Thursday 26 February 2015

Lords of the Piscine Punyverse — Gonna Need a Bigger Jam Jar (Pt 4)

In pursuit of the river's elusive gudgeon, last weekend I went back to the scene of the previous week's less than successful mission in order to fish alternative swims. Rain was predicted early morning but it didn't arrive till I'd set off so I got a little time in before the water began to rise. I caught roach after roach, but no perch and no gudgeon either. After a couple of hours I was soaked and freezing and as bites begun to peter out, when I snagged up and lost a hook I called it a morning unwisely spent and went back home.

It took almost a full day for the water to peak and very nearly a week to subside back to normal winter levels (I didn't think so much water had fallen as actually had) but yesterday afternoon it looked just so. Unfortunately, I had work to do, so I postponed the planned session till this morning.

Knowing another brief band of rain was on the way by late morning I thought I'd have hours to play with before the extra water pushed levels up and forced me off but it came earlier than expected and had been falling for an hour or two when I finally got out the door. However, on arrival it looked good to me.

A nice bit of colour and an upbeat pace to the river reminded me of the day I'd caught the big minnow. They hadn't been there when it was low, slow and crystal clear, so I hoped they'd be back in residence now it was running a tad faster, deeper and dirtier.

I float fished the swim hoping it would lend better control than free-lining had and that was a good decision because I could have the tiny worm section bait trot down or have it amble about in the far bank slack. Just as well because that's where the bites were and I had three minnows for my trouble before bites became hard to find. But I failed to catch any of the size of the lumps I'd had the first time out.

Nevertheless, it was the first chance I'd had to accurately weigh and measure minnows. So I set to work on my recording of them just like a proper scientist would. You know. With due diligence... 

However, it's not that easy! The merest breath of breeze sets the scales to work recording the force of moving air and a drop or two of water makes for unacceptable inaccuracies recording such very low weights. The trick is to add a little water to the pan to avoid having them stick to dry plastic, then zero the scales, pick the fish up by the tail so that excess water drops away and place it carefully on the pan. Then, take a reading during a break in the wind!

Seriously, you could gauge the gust force of a fart with these things...

I have to say that they were very well behaved and didn't flap about at all once on the pan so they were very easy to measure with the pair of vernier dial calipers. The smallest came in at 5.25 grams with a length of 75.8mm, the middling one at 6.05 grams and 81.7mm, the largest at 6.25 grams and 83.3mm.

None were anywhere near so plump as my 104 mm giant who was a full 20mm longer than the best of the day, whose tail and head would both overhang the pan's diagonal measurement of 100mm, and who weighed at least double that of the smallest and perhaps double the largest too. It  struck me looking at them swimming about in the jam jar that a fish any larger than Her Majesty would not fit in it with comfort...

But these today were ones that fit such a jar well. Your ordinary common or garden minnows.  Not those you'd write blogs about unless you were desperate!

I don't care, nor do I feel in any conceivable way, desperate. These fish are interesting and as I'm discovering the smaller they are the more challenging they are to catch and quantify. “You can’t just drop in somewhere and expect to get a little fish, you know” said the legendary Dennis Flack. And he was right. They take just as much time and effort to find and catch as any other specimen of any species would.

But then I felt my feet were wet and saw I was standing in the reed bed under four inches of water. The rain had caught me out once more and it was time to move on up to the pool where I spent a little more time in hope. But it was hopeless there. The water had risen a full six inches in one hour and was going to peak another foot higher later in the day. Though I had one small bullhead from the churning brick red water, minnows had ceased feeding long ago and so I went home defeated by the weather yet again.

Sunday 15 February 2015

Lords of the Piscine Punyverse — On Yer Bike (Pt 3)

Having lost my minnows, not yet found my gudgeon, and more than a little concerned about catching bullheads for the hell of it, I was at a loss to explain to myself where next to try.

Because I'd only ever seen gudgeon once and then amongst a mixed shoal of roach and perch, because such shoals are typical for the northern reaches of this small river, and because I know where such shoals can be found, therefore, revisiting known haunts armed with worms might well get me what I wanted. Hoping that this genius thought process would send me all the way to the bright lights, elegant bistros, wine bars, and intellectual chatter of the art houses of uptown Gobions Reach... 

I got on my bike and went downstream in earnest.

The river looked good. A nice tinge of green from the previous night's brief rain meant that natural cover was over their heads and therefore things should go according to plan. Straight off the bat I had bites and fish too. Roach, then perch, then roach, and then perch. None large enough to warrant much attention but very pretty all the same. My worms were all the rage. Bites a'plenty.  

