An eventful day with Building Bridges

By introducing fishing to the next generation, Building Bridges is making huge strides towards a brighter future with the UK’s migrant angling community. Dom Garnett went to one of their special events at Wellingborough DNAC’s Ringstead Island Fishery to find out more.

On a bright, sunny day at Ringstead Island Fishery, there is a busy sense of anticipation in the humid air. The lily-fringed lake before us looks tranquil at present, but will shortly be invaded by dozens of kids and their families, busily catching, tangling and learning.

I’m met by Szymon and Janusz, or “Johnny”, of Building Bridges first, two of the organisation’s busy recruits, getting ready.  Most of the families here today will be Polish, so it’s happy timing that their World Cup match only takes place in the evening. The same can’t be said of England against Panama, but we’re also expecting some English families.

“These days are a great way to get kids fishing the right way, and get the families used to UK fishing rules,” says Johnny. “The sun always helps, so I’m expecting it to be busy”.

Starting them young

The aim of events like today’s is twofold: to introduce kids to fishing and show anglers from different nationalities how catch and release fishing works in the UK. Supported by Environment Agency fishing license money and working hand in hand with the Nenescape project, the current goal for Building Bridges is not just to educate anglers, but to tap into the huge potential that exists in the migrant community.

“If you can reach out to the kids, you also reach the parents”, says Project Manager Rado Papiewski. “By teaching one, you can speak to both generations. It can be tough to change older attitudes, but when we teach the kids about responsible fishing we can really change things for the future.”

Of course, with every challenge there is also opportunity- and one aspect not often mentioned is the huge boost European anglers can give to fishing clubs and the tackle trade. Indeed, with the sport crying out for younger recruits, perhaps more fishing clubs should be making these young anglers welcome?

Wellingborough and District Nene Angling Club are leading by example today. We have some great local coaches, and even Debbie Hollis, our friendly lady in the food van, is a club committee member welcoming families today. It takes a real team effort on a hot day, but these type of events can only be good for the club’s junior membership.

Polamania Kija! (“Tight lines”)

What is apparent from the off today is how well the kids take to fishing. The coaches provide elasticated whip poles and the bites come quickly from roach and rudd. The interaction between coaches, parents and youngsters is brilliant, with questions galore being asked.

All the children are bilingual, too, and I’m impressed by the way they switch seamlessly between English and Polish! Not so easy for others- although I enjoy practising my own limited Polish language skills and raising some laughs from parents and kids (I can do most of the names of fish, but my general conversation skills need some work).

It’s a brilliant ice-breaker between English and Polish, to say the least. Furthermore, it’s so much easier to show the way catch and release fishing works through practice, rather than print. It’s especially noticeable how the kids enjoy handling and learning how to release the fish safely. Pretty soon, older brothers and sisters are helping younger siblings to wet their hands and let the fish go carefully.

Of course, many of the parents have a quick try as well, learning about pole rigs, unhooking mats and disgorgers. So while the focus is on our youngsters, mum and dad get to learn the basics, too, getting familiar not just with British fishing tactics, but using disgorgers and unhooking mats. It’s a great learning experience for all ages.

I think we’re going to need a bigger net!

The smaller of Cotton Mill pools here at the Ringstead Island complex proves absolutely perfect for our juniors on a hot day.  Basic skills like loose feeding, finding the depth and striking keep them nice and busy. Plenty of smaller roach provide bites galore, while the occasional crucian or hybrid stretch the elastic further. Their reactions are priceless and the grins and excitement of the kids tells its own story.

Inevitably on these sessions, you also get a few tiny beginners’ rods and pond dipping nets- one of which is bright pink on this occasion. It looks a bit on the little side, in fact, as one of the girls hooks a much better fish and a small crowd of spectators gather.

The Building Bridges lads are there to help and take a snap or two as a three as the drama unfolds. The pink net that Szymon appears to have adopted doesn’t look like it will cut it on this occasion, but with the help of a proper landing net, a three-pound carp soon hits the bank, accompanied by gasps from the younger kids. “It’s massive!” says one of them. About six boys are instantly determined to catch a bigger one. The captor can’t stop smiling - chalk one up for the girls!

Nenescape and beyond

In today’s event, around fifty kids and their parents are introduced to fishing, but this is just a small part of the plans for 2018 and beyond. In conjunction with the Voluntary Bailiff Service and Nenescape, there is now a long-term plan to improve education, enforcement and integration.

“We have to try and change perceptions and build for the future,“ explains Kelvin Allen, the Angling Trust’s East of England Chair, who oversees close collaboration with the Nenescape Landscape Partner Scheme, a Heritage Lottery funded project to protect and enhance the Nene Valley area and its heritage. “So far we have built great relationships with local schools, where we run activities and competitions for the kids, which then allow us to run events like this.”

Along with Fisheries Enforcement Support Service (FESS) project manager Andy Beale, there has been a big effort to reach out to angling clubs and build better relations with migrant communities across the region. And while some are more helpful than others, those that have acted positively to help are now reaping the benefits, with more members and better integration.

“Enforcement is still vital,” says Kelvin, “but we must not tar everyone with the same brush- and there is still unfortunately the perception that every foreign national is a poacher. Times are changing though, and the positives are there to see. The Polish have a fantastic sense of community and family fishing. My own local fishing club now make over 20% of their revenue from European anglers now - and some of these youngsters can be the lifeblood of the sport for years to come.”

In fact, it might not make headline news, but the fact is that now many young Polish and other European anglers are now catch and release. “A lot of younger generation anglers now fish around Europe and bring ideas now back to Poland,” says Rado. “They know the value of catch and release. There is now a movement in Poland to protect bigger fish- because anglers now understand their value.” Fisheries in Poland are evolving, too, with some rivers and stillwater fisheries now 100% catch and release; the carp record is actually now bigger in Poland than in the UK.

Overall then, there are reasons to be quietly optimistic about the future. However, as the fishing landscape of England changes, it will be up to angling as a sport to move with the times. And contrary to some of the scaremongering that still goes on, European anglers can very much be part of the solution.