Friday, 30 October 2015

Avon Roach, Barbel and Pike — Tunnel Vision

Martin hasn't got over it. Fishing the Wye with Trefor West and Joe Chatterton, he hooked but then lost what all agreed was a huge pike and according to Martin, taking his hands off the steering wheel and making shapes in the air, one with "a head this big". He has my sympathy. I once lost a pike at Bury Hill with a head that size. After 20 minutes of fraught battle and with the fish just starting to tire, the hook hold failed. It happens to us all from time to time...

'The one that got away'.

I love such stories. Angling would not be what it is without them. What is interesting is that I have lost large chub and barbel, pike, perch and zander and desirable specimens of every other species, but have never lost a large roach in my career. In fact I cannot recall ever losing a roach of any size once hooked, though I know I must have on occasion. 

On arrival at the banks of the Wark's Avon we encounter one that didn't get away. A carp captured, killed and mutilated by an otter. Interesting that they devour only the protein packed liver and kidneys leaving the carcass behind for the buzzards and the carrion crows.  This carp weighed probably four pounds but just a quarter of a pound of meat was eaten and so each otter must kill a lot of large fish in order to survive on such small portions. I wonder how many gross pounds of fish they must kill for their net daily rations?

I have no personal grudge against them. How can you blame a creature for doing what it must? But I think if we are to coexist peacefully then numbers must be carefully monitored and culls instigated when and if those numbers rise beyond the capacity of a watercourse to support them without decimation of stocks. I know that nature lovers would recoil in horror at such a proposal, but this island is an entirely managed landscape from coast to coast without one square inch of wilderness between.

Mother Nature cannot be left to her own devices here, I'm afraid.  

Not a wilderness

I've decided to go roaming from swim to swim where I'll flick bread and maggots about, see what I find in the way of roach. Martin will squat in just the one for barbel, chub and predatory fish. It doesn't really work out for me. The smaller species do not seem to be active. Bites are curiously hard to find and when they come are non-committal, and so I manage a few gudgeon, but dace and roach are nowhere to be found. Even small perch aren't bothering the grubs. It is most frustrating.

But then the rod is very nearly pulled in the water. Something really worthwhile has taken a bunch of maggots and greedily. I think it must be a trout by the lively fight which tests the light roach rod to its very limits. But it's a baby barbel!

I never expect to catch them this size and I'm always fooled into thinking, 'trout' whenever I do. The Avon does have a few here and there, but I've never had one yet. One day I might be fooled correctly!

Martin is getting what he set out for with braces of barbel and chub and a pike to his credit. Nothing spectacular but encouraging. I struggle to catch anything but gudgeon. And that's very discouraging. Of course there are those who'd blame such a lack of bites on cormorants swearing they'd cleaned the river of all small fish but that just isn't true. They are here in their millions but for some reason they are just not feeding while the larger ones are. Perhaps it's the known presence of an otter that is to blame, and when Martin calls and reports sighting a dog right under his staging, then perhaps there's a little truth in that.

Whatever the truth it seems I'm bound to fail. After last week's great success with roach I was cautious about being too gung ho about my prospects today. But I didn't expect to fail so dismally. 

We round off the day with a single chub to my rod and further pike and barbel to Martin's. Last week may have been all about 'yours truly', but today was all about 'the big guy'. 

Perhaps I should have changed tack and fished for barbel for once... 

But where roach are concerned I do suffer terrible tunnel vision! 

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Cotswolds Roach — The Seeking Wind

Once or twice a year we make a journey to the Cotswolds to pit our wits against the coldest fishery in all England. I think we've returned six or seven times now. The experience has never been an all out pleasure, let me tell you. And it's nothing to do with the fishery itself which is as spick and span as you'd ever like and stocked with a nice balance of species (and some of them desirable specimens if you know what to go at). But is to do with the peculiar location of it. 

You'll think the day pleasant enough as you close the front door and believe yourself well dressed for it. That's when you must turn on your heels and go back indoors. Are you wearing thermal undergarments? A turtle necked jumper and jeans? A heavy tweed jacket? That's not nearly enough, I'm afraid.

