Three views on the River Close Season

Looking out at the unseasonably heavy snowfalls on the first Sunday of the river close season has made me almost grateful that I am prevented from going fishing on the Thames this weekend. However, last month’s polling by the Angling Times and a series of vigorous, but respectful, debates at six recent Angling Trust regional forums have demonstrated beyond doubt that the river close season remains a live issue amongst anglers.

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A brace of prime roach from the Thames at Reading caught by my friend Alan Clarke on the last day of the season. Inevitably there was talk about the future of the river close season as we packed our rods away.

In order to try and resolve this perennial question the Angling Trust pressed the Environment Agency to conduct a full review of the existing arrangements in order to put some long overdue science on the table to enable a sensible decision to be made about when and if we should be stopped by law from going river fishing. In 2015 the Agency set up a consultative panel to guide this work, which included a review of arrangements in other countries and examination of available scientific studies. The panel was chaired by Steve Axford from the Institute of Fisheries Management and contains fishery scientists and three representatives from the Angling Trust all coming from very different positions on the matter.

The evidence paper, which has been approved unanimously by the whole panel will be published shortly and will be the subject of an EA consultation this Spring. Although this is not the first time the coarse fishing close season has been subject to review, it is the first time that there has been a genuine attempt to seriously engage with anglers and listen to our views.

As part of that process we thought it would be useful to hear from three highly respected and knowledgeable river anglers who all have a different take on the river close season. Top UK match angler and former Team England member, Darren Cox is a strong advocate for removing the river close season altogether. Angling writer and river enthusiast Bob Roberts argues the case for reforming the current arrangements while Angling Times columnist and broadcaster Keith Arthur believes strongly that he has yet to see any reason to change the existing closure period.

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Darren Cox believes that there is no longer any need to close the rivers to fishing.

Darren Cox – No longer any justification for keeping the Close Season

As a 52-year-old who has fished since the age of seven, I find it incredible that the existing laws on the closure of rivers throughout England and Wales (not Scotland or Northern Ireland, which are still open to coarse fishing year through) still exists despite absolutely no reason other than it is what was decided back in 1878.
Since that date fishing habits have changed dramatically. Approximately 80% of all coarse fishing in the UK now takes place on man-made ‘commercially run’ lakes where the same species of fish swim around and can be fished for 365 days of the year.
Due to the restrictions on rivers, attention has moved towards these commercial fisheries where the stocks are guarded 24/7 from predation and poaching. Fewer anglers frequent our beautiful rivers as they are not afforded the same protection, and by the nature of the banks being empty for three months, both predators and poachers alike run a mock in some areas. These are the biggest threats to our natural stocks of river fish species.
There is absolutely no scientific evidence that there should be a closed season, the law was created to protect fish back in 1878, as most fish were taken for the table. These times have changed and most managed fisheries, rivers and lakes alike insist all fish be returned to the water alive.
I spent my younger years fishing almost exclusively on the River Wharfe and River Nidd in Yorkshire. For many years we were allowed to fish on rivers for trout in the ‘closed season’ with baits such as maggots and worms, which we loved to do. We also caught many coarse fish at the same time. However, there were some species, like dace, which vanished for several weeks. Nobody could ever catch any as they had obviously disappeared to spawn.
I have also fished competitions on many rivers up and down the country (within the fishing season) and indeed all over the world, and had fish spawning in the weeds at my feet. There is no way you will ever catch a fish which is spawning! They are oblivious to anyone being around them as they have other things on their mind. Also, nobody told them that they were outside of the ‘spawning’ season either! Coarse fish spawn from early February to July depending on species and weather. That is half the year, so how can we claim that the current season protects fish stocks when they are spawning?
Eventually there will be no more fishing on rivers if the current regulations are kept in place as local clubs cannot survive to even break even when they are restricted from allowing fishing on their waters for 25% of the year! Add that to a bad winter, which can mean losing up to another three months due to floods and cold weather then it is understandable that these organisations are ready to call it a day.
These are the organisations that have local bailiffs to ensure that rules and regulations are adhered to by their membership. Poachers are prevented from illegally taking fish stocks and predators are regularly deterred from helping themselves. The organisations are also the eyes and ears of the riverbanks up and down the country. Years ago, as the Pollution Officer for Boston Spa Angling Club I was able to alert the water authority to various irregularities in water quality which may have been extremely detrimental to lots of aquatic life, let alone fish. For these reasons alone there is absolutely no justification to retain the old and antiquated law, which applied to a different generation of anglers, in what was a very different world for fishing.

