A River Runs Through It: The History of River Trout Fishing in the UK's NE
The North East of England boasts some of the most iconic fishing rivers in the British Isles, if not the world. The rivers Tweed and Tyne are rightly famed for the quality of their salmon fishing.
Increasingly however this tends to be the preserve of a more exclusive clientele. Fortunately, the salmon’s close relative, the trout, is even better represented in the rivers of Northumbria, presenting a far more accessible alternative. Brown trout are found in every single watercourse in Northumberland, Durham and North Yorkshire, with an ever-increasing number of these rivers also counting the sea trout as a regular seasonal visitor.
The brown trout is the staple of freshwater fishing in the North East and, in the vast majority of cases, it is the first species local anglers ever encounter – and in some instances, all they ever fish for! This article charts the history and marks the importance of trout fishing in Northumbrian rivers from the start of the Nineteenth Century. It details its development as a sport, the advent of local angling clubs and associations, and the introduction and origins of the rules which today govern it. It also includes, as a case study, one angling club’s trout stocking policy since the 1920’s, and catalogues the fall and rise of sea trout fishing in the region’s larger rivers.
A century and a half ago, as angling became as much a sport as an act of necessity, wealthier folk began to regard fishing for those spotted freshwater fish, the trout – more palatable and often found in more exclusive locations – as somehow more righteous than angling for their roughly scaled brethren, species such as the dace and the chub. The demarcation that still exists to this day was thus established, with the trout to become known as a game fish: a superior inhabitant of streams, fished for by a ‘superior’ class of angler! In what was an otherwise enlightening book, "Angling, or How To Angle, And Where To Go", the nineteenth century angling writer, Robert Blakey epitomised this attitude. “Next in importance to the salmon, in the estimation of the genuine angler, stands the trout,” he wrote. “He is the standard commodity of the enthusiastic rod fisher. There are many expert and experienced fly-fishers who never enjoyed the unique and exciting luxury of hooking and killing a salmon; but no man can fairly lay claim to the appellation of an ‘angler’, if he cannot kill trout with the rod and line in some way or another.” Launching into a characteristically Victorian salvo of anthropomorphosis, Blakey continued: “There is something about trout fishing which has exalted it in all eyes above every other branch of the art, except, of course, that of salmon fishing. If we attempt to analyse this preference, we shall find it resolve itself into something appertaining to the attributes, qualities, or habits of this beautiful and interesting fish. He is an intellectual kind of creature, and evidently has a will of his own – he looks sagacious and intelligent; he sedulously avoids thick, troubled and muddied waters, displays an ardent ambition to explore the rivers to their very source; is quick, vigorous and elegant in his movements – is comparatively free from vulgar, low and grovelling habits; and, in a word, in every stage of his existence, preserves a superior and dignified demeanour unattainable by any other occupant of the streams.
These may be styled the social and intellectual qualities of this glorious fish.” Nowhere more so did this angling doctrine take hold than in Blakey’s native North East of England, and while the dogma of the upstream dry fly, so prevalent on southern chalk streams, may have been impractical on most northern rivers, in many places angling for game fish nonetheless became a rigorously elite practise. For the next hundred years from the early 1800’s onwards, this Victorian ideal would govern fishing in Northumbria, with game angling the discipline where it became most apparent. Thankfully, such elitism did die out, and the increase in wealth among the working and middle classes eventually led to the formation of angling clubs and associations. In most cases, these organisations strove to provide affordable fishing for all and, as landowners began to lease the fishing rights to these ‘preservers of the water’, by the mid twentieth century much of Northumbria’s prized game fishing was within the reach of the ordinary person. Trout fishing had gone full circle and was once again the preserve of the common man! So why exactly is it that game fishing is so pre-eminent in the North East region? Well firstly, unlike almost anywhere else in England, the native British trout, Salmo trutta, is the dominant species from source to sea in every river in Northumberland and Durham. While the largest rivers in the area, the Wear and the Tyne, do contain naturally occurring coarse species in their lower reaches, unlike in rivers further south, they never quite manage to take over. Cast a worm into the mid to lower reaches of either of these Northumbrian rivers and there is greater than even chance that it will be taken by a trout. Do the same thing on the lower Swale or Ure – rivers not all that much further south – and the likelihood is in catching something entirely different: on these rivers coarse fish begin to take over the further downstream from their dales that you go. On the smaller rivers of Northumberland, the brown trout is omnipotent – there is little likelihood of catching anything else in the Wansbeck or the Blyth, and absolutely no chance of other species on the Coquet or Aln – except for salmon and eels. And while the majestic River Tweed does contain some less regal species, these are believed to have been introduced by man at some point in the past. At times, the dace, roach and grayling have all flourished in the lower Tweed, the Teviot and the Till, but the trout have always been by far greater in number!
