Monday 27 April 2009

Week 68

Week 68

A fine week of weather, no rain and the temperature in the high teens. The first handful of Swallows have turned up along with a solitary cuckoo. Fly has been hatching from mid morning to mid afternoon with fish up and looking, rejecting a few and taking the odd one. A few dead Grayling have turned up this week, post spawning fish that have finally reached their sell by date. Each fish was between a pound and a half and two pound. The Roach and Rudd in the flight pond that have managed to evade the Cormorant were massing under the shade of the large weeping willow, the Carp have yet to start thrashing around in the roots.

The river had a brown tint to it for much of the week, weed cutting was carried out on a few of the beats above which can result in silt being exposed to the current, or it may be the start of a bloom of brown algae that lifts off the bottom and breaks up as it goes through faster water. I had one day cutting weed, the Ranunculus at the top off this stretch out of the water and on the brink of flowering. Cutting weed this early is often an indicator of a reasonable season to come, although this was not the case last year. I have also finished the bank repairs that I started before our sojourn to Spain; fifteen tons of chalk on the areas of bank that come under the most pressure. On the first three days of the week I managed to get my pick stuck on each day, requiring a pull out by an amiable neighbour or digging the truck out with a spade, on the fourth day I left the pick up at home and got the Tractor stuck instead. If nothing else it shows that the water table is reasonably high in the river valley. The roof has gone onto the new shelter half way up the river and the Fishing hut spring cleaned, we are now set for the start of the new season next week.

A story this week in a National broadsheet highlighted the case of a Swan in the South West who regularly chased some Canada Geese from a corner of a small lake, it was suggested that the Swan might have killed one of the Goslings. The story was accompanied by a quarter page picture and featured in the first ten pages of the normally sensible paper. Has metro sexual man behind his journalistic computer screen in the city become so detached from life in the country that he would consider this news, or has the disneyfication of the countryside blinded those who have recently settled there to the harsh realities of nature.

If this is news, then call up CNN, Sky and the BBC for the daily goings on around here: Day to day gang rape of female Mallards. The incestuous life of rabbits. Cannibalistic Pike who would eat their own mother and bullocks in the field that have been without a woman too long and have to make do! …. And in public at that!

Swan chases goose is a ridiculous piece of news that highlights a worrying trend in the press who are increasingly isolated in an urban environment and seem to believe everything that Rolf Harris and his kind tell them.

Monday 20 April 2009

Week 67

Week 67

An unforgettable week on an unforgettable river, the whole valley home, or stopping off place, for an incredible variety of wildlife; Hoopoe, Bee eaters, Montague Harrier, Storks. Purple Heron, Two types of Egret and Swallow, Scops Owl and much more have been performing in the skies or providing a backing track to our fishing. Two species of Snake and Lizard plus Ibex and Lynx in the surrounding mountains share the bank, and then there is the river and its inhabitants. Fine weather and the holding back of cold snow melt at the barrages has instigated fish to feed, peaking when the river has been at its lowest.

Outside our hundred-year-old riverside apartments tucked below the castle walls, the river is fifty to sixty yards wide. A huge backwater where boats are moored provide some comfortable bank fishing. The river varies in depth from six feet to forty feet. On one stretch a few miles upstream where the river is forced through a narrow gorge it is reputed to be approaching a hundred feet deep.

