Life after Covid
It is strange watching the spring unfold without fishing; people are the weft and warp of a countryside we have created to reflect our needs. On the one hand it is rather nice to be the solitary guardian of the rivers. But on the other, you have to ask, what really is the point? It's a party without guests. Our merry band of keepers play on, but nobody hears the music. It is sad. We miss you.
Some are taking solace that the shutdown will create space for an ecological renaissance. I'm not so sure. Let me tell you why. And let me tell you why it may well make things worse. The optimist argument goes something like this: the shutdown of commerce and transportation is doing wonders for our pollution levels. The air has never been cleaner. The strain on natural resources much diminished. Wildlife, with us out of the picture, has more space in which to live, breed and breathe. Chalkstreams will return to a wilder, more natural state.
The difficulty with this line of thought is the transitory nature of the Covid crisis; a few weeks or even months set against in the timescale of the centuries of the industrial and agricultural revolution is nothing. In our own simple world, we may stock fewer fish in 2020. There may be much less fishing. But ultimately if 2020 presages a spike in the wild trout population the reason will have nothing to do with Covid but all to do with one of the wettest winters on record.
My worry is that in the aftermath of the crisis, as happened during and after WWII, there will be a major push for domestic home food production. This will inevitably mean more land under the plough. More pesticides. More intensive agriculture. Our departure from the EU is seen as an opportunity to reset farm subsidies from production to conservation; that may well be sacrificed on the altar on farm incomes. The term 'wilding' may disappear as fast as it appeared.
Similarly, the water companies, one of the major contributors to the poor state of our rivers will use the crisis. They could write the book on greenwashing. Let's face it - we know how this one works. Poor sewage treatment. Criminal activity. Abstraction. Chronic lack of investment in reservoirs and desalination. But you'd never guess that they are trashing the water resources of the home nations amidst their flurry of climate change initiatives to save the world. In any economic downturn that comes they will pivot and whine, demanding derogation from the already inadequate environmental legislation.
And sadly, despite, the best will in the world I cannot see the Environment Agency being up to the enforcement task in the years ahead when budgets are squeezed to the point that the austerity era will be fondly remembered as a spend-fest. Likewise, the voluntary sector, that has made so much progress to take up the slack where official bodies have failed us, will be caught in a double bind as grant funding gets squeezed along with the wallets of the general public.
I wish I could see a silver-lining to what is happening all around us but frankly, I can't. All I can promise is whenever fishing restarts, be it next week, next month or (have mercy on us) next year we'll be ready with the banks cut, the weed trimmed and fish ready to outwit you all over again.
Postscript: between writing this and publication Mark Bowler editor of Fly Fishing & Fly Tying broke the news on his Twitter feed that Welsh farmers have been given temporary allowance to spread waste milk on land. He writes, "While milk may not seem as harmful to us as sewage or other pollutants its effect on fish populations can be devastating".
In response to the last Newsletter I received an email encouraging me to explain the origins of the nymph vs. dry fly fishing debate. In essence it is pretty simple.
Until the mid-Victorian era people fished as they wished; we'd probably call it piscatorial-fluid these days. But then a bloke called Halford came along and insisted that the dry fly was the only way to catch trout. Then his friend Skues said, wait a moment don't trout mostly eat underwater nymphs? Let me show you how to do it. And so, he did. And far too often and far too successfully to the chagrin of his fellow club members. What Skues gained in fish he lost in friends creating the schism in fly fishing that has existed ever since, culminating in a splenic debate as to the merits of each at the Fly Fishers' Club in February 1938.
However, I have been spared going into further details as this, and much more, is wonderfully explained in Tom Fort's new book Casting Shadows. He writes of Skues,
"The other problem Skues had with his fellow fly fishermen was that he was too damn good at catching trout. The Abbots Barton water on the Itchen, which he fished for half a century, was chalkstream fishing at its most testing. Unlike most other fisheries, it was not stocked, which meant the members of the Gentlemen's Club syndicate that rented it were dependent on a limited and variable population of extremely wary and discriminating trout for their sport.
