Tuesday 22 April 2008

Week 15

Week 15

Back in England and it is still bitterly cold, while away in France the first swallows arrived to take up residence in the stables, two weeks later than last year, they have struggled to find any insect life to feed on this week, although by the end of the week when their numbers had reached into double figures they were hawking around in the evening over a field of winter wheat, feeding on some insect that was hatching.
This is the penultimate week before the Trout fishing starts, I still have several trees to tidy up, the cricket bat Willows that were planted earlier have bent over in the wind, so they have all had to be straightened up. The grass is beginning to grow around the newly planted Christmas trees, this has been sprayed with Roundup to prevent the juvenile Christmas trees being grown over with grass. Midweek I had a day cutting weed at the bottom of the beat, this was necessary to lower the water level on the bottom and middle part of the Bransbury stretch of river. Weed cutting on both the Test and the Itchen is strictly controlled. Weed is only allowed to be cut at certain times of the year, one week in June, July and August respectively, and then any time from mid October through to the third week in April. Normally the June weed cut is the heaviest, but this can change with unseasonal weather. All the keepers cut the weed at the same time so as to limit the number of days when cut weed is floating down the river affecting the fishing. If left unrestricted there would likely be someone cutting on most days of the fishing season. All of the cut weed is allowed to flow down the river Test until it reaches a boom just north of Romsey where it is taken out by mechanical digger. If allowed to flow into Romsey it would block the many culverts and carriers and cause flooding in the town.
Cutting the weed is one of the most important tasks for the riverkeeper. It is possible to hold water up, or let water go depending upon how you cut the weed. Lies can be created for the Trout with judicious bar cutting, undesirable weeds – those that collect silt can be cut out, desirable weeds – those that harbour a profundity of insect life can be left and encouraged. On this stretch of the river allof the weed cutting is done by hand, although further down on the main river there are several weed cutting boats in operation.
There are several methods of cutting weed by hand, Turk Scythe, Pole Scythe and Links being the most common. I am able to cut allthe weed at Bransbury by wading with a Turk Scythe, similar to the Grim Reapers tool of choice but in aluminium. If the water was too deep for wading then I would have to use Pole Scythes or Links. A Pole Scythe is a scythe blade fixed to a long larch pole, two are required, one with the blade fixed pointing to the left, one with the blade pointing to the right. When cutting the blade must point down stream so a different one is needed for cutting from the opposite bank. There is quite a technique to cutting with a pole scythe, starting at the top of the beat and working downstream the pole is held in two hands and the blade is thrown out into the river, the pole sliding through your hands, gripping tightly as the end of the pole approaches, the blade is then pulled and shuffled along the bottom of the river to produce a cutting action, the whole process repeated when you have pulled the blade back into the bank. It is quite tiring and several things can go wrong. A common mistake, and one which I regularly made when a student on the middle Test, is to throw the pole Scythe out, failing to grab the end as it passes through your hands, the pole scythe ending up standing proud in ten feet of water in the middle of the river. Another is to fail to sand the larch pole adequatley resulting in a handful of splinters as it slides through your hand.
Cutting with Links is back breaking work, and requires two people. Links are made of a dozen scythe blades riveted together in line, with a rope leading off either end to a riverkeeper on either bank. The line of links are pulled back and forth and slowly worked downstream. It is possible to cut a lot of weed with links, although it is not possible to be as selective as it is with Turks Scythes and Pole Scythes. Links cut everything and boy don’t you know it at the end of the day. While working as a student in the middle Test, I was pulled into the river while cutting with Links, my strength failing towards the end of a very long hot day, Naïve, and slightly addled by hot sun, hard work and poor diet I took a sip of the gin clear river water, and was struck the next day by Salmonella poisoning, keeping me off work for over a week. The secret with all weed cutting, whether it be by hand or mechanical is to keep the cutting implement sharp. The weed must be cut, not pulled out by the roots, it is always better to have weed that needs cutting rather than no weed at all.

