Passion for Barbel… On the Fly

John Bailey

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126
Flies close-up.JPG


On one of the forums recently interest was raised about the practice of catching barbel on the fly, and its feasibility. Well, as many of us know, barbel are a very genuine target for the fly angler and have been for years, especially in Europe, where I first had my own eyes opened.

It was a trip to the Czech Republic in 1996 that did it for me! I had taken a group of English barbel anglers over to the country, and had found a lot of very big barbel in a river to the West of Prague. Unfortunately they were uncatchable until we discovered their greed for three or four caddis on a size 14 hook. But we need not have bothered grubbing around in the margins each morning, as guide Franta proved.

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This was the first time I had seen the Czech nymph technique used, and I was completely staggered. I had been fishing a small weir for two hours with bait, without a strikeable take, when Franta wandered up with his rod and team of flies. He asked if he could work down the pool, and in six casts had two barbel, a bream, a trout , a grayling and lost a third barbel. He then reeled in, dismissed the place as having too many nuisance fish, and went off downriver.

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I could have been humiliated. I chose to be educated. I took his teachings back home, and on the Wye in the summers of 1996 and 1997 had twenty seven barbel to around 11 pounds. Between 2001 and 2015 I also had well over two hundred Spanish barbel on the fly, many on dries, although they were made up of several different sub-species and not our own Barbus Barbus.

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James in action

So, there I am with this, and that is my history. Let me tell you about the weekend just gone, down here on the Wye again. Part of the reason for leaving Norfolk and coming to Herefordshire was to re-engage with the Wye, and pick up the more mobile techniques of barbel fishing I had experimented with twenty five years ago. I am not knocking the usual methods of pursuing barbel, but I do know there are more tactile approaches, and happily Rob and James Buckley were happy to indulge me when they came to visit. James is, of course, an under-riverkeeper on the Test and at twenty, has the open-mindedness of the young. As a result, he was more than happy to pack fly gear along with his usual river kit.

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In short, James and dad Rob both managed a barbel on the fly, just the one each. It was not easy by any means and we worked hard for the whole two and a bit days. We concentrated on the quicker, shallower runs, as you might expect, and largely used the now traditional Czech nymph approach, the only major difference being a single fly on the point rather than a team of three.

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Now, I’m reluctant to go into detailed explanations here, at least as yet. Two barbel do not a thesis make! I emphasise that I am still finding my feet here, and picking up on where I left off all those years ago. However, the bit is between my teeth and I am out again in a couple of days time, perhaps with dear friend Paul Whitehouse for a few hours. PW is a far better fly man than I am so I have high hopes. Whatever, in a few days, I hope to be in a position to go into greater detail on the actual mechanics of the method.

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…A fly sample

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James gets his fish the second day on my lighter kit…

What I will say is that the thrill of hooking and playing a barbel on the fly is unmatched. Barbel are not known as the “British Bonefish” for nothing, and what they do not do is give up after the first run. I will also add that I am considering going cane for this. I’m going to ask John Stephenson at Thomas Turner if he can locate a 10ft rod with feel and steel both. I like the concept of an easy action with lots of feel, but with backbone enough for the battle that always ensues. Yes, it’s something of a whim, but why not? After all, we are doing this for fun, not to feed the family, and anything that enhances that fun has to be good in my book? But for now, I’ll say farewell for now with photos of the weekend for inspiration.
 

catzrob

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Joined
Oct 29, 2017
Messages
315
Brilliant photos and a great story. Inspiring.

What kit do you use for that? James' rod looks like a big old beast.

Can you ask him where he got that hat from too please?
 

PaulF1

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Aug 11, 2021
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63
Location
Manchester UK
I'll be following this thread with interest as barbel are really my prefered species. I suspect that my current fly rods are a little on the underpowered side though!
 

iainmortimer

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Apr 5, 2014
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3,524
Location
West Sussex
What weight rod are you using as I note you mention James fish was taken on the 'lighter' set up. From a backbone perspective I'm thinking perhaps a #7/8 switch rod could be required beast?
 

