Steve Partner: It's time to say enough is enough

News that Rolfs Lake is introducing night matches to increase catch-rates has raised fresh question marks over the ethics of commercial fisheries. Steve Partner weighs up the arguments…

Billy Makin, the old rascal, has a lot to answer for.

Not that he’ll care, sat as he is all those miles away around a pool somewhere in Tenerife, a cold beer in one hand and a fistful of Euros in the other. His concept made him a rich man and who can blame him if, as he awakes to another cloudless day in paradise, he couldn’t give a hoot that his legacy is one that may have divided angling. Regrets? Billy would laugh his socks off at the mere suggestion of it.  

The fact is, though, that when he opened his fishery in the Leicestershire countryside back in 1988 he sparked a chain of events that would completely and utterly change the face of the sport. By 2003 he had sold up, taking ‘several millions’ from buyer British Waterways, before heading, quite literally, into the sunset.

Behind him he left a very different sport to the one he’d first entered. Make no mistake about it, Billy Makin was responsible for a bona-fide angling revolution.

Nowadays the English countryside is dotted with hundreds, if not thousands, of purpose-built ponds that are rammed to the rafters with ever-willing carp. Landowners up and down England, often farmers looking for additional income, have climbed aboard the Makin-led gravy train in the vain hope that they, too, might one day earn enough to retire in the sun.

Several have been a massive success too. Just as so many of our rivers, the victims of pollution, abstraction and then cormorants, slumped into decline, up cropped what became known as the commercial fishery – a place where parking was easy, bait could be bought alongside a fry-up on site, pegs were comfortable and, crucially, the fish were both willing to feed and easy to catch.

Are commercials the saviour of angling, then? That might stretch the truth a bit, but few will deny that they have kept a lot of people fishing when many might otherwise have long since hung their rods up.

But not everyone believes these bite-a-chuck, open-all-hours fisheries have been the answer to an angler’s prayer. In fact, they think they border on the obscene. And in some cases, they’re right.

Now, let’s get one thing perfectly clear. The vast majority of commercials are very well managed and even if they might not be everyone’s cup-of-tea, they provide a service that a huge swathe of the angling public enjoys. Fishing, in the current climate, can’t afford to be fussy and while a lot of these places might resemble a lunar landscape where chimps could happily catch fish, it would display a deep snobbery (not to mention naïveté) to suggest they aren’t an important and valid piece in the angling jigsaw.

Some, though, are in danger of becoming a liability. Some, in their quest for notoriety, have a misguided belief that more is better, that anglers will only visit if they catch a fish every put-in. Some show about as much respect for the Environment Agency’s guide to stocking fish as most of us to do for national speed limits. And some have come to treat their fish more like a commodity than living creatures. Dead carp? So what, let’s buy some more... 

Where once 50lb used to represent an outstanding day’s sport, now we find ourselves in an era where most commercials can provide even the poorest of pleasure anglers with 100lb-plus. The current five-hour match record stands just shy of a staggering 500lb. Weights taken by those not constrained by time are often larger, and it won’t be long before headlines that scream of 1,000lb or more leap from the pages of the angling press.

What makes this all so ironic is that these same fishery owners will argue that they are merely working to the theory of supply and demand. “Don’t blame us,” they’ll claim. “We’re just giving the anglers what they want.”

And they’d be right. We live in a world now where massive weights are condoned and not condemned, where tackle is designed for speed and brute strength and where bait is made more for weight gain than nutrition. Success is measured not by the means but purely and simply by the end result.

But surely we have reached the point where we need to say ‘enough is enough’, a point where we say ‘no more’.

Diseases like KHV already rip through an increasing number of fisheries every summer and with the desire to create venues capable of producing 500lb, 600lb, 700lb and more, so the living conditions of the inhabitants decline. The stocking densities are already far too high in some venues to be considered healthy, and if it weren’t for the colour of the water (that acts as a convenient shield to what lies beneath), most anglers would be stunned at what they saw.

It doesn’t stretch the truth to say that conditions beneath the surface are probably worse than those suffered by battery chickens.

The danger, beyond the obvious one of disease, is that someone from outside the sport takes a closer look at some of these places. It would be hard, in individual cases, to argue that fish welfare is high on the list of priorities and even the most ardent fan would struggle to claim, with their deformed mouths, scarred bodies and split fins, that the inhabitants live a healthy lifestyle. The truth, however unpalatable, is that if the antis had more than a single brain cell to rub together, they could cause the sport a few headaches.

So what’s the answer? 

First of all, the angling press has a responsibility here. The constant applause of mega-weights stories acts, by default, as endorsement, when maybe they should be treated with more caution.

Anglers, too, must be willing to change their mindset – especially matchmen. When did it suddenly become necessary to get a bite every put-in? When did 400lb and not 40lb become essential? Surely a lower stocking density would provide a fairer match – and be a better criterion of ability?

But, crucially, it’s down to the owners – and I stress, not all owners, just those that are guilty of gross overstocking – to alter their philosophy. Ultimately, it’s only these people who can make the real difference.

So what will it take for a change of mindset? Maybe it’s too late. Or maybe it will be the mother of all diseases, something far worse and more virulent than KHV, which will force the sport to start again. Maybe, though, it will be anglers who wake up to the notion that greed isn’t always good.

What is clear is that the commercial fishery boom has changed the face of fishing – for good and bad. I wonder what Billy Makin really makes of it all?