It has a very fishy greenish tinge and once the snowmelt has passed is a good deal warmer than any river in the UK; the high summer temperatures rendering it unsuitable for any population of Salmonids throughout much of it’s length. It is world famous for its population of Wels Catfish; behind the dams at Mequinenza, Caspe and Riba Roja, and further down in the Delta they grow to over two hundred pounds and attract a huge amount of angling interest. Here in Mora a hundred and fifty pound fish is exceptional. The river did not hold a population of Wels Catfish until thirty or forty years ago when they were introduced by German anglers. As a non-native species they are supposed to be killed upon capture, but few are not returned. Pre conceived ideas about these creatures, borne out of previous captures that suggested a primitive animal that chugs around the riverbed, feeding nocturnally on anything that crosses their path, go out of the window on this river. These animals are intelligent, adaptable and opportunistic. From our apartment we have seen them feed on the surface at lunch time, cross the river with their dorsal fins out of the water and charge into reed beds to take ducks settling down for the night. They are one of the few fish that are able to swim backwards when hooked and can be quite choosy about what bait they are likely to take; in evolutionary terms the Cats in this river are only two stages away from sprouting legs and walking out of the water. This week we have caught four: three of around thirty pounds, and one of a hundred and eight pounds, all tempted on strips of Squid and Octopus.

There is some concern that this burgeoning population of Catfish may be having an adverse affect on the native population of Common Carp. These run to sixty pounds, the larger fish again cropping up in the more famous waters behind the barrages. The fish that we have caught this week to just shy of twenty pounds have been in superb condition. Carp living in a river are twice as fit and strong as their lake bound cousins in fitness terms as Sally Gunnel is to Dawn French, and are a superb test of angler and tackle. The stretch that we have fished is heaving with Carp. A greater threat to their numbers than the Wels Catfish are the large numbers of Eastern European workers who are accustomed to killing and eating Carp. Fishing with rods and hand lines with six or seven baited hooks, they are chased up and down the river by the armed River Authorities. We have seen many fish killed of all sizes stowed in the bushes this week, and have been offered money on several occasions for fish that we have caught and are about to return. It is a cultural problem that needs to be addressed if the Fishing on some stretches of this river is to stay as good as it currently is in years to come. Surveys have shown that there is a dearth of smaller Carp in some reaches, their low numbers blamed on the burgeoning number of catfish, the number of smaller fish falling to hand lines and pennel rigs must also be a contributing factor as must the possibility of large flushes of snowmelt washing away eggs during spawning time.

The river is inaccessible to the bank angler for considerable stretches, it would be interesting to see what fish surveys throw up in these wilder stretches, but how you go about electro fishing a river forty foot deep and fifty yards wide is beyond me. The view of the man who walks the bank and floats his boat most days of the year seems to be that there is not too much to be concerned about. There are areas void of smaller fish, and there is evidence of Cats adapting to other food sources. Imbalances are certainly inflicted by man pouring pellets into areas fished by the professional guide, and over harvesting by Eastern European workers. One mid river stretch has been tainted by Mercury from an industrial spillage and like many rivers it seems to be in desperate need of an affective management plan, although the sheer scale and productivity of the river would suggest that it is a reasonably robust environment that would cope with most that man can throw at it.

There are also large numbers of Barbel, Chub and Roach along with Ablet and Bleak that are relatively untouched and unfished for. It has been a unique and memorable fishing experience and one, which we hope to repeat in the coming years.

Monday 13 April 2009

Week 66

Week 66

River continues to clear, the weed beginning to wave in the water as it grows a little more each day. The fish in the ponds are feeding more and more each day and the colours on the fish in the river growing ever more vivid as the light reaches further and further below the water’s surface.

Easter week. River, fish, dogs and everything else left in the capable hands of my parents and we are off to Spain for some fishing. Six flew down with hand luggage only courtesy of Ryanair, my wife and I leaving a day early to transport tackle and cases a thousand miles to Catalonia.

Driving through rain and fog for much of the journey, we paused overnight for some interesting sausage and a good nights sleep a few miles from the Millau Viaduct. The highest bridge on earth, it had clouds passing underneath as we crossed this awe inspiring Norman Foster design; I would not have known where to begin if asked to bridge such a span with green oak and nails.

On arrival in Spain the clouds cleared, we met up with the rest of our party and made our way over the mountains to Mora del Ebre. Twenty miles inland from the Ebro delta and a world away from the chips and ice Cream of the Coast Brava, we are housed in a couple of apartments in the heart of the town overlooking the river and fifteen euros has purchased licences to fish the river for Carp and Wels Catfish.

