Nothing left to catch and no other fish to fry: The river Esk, once famous for its salmon, is the centre of an expensive rescue plan, says Andrew Morgan

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AMONG the list of clubs for which you have to register at birth, the Esk Fisheries Association is one of the less prestigious. Except, of course, to those who value their fishing. Such as Danny Swales, who was born alongside the banks of the North Yorkshire river and has lived there for nearly 50 years.

'Just look at the water now,' says Mr Swales, bailiff to the Esk Fisheries Association, standing on an ancient packhorse bridge. 'No chance of any salmon. Never seen it worse.' The Esk, only 32 miles from source to mouth, developed a reputation as the best salmon river in Yorkshire, possibly England. Mr Swales sometimes watched more than 80 pairs of salmon spawning in a small stretch just over his garden wall in Grosmont. Twice, the river held the British record weight for a sea trout.

People still wait 20 years to join the Esk Fisheries Association, which has rights over 16 miles from near the village of Lealholm to Sleights, where the Esk burbles under a spectacular iron bridge. The club has only 60 members, with some living in the Midlands, others as far away as Wisbech, in Cambridgeshire. Each pays about pounds 270 a year to dabble in the Esk, on the rim of the North York Moors National Park, from June to October. But some members have not touched the Esk for years. There was no point. Last year, only three salmon and 16 sea trout were landed all season.

Now a five-year plan has been deployed to stock the river with salmon fry in the hope that conditions will have recovered when the salmon return in a few years to spawn. Reasons for the Esk's decline are familiar. Chiefly, low river levels through inadequate rainfall prevented the fish moving upstream to spawn. Anglers say too many water extraction licences were granted by the National Rivers Authority (NRA). Disease ravaged breeding fish in the early Seventies and low rainfall ruined a small restocking programme. There has been pollution from farm run-off and increased netting at sea, both in the North Atlantic (with nets stretching more than 20 miles) and off Whitby.

Mr Swales leads the way to Arncliff Woods, where the Esk is a mass of glistening rock pools, which used to yield good catches. 'But look at the water - 3in below the average low for summer,' says Mr Swales. 'Last year, it was 7in below. No oxygen and no fish will run in that depth.'

Mr Swales still has black gaps in his teeth, lost during confrontations with teams of poachers. Libby, his labrador (107 in human years), used to hide in the undergrowth, pricking her ears at the sound of poachers. Often Mr Swales would stay up all night after spotting salmon spawning on gravels - 'the reds' - near Grosmont. 'Would have taken a poacher only two minutes to bag it and be away. With the price of salmon, it was worth the risk.'

But the river has been without salmon before. In 1864 the Esk Fisheries Association was formed specifically to stock the river. Salmon ova were brought from the Tees and released. Five years on, the first mature salmon returned and the Esk was on course for greatness. Now the association is again at the centre of the plan to regenerate Esk salmon in conjunction with the NRA, Whitby netsmen and riparian owners.

They have released 50,000 salmon parr (a year old, 2in long) from Kielder Water, in Northumberland, along a 10-mile stretch. A further 50,000 fry (just hatched and 1in long) were slipped into streams feeding the Esk after predators (eels and brown trout) had been electrically stunned.

This exercise cost pounds 13,500, with the NRA paying half. But there have already been problems, with voracious groups of shrews eating fry that Mr Swales put in some ponds running into the Esk. 'Never seen shrews on the Esk before, but they suddenly appear. Eat their own body weight in fry every day. Not a brilliant start.'

Mr Swales remains awestruck at the thought of salmon parr, released near Glaisdale, swimming to the North Atlantic before returning to the gushing stones of Esk Dale. 'But salmon returning in a few years could still be faced with too litle water,' he says.

Ironically, he still has to develop a taste for fresh salmon. 'Tinned John West's all right,' he says, 'but I wouldn't thank you for giving me salmon from any river. My fascination is with the Esk and the fish. The life and breeding of a salmon remains a miracle to me. It would be very sad if fish were lost to the Esk for ever.'

(Photograph omitted)