Monday, February 25, 2008

Week 7

Week 7

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.

Week 6

Week 6

More heavy rain early in the week followed by two dry days, the river level is about where you would expect for this time of the year, and clearing a little towards the end of the week. I have received a few phone calls from regular Grayling fishermen about the prospects for the coming weeks. Normally we limit Grayling fishing to a five to six week period in October and early November, calling it to a halt at the first sign of spawning activity amongst the resident Brown Trout population. Occasionally if we have had a dry December and January we will allow some Grayling fishing in February, provided the river and banks are in reasonable condition.
Normal winter weather usually results in one of my main late winter tasks of moving on any silt that has been deposited by the increased flows; this turns the river the colour of chocolate and renders it unfishable. On this particular stretch of the Dever I am quite lucky in that I am able to wade the vast majority of the stretch, making silt removal a simple, if laborious process. Starting at the top of the beat I use large sheets of corrugated tin held in place by six foot long steel pins to temporarily divert the main channel flow into areas where silt may have accumulated. After twenty-four hours the silted area has been washed and it is necessary to move the sheets of tin down stream to the next silted area. This involves jumping in the river banging the steel pins into the riverbed and moving the sheets of tin downstream to rest against them. On shallower reaches it is possible to rest a sheet of tin on your toes while facing up stream, this leaves a narrow gap under the sheet of tin, the water forces its way under the tin, beautifully cleaning the top layer of gravel and promoting early season weed growth. I will have four sheets of tin in the river at any one time moving them daily. To get from the top of my stretch to the bottom can take anything between four and eight weeks, longer if the winter is dry and the river low. Some would argue that it is wrong to move as much silt as this on during this period, suggesting that it has a detrimental effect on hatches of Mayfly and survival of salmonid fry in the river. Despite my diligence not all of the silt is removed, year on year we have good hatches of Mayfly and have a background stock of fish that were born and raised in this river.
With the river clearing over the past few days it has also become apparent that the Pike are moving around and showing forethought towards spawning. Unlike Salmonids – Trout and Salmon who spawn in early winter, Coarse fish such as Pike Carp and Roach spawn in the spring. The one exception being the Grayling which belongs in a class of its own, possessing an adipose fin unique to the salmonid it spawns in the spring. In the weeks preceding spawning Pike become increasingly conspicuous in the river, targeting back waters and spring holes as spawning areas these usually solitary creatures come together for their annual sojourn to the spring hole, getting all loved up before falling out, returning to their sinister solitary lifestyle while threatening to eat anything that passes including their own kith and kin. I have fished for Pike in many parts of this country and indeed continent, and can confidently say that the most beautiful looking Pike with the most vivid colours and markings come from clear water, their condition and taste enhanced if they have lived on a diet of trout. Someone I knew once caught a trout from a lake bordering the Rugby Cement Works, proudly presenting it to his mother who cooked and served the toughest piece of fish that tasted of cement. I have twice fished on Lough Ree and Lough Derg in Ireland, and encountered numbers of French and German anglers who were filling their boots with sweet tasting Pike from the gin clear water of these two huge Irish Loughs.In my time here the biggest Pike that I have caught is twelve pounds, it is not really Pike water and we only see them when they are seeking out the spring holes for spawning. The middle and lower Test contain some monsters, Twenty-pound Pike are not that uncommon, and I know of one of twenty-two pounds that was caught on a mayfly. The biggest that I have seen from the river is thirty four pounds, taken while electro fishing in October around Twenty years ago, it would have been significantly bigger during the spring when full of spawn. Several of my friends looking after stretches of the middle Test are now fly-fishing for Pike. Using reservoir rods and bone fish lures it is a sport that has taken off in the last few years, and I am convinced is a contributor to the increase in number of facial piercings seen on the streets of Britain today.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Week 5

Week 5

More wind and rain and the promise of snow, which never came. I am still chopping up trees in between ferrying my employer around who is recovering from a hernia operation, finally taking her to the airport in midweek, as she was off to stay with her son and his family in New York.
High Winds in the week bought down a huge Golden Willow. This time the tree fell on dry land, it had been dead for around six months, killed by honey fungus, and shattering into a million pieces as it hit the ground. Two other huge Golden Willows have succumbed to the dreaded Honey Fungus in the last ten years, along with a few ornamental trees in the garden. Some trees seem to be particularly susceptible to it while others are completed unaffected by it. Within yards of the Golden Willows that have fallen to Honey Fungus are several mature Horse Chestnuts, an ancient Mulberry, several willows, one of which I’m told is an Aspen, all sorts of fruit trees and a very colourful Amber. None of which show any signs of catching the fearsome fungus. The sickest of the lot being the ornamental Cherries although many cherry trees in our area have had a hard time of it of late and are not in what one would call “tip top” condition.
As each giant Golden Willow succumbed to the fungus the die-back in the crown of the tree became a larder for all sorts of bugs and beetles, these in turn attracted all sorts of birds. Squawking green woodpeckers appeared from nowhere to bang away at the branches, along with red and black lesser-spotted woodpecker. For several days we were convinced that we could hear someone banging away with a hammer, the intermittent banging lasted several days and led us to believe that some huge project in wood was under construction in the village that would be held together by ten tons of nails. It was in fact a confused Nuthatch, who had convinced himself that a bird box attached to one of these Golden Willows was fall of bugs, he had climbed inside and was banging away at the inside, the noise amplified for him doing it inside the box.
We have also taken delivery this week of thirty willow sets that are to be used for producing cricket bats. The ground in the river valley is perfect for willow tree growth. A representative of the company came to see us in the summer and pointed out the best spots to site the trees and instruct us on how best to care for them. The sets themselves are fifteen-foot long stakes. A hole is created in the ground with an iron bar, a plastic deer guard fitted around the set; the set is then pushed into the ground. The whole cycle from set to bat can take between ten and twenty years, depending upon the rate of growth. Each year the trunk must be kept clear of side shoots, if left to develop these will cause knots in the finished wood, which will impair the performance of the finished bat. The sets are planted with around twenty feet of clear ground around each one. This ensures that the trunk will grow as straight as possible. On harvesting in ten to twenty years time we will receive a fee depending upon the quality of the willow. The Willow is graded for quality, the straighter the grain and the fewer knots the better. The trunks are cut into 28-inch lengths, each length or cleft is then cut into rough bat shaped pieces and initial grading of quality is made, the ends are waxed and left to “air dry”. A grade 1 blade will have at least four grains visible, with the playing face free of knots and blemishes.
It is a fairly long period to get a return on your initial investment, and I think my playing days will be well over before they are finally turned into bats, but it highlights the forward planning that has to be made for the production of something as simple as a cricket bat. English Willow is the finest material for the production of cricket bats and it is exported to bat manufacturers around the world, Kookaburra, Malik, MRF, Gray Niccols, Woodworm, all use the finest English Willow. Willow from other areas such as Kashmir being entirely different due to the different growing conditions.We finished the week off with a final shot at the ducks, three adults and three boys shot three ducks. We didn’t see many, there being so much water lying on the water meadows, that the ducks are spoilt for choice when it comes to selecting a place to stay the night. Those that we did see were flying in pairs, and not in large groups as they do earlier in the season. A sure sign that there minds are turning to breeding. Which is the main reason for the close season and a sure sign that it is time to put the guns away.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Week 4

