Friday, 29 June 2018

High as an eel

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.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director

Quiz answers:

1)  University of East Anglia along with contemporaries Charlie Higson and me. Where did it all go wrong?

2)   Vic Reeves

3)   Charlie Higson

Friday, 15 June 2018

Life in a Village

If you have been driving around southern England over the past few weeks you will notice the verges adorned with all sorts of handmade signs. For June marks the start of the village fete season or as my Father used to mutter as he trundled off to man the whiskey tombola draw for the umpteenth year, 'fete worse than death'.

These outdoor events typically held on the village green did, as far as I know, originate in rural England. An afternoon when the villagers come together to raise funds for some worthy cause (usually the church that none of us attend) by way of Thwack the Rat, Apple Bobbing, Produce Stalls, Crazy Golf, Coconut Shy and any other activity you care to think of that could only ever take place at an annual fete.

Inevitably there is a committee that has to organise these things. Being on it is a rite of passage for newly arrived members of the village. For the rest of us it is a duty accepted with various degrees of willingness. Usually someone suggests that if each committee member chipped in fifty quid we could cancel the whole shebang and still raise more money. However tempting the idea some perverse moral obligation forces us to decline what is a truly excellent suggestion.

I tell you all this for two reasons. Firstly, in Nether Wallop we have a particularly busy month: the aforementioned fete, monthly film show in the village hall (which we raised £250,000 to build 3 years ago), mixed doubles tennis, open gardens and new for 2018, the Scarecrow Festival. And secondly to prove, contrary to the thesis of Stewart Dakers' article in The Spectator last week, small town and village life is not on the way to becoming moribund. He posits that that the influx of wealthy Chelsea tractor owning refugees from various metropolises is sinking his town 'under the dead weight of dormitory-dwellers who can neither invest in its community nor participate in its life."

I am not sure where he lives. He says he is 30 miles from London without naming the place, but everything I see and hear tells me Dakers is wrong, both in regard to my village and elsewhere. Nether Wallop has plenty of Chelsea tractors. We are a regular first port of call for families moving out of London. I would think no more than one out of five children were born in the village. There is a regular group of London commuters who have adapted their working lives to minimise the tyranny of the train. And plenty stay here long after the children leave and their commuting days are over.

In my experience these people, who in aggregate make up the majority of the Nether Wallop population, are some of the most willing and active participants in village life. After all, in most cases, they moved here in search of a community that they were happy to find.
Lost Words

Occasionally you see something that is riotously successful and think, "Damn! Why didn't I think of that"? Robert Macfarlane's latest book Lost Words is, for me at least, a case in point.

The concept is so simple: take beautiful country words, take each letter in the word to compose a poem to that word. Select words to straddle the alphabet and then lavishly illustrate. Stand back to admire the number one bestseller you have on your hands. Am I jealous? Of course! If I was a betting man (I am .....) I'd have big money on him to scoop the 2018 Wainwright Book Prize. Here is an example of the text and illustration; no prizes for guessing why I picked this one.

If you haven't seen the book in the flesh a shock awaits when the Amazon package drops through your letter box as it won't. This book is huge - almost A3 size. Goodness knows how much it cost to print. It is some tribute to Macfarlane's heft as a writer that his publishers acquiesced.

The book is notionally aimed at children but I think it works for all ages. Robert says in his introduction that these are words that have begun 'to vanish from the language of children' and that the purpose of the book is to 'summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind's eye."
I am not so sure the truth is as bleak as he paints it but if it is an excuse for creating a beautiful book, what the hell? So, if you have a child in your family you must buy this book but sneak a look before passing it on.

May feedback draw winner
Well done to David Eatwell who picks up the May snood after fishing at Barton Court on the River Kennet.

For those of you who know Barton Court from years past here are few photos to illustrate the work being done under the new ownership of Sir Terence Conran.

Photo of the Week
The Wallop Brook flows directly under the office so when the sun shines and the doors are open all manners of visitors drop by. Not sure if he (or she) felt inferior to the screen counterpart who actually has three tails ......


More chances to prove, or improve, your intellect.  Answers, as ever, at the bottom of the page. Apologies for my appalling World Cup mistake last time around ......

1)     What colour is the cattle breed Aberdeen Angus?
2)     If you were an agrostologist, what would you study?
3)     Who lives in a formicary?

Enjoy the weekend, fete or no fete ......

Best wishes,Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director

Quiz answers:

1)     Black
2)     Grasses
3)     A colony of ants

Fishing Breaks, The Mill, Heathman Street, Nether Wallop, STOCKBRIDGE, England SO20 8EW United Kingdom
Sent by in collaboration with
Constant Contact

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Demise of my bogey mayfly

It sometimes takes a lot to get me out on the river. I'm a bit like (without drawing too many comparisons ...) one of those ski bums you meet in a mountain bar who only ventures out for the freshest powder on the emptiest of slopes. But oftentimes I get my piscatorial kicks simply by being there. Seeing the hatch. Watching others make a perfectly executed cast. Share in the collective joy of the fish that rises to the dry fly.

