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Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Yorkshire Esk


Toffs fishing for Tuna.
The Yorkshire town of Whitby simply reeks of fish. It used to smell of whales too, but that's another story for another day.

Most visitors see the name Whitby and think "fish and chips" but then, they say the same about Scarborough and Bridlington. Yes, there's cod and haddock, but there are crabs and lobsters too.

In bygone days the herring was the "King of the Sea"; so plentiful that we thought the bonanza could never end, but it did. You can still get a proper kippered herring in the town, but the big shoals of herring have moved north and left us behind.

At the height of the herring boom, toffs used to come to Whitby to fish for huge tuna, just out there in the bay. The herring, the tuna and the toffs; all gone now.
The busy harbour.

One of the reasons for the ups and downs in the catch is overfishing but changes in temperature play their part. The North Sea is heating up 25 times faster than the global average and this is affecting everything that lives in the sea including fish and seabirds. If you chat to the leisure fishermen on the breakwater, they will tell you about the bass that never used to come this far north. The mackerel they are catching have largely replaced the herring.

 Throughout all the boom-and-bust times of the big trawlers, the seine netters and the drift netters; close inshore, under the cliffs and along the beach, right at our feet; there was another fishy story happening.
The mouth of the river Esk.

Salmon and migratory sea trout grow big in the sea, but they have to breed in freshwater rivers where there are gravel spawning beds and clean, rushing water that bubbles with life-giving oxygen. The little River Esk is not much more than a beck that rushes down from the North York Moors to enter the sea through the harbour at Whitby but it is a very productive salmon and sea-trout river.

Fishermen on the groyne.
After rain, the river can suddenly turn into a raging torrent, sending a surging plume of peaty fresh water out through the harbour into the sea where the waiting fish can smell it.  The weirs and waterfalls become passable and you can watch the salmon and trout jumping to get over them. But in July, there is no rain and the river has shrunk to a chain of still pools and puddles.  Salmon anglers say that the Esk "showing it's bones".

In summer, it would be all too easy to wipe out the trout and salmon that join the queue to enter the river. After weeks with no rain, there can be hundreds of them close to the shore where they are fished for with nets. Thankfully the number, length of nets and the duration of the fishing is strictly controlled. Those who work the nets have to set them in the traditional way, with one end on the beach and the other just a hundred yards out, using a rowing boat. These are called "haaf nets." It's a method that came to us from the Vikings and the word "haaf" is Norse for a net set at sea. It's a skilled job, but also controversial.
Setting a haff net.

Leaving Whitby and the sea behind, I was keen to see the salmon pools on the river and I even had a rod along with me, just in case, but there was really no point. All the same, it was a lovely drive upstream, with the river, the road and the steam railway jammed into Esk Dale's narrow wooded valley. We stopped for lunch at the hotel in Egton Bridge.

On walking into a bar, the first thing to catch my eye is usually the row of hand pumps that dispense real ale. This time I was attracted to a stuffed salmon on one wall, and an incongruous American striped bass on the other; both huge.

The salmon was caught in 1963, close to the pub and it weighed 32 1/2 lbs. As with so many big fish, it was caught by a woman; and so too was the bass. It was caught in the USA by Rhoda Fishpool and weighed 33 lbs.

As you might imagine, I could not wait to get a look at the water and at least smell the fish!

Hardly a river at all.
The water looked fishy, but there wasn't much of it. Certainly not enough for even a medium sized salmon. As for the smell of fish; all I could smell was pig manure. Perhaps a farm upstream had hosed down its yard or a trailer, and the water had run off into the stream. This probably happens quite often and it's not too much of a problem when there is plenty of water in the river.

I crossed the Esk by stepping stones and noticed how a lot of work had been put into managing the river for fish. There was a fish pass up the mill-dam and angled baffles in the pool that would focus the current down the middle of the river making it more attractive for the fish and easier to work a fly. There was also a huge slab that formed a stance where an angler could work the pool without wading. All this was wasted with no water, but I could imagine it in September.

I would love to be on the Esk on the right day. It's such a small, intimate river, more like a beck or burn than the big Scottish rivers. I hope that enough people love it to preserve both the river and the fish that make that remarkable journey from the deep, cold ocean to the shallow warm streams that run so steeply off the moors.

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