, are jointly involved with. The EA were very interested, as many of the returning salmon that were introduced as youngsters also had a micro-tag inserted in the nasal area, which would have given information as to the salmon's origins. Unfortunately no tag was found. The long white scar was an old wound which the EA said had nothing to do with the demise of the fish. Likewise, the short time that it was hooked had no bearing on its death, which remains a mystery, despite the EA scientists looking for a cause.
The National Rivers Authority, and the Environment Agency, have put more money into trying to improve salmon runs and salmon spawning areas than they have into coarse fisheries. The editor and I disagree over this. He considers that more should be put into coarse fishing as coarse anglers contribute far more license money. Much as I appreciate the logic behind his thoughts, and I am a confirmed coarse angling enthusiast, I am of the opinion that if the rivers are improved for the benefit of salmon, they will be far, far, better, for all the coarse fish that dwell therein. Certainly when the bit of the River Test that I fish was full of salmon, it also held a far larger stock of grayling, roach, and dace, and big ones too.
Whatever. With the cut in grant aid to the fisheries sections of the EA in England and Wales that the Government is introducing, from over 14 million 3 years ago down to about 5.5 million, there will be little money left to spend on fisheries after the general running expenses are taken into account. Despite the recommendation of the Moran Committee's recent review into the legislation and policies regarding salmon and freshwater fisheries, that the grant should be increased, not decreased, I believe I am right in saying that the intention of the Government has not changed, and that they are continuing with the policy of reducing EA fisheries monies. If for no other reason than that, and there are plenty of others, they've lost my vote.
As I said earlier, at this time of year I used to look forward to the start of spring salmon fishing, but no longer. This year, with such high river levels I would have been over the moon as I would have expected early run fish to be present in all the places available to me by mid March at the latest - but it is ten years since I have caught a March fish. Now, although I have had an odd fish in April over the last decade, I don't expect to get a pull until May, and sometimes it is late May or even June, before there are fish in numbers in southern rivers. Not big numbers of course like the old days, when we would sometimes get two or three dozen salmon before the end of May, and the top salmon fisheries downstream of where I fished would double or treble that.
There are now restrictions in the allowable methods of fishing for salmon on our southern rivers until June 16th, and also one must return any caught to the river. On some rivers it is a fly only rule, while on others one is allowed to spin, but prawn or shrimp are out. I find this quite ridiculous if one is not allowed to kill the fish anyway and it is returned to the river. It seems stupid to me that after June 16th, one may fish bait and also kill any fish caught if one wishes. Far better to allow any method except worm (only because anglers don't know how to use it and let the salmon swallow it) and return all salmon to the river all through the season.
Where I fish now, on the River Test, the policy of all the fisheries where salmon are caught is not to kill any fish, whenever it is caught, and the same thing is a fairly general policy on the Itchen too.
One of the problems with a fly only rule, is that our southern rivers no longer have the clarity that they used to, and it is not much good trying to get a fish on fly unless it can see it. I believe the General Practitioner was introduced to the Test to try and imitate a prawn. It was successful too as it is a large fly, and in the heavy but clearer water of the past, fish would see it well, and it would take springers if it was fished deeply enough. A natural prawn was better!
Test anglers are still allowed to spin and lure fish until June 16th. This gives a chance because of vibrations, if the water is not too coloured when fishing the deeper lies; and in the shallower lies, where the light penetrates a bit, a fish may see well enough to grab a closely passing lure.
Wish me luck!