Though I'd dressed in what I consider ample protection for autumn fishing elsewhere, I packed a spare jumper yesterday morning well aware that where we were going I'd almost certainly require it at some point during the day. That point arrived just as soon as I'd dropped the tackle into my first choice of swim...

Here we go again. 

Martin tends not to move once settled in his first choice. In fact I cannot remember him ever changing his peg without being forced off by circumstance in all the time I've known him, which is getting on for a decade now. He's fishing two pegs to my left. About ten minutes after our first casts I hear him call "fish on...", and then there's this sickening splintering 'crack!' followed by, "Oh, Shit!".

His 'circumstance' has arrived.

Lucky for us that I have my roach pole with me because without it we'd be going home far earlier than expected.

I have ants in my denim pants. I'll move two or three times in any given session. But fishing this venue I'll change six or seven times to find my fish because their location is determined by an all important factor and I think that never more so than with our target species. For some reason those roach that live in lakes (and the big ones especially) do seem to like a bit of undertow. 

We have the wind on our backs. Though the water is choppy over the far bank it's quite calm out front but we have undertow flowing left to right to contend with. Martin fishing worm and caster fares well with an opening specimen of 1lb 6oz between plenty of pound-plus perch. But my maggots fail to raise a bite in the first two hours and so I move round the lake a little way and fish worm myself. 

It seems a good move. I do get a respectable roach there and plenty of good sized perch too but the swim dies off and does not seem to be entering recovery any time soon so I move again. More in order to seek shelter from the persistent wind than to actually find roach, I might add. I discover a peg tucked behind a bush that offers what my chilled body requires.

However, there's no denying that I'm going to have to move again because there's just small perch in front of me and too many carp splashing about for comfort. When I hook and bank a small example I decide that either I go to a different lake on the complex where I know there's a sheltered spot and there catch small tench, or, I go back where I started, endure the wind, and pursue big roach with a couple of handfuls of scrounged caster.  

Passing Martin on the way round I see him playing a carp. Looks like the same one I'd just returned a hundred yards away. I think two carp arriving so close together an ominous sign. Last time I fished caster at this venue I caught six or seven roach over a pound in a couple of hours only to have carp invade the swim around 2pm and wreck it. It's 2pm now. Nevertheless, an all out caster attack is what I plan and what I'll execute regardless.

This next and final choice of swim is a more a matter of instinct than anything else. Dropping the tackle on the grass I walk past a dozen options and back again before deciding that I really am drawn to one in particular. It smells ever so 'roachy' for no particular reason that I can fathom because it smells just as much of nothing peculiar as the rest...

However, once summoned for his spaniel-like nose, the judgement of my primal angler must be obeyed. 

Fifty or so of the wonder pupae are broadcast just where near shelf slopes away to deeper water. Then I practise the 'little and often' method — feeding accurately over the float with just a pinch of three or four every few minutes. It soon works its magic but the worm rig must be amended because the sudden sharp dips are impossible to hit. At least I know that I have found roach. Perch would just drag the bait off and produce clear sail away bites.

The shotting pattern is radically altered to allow a single dark floating caster to sink through the last twelve inches by weight of the hook alone and with just one small tell-tale shot above. All the bulk bar one left at half-depth are bunched under the float. This has the appreciable effect of slowing bites down. Finally I hook what I know must be a roach. At just over a pound in weight I think it a promising start. 

The trouble with caster is that the slow fall of free offerings brings roach up in the water. They will then attack the shot and produce many false bites that are almost indistinguishable from real ones. I guess its just something that has to be put up with. Roach never do get any easier. Even when caster drives them crazy they'll suck them in, crush them, and spit them out in the blink of an eye. And I'm getting shelled almost every bite.

So I thread them up the shank of the hook. 


Whatever this is — it's worth keeping.

It's not a carp and I don't think it's a perch either...

"Perhaps it's a bream?".

And I tell myself that's what it must be even when I see a broad green back emerge. 

Just as well. I might have made a terrible blunder at the net had it flashed a bright silver flank...

Calling Martin over I put the fish back in the water for safe keeping — but not before checking the meshes for large holes!

