As regular readers of this column may recall I only work part time as National Campaigns Coordinator for the Angling Trust and, when I’m not fishing, I do a bit of freelance work on other projects to pay the bills and keep me out of trouble. In recent years much of this work has centred around the campaign to clean up the tidal Thames in London. After flirtations with other streams, not least the Kennet, Hampshire Avon, Dorset Stour and the mighty River Wye, I am content to describe the Thames as my favourite river.
This might seem a strange choice at first glance, after all the Thames has not given me any of my personal best specimen fish. I may have grown up on its banks at Runnymede, Staines and Egham but it was the Kennet that delivered me those memorable catches that still burn bright in my fishing brain. Like the red letter day in 1982 when I had five two pound roach in an afternoon or the following summer when I was lucky enough to catch 30 barbel in a morning on a stick float and centrepin from the famous raft swim at Padworth. Back then the Avon and the Stour were the rivers to head for to seek specimen fish and much time and money was spent driving away from the Thames Valley and eating up the miles on the M3 in search of dreams. Even in their heyday these were not easy rivers but persistence and a modicum of ability eventually brought results. My first double figure barbel came from the Avon at Fordingbridge and a giant roach, a whisker under three pounds, slid over my outstretched and shaking landing net on the Stour just upstream from the New Weir at Throop.
So what is about Old Father Thames that stirs the passions of anglers of a certain age? I can only speak for myself but this is a river that has everything – it has history, majesty, size and serenity. It can be a frustrating and difficult place to fish, yet at times incredibly productive with catches to match anywhere else in the country. The current is often so placid that many stretches in the summer resemble a giant canal rather than a mighty river, yet at times the Thames becomes a foaming torrent, the power of which can take your breath away. I’ve fished it in all conditions, in all weathers and experienced all its moods. I’ve seen the river on its knees through pollution with signs posted up warning swimmers not to endanger their health by entering the water. I’m old enough to remember when parts of the tidal river in London were declared biologically dead and yet I’ve seen it recover with salmon traversing Molesey weir and in recent years sea trout finding their way upstream to Thames tributaries like the Loddon close to my home in Reading.
For me it’s where it all began. My first fish was the inevitable small perch on a worm from a stillwater but that wasn’t the place or the species that made me into a lifelong angler. It was on the Thames and its tributaries west of London where I learned my craft, starting with a trip, by bicycle as they all were in those days, to the tiny river Bourne near Chertsey. A six foot spinning rod and a metal centrepin reel that barely turned were hardly the best tools with which to run a float down the current but somehow I managed. And, a couple of hours later, when three small chub and the most magnificent roach in the world – all 10 ounces of it – lay quivering in the bottom of my tiny keepnet I was hooked for life.
These rivers became my world. The Colne at Wraysbury where I caught my first specimen roach, the Colnbrook just above the confluence with the Thames which threw up wonderful bags of fish when the main river was in flood and the Bourne from its source in Windsor Great Park right down to the main river. What I learnt on the tributaries I began to apply to the Thames itself. I caught roach and dace on hemp and elderberries at Laleham, I discovered how to beat the ever-present bleak by using the Dumpy float behind the gasworks at Staines and at Datchet, Windsor, Bell Weir and Penton Hook I caught barbel and chub on cheese and luncheon meat. Even when girls came along and priorities altered it was the Thames that kept calling me back. Returning home on holiday from University in the 1970s I would immediately dust the tackle down and plan a trip to a favourite swim to rekindle childhood memories.
Some 50 years later I still love the place and it is immensely satisfying to not only be working to improve and celebrate this wonderful river but to be witnessing yet another revival. Marlin, tarpon, tuna and bonefish are all very well, and I’ve experienced the thrill of all of these magnificent fish and many more besides, but river roach remain my favourite species and probably always will. On the Thames the roach seem to go through distinct cycles. In the early nineties we had some spectacular winter sport on bread punch around Reading as the fish shoaled up in the town centre. Very few were over a pound and a quarter but the quantity of fish between 6ozs and a pound made for some great stick float fishing. Eventually this died off, perhaps it was cormorants or perhaps the reasons were just cyclical – or more likely both – but the roach didn’t seem to be about in numbers. Yet a decade later they were back with a vengeance and we were enjoying great fishing at places like Goring and Wallingford. Again bread was the way to go in the winter with hemp ruling the roost in the warmer months. I think my best bag was around 40lbs taken one March afternoon, when I had sneaked away from parliamentary duties by accepting an evening speaking engagement in Oxfordshire, at a time when I knew the river would be sock on.
However, as any experienced Thames angler will confirm, nothing stays the same on this river for long. The massive summer floods of 2007 moved the fish all over the place. Carp were washed in from nearby stillwaters and the big shoals of roach seemed to have disappeared and we waited in vain for their return. But this remarkable river has the power to regenerate itself and Environment Agency surveys in 2011/12 -which were years of low flows and potential drought – showed the presence of successful spawning and a huge amount of fry in the margins. And guess what – the roach are back in numbers. Matches are currently being won around Reading and Oxford with anything between 15 and 35lbs – and a lot more than that if the bream put in an appearance. After a long absence, chublets are being caught up and down the river and the glory days of massive chub weights could be on the cards again. Down the road from me at Pangbourne the river is alive with hand sized skimmer bream so there’s obviously been good recruitment with these too. And just to add a touch of exotica to proceedings I heard last week of a grayling being caught in the main river – although this may have been a refugee from the tiny River Pang that decided to go for a wander – and of two big salmon turned over while electrofishing. Wherever and however these fish were spotted it speaks volumes for the water quality when grayling, salmon, sea trout can survive in the middle reaches of the Thames.
