Make sure you log what you have actually caught, not what you think you may have caught. And here is the worrying context.’
Members are no doubt aware that the Atlantic Salmon has been moved into the UK Endangered Species category in Autumn 2023. The Call to Action of this note is to make quite sure what fish it is that you land, if you should be lucky. We know things are pretty bad (see next paragraph), and we must all do our best to learn how bad. If in doubt, take a picture and upload it for comment here. If you are not in doubt, upload it anyway with your comment. The paragraphs below with their unusual information are designed to help.
First though, how bad are things? The answer is ‘Pretty horrible’. The Dart is among the worst performing rivers, the run having declined from several thousand to very few hundred (again if lucky), with the fall steepening in the last ten years. Properly verifiable facts are few but such as they are, they illustrate the disaster very clearly. In 1969, the last year before UDN, the licensed Dart nets killed 1200 fish and the rods a further 300, as far as research can tell. That was 1500 killed. The very experienced DAA member who has proffered this information and who has fished throughout this period, reckons that these figures can be taken as annual averages for the 1960s. Fifty years on, in calendar 2022, the Fishtek counter at the top of the Totnes Weir pool registered 161 fish passing up of a size likely to be salmon, and – news just in – the 2023 figure was down to 50 (fifty, alas no typo). In each of these two years the 75 Dart Angling Association members have landed 1 fish between them. (Sea trout between 2022 and 2023 registered 500, down from 850, approximately. Who doesn’t blench at a 41% year on year decline?
Members will have their own reaction to this situation with one view (arguably the most sensible) being that unless the river is fished it will not be known what it holds, although the fish counters at Totnes Weir do give a clear indication of the downward trend, and hence support to the new regulation that all salmon must be returned all season on Association waters. The fish counters are good – although there is room for a tiny hopefulness: if you look closely in flood water you can spot the odd fish going straight up the weir face and missing them out.
It seems vital that catch returns are accurate and that there is as little impact as possible on fish from mishandling at vulnerable stages. So return them delicately. In the first months of the season kelts will be present and their bright silver colour can lead to misidentification; they may fight well briefly but lack the stamina of a fresh Spring fish which will also be silver, but with a dark back and lilac flanks, perhaps with sea lice or their marks. Kelts’ heads will appear large for their bodies, their vents will be distended, and all will have gill maggots.
A rawner, an unspawned male salmon from the previous year, is unlikely to cause confusion since they will possess a large kype, will be coloured and may be dripping milt. Baggots, unspawned female salmon, are often bright and full bodied being full of eggs still and can be more difficult to distinguish from a springer, but they alone will have freshwater gill maggots.
The Spring run has declined to a few individuals so Members are more likely to encounter one of the above in the early season; the main migration nowadays of fresh fully fit salmon is in Summer, the September grilse run having declined so that in the last month of the season most fish will be coloured summer salmon.
Sea trout are sometimes confused with brown trout and vice versa, including the stocked trout, although it is hoped that this year they will be fin-clipped and photos will be posted to aid identification. At the end of the season the larger sea trout may resemble brown trout as they colour.
The internet has photos of these developmental variations. Do look carefully – we are all in the conservation net now.