The river is up, with several more trees down. The bridge that I am poised to build with my split telegraph poles lies in bits, this is often the way at this time of year, the bridge can wait until I have dealt with the trees.
The fish in the hatchery are feeding well now and are packing on weight. Unseasonably mild weather in the middle of the week when the temperature climbed to 14 degrees instigated a hatch of fly around the middle of the day. This drew the attention of several fish in the river who regularly rose as if it were the middle of May. Hatches of fly through the winter may be few and far between, but are vital in returning the fish to their pre- spawning condition. For two to three weeks before spawning the Brown Trout go off the feed. The exertions of digging a redd coupled with the act of spawning, result in the fish losing weight and condition. The more food available to them after this spawning period, the quicker they regain their condition and are less likely to develop fungal infections. The river is crammed full of Gammarus shrimp at all times of the year, but a trickle of Olives hatching in Winter to a Brown Trout is like a nice juicy steak to you or I and they lap them up, putting a little flesh on their winter bones.
The mild weather has also bought on the snow drops, crocus and the first few daffodils. The grass has also stood to attention and greened up, a timely reminder to get the tractor serviced and order new blades for the Tractor mounted mower.
At this time of the year it is not uncommon to start seeing and hearing a few funny birds around. Many are passing through, some hang around for the summer. Hen Harriers have moved onto Bransbury Common, one of the first designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest; it is a magical place and home to many rare and unusual flora and fauna. Noted amongst other things for its Short Eared Owls that can be seen in groups during the day, it is an area of marsh between the rivers Test and Dever that I would not think had changed in several hundred years.
For several years now we have had a resident Merlin, who although small is spectacular in flight, it is not uncommon to put him up from the side of the road, you are then treated to his low flying display as he hugs the road in front of you before careering up and off at an incredible angle to make his escape. In complete contrast to the large lumbering Marsh Harrier, who’s floppy flight leads you to think that he could fall from the sky at any moment.
The red Kite is still around, I have seen him overhead in Bransbury and also over at Longparish cricket ground, unmistakeable in profile, I have only seen the one although the chap down the road said that he had seen a pair. If we are to see an Osprey passing through it will be over the next few months.
One bird that has increased in numbers over the past few winters is the Cormorant. A voracious fish-eater and resident of the shoreline and estuaries, they have been gradually working their way up the Test Valley over the past few years. Two years ago while fishing a pond near Stockbridge for Carp, William - my son, and I counted 21 Cormorants get up off the two-acre pond. At one time the pond in question had a reasonable head of small Roach and Rudd, there is little left in the pond now bar Carp of two pounds or more. Cormorants are decimating fish stocks in this country, clearing out lakes and some stretches of river of juvenile fish. The cost to Coarse Fisheries is immense yet little is done to control their numbers. The river Dever at Bransbury is an alien environment for a Cormorant who view shallow and fast flowing water as a last resort, yet as their numbers increase and their food source in their natural environment becomes more scarce they are forced to seek food in tricky waters like the Dever. On the Friday we had our beater’s shoot. None of the beaters at Bransbury are paid; instead they are rewarded with a huge lunch on each day, some risqué conversation and a days shooting at the end of the season. Not all of the beaters shoot; this year eight of them put themselves forward as guns. Several, like Mick, Alan, Brian, Gary, Niall and Jenkins are keen and accomplished shots, for others like Trevor - the world’s noisiest pig farmer, it will be the only time they shoot all year. The bag on the day was Nineteen pheasant, four partridge, two duck, five pigeon and a Rook, over the years the Beaters bag has ranged from four to forty, the one constant being that Jenkins insist that we look for a Woodcock that he shot eight years ago that was never found. Sally gave us a huge lunch that went on until well into the afternoon to mark the end of another enjoyable season. It is a matter of fact, that now the season is over the fields will be full of Pheasants who seem to have an in-built calendar that tells them the guns have been put away.