Thursday, 23 March 2017

My Otters' Tale

On my various perambulations in the writing The Otters' Tale I came across some unexpected reactions. For the most part people were incredibly supportive, helpful and encouraging. After all the otter is regularly polled as one of Britain's favourite animals. It even has a world-encompassing cheerleader in J K Rowling. She featured our native otter in the Harry Potter series, plus I think I read somewhere that she said that if she has to come back in another life it would be as an otter. But not everyone is quite as enthusiastic about these lithe and secretive creatures.

Simon Cooper with Topaz
For four decades we became used to a landscape pretty well devoid of otters; they were, to all intents and purposes, close to extinction in all but the most remote and isolated parts of the British Isles.

The push for intensive agricultural production in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War had unleashed a potent mix of toxic chemicals that infected the food chain. Swathes of our native wildlife died: songbirds, raptors and river life. Actually otters didn't immediately die. Theirs was a more gradual decline as the poison affected their ability to reproduce so numbers just dwindled away until the nadir was reached sometime in the late 1980's.  

Whilst this was going on fishing, especially in the form of stocked trout and coarse fisheries, was booming. Up and down the country lakes were dug, redundant gravel workings enlisted to the cause and rivers stocked like never before. Fish farming advanced in leaps and bounds as fish were bred to previously unimaginable sizes. Really nothing stood in the way. There were some predation problems, namely herons and mink, but they don't have the same appetite or killing power as otters.

I can remember back then, firstly as a student doing a holiday job and latterly as a buyer of fish for stocking, that nobody thought of, or even discussed, otters. The defences, such as they were, comprised of fairly rudimentary netting to discourage avian attack and a few mink traps on the ground. Today it is a very different story. Any commercial fish farm will have an impressive ring of chain link fencing, dug into the ground at the bottom and topped with a strand of cattle-style electric fencing.

Of course on lakes and rivers such defences are usually not practicable, even if they were affordable. You have to feel sympathy for anyone who has prize carp killed by otters. To a lesser extent I know how they feel. Here at Nether Wallop Mill our Christmas time count of 100 plus trout in the lake is down to 17 thanks to nightly visits by Kuschta (the star of The Otters' Tale) and her fast growing (!) family of three pups. Out on the chalkstreams I know we are often stocking as much to feed the otters as to provide sport. So, it is into this changed landscape that the 21st century otter has inserted itself.

The recovery of the otter is one of the few ecological success stories of recent times. It came about when, after thirty years of campaigning, all those toxins were eventually banned. It then took another two decades for the poisons to work their way out of the food chain. It was at that point the population has really taken off, helped in part by the super-abundance of fish provided by, yes you've guessed it, those stocking practices that evolved in the fallow decades.

So is the revival unalloyed good news? Are we going to allow culling as some people have called for? How do you reconcile the demands of modern day fishing practices with the natural instincts of our largest semi-aquatic mammal?

I don't pretend to have all the answers but what I do know for sure is that on those moonlit nights when I see four be-whiskered heads circling the lake and hear the eeks of reassurance as Kuschta calls to her pups I'm glad I live in a country where otters are once again part of our everyday lives.

* * * * *

My new book The Otters' Tale is published today by William Collins. It is available in hardback, audio book and Kindle formats from all good bookshops and Amazon. For signed copies call or email Diane 01264 781988 or order on-line.

Footnote: The photo is me with a rescue otter Topaz who kindly posed (in return for food!) at the New Forest Wildlife Park where she lives. The park does an amazing job rearing abandoned otters rescued by members of the public from the length and breadth of England. When they are finally ready to be returned to the wild (around 15 months old) they will be released in the self same spot they were found.


As you read this today there are just 50 days to the start of Mayfly season. 

I must admit I feel  a tad over-confident with my countdown clock currently on the Fishing Breaks web site that is ticking down by the days, hours, minutes and seconds to dawn on the fateful day. If Mother Nature logs on I'm sure she will have something to say of my temerity to predict her fickle actions.

Mayfly on a reed


If you happen to be passing your local newsagent do pick up a copy of the April edition of The Field magazine.

I think you might just enjoy my four page spread in which I explain why you should not linger in bed on a fishing day, take a snooze around tea time and never leave the river until your only company is bats.

Do also look out for the Sunday Telegraph (26/March) where the magnificently named Boudicca Fox-Leonard interviews me about The Otters' Tale.


Three random teasers to test your brain. No guesses for the subject this week! It is just for fun and the answers are at the bottom of the page
1)      When was otter hunting with hounds banned in the UK?

2)      The average adult male otter weighs as much as:

a)      Miniature Dachshund  
b)     Pug  
c)     English Cocker Spaniel

3)      What is the life expectancy of an otter in the wild?

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 1)    1978    2) c   3) 4-5 years

Friday, 10 March 2017

Maggot vs. Fly


Sometimes you have a feeling you are going to be on the wrong end of the challenge. And so I reflected as I put the phone down on my good friend John Bailey.

As you may have read I took John down to the River Frome last month where he caught his grayling of a lifetime. I was happy for him until that call. "Simon" he says, in that charming way that only John does, "would you be up for a TV show to repeat our success?"

