Between 1724 and 1727, the author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, published three volumes of essays called A Tour Through The Whole Island of Great Britain.
He came down the north coast of Devon and paused at the Tamar to note that the common people around it and its tributaries were all fat – which at the time was a compliment, of course – from the eating of salmon, to the point that they would have it written into their contracts that there was a limit to the number of salmon they could handle in lieu of actual wages.
Defoe might have fallen for a widespread urban myth that rural people got so much salmon they turned up their noses at it. Even so, things have obviously changed a bit.
In the 1950s and 1960s, I am in a position to remind you, salmon was the very definition of luxury, even in Devon. What would you imagine people had at a dead posh do? Salmon and caviare.
I think it was probably not until the 1990s that fish farming killed its own golden goose, so to speak, by over-producing to the point they served up salmon sarnies in the canteen.
During most of the second half of the 20th century, by all accounts, the Tamar and the Tavy and the Walkham still more or less teemed with salmon, peal (sea trout) and brown trout, and there was still a market for a ceremonial fish for a wedding or Christmas. At Walkham hq, in Horrabridge, you can still find men who boast of having poached the citizens’ share. Hardly anyone used a legitimate fly but some skill and cunning went into herding the fish and taking them with a snare or a gaff.
The bailiffs and the police were quite fierce on the snaffling and insisted on the odd show trial. But they could not be everywhere and in practice they tolerated a little local tithe taking in exchange for some feedback from the eyes and ears on the river. My chief informant, Jinks Fitzsimmons, already known to most of you as elder of a famous Horrabridge clan, and archivist of village life, tells a nice story of being hauled in for questioning about a fine salmon at Christmas but discharged after the constable and his sergeant had taken the best cuts out of it and given him back the tail end.
Fishing is always quite hard work in some ways, however you do it, and most of the poachers are now getting on a bit. The youngsters don’t see much in it. And anyway, the river has changed. There are still good fish in it, by all accounts, and reports filter back to us about salmon being taken in this pool or that, peal on the move, etcetera. But on the whole they are from private stretches, although the Tavy Walkham and Plym Fishing Club – http://www.twpfishing.net/ – gives you access to some parts of them for a reasonably priced permit.
The stretch from the Horrabridge bridge up to the upriver end of the playing fields is open to anyone with an Environment Agency rod licence but you’ll be lucky to get anything much there nowadays. The weir above the bridge was made for a hydro-electric scheme, now dismantled, and that and another hydro scheme, upstream, have had their effect on fish movement and lies. Some nice weedy channels were concreted over during construction.
A lot of access to some of the best pieces of the river, between Bedford Bridge and Huckworthy Bridge, has been fenced off, by farmers or fishing interests or householders. Grenofen Bridge to Double Waters remains relatively unspoilt, and holds some promising pools, but is outside the sphere of influence of a TWPC permit. The high Walkham, from Huckworthy up to Merrivale, is still said to be good for river trout, at least, but is hard to get at, because of both fencing and terrain.
It used to be a practice to seed the headwaters with salmon fry, from a hatchery on the old Endsleigh estate. Jinks used to sometimes help a mate out with the job – pouring fry from buckets into good nursery areas where they might grow until they felt the call to migrate to the sea (and eventually come back again).
The Duke of Bedford started the practice, when he effectively ran the Tamar system, and it was continued even after the Environment Agency became the ultimate authority over English rivers. At some point the Walkham was dropped from the scheme but it continued on the Tamar, through a collaboration between the Endsleigh Fishing Club, representing private interests, and a charity called the Westcountry Rivers Trust (WRT), channelling funding from various sources. Two years ago, funding cuts finally closed the hatchery but the WRT is still counting fish and attempting to work out what difference the interventions made.
Sowing fry is nowadays controversial because it is an interference with the natural order. If it is allowed, it is on the condition that the fry are bred from fish native to the river concerned, which might be genetically different, in tiny ways, from those which head up other rivers – even those in the same network. Bruce Stockley, head fish scientist of the WRT, guesses that the Walkham lost out because the Endsleigh fry were bred from Tamar salmon. Other rivers do still have their own hatcheries.
“In some places it has been calculated that it has cost £10,000 for every extra fish caught,” says Dr Stockley. “But there is still some interest in stocking as a potentially useful thing and we are still collecting figures.”