Friday 20 January 2012

In the lands of the North

Talk of drought conditions continues in the south, still not enough rain and spring ditches that are currently dry. The river is very low, gin clear and the sole fisher who ventured out for Grayling and Roach found it tough going. We have had a few Olives put in an appearance early in the afternoon but even these have not been enough to get the fish moving. Fourteen months ago we fished a tributary of the Loire in France for the second time. A previous trip four years earlier had been very successful with plenty of Chub, Barbel, Bream, Carp and Roach so we travelled with high hopes. Following three dry winters in central France the river was unrecognisable from the river that we thought we were going to fish. Where I had set my Quivertip rods up four years earlier to fish a big back eddy that had yielded Chub after Chub, I had to turn through 180 degrees and fish the other way as the big back eddy had gone, along with all the Chub who had dropped down into deeper water for safety. We switched to a ten acre lake nearby that was down to four acres and caught a few fish. A third dry winter could have a similar effect in these parts. Bits of this river are now unrecognisable from previous winters with water taking a different path around pools and cutting across the inside of bends when it would normally be pushing around the outside, and a municipal lake not far from here is preparing to move fish because of low water. We need rain, rain and then some more rain and quick!

Our fry in the hatchery are now up in the water and feeding and look like a pretty good batch, they must be cleaned out every morning with a siphon to remove any waste food and morts. No sign of gas bubble problems that have killed a few in recent years. It is brought on by depleted oxygen levels in the spring water due to it being out of contact with the air for a significant length of time, Nitrogen replaces the oxygen which leads to bubbles forming in the fish, similar to the bends in humans. It can be avoided by bashing the incoming water around to mix it with the air. We have a few Egret on the river at the moment and many Swans lie in wait on the bends below, there is also a lone Cormorant making sorties,

but the current level of the river should be unfishable for Graculus who would be better off pushing off back to the land of Nog, “In the lands of the North where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea”

We have one day shooting left, the beaters day at the end of the month. I’ve given up on the ducks as they no longer seem to like our pond, there are as many on the river as there are munching on my barley; don’t know where they all are and I don’t hear much shooting in the evening and there are plenty who flight duck in these parts. They are not dibbling in puddles on the meadow because there are no puddles on the meadow so I can only put it down to the vagaries of wild duck, they're there or they're not. We have a few Pheasant about but amongst those that remain are some of the cuter birds. On our last bumble through the valley there were a few birds that flipped from one side of the river to the other as the beaters came through without taking full flight, we even have one canny cock who feeds on our bird table most mornings and keeps his head down as the beating line of our neighbour’s shoot passes through the back field.

The Chainsaw is out and I have been preparing for battle with crack willow by duffing up a couple of hedges that have got out of hand near our bottom bends.

The Crack Willow (pictured) on the left hand bank are due their four yearly assault. Twenty years ago this lot were far more substantial and leaned half way over the river. There was no marginal growth and the river had been over widened as winter flows (we had them then) wore away at the exposed bank, consequently the river slowed and silt was deposited. This, along with the willows restricting the light, resulted in limited weed growth, a few blobs of starwort at best. Pollarding the willows let in light. The erosion had exposed some old wooden bank repairs that had been put in many years ago when this was the main fishing bank. Sedge was planted in amongst these repairs and topped off with some chalk and mud pulled out of the river. In new light the margins thrived and the original line of the bank was restored. The channel has been squeezed and in the slightly speedier flow, Ranunculus and Water Celery and all the bugs who thrive in them, now flourish. If I leave these willows to grow, the chalkstream will be starved of light and will return to its silted up state. To my mind they are placed somewhere between Wasps, burs, and Kerry Katona on the list of irritants that I could quite happily get through the day without and in some cases I would turn to chemicals to extinguish a few, but behind these crack willows is our Pheasant release pen and the willows afford the young birds fresh out of the pen some protection, they are pollarded every four or five years and the willow branches cut and laid where they provide good cover and hold birds on a shooting day, although it takes a good dog to get them out!

Our home that comes with the job is an easy cast with a four weight from the river, it used to be a two bedroom flat above four garages that my employer kindly converted to a four bedroom house on the arrival of our second child. The kitchen used to be where the tractor laid its weary head after a hard day mowing. Child B has just passed seventeen and following his first guided explorations of the open highway has twice tried to return our kitchen to its original status by parking the car in it!

