Monday 29 September 2008

Week 38

Week 38

Another dry week and a continued improvement in the fishing. It is still not easy and many of the bigger fish’s thoughts are turning increasingly to spawning over feeding. The rewards at this time of the year can be so much the greater. To winkle out a sporadically feeding two pounder, worth a basket full of suicidal stockies at Mayfly time. This week I was lucky enough to be invited to fish on the Avon near The Woodfords. A similar size to the river Test near here, it had luxuriant weed growth, a steady trickle of Olives throughout the afternoon and several free rising fish. I have fished this stretch on several occasions at this time of the year and each time have seen Mayflies hatching, twice inducing fish to take a Mayfly Dun imitation in the middle of September. If you threw a Grey Drake at a fish on the Dever in September it would run a mile or sulk on the bottom for several days. On the Dever and the Test, Mayfly hatch intensely through the last two weeks in May and the first week in June in true “duffers fortnight” tradition and are non existent from the late June onwards. Twenty miles to the West on the Upper Avon they hatch throughout the summer with no particular peak time. Ten miles to the East on the Upper Itchen they rarely see a Mayfly; It’s a funny old world.
One morning this week, while feeding the Pheasants. Otis put a White Cormorant off the pond. I have never seen a white Cormorant before, through the power of modern technology I was able to contact several fellow keepers, who questioned whether I had been drinking and could it have been a Pelican, Flamingo, Spoonbill or Egret. I was twenty yards from the blasted thing and it was a white Cormorant; further investigation proved that they are occasionally seen on the Tweed in Scotland. I assume that it was an albino and not an “ermine” Cormorant heralding the onset of a particularly harsh winter.

The river has a late summer/early autumn sparkle at the moment, the weed is still in good condition and the water gin clear, fly trickles off the water and the trees lining the river are on the turn. The fringe has ceased to grow along with the grass, with two weeks left of our trout season there is little to do on the river.

The Pheasants have found the strips of Maize and are hammering the feeders. I hand feed a big bucket of wheat every morning and am filling up the pheasant feeders on the rides once a week. When the maize in the game cover has gone the Roe Deer knock the feeders over to get at the corn, at the moment there is an abundance of food for the Deer so they leave them alone.
The first part of this week I have spent cutting the hedges around the place. I do this by hand. For the large hedges around the stable yard and bordering the road I use a scaffold tower in the back of my pick up truck. Back my pick up truck up next to the hedge and climb to the top. The hedge bordering the stable yard is fifteen feet high and fifteen feet across and makes my arms ache; there is something to be said for fences and brick walls!

I continue to have a problem with an errant Spaniel, although I am assured that the owners are doing their best to keep him within the confines of the village. If numbers of Pheasants are low on a shooting day, the explanation to the guns that “Mrs Miggins” doesn’t keep her dog under control carries little weight.

By coincidence, a previous occupier of the same house was an elderly country gentleman who lived alone and had taken on a young Yellow Labrador Puppy for company and shooting. The dog was strong willed, lively and called Lark. On walks around the village and finding himself unable to keep up with the highly mobile “Lark” the elderly gentleman could be heard on his afternoon walk calling and calling,

Lark, Lark, Lark……… LARK!

F… Y.. Lark!!!

As the dog headed in a straight line for the Moon;

A shooting man he had Lark sorted out within a few months, but the Yellow Lab was forever known as F… Y.. Lark !

