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Reflecting on the fishing during the record dry summers of 1975 & 76

As the warm weather stays set, Malcolm reflects on the fishing during the record dry summers of 1975 &76

June 2018 tempted all right minded fly-fishers to consider their sanity! Here, in north-west England, we have had no significant rain for 62 days. My diary entries include the two words, ‘HOT SUN’ on most of the 62, and on June 7 I wrote ‘Hot and sunny and dry – are we in for a ’75 or ’76 summer?’ As I write, fire-fighters are out in force tackling moorland blazes in the central Pennines, the rivers are as low as they get, and the river water temperatures are close to lethal for salmonids, if not exceeding the lethal limit where there is not dense cover on the banks providing shade. Readers may recall my article in the magazine on catch-and-release a few months ago. In conditions like this, think twice about C&R, for as studies of tagged fish have shown, mortality increases significantly even if C&R is carried out properly and the fish appears to swim away, apparently unharmed.

What salmon there will be in most of our rivers will have been in for some time, but I have heard of a few sea trout struggling into rivers like the Hodder and Lune. As for wild brown trout, they have some sense, and if you want to catch them – if and when they decide to emerge from cover – you must be out late; very late.

I remember the 1975 and 1976 summers well, as much of my time was spent out on the Ribble estuary working on its wildlife. In those days the Ribble did not suffer from agricultural pollution as it does today, nor did sewage farms pour in lots of nutrients (especially nitrates and phosphates) as they do today. Then I used to potter up to the lower-mid Ribble for an evening with a team of spiders catching mostly chub and dace, whose populations in the river were incredible. In the couple of hours leading into darkness it could be fish after fish after fish, which would go into a keep-net tied to my belt. And when I released a netful of chub I would watch them swimming away over pristine gravel and boulders. You could not do that today, for now the Ribble bed in its middle and lower reaches are smothered, in warm, sunny late springs and summers, with blanketweed. Stand thigh-deep in a pool there and you won’t be able to see your feet, let alone the riverbed gravel and boulders. As for the huge chub and dace populations, they have collapsed.

The worst aspect of these very long, hot droughts is that salmon may try to get into the rivers, but because of the shallow water become trapped in pools just above the head of the tide. In 1975 and 1976 the pool on the Ribble immediately below the M6 junction 31 became packed with salmon and by day anglers would try to catch one. In the evening, watchers went forth to protect these fish from poachers.

Many salmon would not run upstream into drought-hit rivers and when I spent many days out on the estuary with one of the netsmen we caught salmon swimming upriver as the tide flooded, but on the ebb caught many that we moving down-river, back towards the sea. In 1975 and 1976 we all talked of the huge run of salmon that would occur on the first big flood, the run of hundreds of salmon that had been held up in the estuary. And in both years I fished hard the first floods of autumn after the very long droughts and low water. Both years I was disappointed. I later learned that salmon that are physiologically ready to get back into the freshwater river suffer a high mortality if forced to remain in the brine and, in the words of one fishery scientist, ‘become crab food!’

While this year I decided not to fish any North Country river in these awful conditions, my decision reinforced by my developing a chronic right knee and grumbling hip which make clambering up and down river banks painful, I wondered about catching a few rainbow trout in local stillwaters. After making a few phone calls I gathered what I had already worked out, bright sun + cloudless sky = very difficult. I recalled fishing a nice machair loch on South Uist with Jo Ripper and ace gillie Ian Kennedy a few years ago. First drift: no sun + thick cloud = several offers and some nice trout caught. After that drift: away went the cloud and out came the sun = that was it for the day until dusk.

The weather forecast indicates (I write on July 2) that the high pressure system is more or less staying put, and that the hot weather (temperatures in the late 20s °C. and bright sun) will continue. May I make a suggestion for those of you living near the coast? Get your sea trout rod or heaviest single-handed rod and nip down to the shore with a fast sinking fly-line, a short strong leader (eg. three feet of 20lb. test mono) and some big lures. Check the time of high water and try for sea bass. Currently EU regulations allow [sic: encourage] commercial boats [mainly French and Spanish in our waters] to take bass and sell them, but we anglers must C&R all the bass that we catch. But if you are happy to C&R most or all of the wild brown trout you catch, you should be happy to do likewise with these hard-fishing and lovely fish. On the Ribble estuary, in 1975 and 1976 I happily fished for bass and, with pals, mackerel off Southport from a boat. Great fun! I’ll let you know how I have gone on next time.

Oh, And don’t forget the polaroids and sun-block. And pray for rain, if only for the salmon.

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