John Bailey

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Ian2.JPG

Passion for Barbel… On the Fly (Part 2)​

I had promised more news on my adventure for more barbel on fly, picking up on my trials back in the Nineties, but it’s been a week of conflicting commitments and I’m no further forward. Not quite right! I did receive a selection of Czech barbel flies from my old and valued friend Franta, my guide a quarter of a century ago who first gave me the taste for this quest.

These are as yet unused, and even not photographed, as I left them on the table of the Wye hut we have as a group been busy restoring. And that is one reason I have had restricted fishing time. Ian arrived from Surrey with a carload of flooring that between us (90% him) we had to lay. Delivered next was a consignment of flat-pack table and chairs that we laboured to assemble… or at least Ian did. Now the whole thing looks very IKEA, but that has not helped Bailey’s Barbel Progress, and for that I apologise. We still have a long way to go before said hut measures up to the beauties I witnessed on the Tyne and Eden a week or so ago, but a start has to be made somewhere.

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Ian looking justifiably proud

Personally, I especially like photos of past successes on a hut wall, and whilst I’d like to think we might catch fish of our own, I’d love a few black and whites of Wye salmon from back in the days of its pomp. Anyone know where I could locate a few? Junk shops, I suppose? Antique emporiums? Car boots? Thomas Turner?!

Back to Norfolk news now. The great Olly Shepherd of Fly Fishing Yorkshire emailed me the other day from my old county where he was on holiday. Olly, of course, was my right-hand man on the Mortimer and Whitehouse Xmas special last year, and I’m happy to say we have not lost touch. But to the point!

Stopping at a coastal road bridge, Olly looked over as all anglers do… and saw a sea trout he put at 15 pounds plus!! He added it was bright silver and straight from the salt. Now, I’m not dreaming of revealing locations, as great mate Robbie Northman is mounting a sea trout campaign as I write, but the sighting is awesome from so many angles.

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A hut on the Tyne

Personally, I’m so exonerated by this. Back between 1969 and 1974, I caught many sea trout from the North Norfolk coastal area, and many were big. Really big. My diaries show I had over twenty “doubles” up to a monster of 17! Of course, all this was way before I had any thought of buying a camera, and no visual evidence exists of these fish. My mother took a couple of snaps of fish being brought home for her legendary dinner parties, but she died a few years after, and pretty much everything belonging to my parents has been scattered to the winds. How do these things happen, I ask myself?

Those were the days, I had just so much time. Those mammoth Uni summer vacations, eh? Did we realise what we had then? I could stay all night if the tides were right, or get up at 3.00am to be ready for the first of the dawn. A rising sun and a flowing tide I remember as even better than a tide creeping in at dusk, though they gave me my biggest fish. Out of a hundred or so fish, perhaps twenty five were fly-caught, if I’m honest, with the rest on spinner, worm or fish bait. I’d like the percentages to be reversed, but I was a hunter then, and to hook a big sea trout on any gear was a thrill beyond compare.

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A hut on the Eden… we have some way to go!

The belief then was that Norfolk fish were summer visitors from the North East, especially the Tweed region, and that they came South to profit from rich, shallow sea feeding in the warm months. Perhaps, but I did witness these fish spawning in at least two Norfolk rivers come late autumn, so I have never been exactly sure.

But Olly’s sighting has proved that these fish still exist half a century on, and I find that supremely exciting. A twelve pound sea trout on the fly or a twelve pound barbel? Which would I prefer today? It’s such a close thing. I’ll end by saying I hope Robbie catches the former, and I’ll settle for the latter. Wouldn’t that be a brace and a half!
 

John Bailey

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Barbelreturncloseup2.jpg

Passion for Barbel… Random Thoughts​

Quite a few musings here, so I hope you’ll forgive my scattered thoughts. In fact, so scattered are they that I have to emphasise that their order is completely random. Pick from them what you might consider worthwhile… they are all heartfelt and based on decades of experience.