Sunday 21 September 2008

Week 37

Week 37

No rain all week and an instant improvement in the fishing. Fish have been caught on every day of the week, mostly in the afternoon. From eleven o’clock onwards there has been a steady trickle of ephemerids hatching through to late afternoon, small Spurwings, Medium Olives and Pale Watery Olives; not huge numbers but enough to get the fish interested. Several of the Brown Trout in the river are starting to muck about and chase each other around, they also have periods when they become impatient with any passing Roach or Grayling that may be passing. This is often a sign that they are switching their minds away from feeding and onto spawning. They will feed less and less in the coming weeks, bringing a natural end to the Brown Trout season. The Grayling and Roach in the river are in prime condition, not spawning until early spring they are feeding hard. Several Grayling approaching two pound have been caught along with some Roach around the pound mark.
The dry weather has also enabled me to get the tractor out and top the meadows, I normally do this around four or five times a year, and try and tie it in with various Test matches as I can then sit on the tractor and listen to the cricket all day, this week it was the Ryder Cup.
I continue to have problems with the errant Spaniel, several times this week he has been found crunching pheasants, still no word of an apology just a “have you seen my dog?”
I have also been through the Wood and Game cover cutting the feed rides for the pheasants. These are pathways through the cover/wood on which you spread the corn to feed the pheasants, leading them to where you want them to be on a shooting day.
Otis my own puppy has had an operation on his eye, the lower eyelid was turning in on itself so he has had two dissolving stitches inserted to enable the eyelid turn outwards. He can now see twice as much of what is to him, is an incredibly exciting world. His cruising speed has now increased to around 20mph with brief bursts of 30mph. After a few years of sensible sedate dogs, Otis is proving to be quite a shock to the system; a garden of five thousand acres would not be big enough. On the training front, he retrieves the dummy very well, will walk to heel off the lead - if not distracted too much, and quarters reasonably well when searching out a hidden dummy in cover. He is however proving difficult to stop, when hunting game. When “dogging in” in the morning it is crucial that you are able to stop the dog before he reaches the young game birds, the idea is to “chivvy” the birds back to where they came from. One day this week Otis pursued a covey of Partridge over a hundred yards before he would respond to my call. He is very young, quite clever, full of personality but bloody hard work!
I have started to feed the Flight Pond this week. Seconds Barley are tipped around the edge of the pond to induce Wild Duck to spend the night on the pond. The Ducks like to feed in relatively shallow water and come into the pond at dusk. The half acre flight pond can have over two hundred ducks coming in to feed and roost at certain times of the year, and provides very exciting and sporting shooting. The types of duck visiting the pond vary throughout the winter, as do the numbers, and the time of night that they arrive. A good nights shooting on the pond would result in a total bag of around twenty having seen around two hundred birds.
The signs are obvious if you have large numbers of duck visiting the pond, the surface of the water is covered with feathers and a half-hundredweight of Barley has been eaten.

The Ducks shot are never wasted; Wild Duck is one of my, and many other’s favourites and tastes superb. The farmers around here have been combining like mad this week, quite slowly as most of the crop is laid on the ground but cutting well into the dark before they are stopped by the particularly damp night air. I am not sure of the quality of the crop cut and it still requires some drying but at least it is in off the field, although the straw cut cannot be of much quality.

Saturday 13 September 2008

Week 36

Week 36

We had a dry day at the start of the week and the fishing was fantastic, a steady hatch of Olives throughout the middle of the day and fish taking them just off or just in the surface. This was followed by three days of steady rain and wind in which little fly hatched and that which did was blown off the water, another dry day towards the end of the week found the fish back on station and feeding on a steady trickle of emerging Olives. Trout Grayling and Roach were all feeding steadily, occasionally breaking off to chase each other around.

The main part of the harvest is still waiting to be completed, I have been able to purchase some wheat to feed the pheasants, but getting hold of seconds Barley to feed the Ducks onto the Flight pond is proving very difficult. Every year several hundred acres of poppies are grown around the village under licence for medical use, I may be a simple riverkeeper but aren’t the Afghans quite good at this, and shouldn’t we be encouraging them to grow poppies for a legitimate market to help a war stricken country get back on its feet.

The dew in the morning is starting to get quite heavy now, and it highlights the incredible endeavours of spiders in their attempts to catch flies. Delicate and intricate cobwebs, weighed down by the dew. I am constantly amazed by their ability to spin a single strand of up to ten yards from one tree to another overnight, the logistics involved are mind boggling, and all for nothing when my stupid spaniel bumbles his way through it on our morning feed round.

I have also had the problem of a young Cocker Spaniel escaping from a house in the village and wreaking havoc through the woods. I had just spent an hour circumnavigating the boundary with my own dogs pushing the errant pheasants back to where they should be, when a local lady approached me and asked if I had seen her dog. The wood that I had just pushed all the pheasants into bordered the bottom of her garden, and the pheasants were now hastily exiting the wood in all directions. I suggested that she might find her dog in the wood and could she please remove it, so off she went without even a word of an apology; her last dog was the same. More militant keepers than I would have shot the dog and been within their rights to do so.

This week has also seen the first appearance of the blackberry pickers, which do seem to be quite large and plentiful this year - the blackberries, not the pickers. I am also on the lookout for Mushrooms and have already picked a puffball. Living in Cheshire, mushroom picking was a furtive, secretive and lonely pastime. Particular fields of pastureland produced good crops of mushrooms. My friends and I along with several other grown ups “in the know” would rise early in the morning so no one would detect your destination, pick a few pounds of mushrooms before returning the long way round to cover your tracks. One field in particular with a pond that we used to fish produced mushrooms for June onwards. They are few and far between down here, but it is interesting how the ones that grow in the wood under the Pine trees taste different to the ones that grow in the water meadow. During our trips to France, I am constantly aware of the foraging abilities of Mr and Mrs Frenchman, low tide on the beach will find them harvesting every different type of Winkle, Cockle and more, mushroom and fungi picking is a national pastime along with the gathering of nuts and every type of berry. I once fished a river in Burgundy where the Hommes in the neighbouring swim filled the boot of their car with over a hundred pound of Bream to keep them going through the winter: Sea Bream I can understand, but the good old dustbin lid Abramis Brama ?

