Technology Will Save Us

It’s a little over a fortnight since the (re)opening ‑for some of us– of the 2020 trout season. One can assume our readership has dutifully obeyed the measures of social distancing passed down from Westminster. For ourselves, our neighbours and the good of the entire population we’ve shelved one third of our annual pursuit allowance. But now we may fish again…

Photo by Bruno Vincent of Tobias Coe on the De Lank river, Cornwall

What grated the most was the partial social confines of the town, city or village we inhabit Vs. the extreme isolation of the river we pine for. The very definition of social distancing and bordering on full blown isolation, but sadly excluded from the prescription of an hour’s walking, running or cycling.

Making my winter preparations of fly tying, wader repairs and scanning maps for unexplored blue lines stretched hopelessly into the height of spring. Long dark nights should accompany such housed activities, not the arrival of snowdrops, then bluebells then wild garlic.

This gift that fell upon us, on May 13, was agreed well and rightly as what one hopes is a relaxation of lockdown with no increased risk of infections. That last part is normally the preserve of the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR) or Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), but now falls squarely upon our collective shoulders.

We must do all we can to extol the health-giving virtues of such distanced activities for the country and our continued, privileged freedom to fish. With power comes responsibility, to misquote a thousand tawdry films. Let’s do all we can to go above and beyond that which has been asked of us.

We must behave beyond expectations, making every effort to chip away at any points of cross-contamination or accidental commune. We may strive for a day alone on the river but must not let that con us into dismissing the mundane actions that get us to the bank and back: filling up at a petrol station, buying lunch or fiddling with the combination lock on the venue gate. 

The opportunity for our sport right now is immense. With the misfortune of too much leisure time that has beset half the working population and cabin fever torturing the mind all day long, a day on the river could be just the remedy. This isn’t about marketing the industry, crass as that would be in these times, it’s about sharing our water, our knowledge and our piscatorial Prozac. Research by Leeds Beckett University suggests that every £1 spent reconnecting people to nature yields an almost sevenfold social return, not something to be sniffed at as the national debt rises.

Within the last two weeks, stories of angling idiocy have arisen. I hope that the videos and photos of the overflowing venue carparks fall into the bracket of Fake News, but I am not that naïve. These stories, if true, are an abuse of power and totally irresponsible. How can I think to suggest an increase in angling with such stupidity at play?

Grounded planes and parked cars may be repaying (interest only) the carbon debt to the environment, but government pay cheques will likely furlough the much-needed funding of Wildlife Trusts, Rivers Trusts and of course WTT. Despite just two months of empty rivers, poaching and wildlife crimes appear, anecdotally, to have risen.

Catch and release fishing isn’t just a sport, it’s a self-managing siphonophore, made of anglers, fish and rivers. The rivers look after the fish, the fish the anglers and to complete the loop, the anglers self-appointed guardians of the river. This isn’t about getting out of the house for a yoga class, it’s about passionate connection to the environment and the hope that it repays our custody with a glimpse of what lies beneath. 

More anglers, acting beyond the required responsibility, are an essential part of the policing and renovation of our fluvial environment.

The current guidelines, provided by the Angling Trust, represent a minor restriction to our usual piscatorial liberties and should be followed or exceeded.

Key points are (full details can be found here):

    • You should travel to fishing venues on your own or with members of your household – abide by current guidelines on social distancing whilst fishing.
    • Maintain a distance of 15 metres from other anglers whilst fishing.
    • Only travel based on what is allowed under current Government guidelines.
    • You can fish with members of your household OR ONE person outside your household – stick to social distancing guidelines at all times.
    • Following the government statement of May 13th 2020 and the accompanying guidelines from the DCMS, fishing at night in England is currently permissible.
    • Use hand sanitiser before & after touching locks, gates etc. Disposable gloves are recommended.
    • No sharing of fishing tackle or other items under current guidance. 
    • Do not leave home if you have symptoms of Covid-19 and follow Government advice on self-isolation.

One recommendation they made in lobbying the Government, that is less than common place, is contactless/​online payment.

At this point I should declare a professional conflict of interest. My previous full time role was with Westcountry Rivers Trust where I designed and commissioned Fish Pass app as a way to digitise the 20 year old Westcountry Angling Passport scheme.

Other digital systems exist like Fish Pal or the Wye and Usk Fishing Passport, but many clubs still offer day tickets in a quaint, but ultimately risky, form. Whilst doing user research for Fish Pass, it was impressed on me the love of popping into a village Post Office, cash in hand to exchange for a raffle ticket, kept under the counter in an old ice cream tub. Something that many anglers saw as part of their fishing experience. There are obviously some minor benefits to the shop owner in increased custom, but in our current situation, such transactions are an unnecessary vector of infection.

I can’t speak for the others, but Fish Pass is now available for any UK water, not just Devon and Cornwall, to use as a means of day ticket purchase. From trout streams to gravel pits, the process of buying permission to fish needn’t require any physical contact whatsoever. In the case of Fish Pass, it doesn’t even need mobile reception to function, so long as you bought credit at home on the wifi, everything else works in the deepest darkest Cornish valley. Just turn up and point your phone at the beat sign and it will automatically do the exchange.

This is one way that anglers can go above and beyond that which is asked of them but requires clubs and private beat owners to make the same efforts in adaptation. The onus is currently on the fisherman to behave correctly, but that shouldn’t exclude the venues from facilitating the best possible environment.

The phrase technology will save us” is often banded about, something that despite my previous employment is a little grating to me. I designed Fish Pass to be efficient and reduce administrative burden, not make fishing a totally anti-social activity. However, such systems have the power to safely maintain a part of our lives without increasing risk to others and ultimately the NHS. I would love to see anglers of all disciplines stand up as a picture of progressive, adaptive, country sports taking us into what I hope is a healthy and fruitful future.

Should you want to learn more about Fish Pass and how it could work for your water, please contact my WRT successor James here.