To further explain the brown trout’s dominant presence in this area, we need look no further than the geography of the region and the way that this selects biologically in favour of the trout and its lifestyle. All the streams of Northumbria are spate rivers, all rising in upland areas, with the largest starting life high on mountainous moorland. The water in the headwaters is always cold, peaty and acidic and, flowing out of crevices in the limestone bedrock, it is largely devoid of nutrients. With few exceptions (none of which are large enough to be considered angling species) the brown trout is the only fish able to survive in such conditions, with the sparse invertebrate life placing a stringent nutritional control on the size to which any fish can grow. A common characteristic of such rivers, particularly the largest ones, is a good run of sea trout. These are simply brown trout which migrate to sea, usually from the sparse upland feeder streams where food is so scarce, to put on weight well in excess of what they could achieve if they stayed in the river, and then return to their natal headwaters to spawn. A sea trout can do this any number of times throughout its life and the offspring can be either migratory or not. Hence, in addition to trout spawned by those brown trout that don’t migrate, any spate river will normally maintain a healthy population of the species, proportional to its size.
Another factor is climate. The northerly latitude of the North East region, combined with the cooling effect of winds off the North Sea, means that coarse species such as dace, chub and roach are near the natural limit of their temperature tolerance, even in the lowland waters of the Wear and Tyne. Unlike the rivers Tees, Swale and Ure, which descend quickly from the Pennines before slowing considerably, the two largest Northumbrian rivers are relatively swift throughout their courses, except for the tidal reaches. This tends to further oxygenate the lower reaches and also selects biologically towards the habitat preferences of the trout over other species. Needless to say, trout fishing with rod and line has been of importance for countless generations in the North East – originally as a valuable food source for communities located close to rivers, and not always by means considered ‘fair’ by those nineteenth century grandees. A painting dating back to the 1820’s by the artist T.M. Richardson, showing Barras Bridge - then located just outside Newcastle - clearly depicts two young boys fishing in one of the small streams that ran down to the Tyne close to the city walls. Given the gradient at which what is now a storm drain descends to the main river, the drop must have meant that the only species able to negotiate such precipitous flows was the trout! Robert Blakey wrote of another such young lad’s trout, caught on the Coquet in the 1820’s beneath the crossing-point of the main road into Scotland. “Nearly about the same time (the dry summer of 1826), a large trout, under precisely the same circumstances, was observed for a long time near to one of the arches of Felton Bridge. He took up a sort of permanent abode there; had often anglers paying him a visit, but all their subtle arts proved unavailing, and he was captured at last by a country lad, with a miserable rod and line, with a plain red worm. His weight was five pounds.”
A little over a century later, another young angler was frequenting the nearby river Wansbeck, also in pursuit of brown trout and also with the most rudimentary of tackle. In his autobiography, 1966 World Cup hero, Jack Charlton, nostalgically recalled his own boyhood fishing exploits, often with younger brother Bobby in tow. “When I was perhaps twelve or thirteen, I discovered that there were trout in the river at Bothal, about a couple of miles upstream from Ashington. I’d been to the place before for minnows, but one day I saw this huge trout. We weren’t allowed to fish for them, of course, but I said to myself, hell, I’m going to have one of those before long.” The more practically minded of the Charlton brothers quickly hatched a plan: “I soon figured out how to do it. I’d take a ball of string, attach a piece of wood, and then tie on a dropper with a worm on the end. Then I’d retreat round the corner, so nobody could see me and wait. I’d sometimes catch as many as ten trout a night. It was all totally illegal, but I was growing up fast in a hard world, and I never got caught.” Jack’s recollections – apart from the poaching – must strike a chord with Peter Wigham, Vice Chairman of the Wansbeck Angling Association, who remembered his own youthful perambulations on those same banks, many years later. “As a Pegswood lad, I fished the more prolific waters at Bothal and the Viaduct Woods”, he remembered, revealing that, “The catches were generally much weightier than those taken upstream at Morpeth.” Peter thus betrayed a degree of local knowledge vital for a better share of the biggest trout in the river – information sadly lost on at least one of his Wansbeck contemporaries. In fact, as far back as 1859, Robert Blakey had warned, “In the rivers Rede, Blyth and Wansbeck, there are fine trout, but they can only be properly angled for by persons who have a very accurate knowledge of the peculiarities of each stream. For general tourists they are not best suited.” Indeed, in the formative years of Wansbeck Angling Association, only residents of the towns and villages adjacent to the river were permitted to become members, a rule common to many northeastern clubs and associations at the time.