Sunday 13 April 2008

Week 14

School Easter break, and for the last four years we have travelled to France with another family. Two Dads and two boys go fishing; two Mums and two girls go shopping, meeting up in the evening for good food and lots of wine. We have fished various lakes and rivers, mostly in the Loire valley. This year we have taken a house overlooking the seven hundred acre Lac du Eguzon. Scene of a recent eliminator of the French National Carp fishing competition, and home to Carp of over sixty pounds and catfish to over one hundred pounds; the chief problem being where to find them in a lake of this acreage that is a hundred and fifty feet deep.
On arrival we swiftly unpacked the car, left the ladies to unpack cases and store socks and set of for the lake, located the areas set out for night fishing and the areas used for the Carp matches and selected our line of attack for the coming week. On returning to our gite we stopped to chat to two Carpistes situated at the end of the night fishing section, Geoff and his son Françoise, had all the gear, and had been in position for eleven straight days without a fish. Geoff was a convivial chap and as he stirred that night’s culinary creation, we struck up a fisherman’s rapport in pigeon English and broken French that soon resulted in Geoff breaking out a bottle of Whisky and detaining us for longer than we had originally planned. Despite the buoyant mood prevailing among our international gathering by his bivvy and suspicious stew, the dark thought remained that they had been in situ for eleven days without a fish.
Well, we had a go! We fed an area of the lake that had been fished by Carp fishermen over the previous week, with various hook baits and feed. On our initial “baiting up” foray in a boat powered by an electric outboard motor, our engine failed on the return journey washing us into Geoff’s swim just as a wall of hail and snow approached across the lake. Frantic rowing by the two-man crew getting us away from Geoff’s whisky soaked refuge and back to our home port.
After four days of fruitless fishing we gave up, and had a go at catching some of the smaller fish in the lake. Throughout the week the level of the lake had risen and fallen by as much as twenty feet as the hydroelectric company conducted tests on the barrage at the lake’s end. This may have had some influence on the fishing in the lake, and completely wiped out our plan B of fishing the river Creuse that emerged from the lake. The cold weather also had a hand in our fishless week, on a lake containing huge Carp that The Anglers Mail would definitely term “ultra hard” As is often the case with all types of fishing be it Carp, Salmon or Bonefish “It will be much better in a few weeks time”. You enjoy the good days all the more for having experienced the bad days, we will return to the area later in the year when things may be different.
Carp fishing on the continent, in particularly in France crops up a lot in the angling press, often with pictures of huge Carp caught from privately owned lakes; these fisheries often require you to take the lake exclusively for a week, usually for a four figure sum. For the past few years we have fished French public waters on a “Carte de Peche vacances” a two week licence that can be obtained for between twenty and thirty Euros. The fishing can be a little more hit and miss, but when it all falls into the place the rewards are undoubtedly greater. Eighteen months ago we fished a tributary of the Loire for four days, the river was in perfect condition and throughout our stay, using simple swimfeeder tactics with six pound line we caught over a hundred pound of Chub, twenty or so Barbel to Five pound, heaps of Bream and Roach and the finest looking Common Carp I have ever seen. Two fish in particular of seventeen and eighteen pounds, having grown up in fast flowing water, were immaculately toned and had never been caught before. The pool we fished, if it had been in the south of England would have twenty plus anglers around it for much of the year paying twenty pound a day. We had it to ourselves, bar a few Charolais cattle, throughout our stay.
While away, my parents had kindly moved into our house to look after the dogs and feed the fish and pheasants. The river had risen slightly through the week; temperatures had been low, over an inch of snow falling at the start of the week. Everything, from trees and birds, to weed and riverkeepers is waiting for a raise in temperature and for spring to really start.

