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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 coarse fish.

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 the fishes.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved