It is an ancient pastime but fishing as a hobby is dying out among young people and the requirement for angling clubs to have child safeguarding policies is partly to blame, according to the Angling Trust.
The number of rod licences issued by the Environment Agency to children under 17 has more than halved in the past seven years, from 122,000 in 2009 to 58,000 this year.
Now the agency is trying to reverse the decline by allowing young people to fish for free. Under-17s will still need a licence but they will not have to pay the £5 annual fee.
The trust welcomed the move but said that making it easier for angling clubs to coach children was the key to luring them away from smartphones and computer games.
Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Angling Trust, said that the agency and Sport England had been focusing too much on keeping adults involved in angling and that very little funding had gone into persuading the next generation to take up the sport.
He said: “All sports are facing similar challenges with getting young people into them. It’s more complicated now because we have to take into consideration safeguarding, which is right and proper but it does make the whole business of coaching more difficult than it used to be.
“It puts people off from volunteering [to teach children].
“I learnt to fish with some bloke my dad met who liked fishing. My dad didn’t know who he was but he took me off fishing and was absolutely fine. People don’t do that kind of thing these days.”
The ageing population also meant angling clubs had plenty of older members paying membership fees so they did not make enough effort to attract young people. “That’s no good for the long-term future,” he said. He added that the £5 fee for a junior rod licence was small compared with the adult rate of £27 for coarse fishing and trout and £72 for salmon and sea trout but said that it had been “a mental barrier to getting involved”.
“It will help but it won’t solve the problem and we would like to see more money from Sport England and the Environment Agency to help get young people involved. It would be spent on providing more licensed coaches and supporting the whole safeguarding infrastructure that’s required,” Mr Lloyd said.
He claimed that the agency had focused on adults “because they were trying to shore up their licence income by keeping the number of paying adult anglers as high as possible”.
Sarah Chare, head of fisheries at the Environment Agency, said that she hoped the free junior licence would “play an important part in getting more young people fishing”.