But there were no gudgeon. Nor were there minnows. Bullheads in very short supply. I'd heard that they don't like to be disturbed. Liking their rocks so much they'll live under one alone and for an entire lifetime only going out on the town once a year to meet and seduce a mate, shag, the bloke tending the resulting eggs while the bird presumably continues her flirtations, and when it's all over he'll abandon the offspring, go home and put his fins up, popping round the corner shop for a caddis and shrimp paella ready-meal every now and then.

If you catch one and return it anywhere far from its abode apparently it'll be accosted and mugged  by other pugnacious fellows defending their personal kingdoms, and be likely killed. I don't know what 'anywhere far' means for a bullhead. I suppose safe means ten feet or less, because they are very small fish and eleven feet is a long and perilous swim home through the dark, dingy and downright dangerous environs found in the downtown quarter of Millers Thumb Lane.

To be honest I didn't expect worms to fail me. Almost all the fishing I've conducted downstream has been with bread baits and very successful it has been with roach up to a pound and a quarter and often multiple catches of pound plus fish. Bread will take gudgeon on occasion, but I never saw one. I did fish worms once in high summer but I was stalking individual perch that day. Fish I could see quite clearly and cast to. I had loads. I think I caught every one I saw plus the pike who attacked those I'd hooked. Again, the perch reach a pound and a quarter just like the roach. It seems to be the ceiling weight for such a small watercourse.

Worms were not nearly so selective of the larger roach as bread had always been and I was surprised how many small roach I was catching. I don't know if it was the tinge of colour in the water that made them so easy. I'd always assumed they didn't like worms because that day I'd caught all the perch in the entire stretch, the accompanying roach whose numbers trebled those of their stripy shoal mates, wouldn't go near them. 

Hopping swim to swim I wound up on a corner pool that I'd never fished successfully. Again, plenty of bites but these were timid ones that I hoped might be from minnows. I could not hook them. I thought that encouraging and so I cut the bait size right down in an attempt to snare one. What I got was a slew of small roach and even smaller perch, but then hooked what was clearly a much larger fish. 

Against a featherweight rod the fish in this river fight really hard and so I didn't see it clearly for a time. You can't easily bully them up and till they tire they race up and down, here and there. Sometimes when hooked they'll leave the water in surprise. They really are worthy opponents and give it their all. When I did see it, I thought it was a perch because it wasn't flashing bright silver flanks as roach would. But it was a roach after all. And one of the very oldest residents I'd say because its scales had that peculiar quality that on big rivers ancient two-pounders might acquire. Not so bright and clean as a youth's clear complexion. And despite the fact that its fins were in absolutely mint condition, its armour plating was kind of gnarly.

I didn't quantify the old girl, but I guessed a pound or so. 

I do like to catch roach of this size (and who doesn't)? But on this occasion I couldn't help feeling that she was something of a consolation prize for failing to find those fish I'd ventured out for. 

I guessed the absence of gudgeon, minnows and bullheads might have had something to do with the substrate of sandy silt and the sluggish flow not suiting them well where the graded gravels of the swifter upstream waters suited better. But I honestly don't know. I only began fishing seriously for these tiddler species a few short weeks ago and though I'm learning every day, I'll freely admit I know next to nothing about their habits and their habitats.  

Maybe it'll take years to acquire knowledge of them, but by end of season I hope to have plenty enough errors and hopefully few enough successes under my belt to approach an understanding of sorts. 

Friday 13 February 2015

Lords of the Piscine Punyverse — Confusion Reigns! (Pt 2)

When I got home last week I was chilled to the marrow but quite excited by the unfolding drama I'd experienced.  It had warmed my heart catching such tiny fish by design but those surprisingly large minnows really had set my fishing soul on fire. Setting to work composing a blog, I wrote it up in an hour or so, edited pictures, inserted them and hit the 'publish' button. I thought my minnow interesting but not seriously exceptional. Some considerable way short of the 13.5 dram record, it was big, but not huge.

But I then practiced what I always do after chance discoveries that lead me into hitherto unknown realms, and that is to go into deep delving mode and search Google for every permutation of words about the subject matter I can think of — because it's all out there somewhere, if only you have the patience...

There's wasn't a lot out there on minnow fishing, it has to be said. But then I stumbled across Dr Mark Everard's 2005 capture of a record breaking minnow that was claimed as such according to Mail Online ~

"This was caught by design and is a legitimate British record," he said. "It weighed 15 grams — anything under a pound has to be weighed in grams."

