It is about this time of year you will start seeing eels in the chalkstreams as they relinquish the muddy ditches and ponds they have called home for the past 10-20 years to start the 3,700 mile journey back to the breeding grounds of the Sargasso Sea via the river they originally arrived up.
They don't rush. This will be the last time in their lives they will feed. Once they enter the ocean they will stop eating, consuming themselves from the inside until they spawn and die. If you want to spot them before they run to the ocean on the cycle of the moon look as they dig head first, tail waving in the current, amongst the roots of the river bed weed. Or listen for a delicate slurping sound in the margins. Cunning eels wait for the nymphs crawling up the reed stems to emerge to hatch in the fresh air. But that moment, as they push hard to break the surface tension from water to air, makes then vulnerable. That noise is eels sucking in the unsuspecting nymphs.
But, sadly, you will not have seen or heard so much of eels in the past decade as the population has collapsed by some estimations as much as 90%. There has been a slight uptick recently on the chalkstreams but it is still pretty dire with eels now on the endangered Red List.
The decline might be a solvable problem if anyone knew for certainty what is causing the problem. The main theory is that northern hemisphere eels have contracted a disease from southern hemisphere eels that affects their swim bladder which effectively means they never complete the return trip to the Sargasso Sea. They don't actually swim but hitch a ride on the Atlantic currents 'surfing' the currents which move up and down in the ocean, from a few hundred to thousands of feet in depth. Without a swim bladder they get lost mid-Atlantic, dying as they hollow themselves out.
However, there is a new theory that concerns cocaine. A recent study by the University of Naples shows that this drug accumulates in the brain, muscles, gills, skin and other tissues of the eel.This causes physical injury and, not surprisingly, hyperactivity whilst preventing sexual maturity.
I must admit I had vision of drug cartels flushing contraband down the loo, but apparently it enters the water system via urine to the extent that Italy's River Po has 8.8lb of cocaine in it at any one time. And we are not immune: in 2015 the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction revealed London to have Europe's highest concentration of cocaine in sewage.
If the Naples research turns out to be correct it is really hard to know where we go from here as the Trainspotting generation will do for one of our most amazing fish before global warming gets a look in.
The Rod Box
I have always had a soft spot for The Rod Box. As a tender youth I dragged my father into the Winchester tackle store to buy my first ever fly fishing outfit.
Of course I knew more than the assembled staff and owners, Ian and Scrappy Hay, despite the fact I had yet to cast a line or catch a fish. I had, of course, extensively researched through the pages of Trout & Salmon and various books the perfect rod for a chalkstream. I am happy to say Ian put me right and I still, to this day, have the outfit he sold me.
The label has long fallen off so I can't tell you with any certainty what weight or name it had. I do know for sure it was a Rod Box own brand, 8 foot 6 inches long and I'd guess a 5 weight. It is fibre glass which was the rod of most choice in those days - my father wasn't going to run to that latest innovation, carbon fibre.
The Rod Box was 'the' place to shop in those days; Dermot Wilson was just getting going. The Winchester store, right in the centre of town, was a modern glass box at street level but those in the know headed downstairs where such extraneous items as clothing never got a look in.
This was where you ogled at the rod display before waggling each rod in turn. That didn't tell you anything but it felt like the right thing to do. Even away at school in the 1970's The Rod Box impinged on my consciousness. Every Saturday they had a full page mail order advert in The Guardian. Being a bit of a left-wing thinker (aka stroppy youth) back then I read The Guardian which never struck me as the natural home for a fly fishing readership but at least it gave me a regular piscatorial fix.
Later The Rod Box moved from the city centre to Kings Worthy, a village on the outskirts of Winchester where it has been for 30 years or more until this week. Being a fishing tackle retailer is increasingly hard. If you read the trade publication Guns & Tackle they chart the precipitous decline in the number of stores to two things: the internet and brand management. On-line is pretty obvious: who of us haven't browsed in a shop to then find the same item cheaper on-line? Brand management is more complicated but in essence no longer do the brand names restrict supply to selected stores. They sell direct and sell at discounted rates into a 'grey' market. Stores find themselves marooned as the shop window for products that end up being bought elsewhere.
I tell you all this as earlier in the week I had a call to tell me The Rod Box had closed. I found it hard to believe so I went along to see for myself. Indeed it has shut up shop in Kings Worthy but it is not all bad news as The Rod Box has downsized to share space with the equestrian shop in none other than Sutton Scotney, which is a hop, skip and a jump from Bullington Manor, less than a mile from the Stockbridge exit of the A303.
So it is good to know it hasn't gone entirely; do check The Rod Box out next time you are passing.
More chances to prove, or improve, your intellect. Answers, as ever, at the bottom of the page.
About two years ago Paul Whitehouse called me up. 'Simon' he says, 'I have this idea for a TV show. Two sick old b******s going fishing. What do you think?' As he sketched the idea - fly, sea and coarse fishing - I said I know just the man. One call later and John Bailey was the Fishing Consultant on the new series Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing. Nice work John, though I'm sorry after 25+ days on 'set' we never got to see you in front of the camera. The show airs on BBC Two on Thursday nights at 10pm.
1) Which university did Paul Whitehouse attend?
2) Who has been Bob Mortimer's long-time TV comedic partner?
3) Who co-wrote and appeared in The Fast Show with Paul Whitehouse?
Enjoy the weekend.
Simon Cooper email@example.com
Founder & Managing Director
1) University of East Anglia along with contemporaries Charlie Higson and me. Where did it all go wrong?
2) Vic Reeves
3) Charlie Higson