In this piece from the Winter issue of 'My Countryside' magazine, Sam Carlisle takes us back to Autumn and recounts his time salmon fishing on the River Tyne.
I’ve often been told that salmon fishing is the ultimate triumph of hope over experience. Those who know a keen salmon fisherman will have doubtless heard them talk of days, weeks or even whole seasons without a catch. A sane person might question why they return to the river again and again, with religious ritual, when the odds are so stacked against them. Certainly, even I, a hopeless salmon addict, questioned myself as I stepped into the River Tyne at Styford, the day after some truly significant rainfall. The river was high and murky, flowing with vicious force. On the long drive north I’d spoken to my friend Mark, who knows this beat well. “Be careful wading there. It can be treacherous at the best of times,” was his parting shot. As I inched myself into the water, wondering if I could get the few feet away from the wooded bank that would enable me to cast, I saw a salmon leap clear of the rushing stream, only 30 yards away. My safety concerns evaporated, hope surged, and I stepped boldly into the current.
The Tyne is the most prolific salmon river in England or Wales. In a good year, anglers will catch in excess of 6,000 salmon, and over 30,000 will pass the fish counter at Riding Mill, shortly before the river splits into its tributaries, the North and South Tyne. While the first salmon enter the river in February each year, the runs build throughout summer and peak in autumn. Just as the surrounding woodland gives up its greenery for rich ochre and burnt orange, anglers flock to the banks of the Tyne. Not only are the numbers impressive, but the Tyne runs some very large fish as well. If you find a local fisherman enjoying a pint next to you after your day, no doubt there will be tales of him or his mate losing a fish “that was definitely close to 40lb”, and each year multiple 30-pounders are landed. But what is most remarkable about the Tyne is that its fish are not following the worldwide trend for Atlantic salmon. Across its range this most majestic of fish is petering out, holding onto the brink of existence in its traditional heartlands like Scotland and Norway. More gloomy sorts say we’re already in the midst of an extinction vortex, which will spiral inevitably until they disappear. Thriving salmon runs now exist only at the extremity of their range, like the Russian tundra, where the rivers are wild and unfettered by dams, fish farms and pollution. Yet the Tyne stands defiant against this narrative, and its resurrection is a wholly unusual story.
In the pre-industrial age, salmon thronged the Tyne. It was one of the rivers you hear about, where servants at grand estates petitioned their employers to limit the number of times per week they were fed salmon. On beats like Bywell, just below Styford, you can still see the remnants of a salmon trap that supplied both house and workers. But as the Industrial Revolution took hold, the Tyne became polluted. With limited understanding of the natural world, early industry dumped its waste into the river, poisoning the water and wiping out the salmon. Even today, as you cross the Tyne estuary on the East Coast Mainline, pulling out of Newcastle Railway Station, it hardly strikes you as pristine. By the 1950s the salmon of the Tyne were more or less gone. In 1960 not a single fish was recorded as being caught on the river. For rivers nearby, the 1950s and 1960s were halcyon days, now revered as the best salmon fishing there ever was, as huge runs of fish intersected with modern, more effective, tackle. While the Tyne was devoid of fish, the Tweed, which meets the sea only 60 miles north, was heaving. In 1960, the netsmen in the estuary at Berwick and the rods on the river, killed a total of 61,644 salmon. When scientists started to monitor the Tyne, in the hope of arresting the decline, they measured the estuary water quality. The results showed0 per cent oxygen. No fish could possibly migrate through this and survive. The river was dead.
As the 1960s and 1970s progressed, a concerted effort was made to improve the water quality, with the treatment of sewage improving and heavy industry reducing. Slowly, incrementally, the salmon and sea trout started to return. Then there was another blow. In 1975 construction began on Kielder Water. Originally planned to satisfy the needs of a rapidly industrialising economy, the dam and reservoir cut off over 30 miles of spawning tributaries that were vital for sustaining the Tyne salmon. To compensate for this the river board was mandated to fund a hatchery, replacing the 30,000 or so juvenile salmon that would have successfully run to sea from the now blocked streams. Importantly, they hired a young and inquisitive biologist, Peter Gray, to manage it.
Hatcheries have been a divisive topic amongst fisheries scientists over the last few decades. Should you focus simply on improving habitat and not alter the Darwinian natural selection of the river, or should you supplement the stock, especially when it’s at a historically low level? Although the scientific community is still divided, Gray split the difference and started rearing young salmon that were more suited to survival in the wild. His first break with convention was to suggest putting salmon back into the river as parr rather than fry. Fry are the first stage of development post egg, whereas parr are the second. Parr are less sensitive to water temperature fluctuations and, being larger, succumb less to predation. However, it was his insistence on rearing the parr in tanks with a strong flow to mimic the wild, using only water from the host river, that he saw as truly critical. When challenged that his methods were too energy intensive, he replied, “you must raise little Olympic athletes. They must have the size, muscle texture and survival of the fittest instincts that will enable them to swim to Greenland and come back to reproduce in your river.” In the early days of the hatchery Gray saw a large percentage of his stocked parr return to breed as adult salmon, supplementing and expediting the natural recovery that was driven by improved water quality. Within a decade the Tyne was back at the top of the podium.
“The most amazing thing about this river is the story,” says James Stokoe, a Fishing4Schools ambassador and guide on the Tyne. “It’s your perfect rags to riches story. I caught my first ever fish, aged 13, on the Tyne, and it was a salmon. Since then the river has continued to improve. This year, for the first time, the hatchery decided not to put any parr into the South Tyne. There were already the maximum number of juvenile salmon that the river could support – introducing more would have meant competition for food and habitat. The hatchery, alongside the other conservation measures, has been so successful that it’s done itself out of a job.”
Back at Styford, the water lapped dangerously close to the top of my waders. Another fish jumped, this time a little further away. I pulled off more line and sent a large and gaudy fly, bright enough to cut through the tea-stained water, towards it. The ghillie, Eck, told me that hundreds of fish had been seen yesterday jumping the weir at Hexham, just upstream. Above me, yet another fish leapt clear of the water. “Do you think with the flood they’ll all be running upstream?” Eck nodded. Despite this diagnosis I continued, spey casting my way from one promising pool to the next, seeing salmon at every turn. I knew that if only the water dropped a little, then the salmon would pause, take up a temporary residence in the pools, and give me a chance.
I was a day too early. The next day the water slowed and Styford landed seven. Seven salmon that are testament to the hard work of conservationists and scientists like Gray, seven salmon that prove that even when a river is lifeless, with no oxygen, there is still hope.