Fairly dry this week, the river has dropped a few inches and cleared considerably. The weed is starting to grow, bringing a hint of colour to the river bed, while the Brown Trout are “on the fin” and looking for the first sign of food, a few are showing signs of fungus on their nose. Brown Trout are particularly susceptible to fungal infections at this time of year, as the water temperature starts to rise, and in the autumn when the temperature starts to fall. The fungus Saprolegnia can infect any lesions on the skin. Appearing as white furry patches on the skin, it looks awful. Some fish cope and recover in a matter of weeks; others succumb to the fearsome fungus and die. The more stressed a fish is the more likely they are to contract the fungus, making it a particular problem with farmed reared fish. For many years the fungus was easily treated with Malachite Green, an incredibly concentrated liquid that would regularly turn the entire river navy blue, as keepers treated their fish. A great trick when I was at college was to sprinkle some of the granular form of malachite into someone’s hair, if it rained they would be dark blue from top to toe within minutes, if it didn’t rain they would end up blue eventually when they had a bath or shower.
During extensive tests in America, several ears fell off several mice, and it was found that Malachite had cancer causing properties. Malachite is no longer available as a fish farm fungal treatment, although it can still be purchased through pet stores under a different name as a treatment for tropical fish???? There are now other, more expensive, fungal treatments available, although I treat any fungal infections in our ponds with a saline dip. The river no longer turns blue, and for many keepers malachite is but a memory, however I know I am not alone in checking that I haven’t left one of my ears behind on the pillow when I get up in the morning.
The “tinning” in the river is going well, the river flow at the moment is ideal and I am currently a third of the way down the beat. I have also been digging back a bit of the bank, this is necessary when the marginal reeds or “the fringe” grow out into the river, narrowing the channel, causing water to back up, eroding the far bank or leaving the angler too far from the water’s edge. In today’s ever-mechanised age much of this work is carried out with a digger. Pre- diggers the job was done with a Hay knife and grabs. The Hay Knife, a farm tool, often seen on the walls of pubs resembled a three-foot cheese knife, The Grabs a long handled garden fork bent over at ninety degrees. During my time as a student at Leckford, I had helped out with quite a bit of “digging back” slicing down through the reed bed, chopping the root ball into cubes, and pulling it out with the grabs. In effect you are redefining the line of the riverbank, the cut cubes pulled back on top of the bank and trodden in to strengthen the remaining fishing bank. Hard work but very satisfying, If I can use the hay knife rather than the digger I will take the hay knife every time, it is far more sympathetic and gives a better finish to the bank and river bed.
While carrying out this work it is not unusual to come across large concentrations of brook lampreys, strange creatures between four and six inches long, with a sucker for a mouth. I once kept one in a fish tank. Answering to the name of Lionel, he appeared to feed on nothing at all, yet maintained his condition over many months, eventually returning to his ditch from whence he came, after we fell out over an uneaten meal.
Two years ago there was a press release about the scarcity of Lampreys. I would say with some degree of confidence that if you asked an ageing riverkeeper or ditch-digger to locate a lamprey, within an hour he would be successful. In my experience they populate roughly the same patches of muddy bank, leaving the mud for the river in the summer. I can remember one morning digging back some bank on beat six at Leckford with a couple of colleagues, and within a ten yard stretch finding hundreds and hundreds of Lampreys. This week I have found no Lampreys, although I would not have expected to find any on the particular stretch that I am digging back.