At the end of the 19th Century a close season was introduced for coarse angling. With the majority of fish being caught and killed, it was determined that fishing be outlawed through the spring when the fish were most likely to spawn.
The close season has always been contentious within angling circles as many believe it to be futile and archaic while the conservation minded believe its existence to have deeper environmental importance than the protection of fish.
Through the second half of the 20th century came growth in the creation and management of coarse fisheries. Demand for gravel increased with the expansion of the road network and some river valleys became dotted with pits that formed ideal habitats for aquatic life. Stillwater angling was growing in popularity but as more landowners cashed in so calls for a change in the close season law grew ever louder.
A forced closure of three months (mid March to mid June) impacted enormously on revenue, especially as that period came after winter when many anglers hang up their rods. Some parts of Britain, Devon and Cornwall for example, had never operated a close season and here landowners and farmers cashed in by digging lakes and filling them with fish. Elsewhere, fishery owners overcame the restriction by introducing ‘any-method trout-fishing’, stocking their waters with trout, which were in season, and letting people catch them on coarse gear. This was perfectly legal, but warranted the close season something of a farce. As long as trout were present in a lake then people could fish for them in any way they saw fit and would ‘accidently’ catch the coarse fish that they were truly targeting.
In 1995 close season restrictions were lifted on stillwaters and in 2000 this was extended to canals, sensible actions in light of angling direction and interest. Commercial fisheries could operate with a twelve month income (some choosing to close in mid-winter for maintenance work when few anglers would want to fish) and as importantly tackle shops could survive more easily in a world of shrinking economies and cheap mail order delivery.
The Tackle shop plays a vital role in angling but has suffered greatly from the rise of the internet. Before moving west, my favourite tackle shop was in Tadley, some 30 miles from home but close to the Kennet where I spent so many hours. I would walk in and be greeted like an old friend, the kettle was always boiling and my business appreciated whether I bought a packet of hooks or a gallon of maggots. Aside from the pleasure of the welcome, the shop would also provide a mine of information. River conditions, water temperature, recent catches; anything that had happened of interest in the valley would be discussed in the shop and the owner (another Kevin) would be just about the most knowledgeable man in the county.
Internet forums may provide an offshoot from the traditional tackle shop grapevine but you are still likely to hear whispers that would never be discussed openly.
There are sufficient anglers fishing stillwaters through the spring for these shops to maintain turnover. Fortunate, because it is vital that the close season remains on our rivers.
A river provides a rich but delicate environment and the manner in which we tend to fish can have a varying effect upon it. A fly-fisherman in spring will be mobile and relatively unobtrusive. He will cover a lot of water, sometimes from within it, but is unlikely to fish on wet days when there is little in the way of fly-life to imitate.
The coarse angler on the other hand is more sedentary and less bothered about getting rained on and while his presence on the opening day if the season causes little interruption to the flow of life, it is because for three months he hasn’t been treading the banks.
After a wet winter with the river often over its banks, some swims resemble the Somme rather than a riverbank. Big boots have squelched the ground into muddy mess and were they to continue to tread through the spring then the bankside plants would not regenerate and pull everything back together within their root structures. Without the plants the bank itself would crumble into the water, colouring the water and blocking the sunlight which is so important to the growth of the cress and crowfoot which support the river’s ecology. Fewer plants means fewer invertebrates and fewer fish as a result, and while this would be localised, these specific spots would be where the river is at its richest, hence the fact that anglers frequent them. Changing the dimension of such a small part of an ecosystem can have a massive effect on the whole and it is in the anglers interest to maintain the structure and order, particularly when so many rivers suffer so much from over extraction and miss-management.
When we return to the rivers in June the sand martins and kingfishers and moorhens have already made their nests and most are feeding young that they will not abandon. Were people present in April and May when they were looking to create a clutch then the birds would not have stayed, and while the level of impact is untenable, the fact that there would any impact is reason enough to avoid the situation.
The fish themselves do not refer to a calendar to breed and instead respond to the subtle changes in their watery home. After a cold spring, chub and barbel will still be spawning well into the summer, but they do at least have an environment intact and sufficiently established in which to make successful spawning.
Every river is different of course, and the presence of anglers would have far less impact on a tidal stretch of the river Trent than on an intimate reach of the Sussex Rother, but ultimately the need for a close season has gone far beyond the welfare of the fish. So much occurs on a riverbank in spring that the angler benefits from the break as well as the environment. The contrast between a March quagmire and a June masterpiece is absolute and because the world is so different when we return in early summer, we make our intrusion as gentle as we are able.
Adapted from The Idle Angler