Friday, 31 January 2020

Great things by good people

Great things by good people

After 15 years the Avon Roach Project, dedicated to restoring the roach to the middle reaches of the Hampshire Avon, is shutting up shop. But this is, contrary to what you might anticipate, a cause for celebration. And the chance to pay tribute to the work of two amazing guys. Let me take you back a while.

The Common Roach (Rutilus rutilus)
In 2005 the Environment Agency conducted a survey of fish stocks on the thirty mile stretch of the Avon from Salisbury downstream to Christchurch, just before it reaches the English Channel. It confirmed what regular match anglers had long suspected - the roach population was crashing catastrophically. A combination of weed cutting, floods, pollution and cormorant infestation had bought us to the point where the roach population was no longer self-sustaining. In a few years the roach would become effectively extinct on a river where it once reigned supreme.

But two Avon regulars, Trevor Harrop and Budgie Price had other ideas. Frankly the situation was too far gone for something as simple as habitat improvement. Restocking was the only answer. Now the easy way might have been to raise some funds to buy in commercially reared roach. But this wasn't exactly what Trevor and Budgie had in mind. Yes, this might save roach on the Avon, but it would not be saving the Avon roach.

So, with no experience of fish farming but a germ of an idea Budgie and Trevor, after a few misfires, came up with as Baldrick would say, a cunning plan. They scoped out the prime roach sites that remained on the Avon and just prior to the spawning season tethered spawning boards in the river.

Spawning boards in the River Avon
These homemade devices are essentially three-foot floating planks of wood that have fine gauge mesh arranged in ruffles on the underside, which the roach take for the river weed Willow moss, their preferred aquatic vegetation for spawning, around which the competing males gather until they are joined by the females. The plan was helped by three roach attributes, two natural and one learnt. Firstly, roach are great creatures of habit returning to the same spawning site each year. Secondly, they came to prefer the 'artificial' weed to the real thing. And finally, each female releases up to 100,000 fertilised eggs so there was plenty of raw material to be harvested. The boards were then gathered up and taken to fry tanks in Trevor's garden where they would spend the next year.

This might be a moment to ask why? Does the Avon roach really matter? Well, I suppose in itself maybe not but in the wider ecological balance of English nature it does. And it tells us something about how we care, or more accurately don't, for our rivers; of all freshwater fish the roach is the most tolerant of polluted water. Mother Nature has a pecking order, what biologists like call the food chain. It is balanced and organised, evolved over centuries. It is the original Jenga tower of co-dependence. You can keep pulling away the pieces one by one but eventually, however careful you think you might be, the whole edifice will collapse.

Back to Trevor's garden, which, however commodious, was no place for a growing roach but fortune arrived in the form of Jac Sykes, who offered our pair the free use of some disused trout stews at Bickton Mill. Here the roach would spend the next two years and on reaching sexual maturity at three would be returned to the adjacent River Avon in early spring to spawn themselves just five weeks later.

After twelve years of this annual ritual Budgie and Trevor are all but done. The Avon Roach Project has been a huge success. The population is restored, perhaps not to the same level as in those wonder years, but certainly to a point where their numbers are self-sustaining. Anglers regularly catch 50-60 in a day. Trotting for roach, the most exulted form of coarse fishing, on the Avon is no longer a fool's errand; best in a generation plenty are saying. So, as Trevor says the fish he loves are now 'on their own'. The Bickton stews will be gradually wound down over the next two years until the last of the stock are returned to the river.

Budgie Price & Trevor Harrop
It is a job well done. A tribute to not only Budgie, Trevor and all the supporters of the Avon Roach Project but living proof that we can pull back from the brink. And it doesn't need to be complicated. Expensive. Or require global grandstanding from politicians and activists.

Good people, away from the limelight, can do great things.

The You Tube video about the project released a week ago has already had 25,000 views. It is 17 minutes long, the first 7 minutes covering the project itself.

The Fishing Cast

I have teamed up with my old friend Charles Jardine to bring you The Fishing Cast, our distinctive monthly podcast.