A truly beautiful young thing without a scale out of place. I tell myself against all reason that she might run close on two-pounds because disappointment is so often the roach angler's lot and prudence his best friend. But my other best friend arrives in an incautious frame of mind and he declares it "a good 'two and a half ' any day of the week" at first sight! 

Only the one way to find out...

The pointer of my trusty 4lb Salters bought eight years ago after a very near miss with and expressly for the purpose of weighing my future 'fish of a lifetime', had never registered better than 6 ounces under in all that time... 

At long last it plain sails past the two-pound mark and settles rock steady at three-ounces in excess. 

The sun shone upon the lake for the first time in the whole of the day. The seeking wind petered out and the air warmed. A coincidental lull in the weather. 

I thought it remarkable how very impressive roach of such size are when taken out of their natural element but how very slight they seem on their return. She was as long as my forearm and extended hand to the tip of my middle finger. Yet back in the water such measurements seemed insignificant and tawdry. In a few seconds she was gone.

I'll admit I was quite saddened by her dignified vanishing because as preposterous as it may sound... 

I'd felt the overwhelming desire to take her home.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Invasive Species — Of Couch Grass, Himalayan Balsam, and Signal Crayfish

There's an allotment society down Cubbington Road. I used to hold one many years ago. At the southern end is where you'll find spare plots up for grabs. Going spare because they are overgrown with couch grass. Let's give one to an experienced and wise old gardener and that adjacent to a rather hot-headed young man, eager to learn, but new to the game. See who wins out...

The old guy diligently loosens the grass at the root with a fork then pulls up the clumps and leaves them on the ground to dry. After a day's back-breaking work he's grubbed up about ten square yards, if that. The newbie brings in a strimmer, cuts it all back by noon, and fills his plastic compost bins to their brims. He then brings in his pride and joy. A second-hand petrol fuelled rotovator he'd purchased along with the strimmer from an old lady gardener just down the road from home, and turns over the entire plot in the afternoon.  In just one day he has a plot to seed, but the old boy looks something of a loser.

However, one knows something the other doesn't...

By the end of winter the old boy has finally cleaned his plot and then begins sowing potatoes end to end. As he digs and heaps the soil into ridges he turns in the dried clumps with dead roots attached, removes those many stray live plants and broken roots that he finds, and leaves them on the ridge peaks to dry in the sun. 

The newbie already has sown half or more with every classic vegetable in the rack and is now hell bent on seeding the rest with what exotics he can find online. He's also ladled on the fertilizer. And bought himself a shiny and very sharp stainless steel spade. There's rather a lot of fresh grass shoots arising, he notices. But then he goes away for a fortnight thinking his seedlings will thrive in his absence. On his return he finds his plot a field of lush light green and his seedlings smothered.  

The potato shoots emerge through the dried roots and soon the old boy's plot is also a sea of green. But it's the dark green of success because when the vigorous spud plants shoot up and outward they smother what grass emerges. He doesn't even bother to pull up what does break through the dense cover and thrive. Job done he surveys the scene, goes home, and leaves the crop to its own devices till harvest time. 

The newbie struggles to contain things only able to return weekends. When he hoes it in, it makes no long term difference. The bloody stuff returns and worse, his seedlings are not exactly thriving amongst it. By midsummer he is involved in trench warfare. Harvest time comes around and he picks what he can. 

The old guy returns only during protracted dry spells knowing his spuds will last through wet spells but get a little blighted. He doesn't care. He didn't plant them for the purposes of his own sustenance. Turning over his rows one by one, removing what grass roots he finds and laying them on the ground to dry in the sun and wind. he slowly harvests the crop. But taking all the wilted potato haulm and grass stalks to his properly constructed compost heap made of old pallets where he mixes both together and spreads them between alternate layers of soil. 

The crop isn't a heavy one without an application of fertiliser in springtime and plenty of grass having competed with it, but he knew that would be the case. When the job is done he looks at his nicely conditioned crumbly soil and leaves it for a fortnight. When he returns he plucks what grass shoots emerged meanwhile, root and all, and puts them in a bucket. And then he gets his fork and turns over the entire plot in a day and leaves it as rough chunks for the sun to bake and the coming frosts to break down further. What roots he finds he lays on the surface to dry and the bucket load is spread too. 