I truly believe that barbel are a sort of “crossover” species. By that I mean that on a river like the Wye, there are endless entertaining ways to catch barbel, just as there are game fish. Yes, you can sit behind a rod pointing at the stars and wait for the tip to go round, and nothing wrong in that. But you can catch them on fly, on float, and by freelining. Wading, sight fishing, and endless tactile methods are all part of the game. And of course, to me, barbel are as beautiful as any species on the planet and fight like the tigers they are. They offer so much, in so many ways, I feel they are tragically undervalued.

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Fly caught… third on the fly this month

The heatwave has crashed, hopefully for the rest of 2021. The Wye is a slightly better colour than when sunlight, heat, and way high phosphate levels sickened it beyond belief. The salmon are looking happier, chub are on the move, and barbel are appearing once again. That’s all great to hear, but it should not detract from the fact that the Wye is in trouble, and that our help, all of us who love the river in whatever way that might be, is sorely needed.

My guys and I have been fishing hard these last two weeks and in eight sessions, we have landed eleven barbel. This is way down on what I would have expected ten, fifteen or twenty years ago, when that number of fish could be expected in a day. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Should we accept that a barbel a day is the right way? Should we view barbel as a fish as special and as precious as a salmon? This century a salmon a session would please anyone almost anywhere, and perhaps this is what we have to expect and treasure from our barbelling? I have found that each fish now I regard as a massive privilege just to see, to admire. I now respect each barbel in a way more profound than in past decades. I feel no loss in the fact numbers are down and might never recover. I’d say all of us have reached a sort of peace that we didn’t experience when we were younger. Pious claptrap? Fine. I can only write what I honestly believe and feel.

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With that in mind, with each and every barbel meaning the world to me, I’m trying even harder to treat them with a TLC that’s more far-reaching than in my past. I have always been fastidious with barbel, any fish come to that, but now I’m trying so hard to get every fish back in less than a minute, and not a specimen has been weighed yet. All of us are trying to release in the water, without taking a fish to the bank… and certainly, they are going off so strongly it gladdens the heart.

I’ll admit to age and a slowing down of ambition, but I’m learning from my decrepitude. In some ways, my faltering steps are surer than the confident strides of my younger years. Pious claptrap? Perhaps, but I’m happy that five or six pounds of barbel are enough now to make my day one of complete contentment.

Enough, I know. Next time, for the serious barbel fishers, I’ll revisit my previous advice on the cheapest and best leger weights you’ll ever find anywhere. There’s still practical advice in the old dog yet, you’ll see!

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richardgw

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Sep 6, 2012
Messages
87
If you are after a cane rod you might want to look for an Ivens Original 10ft. I inherited one but sold it on as it was too much for me to use for any length of time. It has a powerful through action rated for 6/7 DT lines. Tom Ivens designed it for reservoir trout but his book has a section where he used it to good effect catching salmon into the teens of pounds so might suit you for barbel.

I once caught a barbel of 9.5 lbs on fly and based on that and my limited experience of bigger sea trout would with a choice go for the sea trout any and every day. There is in my mind no comparison between the fight of the two fish of equivalent size. The sea trout wins hands down with its explosive unstoppable runs and acrobatics. A barbel is just plain stubborn.

My 9.5 lbs barbel was caught on a 15ft 10/11 fly rod, sink tip line, 15 lbs leader and a size 8 double in streamy water. Initially I thought I was into the salmon but quickly realising it was a barbel I simply clamped down hard on the reel and dragged it straight back upstream to where my friend was holding the net. The fight lasted less than 2 minutes, the fish having no chance but needed no recovery time before it shot off.

On the other hand my best sea trout of just 6.25 lbs hooked on a 10ft salmon spinning rod and 12 lbs line led me a merry dance for around 5 minutes much of it airborne. It was indeed very unlucky as the hook came out just as it was netted. It needless to say went in the pot and very nice too. I have also hooked a much bigger sea trout in the 10-12 lbs region also on powerful salmon spinning gear and it was me that had no chance. Another airborne fight with the fish taking an acrobatic 30 yards of line in the blink of an eye giving me little chance to try to calm it down before it threw the hook.