Recorded in what used to be the Fishing Breaks office at Nether Wallop Mill, but now the room we grandly call the riverside studio, we'll be bringing you views, news and gossip from the world of fly fishing. You will be welcome to chime in after each episode (the plan is the last Thursday each month) via social media (or old-fashioned email if you wish ...) and in time we hope to have guests join us.

The February edition is now live. We celebrate Howard Croston's recent World Fly Fishing Championship success, the first British victor since 2007. Charles asks is his victory in Tasmania something to celebrate or are there downsides? I reveal the results of my Angling Attitudes Survey on catch and release with some surprising results. And as we enter the last month of the grayling season we ask: grayling fishing. Curse or saviour?

The Fishing Cast should be available via your normal podcast provider or listen directly via our dedicated web site. Happy listening and do give us your feedback. 

2-for-1 with John Bailey

John with one of his more modest catches
Join John Bailey for his one-day grayling masterclass on the River Frome which last year resulted in a new British record.

I think we can be fairly sure that that particular lightning bolt won't strike again, but you never know. The fish went back unharmed. And John knows the exact spot and seam of water. The day is on Special Offer as a 2-for-1.

The cost is £325 for two on Friday February 21st or Saturday February 22nd. Details and booking form here ....

Following up

For all its downsides the internet is the ultimate connector. The electronic strands uniting us fly fishers despite the diverse and far flung nature of what you might call our community. This Newsletter is just one tiny part of that ever-expanding web but it still never ceases to amaze me the nooks and crannies of memories it jogs. Take for instance the last edition The love of mistletoe.

Writing about the poplar trees that were planted half a century ago for match production I wrote, "The promise of cash-for-trees is as long forgotten as the souls who planted them." How very wrong I was as within a day an email came my way from the very man (and a Fishing Breaks regular) who had planted the trees all those decades ago.

John Simms
And then if that was not enough a couple of days later another email about the fishing exploits of ex-Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volker who had died just before Christmas. He was a regular visitor to Jackson Hole in Wyoming, which is one of the great fly fishing destinations out West and, coincidentally (!) the venue for the annual Economic Symposium of prominent central bankers. In response to my piece came this:

Dear Simon,

Interestingly, I was privileged to be Paul Volker's guide while he was here in Jackson Hole for meetings with bankers to discuss the fact that the prime interest was incredibly high at 19% as I recall.

We had a great time on the river, and he said something about literally unwinding and finally relaxing. 

Prime rate started dropping that Monday!  Paul sent me handwritten personal letter practically giving me credit for lowering the prime rate!

Fortunately, I still have the letter..........

Best Regards,

John Simms

I believe this is the same John Simms who founded Simms Fishing Products in Jackson back in 1980. Unfortunately, when I have tried to reply to John the email address comes back Return to Sender. John, if you are reading this do get in touch again. I'm sure we'd all like to hear more about the day

The Otters' Tale: How Otters Returned to Hampshire

I'll be returning to the village of my teenage upbringing in February to give an evening talk on The Otters' Tale: How Otters Returned to Hampshire.

It is actually a fundraiser for the Cheriton village church St Michael's in which the talk is held, just a mile downstream from the source of the River Itchen. 

The cost is £15 a head, including a glass of wine. 175 tickets are already sold so if you'd like to come get in quick as this particular house of God has a finite capacity.


No theme this week other than tangentially the Newsletter topics. As ever the quiz is just for fun, with answers at the bottom of the page. 

1)      The British roach record stands at:
       A) 1lb 13oz B) 2lb 7oz C) 4lb 4oz D) 7lb 1oz

2)      In what year was the word 'podcast' invented?

3)      What is an Oxford comma?

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director

1)     4lb 4oz
2)     2004 by The Guardian columnist and BBC journalist Ben Hammersley who merged iPod+broadcast
3)     The Oxford comma (also known as a serial comma or the Harvard comma) is used in a list of three or more items, placed between the conjunction and the final item on the list. Some say it should have been used on the latest commemorative 50 pence coin.

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