THE PERCEIVED lack of fish in most of our rivers has driven tens of thousands of anglers off the river banks and perhaps out of the sport forever. What has happened to our finest coarse fishing rivers which once attracted major sponsors to sell-out events and today the same rivers do not appeal to a handful of pleasure anglers each week.

In 1996 the Witham Joint Anglers Federation (WJAF) consisted of seven clubs representing around 12,000 anglers. In that year various clubs booked 555 matches representing 10,820 Witham pegs. Last year 35 matches were booked reserving 729 pegs and this year just six clubs have contacted the WJAF to book a total of 75 pegs. Member clubs of the WJAF are granted 250 FREE pegs to organise a match – but because the river is so unpopular none of the clubs exercised their option for the obvious reason they knew if they did so they would not even cover their administration costs!

Guess who owns the fishing rights on the WJAF stretch of the once prolific River Witham? The Environment Agency (EA) who have of course had to accept a lower annual rent from the WJAF because no one wants to pay for a day ticket to fish a river that everyone thinks is devoid of fish. The amazing thing is the nearby Delphs are full of fish but for some reason better known to themselves the EA don’t seem very enthusiastic about netting these fish sanctuaries to supplement the ailing Witham.

The River Welland near Spalding has hosted some of the best sponsored matches in the country and like the Witham should be a popular venue for pleasure anglers because they can drive to practically every peg on the roadside. But no-one wants to fish the river anymore because they feel the rivers fish stocks have plummeted. Who owns the fishing rights on this stretch of water – you’ve got it … the Environment Agency! Until recently Peterborough & District rented the water but the local association has given it up. Peterborough secretary and local tackle dealer Ken Wade, himself a top angler, said “We got fed up with no co-operation from the EA and anglers no longer want to fish a water which is a shadow of its former self.”

A few weeks ago there was a ‘crisis’ meeting called to find out what has happened to the River Severn fish stocks. To their credit representatives from the EA turned up and must have been most persuasive as the anglers agreed to provide more information to the EA to enable them to document fish catches!

The River Trent has a slightly different problem but the end result is the same as on the other three rivers I have just mentioned – anglers will not fish a river they perceive has no fish in it.

I thought the article by Stewart Hurst (The Angling Star, January issue) was most interesting but I take issue with Stewart about the possible fry explosion on the Trent. The point of building ‘fish refuges’ on the river is to enable the fry to survive. The EA has known for years that there is a problem with ‘fry survival’ on the Trent. The fish are supported until the end of September by natural food in the river but then they keel over and die leaving the river with a serious shortage of ‘year class’ fish.

Without the hard work put in on the river by EA Fishery Project manager Keith Easton the decline in fishing on the Trent would have continued. The ‘fish refuges’ will breathe new life into the river but will it be too late? It certainly will for some of the Trent Valley clubs who relied on day-ticket sales and match income to survive – they went bust years ago along with a few tackle shops.

When we carried out a survey on the Trent in the Newark area in 1982 we established that 10,000 anglers visited the Trent between Gunthorpe and Dunham Bridge every weekend throughout the season and the anglers spent more in the local shops and cafes than boaters, cyclists and all other sporting groups added together. If the same survey was carried out today it is unlikely that we would find 200 weekend anglers fish the same area of the Trent.

The ‘knock-on’ effect of the poor river fishing throughout the country has been damaging to the whole sport. Riverside clubs are either seriously cash-strapped or bust. Tackle shop income is down, bait breeders are struggling, many tackle manufacturers are on their knees and yes the downturn on river fishing has impacted on the EA through lower licence sales.

What has happened to our rivers since European Legislation forced the EA to ‘clean’ them up? Firstly we have ended up with gin clear rivers which of cause has made it easier for the fish guzzling cormorants to spot what fish there are left. Secondly over engineering and mans interference with the natural habitat has depleted the natural food the fish depend on to survive in all conditions.

The Environment Agency’s statutory duty is to Maintain, Improve and Develop. Clearly on the rivers I have mentioned the EA has failed to deliver and if this was a business, like British Airways or Coca Cola, heads would role if managers had not delivered the goods. Anglers rod licence fees pay EA wages and this means we have an expectation of reasonable sport from our rivers.

Clearly the EA has turned its back on our rivers (which are sometimes difficult and time consuming to manage) in favour of town centre pools and puddles where they anticipate there is a potential customer increase.

David Clarke, head of fisheries EA, told last years National Federation of Anglers Conference in Nottingham, that the EA would spend £1m over three years recruiting 100,000 new people into the sport. I honestly believe we have lost more than that number because the EA has not delivered on our rivers.

The EA claims to be providing eight different locations with 300,000 fish from their fish farm at Calverton. None of these fish are scheduled for the Trent, Witham and Welland. Why not?

I believe the EA lost the plot some years ago and it now time they took more notice of the NFA, the governing body for the sport, who represent almost one third of anglers who purchase a yearly licence in the UK. We want our rivers to run ‘clean’ but we have a right to demand that the natural habitat will not be destroyed in the process. Fish Refuges will help the Trent stocks but it would take one refuge for every mile of riverbank to make a dramatic difference. If the present manager of the Witham cannot deliver the goods, he should be sacked and replaced by someone who can.

RODNEY COULDRON, NFA media consultant