Week 13

First job of the week, escorting the top class from the local primary school around the river for the morning; every other year the top class study rivers, and it helps if they can come out and see the effects of erosion and deposition, what an eddy looks like and where an ox bow lake would be formed if I didn’t do anything about it. As well as the general features that are common to all rivers, they also get to see why the rivers on the doorstep are unique to this area chiefly due to the surrounding geology.
A visit of any kind, be it children or an adult group is today fraught with difficulty, various risk assessments need to be made. The appropriate people with the appropriate qualification must be present and the required ratio of adults to children, plus a designated leader to count them all out and count them all back. With the added danger of water, I am sure that many schools would not entertain the idea of a trip such as this, because of the “high risk” and prospective “danger” of the site. Of course if they were out with their families at the weekend not a thought would be given to a riverside walk, indeed many of the children have already been introduced to fishing, some even on this particular stretch of river with a handline! In today’s litigious climate, all bases must be covered, all risk eliminated, so as to avoid the attention of the “finger pointers” who thrive on the current climate of blame culture. Fortunately everyone on the trip came back alive, if a little muddier.
Over the past few seasons, at different times of the school year, I have taken various year ten pupils for their two-week period of work experience. Each year it has become increasingly more difficult to satisfy the various health and safety demands, and for many work placements it has become impossible to tick all of the boxes required to satisfy the various agencies that handle the placements. Many fisheries on the river that used to take year ten or college placements now no longer do so because it has become just too much trouble. Many non-office placements have been reduced to the pupil following someone around for the two-week period, which is frustrating for all involved.
Many College courses in fishery management and Game keeping require a certain amount of work experience to have been gained to be accepted on to a particular course. To gain a place on the HND course that I completed in the eighties I had to have gained a years work experience in fish farming and fishery management. At the time this was relatively easy to find, many places were keen to take on unpaid students keen to gain experience, and some even managed to perform a useful role. Again due to the level of beaurocracy now involved with taking on long-term work experience students, many of these placements are no longer available.
Taken to the letter of the law the Health and Safety executive and various other pieces of Government legislation would render my job non-existent. Many River keepers work on their own, yet the H &E state that another person should always be present when entering the river, legislation regarding various pieces of machinery grows ever more restrictive, while the very business of allowing somebody to pay to come fishing, demands various hand rails and life belts along the river, warning signs, and signs informing the angler that he is having his day out at his own risk and has he informed the relevant rescue authorities of his presence on the river bank. Some of our older regulars would find the whole business laughable and would rail against the restrictions placed upon them; several commented on the introduction of a first aid kit to the fishing hut, with accusations of selling out to the safety brigade.
Of course if you work for one of the government agencies you are bound to work by all safety rules and have money thrown at you to acquire the various bits of kit. Several years ago the Environment agency would survey a particular section of our river annually to assess the fish population. A huge Electro fishing operation swung into action to survey a particular 80-yard stretch of river that was no more than two feet deep. Well dressed, and well-meaning fishery agents arrived in a plethora of landrovers, along with an 18-foot boat with outboard. The latest electro fishing gear was installed in the boat and the five agents who entered the water put on their dry suits and life jackets. The safety crew on the bank stood well back, crossed their fingers and linked hands After five minutes of careful progress up the shallows it began to rain, unfortunately the cutting edge lifejackets supplied to the agents were one of the first to self inflate on contact with water. The rain got heavier and in the space of a minute every lifejacket self inflated, with the agents stood ankle deep in the water. The operation was aborted as each life jacket had to be sent away to be reset by an appropriately qualified person. The survey was compromised because the electro fishing had to be halted, on no account could they re-enter the water with or without their inflated jackets, but they would be back next year to have another go. I know many Environment agency officers who are good friends. They are frustrated as anyone by the amount of beaurocracy they have to deal with, which is affecting their ability to do their job. To contrast this with an electro fishing operation I was involved with as a student. A punt filled with electro fishing gear and four unlifejacketed men was pulled upstream by ropes held by men on either bank. On one occasion the punt sank in around six feet of water, all souls in the punt were saved, including one experienced keeper who never swam a stroke in his life, the electro gear was retrieved, dried out, and in use the next day. All involved had a good laugh about the incident, which is still talked about today. Each day I carry out my own mental “risk assessment” for the task I am about to carry out, taking on board previous mistakes, trying to identify areas where it could all go “pear shaped” and undertaking the task as carefully as is necessary. I am happy to take responsibility for my own actions, unlike many today who feel a need to sub contract out responsibility at the earliest possible opportunity.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Week 12

