Thursday, 24 November 2016

New life to a chalkstream

Nether Wallop Mill, Hampshire England     Thursday November 24th 2016
I delighted to say the restoration work at Bullington Manor was completed, on time and on budget, just ahead of the recent rains. It is all still a bit raw and, in truth, will take the full circle of the four seasons before it looks wholly natural. However, such is the success of the work we are back fishing so if you head out for the grayling between now and January you'll be able to see how quickly the fish have adapted to their new, improved home.

I am indebted to Kris Kent, PR Officer for the Grayling Society, for his account of the work which he recently posted on the Wild Trout Society web site. As you will read he forsook his warm office and smart suit for a week in waders. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time ........

"I was between jobs so I emailed Shaun Leonard, Wild Trout Trust Director, to see if there was anything I could help out the Wild Trout Trust with.  I was thinking of a little light administration, spreadsheets, reports or the like.  Within a few minutes Shaun called me on the mobile.  "Did I fancy helping out Mike Blackmore with a project he was working on?"  I said "Why not."  Shaun suggested I call Mike to make the necessary arrangements.  Mike seemed a little bewildered by the fact that I was going to be helping out but he suggested that I start the following Tuesday and filled me in on the logistics.

In Guildford on business and on my way back to home in Lambourn, I realised I would be passing close by the project site, so I popped by to make sure I knew where I would be going the following week.  I pulled off the narrow lane that skirted the river by the pretty little church of Saint Michael and All Angels. Mike's white VW Transporter was parked up by the stables so I knew I must have been in the right place.

Mike Blackmore Wild Trout Trust river restoration conservation
Saint Michael and All Angels, and the team working hard

I decided to take a quick stroll along the river and see if I could find Mike and the team and see what was going on.  It didn't take me long to find them.  Mike and Jonny, the Keeper, were being ably supported by volunteers from Sparsholt College.  They looked a little confused as I strode down the path in suit and brogues!

Mike walked me down the river explaining the background to the project, the problems being addressed and the plan for the project.  The Environment Agency had identified this reach of the Dever as being an ideal opportunity to undertake a major habitat restoration project with the Wild Trout Trust as part of the Test and Itchen Restoration Strategy. Following engagement and planning with the riparian owners and the team that run and maintain the fishery (Fishing Breaks), a project was pulled together.  The project was funded by the owners, the Environment Agency and a donation from a WTT partner, Springwise, through an initiative called 1% for the Planet by which environmentally-minded businesses can donate 1% of their turnover for work to improve our natural environment. Fishing Breaks also provided skilled labour in the form of River Keeper, Jonny Walker.

This section of the Dever was suffering from a number or problems.  Impoundments meant that long sections lacked significant flow and had led to siltation of the spawning gravels, uniformity of habitat, and tall, vertical banks.  It was overwide in many places and had been artificially straightened. The uniform habitat was limiting biodiversity and, whilst there was a reasonable head of wild trout and grayling, the lack of suitable spawning habitat was hindering recruitment and a lack of refuges meant that fish (particularly juveniles) were vulnerable to predation.

The project had two phases. Week one focused on opening up the canopy in strategic places to let more light in and aid weed and marginal plant growth.  The wood generated would then be used to create flow deflecting woody habitat features.  Woody mattresses and hinged bankside trees would create fish refuges and trap silt, providing additional marginal habitat. Together these would help narrow the channel, increase flow, scour gravels and create a more sinuous, meandering channel.

river restoration wild trout trust chalkstreamriver restoration chalkstream wild trout trust
Creating a woody mattress, and the plant required for 'dig and dump'

In week two, the heavy plant would arrive. This would enable the team to do some 'dig and dump'.  Pools would be dug out with the waste materials from that process used to create marginal berms that pinch the channel and accelerate flow. Then, new gravels would be introduced to make the new pools more hospitable for fish and provide spawning opportunities at the tail of each pool. Additional riffles would also be created to further diversify habitat. Sections of tall, steep bank would be re-profiled to improve floodplain connectivity, improve marginal habitat and provide easier access for anglers.

So I arrived at the beginning of week two and found the river already transformed. My job was to run around and help out with anything that needed doing, freeing up the professionals to focus on the important stuff.  After the digger had introduced the gravels into the new pools, I would follow on and rake them over, blending them in and tidying them up.