Skues's expertise with the nymph enabled him to catch and kill - in those days all sizeable fish were killed - what the other members came to regard as a disproportionate share of the decent trout. A groundswell of hostility developed towards him, which he became aware of but - being so sure of himself and something of a social misfit - he preferred to confront. On the last day of May 1936 the 77-year-old Skues, having caught a two-and-a-half pound trout on one of his nymphs, met one of the other syndicate members, Gavin Simonds, on the river bank. Simonds - a leading barrister, later a judge, Law Lord and eventually Lord Chancellor - told Skues that in his view the use of a nymph represented a breach of their lease because it was not an artificial fly any more than a caterpillar was a moth or butterfly.
This specimen of nonsensical sophism was supported by others in the syndicate who were envious of Skues's uncanny ability to catch fish when nobody else could, notably Neville Bostock, the boss of the Northampton shoemakers Lotus. Two years later poor old Skues was, in effect, forced out of the syndicate and off the Itchen."
I am grateful to Tom Fort on two levels; firstly he explains far better than I ever could the long history of fishing from evolution to the modern day, including our little local difficulty on the chalkstreams with the nymph. It is a wonderfully gossipy chapter but not a little sad - it doesn't really reflect well on any of the players. And on the other level Casting Shadows is just wonderful book. It ranges wide and deep across freshwater life: us, fish, the countryside, livelihoods, history and our sport. Pretty well all fishes and types of fishing, commercial and recreational are illuminatingly covered. I can't think that you will not like it.
CASTING SHADOWS - FISH AND FISHING IN BRITAIN by Tom Fort was published by William Collins 2/April. Available to buy as hardback on Waterstones.com and eBook on Amazon.
Fishing in your backyard
I know you read this all around the globe, so I'd love to hear what is happening to fishing in your part of the world. Is it allowed? Are the authorities positively encouraging it?
That is certainly the case in some states of the USA. In Pennsylvania the Fish and Boat Commission bought the opening day forward from April 18 to April 1 to avoid overcrowding. In Switzerland, even though the country is in lockdown, fishing is permitted. In Belgium, France and Holland I'm told it is forbidden.
Email me with news from your part of the world.
Nothing for something
It was an act of boundless optimism: on 31 March I renewed my annual fishing licence which is, by the way, £30 for trout and coarse fish or £82 for salmon and sea trout.
Then, with fishing effectively banned by the government I wondered, as have others judged by social media, whether the Environment Agency was going to grant a licence holiday for those who have bought something they are barred from using. Guess what? The answer is no.
Now I, like you and most people, won't care much about the money aspect of the EA decision but you do wonder about what PR people call the optics. I have long though the rod licence an iniquity, effectively a tax on our pastime. I can't think of another sport where the full force of the law, with the threats of a fine of up £2,500, is demanded as the cost of participation. In fact, quite the reverse: hundreds of millions are doled out by Sports Council annually. Or take the V&A museum. Last year it received £60m in state aid in return for 4.4m visits. We, on the other hand, paid £23m to make 20+m visits to rivers.
But rant aside, I think EA are on the wrong side of the argument. When the countryside reopens waiving the rod licence fee for the remainder of the year would be the most wonderful way to give the rural economy a timely boost.
Had to go with a bit of an Easter theme, though the long break seems slightly superfluous at the moment. As someone aptly said, we are reduced to a three-day week: yesterday, today and tomorrow. As ever, it is all just for fun with the answers at the bottom of the page.
1) On what hill was Christ crucified?
2) Name one of the three other recognised names for Good Friday
3) What is the name of the yellow flower pictured?
The Parsonage this week
PS In case you missed it the latest edition of The Fishing Cast How to go fishing when you can't go fishing is available via this link an
Simon Cooper email@example.com
Founder & Managing Director
2) Black Friday, Great Friday or Holy Friday
3) Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) a member of the buttercup family