Looking back through my diary since the turn of the year showed how few opportunities there has been in 2014 to grab a days fishing on a falling river over this backend period. For us river roach fanatics the weeks between Christmas and the end of the season can be a golden time. The weed has gone, natural food supplies are low and the fish, if you can find them, are in fine fettle. In a normal year the rivers have had at least one good flush through and are usually carrying sufficient height and colour to make for some promising prospects. And of course it’s not just roach that are in their prime at this time of year. Chub, dace and perch are all viable targets and will oblige if conditions are right. The problem being that with record rainfalls, approaching biblical proportions across much of the country, the conditions for backend fishing this year have been anything but right. Anglers on the larger rivers like the Thames and Severn have barely been able to get within half a mile of their favourite swims, much less fish them. All of which gives the annual close season debate a fair bit more intensity this time around.
But first it’s confession time. Back in 2000 the Independent Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Review proposed that the close season on rivers should be lifted other than “where its retention is necessary to avert serious risk of damage to fish stocks” but intervention by Parliament confirmed that it couldn’t be lifted until supporting scientific evidence was available. I’m afraid that I was part of that intervention as I’ve long held the view that the close season was necessary on rivers given all the other pressures on this fragile environment. The flaw in this argument is that the current three month closure between mid March and mid June has precious little basis in science.
Now there is absolutely no doubt that the river close season is a live issue amongst a minority of anglers, particularly focused around the Midlands, but there are strong views on the other side of the argument too. Here at the Angling Trust we have two of our most respected and valued ambassadors who who take diametrically opposed positions. Keith Arthur is a passionate supporter of retaining the existing close season whilst Dave Harrell has been arguing for many years that there is no logic in stopping anglers fishing during a period when the rivers are in prime condition and the fish are, in the main, nowhere near ready to spawn. With climate change delivering more and more extreme weather we are now facing the prospect of an effective six month shut down on many rivers. Not something that was ever envisaged in the 19th century when the current closures were introduced.
The devastating floods of 2014 have impacted on the tackle shops and the tackle trade as much as on any other business that relies on participation in an outdoor pursuit for survival. This has led the Angling Trust to write to the Prime Minister arguing that these businesses should be included in the floods compensation measures. It has also caused others to ask us to re-ignite the river close season debate and to make formal approaches to the Environment Agency and to government.
Now I don’t deny that issues that divide angling opinion are more tricky for us than those on which there is a broad consensus but that is no reason not to engage with them. The job of a national representative body is to take up important mainstream issues and to see if we can find a way through which would benefit our sport without harming the environment and the resource on which it depends. So that is precisely what Mark Lloyd and myself want to do. We first want to facilitate a serious debate within angling prior to approaching the EA and this article is our way of kicking things off. We very much hope that others will contribute their own thoughts and ideas.
Some key points
We are not treading new ground here. The EA did conduct a very limited survey in 2003 to gauge anglers’ opinions on the river close season. Out of 173 responses from river anglers, 55 per cent supported the removal of the close season and 45 per cent didn’t. The subsequent National Angling Survey confirmed a division of opinion whilst polls in the angling media have shown weakening support for the current arrangements. More recently Steve Pope, the respected chairman of the Barbel Society and previous strong advocate of the close season, announced that his position has shifted and that he believed it was time for a rethink. So I reckon it’s fair to say that the ground is shifting in angling but what about the science?
The Environment Agency’s position on rivers remains that it feels it must take the precautionary stance of retaining the close season, until such time that it can be confident that removing it wouldn’t have a detrimental effect on fish populations. Its view is that this evidence could only be provided by an appropriate study being undertaken.Those advocating change need to accept that there is no way the close season will be altered in this country until such a study has been carried out. I hope all anglers will agree with this for as much as some may want to be able to fish on rivers all year round they certainly shouldn’t want to do anything that might detrimentally affect the very fish populations that our sport relies upon.
What I think
I don’t pretend to have all the answers but I do get to talk to lots of anglers, politicians, fishery managers and EA staff. I’m also a mad keen river angler who cares about the future of angling. My views on the river close season are evolving with the climate and the changing circumstances of river fishing which sees a lot less pressure on stocks nowadays. So here’s ten key points to kick off the debate…
1) There is no point expecting a risk averse organisation like the EA to do anything without testing both opinion and the science.
2) This is a live issue amongst a minority of anglers, particularly focused around the Midlands, but there are strong views on the other side of the argument too.
3) There are risks attached to compromising the conservation credentials of angling. The impacts of any disturbance to spawning areas are clearly more acute in smaller streams than in larger ones. And of course we use the presence of the river close season to argue against unfettered canoe access to smaller, non navigation, rivers and streams.
4) Issues that divide angling opinion are more tricky for us, however, that is no reason not to engage with them but it is a restraint.
5) There are differing close seasons on different game rivers, depending on local fish spawning patterns, so why not on coarse rivers?
6) Although close seasons are about protecting fish rather than tackle shops there is an issue about impacts on businesses.
7) The existing close season does not have a huge basis in science and is overdue for a review
8) Part of this review could include an experiment in a specific catchment. Perhaps the Severn?
9) Some fish do feed when spawning. At the start of the 2013 season captured Wye barbel were secreting milt in mid June. On the other hand species like dace, whilst readily caught when shoaled up prior to spawning, seem to disappear once spawning commences.
10) Dace and pike are the early spawners, often in March, followed by a lull in April. Roach and perch tend to spawn next and then chub and barbel in the May / June period. So I guess there’s an argument for closing the river pike season off on March 1st and shifting the river break to May and June. This way we would be delivering a longer river season at the optimum time for both anglers and fish and without compromising our conservation credentials.
These are just a few of my personal thoughts but I hope people find them helpful. Although I am clear that the EA should lead the process of reviewing the river close season I believe that the Angling Trust should stand ready to facilitate, as we have in the past.
The Angling Trust is keen to hear anglers views on this subject. So …..is it time to rethink the close season on rivers?