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November 6 2017

Rules, rules, rules. Theoretically, the Environment Agency is in favour of fishing – healthy outdoor sport, encourages respect for nature, spreads a tourist dollar or two, etcetera. But all its promotion is about fishing stocked ponds and lakes. When it comes to wild fishing, angling gets hobbled with so many restrictions it’s a wonder anybody bothers at all.

If the Atlantic salmon is declining, it is because of things happening at sea, or on the farmers’ fields, or out of vans with false numberplates – not the fisherman on foot. How many salmon do they think are being carried a mile down the East Dart? A couple of 15-pounders is plenty, I can tell you.

But all the Dart network was a no-take zone for two years and if you read the EA bye-laws, it looks as though it still is, although actually the ban has been lifted.

Up to the end of September, me and a pupil of mine spent £80 each on full rod licences from the Environment Agency and £150 each for season tickets for trout and salmon on the Duchy of Cornwall’s common man’s fishing banks on the upper tributaries of the Dart.

By the end of the Dart season, September 30, I had two salmon and my mate had none.

He spent another £150 on a Tavy Walkham & Plym licence, allowing him another go, for salmon only. Trout, including sea trout, are protected everywhere after September 30 but with a TWP permit, you can still fish for salmon on the Tavy & Walkham for the first two weeks in October and then until December 14 on the Plym and its tributaries.

I’m considering a ticket myself. There is not much November fishing in the country, outside the west country, and the TWP Club offers some good beats. The salmon which run the Plym in winter are beautiful, though a bit hard to get.

But the club feels obliged to mention to us that it has volunteered to the Environment Agency to try and meet a target of 100 percent catch and return on the Plym waters. Now when you are nudging up to £400 spent on permits, that is a serious disincentive.

There was a big fish kill on the Meavy a year ago – pollution incident as I heard it. But the main reason for the policy is that all clubs are supposed to be aiming for nothing less than a 70 percent reduction overall in the anglers’ take of salmon. How they do it is up to them – so far. One of the Tamar clubs tries to impose a rule that you have to release two before taking the third, we hear. The Tavy-Walkham-Plym guidance is to release one, take two, then release odd numbers – if you should be lucky enough – on all rivers besides the Plym network.

One way and another we are ending up with silly rules, involving un-necessary damage to fish if applied. And all this is leading up to even higher targets for return of catch, covering even more rivers and affecting most of ours. The Angling Trust, representing several old angling associations, has just finished a consultation (which I never heard about before it started) on a proposal to call on all clubs topromise catch-and-return of between two thirds and 100 percent, almost everywhere – anything to stop the Environment Agency making it mandatory.

The TWP club says it is acting on Environment Agency orders. But when the Horrabridge Times put in some questions for me, the Environment Agency played innocent. It says it never set a 70 percent target. All catch-and-return rules, except those in its own bye-laws, are down to the clubs, it says.

What happened was, apparently, the EA let it be known that it was under pressure to impose mandatory catch-and-return and the clubs were blackmailed into falling into line “voluntarily”. The EA surely does not really want to get into a war with anglers. It just wants to make things a bit more awkward for everyone, so it can tick a box somewhere for effort on behalf of the salmon.

In the end, like I thought, it is really up to you. Voluntary means voluntary. You don’t want to fall out with your local fishing club but you cannot be taken to court for taking home a legal fish. There is no law to apply except the existing EA rules about seasons, young fish, hen fish, maximum bags and so on. And they are quite daft enough. They include a rule that a fish hooked in the stomach should be returned to the water to die, for example. This is probably supposed to cut off an avenue of excuse for the poacher. Fact is, it’s nonsense. Honest and responsible fishermen will make a judgement on each case, as they always did, and dishonest and irresponsible fishermen will take no notice at all.

Meanwhile, my mate and I decided to put off worrying about a return policy until he had actually caught a fish.

We explored the Walkham a bit in early October, but only got a few hours in before I got laid up for a few weeks by an old medical condition. Could have tried the Tavy. With different permits, the Tamar, its tributary the Lynher, and the Teign, are also open for salmon up to October 14.

But for now we are turning our sights on the Plym network, which remains open until December 14. Just waiting for the temperatures to drop and the rivers to fill again.

The Cad and the Meavy become the Plym at Shaugh Bridge. Once upon a time, almost all salmon in the Plym were heading for the Meavy and the Meavy is still the best bit of the network. But back in the good old days, the army opened up the route up the Cad by blowing up some rocks and some salmon now go that way. Also, before the seeding of rivers with fry became unfashionable, the old rivers authority introduced some Lyd salmon (I think) and succeeded in setting up a summer run, so you can fish the Plym and tributaries right through the season nowadays. Stocking rivers with fry from elsewhere is frowned on nowadays, apparently, because of the danger of mixing genes. I can only say it seems to have worked okay in the past, for the salmon and for the fisherman.

But the winter run of salmon is the main attraction of the Plym waters. These are a different strain of salmon from those which meander up the Dart in summer. They are fat burly beasts, so fresh from the sea they are often still carrying sea lice. They are up their rivers in a matter of hours from a high tide and an adult will weigh at least 10 lbs – average 12-14 and I’ve had an 18-pounder from the Plym between Shaugh Bridge and Bickleigh. But they are not easy to catch. In cold water, they will not rise to a fly. You have to get down to them, with big spinners and wobblers.

The Plymouth & District Freshwater Angling Association offers access to some of the same stretches as the Tavy Walkham & Plym club, plus some of its own, notably the Plym between Bickleigh Bridge and Plym Bridge.

The Yealm also has a winter salmon run and a December 14 deadline. Same goes for the Fowey and Camel in Cornwall. And the Fowey and Camel are unusual in allowing the use of bait. Bodmin Anglers and Wadebridge Anglers handle Camel permits and Liskeard & District Anglers run the Fowey. If you can afford it, you want a permit for each river, because often one has fish running when the other does not and it is only a hop between them.

Far as I know, you have to go as far as the River Nith, in Scottish border country, to get salmon fishing that late outside Devon & Cornwall. Up there, they call the winter salmon greybacks.

This article was first published in The Horrabridge Times and is reproduced with permission. More on the Horrabridge Times at

* Charlie Webster is a fishing and shooting guide, and fly-tying teacher, based in this area, with good knowledge of most of the rivers of Devon & Cornwall. Contact him on 07864 845901 or leave a message below or with [email protected]/