Time for a rant. I'm sure that not everyone would agree with the implication in the title that fishing is so poor in these Isles. And before you start flaming those emails at me, I do know that there are several places here where the fishing is very good. Those places are however quite rare and are generally private fishing venues where a lot of money or attention has been put into the fishery by those running it. My point is that, country-wide, with especial respect to the coarse fishing, the general angling potential here in the UK is an anagram of carp!
Some while ago Dr Paul Garner wrote a series of articles about the future of specimen hunting. He went through 30 year old fishing papers and compared the reported catches then with those of today. As I remember, he concluded that just about all species except roach are a fair bit bigger today than they used to be, and a lot more big fish catches are reported today than ever before. This however does not mean that the general fishing for the average bloke on the bank is better than it was, it just means that a lot more specimen fish are being caught. And most of these specimens are carp, a species which were virtually unreported 30 years ago.
Still not convinced? Okay, look at it from my point of view. I'm editing an on-line fishing magazine, right? I talk to a lot of people in the trade, read every article that comes in and watch all the advertisers carefully - and from this observation I deduce that a lot of people go abroad on fishing holidays. Not a very big trick to sort that out was it? Nor was it a very big trick to discover that very few people come to this country on fishing holidays. And why do you think that is? Hmm?
Now, let's not get exotic here. We won't try to compare dear old Blighty with the Florida Keys or the Barrier Reef. We'll keep our comparisons a little more local. France, Holland, Belgium, Eire, Denmark, Germany, Spain…. Yep. Without a doubt, these are all angling holiday destinations. If there are any anglers from those countries who come here for a coarse fishing holiday… Well there aren't, are there? No, I don't think so either. Or, as there's always some bugger to prove me wrong, not a lot anyway. And those who do are obviously insane so can't be counted! Personally, I would rather fish in any of those countries waters than in my own, and do so as often as I can - In fact the only reason I don't do so more often is cost. In the last year I visited the Canaries, Eire, Spain, France, Finland, the Czech Republic and the USA, all in quest of some decent fishing. For the same reason, I plan on retiring abroad. And it's not just me is it? Lots of us are going overseas to try to get some decent fishing in. Want to see an example? Just look at the massive business that French carp fishing holidays has become in recent years.
This is all just my personal opinion of course. Based on my own experiences. So, now I have indeed ascertained that the title of this piece tells no lies, I have to ask Why? Why is it so bad? Well, I have my own ideas but, in truth, I'm not an expert. Best thing is if I ask an expert or three for their opinions - Proper experts I mean, people with experience, people with freshwater fish related university qualifications. Freshwater ecologists, fishery consultants, even the fishery dept at the Environmental Agency. In fact, especially them. Then perhaps we can get to the bottom of all this and fix it so that we too in the UK can have angling of a high enough standard that our anglers don't have to wander off overseas to find some decent fishing. C'mon experts, answer me. Why is the fishing so bad here?
What sparked all this off? Well, it was a couple of news cuttings sent to me regarding the fact that the EA were complaining as they were going to have their funding cut by a huge amount. Here's what the news cuttings said:
Anglers face a £1 rise in rod license charges from next season.
EA officials claim they need extra money to maintain fishery services. And while the increase means the adult license will hit the £20 mark for the first time, junior licenses will be cut from £10 to £5, in a bid to draw more youngsters into the sport.
Concessionary licenses for pensioners and the disabled will go up 50p, to £10.
Well. No problem there. I can't think of any serious angler who wouldn't be prepared to stick his hand in his pocket to improve his angling chances on the riverbank. And then there was this one:
Grant aid to the EA has been slashed from £13.5million in 1996 to an expected £6million next year.
That means dire consequences for the agency's fishery protection work, according to fisheries chief Dr David Clarke. Bailiff numbers will be cut back, stocking programmes abandoned and rod licenses will see further increases, he warns. The Government's own Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Review Group has already warned that proposed funding levels are not enough. It says the EA needs at least £11million a year to maintain fisheries work.
And so I got to doing something that don't come easy to me. I started thinking. And doing some sums. And then I started asking a few questions. Now, nobody could ever accuse me of being the sharpest hook in the packet but I do know that if something looks like a pig and smells like a pig, then it probably is a pig; and something is definitely rotten in the state of Danish bacon, or as we optimistically like to call it, British coarse angling.