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Problems with wind

Wow we have had wind! And not just the pops and phuts brought on by the rich diet of the festive fortnight; a real good blow that sent trees tumbling and fences flying! We’ve had a big Oak come down that will sit very well in the woodshed next year, and the tractor shed on the cricket field is in pieces with the roof in the next field. I had a call informing me that a small blackthorn was blocking the road in the village near the football field so I made a start on clearing it up when a huge Beech bordering the playground toppled over taking out the power lines, phone line and a large part of the churchyard wall. It blocked the road for twenty four hours before a beleaguered Southern Electric team arrived to clear up. Since then heated discussion has ensued over who is responsible for paying for the clearup operation, with the Church refusing to accept that in insurance parlance it was an act of god (why would he break down his own wall) and insisting that the responsibility lies squarely with the parish council. It’s been a while since we had winds so strong, talk has invariably turned to tales of the 1987 Hurricane and the equally strong winds a few years later. I was a silly student at the time of both but do remember a great community
spirit as anyone who had a chainsaw, bowsaw, hacksaw or seesaw set about unblocking the roads. In our student digs my future wife and I had no electricity for over a week and dined by candle light and bathed in a tin tub (normally used for grading fish) in front of an open fire (the only source of heating) In the winds a few years later far too many students jumped into my pooh brown ford fiesta for a dinner time jaunt to the bright lights of Winchester only for our path to be blocked as a tree fell down on the car in front of us, the main trunk lay straight across the bonnet at the base of the windscreen, the occupant, an employee of local TV was on a large mobile phone ringing in
to say that he thought he had a bit of a story, we coaxed him out and, with hindsight, he was in a state of shock as he babbled, shivered and banged on about work; we dialled the emergency services before heading off down a tree lined back lane for town as we only had an hour before the chip shop shut. With the all the wind I have had to do the rounds every day standing up pheasant feeders, the Maize has been
flattened and in the top drive almost every cob of maize has been eaten. As the wind abated towards the back end of the week we had our third day shooting. With water lying out in the meadows we put up a dozen or more Snipe who had gathered around puddles to poke and prod for dainties. A similar number of duck got off the river, a brace of egret
shone bright against a clear blue sky and a skein of Greylag exited stage left. Pheasants were a bit thin on the ground, and the plough made the top drive seem an awfully long way away but the trudge was worth it as our merry band put up a ton of Partridge, a few of which flew the right way. Three Jay bit the dust along with a few Pigeon who have recently found the flattened Maize. Lunch was taken with nonsensical discussion on a variety of subjects before all struggled to get out of the muddy morass of a paddock where cars had been parked; finally we are getting rain, we haven’t had cars stuck in there for a few winters.
On the river the perennial battle against the evil forces of Crack Willow is resumed. Two short stretches are currently starved off light following last year’s growth, saws have been sharpened and the enemy is about to be engaged. The same is true on the short stretch of middle Itchen that I have taken on. The owner and his friend have done great work with their chainsaws clearing the willow from a neglected spring ditch that could prove to be a very productive nursery stream, half a day pulling rubbish out with a pair of grabs has exposed gravel that sparkles in the light that now penetrates once the battle with crack willow has been won.

Woody Debris

A couple of times in the past year I have got a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the use of woody debris, In spring a two page article appeared in the national angling press by a Wild Trout Trust expert extolling the use of woody debris and sounding the trumpet for everyone to bolt logs to the bottom of the river bed in order for the Wild trout to revive from the riffle subsequently created. On a couple of occasions I have been pulled up for my criticism of the article, but I maintain that it was irresponsible to suggest that all and sundry should start chucking branches in wherever they can, so, with the aid of a few badly taken photos, I will try and demonstrate why. We have used Woody debris here on several occasions, principally on the half mile long man-made channel dug to drive the wheel in the mill. Overwide for the amount of water flowing down it, the flow was sluggish and silt was deposited throughout its length, a hedge runs along one bank starving the channel of light so weed was thin on the ground.
About fifteen years ago we took the decision to narrow the channel and speed up the flow in order to make condtions more suitable for Mr and Mrs Trout and much more besides. The hedge was reduced in height and the far bank planted with sedge and other marginals behind a line of staked faggots. Fifteen years later this has developed into a thick line of sedge that can be edged in at times of high discharge and allowed to grow out when water is scarce. Ducks and much more love the new marginal growth, the fish love the increased flow and food derived from a clean gravel bottom and the weed loves the light. The top section of this channel curves away by around forty five degrees and subsequently the right hand bank is always in shade.
A similar strategy here would not work as the planted marginals would never get established. Instead we allowed the left hand bank to grow out as far as possible and used a couple of pieces of woody debris on the far bank to pinch the flow. Using woody debris always puts pressure on the opposite bank but because the marginal growth here was very thick no erosion of the bank occurred because of the protection of the thick marginal growth, it also had the effect of giving the channel a sexy wiggle.
If you look closely behind the woody debris in the picture you can just make out a two pound Brown Trout who looks to be thriving. On both of these sections, because the fringe has been allowed to grow in we have installed casting platforms for anglers to make it possible to fish.
In this picture, following high wind a length of wood has become lodged in the wrong place. In the space of a week it has already begun to erode the opposite bank that had little protection by marginal growth. Its action is far too aggressive for this type of stream. There are no fish in this riffle, most that were on this bend have moved downriver or upriver in search of an easier station. It’s an extreme example, but on this river damage such as this can occur over a period of months if you get your woody debris slightly wrong. I have looked after this stretch of river for twenty years and am reasonably confident in where and when I can use woody debris on a chalkstream, I would not be as confident on any other type of river and would want a good long look over a period of time before I made any judgement. Articles in the national angling press by “experts in the field” imploring all to throw wood into rivers just to see what happens, are irresponsible and typical of the "have a go and see what happens" policy that prevails in some quarters.