I have also caught smaller fish of both species mostly whilst salmon fishing but they had no chance to show any real metal against the powerful tackle.

Hut looking good, like the flooring - too good for studded waders?!
 

John Bailey

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Joined
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Messages
126
If you are after a cane rod you might want to look for an Ivens Original 10ft. I inherited one but sold it on as it was too much for me to use for any length of time. It has a powerful through action rated for 6/7 DT lines. Tom Ivens designed it for reservoir trout but his book has a section where he used it to good effect catching salmon into the teens of pounds so might suit you for barbel.

I once caught a barbel of 9.5 lbs on fly and based on that and my limited experience of bigger sea trout would with a choice go for the sea trout any and every day. There is in my mind no comparison between the fight of the two fish of equivalent size. The sea trout wins hands down with its explosive unstoppable runs and acrobatics. A barbel is just plain stubborn.

My 9.5 lbs barbel was caught on a 15ft 10/11 fly rod, sink tip line, 15 lbs leader and a size 8 double in streamy water. Initially I thought I was into the salmon but quickly realising it was a barbel I simply clamped down hard on the reel and dragged it straight back upstream to where my friend was holding the net. The fight lasted less than 2 minutes, the fish having no chance but needed no recovery time before it shot off.

On the other hand my best sea trout of just 6.25 lbs hooked on a 10ft salmon spinning rod and 12 lbs line led me a merry dance for around 5 minutes much of it airborne. It was indeed very unlucky as the hook came out just as it was netted. It needless to say went in the pot and very nice too. I have also hooked a much bigger sea trout in the 10-12 lbs region also on powerful salmon spinning gear and it was me that had no chance. Another airborne fight with the fish taking an acrobatic 30 yards of line in the blink of an eye giving me little chance to try to calm it down before it threw the hook.

I have also caught smaller fish of both species mostly whilst salmon fishing but they had no chance to show any real metal against the powerful tackle.

Hut looking good, like the flooring - too good for studded waders?!

Hut.jpg

The hut takes shape... Ratters having a snooze

I thought richardgw’s contribution was too good to pass over, so here goes, with many thanks for your time, sir!

The Iven’s Original sounds like a good starting point... I wonder if Thomas Turner can source one for a trial... or if there is one out there that could be bought, begged or borrowed? I’m dead set on following this line of thought and action for two reasons. I love barbel and salmon about equally for their many but different qualities. Now I am on the Wye most days, I sort of have access to both species, but the status of salmon here worries me. I am seeing salmon with frequency – more than for several years in fact – but they look tired, stale and frustrated in trying to fulfil their noble purpose. Even if rains come before mid-October, I don’t know if pursuing them is a proper thing to do in the present situation here on this river. I really would like your opinions of this one, if only to salve my conscience, and drive me to an early autumn salmon quest.

Back in the Eighties, before Wye barbel were properly targeted or established, they were caught from time to time on salmon flies, but that should be no surprise as Wye barbel are highly predatory in the early summer especially. I wonder where that 9.5 pound fish was taken from? I’ve found barbel in different rivers fight in different ways to an extent. Also they fight best in the late autumn, and not so well in high summer, so time can tell! And, of course, one fish's fight is not really an exhaustive study? I’ve had crazy barbel in my life, as well as docile ones, much like salmon themselves come to that.

Sea trout! Ah, there’s a fish and a half! As I wrote recently, I had a glut of big ones nigh on fifty years back when I was a student, and some of the battles on the small North Norfolk rivers drove me to tears of anxiety. There were fish I could not subdue and broke free, one even after two hours of fight. No. I’ve not had a barbel do that. By the way, having caught most of the celebrity freshwater fish around the world, I’d still rate the mahseer as perhaps the most terrifying of them all. (Himalayan fish especially so, though that might be down to the ferocity of the rivers they inhabit?)

