The decline of river roach

I guess it’s fairly true to say that one of the most sought after fish amongst anglers in 2018 would be a true river two pound roach. Once upon a time, in my lifetime come to that, two pound river roach were not too uncommon, even though they were always highly regarded. Here i look into some of the reasons why?

The history of river roach

If we go back to the 1970s, all the East Anglian rivers held two pound roach along with those in what we anglers call Wessex as well. Going back to the 1960s, just to show you how good things were, a great friend of mine caught twenty-two roach over two pounds in a single February afternoon session. Knowing Jack, he liked a long lunch so he probably didn’t get to the water until two p.m. and, as he was trotting, he probably had to give up at four. You can work out the maths yourself.

So, going back forty or fifty years, there were endless rivers in England that could produce two pound roach and, vitally, a whole raft of fish beneath that magic mark. In fact, in 1975, I can remember catching two hundred roach in a morning from two ounces to two pounds ten ounces with virtually every age group being represented. Rivers were simply teeming with redfins.

The recent decline

So, the decline is apparent and appalling. Over the last twenty years, if we take the East Anglian rivers which I know best, there have been endless false dawns. Over and over, I have seen promising signs in the shape of large shoals, no congregations more like, of decent roach in the four to fourteen ounce class. They look young, fit and healthy but, a year or two later, just when you’d expect big fish, they appear to have vanished. This is not an isolated occurrence. It has happened to me on scores of occasions, to the point where I am wearied of it all. My recent road trip around Wessex taught me alot about the current roach demise which i discuss here . 

The ‘habitat’ red herring

The tragedy is that we are told by the Environment Agency that it is all a matter of habitat. It’s not. My East Anglian rivers at least have never looked better. The deep dredging, the curse of the 1960s and ‘70s, has all but ceased now and the rivers meander in their old, voluptuous curves. Moreover, marginal weed growth is now luxuriant and everywhere you look, there is the so-called woody debris that is so important for river health. Yet, despite seemingly perfect habitat, there are no big roach, or hardly any anyway.

The Environment Agency will also try to say that it is down to food stocks. Just the other day, I chanced upon some of the members of a trout fishing syndicate who were busy sampling the invertebrate life on one of the upper rivers. They were kick sampling, disturbing the silt and seeing what invertebrates hit the waiting net beneath. According to them, the river was fabulously rich in olive nymphs, in particular, but also in most forms of invertebrate life. They have been doing this task for seven years and they have noticed no diminution in the number of invertebrates. According to them, there is food aplenty. Yet there are absolutely no roach in the stretch, a stretch where there used to be tens of thousands.

Why is the decline happening?

So, if the river is healthy and the habitat is fine, what is happening to these promising shoals of roach that flourish for a year or two and come to nothing? To me, you and virtually all anglers the answer is blaringly obvious. They are somehow disappearing but not into thin air as if some river magician has waved a wand.

The scourge of Cormorants

To anybody out on the river, any amount of time during the year, the answer is simply cormorants. It’s nothing more and it’s nothing less. In the 1970s, the number of cormorants was comparatively minimal. The growth in number has been twenty-fold during this period and those birds have to be fed. Unlike otters which can roam widely for food, eating lots of rabbits and wildfowl, for example, cormorants are stuck with fish. My fish. Your fish. And roach feature heavily.

Yet, though I’ve tried, getting the Environment Agency to admit this is an absolute impossibility. Fishery teams seem to want to look anywhere for an alternative reason. It beggars belief. If anglers everywhere can see this blatant truth, then why is it not admitted to by the Agency itself?

A few years ago, a local trout fishing club decided it wanted to get rid of many of the big roach that occupied its water. After at least two years haggling with the Environment Agency, they were allowed to move around four hundred decent roach from the pit into the adjoining River Wensum. For five or six years after that, the roach fishing along the stretch was almost back to how it had been in the 1970s. The answer was so obvious. It’s all about stocking with decent-sized roach and then looking after them. It’s worth pointing out that the trout fishery has a cormorant culling licence and employs a man to do this very task. As a result, the stretch of river where these roach were introduced was jealously guarded and protected. It’s all about stocking and protecting the stock that is introduced. Simple as that.

Not just roach

Of course, I have highlighted roach in this piece but I could just as easily have talked about dace. Or, come to that, I could have included chub and barbel. The fact is that along many, if not most of our rivers, juvenile chub and barbel have an impossible time of it, just like roach and dace do. Back in the summer of 2016, I watched a shoal of two hundred or so juvenile barbel in the River Wensum. They have completely disappeared, completely been wiped out by cormorants working the stretch.

This situation is a calamity. It is appalling that we are allowing this to happen. That our statutory bodies are turning a blind eye. All of us who love our river roach must come together to pressurise the EA into action before it really is too late!