Death of an urban river

January 28, 2017 at 2:50 pm

News of a fish kill on my local river was met by disbelief this week. A tank containing toluene, a toxic industrial paint stripper, had leaked at a business unit in the town and the chemical had been washed down a surface drain during heavy rain. A chemical with the ability to cause nausea and sickness, toluene can mix with water if agitated, which it did, when it passed over a series of small weirs. The Environment Agency was alerted by members of the public complaining of the strong heady smell coming from the river, which was traced back to the surface water drain from the town.

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Due to the high flow levels, banks were awash and there were no early signs of fish being affected, but as the river settled back down to normal, dead fish were washing up five miles downstream.

In denial that my regularly fished stretch could have been a victim of the pollution, I decided to put it to the test, setting up my tackle a hundred yards from the outfall.

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The river looked perfect, with a hint of green colour and I set up a stick float rig ready to trot the opposite bank among the roots along the overhang. Preparing for my first cast, I noticed that there was a smell of oil in the air, while underfoot the bank had a slimy covering. Not good.

My most successful winter method in this swim, is to fish a 5 mm bread punch pellet on a size 16 hook with liquidised bread feed and expect a bite, usually from a chub, first cast. Not a touch. The float drifted 10 yards before I retrieved it, the bread pellet still on the hook. Another ball of bread was followed down by the float with the same result. With another ball put in just beyond the middle, I adjusted another six inches on the depth and followed the cloud down holding back at intervals in search of the obliging roach. Again nothing, my only sign being a slow pull under, but the strike revealed a twig dragged up from the bottom. The last resort was to set the float even deeper to lay on with the rod rested, surely a gudgeon would take the bread, these small fish a curse once they move in over the feed as it settles on the bottom. By now there would be a dozen, or more fish in the net, but now there were none.

In that disappointing 30 minutes, the realisation that the river was devoid of living fish, had struck home and pulled in my empty keep net. As it disturbed the bottom, a mini oil slick rose to the surface. Packing up, I scraped the sticky mud from my boots and walked my trolley downstream in search of evidence of fish mortality. From the high bank my eyes soon attuned to the ghostly pale outlines of dead fish, trapped on under water obstacles, strung out like grim necklaces. On the bank opposite, a 3 lb chub lay stranded by the flood, it’s silver flanks holed by birds, or rats.

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Further down this sickening sight was waiting, fish caught among the reeds as they were washed down stream, here roach, chub and perch just a snapshot of the carnage.

What next? This small river was already the focus of work between the town council and the environment agency for improvement, tree cutting, flow improvement and the creation of safe fishing platforms already in the pipeline. This work could be carried out as per schedule in the next few months, only for anglers to find little, or nothing to catch. Once the river environment is considered safe to restock, it will take years to recover to the level of the past few seasons.

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Catches like this above, chub and roach taken on the stick float with bread punch from the very swim that drew a blank during my test session this week, or the one below, when maggot and caster resulted in a mixed bag of roach, rudd, chub and perch, which was topped off by a 2 lb bream are now consigned to history.

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Having moved into the area six years ago, I was amazed by the quantity and variety of fish in this unobtrusive little river and was quite smug in emails to angling friends struggling to catch on the river Thames, where I used to live. My emails grew into regular blogs, never failing to fill a net in just a few hour’s fishing.

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Roach like this one were every other cast and it is heart breaking to know that this healthy fish now lies dead in the mud, due to human failings. If there is a financial settlement, it will never compensate for the loss of a fishing gem.