I helped peg in some woody debris as juvenile refuge habitat and I stacked up the leftover wood and piled up the brash ready to burn.  During week one, the team had created a new river bank along an over-widened section. During week two, I helped to back fill this area and translocate marginal plants to the new bank edge.

river restoration chalkstream wild trout trustriver restoration wild trout trust
Creating new bank

By the end of the week, I was exhausted, not being used to such manual work.  But the sense of achievement was almost overwhelming. Seeing the transformation from degraded to vibrant habitat gave me a huge sense of satisfaction and pride. And the fish loved it too.  Minutes after digging a new pool, the fish had already moved in and in one small pool we counted over twenty trout and grayling. I can't wait to go back in six months or a year and see how the river has settled into its new setting.  The other thing I enjoyed was the sense of camaraderie, working together on such an important restoration project. I highly recommend it."

river restoration partnership
L-R: Jonny Walker (Fishing Breaks), Kris Kent (volunteer), Heb Leman (Environment Agency), Shaun Leonard (Wild Trout Society, Director) and Mike Blackmore (Project Manager)


If this photo of a bit of rusty steel means little or nothing to you I'll completely understand. Let me explain ......

Eels used to be an unremarkable sight on the chalkstreams. On a still summer evening a stroll along the river bank would be regularly accompanied by a hard-to-locate slurping noise. Close inspection rarely revealed the source, but just occasionally you'd see a shiny, black-grey head pop out from beneath the surface as an eel sucked down an emergent nymph as it made its way from the water to the air by crawling up a reed stem.

But sadly as the number of eels has crashed in the past decade this riverside oddity has become rarer and rarer. The reasons are manifold though the primary cause seems to be a virus that attacks the swim bladder of the eel, disabling its ability to regulate swimming depth in the ocean as it returns from the European rivers to the spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. This is important because the eel doesn't actually 'swim' back the three thousand plus miles, but rather hitches a ride on the subterranean ocean currents which he or she almost surfs to make it home. But catching those currents requires moving thousands of feet up and down in the thermal layers of the sea but without a swim bladder that can't happen so the eel, which doesn't eat in saltwater, starves to death before ever reaching the welcoming embrace of the sargassum weed.

All the time eels were populous we never had to bother much about their survival in the chalkstreams, but today they need every helping hand we can offer. So, a programme is underway to remove the obstructions that impede the progress of eels upstream when they first arrive in the rivers and downstream when they return to the ocean anywhere between five and twenty years later, hence the rather strange grille pictured here.

Mill race
This is in fact one of the last vestiges of the eel trap at Bullington Manor. You can't actually see the trap because it was a concrete tank, dug underground to the left of the mill race but it required the grille, placed across the mill race, to work. Just upstream of the grille there was an entrance hole into the tank so any fully grown eel travelling downstream, starting out on the journey back to sea, would reach the obstruction and unable to go any further would turn though the hole to be captured in the tank. Back in the day eels provided a lucrative side-line for river keepers, the eels were dispatched in damp sacks by train to London.

Today eel trapping has all but died out; I did hear of an old fellow who continues on one of the Dorset rivers. But for the most part all that remains are a few of the abandoned structures, so by removing these impediments, as we have with this one, it increases the chances of survival of the eels that remain.


It must have been about the moment Brian Clarke was working himself up into a state of fulmination as he penned his monthly column for The Times about the Mop Fly (read his article here) that an unexpected email popped into my Inbox. Geoff, who I don't know but describes himself as a river keeper, simply said in the briefest of emails,

'In my youth we used Dock leafs to relieve nettle stings and when we pulled up the roots we used the grubs to fish for trout, so I guess the mop fly is just the latest imitation of the Docken Grub.'

As it turns out he is absolutely correct; the grub is close to being a dead ringer to the pale version of the Mop Fly and as you will see from the picture below similar patterns have been tied in the past. 

Now clearly the originator of the Mop (c. 2010) was not deliberately imitating the grub which, it seems, has a long history. In the wonderfully entitled Sporting Almanack and Oracle of Rural Life (c.1843) the author lauded the Dock grub to the skies.

'There is not a more killing mode of trout fishing in the months of April and May than by dropping one of these baits into a gentle stream, or still deep hole.'

If grubs are your thing he goes on to recommend the Ash grub for winter fishing and the Oak grub for relieving the post-Mayfly torpor. This was man with few boundaries: he further recommends cheese and honey as useful baits plus many varied types of worm, mostly it seems found in or under cow-pats. Here is the relevant page from the book.

And all this twenty years before Halford came on the scene. It makes you wonder how fly fishing ever caught on.


I highly recommend Jack Perks' new book Freshwater Fishes of Britain that  captures all our native fishes with some great underwater photography with plenty of interesting facts, figures and bios on each species.

Jack has researched the collective nouns to many of our fishes. Match the fish to the correct collective noun.

