Monday 26 January 2009

Week 55

Week 55

A wet and windy week, Gales at the start although no tree damage to speak off, the river rose a few inches and coloured up considerably. We now have “spare water that I can send down the millstream by opening the hatch by the mill house a notch at a time. The current Cast Iron hatch and winding gear was installed in the mid nineteenth century by an Andover company and still works perfectly. Along with a set of manually inserted boards in a hatch at the top of the millstream it allows water to be diverted down the main river or the millstream. It is possible to completely drain the millstream, or reduce the river to a series of still pools depending upon how you have the boards. A good sign at this time of the year is to have to open the hatch by the millstream by one or two notches a week. This indicates that the rain we have had has been steady and a lot of it has got down through the soil to the aquifer. Heavy rain and fast run off and the hatch is opened half a dozen notches and closed by as many a day or two later as the rain runs off straight into the river. At the moment the river is about where I would expect for this time of the year.
With perfect weather conditions we had another crack at the Ducks, but the numbers were disappointing. The pond was frozen for a week, and many may have found other places to feed and overnight. We did see a few Teal that dropped like bombs onto the pond, but most Mallard were paired up. Otis retrieved his first Duck in the dark, a challenging drake Mallard that had become trapped in the stopper wave of a small weir. Zebo and I were most impressed although Otis appeared a little nonplussed.
I have held off starting the tinning this week because of the rise in water and will look to start next week. The fencing around the stew ponds is now complete bar a couple of doors and grills. I may also stretch some wires over the top of the whole area to further deter Herons and Cormorants.
Twice this week while driving up the road I have disturbed the Merlin who visits this parish every winter. Flushing him from the ground or low in the hedge he hugs the road in a dipping flight ten yards in front of the truck for a short while before veering off through a gap in the hedge, sometimes it seems that he is waiting for a car to race to demonstrate his flying prowess.
Next week we have our last shoot of the season, the morning routine will change, no more treks up to the two game cover strips. The Maize still has many cobs on so I will roll the whole lot flat to feed the remaining pheasants and also provide some pigeon shooting through February, all of the outlying pheasant feeders will be brought down into the wood to encourage a few hens to hang around and lay.
I have often wondered why cows in a field, sheep on a hill, deer in a wood will take the same indiscriminate path across an open space; A daily plod from A to B declining to take a straight route but meandering like a slow moving river. At this time of the year with the grass dormant and frosts rampant I can see that I do precisely the same. Crossing an open paddock on my morning feed round taking the same wandering path from one side to the other when a straight line would have saved a few steps and seconds, subconsciously content in the route that I know.

Monday 19 January 2009

Week 54

Week 54

The weather warmed up this week, a difference of twenty degrees from last weeks nighttime low of minus twelve to a daytime highest temperature this week of plus eight. We have also had several welcome spells of prolonged rain, colouring the river up and lifting it a few inches. On the warmer days there was a hatch of fly early in the afternoon, mostly small stuff with the odd Olive, but enough to get some of the Grayling feeding on the surface. The odd Brown Trout in the river is showing signs of fungal infection, although the fish in the stew ponds are clear. The fish in the hatchery are feeding well now; losses to gas bubble diseased caused by a dearth of dissolved oxygen in the spring water have been minimal this year.
I have moved the fry from the hatching trough into a much bigger eight foot by four-foot tank. It is easier to keep clean and the fish have plenty of room so don’t pick up fin deformities early in their life. If you want nice natural looking stockfish then space, low stocking densities and good water flow are key. I t may make less economic sense to put fewer fish in a pond to grow on but it is really a choice between quality and quantity.
Several years ago an artist friend of my employer came for the day to take some photographs of Trout for reference with an underwater camera. We got several freshly killed fish from a variety of sources and spent a morning sewing fine fishing line into parts of their body so that they could be held like puppets in a particular pose underwater. The toned and firm muscled fish that had spent much of its life in fast flowing water with only a few friends for company struck any pose you threw at him. The flaccid fleshed fish from a densely stocked pond struggled to hold any pose at all no matter how many strings were pulled.

We have more and more Little Egrets in the area at the moment, along with the Geese that have turned up in the meadow upstream from us. We also have a huge number of Pigeons on the fields around us with the farm putting out several gas guns to boom away and keep them on the move. A Peregrine is also in the area, his presence possibly having something to do with the high density of pigeons. Several years ago a friend of mine was pigeon shooting near the top game cover and had already shot a few, that he subsequently arranged as decoys held with wings out four feet from the ground on long bouncy sticks. A few minutes later looking to the sky for his next shot he could see a small dot growing bigger at a remarkable rate. Hurtling towards him at an incredible speed a young Peregrine was stooping on one of the dead pigeons he had just placed out as a decoy. The Peregrine hitting the Pigeon Decoy at a million miles an hour, taking it onto the ground in a cloud off feathers before taking off with the decoy.

An invitation fell through the door this week, to attend an Institute of Fishery Management meeting where we are to be told “The Facts” about the stocking policy for Brown Trout. Many keepers I have spoken to are going, a very big noise is coming to relay these facts and explain the science on which these strategies have been determined.

