Fishing Lines: Poor return on salmon stock exchange

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SALMON were once so common in Hampshire's River Test that keepers would catch them by fair means or foul, and unceremoniously bury the king of fish in pits.

At the time, the Test was rated as the finest trout fishing in the world. Powerhouse salmon, often topping 20lb, were far too strong for the delicate tackle used by the trout anglers. As well as breaking lines, a hooked salmon created mayhem in the clear, shallow chalk stream and frightened the spots off those resident trout. Highly suspicious anyway, the trout were uncatchable after a salmon had strutted his stuff.

The Test will always be a mecca for trout fishermen, because it is reckoned to be the home of dry-fly fishing. Lord Crickhowell, chairman of the National Rivers Authority, has said that the Test should be 'treated as a great work of art or music'. But things have changed.

While the Test's reputation and that of its neighbour, the Itchen, are undimmed, particularly with American fishermen, they are very different rivers now. Both rely on trout cosseted in a breeding pond rather than the hard school of life, because the rivers' natural stocks are insufficient to support the angling pressure. Abstraction has had a devastating effect, curbing the natural skip and sparkle to a more moderate flow. And the salmon are in danger of extinction.

Even as recently as 1966, the average catch was more than 1,200 fish, but in the past five years, the salmon have almost disappeared. Last year, a mere 100 were caught and almost all were small fish of between 6lb and 13lb. The 25-pounders that sent those old trout anglers apopleptic are nowhere to be seen.

The obvious answer was to take some of the Test's returning male and female salmon, strip and fertilise their eggs and rear the baby fish to a size where their chances of survival were substantially better. When salmon lay their eggs in the wild it's an invitation to a party for every river creature.

Herons, crayfish and particularly trout join the feast. The eggs are so irresistible to fish that in most areas of the world where salmon are still plentiful, using eggs for bait is banned. A friend who has just returned from the wilds of Alaska caught grayling with his hand by crushing a few salmon eggs in the water. The grayling lost their natural caution so much that they would feed from his fingers.

Life is little better when the baby salmon hatch. It's only when they reach smolt size, about 5in, that their survival odds improve. Putting salmon at smolt stage into the Test and Itchen has resulted in a return rate from the sea of 5.4 per 1,000 fish, whereas returns of parr, the inch-long tiddlers, are a mere 0.06.

But stocking isn't going to save the Test and Itchen salmon unless something more is done. At a seminar in Winchester last month, a top ministry scientist gave a grim warning to the anglers and landowners who wore a self-satisfied look because catches this year are likely to top 300 fish, thanks to the stocking programme.

Despite the remedial work, the percentage of salmon returning from the sea to the two chalk streams is probably the worst in the British Isles. The result could be that fishermen on these rivers may have to do the unthinkable, and put back the salmon they catch. Next week I'll tell you more.