National fisheries and angling manager, John Ellis, looks back on the rollercoaster year that was 2020 and the impact it has had on angling.
What a year it's been. Who could have predicted it? I spent New Year in Addis Ababa and witnessed hundreds of south-east Asians wearing face masks at Addis airport. I didn't take too much interest at the time. Little did I know this would soon become the norm around the globe.
Things were going really well in February with a huge Let's Fish! itinerary ready to kick off come Easter. Within weeks we were in lockdown. We cancelled level 1 and level 2 coaching courses and the spring ‘Mottification' training that Simon Mottram runs for our coaches. There were to be no National championships. Half of my fisheries and angling team were furloughed.
The start of lockdown also coincided with three major pollution incidents. Was it mere coincidence or did polluters see an opportunity to discharge and save a few quid when they thought anglers and the public weren't looking? Hungry fish had to be fed at our closed commercial fisheries. The only positive was the wonderful spring weather and a little more time to tend the vegetables in the garden.
Suddenly hope emerged. The Angling Trust, led by new CEO Jamie Cook, were grasping the moment, lobbying government to allow people to fish as part of their daily exercise and to improve wellbeing. Pleasure fishing would be back by the middle of May and competition fishing by early June. It's extremely unlikely this would have happened without the hard work and influence of the governing body.
Rod licence sales boom. A new norm or blip?
Within a month of fishing restarting, rod licence sales had soared beyond the 2019 level and by the autumn were 13% ahead. That's the first increase in a decade. Canals, rivers and stillwaters alike saw more visits from anglers.
A proportion of those were definitely lapsed anglers returning after many years and in some cases spending significant sums in their local tackle shops. What great news. Is this a one-off blip or has it bought the sport a few more years to roll out the definitive participation strategy that's proven to work? Time will tell.
To make life easier for match secretaries keen to book events at our commercial fisheries, we launched online match booking, as well as online season permit purchase. Both can be done by signing in to your online account with us, or registering for a new account.
Let's Fish! returns
Our Let's Fish! events were able to resume in the middle of July. Sadly, some coaches were in the position of having to shield and missed out on the whole coaching year. Fingers crossed they will all be back in 2021. We delivered just shy of 200 events with over 3,500 Let's Fish! visits.
If there was an award for most improved coach of the year, Suzie Galloway would be my winner, and the Stoke on Trent AS team would win the award for most improved coaching team. Wellingborough's Pat Byrne, Bryan Dray and Ian Halliwell were as epic as ever, delivering the largest overall programme. The Wellingborough club now has nearly 300 junior members, even having a waiting list to take part in some junior matches. How many clubs can say that?
The 4-metre rule, villain or hero?
Our decision to introduce a new rule into the annual celebration of young people and fishing in September didn't meet with universal acclaim. For the first hour of the championships, participants could only use a pole of up to 4 metres. During this time, they weren't allowed to fish beyond the canal midpoint, whether using a pole or rod and line. In some quarters there was serious disquiet about the change. So why did we do it?
We all recognise that fishing has seen a participation crisis, which we believe can be reversed. Put yourself in the shoes of a non-fishing family or the child whose parents think their interest is temporary. Maybe it's their first-ever match, having fished only at a coached Let's Fish! event. Consider the kid who has saved up pocket money to get together some basic equipment. On the big day they see other mums and dads strolling up pushing huge trolleys with maybe five grand's worth of kit and proceeding to assemble long poles retailing at goodness knows what price. Put yourself in that kid's shoes. They feel they have no hope of doing as well as the kid with all the kit.
Put yourself too in their parents' shoes. So many families are on a tight budget. Not many people are getting better off financially during the pandemic. If families think they need to spend thousands to take part in fishing, they will decide that it just isn't a viable sport for them.
Oh, and I almost forgot, there are plenty of fish to be caught under your feet. Somewhere along the line, most people, even some top canal match-men, seem to have forgotten that.
The extraordinary story of Charlie Beetham Grainger
Like all the other junior championships competitors, the rules meant that Charlie (pictured) had to fish under his feet for the first hour. When the only tool in your armoury is a 3-metre pole, tactical choices are nice and easy. Charlie just carried on fishing. He performed the basics to perfection, placed the rig correctly into the water, right over his groundbait. A few loosefeed squatts, repeat the process. Every so often the float sailed away.
How did he get on by the end? Well, with quiet, steady persistence he edged his way to victory, winning the cadet age category. You can read a full report of the weekend's action, but we'll also be bringing you Charlie's own story early next year when entries open for the 2021 event.
Back in April, if you'd told me that the canal pairs championships qualifying heats would have their best overall attendance yet and that, despite the Welsh lockdown and Tier 3 restrictions on travel, we would end up with 158 anglers in the final, I'd have snapped your hand off.
I do believe 2020 was the year that this competition finally established itself in the angling calendar. The event needs a new sponsor though. Anglers eat a lot of take-away sandwiches, so I wonder if someone like multi-national sandwich retailer Subway might be interested? We've released dates and venues for all the 2021 qualifying heats, so do book your place when entries open in mid-February.
Farewell Angler's Mail
I've read Angler's Mail on and off for most of my life. They even asked me to do a series of articles in spring this year, which I enjoyed writing. I donated my earnings to one of our Let's Fish! clubs. Alas my column didn't do much for the long-term prospects of the magazine.
I was sad but not surprised when hearing that the final issue would be published at the end of October, due to the financial challenges of the pandemic. It's a personal tragedy for those who no longer have employment on the magazine. I do hope things turn around for all of them.
All change at the Angling Trust
I've known the Angling Trust's former CEO Mark Lloyd a long time now, way back to his days with Thames21, a London waterways charity. I think his new role as Chief Executive of the Rivers Trust will suit him down to the ground.
The time was right for a new face to head up the Angling Trust. I would think there's been times this year when Jamie Cook might have wondered why he chose to jump into the lion's den, but someone had to. He has made a very solid start and deserves widespread support.
The Angling Trust will be worse off for the recent news of the departure of Competitions Manager, James Lewis. A talented angler who deeply understands the sport, his replacement won't be easy to find. I too shall do my bit as a volunteer to help, as I was recently elected by the membership as a non-executive director, along with Lincolnshire-based tackle shop owner and pike specialist Neville Fickling. We will both have an interesting contribution to make with our various areas of expertise.
And a surprise for me
The year ended on a surprising note when I was awarded the Angling Times lifetime achievement award 2020 for my work in promoting canal fishing and driving recruitment to the sport.
I joined this organisation as British Waterways in 1988, long before it became the Canal & River Trust, and I honestly think our canals today are better than ever for anglers. The work we're doing through the Let's Fish! programme is so important and I'm really proud of the amount of youngsters catching their first ever fish with our coaches.
Whatever differences anglers have, we must work together to make sure our sport attracts the next generation. I'm optimistic that we can do that.
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