Fishing on the hoof and eschewing the flim-flam of the professional guide we are just “havin a go” The river is high and prone to rise suddenly as upstream barrages release snow melt from the Pyrenees. It is an incredible river valley that is home to a huge variety of wildlife, the locals taking full of advantage of the fertile alluvial to grow oranges, peaches, olives, almonds and much much more.

If we catch, we catch.

If we don’t, it won’t be the first time.

Sunday 5 April 2009

Week 65

Week 65

It just gets clearer and clearer!

Not some lucid period of middle age enlightenment, but the river. Sparkling in the spring sunshine it is crying out to be fished. No Hawthorn hatch yet, but an increasing trickle of Olives draws the interest of the Trout through the middle of the day. The Grayling, distracted by the rigors of spawning, declining the offer of food. The Carp in the pond have moved into the shallows, their minds affected by lusty thoughts, blind to the Heron who will stab away at their crashing and thrashing amongst the tree roots.

A bit more chalking, and construction of an oak table for the fishing hut to seat four. Very “Arts and Crafts” with a liberal dash of rustic, the table’s a dead cert for the Antiques road show 2080. Also knocked up a small shelter half way up the river. More of a seat with a lid, or advance base camp for those fishing the upper reaches, it will provide shade from the sun, shelter from the rain, and negate the mad dash for the fishing hut when the weather breaks.

Another letter in Trout & Salmon magazine detailing concerns about the National Trout and Grayling strategy. Brief words with a few keepers at the recent invertebrate monitoring course echoed my concerns. For this river, it still doesn’t make sense, it remains an “Airy fairy” do what you can policy that will achieve little and doesn’t do what it says on the tin. Several voiced concerns about the influence of The Wild Trout Lobby and their ability to influence policy over those who have live beside, and managed a particular stretch of river for much of their lives.

This strategy is not a done deal. If ever a river system cried out for a regional policy it is this one. If these post Christmas spawning Brown Trout, that denote a genetically distinct population exist, then lets get out there and take their babies. This river has enough hatcheries and manpower from source to sea, not to mention the leading Fish Farming and Fishery Management College to target this late spawning population of Brown Trout. Strip the fish, hatch out the eggs, first feed the fry, and release back into the river in spring. It mirrors many Salmon stocking policies and in many cases works. We have carried it out on this stretch of river for over a decade, and it works, alongside a sensible stocking policy of takeable sized fish. Under the strategy we will be unable to continue with this stocking policy on account of broodstock selection.

The crux?

Is a fish derived from locally sourced Broodstock and stocked into the river between six and nine months old and survived several years in the river to sexual maturity, inferior to original stock?

He/She may differ slightly in DNA, but I’m damned if I can tell the difference!

Wednesday 1 April 2009

Week 64

Week 64

More fine weather, and the river is starting to sparkle, green green weed, the colours on the Brown Trout intensifying as the water clears, buds breaking on the Weeping Willow, Cherry and Thorn bursting with blossom. The bloody Otter is still about and fishing the river at the moment, It will be necessary in the coming weeks to go through the stew ponds and calculate the bill for his winter feast.