Crippled Mayfly is in the middle compartment, bottom row
So, it has taken until this week for me to finally venture out with a rod with a Mayfly specifically on the end of it. As has been much mentioned the arrival of the 2018 Mayfly season has been a very slow burn. The Allen in Dorset, a river we usually expect to be in the vanguard of the Ephemeral hatch, is two weeks late. Likewise the River Test, though the tributaries have not been quite so far behind. The River Itchen was probably the closest to being 'normal' but even then it took a while to get going.

I must admit I was going to sneak out a bit sooner but I'm currently in the throes of writing a new book which is, as The Spectator columnist and general literary provocateur, Rod Liddle once described it, a bit like having perpetual homework. My routine is this: each week I set my target at 2,500 words. That is 500 words a day. My writing week starts on a Sunday. So potentially I have two spare days, but life/work often gets in the way of that plan. So, most days I am not released from the bonds of the word mill until the daily count is satisfied. And that doesn't always come easy. So, being the diligent type I type instead of cast. But this week I played hooky.

We didn't get to the river until five o'clock on Tuesday evening. The storms that had flooded Birmingham over the weekend were now in Hampshire. It had rained most of the day. I could see the river colouring and rising before us. But any thoughts that the evening might be a bust were dispelled as, even from the car park, we could see a fish leap to a fluttering Mayfly and hear that satisfying 'gloop' as another disappeared somewhere around the corner.

I am not one ever to complain that the fishing is too easy. Those days come around too infrequently in life to even hint at a complaint. When the fishing Gods smile on you, smile back as one day, very soon, they will take it all away. Deities are as fickle as fish. But on a scale of one to five, with five being most difficult, this was most definitely a one. That said, even in the two hours we were there, the scales tipped one way to the next. From a river that was alive with Mayfly and rising fish, to a quiet period when nothing much flew and nothing much rose. In the trees the Mayfly did their merry dance, the columns of males rising, then falling, displaying their wares until a female darted in from the side to grab her chosen partner.

On the river I did set myself a particular challenge: once a fish was caught I would cut off that fly and try another. I did cheat once, recasting my all-time favourite the Thomas Mayfly, only to feel guilty when I caught a second fish. Pretty soon I was five for six. In case you ask: Grey Drake, Thomas, Gray Wulff, Flyline and Parachute. As a final hurrah I dragged out of my box a Crippled Mayfly. Everyone has particular bogey flies and this, in the Mayfly, spectrum, is mine. Everything tells me it should be good - easy meat for a greedy fish.

Now for some reason I have always assumed this is a fly that should be fished au naturel - after all it does have a bit of foam it in. How could floating be a problem? So, as I have always done in the past I didn't bother with floatant and it didn't disappoint. Nothing. I decided it would join that special compartment in my fly box; the one I point to when people I don't like ask me for a fly. But I wasn't quite done. Every other fly had worked, so why not this one? Floatant. For once I tried some floatant. And from across the river (to a particularly poor cast) surged a fish to grab the Cripple first time.

At seven for six I decided to call it time on the evening and resolved to put the Crippled Mayfly in the fly box I share with friends.

River Itchen photo shoot

It was a great pleasure to finally meet Chris McNully whose articles I have read for many years in many publications.

Chris had arrived on the Kanara beat with photographer Richard Faulks for one of a pair of articles about wading the Hampshire chalkstreams. That day it was the River Itchen; the following was to be at Exton Manor Farm on the River Meon.

I turned up to just say hello. I did offer to buy lunch but my arrival coincided with a slow trickle of Mayflies and this rather fine fish (a 1.5lb wild brown), the first of the day, was rising to a Mayfly and obliged when offered a large Yellow Humpy.

At that point all thoughts of food where forgotten, so I left them in peace but I have subsequently heard both days came up trumps. I am afraid you will have to wait until next spring to read Chris' articles in Trout & Salmon.

Summer Camp

I know many of you will be reading this whilst away on Half Term. Who was that member of officialdom who organised the academic calendar to time this slap in the middle of Mayfly? Clearly they didn't have children or no interest in fly fishing.

So, if you have been unable to persuade your partner or children that the river should beckon more than the beach it is probably time for some indoctrination. Our summer Fishing Camp might just be the thing.
This will be the third year we have run it; four days based here at Nether Wallop Mill where we range out to cover all sorts and aspects of fly fishing on both lake and river: casting, knots, fly tying, entomology, gutting fish, nymph vs. dry and much, much more.

Date: July 16-19

Location: Nether Wallop Mill & River Test

Fish Camp: £195/child for 4 days or £75/day (min. 3 days including the first day). 10% discount for siblings. 

Ages: 12-15 years

Price per child £195. 

Monday-Thursday 10am-1pm (Wednesday 3pm). 

Includes all fishing charges, tuition, licences and tackle. 

To book or for more information call 01264 781988 or email 

Photo of the Week

I know it is all about Mayfly this week, but the Crane Flies on my kitchen window last week are a reminder that different hatches are ahead of us.

I hear there is a new colour variant of the Robjents Daddy in the store .....


More chances to prove, or improve, your intellect.  Answers, as ever, at the bottom of the page.

1)     What date is England's opening match in the World Cup and who do they play?

2)     After which Roman god is June named?

3)     Who wrote:" In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them."

Enjoy the weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 

Founder & Managing Director

Quiz answers:

1)     Tunisia on Monday June 18th
2)     Juno
3)     Aldo Leopold