Is it Really 25 Years?
Simon Cooper reflects upon a quarter of a century of Fishing Breaks
Whichever way you cut it twenty five years is a long time; as my father would have mournfully said in relation to a number of a similar length in relation to marriage, 'you get less for murder'.
Well, I guess Fishing Breaks is a life sentence of a sort, but a good one despite the absence of parole. Yes, it is 25 years since I started Fishing Breaks. To put that in some sort of historical perspective Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minster, a start-up in Newbury called Vodaphone made the first ever UK mobile phone call, the Channel Tunnel was being dug and the BBC Sports Personality of the Year was Paul Gascoigne. I, on the other hand, having jacked in a perfectly good job boasted only a phone and a spare bedroom office plus boundless optimism.
I must admit my self-belief was not shared by all; I distinctly recall talking with Ann Voss-Bark, doyenne of the Arundel Arms in Devon who was utterly dismissive and a certain eminent writer of a certain national newspaper fishing column (still going today) who could not have been ruder if he tried. But happily they were the exceptions rather than the rule; it still surprises me to this day how many people were prepared to place so much trust in me for what must have seemed a rather madcap scheme and I hope that I have been able to adequately repay that trust along the way.
A notable anniversary is always a good excuse to take a retrospective look at what has changed both for good and ill in the intervening years so I'll not miss the opportunity; the state of the rivers, the habits of fly fishermen and our attitude to the fish themselves would be top of my list.
Taking the last first it is hard to believe that as recently as quarter of a century ago catch and release was both unusual and in some contexts, controversial. In that first season I designated a couple of beats as 'catch and release' only. It made sense to me, but apparently not to most of my clients of that time and both those beats remained stubbornly under-booked, so much so that I had to relent on the release-only policy for a while.
At the other end of the scale I had river owners who actively banned catch and release - unless the fish was under twelve inches you caught and killed every fish you hooked, ending your fishing day when the allocation, usually four, were in the creel. Looking back on it that seems amazing to me; it was perfectly possible for your day to be over in the first hour. However, catch and release is not necessarily the panacea for a chalkstream heaven - the counter arguments put to me at that time by those owners who were against it are still valid today - a river does get fished harder, there is a mortality rate even with released fish and fish do become hook shy.
The truth is we have a duty to the fish and the rivers to use catch and release with care. I don't mean handling the fish for that is a given but rather to moderate our desire to catch every fish in the river, knowing that by being selective we leave more fish unharmed and a better river for those that follow in our footsteps.
The demographics of fly fishers have definitely changed; undoubtedly the average age is younger, probably more mid-forties than mid-fifties. However, the corollary is that most people are still working, which has seen a precipitous decline in the number of season rods as very few can afford the time off from work (or more possibly the family!) to head to a river once or twice a week.
Back when I started it was always a case of fitting the day rod bookings around the members and I felt there was always a sense that river owners regarded day rods at best as a necessary evil and at worst second-class citizens. Today it is very different; plenty of estates have entirely disbanded the syndicates.
As for our collective abilities, I am not sure whether we are better or worse fly fishers, but for sure I sense that people are more ambitious and broad-minded, willing to travel to far flung places, fishing in locations and for species never previously regarded as suitable prey for a fly. With every passing year the boundaries are being pushed out, bringing in a whole new wave of younger anglers, who are more dynamic and experimental. The more they push the more the meaning of the term 'fly fishing' becomes frayed at the edges. I like this. The age of tweeds and cane rods is a noble heritage but the future lies elsewhere.
As for the chalkstreams I tend to part company with the doom merchants who will tell you the hatches were better, the fish more plentiful and the water cleaner a quarter of a century ago. I know the campaigners are genuine in their beliefs and we certainly do have problems, but frankly the picture they paint forgets how far we have come.
The early nineties was a dire time on the chalkstreams; years of drought, a seemingly unstoppable decline in the wild trout population, mile upon mile of river devoid of Ranunculus, the extinction of the otter population and really nobody, beyond a few such as Jim Glasspool at the Test & Itchen Association, banging the drum for our plight.
However, help was at hand from two unlikely sources: the EU and the legislation that created the private water companies. From Europe came the beginnings of a raft of environmental legislation that forced everyone - government, corporations and individuals - to take a long hard look at what they were doing. I sometimes quote the example of the Wallop Brook that runs under me as I write this article here at Nether Wallop Mill.
For years the hopelessly inefficient sewage plant at the Middle Wallop airbase emptied the 'treated' water into this tiny stream. We had no wild trout. Then one day this huge, shiny stainless steel charcoal filtration tower appeared, replacing the ancient sand filters. No longer did the entire Brook turn milky white after rain and within two years we had a thriving wild trout population and a clean river that continues to this day.
Legislation and an Environment Agency charged with monitoring water quality made this happen. With hindsight it seems incredible but those public water boards that pre-dated privatisation were a law unto themselves; the very essence of poacher and gamekeeper. They sucked water from the rivers to sell and poured the sewage back in, regulated by nobody other than themselves.
I know it is traditional at every 25th anniversary to raise the glasses and say 'here's to the next 25' but the thought scares me witless - I'll be goodness knows how old and the year will be 2040. In truth I am more than happy to have made it this far and just having a new season on the chalkstreams within touching distance is reward enough itself.
See you on the river sometime soon.
Flyfishing.co.uk is delighted to bring you Simon’s feature, which was first published in his ‘Fishing Breaks’ Newsletter.
Simon’s company, Fishing Breaks, based in the heart of the River Test Valley, offers some of the finest chalk stream fly fishing available in the UK – and a whole lot more. Check out their website HERE
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- Resurrecting the Past to Save the Future
- It was 90 years ago today…
- The 2016 World Fly Fishing Championships
- Trout Anglers ‘Out for a Duck’
- Licenced to Fish
- Spear and Loathing?
- The Rat Must Die
- The Great Survival Race
- River Restoration