Eel                      Spread
Goldfish              Swarm
Grayling              Shoal
Rudd                   Pod
Salmon               Pack
Stickleback         Hover
Trout                   Glint
Zander                Bind

It's just for fun and answers are at the bottom of the page. Jack's book is available from bookshops and Amazon

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: Eel/swarm, goldfish/glint, grayling/pod, rudd (and bream, roach & minnow)/shoal, salmon/bind, stickleback/spread, trout/hover and zander/pack.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Carp are smart, salmon are not

Carp are the cleverest fish and salmon the most stupid - its official! Actually I am being slightly disingenuous as this was the off-the-cuff answer to a question from the audience by Dr Felicity Huntingford at the How Smart Fish Lecture? at London Zoo last week.

It is a very long time since I sat in a lecture theatre; I was rather dreading the 3 hours set aside for introductions, talks and questions but it really did speed by. The nub of Dr Huntingford's argument is that fish have two types of behaviour - inherited (or instinctive) and learnt. She gave the example of the latter by way of the archerfish.  It obtains food by squirting a jet of water from below the surface to dislodge insects from branches that hang over the water.  It is a complicated task that requires estimating the refraction of the water, angle of trajectory, distance of travel and power of the water jet. Juvenile archerfish are hopeless at the ouset, but over time hone their skills by practice and observing their elders.

She also quoted an interesting bit of research from New Zealand that suggests fish have long memories for bad things. The behaviour of trout was observed in two types of rivers: one where there was only catch and release and the others where there wasn't. In the catch and release rivers the fish soon learnt to move away at the sight of anglers, whereas in the other rivers the fish were less likely to do so.

And how about the carp vs. salmon conclusion? After 40 years of observing fish and training them to undergo certain tasks she seemed in no doubt that carp were the most intelligent of all fish, though she did mention a particular oscar fish that despite being perfectly well and fit, took to laying down on its side when it no longer wished to participate in her behavioural tasks. Salmon she seemed positively exasperated by, saying they were impossible to train to do anything. And perhaps the most perplexing fact of the night was that the brain of a captive reared salmon was only 60% that of its wild counterpart. But here's the thing - introduce something into the cage early on in the life cycle, be it a structure or a rock, and the brain grew to a similar size.

A mention must go to Charles Jardine who gave the anglers eye view as to the behaviour of fish, which I think was fascinating to the many students and academics in the audience. For the record (and I hope he offends nobody in this) Charles rated wild rainbows the most intelligent fish and perch the stupidest. 


I must admit I had never heard of the Mop Fly until Justin Scheck of the Wall Street Journal gave me a call. 'What did I think of it', he asked. Well, I couldn't help. I'd never seen one, let alone fished one and Justin, a keen fly fisher himself, wasn't much better placed having only heard of this wonder fly by repute.

The story goes that some years ago a fly tying enthusiast in North Carolina, USA took a pair of scissors to a kitchen mop using the furry end to create a whole new look of fly. It worked but didn't break out much from his local circle of anglers until it reached the hands of Lance Egan who used it to winning effect in the US National Fly Fishing Championships in June this year.

But not everyone was happy. Was this a fly or a lure? Did it contravene the spirit of fly fishing? Did the users of the Mop Fly deserve the less-than-complimentary epithet of Moppets? Justin was intrigued. Could this US sensation work on British trout as well? Or was it just a localised oddity? There was only one way to find out, so he headed hot foot with a handful of Mop Flies down to Nether Wallop Mill.  

I'm rarely excited by flies, but as Justin uncurled his hand to reveal buff, blue and brown versions I have to admit to being intrigued. I guess some people must have felt something similar back in Victorian times when Skues first promulgated nymph patterns. But the Mop is no nymph however hard you might like to finesse the point. A giant maggot perhaps? Frank Sawyer was derided for his creation The Killer Bug which was termed the 'maggot fly' by purists (I use the word advisedly) back in the 1950's. More of this later, as I think there is a connection across the decades.

Regardless of what it does or does not look like Justin and I headed for the stocked lake here at The Mill. I didn't expect much of a challenge; there are so many fish you can almost walk across the lake on their backs and not get your feet wet. But strangely they looked but didn't take. The blue they absolutely hated, the buff got a few grabs. In fact it was only the brown, with a bit of cunning movement during the retrieve that elicited fish. I think it is fair to say at this point Justin and I thought the Mop Fly over-hyped.

Photo courtesy of Justin Scheck/WSJ
Thus with little hope we headed to the Wallop Brook. No tame rainbows here. Just true wild brownies. Whilst Justin fiddled about with his camera I did an idle roll cast to put some line on the water prior to a proper cast. To my total astonishment from nowhere appeared this fish, heading for the fly like an exocet. In true rookie style I promptly pulled the fly of his mouth and whilst I turned to Justin to say 'Did you see that!' another fish did exactly the same, sparing my blushes by hooking himself. Justin and I jabbered away for a full five minutes in total amazement. Ten minutes later I had another on the Mop to a blind cast into a likely lie. At that point we called it a day.