Thank you for the admiration you show for our hut renovations that are going on with surprising speed. I see your point about studs on wooden floors, but we are a gnarled old crew and can live with a lack of perfection. I’ve got a pair of Orvis boots and the rubber, cleated soles are so good I find studs superfluous anyway. (Between us, we have a couple of felted atrocities! God help them in snow or on wet Herefordshire clay!)

I have recently been sent a box of Czech barbel flies which I am eager to try. To be honest, they don’t look much different from what I have got, but those Eastern European wizards I have learned to ignore at my peril. I will, as ever, report back!

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My box of Czech barbel flies
 

richardgw

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Joined
Sep 6, 2012
Messages
87
The 9.5 lbs barbel came from Hom Stream which is on Ross AC’s Weirend beat. It was caught on the 16th May 2016 and because of its size and my curiosity I weighed it in the net before release. It was caught within minutes of a good salmon showing in the very same place. My diary shows the Ross gauge at 0.45m and was falling following a recent rise, perfect conditions for the salmon with the fly.

Tom (TC) Ivens designed a range of cane rods for reservoir trout which I believe were manufactured by Fordham and Davenport. If I remember rightly the series included two or possibly three 10ft’ers and a lighter 9.5ft model called the Ravensthorpe. I seem to recall that the details are in his book on reservoir trout fishing printed in the 1950s but I don’t have a copy available to refer to so can’t give any further details.

Nice to hear you are seeing numbers of salmon as the Ross Waters seen to have been devoid of fish this year and indeed the past three years. Perhaps they have been pushing straight through to get anyway from the worst of the algae/pollution a significant amount of which is coming from the Lugg. As to whether or not we should target these if we get water before the end on the season, I will leave that to the individual angler.
 

Rhithrogena

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Jun 30, 2020
Messages
2,164
Another cane fly rod worth considering would be a Hardy Halford Knockabout. These were 10' #7 jobs (wouldn't fancy turning up at a chalkstream today with one 😳), complete with butt spike. I have one in the garage - it's a one piece these days or I'd sell it to you!!
 

John Bailey

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Joined
Nov 19, 2020
Messages
126
The 9.5 lbs barbel came from Hom Stream which is on Ross AC’s Weirend beat. It was caught on the 16th May 2016 and because of its size and my curiosity I weighed it in the net before release. It was caught within minutes of a good salmon showing in the very same place. My diary shows the Ross gauge at 0.45m and was falling following a recent rise, perfect conditions for the salmon with the fly.

Tom (TC) Ivens designed a range of cane rods for reservoir trout which I believe were manufactured by Fordham and Davenport. If I remember rightly the series included two or possibly three 10ft’ers and a lighter 9.5ft model called the Ravensthorpe. I seem to recall that the details are in his book on reservoir trout fishing printed in the 1950s but I don’t have a copy available to refer to so can’t give any further details.

Nice to hear you are seeing numbers of salmon as the Ross Waters seen to have been devoid of fish this year and indeed the past three years. Perhaps they have been pushing straight through to get anyway from the worst of the algae/pollution a significant amount of which is coming from the Lugg. As to whether or not we should target these if we get water before the end on the season, I will leave that to the individual angler.

Hi richardgw, thanks for your latest. Perhaps that barbel didn’t fight well as it was caught on or around spawning time, but I’m more interested in your comments about not seeing a huge amount of salmon lower down the Wye, whilst they seem to be comparatively prolific along my stamping ground between Hereford and Hay. I have no idea why this should be so, and perhaps I am wrong in being optimistic. It could be that I am seeing more salmon than in the recent past because I am living here and spending more time on the river? Simple as that!

I have been reading with interest the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust Report and the chapter on the ills of the Frome salmon stocks. It would appear to be the same old thing to me. Lots of scientific minutiae and no real conclusions. I realise this is a tiresome hobby-horse of mine, but I have reading scientific reports in depth now for thirty years. As these have grown in number, so have the numbers of fish declined.

I’m not so stupid as to believe there is a silver bullet, but I have known the Frome well for a good number of grayling winters. Grayling sort of demand you get up early, fun on a frosty February morning, but you do see things as you tramp across a whitened valley. Most obviously, the huge number of cormorants hoovering up smolts and smaller grayling, up to a pound and a half. The report suggests that on average 9,000 to 13,000 smolts leave the Frome annually, but how many would leave if the numbers were not pruned day after day from November onwards?