Another club that for many years only permitted locals to join was the Derwent Angling Association, whose membership was restricted to residents of Consett, Shotley Bridge and pit villages further down the valley, such as Chopwell. At the DAA’s peak in the 1960’s and 70’s there was a waiting list of upwards of two years and such was the demand that, upon acceptance, a new member was required to report to the local the post office with ID in order to collect his or her permit. [* For an in-depth history of this angling association, please visit: http://www.fishingarchives.com/river-of-eternal-youth/ ] Other rules included restrictions on the baits and lures that could be used during the trout fishing season, regulations that for the most part are still in place today. On most rivers in the Northumbria region – and indeed on all association waters on the Wansbeck – there was a stipulation that, before June 1st, anglers were permitted to fish for trout by ‘fly only’, meaning (as on those rivers that did contain coarse fish the season was closed from mid-March to mid June) that no other bait or lure was allowed for the first two and a half months of the trout season. Fly only rules were sometimes extended throughout the season by certain clubs, notably the Derwent Angling Association, while on others no live bait other than worm or, sometimes, minnow were allowed after June 1st. From 1974 onwards, many of these regulations became underpinned by byelaws, under the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act, but there were loopholes and there were also those despicable individuals who paid no heed to the rulebook in any case!
For those prepared to go by the book back in the mid-1970’s, Frank Johnson’s North East Angling Guide was probably the best example, and it included an inventory of the standard North Eastern trout angler’s fly box, as recommended by J.L Hardy of the famous Alnwick tackle firm, Hardy Bros. Hardy suggested, “It is useful to know which type of fly will generally be taken under certain conditions and the following list of flies will be most useful on any north country trout stream”. Snipe and Purple: “This is a splendid killer on cold days in the early part of the season, particularly in March and April when there are often hail showers and cold winds.” Waterhen Bloa: “A useful fly in March and April and at the end of the season, particularly on cold windy days, when they are found to linger on the surface. Also a very useful grayling fly.” Dark Needle or Needle Brown: “Good killer all of the season, particularly on days of flying clouds and fitful bursts of sunshine, with a cold wind blowing.” Greenwell’s Glory Spider: “This fly represents a variety of olives and is good throughout the season” Yellow Partridge or Grey Gnat: “A good killer during April.” Orange Partridge: “An excellent killer from April to September on warm days.” Dotterel: “A good standard fly all through the season from the end of April, more especially on rather cold days.” Poult Bloa: “A fair killer on cold days throughout the season.” Knotted Midge: “Does very well on hot, stuffy days when thunder is about.” Smoke Fly: “This is a fancy fly and only kills in certain curious states of weather on sluggish water in dull, heavy, sultry conditions.” Black Gnat: “Most difficult fly to imitate. Useful when fish are smutting.” Hackle Blue Upright: “Probably one of the finest flies to use during the season and will often help to bring success on what would otherwise be a blank day. If there was only one fly allowed, that would be the choice, followed by Partridge and Orange and Greenwell.” Quite obviously, a good knowledge of entomology is essential for the serious fly fishing enthusiast. An instinctive take on the time of year and weather conditions that result in certain fly hatches, with which to match an artificial, is not just the difference between success and failure, it can also allow the experienced angler to evaluate a whole season and find reasons why it may have been a good year or bad.
