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Another blank salmon season - hooray!

Friday 27 October 2006

Our countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard, a keen fisher for the mighty salmon, will most probably be signing yet another blank seasonal return next Tuesday - and will be delighted in doing so!

COME teatime on Tuesday, I shall almost certainly be lifting a small glass of something nice to drink a toast to an absent friend, Salar the Leaper. And, in my heart of hearts, I know fine well that I shall be glad he isn't there.

Salar is the mighty Atlantic salmon, called the Leaper by the Romans when they invaded Britain two millennia ago. They were so delighted with the King of Fish that they sent thousands of the species back to Rome on horseback, stopping along a route of Pony Express-style staging posts to pick up new supplies of fresh ice.

Salmon: an absent friend
Photo: Defra/Cefas

There were many more of them in those days and as recently as Victorian times, valued servants in country houses had contracts saying they could not be fed salmon more than twice a week (as they did in the Thames estuary, incidentally, with oysters, another food of the poor!).

Sadly, Industrial Revolution pollution poisoned many of our salmon rivers, particularly in the North of England, and Salar is so rare now that I have not landed one in four, or maybe five, years. And do you know what: I am delighted with my lack of success.

The salmon season finishes for the year on Tuesday and I shall be there thrashing the water, hopefully with a 16-foot fly rod unless the rain continues, in which case I shall be forced to use the much less delicate method of spinning artificial lures. Either way, it is highly likely that it will mean another blank return for the number-crunchers at the Environment Agency.

And that means that I shall avoid the sort of soul-searching moral dilemma which gripped me when I landed my last fish, a sprightly fresh run 12-pounder those long years ago. She was a hen fish, you see, full of spawn - but I did not know that until she finally surfaced after a 20-minute struggle, so exhausted that I killed her out of pity. And I have been feeling guilty ever since.

Let me explain this in some depth. I have not gone soft in my dotage, and still kill trout and sea trout with a swift blow to the back of the head because I don't believe in hunting for fun: trying to outwit an animal in its own environment is not a game but a deadly serious matter of life and death. Its only proper reward is a meal for your family, which means - for non-vegetarians of course - that some other creature has not been killed for you that day.

But the salmon is different. It has been forced to the edge of extinction by pollution, trawling at sea, poaching inland, and is now being poisoned by the effluent and disease from fish farms on the Scottish coast. But for the angling interests, which have pumped millions into conservation work, Salar would be extinct in the British Isles.

Some years ago, this shortage caused game anglers on North Western rivers to agree to voluntarily stop fishing for the spring run of fish - which once gave me a 25-pound cock salmon in the greatest moment of my angling life - and restrict our annual catch to just three fish. This, I repeat, was done voluntarily.

It has been forced to the edge of extinction by pollution, trawling at sea, poaching inland, and is now being poisoned by the effluent and disease...

But I made my own extra vow: I would always release any female fish if caught. Reason: when they get onto the breeding redds - nests - high upstream in the Pennines, there are always plenty of males fighting to fertilise their spawn. So you can take a cock fish with a relatively clear conscience - there will be plenty of other would-be-dads around to do the necessary.

There is, of course, a major problem here. As with my last fish, it is not always possible to see which sex is what until the last moment if they bore deep, particularly in a heavy flood, and by that time it can be too late. So you kill and eat the fish and try to live with your conscience.

It would be easy, I admit, for the so-called "animal welfare" lobby to say: just give it up altogether. And not go out on an autumn day, when the rushing water if full of multi-hued falling leaves, and the dippers are quarrelling on their rocks and the kingfishers dart by like flying sapphires and if you are very, very lucky indeed you might see an otter stick its head out of the next pool down?

Give that up? I might as well go live in the suburbs and take up golf and polish my car of a Sunday morning. No, I shall be out on Tuesday, rain or shine, thrashing the water and thanking the Lord for creating such perfection. With a bit of luck, I won't catch anything!

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