Regarding Wye salmon, how many theories have there been on the decline in numbers over forty-plus years? Can I suggest a second simplistic observation? I have been noting on many Eastern catchments that the massive increase in winter flooding has been a major factor in pushing river coarse fish populations hither and thither, sometimes to destruction. It would seem that the Wye has been prone to biblical flooding these past two years at least, and I wonder how this has affected smolt populations, as well as coarse fish like barbel. I know the Wye has always been a flood river, but have these been as quick to rise in the past or have they been as damaging?

My final comment on the report concerns the study carried out on beaver impact. Unsurprisingly, it suggests that beaver activity changes the character of a flowing stream or river into an area of wetland. This might be good for certain insect and fish species but not, it seems, for the numbers of trout, for example. You could suggest that beavers might be okay for certain river catchments but not so good for others. Fine, but how will the beavers know which is which, and one from the other? Like many creatures, once released, beavers tend to colonise and spread rapidly, with little regard for whether a river holds trout or not. And finally, explain this please. For years, the EA has been trying to remove weirs and mills everywhere it finds them. How come the Agency seems relatively relaxed about beaver dams, which pose as great a threat to migrating fish as weirs do? Is this another example of craven bowing to public opinion?
 

tuc member

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Joined
Apr 23, 2011
Messages
206
Location
Southwestern Quebec, Canada near the New York stat
Hi richardgw, thanks for your latest. Perhaps that barbel didn’t fight well as it was caught on or around spawning time, but I’m more interested in your comments about not seeing a huge amount of salmon lower down the Wye, whilst they seem to be comparatively prolific along my stamping ground between Hereford and Hay. I have no idea why this should be so, and perhaps I am wrong in being optimistic. It could be that I am seeing more salmon than in the recent past because I am living here and spending more time on the river? Simple as that!

I have been reading with interest the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust Report and the chapter on the ills of the Frome salmon stocks. It would appear to be the same old thing to me. Lots of scientific minutiae and no real conclusions. I realise this is a tiresome hobby-horse of mine, but I have reading scientific reports in depth now for thirty years. As these have grown in number, so have the numbers of fish declined.

I’m not so stupid as to believe there is a silver bullet, but I have known the Frome well for a good number of grayling winters. Grayling sort of demand you get up early, fun on a frosty February morning, but you do see things as you tramp across a whitened valley. Most obviously, the huge number of cormorants hoovering up smolts and smaller grayling, up to a pound and a half. The report suggests that on average 9,000 to 13,000 smolts leave the Frome annually, but how many would leave if the numbers were not pruned day after day from November onwards?

Regarding Wye salmon, how many theories have there been on the decline in numbers over forty-plus years? Can I suggest a second simplistic observation? I have been noting on many Eastern catchments that the massive increase in winter flooding has been a major factor in pushing river coarse fish populations hither and thither, sometimes to destruction. It would seem that the Wye has been prone to biblical flooding these past two years at least, and I wonder how this has affected smolt populations, as well as coarse fish like barbel. I know the Wye has always been a flood river, but have these been as quick to rise in the past or have they been as damaging?

My final comment on the report concerns the study carried out on beaver impact. Unsurprisingly, it suggests that beaver activity changes the character of a flowing stream or river into an area of wetland. This might be good for certain insect and fish species but not, it seems, for the numbers of trout, for example. You could suggest that beavers might be okay for certain river catchments but not so good for others. Fine, but how will the beavers know which is which, and one from the other? Like many creatures, once released, beavers tend to colonise and spread rapidly, with little regard for whether a river holds trout or not. And finally, explain this please. For years, the EA has been trying to remove weirs and mills everywhere it finds them. How come the Agency seems relatively relaxed about beaver dams, which pose as great a threat to migrating fish as weirs do? Is this another example of craven bowing to public opinion?
 

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