Friday, 29 January 2016

Spear & loathing?

Spear & loathing? 


After my last Twitter storm I hesitate to write anything about pike, but Bill Heavey's article Spear and Trembling: The Ancient Art of Stabbing Pike Through the Ice in the latest edition of US outdoors magazine Field & Stream makes for fascinating reading. The piece is far too long to reproduce here but you may read it on-line but I'll give you the brief bones of it.

First, find a frozen lake in Minnesota, USA cutting a hole 3 foot by 2 foot through the 27 inches of ice. Build a tent/igloo over the hole then settle down for hours (it turns into days) peering into the clear water below. In one hand you have a pike spear and in the other a fish decoy which you jiggle on a line. Then you wait until a pike cruises beneath you .... well, you can guess the rest. 

It is a great article that speaks on many levels: the hunter rather than fisher, a transatlantic cultural divide and a moral conundrum. Heavey makes the point that this is not fishing but hunting. As fishermen we lob out our fly or bait in the hope that the fish will connect with us. Spear fishing is something altogether different; we are lying in wait ready to connect with the unwitting fish. It is more primeval and harks back to times long ago when the Native American Indians predominately used this method for gathering fish. The writer clearly gets his blood up and he admits as much. 

The cultural thing is more nuanced, but I notice it every time I travel to rural America. Whether we like it or not Americans are far more connected to nature. Hunting, a term that is used to cover every form of lethal pursuit of birds, fish or animals, remains largely a blue-collar pastime which is an ingrained part of everyday life. You really do see deer carcasses draped across pick-up bonnets and shotguns racked in rear windows. I distinctly recall a young, blonde fishing guide telling me she felt stiff and sore as we set out in the drift boat one morning. When asked why, she replied, as if it was the most natural thing in the world that she'd been out most of the night with her husband hunting elk. With a bow and arrow too.

I know pike lovers will be appalled at the slaying of the fish and some others might be discomfited by the manner of the killing, but as Bill Heavey makes clear the fish are for eating. So here's a moral question: is it better to kill a fish for food or catch and release it for sport?


The winter dance of death continues for my trout in the lake here at Nether Wallop Mill. As you know when we shut up shop for the fishing school at the end of October there are usually seventy to a hundred trout left - mostly rainbows, a few blues plus some wild browns that find their way in from the Wallop Brook.

You can just see the flattened grass in the foreground.
Whether these fish are lucky to have survived a season, or simply incredibly smart I have no way of telling but if they make it past the finishing line they will have lived a cosseted life, fed daily with fish pellets the only real dangers cormorants, herons, mink and otters. Fortunately we don't seem to be troubled by cormorants; very occasionally I'll see one flying high across the sky, the distinctive silhouette that looks like a bird flying back to front is impossible to mistake. Only once, this autumn in fact, has one ever taken a fish.

The cormorant along with his smaller, white egret buddy, patrol the margins every day. The truth is the stocked fish are far too big for either of them. Sometimes greed will get the better of them, but generally the worst outcome for the trout will be a nasty stab wound. The small, wild trout are definitely possible victims but they are too wily, keeping to the deeper water where the heron can't wade - growing up in a small brook will teach you that.

Mink? Well, I wonder if their days are numbered - it has been so long since I last saw one. They have been driven out by that bigger piscivore, the otter. It seems that the resurgence of the native Lutra lutra, who out-competes non-native Mustela lutreola on every level - bigger, faster, stronger  - is gradually putting his smaller cousin out of business.

All that is left of the trout - a few eggs
So, when it comes to raiding my trout larder otters are the kings of the hill but against my expectations (I predicted trout Armageddon by February when writing in December) their presence so far this winter has been muted. Last week we had two days of heavy frost, the perfect conditions for otter spotting. Day one nothing. Day two the evidence was there but I couldn't tell whether it was one otter or two. I suspect just the one, a few scales and fish eggs the evidence of a single kill.

For now it looks like the trout are holding their own; Mr. (or Mrs.) Otter must be ranging further and farther in search of food. My suspicion is that the year we experienced total wipe out by Christmas was when a family took up residence, so perhaps this time some trout will make it to opening day. 

In truth I don't mind one way or another. As someone once said otters are rare, fish are common.


Here are a few bi-weekly puzzlers to confuse, confound or illuminate. It's just for fun and answers are at the bottom of the page.

1) What is Bear Grylls proper name?

2) What are the surnames of TV presenters Ant & Dec?

3) What is pescatarianism?


I'd suggest that fishing gifts are not the best way to celebrate Valentine's Day. However much the latest Abel reel might be close to your heart, it is unlikely to twitch a romantic nerve in your partner. If it does, well you have lucked out!

However, Valentine's Day is an important day in the chalkstream calendar; as the old river keeper saying goes, the only winter rain that matters is rain that falls before this day. With the next Newsletter scheduled for around 14th February I will bring up up-to-date with the latest water reports but as you might imagine it is looking good.

