Steve Partner: Why livebaiting just has to stay

After Angling Times readers voted for zero fish to be removed in proposed bylaw changes, livebaiting has come under the microscope once more. Steve Partner takes a look at the ethics of the method

The pike fishing community is feeling the pressure again. More than that, it’s feeling persecuted, victimised and, consequently, fairly angry with the rest of the angling world. A side of the sport that already suffers from a deep-seated siege mentality has been left with further reason to think it’s the black sheep of the flock.

Livebaiting, inevitably, is at the core of the debate once more. Anglers, having been asked for their opinions on bylaw changes aimed at putting a stop to mass fish removal, have delivered their views. And the results are unequivocal: a massive 80 per cent of the thousands who responded want to make it illegal to remove any fish – including those intended for use as live (or dead) baits – from any of our waters.

Naturally, the pikers aren’t happy. If – and it’s still a huge ‘if’ – the Environment Agency acts on these results it could spell an end to probably the oldest method in fishing.

The most effective, but controversial, form of catching predators is under the microscope again.

This time, though, the pike world hasn’t just hidden behind ‘it’s what we’ve always done’ clichés. Instead, it’s come out fighting. If the vast majority of anglers don’t want to see any of their stocks removed for the purpose of bait, then what about using perfectly clean, perfectly healthy and perfectly safe fish that have been bred for the purpose? It’s an idea that, on the face of it, seems worth a second look.

The system, which would basically see sterile, disease-free fish sold from tanks at fisheries or in tackle outlets, already works in states all across America and in other European countries too. Anglers simply choose how many baits they want, take them on to the water and use them as live, or dead, baits. It completely cuts out the time normally required to catch ‘lives’ and, more importantly, eliminates the problem of disease that is inherent with moving fish around. Sounds perfect, then.

Not quite. The fundamental problem is that it’s too open to abuse. There would be nothing to stop less scrupulous dealers offering uncertified, cheaper and potentially dangerous fish to willing anglers. After all, who would be able to tell the difference? For the EA, in an era where disease is high on its list of priorities, the idea of policing a system that would allow live fish to be sold from tanks in tackle shops is just too fraught with danger to genuinely contemplate. And if you think that’s a very cynical and overly negative view of the situation, blame the pike fishing community. Why? Because they deserve it.

Too many anglers within this branch of the sport seem almost predisposed to break the rules. For some, it seems to be part of the territory, part of the fabric of the pike angler, with those that don’t livebait where they shouldn’t, those that don’t smuggle fish without permission and those that don’t target waters that are out of bounds in the minority. 

I’m not saying all pikers are cheats. Far from it. But there is a significant number who don’t give a second thought to the rules – or the consequences of their actions. For them, catching is the start, middle and end of the discussion.

Of course, there’s always a reason – or should that be excuse? – for their actions.

They argue that they break the rules because they have no choice. They claim that, essentially, they have to fish in many places with one hand tied behind their backs. I’ve heard them equate the life of the predator angler to that of the life of a chub angler faced with a low and clear river without maggots in his armoury – basically a life ham-strung by draconian rules.

So they cheat. They smuggle livebaits from venue to venue, wantonly breaking the rules without a care for the environmental implications. And the lengths they will go to make for some of the most unbelievable stories in fishing.

Here’s one example of many. When the famous Welsh venue Llandegfedd Reservoir first opened its doors to predator anglers they were invited on under strict instruction – only lures could be used. Despite delivering some of the best pike fishing either before or since, that didn’t stop the cheats who would smuggle live fish on to the reservoir in empty boat batteries to avoid detection. The rule-breaking was cynical, widespread and, within the piking community, accepted. 

Just like it was back then, livebaiting, it seems to some, isn’t really considered cheating – even when the regulations say otherwise.    

Ask most pikers and they’ll be able to score each of our freshwater species by the one thing that all livebaiters look for – the ability to last the longest. Crucian carp are, apparently, brilliant. They can be smuggled easily in flasks or in pockets due to their durability out of water, and they last for ages on a set of trebles. Chub, likewise, have a reputation for stamina, while carp are another popular choice – but only after they’ve been starved to ensure their shape is more to the liking of the pike. And trout, of course, are a perennial favourite.  

The point is, this complete disregard for both any fish other than pike – and the rules – isn’t occasional. It happens up and down the country every weekend in the winter.

Some waters, indeed some areas and even some countries, have already had enough. Livebaiting has long been banned in Southern Ireland, while Scotland followed suit in recent years. The practice is also outlawed in the Lake District. Why? Because pikers who persistently broke the rules threatened to upset the delicate eco-system of the respective places with their insistence on smuggling fish, sometimes from hundreds of miles away.   

So if the idea of farmed livebaits is unworkable, what next? Is a simple nationwide ban the only answer? No. I believe it is, and must remain, the basic right of any angler to be able to use live fish as bait.

I’ve heard it said, in defence of the method, that if we admit that lip-hooking a live fish to use as bait is cruel, then we admit the same about fishing itself. I don’t buy that theory. There’s a world of difference between bringing a fish in on a rod and line, or a pole, unhooking it and then returning it alive and attaching something to a pair of trebles and waiting for a predator to take what is, essentially, a sitting duck.

No, my argument is more fundamental than that. There is something basic, something essential, something pure even, in livebaiting.

Man has practised the art since time began and I see, as long as it’s done correctly, no reason for it to be banned. For one thing, it would be another erosion of anglers’ rights, some of which have been too readily given away already.

Using a small roach as a livebait, for example, from the water in which it’s lived – and already been preyed upon – seems to me to be of the most natural forms of fishing there can be.

What there does need to be, though, is a limit on what can be taken – and of what size. One of the arguments used by those who are against the method is that ‘a fish is a fish’ and that, ethically, there is no difference between the life – and death – of any fish, regardless of size. Rubbish. A 1lb-plus river roach, that is probably a decade old, surely has more value than one of a few ounces which is a fraction of that age? That is simple logic.

First of all there needs to be very straightforward and very easy to understand rules on what can and can’t be taken. Six fish, removed from the water in which they are to be used, of a maximum of 6ins in length, seems reasonable to me – as long, of course, the fishery owner or controlling club deems this an appropriate practice.
But more than that, much more than that, we need a complete change of attitude from the pike fishing community. Rules are pointless unless they are going to be adhered to, and because of the logistical nightmare of policing them strictly, this needs to come from within.

Can we really trust pike anglers – perhaps the side of the sport with the biggest rogue element – to suddenly start behaving themselves?

Do we really believe they’ll stop doing what, for many, has become routine? Is it really believable to expect the predator world to get its own house in order?
As vain as that hope might be, a sea change of attitude could well be the only thing that ultimately comes to the rescue of angling’s most ancient and primeval method.