fishing lines : Left empty by my first love

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The Independent Online
I went to see my first girlfriend this week and got a nasty shock. The intervening 30-odd years haven't exactly left me looking like a mature Brad Pitt, but she looked - not to put too fine a point on it - awful. I didn't know what to say. Once her vibrancy, beauty and sexy promise captivated me so completely that, hopelessly in love, I sloped off school just to be with her. She's a heart-breaker no more: slow, dull, dirty and charmless are the adjectives that spring to mind. The water authorities have a lot to answer for.

In my youth, I spent more days alongside the Thames than any girlfriend. On a sultry night, when most of my mates were hopefully cruising the local hops, I was on a promise - from big chub, barbel and eels. I stayed out later than anyone else in my class, and my parents never worried (except, perhaps, about my late development). And now look what they've done to my river.

Drought has hit the Thames so badly that levels are lower than in August. The Port of London last week warned that boats were at risk from running aground at high tide. "This is the most severe warning we have ever had to issue," a spokesman said. The river is at 37 per cent of its normal flow, the lowest since 1883. To put it bluntly, the Thames is running dry.

Years ago, as a local paper reporter, I used to receive all the Thames Water Authority minutes. But then the flow (like the Thames) dried up. When I asked why, I was told it was because I kept writing knocking stories, telling the public about all the abstraction that was taking place. Damned thoughtless of me, huh?

I knew the river so well that I could tell you exactly where to fish at Lechlade, Longworth, Littlemoor, Little Wittenham, Lower Caversham, Laleham and London Bridge (which for those who don't know the river, covers about 140 miles). But it's different now. Whatever Thames Water and the Environment Agency may claim, its nature (figuratively and literally) has been changed by abstraction.

Some years ago there was a planning inquiry where the water authority eventually won the right to reduce the flow over Teddington Weir below 200 million gallons a day in exceptional circumstances. When Thames won that particular battle, we cynics chuckled and wondered how long it would be before the exception became the rule. I don't know what it is now (quantifying millions of gallons sploshing over a weir is not an easy process). Totally unreliable sources tell me it is well below 100 million, and in summer it will drop to a third of that.

So why am I getting so het up? After all, other rivers are even worse off. The Rother in Sussex is at 15 per cent of its normal level; the Kentish Medway is dawdling along at 18.5 per cent while the Tywi in Carmarthenshire is positively racing through at 20 per cent. Well, first because it's still my river. And second, because of Mike Peters.

He was one of several people who wrote consoling me for the death of my old springer Bracken (many thanks to all the others who sent messages of commiseration). But he also talked about Thames salmon. Peters has caught more salmon, since they started running up the Thames again in the 1970s, than anyone else. He has been so successful that certain bodies would like to ban him. A Twickenham photographer, he is addicted to Thames salmon and last year caught three, but saw many more. Two years ago, he caught five in an afternoon.

We've spoken since his letter and he has invited me to join him on a salmon-fishing trip. Even if we don't catch one, there's every chance that we shall see one because at certain times he has spotted as many as 40. "There are far more in the river than the authorities realise," he says.

But salmon, more than any other fish, need that extra water to run upriver. And as the Thames becomes just a big stream, the chances of salmon bothering to journey to the home they left one, two or three years earlier become correspondingly less.

I just hope I get my salmon before the Thames becomes a motorway into central London.

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