The sport that was already on a form of lockdown before the coronavirus crisis

It may seem odd to be writing at this time about a sport whose participants are prevented from getting involved in any action. That goes for all sports right now.

A great spot for angling - but not at the moment
A great spot for angling - but not at the moment

But as you read this article the annual close season for coarse fishing, somewhat ironically, is in full swing.

By tradition March 16 is when we start to clean our gear, empty out tackle boxes, find long lost items and remove mouldy items of bait that have escaped.

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Then all equipment will be stored away until June 16 when the whole fishing cycle starts again.

This annual exclusion has been going since 1878 when the Freshwater Fisheries Act come into force to ensure that fish cab enjoy the “procreation of their species in peace and quiet”

During this time no-one was allowed to fish anywhere except for a few privileged anglers who could still fish for trout and salmon provided they had access to a nearby chalk stream or a suitable loch or two.

Although anglers grumbled about the act, it was mostly obeyed and accepted, after all it was all about fish conservation, wasn’t it?

Then around 25 years ago the newly established Environment Agency decided to do a strange thing. It allowed people to continue to fish for coarse fish provided they were not in a river.

This had the effect of reigniting the age-old question about the close seasons and the benefit of them.

After all what is the difference between a roach or bream in a river and one that’s in a pond? Don’t both have the right to peace and quiet? It’s a question that has struggled to find an answer.

Faced with a barrage of complaints the Environment Agency, under pressure to review this ancient policy, decided in 2018 to test the water, so to speak, and ask anglers their opinion.

The question was quite simple: Should we get rid of the close season altogether, modify it or keep as it is?

It was a topic that divided the angling fraternity with supporters and defenders exchanging quite frank views through the press and social media outlets.

Despite nearly 50 per cent support for the removal of the close season the EA decided to ignore the vote and keep the status quo.

They cited numerous fish welfare studies to back their decision but again struggled with the big question... Why only rivers?

For non-anglers this must sound all rather pointless. For anglers currently catching coarse fish from one of our ponds, it is frankly bizarre.

Do lake and pond fish spawn at different times? Is catching them stressing them out and interrupting the reproduction cycle? Are river fish more susceptible to angling pressure? And finally, when do fish actually start ‘doing it’?

The last question is rather complex because it’s clear certain fish species spawn at different times and this has become even harder to judge with the arrival of some very strange weather patterns that seem to fall into the whole global warming argument.

For the record, the UK has around 38 native freshwater species plus around 12 foreign introductions. A lot of these are game fish and have their own rules and regulations, so if you want you can still pop down to the river, use a fly rod and try and catch a trout or salmon.

If of course you catch a chub or any other coarse fish that has taken a fancy to your beautifully presented fly, then just don’t mention it.

For the coarse angler the usual number of target species is around 18, unless you actually want to try to catch a bullhead, stone loach or minnow.

Mother nature plays a big part in who gets fruity first. Not surprisingly it’s the predators who start the ball rolling, the two main ones being perch and pike.

These can spawn as early as January and it’s all designed to make sure their fry are big enough to eat the later spawning prey fish. Cleverly, and this is the part I love about nature, is that one prey species, the dace, has worked this out and also spawns at the same time, a perfect example of evolution, or perhaps just common sense, in action.

The rest start only when the water gets to a certain temperature, normally for carp this is above 17C. This mostly doesn’t happen to late spring, May/June time, but thanks to a series of mild winters, this temperature is being reached far earlier.

This is particularly true of lakes and ponds that can warm quicker than free flowing rivers.

This, combined with other key factors such as availability of food, triggers the breeding cycle. Fish will also spawn repeatedly, often past the close season dates.

Traditionally the last to spawn is the tench who finally get around to creating baby tench towards the end of June and even as late as August.

The net result is that anglers are in a dilemma. Should they continue to fish throughout the close season? Is it right to catch breeding fish? Do spawning fish even eat? And if they catch a female loaded with eggs, should this count if it breaks a record?

On a closed river this is not a problem, but on a lake or pond, well that now seems not to matter to the EA and its scientists.

It would have all been easier if the EA had not muddied the waters 25 years ago and continued to ban all fishing during this period and protect all species, wherever they live and spawned.

Yes, it could seem harsh when on a beautiful late May morning you can’t get out and fish but at least everyone knew where they stood.

So for traditionalists, the close season will still be sacrosanct, a time to get around to all those chores they have been putting off and to discover if their mower still works.

For them there should lie ahead one of the great sporting dates, that of waking early on June 16, getting to the venue and casting the first line of a new season into the early dawn light.

See www.sussexangling.co.uk for club and angling updates

Read Steve Penticost’s What’s the Catch? column regularly in the Observer and at chichester.co.uk and other Observer series websites