The newbie returns with his bargain rotovator thinking the old boy a martyr to hard work digging always with a fork and nothing more efficient. And a fool too, because he always leaves such an untidy mess of straggly roots behind him! He turns his entire plot over in an hour vowing to smash the damned grass to smithereens...

Both leave the plots alone throughout wintertime but spring comes around once more and the two plots are entirely different things. Both have grown plenty of clumps of grass meanwhile, but one is a clump here and there while the other is smothered end to end.

They set back to work... 

Three years on the old boy's plot is a thriving one — almost, but not quite cleared of couch grass. The entire volume of which and the essential nutrients contained therein, all returned to the soil without loss. He's also laid old paving slabs and patio paviours he's found in household skips. Not flat for pathways. But vertically and all around the perimeter of the plot with just the top edges showing above ground without gaps between. 

The newbie however, has been actively pulling up grass clumps, roots and all, and putting them in his plastic compost bin with all kinds of other random stuff. And then when it looks half done spreading it back on the soil and digging it in where surely worms will eat what wasn't composted. But still the grass grows and he's losing the battle. 

He doesn't know something the other does...

At harvest time he throws in the towel, picks what he can, and sells his rotovator and strimmer to the old boy for a pittance, who takes them home and puts them outside the house with a 'For Sale" sign attached.

Couch grass is not an invasive species unless in the microcosm of an allotment. But like balsam and crayfish the rhizome seems almost indestructible. Will easily survive the lukewarm heat of a badly made compost heap and chopped into a hundred pieces by rotovator, spade and hoe, will throw up exactly one hundred new offspring who'll lace the underground with yet more well developed rhizomes should they be left to grow. There is no easy cure except by thorough drying or soaking the soil in Paraquat, which is hardly a good idea on an allotment.

Himalayan Balsam is similarly equipped to survive the best efforts of all but the cleverest to defeat it. Each year well-meaning people go out on early summer 'balsam bashing' parties, where they fail to make the slightest dent in its armour. Like the newbie either they don't understand the plant they tackle or haven't the stomach for protracted systematic warfare.

There is a way to control balsam cheaply and effectively and without knock-on environmental damage to sensitive biosystems.  I'm surprised that no-one has yet thought of it. None of that grubbing them up by the root necessary. That's needless time consuming work when the plant is an annual and utterly reliant on seed dispersal for regeneration. You supply your band of workers with hedge trimmers, toodle along to the riverbank with picnic hampers, and enjoy a relaxing late summer social cutting off the flower sprays and underdeveloped seed heads. And then you don your waders and do the same in the water. 

Nothing to do after that. No removal of debris. No mulching down of remains and all that nonsense. Just leave the scene of decapitated stalks behind and break open the hampers!

You don't have to be 100% successful in removing each and every flower and seed head, each and every year. You won't achieve anywhere near that — just a few missed seed heads will easily repopulate when mature and explode shooting seeds up to twenty feet distant. This is a war of attrition. You do have to be 100% diligent. The practice must take place 'annually' when the plant is at its weakest having spent almost all its energy making young seed. And for years to come because mature seed remains viable for two years. Soon the colony will be weakened, then contained, and in time will be utterly eradicated.

And then severe outbreaks caused by negligence are simple to rectify — fine those who fail to keep their riverbanks in good order. Nothing ensures due diligence like an 'annually' emptied pocket.

Signal crayfish are a rather different prospect. It is not possible to cut their nads off. Well, it is. X-ray techniques can be used to sterilise males to be returned en-masse to the watercourse to impregnate fertile females. But not on the scale we require. 

God made crayfish with claws that cannot rotate 360 degrees to ensure they couldn't eat their own arses. I'm sure they would if they could because they will eat anything remotely edible. It has to be their downfall. Bait trapping is the way forward. But not with those little net traps that require someone return each and every day. But with big floating holding tanks cunningly designed to attract and keep them by the thousand. 

I'd propose twinned tanks with different sized entrances and with no way out once in. One is for immature specimens, the other for sexy full-grown ones. You remove the weekly catch from the small specimen tank, destroy them all but re-bait the traps with a few handfuls of well crushed corpses.