This week I have attended a one day course on Invertebrate moitoring down on the middle river. Run by The RiverFly partnership, The Test and Itchen Association and The Environment Agency the main driving force a Dr Cyril Bennet. Dr Bennet lives and breathes riverine bugs and beetles and has monitored populations of Blue Winged Olive in many parts of the country. His main work on this river carried out at Leckford over a number of years marking a sharp decline in BWO. Entertaining, informative and with good sandwiches, the day instructed keepers on how to take a three minute kick sample and highlighted key species to count from each sample. The results collected monthly and collated by Cyril and the Test & Itchen Association to provide a clear picture of fly populations throughout the river. Few BWO showed up in the samples taken on the day, although as Dr Cyril pointed out it was a little early in the year, the BWO having a complicated phase in its lifecycle when the developing eggs go into a dormant phase, unlike many flies that hatch after a few weeks and bumble about the bottom as nymphs. A key indicator to the health of the river are the numbers of freshwater Shrimp Gammarus Pulex . Turn over a stone on this river and there would be a seething mass of shrimp of all different sizes. Breeding six times a year they are a huge source of food for all river life. A pollutant, insecticide and pesticide even at low level can wipe out the population of shrimp overnight, akin to a miner’s canary they are the first sign of a problem in the river. From now on I will be kicking over a few stones once or twice a week just to make sure that they are all still alive and kicking.

Fisherman’s day at the end of the week, same old merry bunch, come to lunch then walk the river to look at all the fish they missed last year. Trees that I have cut down have made it far too easy they say, until July when it will be “can you take a little bit from that branch please?” Four weeks to the new season although fish are already up on the fin most days.
I have had some bank repairs to do this week with chalk, along with picking up a load of wood from the sawmill for a table outside the fishing hut, and a sheltered seat halfway up the beat. The small fish in the hatchery are looking nice and chubby although I will hold on a little before getting them out on the river water.

Week 63

Week 63

A prolonged period of dry weather with daytime temperatures slowly on the rise and the briefest of frosts first thing in the morning. The river has continued to clear weed is growing well, one particular parch of ranunculus on the top shallows that was cut back in October now at the water’s surface, the luxuriant growth unhindered by grazing Swans this year. A short stretch of the main river not half a mile from here has been hammered by Swans since Christmas, clear baron gravel replacing yards and yards of ranunculus beds by over thirty grazing Swans. The fish in the river look to be in tip top condition, feeding gently on the surface in the middle of the day. A few Pike have shown up, mainly small Jacks but also a couple of larger females. All dabbed up with Pike pomade to draw as many males as possible to spawn in the spring ditches.

My son and some friends were lucky enough to be asked to fish for Pike further on down the middle river, having some success on a glorious afternoon, they knew that if they started to pick up a few Jacks in the same spot more often than not there would be a big Female in the vicinity. The biggest they had was just over sixteen pounds, although twenty pound fish are not unusual in the lower half of the river, and thirty pounders do exist. The middle to lower river suffered terribly last season. The annual Test & Itchen Association report reflecting this. Look beyond the flim flam of the jack the lad fishing salesmen who now inhabit much of this valley, and it is apparent that many keepers have grave concerns about water quality and clarity during the fishing season.

A declining Grayling population on the main river is also of some concern. It has been heartening to see big numbers of Grayling kicking up on the shallows over the past week. Fat females and dark males backs occasionally breaking the water as they chase around on the shallows, a ford that I regularly cross in tractor and truck has had up to a dozen Grayling wriggling around, oblivious to oncoming traffic it is almost necessary for me to toot the horn to shift them from the gravels. They are particularly vulnerable to Heron and Egret on the shallows, some have stab marks some have a touch of fungus on their nose over the next few weeks some of the bigger and older fish will die, the rigors of spawning proving too much. Year classes in Grayling population are relatively easily identified by size. One of our regular Grayling fisherman with a particular talent for measuring and graphs, has monitored the population here for some time. All year classes are present in numbers which is encouraging and is not the case on stretches of the main river.
Along with the Grayling many other animals have become dumbstruck by impending Spring. Hares are going crackers in the field behind, while Cock Pheasants scrap in the middle of the road holding up the traffic. A few female Mallard are on eggs, the boys reformed into gangs before another bout of rape and pillage on the water. The Jackdaws are hoarding all sorts of odd things in their “chez nook” in the big ash tree and all the damn Doves do all day is coo and dance on the roof above our bedroom; the dance of love kicking off at first light.