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Catching this spawn bound chub on June 16th saw Bob Roberts pack away his river tackle until July 1st. Bob argues strongly that the close season dates are all wrong.

Bob Roberts – The Case For Change

I feel rather sad for those who fear change. Left to them we would still be living in caves, happy that the world is reassuringly flat. Of course, there would be no closed season for coarse fish because A, there would be no such thing as legislation, and B, well, folk need to eat, don’t they?
And there’s the rub. Anglers had been catching fish for nigh-on 40,000 years before some bright spark decided to invent a closed season. If those 40,000 years were squeezed into a single day then man has only observed a closed season for about 4 minutes, so please don’t tell me we should keep the closed season because we’ve always had one. We haven’t.
We are observing the current closed season according to an 1878 Act based on zero scientific evidence. Even the agreed dates were a compromise which made little difference in an era when everything caught was taken home and eaten.
The closed season was not introduced to prevent the disturbance of nesting birds (that is covered by the Wildlife and Countryside Act), or indeed to let the grass grow. It was introduced to provide an opportunity for freshwater fish to, ‘complete the procreation of their species in peace and quiet.’
And by pure coincidence it kept the riff-raff away from rivers when salmon were running.
Can anyone explain what is the significance of it being 93 days long? No, thought not!
Some say rules are made to be broken. I disagree. Rules exist for good reason but should be routinely challenged to ensure they continue to achieve their intention. If not, then they need amending or abolishing. Laws by their very nature must evolve with changing circumstances.
Should it still be legal for a male to urinate in public, as long it is on the rear wheel of his motor vehicle and his right hand is on the vehicle? Of course not.
Angling stands at a crossroads. We have an opportunity to drag our sport out of the 19th Century although I hope people will not make their choice lightly. Only three options lie before us: keep , abolish or amend.
If you think nothing has changed since 1878, that anglers take home everything they catch, that water quality, fish stocks, fishing practises and the climate is exactly as it was in the 1800s then thee must taketh up thy quill and vote for retaining the status quo. There is clearly no point in changing anything.
If you think it’s okay to target fish relentlessly, round the clock, 365 days a year and to hell with the consequences, then you should vote to abolish the closed season.
On the other hand, if it’s the fish you truly care about then why on earth would you pretend there is anything ‘glorious’ about the 16th June? Those who think it’s perfectly fine to be targeting barbel and chub in shallow water on June 16th need to take a long hard look in the mirror. It’s never right, is it? We know the fish are invariably preparing to spawn, spawning or recovering on the 16th. You must vote to amend.
The closed season is not set in stone and never has been since it was introduced. Change is something we’ve seen before on still and moving water. Here in Yorkshire the river season used to open on June 1st. The Broads used to open for Easter and Whitsuntide, if I’m not mistaken. Stillwaters were closed in Yorkshire but remained open all-year-round in the adjoining county of Lincolnshire. Did these exceptions damage angling?
It is far easier to amend than to re-introduce a Law. If the close season goes then it is likely gone for good, whatever the consequences. But if we retain it, with suitable amendments, then it would be far easier to refine our choice later should it prove necessary to shorten, lengthen or change the dates and for that reason I would heartily support amending the current dates.
Personally I can see no harm in fishing on through March until the end of April but would close all rivers through May and June.
Where it up to me I would like to go a little further and make those who control the fishing on stretches of river responsible for ensuring they be closed during periods when fish show obvious signs of spawning beyond the closed season. And if it were made illegal to disturb spawning fish then that could be applied to ALL users of the water, not just anglers.
Taking that even further I would place a responsibility on those who control fishing rights to keep records proving they have continually assessed conditions and closed the water when appropriate. This means a club might close a stretch immediately below a weir whereas further downstream the river remains open to fishing, thereby protecting the spawning grounds whilst allowing fishing to continue elsewhere.
This would safely protect exceptional years.
Sensible measures like this achieve everything the original Act was intended for, which is to protect spawning fish whenever this happens whilst incorporating elements of change and control.
I can’t wait to fish on the ‘Glorious First’. How about you?

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Keith Arthur wants to see incontrovertible scientific evidence that fish would benefit from any change to the existing close season on rivers.

Keith Arthur – Why Change?