Those in the large specimen tank must be sexed, the females destroyed, but the big aggressive males all returned. Then you tow the tanks elsewhere and moor them for a week. And do this again, and again. When the whole stretch is completed, you make your return to point one and start over.

As time goes by the watercourse will become overburdened with males and under populated with females. The net result is going to be a disaster for the entire population because those many large males, but fewer and fewer smaller females, will surely eat their ever dwindling annual recruitment and when they run that supply down, will turn on each other.  

The boys will win that last desperate skirmish. The girls won't stand a chance against their superior size and reach. But it will be a pyrrhic victory for them.

If you don't tackle the root of the problem and tackle it wisely and diligently, you'll seem to win every battle, but will surely lose the war. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Canal Zander & Perch — A Turn for the Worse

The Avon was as clear as I have ever seen it be. Chalk stream clear is what it was, but that's not a good thing in a mud stream, let me tell you. What we Midlanders want, is 'a nice tinge of green'. It's what we'd engineer for every fishing day if only we could control the weather. But we can't. 

Meat to the left of me, dead bait to the right
Martin and yours truly were to fish a new stretch. Well, it was for me. I think he's fished it once before. Anyhow, he cleaned up and beat into the weeds not only myself but the ten or twelve anglers taking part in a Saturday morning match. He should have taken part. His chop fuelled perch catch would have paid for the journey there and back, and his costly bait too.

He'd fished a swim I'd occupied earlier for barbel and predators. Then trotted worm over chop introduced via  bait dropper. He had a nice catch totalling about seven or eight pounds, with the best fish going 1lb 14oz. Chopped worm, you see. He did advise a lady competitor to go about things the same way before the whistle. She ignored him. And struggled.

I struggled too. Had a small chub and a few gudgeon on bread when I finally tired of the motionless heavy rods. But really it was quite hopeless. 

C'mon you buggers!

We'd fished the previous night for zander elsewhere. I had two runs after dark, hooked and lost the first to the left-hander toting a conventional wide gape 'J' hook but banked the second to the right-hander which turned out to be a very hard fighting pike of about three-pounds weight. Very cleanly hooked by the circle pattern, and I was very impressed. 

So I thought I'd pursue my experiments with the very same rig, but in a canal...

My theory was that I should hang a bobbin on the line to give a zander enough slack to get the slice of skimmer in, allow it to take up line against a heavy lead, and then hook itself against its weight. The sign of which would be the fish pulling the rod in the water. I'd left my bobbins at home so a broken stick was pressed into service. A bobbin is a bobbin after all.

Waiting for the proof of the effectiveness of my cunning plan, meanwhile I fished for perch on a short pole. But I hadn't bargained with the weather... 

Just as soon as I'd fed the swim, the heavens opened and the rain fell in bucket loads. 

It fell hard for an hour or more in which time I didn't get a touch. My trusty old cagoule that's always stuffed into the side-pocket in case of emergencies failed me. When new it helped me enjoy a force six storm way out in the Bristol channel and has saved me from a drenching on many unforeseen downpours since. Clearly knackered. It was now taking on water.

The rain didn't look like abating any time soon I thought of going home while I was still warm. Just as I prepared to, the zander rod laying on the grass bucked as a fish tried to pull it in. I wound down gently, took up the fight, and then teased in what I'd set out for. 

The rig had worked just how I'd imagined it would and the hook was set perfectly.

A lady from a nearby boat passed by in a bright orange cagoule that wasn't taking on water. Though it was hammering down she stopped in her tracks. Had always believed the canal had nothing whatsoever living in it, thought it astonishing that it should, and was dumbstruck by the evidence that it did. She was simply amazed by this fish. Its pristine beauty impressed her. Easy for us anglers to forget such important things in the pursuit of size and number...

Though she did ask in parting if they grew any larger! 

Briefly the rain eased off when the perch float dragged under very slowly and I hooked what had to be another of those nice fat ones I've seen so much of recently. And sure enough, it was another two-pounder. Just as I thought it might be.

But then things really did take a turn for the worse. And so I scarpered...