But there is one missing piece of the jigsaw of recovery and that’s the tidal river as it flows through London. The water flowing over Teddington Weir and into the tidal stretches may be the cleanest it’s ever been but the capital’s sewers, built in the 19th Century by the visionary engineer Sir Joseph Bazzalgette, were designed for a city of two million not the eight million that currently live here. Being a combined system that carries rainwater as well as domestic sewage Bazzalgette’s sewers needed some 36 storm overflows (CSOs) to discharge directly into the river to avoid flooding homes at times of exceptionally heavy rainfall. The massive increase in population means that these same CSOs now discharge millions of tonnes of untreated sewage into the river, each and every year. This does only limited damage in the winter at times of high flows but the impacts of a summer storm on a low and de-oxygenated waterway can be catastrophic. June 2010 saw a horrendous fish kill following such an incident and this is heartbreaking thing to witness on a river that has staged such a remarkable recovery that 127 different species of fish can now be found in the Thames estuary and along the Tideway. Even when there haven’t been mature fish floating dead on the surface we know that yet another year’s fry have been wiped out through lack of oxygen.
After years of study an expert panel came up with an innovative three part solution which would see big improvements at all the five sewage works discharging into the tidal river, plus the construction of the Lee Tunnel to deal with the massive CSO at Abbey Mills. That work is now complete and the benefits for the river are becoming clear. The final stage is for the remaining CSOs to be intercepted and the sewage put into a massive tunnel, or supersewer, which would run under the bed of the river before being pumped into the expanded treatment works down at Beckton. This huge £4 billion civil engineering project was not without its critics but it was incumbent upon those of us who care about the river and its wildlife to make our voices heard. I did my bit for the cause whilst in Parliament but I retired from the Commons before the final approval for the Tideway Tunnel had been secured. Consequently, I’ve spent the last four years campaigning for the scheme to go ahead, working with like-minded groups and individuals in the Thames Tunnel Now Coalition. Both planning and ministerial consent have now been achieved and construction is under way. So the focus of my work on this project has turned to ways in which we can try to reconnect Londoners with their river. We need the whole community to appreciate the value of a cleaner Thames, not just the anglers, bird watchers and environmentalists. That is how TideFest was born and part of my job is to organise the event working with many of the same groups who campaigned to make the Tideway Tunnel happen.
Tidefest, now in its third year, has become a successful annual event to celebrate the recreational importance of the Thames Tideway to Londoners. It is based at Strand on the Green, Chiswick and other locations along the tidal river and is a day packed with loads of great activities for all the family.
This year there was paddleboarding, kayaking, river dipping, guided foreshore walks, boat trips, an angling competition, nature reserve visits, artists displays, seine netting, live fish tanks, museum discounts, children’s games, stalls, music, and refreshments. There were children’s activities including river dipping, water testing and games designed to explain and increase understanding of what’s going on in the river run by the environmental charity Thames21 with support from the Institute of Fisheries Management and ZSL.
Local people showed up in huge numbers in response to the call to ‘come along and enjoy the river’. Plenty of glorious sunshine ensured a great turnout on an action packed day on the water. Local MP Ruth Cadbury was one of the visitors and tried her hand at kayaking as well as visiting the stalls and marquees along the riverside embankment. Nearly all the pre booked events were completely sold out and we are looking to expand the size and number of activities on offer for next year.
There were some impressive weights of bream at this year’s TideFest Championship
TideFest 2016 – Record match weight in the London sunshine.
So with all this going on how did the river fish? Well I’m pleased to report that the Third Tideway Angling Championship saw a record weight of over 40lbs of bream for the winner Martin Davies who feeder fished maggots alongside Oliver’s Island below Kew Bridge.
32 anglers fished the two zones at Barnes and Strand on the Green and despite hot sunny conditions and the presence of over 2000 people enjoying walks, paddleboarding, kayaking, river cruises or simply strolling along the towpath, the bream fed well and there were three weights of over 30lbs topped by Martin Davies’s 46.11 of bream up to 8lbs. Second with the top weight at Barnes was Ricky Tomala with 32.11 followed by Steve Edwards with 30.09 then Gordon Bullock with 20.8. The top four shared a £1000 pay out. The event is sponsored by Tideway – formerly Thames Tideway Tunnel – and Thames Water and the match was organised by the Angling Trust with invaluable support from Will Barnard, Angling Development manager at Thames Water.
For me it was fabulous to see so many Londoners enjoying and learning more about this fantastic river. Although we had some stunning bream weights in our match the roach were quiet this year but I know there have been some great pleasure catches of red fins this summer and last year the section at Barnes threw up some real clonkers. The guys doing the seine netting at TideFest by Kew Bridge even managed to catch several baby bass which now use the tidal river as a nursery area. This all goes to show what a great river, wildlife and recreational corridor we have here in the heart of London – a river that has already received a boost from the huge investment programme at the five big sewage works and will be even cleaner and better once the Thames Tideway Tunnel is built.
And that, my friends, is why the Thames is my favourite river – it never fails to surprise and it just keeps on regenerating and getter better.