This week my son turned fourteen. He wanted his own fly rod having shown interest in it for the first time this past season. He and his mate are keen coarse fishermen and had already been having a go at fly-fishing for Carp. For the river here an eight-foot rod with a four-weight line is ideal, with the emphasis on presentation rather than powerful casting. Several qualified instructors I know have recommended starting juniors on bigger rods with a seven-weight line, although I am in two minds. Powerful casting on this little river can often have an adverse effect, presentation rather than distance is key and the cast must show a little more refinement and settle on the water with the minimum of fuss. Fishing on bigger rivers and lakes requires the angler to feed in the power and go for distance. To use a cricketing analogy, a boy who uses a lighter blade is more able to develop his range of strokes and can then add power to these strokes as he gets bigger and develops and is able to use a bigger and heavier bat.
The Friendly local Trout Fishery up the road kindly agreed to allow my son and his mate to try their new rods on the lakes, living the “Dever Dream” they managed to haul out a nice looking Rainbow of Five pounds on a very sparkly fly with plenty of bling. The wind got up so we all came back aqnd shot a couple of brace of Duck before a Howling gale and heavy rain bought the day to an end.

Sunday 11 January 2009

Week 53

Week 53

I had only intended to do this for one year, but as the last twelve months have been exceptional in terms of weather and one of the poorest fishing seasons for many years I will try and do another year to see how it compares.

On some days of the year I will be carrying out exactly the same tasks as in previous years. For example weed cutting is carried out during the same weeks year in year out, I will always be tinning in January and February. The eggs laid down in the hatchery around bonfire night, Pheasants in the pen last week of July/first week of August, Hawthorn fishing in early May, Mayfly fishing the second half of May into early June with Trout fishing ending in the first week of October.

This week has been the coldest of the year so far, which it would have been whatever the weather it being the opening week of the New Year. Spectacularly cold with three nights of minus double figures degrees centigrade; two nights of minus ten followed by a minus twelve. After a thirty-six hour period of temperatures marginally above freezing the frost still hung in the ground.

The river is crystal clear and has dropped a little over the week. There is very little spare water pulling down the Millstream and we will need some steady rain in the months before the Trout season opens. The Pond completely froze over during the week, Otis ran around on the ice every day this week and on one day the ice was thick enough to take my substantial weight. The fish in the pond just shut down when temperatures get this low, choosing not to feed and lying hard on the bottom waiting for the sun to shine. The Ducks have been overnighting on the river and its banks all week it being the only water free of ice on the place. There are increasing numbers of Snipe around, I almost trod on one in my employers garden that sprang up vertically right in front of my face before skittering off up the water meadows, with their quick jagging flight it takes a fair shot to hit a flushed Snipe. A far better shot than I, who struggles to hit the most ponderous of pheasants flying in a straight line not very high over my head.

The few rows of Maize that I rolled flat last week have been hammered by all and sundry, so I have repeated the exercise this week. Feeding the chickens in the morning this week I have been surveyed by a covey of French Partridge numbering twenty or more and fifty odd Siskins chattering away in a big Field Maple, all rushing down to join the Chickens as soon as my back is turned to gobble up the corn. Another hungry bird: a Robin who joins me to feed the fish each morning, following me from pond to pond, over bridges and up the river in the hope that I will spill some of the pellets.

The fish in the hatchery are looking to the surface and are on the cusp of starting to take food. Only a few pinches to start with, a little and often by hand so as not to induce gill problems and to maintain water quality.

After taking down my employer’s Christmas tree, the remainder of the week was spent on the stew ponds. Cutting trees down and burning up the branches in order to make way for the new fence, picking up the eight foot posts from the fencing supplies place in town, ferrying them up the river in the truck. Before carrying them by hand the final fifty or so yards over to the stew ponds. The end of the week was spent hammering them into the frozen earth by hand with the mother of all post bumpers.

I have smelt a fox in one of the drives this week. Dog foxes start to roam a little in the early part of the year in search of Vixen to mate with, although I would have thought the cold weather would have put the kibosh on that kind of caper alfresco – Get a room!

Sunday 4 January 2009

Week 52

Week 52

Another broken week with New Year’s Day slap bang in the middle and a marked change in the weather. Our reasonably accurate thermometer in the garden showing minus eight degrees on three consecutive nights, the ground remained frozen for much of the week putting the fish in the stew ponds and river right off the feed.

The last few days of the old year were spent removing the old netting and fencing from the stew ponds, some of it I can use again some if it is in the bin. The plan is to fence off the whole stew pond area with a six foot deer fence dug into the ground with a secure gate and wires stretched across the whole area to deter not only the Otter, but Herons and Cormorants as well as making it reasonably poacher proof.