The dry summer of 1995 was awful for trout fishing and whilst ‘low water’ was an easy excuse for many of us who failed miserably that season, a more experienced analysis, such as that of Ken Smith of Durham City Angling Club, painted a picture with far a deeper perspective: “The feeding activity of trout is normally influenced by air pressure, rainfall and water temperature,” wrote Ken in the Autumn edition of the club newsletter. “Our weather for much of the season was dominated by high pressure, rainfall was low and normally the water temperature would have been quite high in the summer months. However when cold compensation water (from Kielder Reservoir) was introduced, from time to time, the river water temperature was varying very much – this factor has had a great influence on the natural food of the trout. Sedge hatches have been very poor this season and many believe it is as a direct result of the changing water conditions. Apart from sedges, there seems to have been a slight decrease in the number of up-winged flies, but there has certainly been an increase in the population of midges. This latter fly life requires silt for part of its life cycle and silt is now very evident on stretches of the river where once it was never seen.” Yet the experienced angler is able to turn such situations to his advantage and, in 1995, Ken Smith was no exception. “New conditions need new approaches if the angler is to continue to be successful. The main change that I have made, this season, has been to fish much finer than in the past. This was forced on me by the very clear water conditions and, therefore, the extra wariness of the trout. Fine fishing starts with the use of very fine cast nylon – 3 lb as a maximum. Large flies do not fish properly on fine nylon, so hook sizes were likewise reduced. Size 14 is now the largest used in clear water and 18’s and 20’s are very often needed for success. The use of tiny flies has certainly proved effective as the season progressed. Who would have thought of using midge pupae against river trout? Several anglers have this summer, with good results!” Of course, to justify making the game as hard as this, the clubs, associations (and even river boards, water authorities and the Environment Agency) had also to play a part in providing sufficient stocks of trout for anglers to fish for.
By the start of the twentieth century, the stocking of trout streams subjected to regular angling pressure was standard practise, maintaining fish stocks and even increasing stock density in places where the burden was unduly heavy. The process was normally carried out annually by the fisheries boards, using juvenile trout reared in their own fish farms but, increasingly, angling clubs began to take matters into their own hands, using revenue from membership subscriptions to buy their own brood stock and, in some cases, even opening their own independent hatcheries. There are very few records of these sorts of introductions readily available to public scrutiny, but thanks to the community spiritedness of one North Yorkshire angling club, there does exist a detailed record of their trout stocking and, as such, a blueprint for similar activities on spate rivers elsewhere in the region. The Richmond and District Angling Society was founded in 1912 to provide trout fishing on several miles of the river Swale upstream of the North Riding market town, its waters being mainly at the lower end of Swaledale, upstream of Castle Falls. The falls form a clear demarcation on the river – downstream, the Swale is a mixed fishery, whilst above the obstacle there are only trout, the rocky outcrop forming a natural barrier to the passage of coarse species. The Society was thus established, initially, as a trout fishing club and its records, lodged at the North Yorkshire County Records Archive, in Northallerton, provide an invaluable account of its activities throughout the twentieth century.
In 2004, these documents were augmented by a history of the club, written in the form of an academic thesis by Gordon Alexander, and from this it is possible to ascertain almost all the key dates and numbers for the introduction of stock reared trout into the upper Swale. Alexander wrote that, “In December 1912, within a few months of the formation of Richmond Anglers, the Yorkshire Fisheries Board pledged the new society five hundred yearling trout to place in the Swale. The society had to cover the cost of transporting the fish to the river and a subscription was opened amongst the members to raise the sum required. On 26th March 1913 these fish arrived at the riverside and the first stocking took place. The location of this event is not recorded but the next annual release, also of five hundred yearling trout, took place at various locations along the river including Lowenthwaite. The account book records a payment to the railway company for the transport of these fish.” A philanthropic arrangement between the society and the Yorkshire Fisheries Board continued in various guises for another forty years. “Initially the Fisheries Board provided free trout from its own hatcheries for stocking, but this practise was replaced by a monetary grant enabling the Society to source its own fish. This system, which gave the society more latitude in the selection of species, age and size of the fish for stocking continued until 1951 when the Yorkshire Fisheries Board was replaced by the Yorkshire Ouse River Board under the River Board Act 1948.” The new authority restored the grant to the Richmond Angling Society in 1952, by which time; charitable donations by riparian owners had already enabled the club to increase considerably the numbers of fish that they introduced. Alexander reveals that: “In 1945, 1,200 two year-old trout and 624 yearling trout were released, followed by 1,200 two year-old fish in 1947.”