PS On the off chance you are going to risk a fishing gift I'd highly recommend the new Sage CLICK which I'll be giving away to our 2017 Feedback winner.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 1) Edward Michael Grylls 2) Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly  3) The practice of following a diet that includes fish or other seafood, but not the flesh of other animals.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

The rat must die

The rat must die 


I have been having a problem with a rat which has grown fat on, of all things, trout pellets. He  seems to have a peculiar liking for the pellets which my fish farming friends tell me contain, in descending order of amounts, fishmeal, fish oil, corn product, wheat, soya meal, vitamins, minerals and an amino acid compound. It doesn't sound that tasty to me but fish and rats apparently disagree.

This hasn't been my first run in with rodents. A few years ago a family of mice emptied an entire bag (imagine something the size of three sandbags) but ate very few. It sounds odd because it was.

Over a period of weeks they transported the pellets from the bag to the other side of the shed, stacking them up behind a bin. It truly must have taken thousands of journeys and they showed astonishing dedication carrying a few pellets in their mouth each time. I can't imagine how they felt when on finding their cache I shovelled them all back in the bag, storing it in a mice-proof container for good measure. The rat however, was different.

There is a peculiar smell about rats. If you, like me, were bought up on a farm you will instantly recognise it on entering a building. The smell is not gagging unpleasant; a sort of acidic, musty odour of urine that is like nothing else. Rats leave it everywhere - they have no control over their bladder, a trail of their dribbled outpourings left wherever they go. The shed had exactly that smell. A few times I caught sight of a brown furry figure chasing along the edge of the wall, disappearing under the machinery. I took to carrying my air gun but the best effort hit a mower rather than the rat.  Next came Jaffa, our cat, the alleged perpetrator of the duckling massacre. He is a regular killer of moles, voles and rats, so a few hours in the shed each day would surely do the trick. But no. All he did was acquire a similar liking for fish pellets.

So I invoked science, buying rat poison which comes as blue coloured corn. However, given a choice between the trout pellets and the corn, well you can imagine. So I took away all the pellets, but the truth is you never really get rid of them all. Over time the bags will have burst, scattering pellets like so many tiny marbles, rolling into every crevice imaginable. There were enough left to keep Mr. Rat coming back. With each passing day I could only admire his plump frame and shiny coat that is a tribute to the protein formula of Skreeting, the Norwegian company who make the fish pellets.

Finally I think he must have exhausted all the pellets for the blue corn started to disappear from the feeder. Not long now I thought. But no, however much I put out each day the following morning it was gone. He was clearly immune or some sort of super rat.  In the end I lost my patience when he started to chew his way into the poison container itself, shredding the plastic lid. It was time for something more drastic - a Fenn trap. Frankly Fenn traps terrify me. They are a bit like the man traps of old - open jaws that lay flat on the ground until springing shut when the unsuspecting victim steps on a hidden release plate. However many times I watch the You Tube video to remind me how to set it safely I still fear that I will lose my own fingers.

But set it safely I did and, in what I thought was a cunning move, I laid a trail of fish pellets in its path. Success? Not a bit of it. Day after day it was left unsprung, the pellets uneaten. So, I tried the blue corn. Eureka! There was Mr. Rat dead, trapped squarely in the jaws. On close examination he truly was the healthiest, biggest rat I have seen in years. His fur, almost auburn, positively gleamed. If there was a national championship for Rattus norvegicus he would have surely won Best in Show. 

Now he has gone, the battle over I feel a little sad and not a little cruel but I comfort myself that for some months, whilst dining like a king, he had the satisfaction of leading me on a merry dance.


Good news surrounding Atlantic salmon in the British Isles is hard to come by but there is a chink of light from the annual fish counter returns on the Rivers Test and Itchen, which report the highest number of returning fish in 25 years.

Since 1990 the Environment Agency have monitored the run from May to December each year and built up an impressive set of data. In 2015 a total of 2,007 salmon were counted through the Test and 903 on the Itchen. That compares to the previous record on the Test set in 2008 of 1,487 and in 2014 on the Itchen at 779. The low points stand at just couple of dozen fish on the Itchen in 1991 and under 400 on the Test in 1997.

Nobody is doing high fives at the news; we really don't have enough science to draw any firm conclusions but it is encouraging not least because the five year average, which eliminates annual variations, is on an ever upward graph for both rivers. I guess the only bad news for the salmon fishermen amongst you is that of those 2,007 River Test fish 1,250 arrived after the season had closed!

You can read the full report from Dominic Longley at the Environment Agency here.


Here are a few bi-weekly puzzlers to confuse, confound or illuminate. It's just for fun and answers are at the bottom of the page.

1) On which continent will you not find the Brown rat?

2) What is the common name for the Alnus tree often found growing along rivers?

3) What is the salmon fishing season on the Rivers Test & Itchen?


The Fly Fishing Film Tour rolls into town for the third year as part of the River Test One Fly Festival in April. As ever you will be treated to six adrenaline pumping action films from around the globe, plus the public debut of Matt Dunkinson's Guides Day.

You will be able to enjoy a pre-film drink in the Hatch Bar of the Grosvenor Hotel in Stockbridge before the lights dim and the camera rolls at 7.30pm on April 21st. During the interval we will have prizes and giveaways.

Book your ticket on-line or call 01264 781988. 

See you on the river in 2016.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 1) Antarctica  2) Alder  3) 17th January-2nd October