Everybody I have fished with on my local river returns the fish they catch. They might have asked if the fish are edible but that was no more than curiosity. They have also treated the fish with care and taken pleasure from seeing the fish swim away strongly after a quick photograph or two or a moment of appreciation. It is difficult to resist that moment even when you know it is high time for the fish to be on its way again. The gypsy barbel are strikingly handsome fish and, particularly in bright sunlight, it is always a pleasure to admire the profile of these fish and the striking contrast between their olive backs and golden bellies.

The notion of catch and release is now very firmly embedded in the thinking of fly fishermen in wild fisheries, or at least in the minds of all the fishermen I know personally, with the exception of trout fishermen in some of the stocked fisheries who take trout home for the table. Increasingly, wild trout and sea trout and salmon go back too even by those who may have taken great trouble and incurred considerable expense in catching them. It may be mandatory to do this on some fisheries but most choose to do so anyway and hats off to them for that.

Catch and release is one of those debated topics in some circles and I am not going to argue the merits and demerits here. My own view is that any fish I catch simply does not belong to me. I might have come out tops in a little game of subterfuge but the wild fish is a part of the river where it was spawned and where it has overcome enormous odds just to make it to its adult size. It is certainly no possession of mine. If it is going to succumb it should be to the otters, ospreys, cormorants or herons who are themselves a part of the extended river and who do have to do this kind of thing for a living.

Yesterday I had a very enjoyable day on the river with Brian Jones who is a lifelong fisherman from Wales, now retired, and a frequent visitor to the Costa del Sol. He is a former biology teacher and an expert in river biology. He has also spent many years ghillying (is that how you spell it?) on Welsh rivers. It was very clear from talking to him that he was a fine fisherman and he has had been chasing brown trout, sea trout, salmon and grayling for decades. He showed me some pictures of his home rivers as we were packing up yesterday and interspersed among them were many fine fish including a 14 pound sea trout and a beautiful four pound brownie.

We had not met before yesterday and he told me that he was happy just to join me on the river and was not bothered about whether he fished or not. In the event, at my insistence, he had a few casts himself and in no time at all he had attached himself to his first gypsy barbel. It was a really lovely fish and tore across the river in its initial run bumping into the vegetation on the far side before it was finally coaxed back to our side of the river and beached in the shallows.

We spoke a lot about rivers he fished in Wales and I was particularly interested in how he had contributed to protecting the river Tywi which, at 75 miles is the longest river flowing entirely within Wales. It became clear that, although he has fished extensively throughout Wales, the Tywi has a particular place in his affections. This was his family´s local river and he fished it since he was a boy. But the Tywi, in common with many rivers in Wales and elsewhere has suffered over the years. Agricultural pollution, particularly dairy farming has hurt its middle reaches and in its head waters have suffered through acidification brought about by extensive forestry and acid rain. Salmonids are particularly vulnerable to low pH values which can prevent eggs from hatching and, in salmon, can reduce the ability of the fish to adjust to salt water as the fish head off to sea to grow. Brian told me that even a short exposure of a few hours to low pH values can cause high mortality in young smolts that, in every respect, look very healthy.

Brian was one of a small group of fishermen who set up a trust to help protect the Tywi and to reverse the decline that he had witnessed first hand over many decades of fishing it. The main step taken was to add several tonnes crushed limestone at the headwaters each year. This is dispersed by river flows downstream where it settles on the river bottom and helps to neutralise the acidity. The crushed limestone also reduces the toxicity of aluminium ions which leach into the river and provides a buffered zone on the river bed which helps to maintain favourable pH levels for both the fish and the invertebrates on which they feed.

This simple measure of annual deposition of crushed limestone has been very effective and the river has shown strong improvement. You would imagine that what seems, on the face of it, simple practical measures would be straightforward to carry out, but being able to take even this step was an arduous process. Brian had seen the deterioration of the river as a fishery and set up a river trust to begin to protect it. None of this was straightforward. They had to register as a charity and work through a mountain of paperwork and overcome legal hurdles and go about securing the necessary funds. Of course this took time and perseverance and it became almost a full time job. But it was well worth it. Spawning is more successful and juvenile fish and invertebrate numbers are increasing. The length of salmon´s life cycle means that it is a little early to make a call on how river improvements are going to pay off but we are keeping our fingers crossed. On the whole, the future on the Tywi is looking brighter.

Those of us who love rivers are increasingly going to be tasked with protecting them. We don´t have much choice. The government agencies that should be doing this in Wales are being bled dry and are losing staff. There are fewer boots on the ground. Fishermen are the eyes and ears of rivers and we have much to lose if these habitats are degraded. Increasingly I understand that it is naive to think that institutions and agencies are taking care of things things. Brian tells me that as soon as the fisheries people clock off on a Friday evening and things are quiet, someone somewhere will discharge effluent into sections of river. Intensive agriculture is hammering rivers and it is ironic that the industrial towns on rivers that used to discharge all kinds of toxic waste have cleaned up their act the water quality is much better, while in the picturesque “unspoiled” rivers of the countryside now have poor water quality. On my own river, the Guadalhorce, the greatest threats seem to come from local councils and inadequate sewage treatment and infrastructure.

Anyway enough doom and gloom! I thoroughly enjoyed my day with Brian. We had started the day by watching gypsy barbel spawning and we had a look at the invertebrates clinging to the undersides of rocks. The insects were very abundant and suggested that this part of the river was in good health.

As Brian returned his fish to the river it was clear how much he had enjoyed the challenge of catching it and the the thrill of its early runs. It was clear to me also that we all owe a debt of gratitude to him and others like him. These are people who understand and appreciate biology of rivers and who have the expertise to measure invertebrate diversity and numbers and they can piece together this data in order to monitor the health of our rivers. It is a strange idea that if we turn stones over and sample the critters they hide we can tell a lot about pollution and changes in water quality.

More than anything else, folks like Brian will step up and take action in fighting for the wellbeing of our rivers at a time when they need us all to speak for them. I have to admit it got me to thinking about what I can do here locally to help look after my own piece of water. Brian is a man who, in a lifetime of fishing, has put back vastly more than he ever taken out. He sent me a message after we parted company thanking me for the time I we spent together. I enjoyed it hugely myself and learned a great deal from our discussion. It is I who should be thanking him.


Brian Jones with his first gypsy barbel.This thing went like a rocket as soon as it was hooked.



It took a little while before the fish could be beached in the margins.



Brian´s fish is showing evidence of little of the red markings that appear on some fish at this time of year.