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Bleak glorious bleak

When parliament was debating the introduction of the 1923 Salmon & Freshwater Fisheries Act, Sir Robert Sanders – the first Baron Bayford and conservative minister of Agriculture & Fisheries – described the act as a step in the direction of democracy amongst fishes.

Bleak cigarette card

Formerly he announced law gave preference to the aristocratic fish like the salmon and the trout. Now it also takes care of the bourgeois carp, the plebeian roach or any other humble citizen of the river, even a member of the criminal classes like the pike. Sanders didn't comment on the humblest of the humble, the mini fish species.

Admiring the underdogs

I have to confess that I am a fan of the so called mini species. They are more than mere ‘humble' citizens or tiddler species to me. Maybe it's because I see them as a bit like myself really; something of an unloved underdog trying to prove their worth in a world with danger lurking everywhere. Growing up fishing on the Llangollen Canal, much of our catch was made up of small fish and to my mind that didn't make us any lesser anglers than those born with Mr Crabtree like fisheries on their doorsteps. Having already paid glowing tributes to the gudgeon and the ruffe it would be undemocratic of me not to give the bleak the opportunity for its moment of glory.

Biology, range and geographic distribution

Slim bodied and silvery, bleak swim together in large shoals. They feed on plankton as well as surface living and aerial insects that fall into the water. They spawn in May or June depending on water temperature in shallow water locations, shedding their eggs on stones or vegetation. Bleak are present in much of mainland Europe north of Caucasus, Pyrénées and Alps and their range extends eastward to the Urals. They are not naturally present in Portugal, Spain, Italy or the Balkans. Another species with similar habits, the Danubian bleak is, as its name suggests, an inhabitant of the Danube catchment among other locations.

Frustrated bleak ambitions

My brother and I stood behind Derek Young in the 1989 Division 2 National on the Severn. We watched the Trevs Browning star put in a masterclass of bleak fishing. We soon worked out Derek watched the crinkled yellow line straighten rather than paying attention to his float. I decided that one of my ambitions thereafter was to win a match with an all bleak catch. My chance came not long after in the British Waterways staff national on a rising River Severn at Upton. Immediately upstream was pegged the angler I rate as possibly the best ever to represent British Waterways, namely Roydon's Kevin Warner. I decided to go all out for bleak while Kevin plumped for the feeder. Within 20 minutes of the whistle sounding, I was the best part of 12 lbs adrift as Kevin quickly landed two barbel. I plugged away and caught bleak steadily for four hours and wondered whether I could possibly overhaul Kevin. I might have got close if the bleak hadn't totally disappeared in the last hour as the river rose further. One assumes that when the flow in the upper levels becomes too rapid, the bleak move to deep water and find a hiding place out of the peak flow. I weighed in an ounce shy of 11 lbs, ending up in third or fourth spot with Kevin winning the match with 14 lbs or so. It was one of the most enjoyable matches I ever fished and the closest I got to winning with an all bleak catch.

Young Tommy Pickering

My bleak-bashing efforts would of course pail into insignificance with those of top notch anglers. It was the Angling Times that christened the young Tommy Pickering the bionic bleaker for his bleak fishing exploits on the Trent. Perhaps they would have given the title to George Allen in 1925 who won the All England on the Severn with an all bleak catch totalling 3 lbs 12 oz 8 drams but of course the Angling Times was not around in those days. Anglers had to make do with R B Marston's Fishing Gazette back then. As for Tommy, he later went on to win the individual world championships in 1989 in Bulgaria; one of the 11 Englishmen to have taken that accolade.

River Wye bleak mecca

Hadrian Whittle with bleak

Will Raison v Jean Desque

I particularly recall the 1998 World Champions for three reasons. The first is that I managed the USA team that year, although the result is best forgotten. Alan Scotthorne won the individual crown for the third time on the bounce with another amazing performance, but I thought William Raison's performance that day was, if anything, even more awesome. William – making his international debut that year – drew next to Jean Desque, the great French angler. They had bleak in their pegs and most observers, yours truly included, would have backed the Frenchman to win that head to head battle quite comfortably. How utterly wrong I was, for William out-fished Jean that day. At that moment, I knew for sure that I was witnessing the beginning of the international career of a truly world class angler.

Artificial pearls

An excellent and detailed account of the use of bleak scales to give man-made pearls their colour is given by Frank Buckland (1880) in Natural History of British Fishes. A Frenchman by the name of Jacquin in 1680 conceived of the idea of using a substance known as ‘essence of orient' from the scales of bleak which replaced the previous use of toxic compounds of mercury. From 18,000 average sized bleak, around 7 lbs of scales could be scraped off and this quantity would produce a pound (450 g) of the essence orient. In the 18th century, Thames fishermen were major exporters of bleak scales to the French. Roach and dace scales were also used for this purpose but were not as highly prized as either bleak scales or the scales of whitebait.

It's a bleak future - size limits and all that

LAA size limits
1935 size limits Lee Conservancy

For many years numerous fisheries in the south, under the influence of London Anglers Association, kept strictly to size limits in matches and often anglers would have to return most of their catch as it was deemed to be undersized. History records the size limits for roach, barbel, gudgeon etc. The traditionalists were in real fear that matches would be dominated by species like bleak. It was not until 1978 that the size limit rule was finally overturned, which ironically coincided with a huge decline in bleak populations in many southern rivers.

Bleak on the menu

Bleak would regularly appear on the British menu in times gone by. A typical way of preparing them would be to cover them in flour and fry in oil or butter. By all accounts they are quite bony. In times gone by bleak would have been a useful component of the diet. The consumption of coarse fish these days is more prevalent in mainland Europe; it's something that we in the UK are just not used to these days, but in the Victorian era was an everyday occurrence. In the recently published book Steve Gardener on A Life in Match Fishing, Steve recalls that many of the bleak caught in the 1996 world championship later ended up on the plates of the participants at the post match banquet. I wonder just how many comments that would stimulate on social media if that had happened here in the UK?

Last Edited: 17 January 2017

photo of a location on the canals
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