We are all familiar with the silver tourists that visit our waters every year. They run the rivers from the sea, making an annual migration with the sole intention of passing on their genes. They move up the rivers searching for clean water to deposit eggs in before making their way back down stream, if they are lucky. A fish celebrated far and wide, the salmon is highly regarded, well respected and very much sought after to the tune of millions to the Irish economy each year. The salmon runs of Ireland are well documented, cherished, advertised the world over and well protected.
Another fish, also silver, is amassing to make its spawning migration. Filling up bays of large lakes, the silver fish take station in the current waiting for the river temperature to hit a certain level before they ascend to spawn. Numbers of them can be staggering as tens of thousands make their way upstream, all focused on reproducing their numbers for the future. Although a migratory silver fish, the similarities with the salmon end here, at least in Ireland. Rather than being celebrated, in a lot of areas the small silver fish is shunned. Rather than it being highly regarded, it is frowned upon. Rather than being well respected, it is viewed as a plague with some officials declaring that they are ‘polluting’ some waters. Rather than being advertised as a sought after pursuit, they are ignored to the tune of millions of euros in lost angling revenue for shops, hotels and guesthouses. Rather than being well documented, little is known about this migration, indeed most are unaware that it even undertakes a spawning run. Rather than being advertised as something we should be proud of, it is swept under the carpet. When is the Roach Rutilus rutilis get the attention that some feel it deserves?
The roach is a small, shoaling silver fish that is a relatively recent introduction to Irish waters. Most likely they were introduced by visiting pike anglers bringing them here as livebaits, their spread far and wide in Ireland has been aided and abetted by a lot of pike anglers tendency to use livebaits, despite the practice being illegal. A ban was introduced on livebaiting in a bid to stop the spread of these invasive roach but the will of the pikers ensured that before long the roach had spread far and wide. Introduced to stop the threat of invasive species like roach and harmful aquatic pathogens from one closed system to another, Irish angler’s willingness to defy the laws ensured that the recent visitor got a foothold in many waters that they would possibly have found it difficult to gain entry to had it not been for the livebaiters. Having a very quick maturation time, two years for males and three years for females, allowed them to flourish and quickly colonise many waterways around the country. A lake or river system without roach present is now a rare thing.
There has been a lot said about roach that painted them in a very negative light when they were spreading like wildfire. I am of the opinion that the introduction of any alien species is not a good thing and the potential impacts on indigenous fauna can be catastrophic. There can be many negative impacts on the existing communities if a new species is introduced. There can be increased pressure and competition on available food supplies, spawning sites and preferred habitat type. Some of the arguments against the introduction of roach were that they would over compete with juvenile trout for photo and zoo planktons, tiny morsels that are the foundation of life for a lot of aquatic communities, the building blocks for many fish and invertebrate species. Running the rivers to spawn will also see them out compete with trout and salmon for spawning sites. Sheer numbers of adult roach will have a severe impact on the number of available aquatic insects for trout. Each of these arguments are valid and seem plausible but can be picked apart easily with logic and reasoning.
What there has been very little of before now is the arguing that roach, although an invasive species, may be starting to find their ecological niche in Ireland. I would be prepared to say that it could be argued quite successfully that roach are actually benefitting the brown trout populations in a lot of the ‘trout lakes’ around the country. How? It is no secret that one of the most effective baits for ferox trout is a trolled roach. It would appear that the ferox have switched, preferentially, to feeding on roach such is the popularity of the method. The introduction of roach has provided a larder of snacks for large trout to grow larger on and long may it continue. Roach fry that amass in the shallows provide huge amounts of sustenance for brown trout. The shoals of fry provide an easy meal for the trout that can grow large on such a diet. Most importantly for the trout, the pike is now feeding preferentially on roach which can only benefit the trout. We have been told for decades that pike feed preferentially on trout. Recent research has proven beyond doubt that roach are now a more popular snack for Irish pike than brown trout are. So there you have it, it can be argued logically that the brown trout of Lough Corrib and all the other trout waters are better off for the presence of roach in their habitat.
