I have walked and fished the marshes and meadows of the Brede Valley levels in East Sussex for more than three score years of my life. The whole valley that was once a haven for birdlife in particular is now sadly all but a shadow of its past – drainage, extensive farming, the rooting out of hedgerows and orchards, all have had such a detrimental effect on the landscape and its flora and fauna.
The dykes that crisscross the levels of the valley once boasted a healthy and thriving fish population, these dykes today now hold only a few feet of water and the net result being far fewer fish and these are easy pickings for Cormorants that are unsurprisingly such regular visitors to the valley.
The impact of mans over fishing our seas has ensured that Cormorants seek their food inland and I have on many occasions been startled by an eruption in the water caused by a surfacing bird when Chub fishing the main river.
The river runs more or less through the centre of the Brede valley ridges of Sedlescombe, Brede, Udimore , Icklesham and Winchelsea starting its main flow above Seldlescombe and winds its way through approximately seven miles of the levels until it reaches the lock gates at Rye.
The river is clear and still throughout the Summer months and it is not until the Winter spates that it flows with vigour, it is at this time that the sluice gate is manually lowered at Snailham allowing this excess water to dramatically drop away and pass through the lock gates at Rye – what is so baffling is the fact that the whole area is a flood plain and even the network of dykes that enter the main river are lowered to just a miserable few feet by lifting the culvert boards that connect the dyke entering the main river at the sluice.
I can remember as a teenager fishing this dyke many times directly behind the sluice catching many Roach ,Bream and Tench which were found shoaling throughout , the water in this dyke had a consistent average depth of about four feet and was never lowered.
Swan mussels Anodonta Cygnea were very abundant throughout the dyke beds and the main river and are still found in small numbers today. I remember using a section of one for bait on several occasions whilst night fishing for Tench but only ever caught Eels!
My Chub fishing on the river these days is confined to the Winter months and by water conditions affected by the above situation being that there are times when only a depth of a couple of feet can be found or at the other extreme it might be bursting its banks! Even when the conditions are perfect fish can be very elusive and much leg work may be done by the end of a session.
The banks of the River Brede are very dangerous being sloped and slippery in Winter and in likely swims an extreme caution is required when fishing. When tackling these banks I use a fishing seat with extendable legs so the front two are usually the only ones extended on the sloping banks. One day this season a front leg of my chair which was fully extended suddenly buckled and I just managed to slide off sideways just before the seat fell into the water – I was lucky not to follow the seat into the river as on a slippery and steep bank there would be no way of getting out. However fortune favours the brave and the determined – there is always the chance of a beautiful reward such as this prime fish.
The rivers fish population was historically always healthy and in my younger days Roach grew to over two pounds and one-pound fish were commonplace so much so the Brede was once compared to the Hampshire Avon for the quality of its Roach.
I remember one winters day many years ago fishing with my good friend Peter Mann and his brother Michael at Winchelsea below the Strand road bridge, It was so cold the eyes on our rods kept freezing up and we could hardly feel our fingers as we stood in the snow trotting bread flake and maggots. Every trot though our swims resulted in a prime Roach of up to pound and a half, we caught every cast and at the end of the day we had up to two hundred pounds of fish between us which is hard to believe now I guess but the shoals of fish were ever plentiful when you located them.
These shoals often moved but we were always successful in finding them when some other anglers struggled. I remember with much amusement the then Chairman of our local fishing club asking me at a club committee meeting if I could phone him to let him know the area I would be fishing on any given day.
I still occasionally fish with Peter and Michael mainly for Chub in the Valley or stalking margin Carp on a local Gravel Pit and we often reminisce on that particular winter’s day as well as other memorable fishing sessions on this river – a couple that spring to mind are when Pete caught over 100 lbs of Roach and Bream, and another was the he time I caught over 60lbs of Roach on each session over three days.
The river really was an angler’s dream, Peter once took a sickie from work and was fishing downstream of the strand bridge section at Winchelsea when his boss who had been driving by stopped to look over the road bridge. “Is that you Peter?” he shouted – Peter who was fishing some distance downstream, did not turn round he carried on fishing hoping that he had not been rumbled. The next day at work he totally denied being there. what wonderful memories!
Sadly, the river has been polluted several times over many years since these halcyon days and areas of the river bed are now badly silted resulting in the fish population being dramatically reduced. I was in later years to write an article on “The Fishes of the River Brede” (LINK) for a well-respected Natural History Society Journal which showed the devasting impact that this pollution caused.
Once the Dace and Roach were the dominant species but today the Dace have disappeared and Roach are thinly distributed over the Brede’s entire length. On the upper reaches of the main river Chub and Carp that were introduced many years ago are to be found in small numbers but very little else although some large Pike are present in the winter months.
Above Rye lock through Winchelsea to Float Farm the fish populations are healthier with Tench, Bream
Perch, Chub and Roach all present, this area holds much deeper water up to five feet or more in some sections and has not been so affected as in upper reaches – this being said fish are still thinly distributed compared to times now sadly past.
Although the valley has suffered from these dramatic changes, it still remains a quiet, peaceful and secluded place that ever draw’s one back whether to cast a line for the elusive Chub or simply enjoy a walk through the landscape.
……….Memoirs to be continued
All Text & Images Sussex Micky