Urban fishing – should you give it a go?
The main barrier to our sport is accessibility, says Will Martin, who investigates our cities’ waterways
Fly-fishing for trout and salmon on rivers has an accessibility problem. However hard we try to preach inclusivity, it is usually done in £500 waders with a £1,000 rod on a river owned by a friend. Even when I’ve written about the most glorious beats on Dartmoor through the Duchy of Cornwall or the Westcountry Rivers Trust, which are cheap and affordable, I’m usually stood in the middle of nowhere.
In the UK, 17.2 million people live in households that don’t have a car. For readers of Shooting Times this probably comes as a surprise; it did to me. However, over the course of my short tenure as a contributor to this magazine, I have come across a number of reasons why living in a town, city or not having a car shouldn’t preclude you from fishing.
Firstly, you don’t need to be wearing Patagucci waders. While they are comfortable, you can get a pair for £19.99 on Amazon. It might be nice to fish with a £500 Ultralite LL from Hardy, but you can get a fly rod set up from Amazon for £82 including the reel, line and some flies. How good they are, you will have to wait to find out as I review the ultimate bargain set-up in a month’s time.
Then the fishing. Nearly every town or city has a river in it. In fact, a good car journey game is trying to name one that doesn’t. So far the only answer we have come up with is Manchester, although admittedly the Rivers Irwell and Roch run through the county of Greater Manchester, and the city itself of course is famous for its canals and the fishing that they have on offer.
Most of these rivers are fishable. But worryingly, only 14% of English rivers are considered ‘good’ from a pollution perspective. Even more concerningly, while many country folk look to the towns for filthy water quality, 40% of all water pollution comes from slurry and fertilizer. In fact, many of the worst rivers for water quality come from England’s green and pleasant land.
South West Water, advertised as “situated in the heart of the West Country” and watering 1.6m people in possibly the greenest and pleasantest part of the UK, should rightly be described as the colon of the country. It has the highest number of sewage and waste incidents anywhere in the UK.
Urban rivers, traditionally, were plagued by heavy industry. But you only have to turn on the news to understand that the UK has very little of that left, especially since Brexit. As well as this, there has been a fantastic resurgence in water quality.
Aside from all of this, trout, despite what the riparian owners of the chalkstreams would like us to believe, can survive in fairly dirty conditions. However, trout need insects. I’m probably not old enough to speak with true reminiscence, but I task you all to drive in any direction and count the number of splats on your number plate. I joined the M4 at Heathrow a couple of weeks ago, stopped at Bristol for a Maccies and counted the bugs. I had hit one. It was a warm (for April) afternoon and it should have been covered.
So we have rivers, we have rivers that are comparatively clean and no longer — mostly — the cess pits that they once were, we have a fish that wants to survive, and our insect population has crashed everywhere.
If the above depresses you — and it depresses me — good. It is depressing, but equally it serves as a good reminder to drop any assumptions that just because you are standing in
a green field you are fishing water that is better than that in the middle of a town.
Back to urban fishing. It is becoming, dare I say it, popular. Instagram and TikTok have exploded with the escapades of @amie.flyfish. The Wandle gained almost cult status for fishing in South London. Why? In my opinion, simple — it was accessible.
The Wandle is free fishing for nearly its entire length, and groups like the Wandle Piscators readily advertise this fact. Lesser known, however, is that many of these urban waters are equally as open. The Lambourn through Newbury is free to residents, a stretch of the Wey in Farnham is open, there is free water on the Wensum in Fakenham — the list goes on. Of course not all water is free, but by not being free — provided it’s affordable — accessibility is maintained.
Tiverton is the industrial town of Devon. In 1815 John Heathcoat, reeling from the destruction of his machinery by Luddites in Loughborough, moved his entire lace-making operation to Tiverton. The factory transformed Tiverton and industrialized mid-Devon, the Grand Western Canal linking with the Great Western Railway. The factory still stands; Heathcoat is still very much the beating heart, although now making parachutes for Mars rovers rather than lace.
Winding through Tiverton, at often great pace, is the River Exe. Four miles of bank, partly donated by the Knightshayes Estate, are made available to the residents of Tiverton by the Tiverton Fly Fishing Association. For those living over 10 miles away, you can fish the water for a £15 day ticket.
It was a miserable April day, the mizzle turning to rain before returning to drizzle. My waders decided to give up the ghost and leak. But it was glorious. Fishing for trout, although I probably should have been chasing the silver tourists (the beat above caught one the same day), I fished upstream into the cold east wind.
Failing to get a rise, I moved to fishing spiders and immediately my luck changed. I had two fantastic fish, both scrapping as intently as any wild fish should, and we shouldn’t be surprised by this. Fishing snobbery seems to permeate into thinking that town trout are fat chip-eaters who mooch about, but they are not.
You may ask, was it not distracting with the cars? I have found that when fishing, when properly fishing, it actually isn’t. Amazingly, everything outside of the river seems to just fade, like a background buzz. I find this happens whether I’m in Mongolia or the Wandle, my focus on the moving body of water and its secrets. This focus is rather difficult to break.
Of course, when you scramble up the bank, it hits you like a freight train. The only solace, I suppose, is that following two cold hours I could pop into Morrisons for a fry-up. On the face of it then, fishing should be accessible, but unfortunately it still isn’t. I think it comes down to communication. In researching for this piece, I discovered that to find
out where you can or can’t fish is
Councils seem not to care that they have this most wonderful amenity running through their control, possibly fearful of someone falling in or tripping up and suing them. What you are left with is a grey feeling that it may be free water or it may not be. A braver man than me may run the gauntlet and follow the moniker ‘better beg forgiveness than ask permission’, but accidentally poaching is still poaching.
Some people have written books on the subject — Theo Pike’s Trout in Dirty Places is often considered the seminal piece on urban trout fishing. Yet, to get absolute confirmation that you can fish somewhere is hard work.
In one part of Tiverton, the River Lowman runs through. Once a heavily polluted and egregiously canalised little river, it is my idea of heaven. It has a good head of fish and at the bottom of Gold Street you can often see a few ‘chip eaters’ of about 1lb sat with their tails on the lip of the bridge. When you ask who owns it, who has the fishing, no one seems to know. The best I got was that it is currently under a legal dispute or that it is owned by the various home owners along its small banks.
Other urban rivers face a similar issue. It is often hidden, a secret. A great friend of mine has such a bit of water just above Oxford near Woodstock, behind the car park of B&Q. Weeks of investigating and countless emails to the council determined it was free fishing. Off the beaten track and off the map. Urban fishing is great; you don’t need a car, you don’t need thousands of pounds of kit. However, if we are going to try to make it accessible, we need to talk about it.