We have many fruit trees around the place, most of which are reasonably well laden this year. Several years ago while feeling the pinch after the birth of our second child, I got into all things home made; Alcoholic mostly. Monday and Tuesday evenings would be spent making all manner of undrinkable homemade wines the majority distinctly average fizzy reds. We still have a few bottles that are aproaching their second decade and are primed for that special occasion when the drains need unblocking. Most of the recipes for the wines I produced came from the “Daddy” of home wine production - CJ Berry; an Andover man, whose early publications recommended the use of asbestos as an agent to fine down your wine. This may have been the vital ingredient lacking from my brew, as most of them turned out to be a disaster. Not wanting to waste the alcohol I had produced I distilled the most undrinkable batches using a home made still constructed from a saucepan, old heat lamp, and a copper pipe passing through a lemonade bottle of water as a condenser. The clear liquid produced was lethal; the only compliment it ever received was from a Scotsman raised in the outer islands, who did not get out much. I moved from wine to beer and not wanting to buy my own kit, I opted instead to produce my own malt extract. Several bags of Barley were soaked in water, then spread across the garage floor and allowed to chit. This was then heated over some burning peat that I dug out from the water meadows, and the malt extracted on the stove. Hops are abundant in this part of the Dever Valley, so I chucked in a handful along with some powdered yeast and awaited results. Several weeks later I had some crystal clear light beer, with a slight spritz that tasted of the Garage floor, give me John Smiths every time!

Friday 5 September 2008


Week 35

Another tough week for fishing, and speaking to other keepers and rods who fish elsewhere the story is much the same up and down the river. The weather continues to be wet and windy with sporadic hatches of fly and fish feeding intermittently, if at all. There is a distinct autumnal feel in the air, with some trees starting to shed leaves, soon the Brown Trout in the river will be turning their minds to other things. We are around ten weeks off spawning although a fish caught this week contained some very well developed eggs. The urge to spawn in Trout is induced by decreasing day length, while the past few months have been particularly gloomy I can’t believe that the fish think it is November already. Hopefully they will have one last period of concerted feeding before committing themselves fully to the throes of spawning. The Grayling in the river are in superb condition, fatter than most years they will provide good sport once the trout season has finished. A fisherman reported seeing an Otter earlier in the week, hopefully it will have moved through and not got stuck in to one of the stew ponds.
Eels have been on the move and visible during the day. Mature Eels work their way downstream throughout late summer and autumn as they start their journey to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. Further down the river there are a number of large Eel sets used to catch the migrating Eels. The Eel set is a large cage mounted on one half of the back of a set of sluices that span the main river channel. During the day the river flows through the half of the sluices that do not have the Eel set mounted behind them, during the night these are closed and the sluices in front of the Eel set opened, the river flows through the Eel set and the Eels migrating downstream along with anything else that happens to be coming down river are caught in the set. The set must be cleaned and checked throughout the night by the keeper, the Eels removed and kept alive in a secure tank. Dark nights with no moon and wind and rain are the most productive nights, the catch can number many hundreds of Eels. The majority are between one and two pounds in weight, with the bigger Eels coming towards the end of the run; twenty years ago most of the Eels were picked up by a man who ran a famous Eel pie shop in London, today many are taken to the continent or are used for smoking. Occasionally at this time of the year I while come across a big Eel making its way across the meadow to the river, having grown fat in the pond and reached a great age, the urge to spawn leads it to cross dry land in an attempt to find flowing water that will take it to the sea. We are a little high up the river to justify running an Eel set, and lack a suitable set of sluices. I have used a Fyke Net to catch a few when conditions have been right my best catch being between thirty and forty some years ago.
We still have wheat waiting to be cut around the village, along with several fields of beans. Our cross eyed cat, that was sold to us a female killing machine but is in fact a fat male slug, has made great use of the open stubble field behind our house, moving on from terrorising frogs and dragonflies to the odd Rabbit. To achieve success the rabbits must be sat in pairs so that when he dives for the one on the right he catches the one on the left, he then leaves the bloody stump of the back end of the rabbit on the stairs. On one occasion my wife woke the house with her screams after putting her bare foot straight into the pile of blood and gore while seeking out a glass of water.The Pheasants are moving further and further away from the release pen each day. I feed them a bucket of wheat every morning and have feeders placed throughout the wood. Each day I feed a little further from the pen leading the birds to the game cover or the part of the wood where you would like them to be on a shooting day. It is important to get the amount of food right; too much food that is too easily available and the birds fill up quickly and then go for a walk, hopefully not off your land. Too little food and they will walk off looking for it. As the birds do get older they will inevitably wander. To counter this I will have to circumnavigate the boundary of the land with the dogs every morning, gently chasing the Pheasants back into the woods and the game covers. Some strains of Pheasant particularly Michigan Blues have a tendency to wander more than others, they are a smaller bird with a blue/grey back that fly particularly well, but cover a substantial acreage on their travels. For our relatively small area we require a big old Hampshire bird with short legs and strong wings that has no desire to see the world

