Travels with my rod

As a travelling English sea angler, my earliest recollection of fishing in Scotland is of a time around the late 1960′s to early 70′s. Cod fishing in the Clyde had seemingly grabbed just about every UK sea anglers attention with venues like the Gantocks, The Rhu Narrows, and Gareloch featuring on many visitors pilgrimage list, including my own.

I also used to visit Arrochar at the head of Loch Long where the whole shoreline was a string of red, yellow and orange dots as anglers dressed in their bright coloured waterproofs vied for the best vantage points. In contrast, I passed through Arrochar just a couple of weeks ago en route from Lochgilphead to Pitlochry and it was quite literally a ghost town. In fact, I don’t recall seeing a single angler, either boat or shore, along the whole western side of Loch Fyne or at the top of Loch Long, which from a Scottish business perspective has to be of concern.

I also did a lot of winter fishing for Haddock from Arran in the company of Neil McLean, and for Cod, Plaice and a whole host of other species inside Loch Ryan with Davy Agnew, taking a couple of Scottish and one British records into the bargain. I even managed to get as far north as Shetland where I witnessed some monster Common Skate and a bonus 167 pound Halibut from Dury Voe.

Back then, Scottish anglers and we visiting Brits were quite literally spoilt for choice with so many worthwhile venues to visit and good fish to try for. Fast forward ten years, and somehow it was all but over. Add on another thirty years, and despite the best efforts of anglers not only wanting to conserve, but to re-build Scotland’s fish stocks, the majority of those venues are still not worth the petrol money it takes to get to them.

I do still visit Scotland. But my runs north of the border these days are less frequent and much more specifically targeted at a very small number of venues which have to some extent been spared the almost total carnage experienced throughout most of the rest of the country.

Venues where those fish which are still able to put on some sort of meaningful show tend mainly to be species of little or no commercial value, which to me, tells its own story. Yet even these species have had their moments of literally teetering on the brink.

Common Skate for example. Can anyone think of a more in-appropriately named fish than that one. Up to a few years ago, the scientific community had all but written this species off. It was anglers who unconverted a few last ditch refuges, and who have since brought it back to become a little more representative of its name.

Tope are another species in decline, and one with a far more recent death sentence hanging over their heads in the shape of proposed commercial exploitation to satisfy the demand for Shark’s fin soup.

The Spurdog fared even worse and as such deserves to have its scientific name changed from Squalus acanthias to Squalus lazarus, as like the Biblical character of the same name, it too has quite literally been brought back from the dead.

It isn’t only fish stocks that have suffered. Peoples livelihoods have also gone to the wall, and in no small measure. Boat operators, bait providers and tackle shops are the more obvious casualties. But it’s the collateral damage, the pubs, restaurants, petrol stations and guest houses, the ones whose losses are so hard to quantify that need good healthy fish stocks with lots of specimen sized individuals as much as anyone else to make it more attractive for English anglers like myself to want to drive north on the M6 instead of south. And unfortunately, with the exceptions of the Isle of Mull area and Luce Bay, that is exactly what Scotland can no longer do.

The obvious question would be to ask who is responsible. Unfortunately, playing the naming game does little to mend fences and encourage opposing sides to the negotiating table. We as anglers know only too well who our opposition is. Equally, we know who the final arbiters are too, because in a democratic society we elect and can ultimately dismiss them. So we must ensure that our negotiators go to the table riding a wave of widespread support, both moral and scientific. Because it’s no accident that the Spurdog and Common Skate are now able to make something of a recognisable come back.

So what about the rest of the species, particularly those with a high market value. Spurdogs after all were decimated to satisfy a market niche. And unlike the two fish just mentioned, both of which as cartilaginous species have a painfully low reproductive and therefore recovery rate, all the other species could potentially stage a much faster come back – if the commercials, scientists and legislators would only give them a change.

But don’t hold your breath, because I certainly won’t be.

For the moment, many parts of a once productive Scotland are akin to a biological dessert. So don’t expect much in the way of financial support for peripheral businesses which could benefit greatly from increased visits from people like me, when the other countries of the UK can offer and regularly deliver so very much more.

Come on Scotland. Get your stall in back order. Listen to the conservations such as SSACN, and ultimately reap the rewards.

Phill Williams is a long time angler and angling journalist whose website ‘Fishing Films and Facts’ provides an archive of previously nationally published and site specific angling and subject related articles, plus a wide selection of purpose made instructional short videos.

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