Over the last 50 years this country has consistently had angling as one of it's largest, or the largest, participant sport. During these years, a huge proportion of the country were and still are anglers. Figures have been bandied about saying there were anything up to 4 million anglers in the country but nobody really knew how many there were - or are. Some think that the best idea we have of angler numbers comes from the sale of licenses, but this figure is always going to be wrong. One reason for this is because so many anglers are license dodgers.
Oh. I did it again, I made a wide sweeping statement. A huge generalisation. Still, I have good reason so I'll say it again. I do believe that an awful lot of anglers are license dodgers. Why? Well, according to EA figures there were only around 900,000 full licenses sold last year. Are we really expected to believe that Dawi, Shimano, Masterline etc, etc, all those multi-million pound tackle companies, plus all the thousands of smaller wholesale co's, retail tackle shops in all the little towns and villages throughout the country, and all the mail-order companies and related businesses managed to make sufficient profits from such a small customer base? Hmm? I think not. My spies tell me the official government figure estimates that the total industry is worth at least £5Billion each year and I heard that the Sports Council put it at £3Billion a few years ago, so if we accept those figures, it's also growing industry.
Now… We seem to be following the PC and economic path these days and, as we all know, we are all equal, so please remind me again Why is it that the Scots and the sea anglers don't need licenses? 'Tradition' and 'heritage' did someone say? Oh, like fox hunting you mean? Well, God forbid that I suggest we tamper with traditions that involve our heritage, so let's stick with England and Wales - Though why the English have to pay a license fee I don't know - why not let the Welsh pay for it all? Oh, because it's not 'Politically Correct'. I see. I think? But the Scots and the Sea-ang??? Oh. My head hurts. Let's move on.
There would seem to be a great many anglers in Wales and England who do not buy licenses and yet very few are prosecuted for license evasion. This is probably because the EA expends very few resources in policing the issue, they say they can't afford to. As an example, it may not surprise you to learn that I, as a very regular bankside visitor, have only had my license checked on two occasions in my entire life. And I'm fifty years old. I wouldn't be surprised if some anglers go through their whole lifetime without ever getting checked. Perhaps one way to remedy this situation would be to make angling clubs and fisheries responsible (and liable?) for any of their anglers being unlicensed. This is a VAT situation I know, but I'm getting sick of subsidising fee dodgers, legal or otherwise, and it would increase EA fisheries revenue raised at virtually zero extra cost in policing. Those of us with licenses have nothing to fear.
So, and I know I'm wandering off the subject but this is a very complicated issue, made even more complicated at every turn it seems, perhaps the coarse fishing is so bad here because not enough money is put back into it? And yet why should coarse angling need a lot of money at all? It's self-sustaining isn't it? I mean, it's not like stillwater trout fishing. Coarse anglers put their catch back, to be caught and re-captured time and time again, hopefully growing bigger all the while? And if it's not like trout fishing, then why are we grouping trout and coarse fish together on one license to start with? Doh!
In a recent interview, the EA's Anglian regional fisheries manager John Adams us "What we need is a block of cash for getting habitats right so the fish can look after themselves". Dead right John. Now, if our (let's be generous) million license buyers are going to slam ten or twenty million quidsworth of revenue at the EA this year (as, in relative terms, they have done every year for the past fifty years) surely this is more than enough to get things started. And was enough to get things started decades ago. Unless of course the money has not been spent on coarse fishing at all?
The EA assures us that the coarse anglers are not subsidising the salmon anglers. The EA claims that "the money spent on coarse and salmon fisheries came from different sources, with license buyers funding coarse and trout fishery projects, and government grants paying the bulk of the EA's salmon conservation work". Sorry EA, but I call this creative accounting! What you seem to be saying is (and we all have to read between the lines because you really are experts at confusing us) that the coarse angler's license revenues all go on (er what? overheads?) whilst grant-in-aid from the government is spent on salmon.
I believe very strongly that this is all wrong; that freshwater fisheries money should not be divided into separate groups, i.e. salmon and all other species. That fisheries monies, from whatever source, should be spent equally across the board so benefiting all anglers and not just those able to fish for salmon; which these days is a fish that most of us only ever encounter in tins. Not everyone will agree with me. Elsewhere in this month's articles Dave Steuart, a angling hero if there ever was one, disagrees with my stance. But I can't help wondering if Dave would feel the same if he didn't have a salmon river which is also an exceptional coarse fishery running through his garden.