Another four-day week following the Easter weekend; Easter Monday an extra special day due to the fact that our two children and my boss had organised a surprise drinks party for my wife’s and I fortieth birthdays. Lots of friends and family from the village and far flung parts of the country, turning up to drink lots of fizzy wine, eat nice nibbles and say happy birthday; a lovely day, typical of my employer, and not something I would expect many people get from their boss. The party was held in the Drawing room of my employer’s house which overlooks the lower reaches of the Bransbury Mill beat, during the early knockings of the party and before we were too sozzled to notice, a friend spotted a large bird sat in a dead tree over by the fishing hut. Closer inspection revealed it to be an adolescent Osprey, and circling high above it was a Red Kite keen to have a look at a prospective partner or love rival. The Osprey sat for half an hour, before, in full view of several sober partygoers it dropped to the river and plucked a two-pound plus Brown Trout in its talons and set off up the valley to consume it’s ready meal, the Red Kite retiring to Bransbury Common to have a go at the new trick it had just witnessed. The dead tree that the Osprey had been sat in overlooks the stew ponds, and when I went to feed the fish the next day, every fish in both ponds was hard on the bottom, refusing to come up to the surface to feed. It is highly unlikely that these fish had any experience of Ospreys before but their sixth sense told them that the dark shape above them was not a good thing and it was time to hit the bottom of the pond.
The weather is starting to warm up, and with the increasing number of dry days I am able to get on with sprucing the place up for the impending arrival of the fishermen. The Fishing Hut has to be treated, along with various other fences, bridges and bits of woodwork. I still have several trees to deal with none of which are in the river so they don’t have to be dealt with instantly, and the many golden willows that I pollard each year to make faggots or interesting garden features need doing before the buds break. The grass is starting to green up, and the weed in the river is growing. At this time of the year when everything starts to come to life the river and its valley starts to sparkle and shine a little more each day. One exception to this is the incredibly old pair of swans that have been here for a very long time. Each year the Pen builds her nest in the same spot in the spear bed by the pond, the Cob gets increasingly grumpy as spring progresses. On one occasion this week while I was feeding the pond the old Cob resorted to getting out of the pond and walking down the path towards the two dogs, and me a brief stand off developed with the swan backing down. I can appreciate how some people can be a little wary of swans, they are big birds and at this time of the year they can be particularly aggressive. The pair we have here are a particularly dominant pair, and while all swans will inflict some damage on the summer weed growth, this pair have the effect of keeping the legions of younger swans present on the water meadow above us away from this particular stretch of river during the summer. Sometimes it is better to tolerate one grumpy pair of dominant swans, than have to put up with between 20 and 30m juvenile swans crashing up and down the river and stripping the shallows of weed.
The resident Cob or the Pen appears to be infertile, as they go through all the motions of nesting and sitting on eggs, but never actually produce any progeny that would increase the damage on the Ranunculus on the shallows.While at college, some friends of mine who were working on a Hampshire Fish Farm witnessed a swan flying into some power lines, falling through a tree to the ground, where it was pronounced dead on arrival. Being hungry students they plucked and dressed the bird, took it home to their digs, put it in the oven diagonally, because that was the only way it would fit in, and cooked it for nearly ten hours. The rich dark meat keeping them fed for the best part of a week. Someone remarked that all swans belong to the Queen and that they could get into trouble if word got out that they were swan eaters, the student in question remarking that he had written to the queen inviting her to join them later in the week, as there was plenty of meat left over for sandwiches.