Look at it from another angle; there seems to be a particular problem with roach ‘polluting’ Lough Conn and Cullin this last couple of seasons, numbers in the lake have exploded and prime roach have been seen running the rivers that feed the lake for the last couple of seasons. Where did these roach come from, how did this particular explosion occur? Part of the ‘chosen waters’, these lakes have been subjected to official pike removal programmes for decades. Perhaps the explosion of roach on these waters is due to pike removal resulting in a lake that has more prey than predators, allowing their numbers to explode? If allowed to go unchecked then the numbers of roach may indeed reach a level where they are doing damage to trout stocks through over competition for food. With the pike now preferentially feeding on roach then maybe the pike’s removal from the lake is doing the trout more harm than good? Nature always keeps a balance and perhaps this is another instance where by removing a particular species of fish we are actually doing more harm to the fish we are trying to protect than good? Food for thought.
Maybe if we took a different approach to the smaller silver tourist then we could use them to our own advantage? Instead of shunning the fish, pretending it isn’t there and discouraging people from chasing them on some waters, we should open the whole lot up. I have been exploring the feeder streams of Lough Corrib in the hopes of intercepting a few of these shoals on their spawning migration. At the time of writing they have not yet ascended the river to spawn. I do know that they will be getting ready to do so and indeed they are in various locations around the country. Some of these lakes have fish that have never seen a hook and of quality that many don’t believe. The holy grail of many a roach angler is a crimson-finned two pounder. Many consider a roach of this size to be the catch of a lifetime. Little wonder of the tourism angling potential when stories emerge of rivers full of three pounders! Three pounders! Many an angler would pay handsomely for the opportunity to catch such a creature.
This is where I have the difficulty; there is an obvious cash cow sitting in many lakes around the country but they are not promoted, not even ignored but looked upon with frowns and disdain. How barking mad and raving bonkers are we that we can turn our nose up at a resource that can bring plenty of visiting angling revenue into an area. More anglers in an area means more bookings for accommodation and extra spend in local shops. Word of a place where at certain times the catch of a lifetime could potentially be caught every cast would spread far and wide. The draw that fishing like this could generate would surely be a great source of income for many. So of course the most logical thing we could do is ignore it and down play its significance! The mind boggles.
Which brings me to my current situation; sitting, watching the thermometer and waiting for the river to become warm enough to kick start the silver migration. Some of the local trout anglers look upon me with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment as I cast my float from my little plastic boat! I am sure that many of them think that I am quite mad, fishing for such an unworthy quarry when there are trout around. I am looked down upon, with my tub of maggots and centrepin reel. The intricacies of presenting a small bait trotted downstream under a stick float are lost on them. Here in the trout capital of Ireland, Oughterard, the only use a roach has is as a bait for the big trout.
“We don’t fish like that over here”, commented one, referring to my trotting gear and maggot bait.
“I do”, was my reply.
A similar interaction occurred a while ago in a local tackle shop, which shall remain nameless. I was looking for appropriate hooks and described to the tackle shop proprietor the style of hook I was looking for. I explained the intended use to which the tackle shop owner replied, “We don’t do that kind of thing around these parts”. And that was that. No offer to get the gear in, no interest in what the roach fishing in the area could be like. No clue as to the potential of the revenue that coarse fishing could generate for him. Is this guy for real? I am presenting him with an opportunity to make some money and he is turning it down?
This attitude can be found to prevail in a lot of parts of the country. For too long we have focused on one small aspect of our aquatic wealth instead of trying to understand, protect and promote it all equally. If some waters in Ireland were to be managed as mixed waters then every species found in them would flourish. Declaring all species equal protection will send a message to the angling world that the attitudes in Ireland have changed and may just be the catalyst needed to start encouraging visiting anglers back in the droves that they once used to hit our shores with. Who knows, perhaps those rivers that are full of two pound plus roach or the bays that are full of huge bream and record breaking hybrids are the gift that keeps on giving? Until we stop netting them and ignoring them we will never know.