The North-east of England is an area much poorer than most in coarse fishing opportunities according to my friends who live there, yet the salmon fishing is very good. According to the EA figures published on their website, the catch returns have been very high in recent times and are getting better every year. Great. Or it would be if the area's coarse fishing was equally as good. So why don't anglers in the NE target salmon instead? I asked a keen angler in Tyneside for his opinions, here's how the chat went:
>Just interested - Do you salmon fish? And if not, why not?
No I don't.
1 Can't afford it.
2 Don't know the right people.
3 I won't fish with the express intention of killing what I catch.
4 Salmon interests are responsible for the wholesale slaughter of innumerable roach, dace and grayling (eg the demise of the huge grayling and roach shoals at Coldstream on the River Tweed).
When asked to enlarge upon this, it became very apparent that the salmon/coarse angler divide is still very much alive in the NE - and probably throughout the country.
The roach fishing at on the Tweed at Coldstream (The "Big Slack") was so well known that in the 60's, no less an angling luminary than Dick Walker used to have a cottage near the river, and in the Winter he and (I think) the Taylor Brothers, used to stay for days at a time, catching huge bags (100lbs plus) of roach - they were big fish too two pounders not uncommon - and loads of grayling of a similar size.
Of course, everyone knows that coarse fish eat salmon eggs, so from the 60's to the early 80's, a concerted netting campaign saw tons (and I mean that literally) of coarse fish dragged out of the river.
Salmon interests are still treated as being of much higher priority than those of the coarse anglers, not just in the NE but right across the country. Experts, please explain why? My local ponds don't do salmon, so please don't try the 'what's good for salmon is good for the rest of the species' line, because it won't wash. Time for a change methinks.
I live five minutes walk from the river Thames. (It's okay, don't worry. I promise not to mention Thames salmon). Here is a venue where, we are told, the fishery has benefited greatly from all the work and money that the various governmental agencies and authorities over the years have spent on it. For most of the year, even at weekends and despite it being free fishing, the banks of this river are virtually devoid of anglers. You don't really want me to tell you why, surely?!
Also five minutes from my house and a stones-throw from the Thames is the incredibly successful Twynersh Fishing Complex. This is a group of commercial fishing lakes where for an outlay of a fiver or so, you can have a brilliant day's fishing almost any day of the year. Even in the depths of winter with the lakes over their banks with flooding, there are customers. And lots of them. All eagerly angling away for roach, perch, carp and pike. In a conversation with Paul Rogers who runs the place, I am informed that "If the authorities did their job properly I would not be here. It's ludicrous that anglers who live on the very banks of the Thames have to come here to catch a fish". Meanwhile Paul is laughing all the way to the bank and good for him. Without him and guys like him, we would have even poorer angling prospects.
At the end of the day, when the fat lady has sung, here are some more facts and figures that cannot be disputed. Over the last fifty years, UK coarse anglers have paid out hundreds of millions of pounds. (Just stop there and visualise that sum. Yes, a lot isn't it?) For which we have received angling standards so poor that we have to travel abroad to find some decent fishing - or pay for it at a private fishery like Twynersh. In contrast, other European coarse anglers have paid nothing, or next to nothing - yet have coarse angling of a quality so high that people travel from all over Europe to go and fish there.
Funny old world, isn't it. And perhaps after all I have got it all wrong - in which case I invite the experts, and especially someone from the EA, to write in to explain it to us all because I'm not the only one who is puzzled by all this. I promise to publish the response. Perhaps the experts can explain why this 'self sustaining' sport of coarse fishing is still so very poor in the UK, after all those hundreds of millions of pounds that we have paid out!
Out of common courtesy I emailed this to my pal 'oop north', as I was quoting him verbatim, and asked if he minded me doing so. Here's his response, word for word so there's none of this 'out of context' nonsense:
I am 100% behind what I've said (interestingly I found myself in discussion just tonight about the "good old days" on the Tweed before the netting started).
Yours a very nicely turned piece of prose, and I look forward to seeing it "out there". Certainly it accurately reflects reality as I experience it.
One thing made me laugh though: the title of the piece is "UK angling: why is it so bad?"
You have NO idea how bad it can really be - I'd be happy to swap your "Bad" for my "Good" ANY DAY.
And you can quote me on that too!
I just did.