The fish in the hatchery are all hatched out, the egg shells and unhatched eggs have all been hovered out with a siphon and the alevins lay on the bottom of the tank slowly absorbing their yolk sacs. All of these fish are destined to be stocked in this stretch of river, The National Trout and Grayling Strategy deeming them unsuitable to be stocked into waters that we have previously supplied for several years. As a result we will have a stew pond spare and in these credit-crunching times it is important that we replace the income lost from previous orders with new orders. This will mean stocking the pond with either Rainbow Trout (non indigenous) Triploid Brown Trout (a man made sterile, all female creation) or Carp (an alien species to this stretch of chalk stream) I have written it before and No doubt I will write it again, but for this river the National Trout and Grayling Strategy does not work!

The two strips of maize that act as game cover still have a lot of full cobs on them and to provide some food for the fauna of the parish in frozen times, I rolled down several rows of standing Maize. It may also entice some of our Pheasants back from neighbouring land where they have taken up residence since our last shoot. In the hard weather all manner of animals will munch up the corncobs, Roe deer, Badgers, Hares along with all the Pheasants and Partridge; for several weeks I will find munched cobs in unexpected places through the wood and along the river.

This week has seen a proliferation of moles in the water meadows, managing to push their hills up through several inches of frozen ground. I, or should I say the dogs, have also found several dead moles on the surface. A few years ago, while strimming the fringe I saw what I initially thought was a vole move slowly out from the riverbank, after a few seconds it registered that this creature was not the most accomplished of swimmers and was a mole. It made the far bank, not in record time and about twenty yards downstream from where it set off, but get there it did.

An New Years Day afternoon, my wife and I set off with the dogs across the Common, a Marsh Harrier lolloped his way about and something put up twenty to thirty tufted Duck off the main river. A friend and his wife who had been present at the previous night’s exertions rang as we approached home. In a croaky karaoke affected voice he explained that they were standing on the road bridge in Bransbury and beneath them was a fish that they were struggling to identify, an experienced fisherman he thought it may be a Barbel. We arrived and looked down at the fish that was difficult to see in the sun’s late afternoon glare. Eventually the fish dropped down a yard into two feet of water and it’s oversized dorsal fin became visible. Not a Barbel but a Grayling that was well over three pounds in weight, the biggest Grayling I have seen in this river, fat as a butterball and in tiptop condition. It was there the next day too. The bridge in question houses the flow monitoring equipment for the River Dever, two electro magnetic coils that are set in the river bed and measure the flow of the river’s flow at regular intervals. The whole schemozzle was installed at vast expense (seven figures) and vast inconvenience around twelve years ago. The whole bridge and its base rebuilt, the river diverted and the road closed for several months. Six months after installation I had a visit from a particularly big noise in the Water Resources department. They had repeated spikes in their hydrographs for the Dever, they had inspected their equipment and it seemed to be ok, had I any ideas? Initially I didn’t but after a while it dawned that every time I opened the hatch/sluice on the Mill to let weed through during the weed cut water would surge down the river and put a spike on the graph. The location of a Mill that had been in position for a thousand years or more had not been taken into account when deciding upon the location of the million pound plus River Flow monitoring station, although the magnetic fields produced below the bridge now seemed to be producing supersize Grayling.

This is not meant to turn into a “grumpy old man” rail against authority, but this week has also highlighted another flaw in the government authorities that are currently dictating fishery management policy in this country. The friend who questioned whether the fish he could see from the bridge was a Barbel was not a crank, drunk or attention seeker. The river is not known to have a population of Barbel, but there has been so much stocking of the southern chalk streams carried out “off radar” over the past years that it is not inconceivable that some have found there way into the river. While registered fish farms have their fish stocks monitored and stocking carried out under section 30 licences. Joe Public can buy a Barbel/Sturgeon/Catfish/Crocodile from his local pet shop after the briefest assurance that they will look after it and keep the tank topped up. Once pumped full of pet store fish food and too big for its tank, it is humanely released into the wild. The previous proprietor of the creature aglow that they have released their charge into the wild to roam free, and not flushed it down the loo or banged it on the head.

Many keepers in this valley can recall Orfe, Goldfish, or Koi Carp being caught in the river; principle species available for stocking garden ponds/tanks ten years ago. Today the range of fish available for the domestic pond is much greater, Catfish, Sturgeon, and many more are available to keep at home. Some of these fish will end up in rivers and ponds.

A few years ago a particular stretch of the middle river was affected by a population of pet shop terrapins, grown fat in their tanks on pepperoni pizza they were cast out and thrived in the wild. Aggressive and voracious they posed a far greater threat to the balance of nature than the practice of stocking the river with indigenous mixed sex Brown Trout that is now viewed as a threat to “fish population health” (not my words) of the river.

On the Sunday, my wife, Otis and I followed in Hawker’s footsteps and left this part of the Test Valley for Keyhaven and the salt marshes. The tide was out and much of the marshes were iced up, thousands of waders, geese, gulls and ducks were concentrated on the uniced flashes of water. Hawker and his punt guns would have had a field day, firing at this dense concentration of fowl, although the army of camo clad twitchers may have had some choice words to say to him when he got back to land.