Offering excellent barbel and mixed coarse fishing, Rowley and Fenemere Angling Association have transformed a formerly neglected location into one of the best value river fisheries in Shropshire. Dominic Garnett reports on a dramatic revival, all thanks to teamwork and the support of rod licence money via the Angling Trust administered Angling Improvement Fund.
Looking into the inviting flow of the Upper Severn near Shrewsbury, it’s hard to imagine these it ever looked any different. A fish rolls out in the current, while tiny fry teem in their thousands around the cover right under our feet.
The waters are a little coloured today, but this doesn’t stop club chairman Max Taylor from peering into some of his favourite swims. Each one has a story to tell, from the gravel bar where fish pass in plain sight, to the spot where one of the upper river’s hallowed double figure barbel was recently landed.
To the band of volunteers who saved this river stretch from the brink, however, today’s fishery is unrecognisable from its former neglect. “At one point, it felt abandoned,” says Max. “We came close to losing the fishery.“
Anglers were leaving the river in droves, to the point where rent could not be kept up. Most swims had become jungle warfare. Anyone who wanted to rescue the fishery either had their work cut out or needed their brains tested, seemed the general consensus.
A new beginning
The first step was to secure the fishery’s rent with the Leaton Estate by bringing people together; and so Max brokered a deal between two neighbouring clubs to share the water. Then, he set up a new club in place of the defunct Sabrina AA. Rowley and Fenemere AA was born, with the ambitious goal of restoring the fishery to its best and getting anglers back with accessible and affordable fishing.
With poor access and very limited swims, this was a daunting task to say the least, as Max explains. “The access was very poor and, in places, dangerous,” he says. “On top of that, there were only a handful of decent swims; today we have over two dozen, along with proper paths and parking areas.”
Help from rod licence money via the Angling Improvement Fund, not to mention close working with the Environment Agency and Angling Trust, have been essential to the transformation we see today. There are several spots to park safely, for one thing; unlike the bad old days when anglers sometimes had to park the other side of a busy road and dodge cars and lorries with their tackle!
Criss-crossing paths are another great investment, not to mention a great example of what’s possible where AIF help is matched with local graft. “It was a huge volunteer effort. The grant paid for materials, while the lads worked right through the previous winter- and you remember how horrible and cold that one was! Social media helped too, in getting people out and sharing a real collective sense of purpose and achievement.”
You can see how proud he and secretary Andy Garbett are as they show me round. The paths are beautifully done, too. You could be on a National Trust nature trail. For obvious reasons, local residents love the paths as well.
As for the actual swims, these are superb. There are gentle earth steps to the river where once there was only thorny undergrowth or slippery slopes, while each spot successfully blends safe access with natural features.
A healthy mixed fishery
Sitting in a typically inviting peg on our visit, in fact, is Tony, one of the club regulars. I’m about to enquire as to whether the fishing’s any good, but before I’ve even finished my sentence, the float has buried. The silver fish are back with a bang in this section, as a quick look at Tony’s net confirms. He must have eight pounds plus of dace and roach here, with quality as well as quantity!
I’m equally keen to see the barbel and chub potential of the stretch as we explore more of the fishery. Indeed, the swims all look so good that you’d be hard pressed to pick one! Some of the older generation who once fished here with the Sabrina club have returned lately and have been amazed at the difference.
As Max sets up a quiver tip, there is also time to chat to the Environment Agency’s Chris Bainger, who has been working closely with the new club from the outset.
“Max and the club have done a heck of a lot and it’s been fantastic to see the change,” he says. “At one stage, after some terrible winters, we had issues with fish stocks on the Severn. Especially with silver fish, and with the commercials available, matchmen were losing interest. It has taken a continued effort to get anglers back.”
From leaner times, though, Chris has seen the river bounce bag impressively and is particularly excited about the upcoming Riverfest Final, which he thinks could be a real classic, with good bags of dace, chub and barbel all possible. Chris himself doesn’t get bags of time to fish, but has been enjoying roving with dropshot gear and picking up some excellent perch.
Above: Chris is joined by Leaton Estate owner Charles Bridgeman; joint working and good relations have been at the heart of improvements.
Speaking to everyone here, it’s quickly apparent how well the club, EA and Leaton Estate work together. “It feels like we’ve got a good balance” Chris says. “Obviously you want fishable swims, but it’s also so important to retain cover wherever possible- whether that means leaving or adjusting the bigger stuff or even pinning important features in place. We’re definitely moving away from the bad old days of ‘remove everything’.”
As Fisheries Technical Specialist who covers an immense area across four counties, Chris often relies on anglers to get much of his data, hence close relationships with angling clubs are vital. “Partnership is vital,” he says. “Anglers play a key role in monitoring and looking after the water- and hopefully we’re successfully meeting the needs of conservation and fishing side by side.”
He certainly knows and loves the Severn and has worked with top anglers including Dave Harrell up and down its length to match fishing and conservation needs. And he is always looking for further improvements. Other current ideas and plans include better drinking areas to stop cattle “loafing” in the river, as well as so-called “laybys” and other off-stream refuges where young fish have sanctuary. It’s hoped that further refuge can be developed with actual swims, using willow stakes and other cover to use angling pegs as further cover for fish. In this manner, survival rates should improve; and with the recent baking hot summer, the encouraging news is that we could see a real boom in numbers of young fish coming through for the future.
Last casts and future plans
It has certainly been a revealing day on the Upper Severn, as we enjoy watching the river on a mild autumnal afternoon. I’m by no means the first or most important guest to enjoy the tour either; Local MP Daniel Kawcynski has been supportive, too, cutting the ribbon on new facilities. The club’s recent International Fishing Day was another success, attended by the Angling Trust’s Building Bridges team and anglers from as far away as Sweden, who love their barbel fishing here.
As the sun sets and Max enjoys a quick cast, it doesn’t take long for bites to arrive on the swim feeder. Two pristine chub oblige first, while the next take is not so much a twitch as a smash. No prizes for guessing what he’s hooked!
This barbel is about five pounds- no monster, but it’s encouraging to note that there are fish of various year classes now, from tiddlers of six ounces to the odd double. So while it’s true that there are certainly natural predators on the river, including otters and goosanders, the habitat and fish stocks are showing health and resilience, which bodes well for both present and future. Indeed, the proof is in members’ landing nets these days!
Talking of predators, the other notable comeback here above Shrewbury are the pike. “I put out a deadbait in one favourite swim here every season” says Max. “The first year, I had a fish just under ten pounds. Next season she was over eleven. The last time I had her, she was just under fifteen pounds- but I’m not sure I can claim the catch, because I only landed the fish by accident that time, after she wouldn’t let go of a chub I was playing!”
So, what comes next for the fishery? “We’re not finished just yet,” he says. “We still need to get more members on board to secure the rent for the longer term. We also want to host more junior days, which have had a great response so far. The potential is huge!”
Rowley and Fenemere AA welcome new members and offer excellent value at just £35 for a season ticket (£15 under 18), which runs from 1st October to 30th Sept annually. See rowleyfenemereaa.rdas.me.uk for full details.
The Angling Improvement Fund (AIF) offers angling clubs and projects across England the chance to gain financial support for worthwhile objectives, via Environment Agency rod license funds. Click here to read more, including our guidelines on making an application.