Well, it was cold .....
Well, I'm as desperate as anyone for my 15 minutes of fame but as the synopsis of the show unfolded I was clearly on the wrong end of this particular dirty stick. 

You see John is a great fly fishermen but he is best known for his coarse fishing exploits that he reports weekly in his column for the Anglers Mail. The grayling day was to be a 'light-hearted' fly vs. maggot challenge.  I use the quotation marks because John is more competitive than he pretends.

I have done the odd TV show in my time. The good news is that you will never have to think very much. There is an endless number of people who will tell you what to do.  The director will have one idea. The cameraman another. And once they are both happy the soundman will chime in with a third opinion. There was a time when I used to offer my thoughts but I have long discovered that as the 'talent' (actually in this case talent no. 2 as John is clearly no. 1) remaining mute and pliable to any direction, however, ridiculous, is what is expected of you. The bad news is that there is an endless amount of waiting around doing not very much. I was prepared for a day of staring at the skies, fiddling with my phone and very little actual fishing.

Frankly I think I have succinctly described my morning. John's was a bit different. On his second trot he caught a huge 3lb 8oz grayling, which is just 10oz off the British record.  That was followed by another that was only slightly smaller. I went into lunch with a few desultory casts to my name and not a sniff of a fish. I was done. I even offered to go home, leaving the field clear for John. "Dear boy", he said, "you mustn't. We need you." Mollified I agreed to stay. That was a good thing.

Now my tactic in the morning had been to fish a Sawyers Killer Bug (sometimes derided as the maggot fly) just upstream of where John was trotting. For those of you not familiar with trotting it is a method whereby you feed maggots into the river for a few minutes before drifting your three maggots on a hook that hangs 12-18 inches beneath a stick float through the baited swim. When the conditions are right it is deadly.

Standing by John whilst we waited out yet another directorial river bank conference ahead of the afternoon session I was staring into his maggot tub. These had form of my Killer Bug, but not the colour; John had come armed with maggots dyed red. As Poirot would say, the little grey cells started colliding. I took a Day-Glo pink shrimp from my fly box and dropped it in with the maggots. It was hard to tell them apart.

As the star John had first dibs on the river position but I was over that. I had a plan. On went my shrimp, plus a split shot 2 inches up my leader with a little plastic strike indicator a few inches above that. Brazenly I positioned myself directly downstream of John, so much so that the end of his trot almost coincided with the upstream point of my casts. But my devious plan wasn't working. Squalls of sleety rain didn't enhance my mood. And then I recalled a tip from a guide during a New Zealand trip maybe 15 years ago who had encouraged me, when fishing a similar rig, to let the fly come right on past me before re-casting. The theory is that with no upstream or downstream pull you get a short window of perfect hang-time.

And perfect it was. Down went the bobber and up went my rod. A fish of over three pounds, one of my best ever, soon followed by another of about the same size from exactly the same spot. Two all for the maggot vs. fly in rapid quick time.

Soon after this the director dragged us both away from the action for some tedious filler shots - chatting, walking purposefully along the bank and some introductory talk from John. I'll never get that about TV; you film the first bits last. I guess it makes sense to them.

So that was it for the day. I was happy with a score draw. I know it is tempting to claim a moral victory, but that would be crass. However, what it does prove without a doubt is that a good fishing guide, even a decade and a half after the event, might just provide the difference between success and failure.


High fives all round! Fishing Breaks picked up the bronze and the River Test the gold in the Fish & Fly Industry Awards. Thank you for all your votes. 

Fish & Fly 2017 awards


You'll often read me rabbiting on about the chalkstream aquifers and that is sometimes a rather nebulous concept. 
It is a strange thought that rain that fell many months and maybe two cou
nties away pops out of the ground to feed the rivers but here is an unusual demonstration (click on the ) of that very fact. You can't see the water moving but watch out for the flecks of fossil, laid down when we were under an ocean many millions of years ago, that are carried with the current through some deep subterranean fissure from far below.

If you wish to see this for yourself visit Chilbolton Cow Common, which is on the Test Way. Though your family might not be quite as interested as you by the geology (!) it is a lovely spot regardless with 48 acres of redundant water meadows, grazing cows and a section of the River Test.

This Google map link will take you to the exact spot


Our lake is looking a little 'blue' this week. River keeper, Jonny Walker, has just completed three days of chalking that will not only act as a silt digester but improve the quality of the water all season by stimulating invertebrate life.

I first read about this trick in Frank Sawyer's book Keeper of the Stream and it has stood us in good stead ever since as we repeat it each year around this time. 

Bloody hard work though! Well done Jonny.


Three random teasers to test your brain. It is just for fun and the answers are at the bottom of the page
1)      Agronomy is the science of what?

2)      The term Halcyon Days refers to a specific two week period in the year. When is that?

3)      The word bollard nowadays generally refers to a bit of street furniture. What is its true origin? A) a tree trunk             B) a scarf  C) a French cannon

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 1)    Soil management and crop production  2) December 14-28  3) Tree trunk