Fishing Articles No 1 2012

A glimpse of what’s to come on the Wye Salmon Front

D.M.Macer-Wright (c) 2012

At the Wye and Usk Foundation’s annual meeting on 19th October 2011 I was quite outspoken in voicing an opinion that the river Wye at Lydbrook, where I own the Wyebank and Courtfield fisheries, had throughout the summer been full of salmon. I had said much the same the previous year, although the salmon numbers in 2010 were undoubtedly not so numerous as 2011. It would be wrong to say my remarks met with stoney silence, but I could’nt help but suspect an undercurrent of cynicism. My words were based on my own observations on the Wyebank and Courtfield fisheries and most significantly from the comments of coarse fishermen and canoeists. The former having universally seen salmon on a daily basis throughout the summer and early autumn, particularly at the fisheries of Courtfield and Middle Hill Court. This was literally every day and to the extent that some coarse fishermen told me it would be the exception not to see salmon.

With regard to the observations of canoeists it is particularly interesting to note from my diary entries that between 2005 and 2008 hardly any canoeists I spoke to were aware that the Wye was a salmon river. This is of course astonishing and just shows the slippery slope that prevails on the Wye Navigation when salmon are in massive decline and scarcity. Time and again I would tell canoeists how the Wye was the most famous salmon river in England and Wales, only to be met with disbelief or the words “I never knew that.”

This has now all changed and since 2010 I think it is fair to say that canoeists look out for the thrill of seeing a salmon and what is more the hire companies tell them to expect to see salmon. Salmon are fast becoming centre stage on the agenda for the canoeing experience. I was told of one such experience in the summer of 2011 when three salmon leaped all at the same time between a rank of canoes.

It has been suggested that other fish, such as chub, have been mistaken for salmon and there is probably a degree of truth in this. The more salmon are seen, the more people are inclined to see every jumping or surfacing fish as a salmon . The point is of course that salmon were seen in plenty in 2011, regardless of other fish, compared with the years before 2009 when they were not.

To put my assertions to the test and from my perspective to get more fishermen on my fishery Stuart Smith at the Wye Salmon Association and I came up with a plan. This became the Campaign To Put More Rods on the River. I suggested providing one free day per week for four rods, between the opening day on March the 3rd and the start of the coarse season on June 16th. Two would fish Wyebank which is mainly fly water and two Courtfield which is largely spinning water. They would change over at 1 o’clock lunchtime. Stuart felt this would be a very good opportunity to test salmon numbers in the beats upstream of Monmouth and downstream from Ross, where catches have been minimal in recent years.

Wyebank River Wye

Wyebank River Wye looking downriver

Wyebank River Wye

Wyebank fly water

For the reader’s benefit I must stress that the river upstream of Lydbrook holds fish well during low water years. The magic number on the Hereford gauge is considered by many to be 2ft, below which salmon tend to remain downstream of Hereford and above which salmon will run past Hereford to the upper reaches of the river.

Stuart did a wonderful job advertising the campaign, as a result of which Wyebank and Courtfield soon became fully booked every Wednesday until the scheme ended on June 16th. The results and the knock on effect were marvellous. 70 salmon were caught by the 13th April, of which 15 were fresh fish and an astonishing 55 were kelts. As an exercise towards estimating the spawning in 2011 the kelt catch was truly illuminating when compared with Arthur Hutton’s records of the early 20th century. The condition of the kelts was very good and many were exceptional. If not taken from the water many could have passed for fresh fish with fully restored colour and sheens to their backs and flanks. With a ratio of about 4 kelts to 1 fresh fish, the only downside was that after a fight comparable to smaller salmon there came the inevitable tinge of disappointment, when yet another kelt came to the net.

Courtfield spinning water

Peter Chilton and Jason Conlon kicked this all off on March 14th on the Courtfield fishery. Jason with a 10 lb fish from the Wood crib and Peter with two of 15lbs and 24lbs from the Willow run plus two excellently well mended kelts. Jason lost two others including a probable 20 pounder. The next day I lost a huge fish in the high 20s and landed an 18.5lb springer, a 12lb kelt and a smolt! On Friday 16th March Jason landed and returned a fantastic 27lb fish and two more superb kelts. More kelts were caught over the weekend of the 17th and 18th up to 40” in length. Then on Monday 19th Rudi Lighert, who helps me keep an eye on the water, cast to two porpoising fish, hooked and landed both of them on a flying C, one of 15lbs from the Willow Run and a magnificent 32 pounder from Leggs Meadow. The following Thursday, 22nd March, Clive Peglar had a perfect catch and release as a big cock estimated at 25lbs wouldn’t fit in his Gye net and whilst across the net, the hooks came out and the great fish slipped quietly back in and swam away! The same day Stuart Smith, whilst failing to get a fresh fish against the odds, returned 5 kelts on fly and 2 on spinner and lost three further fish. The kelt harvest was peaking and Jason Conlon returned 9 kelts the following day, again to around 40”. In ten days 9 fresh salmon and 39 kelts were landed.