Even so, angling pressure combined with a drain on resources was beginning to tell: “At this time, Society rules permitted the successful angler to remove twenty fish from the river each day. In 1954, a daily catch limit of ten fish was imposed by the committee, with the annual stocking levels having fallen to around five hundred trout.” Also in the 1950’s the Richmond club began to follow a trend already popular in other areas of the country. “Up to this time, all the stocking carried out was with indigenous brown trout but, in 1956, the society introduced one hundred rainbow trout into the Swale along with four hundred brown trout. The rainbow trout (Salmo gairdneri), a native of North America, can grow to a very large size and was introduced in response to the trend in angling towards catching larger ‘trophy’ fish. The practise of releasing rainbow trout into the river continued in the 1950’s and towards the close of that decade the numbers of fish released had risen again to a peak of 1,463 in 1958.” By the end of the following decade, however, the practise of restocking was coming under fire, as members began to worry about the effects of the procedure on the wild trout stocks in the Swale. Catch limits were still high and with membership growing many thought that this was also a contributory factor. “At the 1967 AGM, two motions were proposed,” wrote Alexander, “one to stop restocking and another to reduce the daily catch limit significantly, down to three fish each day. Both were defeated.” But compromise was inevitable and, in 1975, the society voted to reduce the daily catch limit to four, with a stocking policy to continue. From the seventies onwards, Richmond Angling Society became essentially a ‘mixed’ club, with a responsibility to cater for both its trout and coarse anglers, circumstances that inevitably place a strain on resources. Back up on the Wear, Durham City Angling Club faces a similar situation and now balances the scales by stocking trout in the river and coarse fish into its club pond – the same policy as that of the R.A.S.
In the spring of 1995, a few months before the drought so sorely tested Ken Smith’s fly fishing skills, the Durham club stocked 300 fish into the Shincliffe stretch of the Wear, a figure that represented their annual introduction of brown trout into club waters, thirty of which had weighed over 1½lb according to club records. By late 1997, another quiet season was reported but there was an unexpected bonus, in the shape of some fantastic spring sea trout fishing above Shincliffe Hall. Like most northern eastern rivers, the Wear was not then noted for a particularly good run of spring fish but the news in Autumn 1997 certainly showed signs of it bucking the trend. “The start of the 1997 season fished quite well but, by the end of April, things went quiet as far as brown trout went,” reported the club newsletter. “However, those anglers who persevered soon discovered that sea trout were pausing on the stretch on their way upstream. This was a welcome feature as these fish have, in the past, rarely stopped in this water.” The report continued, “A swift change of tactics began to result in sea trout being caught. They responded well to a biggish fly, fished deep, and just to show their perverse nature, they also responded to surface flies, in particular a muddler minnow. The best fish taken was said to be around 10 lb.” The unpredictable nature of the fishing was even reversed when brown trout began responding to sea trout tactics: “Those anglers who had purposely gone after sea trout also discovered that the brown trout were there for the taking, as the deep lure intended for the sea trout was proving effective for the brownies. By the time the sea trout had departed, this tactic was taking some nice brown trout, but all good things come to an end and by late May the sport tailed off.” Nonetheless, the nature of that season’s trout fishing was seen as indicative of the fast improving situation with regard to sea trout on the Wear. The Durham newsletter continued, “One very interesting feature of this season has been the sea trout. These fish have been running the river throughout the year, even in the lowest of water. The old idea that sea trout only entered the river at a certain time has not been the case this year.”
The runs of sea trout on both the Wear and the larger River Tyne were interrupted during their respective ‘pollution years’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, mining (for both coal and lead) and sewerage discharge being the principal culprits in each case. The Wear averaged around 300 declared rod catches per year from the mid 1950’s to early 1990’s, a figure that has more recently increased to about 1500, with peaks of over two thousand in 2002 and 2004. As was the case with its salmon, catches of sea trout from the Tyne almost bottomed-out in the three decades from 1952 to 1982, but the combined total on the three main rivers of the system has now recovered to a value similar to that of the Wear. Both major Northumbrian rivers are now among the very finest for migratory trout angling in the UK. Catch returns for the smaller river Coquet are more modest but have remained fairly constant since the fifties at around 300 to 400 sea trout per year. Even less famous rivers in Northumberland are gaining a share of the Northumbrian coastline’s thriving migratory trout population, with the Wansbeck, in particular, seeing the benefits of fish pass installations on several of its many weirs.
Improvements in water quality as well as habitat management have paid dividends for all trout fisherman in recent years – those that go after brown trout and sea trout alike. It would be nice to think that in another ten to fifteen years, sea trout were once again ascending every Northumbrian river from Tweed to Esk in good number, just as the brown trout already proliferates throughout the region. This beautiful and interesting fish, to use Robert Blakey’s words, marks the first chapter in many a North East angler’s career. You might move on but you can never leave the trout behind, it is the beginning and end of fishing in the region.
*This article comprises the first chapter of a book project currently being written as a Historical Guide to Angling in the North East. Anyone interested can see other material likely to be included, or contact the author, at The Fishing Archives website: http://www.fishingarchives.com/