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Week 34

Week 34

Weather wise, a more settled week, September often sees an improvement in fishing. Fishermen had a slightly more successful week, taking most fish on plain drab nymph patterns, anything too flashy or too weighted scaring more fish than it catches.
There are several fish that I would term as “time wasters” to all but the most experienced angler. Every season we have them, fish that have been in the river for two seasons or more and have grown to a good size. They will sit high in the water on the fin, rising sporadically but looking at most things that cross their path. They hold station for hours and are seemingly oblivious to human effort to remove them from the river. In cricketing terms they are “in” and “seeing it like a football” Completely aware of the human presence and confident in their ability to discriminate natural fly from artificial. If they had hands they could tie a hundred patterns of fly from memory and would stick two fingers up to any passing angler. Once or twice a year they may make a slight mistake and slash at the wrong Mayfly or mouth an unusual nymph, their size and bulk rescuing them as they are hooked and banking the memory for future reference.
Other fish, although slightly less discerning still require near perfect presentation. Often with choosy fish at this time of the year some anglers will get hung up on fly pattern, Choice of fly is important, the decision made by observing what the fish are feeding on, or by what people have been catching on. There are thousands of different fly patterns representing the different life stages of less than fifty natural flies. The surface feeding trout sees flies against a light background in silhouette making size and shape important, colour less so. The way they sit on the surface is also a factor, and ultimately it must be presented correctly. The difference between a gold flash on the body of the fly or the shape of the wing is minimal, but can become a distraction for the struggling angler, who will not fish as confidently and ultimately as well if they are not one hundred percent sure about what they are offering to the trout or doubts persist about the nylon they are using or the knot they have tied. The keeper is often asked what fly the angler should be using, I will often give three or four patterns and if successful often wonder if the fly caught the fish because the choice of fly was taken by someone who is “supposed” to know what he is talking about and thus the angler fishes with more confidence, or if any other pattern would have tempted the fish if the rod fished in the same way with the same degree of confidence.
The harvest around here continues at a sporadic pace, and there must be some question marks over the quality of the crop that is now being harvested. The mustard that I broadcast into the gaps in the Gamecover crops has germinated and is now around a foot high. It provides good early winter cover for game birds, but suffers at the onset of the first hard frosts.
Many stubbles are now “direct-drilled” as minimum tillage becomes the “en vogue” method of farming. Instead of the field being ploughed, pressed and drilled, the seed is scratched into the surface by the direct drill. For three consecutive years the fields that we shoot over were cultivated in this manner, it is quick cheap and provides a similar return per acre as ploughing and drilling. One noticeable feature of direct drilling is the hardness of the surface of the ground over the winter months. The ground has not been turned over and fluffed up by the plough and is more compact. The water runs off it much quicker, whereas a ploughed field has a greater ability to retain water that will ultimately get down into the aquifer. A ploughed field will have a hard pan underneath the surface but the twelve inches of soft soil above it has a greater ability to hold water than a field that has been “direct drilled”. A thick sward of grass on pastureland also has the ability to retain a certain amount of water that will ultimately make its way down into the aquifer and ultimately the chalk stream. It may come across as a crackpot theory borne out of too much tractor noise while mowing the paddock, but I am sure that water runs faster off a direct-drilled field than it does a ploughed one, and along with it the chemicals and sprays that have been administered to the crop. Geese and Ducks are now stubbling on the few fields of barley stubble around the village. At football practice the other night there were over fifty Greylags in the neighbouring field with various ducks flighting into the field for a late evening feed.