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

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