Poaching fish has two meanings. One involves placing a whole foiled salmon in a fish kettle with a slosh of dry white wine, a few sprigs of fresh herbs, a couple of bay leaves, slices of lemon and onion and a sprinkling of black peppercorns, then put in the oven for under half an hour. The other involves going down to the river at night with hooks, lines, marlin spikes and nets. The urban view of the poacher is seen romantically through rose-tinted glasses, with a roguish farmhand taking a rabbit, pheasant or fish for the pot of an impoverished family kitchen table, but, in reality, the theft of fish from rivers and lakes has attracted organised gangs, often armed, and frequently ruthless, catching salmon, sewin and trout to order. Salmon poachers take every shape and size, but whether amateurs with pitchforks or gangs with snares attached to the end of poles, or gill nets, and harpoons. Recently there have been a series of thefts from ponds and lakes of carp, which is a delicacy for Eastern Europeans in general, and Poles in particular, who eat is as the main course on Christmas Day.
It is not just carp that are being targeted, removing all species of coarse fish: roach, bream and perch. Although Eastern Europeans have repeatedly been linked with fish theft in the UK, all the evidence and reports in these cases point the finger of blame at organised gangs of Britons intent on supplying unscrupulous fishery owners with cut-price specimen fish, with prize carp selling for between £500 and £10,000. The owners of well-stocked rivers and lakes can charge up to £100 a day to anglers or fishing syndicates keen to hook a heavyweight champion. Gangs will also pre-sell their catch through the back-door to hotels and restaurants, rather than drive about the country looking for a buyer. A few years ago, police in Hertfordshire arrested and questioned four Eastern European men seen with snorkels and a spear gun near a lake stocked with at least 100 protected carp. The Environment Agency, which has produced waterside warning notices in more than a dozen languages, recently put up signs in Russian after fish were stolen from rivers and sold to unscrupulous dealers to stock lakes for anglers. ‘The theft of carp is organised,’ said one officer, working with the Angling Trust. ‘Their vans have tanks in the back and they either net the fish or have anglers fishing, maybe legitimately, on their behalf. A runner will go to the angler with a suitcase to put the live fish in, then load it into the van.’
If caught and prosecuted a poacher can be fined up to £2,500 or, in extreme cases, given a jail sentence. In a typical year there were 200 related prosecutions in Somerset and Devon, with more expected in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It is not always illegal to catch river fish and keep them. However, there are strict limits on the size and number of fish that can be caught, and when. Anglers also require a ‘rod licence’, effectively a fishing tax, and must have permission to fish in the water, often for a fee. Restrictions, however, are routinely flouted and ex-policemen from the West Midlands police are currently working with the Angling Trust, the Environment Agency and the police, to track down the criminals. One fishing tall tale involves a Water Conservation Officer, leaping out from behind a tree on the Test and confronting a shifty looking man in a flat cap, Wellingtons and a Barbour, carrying a bucket in which there were two handsome brown trout. ‘Been fishing, sir? Could I see your rod license, please?’ The man explained that, no, he has not been fishing, and that the trout were in fact his pets, and he was taking them out for their daily exercise. The officer is totally unconvinced by this explanation. ‘No, seriously,’ said the man. ‘I take them down to the river every day, put them in the water, and walk upstream, and they keep abreast of me.’ ‘Come on, pull the other one,’ he sighed exasperatedly. ‘Listen, when I think they have had enough exercise, I put the bucket on the bank, whistle, and they leap back into it, and we all go home.’ Clearly, the warden is unimpressed, and reminded the man that it was an offense to fish without a license and he could be fined heavily. ‘Alright, if you don’t believe me, watch,’ as he put the trout into the river. ‘Go on, then,’ said the officer sceptically. ‘Whistle to your pet fish and let’s see them jump back into the bucket.’ ‘What fish? asked the man.’
It’s drawing towards the end of the trout season, when the leaves are on the turn, the hedgerows are groaning with blackberries and apple trees are dropping their fruit. The wild brown trout season in Scotland lasts a tad longer than the six months down south, starting in mid-March and ending in the first week of October. There is no closed season for rainbow trout, as they are not an indigenous species to the United Kingdom and they can be fished for all year round, with pike fishing, coarse and sea fishing also permitted all year round. Salmon fishing varies from river to river in Scotland, the Findhorn opens from 11 February to 30 September, while the Tweed season lasts from 1 February to 30 November. Soon, it will be time to clean one’s rods and lines for the last time, and pack up the kit for the winter, putting away the colourful patterns of Grey and Royal Wulffs, Parachute Adams, Olives, Iron Blues, Blue Winged Olives, Wateries, Caddis or Sedge, Coachmen, Daddy Longlegs, Hares Ear, Cul de Canard and Black Klinkhammers into their airtight boxes, to stop the moths from munching them during the six months hibernation. Just after the winter solstice around 22 December, the days get longer and the nights get shorter and it’s only four months until one gets one’s rod out again. O deep joy.
Picture copyright Grant Archives