The first thing that is obvious about making any changes to the close season is that public opinion should be the last, the VERY last, consideration. We are not dealing with what anglers want here but with precious stocks of fish already threatened on many fronts, not least of which is predation. When you add to that abstraction, creating reduced flows and shallower water with less oxygen; coarse fish being targeted as a food source with seine nets, cast nets, long lines and groups of anglers fishing with multiple rods purely to remove adult fish; pollution, poor river management with habitat destruction removing valuable spawning grounds it’s almost a miracle we catch anything at all, never mind many rivers producing better catches than at any time I can recall in over sixty years of fishing.

That alone should tell us we are doing something right and I believe one of those things is allowing fish three months peace and quiet from being pressured by anglers to do what they do. Some will say they have a good break thanks to poor river conditions in winter. So if a particular winter is bad for angling should we cancel just that close season? How about when we have a mild, dry winter and fishing is phenomenal – as it has been on some rivers this year – should the official break be reinstated? That’s nonsense really isn’t it.

The concept of abolition is about one thing and one thing only, in my opinion, and that is selfish anglers wanting to fish more with no consideration about the future…the future when I and possibly most of them will be long gone because any destruction won’t be noticed in a couple of years.

The law was put in place NOT, as some have stated, to keep the poor off the banks so the gentry had rivers to themselves to fly fish for their preferred species. Those gentry fished their own private stretches anyway. The law was introduced to protect spawning fish. OK, I’ll concede that it was at a time when coarse fish were usually taken, either for the table or trophies. However our population then was way less than half what it is now, pressure on water was less from every perspective.

There have been challenges to the close season before and it seems to have been swept under the carpet that the last review was in the early 1990s, when the close season was abolished on stillwaters. The only reason the then authority, the National Rivers Authority, deemed that acceptable was because fish in almost every stillwater belong to someone and, if there should be a catastrophe caused by interfering with spawning, those fish could be replaced. They are a commodity, in many cases an investment to produce income, just like stock on the shelves of a shop. They concluded the same applied to canals when that close season was abolished a couple of years later. Fish in rivers, and only in rivers, are a public resource belonging to us all, not just anglers!

The NRA’s research, conducted by universities and scientists, concluded that in rivers particularly fish were not discrete, they moved, sometimes long distances to gather in massive aggregations to spawn. Most of us who only fish in Britain wouldn’t be aware of that because it happens when we are away from the banks…in the close season. I and many others have seen it first hand in Northern Ireland where unbelievably huge shoals of fish move to their historic spawning grounds and in doing so are targeted by mostly match anglers on festivals.

The fishing on Lough Erne, where most of these festivals were held, declined to such a degree weights are now not as good overall as they are in many English festivals held during the season. Circumstantial evidence it may be but here’s just one example. The Sillees River which produced a bag of 266lb for Pete Burrell in 1981, an all roach catch, lost its spawning run within ten years, possibly because that whole strain of roach had died out. Fish certainly haven’t got the mental capacity to remember not to go somewhere!

If we are to have change then it can only be done through science and research, something that will take fishing trials and last for many years. If, as some contend, we should make the close season fit spawning times it should be extended rather than reduced although I don’t think that’s necessary.

In Yorkshire, coarse fishing tactics with bait restrictions were used through the close season to catch trout. Groundbait, keepnets, maggots and bread were banned to restrict potential damage to coarse fish stocks. Do you think those asking for abolition would find that acceptable? Of course not. This is a change begged for by match anglers – which is my angling background – to carry on as for the other nine months so those huge shoals, as in Ireland, will be hit, kept in nets and, shamefully, probably suffer like those Sillees roach. It’s madness spawned, excuse the pun, by selfishness and greed. Show me something that will benefit the fish and I’ll listen: I’ve been waiting a few years to hear one and it’s not happened yet.

What do you think?

Whilst as anglers we all have our views, and mine have been set out here on several occasions, the Angling Trust as a whole is determined to remain ‘studiously neutral’ in this debate. We see our role to facilitate the proper engagement of anglers in decisions that affect our sport and the environment upon which it depends.

You can read more HERE

It will be interesting to see if some of the hard and fast views on the river close season are changed in any way once the EA paper is published.

17 thoughts on “Three views on the River Close Season

  1. Get rid of the close season. It is utterly pointlessly.
    Bob Roberts – sorry but you are wrong. Changing the dates merely tries to say there is some benefit to a close season and quite simply when we consider boats, walkers etc there is a continual human presence. Furthermore angling pressure on rivers is very small especially when the larger rivers are considered.
    Keith Arthur – I am amazed at the cavalier way in which you dismiss the opinions and wishes of your fellow anglers. Does only your view count? No, this archaic restriction must go…. What other countries operate a close season? Have you any evidence beyond your prejudice that it provides any benefit to fish or anglers? No, it must be confined to the dustbin of history – perhaps it is time for you to retire from public life….