Sunday 1 January 2012

Nice reels, but 16 hours of dark is a long night in the rain

Since drought conditions were officially declared it hasn’t stopped raining, if a decree was all that was required I wish the River Gods had made their's a little earlier!

The rain we have had has been good steady stuff much of which should get down into the ground. During our pre Christmas shoot, discussion in the beating line hit a brief moment of clarity and centred on the current lack of water, a senior keeper from the middle river remarked that if you were unable to drive around the water meadows in spring then you had had a good enough load of rain for the winter. Currently you could bumble around our water meadows in a four ton Bentley with a caravan on the back so we need a good deal more yet! During a particularly wet winter we were driving Hares for a Coarsing Club meeting further up the valley. Post lunch the beating line, full of sandwiches and beer fanned out across a paddock in the meadows only for one old boy to disappear up to his waist in a spring popping up out of nowhere. There is a similar “pressure release spot” on the water meadow above us that must be avoided when the winter has been particularly wet as a brim full aquifer bursts at the seams creating a six feet square patch of grass that if walked upon is like trying to stand on an airbed in swimming pool, although it has not been in evidence for some years. Father Christmas delivered a new lens for my camera, and on a recent photographic plod around the Common I took in many Owls. Half a dozen Short Eared Owls hunting during the day
a grumpy Long Eared Owl who did not enjoy company,
a dopey Tawny Owl and a brief glimpse of a Barn Owl on exit. I also counted over twenty Swans on the half mile stretch of river below. There are several on the top water meadow and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few sick ones about in a few months as the river cannot naturally support this number of birds.
Child B got some nice distance casting reels for Christmas that are incredibly well made and promise fish to a great size, or so it says on the box. An overnight trip to Broadlands lake with his mate was planned for the first day of the new year but work, partying and weather have put the kaibosh on what could have been a very long night. I have only done two overnight fishing sessions in mid winter, both as a teenager. Sixteen hours of dark is a long night and all I can remember is running around the lake for several hours to keep warm in temperatures some way below zero. We did catch fish but not until the sun had come up. In our garden we have a bird table. Four feet from the kitchen window it is loaded with goodies for the twitterati that flit our way. Last winter and this we have had a weak and feeble Coal Tit and a Blue Tit visit the table on a regular basis,
whether they would have survived the winter without the sustenance provided is open to question; presumably they are fertile. By gently coaxing them through the winter is the "genetic strength" of my local Tit population being compromised by their being preserved and going on to breed? By feeding the Tits have I taken on a population management role and do I now have a responsibility to “take out" the poorer breeding stock as would be the case in deer management. Or should I stop feeding and leave well alone? I would like to think that Mother Nature steps in, the problem in either bird doesn’t appear to be cropping up in juveniles;
they may not be successful at breeding time or their young may be susceptible to predation. Domestication and human compassion are an added complication highlighting the fine line that man must tread at the top of the population pyramid. Foxes, Hedgehogs, Otters, Red Kites and much more besides are subject to rescue and release programmes that come with a high degree of human contact and supported living, some so successful that numbers are now becoming a problem. Is the "genetic strength" of these species being compromised by man's intervention? In the case of the Indigenous Brown Trout genetic purity must now be preserved mother nature is not to be trusted and man must stop and leave well alone. From 2015 stocking of diploid brown trout will be banned to preserve the genetic strength of the indigenous population; a fishy “final solution” that will do little to serve the Brown Trout fishing in these parts.