Justin's article duly came out in the Wall Street Journal (you can read it here) which in turn prompted a call from The Times with a request for an interview. So this time we headed for the River Test proper; I'm sure Halford was spinning in his grave before we even stepped out of the car. We started out, mostly for the benefit of the photographer, on a fast, shallow section where I targeted some static, solitary fish. Despite The Mop passing right by their noses, they showed no interest at all. That said it was hard to fish The Mop with any confidence as it sunk to the river bed almost immediately, trundling along amongst the stones.

How to tie a Mop Fly
How to tie a Mop Fly
The photo call over we headed for one of the pools where I knew a good pod of fish congregate below a bridge where the water spills through. As a sort of control test I tried a dozen casts with a good sized Daddy Long Legs. A few looks but nothing more. Time for The Mop. I exaggerate not but from the moment the fly took on water and began to sink it was literally mobbed by four or five fish, the most aggressive hooked in an instant.  Duly released I continued to cast upstream into the pool for another fish, but a bit like on the lake, second time around plenty of looks but no takes until eventually it was ignored. So, I changed my position casting across rather that up the pool. Bingo, first cast another fish in the same manner, on the drop as the fly sunk amidst a skirmish between the fish for the fly. After that they ignored it again until we called it, an admittedly short, day. You may read The Times article, that was published October 22nd, here.

There is a story of the avid angler who dies. At the pearly gates St Peter asks him how he would like to spend eternity. 'Fishing a gin-clear river with free rising trout on a summers' day.' comes the eager reply. Peter nods his head with a wry smile, ushers over one of the angels and duly kitted out the pair head through the Garden of Eden to a place far away where indeed they do find the most glorious, pellucid river, bathed in sunshine with trout in abundance. First cast, up comes a fish, the most wonderful specimen released shortly after. Second cast has the same result. As does the third cast at which point our man turns to the angel and says, 'This is absolute heaven.' receiving something of an odd look by return. But after a while the novelty of a fish every cast starts to pall, so the angler indicates to the angel he has had enough for the day. At which point it is gently explained to him that he is not in heaven, but in hell where he is destined to spend all eternity fishing, catching a fish with every cast.

Mops heads that come as slippers as well
So if hell is a fish every cast I'm glad the Mop Fly is not quite what some have billed it to be. It certainly, in certain circumstances, excites fish unlike just about any other fly I have ever used. Why, I am not entirely sure. It is really too big to be mistaken as a maggot, but it may look like a chubby earthworm. Equally it does look a lot like the Caterpillar Fly and though I have never personally observed it I'm sure our trout do eat the real things from time to time as they drop from trees and bushes.

My final thought, and this bring us full circle to the Killer Bug, is that the Mop Fly is made from a micro-fibre that is positively designed to absorb water. My fish certainly liked The Mop best when completely wet and Sawyer tied his fly with the no-longer-available Chadwick 477 wool that was most effective when wet, not because it sunk but because it took on a translucent quality.

Anyway, our fly tying guru Alan Middleton is currently hunched over his fly tying desk creating a whole palette of Mop Flies in red, blue, green, orange, pink and just about every colour under the sun thanks to Amazon who have provided mop heads from around the globe. I will report on further forays.  


Well, that is it. Another trout season officially drew to a close on October 31st

Some years you need to describe anyone who fishes in the last month as generically 'braving the elements' but the truth is that this is rarely so. October is currently in a benign cycle, dry without many gales or extremes of weather. A look out your window today at the trees shows this to be so; plenty of leaves remain green and a while off falling.

So, into the final monthly draw went a mixture of anglers. Some were out for a last trout day, others keen to search out some grayling.  Our winner is Clive Garland who was in the former category with a day on the Rectory beat at Mottisfont Abbey in early October. The Vuefinder Flypatch is on its way.

That leaves me with the one final draw to make to close out 2016. Everyone went back into the hat for the Sage Click Reel and I am delighted to say that Jason O'Dell wins this uber-cool reel. The only tough decision Jason has to make is whether he wants the reel in 0-2, 3-5 or 4-6 wt. format. As they say, that is a first world problem.


A random selection of questions loosely based on today's topics:
1)    Which fish has the largest brain?

2)      Who, or what, do ichthyologists study?

3)      When did London Zoo open?

4)  Which fictional children's book creature was named after a resident of London Zoo?

It's just for fun and answers are at the bottom of the page.  

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 1) A manta ray 2) Fish  3) 1828  4) Winnie The Pooh