    1. I have no empirical knowledge regarding whether the timing of the close season is correct or not. I am always on the river bank J16 and have never caught an obviously spawning fish, save for a few fat perch which can happen equally in September. I am mindful that in every walk of life we want more, faster, instant gratification with no restrictions. I would love to wake up on a sunny May morning and head for the river, but that cant be. I can go to the canal and happily do so. One idea might be to identify a sample of match lengths, fish weekly opens on them and monitor quality and quantity and see what happens. That way the rest of the river is left untouched and come the season that data could be used in comparison. Pleasure sessions would provide little data

  2. I’m totally for change and certainly not a selfish person, when I was a lad you would struggle to get a peg on the weekend here on the upper Severn in mid Wales and now your lucky to see anyone gracing the banks and I’m sure this is the case all over the UK so how can it be justified the rivers will be overfished?.
    On spawning fish and again in my experience over the past 48 years they don’t feed during this period so no harm done there and if the owners or renting clubs want to have a ban on fishing while they are spawning that’s up to them and I have no issue with that.
    As a river angler I should have the right to fish when I want in line with canal , lake and commercial anglers alike , all I ask is for the same treatments.

  3. Anglers respect the close season as a matter of law. Why ? is open for debate. But a couple of years ago and without notice mysterious objects appeared in our local river in April. It came to light that it was in preparation for a “FUN RUN” along the bed of the river for 200 plus participants. Over fresh placed logs, plastic tunnels etc then run over the rest of the river bed.
    Angling Trust could only complain AFTER the event. I leave this for readers to ask the questions.

  4. I agree with John Cooper, pressure on our rivers being very small, to abolish the close season would not see a increase of either pleasure or match angling as Keith suggests. The fact remain commercial fisheries opening over the past 20 years has led to the demise of pleasure and match fishing not only on rivers but canals aswell. To use the Irish match scene is a pointless example. These large catches were in the main caught prior to knotless keepnets being used these easily caught fish would not however been spawning at the time of capture. A three month close season allows fish to lose there caution and no doubt suffer accordingly when put into a keepnet especially if spawning as taken place. The amount of angling pressure on our rivers is minimal nowadays scraping the use of a keepnet during the 3 month period is a better option in my opinion.

  5. I’ve fished for many years on stillwaters and rivers both here and in Ireland. The Rivers are improving all the time after it’s fair share of knock backs – with better water quality and management. Abstraction, cormorants, otters, signal crayfish remain issues but to what extent is still debatable, there is no single solution with as many answers as there Rivers and areas.

    Does no one look up and around when you fish and see the abundance of wildlife that surrounds you? The closed season corresponds to the most fruitful of nature’s bounty and I for one don’t want to see the pressure on Rivers year round delivering the same compacted, muddied banks seen on so many stillwaters devoid of what most of us claim to enjoy. What next – platforms along the banks to protect what’s left, concrete paths to push our trolleys and barrows? The thrill of pushing through that lush vegitation to tap into an unfished swim will be lost if we’re not careful. The dates of the close season may be arbitrary but who cares?

    Fish conservation remains pivotal but I for one still support the close season. The anticipation of the season starting still provides the magic as Christmas does to a young child and long may it continue (the closed season and Christmas!).

    Let’s have the debate as it’s right and proper to challenge the norm periodically and trust that whatever descision is made is suppported by all as we are a stronger group united.

    1. The scope of the river close season was never to protect other wildlife, so let’s not introduce those variables to this debate. As an aside, whilst we anglers leave the banks, how do you intend to control boaters, cyclists, canoeists etc etc???

  6. Considering anglers fund the EA through rod licence fees effectively contributing to projects that impact on our sport directly and implemented without consultation.
    Its long overdue in a democratic society that we have the opportunity to overturn the 1878 closed season bylaw introduced without scientific evidence.

    It’s certainly not selfish for river anglers to enjoy sport 12 months of the year alongside there canal and stillwater counterparts.

    The EA licence paying member of the public should be the first consideration, the outcome of the close season vote should be respected whatever the outcome.

    Personally I wish to see the close season lifted.