More fish followed with John Marty taking a 10lb fish on the 30th and 2 kelts and I landed a 15lb fish from Wyebank, which was my second on fly, the first a 15 pounder to black and yellow tube on 13th March. Terry Newport had a 10lb fish from the Ferry Pool and 2 kelts on 3rd April and then it went quiet. Kelts continued to be caught until 8th when Cliver Peglar had a remarkable experience landing a 26lb superb fish from the Willow Run at lunchtime and later at 7 o’clock lost another fish which was even bigger. He played this one for 10minutes witnessed by Adam Tobin, when the fish came clear of the water and the hook pulled out. Clive fishes slowly and methodically, covering every inch of water. If the big one hadn’t got away he would have brought three mid twenty plus large springers to the net in two visits!

Clive Peglar’s magnificent 26lb 3SW springer

On 10th April the rain started producing a small lift to 2foot which cleared back by Friday 13th when I put the fateful day to the test and landed a 12lb salmon at 8pm and half an hour later a 3-4lb sea trout, both from the Courtfield fishery when the river was at 4” and had just cleared to a light tint. Then all went quiet for some days and on 18th April the river started rising and remained in flood for over 3 weeks. Two single days appeared when on both I lost large fish on Wyebank, always a challenging water to land big fish, bringing my total to 4 landed and 3 lost by the 12th of May.

The Campaign To Put More Rods on the River produced both fish and bookings. It has been the best spell of March fishing for over 25 years. On the last day of March Wyebank and Courtfield had the same number of fish recorded as the famous Wyesham fishery below Monmouth. It has demonstrated that the lack of catch returns in the upper end of the lower Wye over the last few years may have been largely due to the lack of fishing effort rather than the lack of fish.

Subsequently we have experienced a terrible wet summer and in the lower river prolonged periods of coloured and unfishable water, right to the end of the season on October 17th. Within and during brief days and even hours of perfect fishing conditions both I and Rudi Lighert have managed to catch fish, including small springers and summer fish and a smattering of grilse. At Wyebank and Courtfield we have ended with 12 for Wyebank average weight 10.2lbs and 18 for Courtfield of which 16 averaged 17.25lbs. These are the best figures in the 19 seasons I have owned Wyebank and the best for over 20 years on Courtfield. What might we have caught if the bulk of the season hadn’t been a wash out?

This brings me to the final catch of 1248 salmon from the Wye 64% up on the 5 year average and the best catch since 1996 including six 30 pounders. The River Wye Gillies website records 80 fish over 20lbs out of 809 for which weights were recorded, an impressive 10%. The top end of the river has had the best season for 30 years. 571Fish caught above Glasbury and 633 below. I suspect that many will decry this improvement, for after all in 1994 2338, in 1995 1089 and 1996 1837 salmon were caught, before the collapse to below 1000 fish a year. I remember it was during those years that everyone was complaining how the fish stocks were collapsing and the clamour for a meaningful hatchery was building in earnest. However one cannot deny that there are significantly more salmon in the system now than there were 10 years ago.

Returning to what this article is all about, it is the catch of kelts which confirms the numbers of salmon in the river last summer and demonstrates the high level of spawning in 2011. These kelts were predominantly 2SW hens with a reasonable number of 3SW hens. Exceptionally large numbers of kelts were also caught from Bigsweir and other beats on the lower and middle Wye.

It is to Arthur Hutton that we must turn in order to put some meaning on the kelt catch. In his superb book Wye Salmon and Other Fish Hutton recorded how at Hampton Bishop, between the recovery years of 1908 to 1922, an average of 36 kelts a year were caught during the 3 months of February, March and April. For six of these years 1908 to the improved year of 1913 the average rod and net catch was 6,124 salmon a year (2319 to rods). The most kelts Arthur Hutton reports for one single year was 77 in 1911. This year the Courtfield fishery produced 55 in only 26 days, exceeding by far the numbers ever caught at Hampton Bishop in a similar period . It is superbly encouraging, to think that as many salmon may have spawned in 2011 as during the years of 1908 to 1922. and accordingly we should be able to expect a return towards historic stock levels in the not too distant future.

Catch and release is here to stay for the foreseeable future. There seems absolutely no reason why the river Wye should not return to it’s former glory as the pre eminent large spring salmon river in England and Wales. Thanks to the Wye and Usk Foundation there is now 795 miles of spawning waters available, probably the largest area since the pre industrial age. Of 435 miles blocked when WUF started work only 25 miles remain blocked.

In 1932 Hutton estimated that there were 858 miles of waters in the Wye catchment, not a bad estimate in view of the accuracy of today’s calculations. In 1932 506 miles were either inaccessible or unsuitable for spawning leaving some 352 miles of possible spawning grounds. The figure for suitable spawning is now 586 miles and it has to be said that despite the severe agricultural impacts in the main stem below Glasbury, there are areas in the lower Wye where some spawning is taking place, with evidence from coarse anglers that parr are returning. In 2010 salmon spawned along Wyebank for example and although numbers are unquantified salmon parr have been caught here throughout the past decade.

Arthur Hutton’s belief was that the river Wye “ought to be one of, if not the most, productive river in England and Wales.” The vision of Stephen Marsh-Smith may yet prove Hutton’s words to be prophetic. We all owe a great debt of gratitude to the focus and single mindedness of the WUF. Although there will always be a need for vigilance, if we are to see a successful restoration of salmon stocks, I believe this year has given us a glimpse of how the Wye will once again become the greatest large springer river in England and Wales.