June 2006 - Turning a blind eye on Nelson’s river
Can anyone tell me the difference between
coarse and game fishing? The question has been troubling
me ever since I spent the morning looking for trout on the
River Wandle, London’s only chalk stream.
Nowhere in any of my angling books can
I find the origins of coarse fishing spelled out. As far
as I can guess, some time in the class-obsessed Victorian
era, maybe earlier, a distinction was made that categorised
trout and salmon as game fish and chub, barbel and the rest
as coarse, or common fish. The distinction never seemed
to worry Izaak Walton but he was writing before the days
of gentlemen and players.
Some use the bait as a form of distinction,
so that a hook fished under a float with a maggot on the
end would be coarse fishing, while an imitation fly, cast,
using the aid of a fly line, would be game angling. Is it
the quarry or the method that makes the difference?
If it’s about method, then I have
no qualms about a recent trip to the Wandle after the beginning
of the trout season but during the close season for coarse
fishing. I looked the part with trout rod, fly box and waders
and using an upstream nymphing approach pioneered by the
late great G. E M Skues.
Should anyone accuse me of coarse fishing
the only hole in what might seem an otherwise watertight
defence is that not all the fish sitting near the river
bed in much the same way that a trout would sit, could be
described as trout. Closer inspection of one or two of them
would have revealed the large scales and half a dozen downward-pointing
whiskers around the mouth that are the trademark of the
barbel, pound for pound probably the most powerful of Britain’s
Ignorance is no defence, but I was curious.
Would it take a fly? I must have made a couple of dozen
casts with a shrimp pattern before I had a take. The rod
bent well over as the fish dived under the bank and there
it held until the hook came out. Never mind. The point had
been established. Like the trout that might have been a
barbel, I hope this means I am off the hook on a technicality.
I will go back another time in the coarse season.
I was shown the spot by Mark Anderson,
a fishing friend and Orvis guide who had already pointed
out some magnificent shoals of chub. Anderson has done more
than most to restore the health of this historic river where
F M Halford, the doyen of dry fly fishing, honed his skills.
Halford would turn in his grave at this,
but the use of fly tactics for many types of fish beyond
trout and salmon, coupled with the popularity of catch-and-release
in game fishing, raises the question: why make the distinction
any more? The fish don’t.
We passed the spot in Merton where Nelson
used to fish, now just a stone’s throw from a giant
Sainsbury’s supermarket. That’s the odd feature
of the Wandle. Once one of England’s finest chalk
streams, it was destroyed by the industrial revolution when
milling operations along its length reduced it to the status
of a stinking drain. Only in the past few years, with the
decline of manufacturing in the South East of England, has
the river sprung back to life.
It will never again enjoy its former rural
status, flowing, as it does today under highways, past factories
and sewage treatment works, often flanked by concrete-sided
culverts. But it is a fine river nonetheless, full of ranunculus
and teeming with insect life.
Fish stocks are growing too. In mitigation
for my questionable foray, I should point out that Anderson
has been visiting schools as part of a trout rearing project,
encouraging youngsters to look after the river instead of
using it as a depository for discarded bicycles and other
rubbish. Our trip was really about information-gathering
even if some might argue that a close-season coarse fish
can not be considered fair game.
In the past few months I have seen the
Test, the Avon, the Wiley and the Lambourn, great chalk
streams all, yet each of them has been suffering from low
water flows due to the dry winter. In terms of insect life
and flow I would go so far as to suggest that the Wandle
is in better condition than any of them.
Don’t take my word for it. Go take
a look for yourself. But I suggest you wait for the start
of the coarse fishing season if you want to be absolutely
sure of your rights. Be careful where you park your car
too, in case it has gone by the time you get back. Oh, and
don’t go alone, or at least not to some of the seedier
stretches where I noticed the discarded needles of drug
addicts near the river bank.
If you catch a trout, put it back. This
is not one long stock pond as I might be tempted to describe
some of our finest chalk streams. If you want Mark to show
you the sights he can give you the benefit of his professional
advice. He is as knowledgeable a guide as you are likely
to meet (email: [email protected]).
Remember, though, that as an urban fisherman
you’re on your own. If you don’t see any sign
of the law it’s because there are safer places for
police patrols. There are some tough areas on certain stretches
of the Wandle and none of us wants to end up swimming with