Dr Everard has contacted the British Record Fish Committee, based in Devon, who are to verify the record.

The previous record minnow was caught in Spennymoor, County Durham, and weighed 13.5 grams.

So I went to the official BRFC listings updated in January of this year, where I discovered that his claim had not been ratified, or if it had, then the list had not been updated to include it because the old 1998 record still stood so far as it was concerned. And then I noticed a problem... 

Was the 13.5 gram record in fact 13.5 drams? Dr Everard didn't seemed to think so at the time and the committee seemed to agree according to the Daily Mail. So I went back to the BRFC list where it does not have the record for minnow expressed in grams but in fractions of an ounce. It says quite clearly, 13.5 dms / 0.024 Kilo (24 grams).

Perhaps that's why his claim does not appear? Maybe the original record was deemed correct at 13.5 drams after all and his claim discounted. But, I really don't think a minnow can achieve that weight. Based on the lengths and weights of my fish (14.2 grams and 10.2 cm length) and Dr Everard's too (15 grams and 11.4cm) my initial projections say it would have been something in the order of 7 inches in length (17.8cm) to have attained such enormity, That's about the length of Dr Everard's entire hand from finger tip to wrist.

Can you stretch your imagination so very far that it can picture my minnow with a body the size of a Swiss Army Knife, and then make the enormous leap of faith required to believe in one with a body the size of a Stanley Knife?

You can't do it, can you?

Well, I know I can't...

The record has to be a plausible 13.5 grams. In which case...

Dr Everard's fish wasn't worthy of close attention, ergo, it does not matter that my minnow was worthy of a record claim either. Where would I have got a witness anyhow? Some hapless dog walker accosted by a bearded wild-eyed madman in tweed coat asking for phone number and address in a public park in broad daylight wielding a strapping minnow in his filthy dirty hand!

I had put her back to the water without regret so I cannot be regretful in hindsight. She was only a minnow... But what a minnow she was! I couldn't help wondering if there were others that size down there and perhaps even larger still. I mean, you do wonder these things, don't you? Well, I do when only tenths of a gram shy of a record! And so I found myself having to get a set of scales to do justice to the job because my trusty dace set may do a sterling job of low ounces but had proven impossible to use effectively around the half-ounce notch when the lightest form of weighing sling possible had to be reckoned with too.

Mick Newey kindly donated a set of Salter diet scales (what minnow-sized morsels these pernickety dieters must eat!) Sensitive enough to weigh the tiny worm itself, they seemed just the thing. Properly armed with those plus a pair of vernier calipers, notebook with pencil (ink hates water) to jot the details on and a large jam jar pilfered from the spice shelf in our galley kitchen in which I'd retain specimens (didn't want them spooking the shoal on return, you understand...) I set off to do battle with Their Majesties once again.

Of course, first port of call was the swim fished last week from whence the minnows had arisen where I got to catch its bullheads instead. Hey ho, they'll do for starters! Out came the kit and the fish were put under close scrutiny. Largest went 11.35 gms and was 85mm in length. Smaller than last week's best though...

I saw three hand-sized roach under the brambles (in the picture above, if you can spy them) who refused worms point blank, but perhaps the water was too clear for minnows who were probably hiding themselves away from aerial predators. I did catch three more tiny bullheads each a third the size of the earlier specimen and then two miniscule perch the size of the kind of minnows I was after before I had to move along. Realising that the minnows were not catchable from this swim today, if indeed they hadn't moved out because I saw none at all, the pool upstream seemed best bet.

More bullheads were what it gave up. None of any size though. I couldn't see them being so well camouflaged against the gravely bottom but could witness the worm vanish and the shot drag away as they scuttled back to bolt holes under the rocks and stones with their prizes. I didn't see a single minnow there.  Though the swim usually holds many hundreds. As for gudgeon, the species of fish I'd originally set out for. Well, they didn't show either and so I went home none the wiser with James and Brian short on data and myself with a big fat minnow of a problem to solve.

Where had they gone? To shallow rapid water where the shimmering ripples might hide them from view? Downstream to deeper and slower territory where they might vanish beneath the gloom?

Who knows!

But I intend to find them out.

Tuesday 3 February 2015

Lords of the Piscine Punyverse — Revelation (Pt 1)

Reading of James Denison and Brian Robert's recent exploits with the big gudgeon of the London chalk streams reminded me that I once saw a gonk every bit as large as their captures in the river ten minutes from home, and perhaps larger still...