  7. Abolish the closed season but allow clubs who control the fishing rights to a section of river to instate their own closed season (which could be flexible, both in date and location eg weirpools). There are a number of stillwaters that shut once fish start spawning (even commercial lakes that depend on revenue) and wont open for a couple of weeks or that have spawning areas that are Out of Bounds. Lets not forget that even if there is now no closed season, no ones forcing you to go fishing during that time.

  8. I’m afraid all three main contributors have it wrong in that, the close season was not installed simply to protect spawning fish. It was brought in to stop the senseless slaughter of gravid fish for if you kill a roach carrying spawn, you not only kill her, but the 10,000-15,000 eggs she may be carrying. As Philip Geen put it at the time “… to put a stop to the wanton and mischievous waste of the piscine resources…”. This referred to the killing of all fish caught in matches, the only type of fishing going at the time.
    The fact they were taken home either for the table or to feed their chickens was the by-product of the exercise. The main fact was, they didn’t have keepnets, just a leather or similarly made bucket to put the fish in until the weigh-in. Two developments occurred shortly after in that keepnets came about in the early 20th century so fish had no longer need to be killed and railways started to bring in fresh sea fish so there was no longer a need (nor desire) to eat coarse fish.
    For my opinion, it would be good to abolish the law and leave it to local decisions, landowners or clubs, as to whether a fence around the fishing could be useful. If keeping gravid fish in keepnets does cause any stress, I’m not entirely sold on this, then there could be a voluntary rule adopted by clubs that no matches should take place once the fish have started to fully hydrate their eggs and for a short period following spawning. This could mean no matches between say May and June. But I already hear the complaints even now!
    The great benefit of the close season being scrapped would be that any rules brought in by the local people would be voluntary and not mandatory as prescribed by law. We perhaps do need a compromise in some form, but not one laid down by people who don’t have a clue, i.e.: the majority of politicians. Wouldn’t this make us look far more concerned with the health and welfare of wildlife than forever moaning about a close season?

    1. Edit – I say “no matches between say May and June”, that perhaps should be NO KEEPNETS even for those pleasure fishing the rivers. (Sorry)

  9. In this day & age predation is the most detrimental progression towards the decline of our rivers wether it be of the natural kind or man kind, by getting rid of the close season it’s got to be a positive move to protect the future of river fishing.

  10. As a passionate river angler for over 50 years I’ve witnessed the decline in our fish stocks and more alarmingly the decline in our river anglers,How many anglers actually fish rivers now on a regular basis?
    Most rivers I travel along where’s there’s good access there’s barely an angler on the bank. Match anglers are probably the main stay and these are mostly the same anglers I’ve fished with over the last 40 years. The close season debate has rumbled on for years it may not be perfect but at least it’s trying to protect our spawning fish population at there most vulnerable time. Coarse fish won’t spawn till the water temperature hits 8 degrees C and dace spawn first, with a mild winter that could be late January early February and this winter it could be the middle of April or early May, Mother Nature will decide, as a caring angler why do I want to plunder fish when there in a state of stress! Putting fish in keepnets dripping with spawn won’t help our fish stocks one bit. Our ever declining fish stocks are under massive pressure from predation like never before, sea birds,otters and man kind, why as caring anglers do we want to add to this.Why change the law for so few anglers I say keep the close season.

    1. I have been river fishing for more than sixty years and have never seen a keepnet dripping with spawn…. can we keep this to clear facts and opinion clearly stated to be opinion. Emotive phrases such as this are misleading.
      I think Wayne makes the point that fewer and fewer people actually fish rivers – surely it then follows, in my opinion, that any distress inadvertently caused is relatively negligible…. I suspect more harm is done by motor cruiser wash, farm pollution etc. and the destruction of invertebrate life through chemical pollutants.

      1. Sorry John Cooper my grammar isn’t tip top what I mean is the actual fish shedding eggs or milt as they are being handled and dispatched to the keepnet.

    2. You have it spot on Wayne. The dates are not perfect but as is obvious it depends upon many factors and is a reasonable compromise. Anyway, the evidence is that river fishing is getting better so we are doing something right. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!
      Leave the close season ad it is. I love river fishing and look forward to June 16th with many other anglers. I am happy to fish the many still waters during the close season, it makes a nice change to be using different methods and where I live in Rugby there are loads of quality lakes and canals within a short distance so I continue to get my fishing fix….
      Ian Fraser-Mitchell
      Rugby, Warks

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