Renowned angling media producer, former editor of Match Fishing magazine and Browning Ossett team member Tom Scholey knows a thing or two about good fishing. In 2019 Tom cast his eye over our Let’s Fish! events and National Celebration of Young People and Fishing, which he believes are leading the way in promoting angling to younger generations.
“Angling needs more juniors. Without them, there won't be a future.” We've all heard the rhetoric. From the boardrooms of angling's biggest companies, to the bar room of your local pub, the problem is universally acknowledged. But not many people or organisations are doing much to solve it.
I rocked up at about 10am to Let's Fish! on a sunny Shropshire Union Canal. I was expecting to see a few bedraggled old men in yellow vests, and a handful of bored kids catching very little (my prior experiences of coaching events put on by big organisations haven't been particularly positive). I imagined close spacing and even more hideous pole rigs with lighthouse floats. But even a hardened cynic like me was left very impressed.
Eight or so coaches, ranging in age from 18 to 60, lined the bank. Through the day, more than 50 young people attended and every one of them caught fish. The stretch was fantastic, the coaches were competent and engaging, and I must have seen 20 kids that day catch their very first fish. Perhaps more encouragingly, I saw another 20 who had been the previous week and caught their first fish, and were returning for more!
Every kid left with a certificate of achievement, and even the parents looked like they enjoyed themselves. We need more events like this, I thought to myself. I understand there are now around 300 similar events, run under the Let's Fish! banner, the biggest of which, in the north-east, saw 90 youngsters attend in a single day. Do the maths. Let's Fish! is introducing nearly ten thousand kids to angling each year.
Narrow canal magic
I've never been that keen on fishing matches on narrow canals. The Trust's national fisheries and angling manager, John Ellis, jokes that it is because I am a Yorkshireman and Yorkshiremen just can't master narrow canals. Barnsley, the greatest team around, have never won a narrow canal National and John doesn't think they will break their duck in 2021 either. The small, narrow canals of the Midlands are tiny compared to the wider shipping canals that we fish in the land of flat caps and parkin.
Pictured: Tom Scholey
But as an arena for introducing children to the sport, I am now totally sold that there is nowhere better. These places are colourful, vibrant and alive. Even without catching fish, you can have an interesting day sat by the water. But fishing is about catching fish, of course. And from a beginner's angle, narrow canals again fit the bill perfectly. Generally, there are plenty of bites to be had from small fish, and when you do hook a big fish, be it a bream, perch, chub, or carp, it really is special. Land it, and it will often be worth a place in the upper rankings, and you will be the envy of your mates.
Plus, there is the accessibility aspect of Midlands canals. In most traditional angling hotbeds (cities) there is a canal within a walk or bus ride, so it's easier for kids to go and practise what they have been shown.
Experts on hand
I mentioned earlier the good standard of the coaches. That is thanks in no small part to a process John calls ‘Mottification'. Basically, he has enlisted the help of some of the country's best canal anglers, names like Simon 'Motty' Mottram, Ben Sharratt, Paul Murrin, Steve Broome, Neil Turner, Chris Harvey, Darren Lewis and Jason Cunningham. They advise the coaches on how to catch more fish and the all-important task of keeping the peg going for as long as possible, an immensely satisfying thing for a coach to achieve. So the level of expertise that most of the coaches have to pass on to their young students is fantastic.
A first taste of competition
Young anglers at Let's Fish! events who want to progress down a ‘match fishing' route, or just experience what taking part in a match is like, are invited to enrol in the National Celebration of Young People and Fishing. Last year the competition was held on the Shropshire Union near Church Eaton, which is a lovely stretch of water (even coming from someone who doesn't like narrow canals). There were three age categories, covering ages from 7 to 20, and more than 90 youngsters took part. This must be the biggest junior match that I know of these days.
Like Let's Fish!, the emphasis is very much on learning and coaching. Parents and coaches are allowed to help the kids as they fish, within reason, which is entirely in the spirit of the event and the culture is that everyone should help each other. No room for pushy, over-competitive parents (another pet hate of mine from past junior events). A great example of this was the video, which went viral on Facebook, of participant Lauren Stevens and her dad, as he finally slipped the landing net under a 3lb chub that she had played for several minutes. This video has subsequently reached 9.3 million people on our Facebook page.
Support and camaraderie
Alongside the Let's Fish! coaches, there were some real star canal anglers in attendance, including England legend Stu Conroy, Simon Mottram, Paul Turner and his brother Neil, Chris Harvey, Andy Fairclough and more. It was also nice to see several members of the Guru U15 Team England, not only taking part, but taking the time to help the less-experienced juniors. Needless to say, given such expert help, every single competitor caught a fish.
At the presentation afterwards, the atmosphere was fantastic. Grown-up match anglers who skulk off home when they haven't won anything could learn a lot from this bunch. Every single kid got a certificate and an Angling Direct goody bag, plus there were medals and trophies for the winners.
Backing the future of the sport
What John Ellis and his Let's Fish! team have done here cannot be commended highly enough. Without doubt, they have created new anglers already. Angling clubs like Stoke & District Angling Society, Luton Angling Club, Northampton Nene Wellingborough and Wybunbury have seen significant junior membership growth.
As we know, once hooked, kids are generally anglers for life. It's now up to us all to get behind both the Let's Fish! programme and National Celebration of Young People and Fishing. We must do everything we can to help them continue to grow and flourish.