It was high summer when I last took a walk down there. A bright sunny day this and with gin clear water flowing it was an excellent opportunity for spotting fish so I was hoping to find the roach and perch who'd occupied a certain swim in early springtime. A narrow glide of smooth water no more than three feet in width flanked with high reeds and overhanging brambles far bank, it was just a little deeper than elsewhere nearby and the cover provided seemed to make the perfect lie for such a small shoal.

I found them again just where they'd been before and their number had increased encouragingly. So I crouched down quietly in the tall green stems with a long stick to make an observation gap with when I noticed another species had joined them. There were three gudgeon rooting about. The usual size, nothing remarkable. They were an interesting addition, though, because I'd never paid much attention to the species before but now found their habits fascinating. And then, out of nowhere, came a monster twice the size of the others...

I overbalanced in shock, and very nearly fell in! 

The fish was astonishing. Truly a Lord of the Piscine Punyverse

Today I thought I'd join James and Brian in their mission to compile data for a useful graph Brian is in process of creating showing the length/weight relationship of Gobio gobio. Having made such graphs myself a while back I find such stuff fascinating for all kinds of reasons, not least of which is that of them predicting the maximum possible weight for certain species of fish for the river, the country, and ultimately, the world.  So, I set out with the intention of catching gudgeon of any size, but really, I was hoping to catch that very big fish I'd seen.

I took along a precision 2lb capacity spring balance in half-ounce divisions to weigh them with, a gnat-weight plastic bag to weight them in, and a metal ruler to gauge them against. I wanted to be precise about it because such data has to be that or the graph produced really doesn't mean a thing when you're a quarter of an ounce light or heavy or a quarter inch short or long. And the smaller the species the truer that becomes.

I started out not in the intended swim but a deeper pool a little way upstream. What I hadn't bargained for was for the first fish caught to be not gudgeon who peak at five ounces but bullhead who peak at one. It was too small to bother measuring. Certainly no larger than any I'd caught before. 

However, the next was a larger one but still not worth measuring. Then I had a minnow, and another, and another. I had two at once — one on the hook, the other on the worm's tail! All the usual size, though. Nothing to get excited about. 

The third bullhead was worth measuring and came in at 9.5 cm (3 3/4 inches) in length and a massive 2.9 cm across the head. I estimated it weighing about a third of ounce because it was not nearly as long as a corpse I'd taken home in summer and weighed with great care at exactly half an ounce. However, the fish was actually my personal best by some margin so I was very pleased with it. 

I then lost quite a large minnow. Then another about the same size too before the bites dried up. Quite miffed‚ actually. They looked big fish to my eyes...

At the reedy glide I was a little concerned to find it flowing with a little too much pace for my liking and two or three feet wider now the encroaching vegetation had died hard back. 

I didn't think it looked very good for gudgeon but had a cast about anyhow. I did get bites, but these were proper ones more like those of perch or chublet than the tiny twangs of minnow or the indescribably subtle bites of bullhead. In came a very small perch. Then I lost similar so I thought my reckoning correct...

Just when I was about to leave not wanting perch that size on my hook with all the fiddly deep throat surgery that might involve, the tip flew round and in came the largest minnow I'd ever caught before. Quite an impressive fish. I measured her for the hell of it. 8.9 cm. I didn't try weighing her. But she was another personal best by at least a fingernail!

What happened next simply blew me away.

Having got used to catching very, very tiny fish across the last two hours and measuring them when they seemed measurable, the world itself had become very, very small indeed and that made very, very small things seem very, very large!

I struck a full blooded bite that moved the tip the enormous distance of one half-inch, when up from the water came what I first believed was a good sized bullhead, only to find a great fat minnow dangling in front of my popping eyes.

Minus her tail she had a body the size of a Swiss Army Knife! Plus her tail she was 10.2 cm long. As thick as my index finger across her back and fat in the belly, she was a giant the like of which I'd never seen.

Of course I weighed her... Because I had to!

Blimey, what a job that was. For the first time ever I really wished I had (God forbid!) a set of digital scales. Kitchen scales. You know? Purpose built for weighing out tiny accuracies of dead expensive shit like ambrosia and nectar, white truffle and saffron. Ones just like those Brian has found he must use for gudgeon, in fact. Because she went clearly half an ounce but a tiny, tiny, incalculable bit more. 

I gave her nine drams and then gave up trying!

Nevertheless, my nine-dram minnow is a great big minnow. A really huge one. The record stands at 13.5 drams (and how it was weighed is anyone's guess, but I bet it was fun!) and that's a a seriously big minnow. But one that's only 4.5 drams (less than a quarter-ounce) more which is about the size of one of your ordinary minnows...

She was also 66.666 recurring as a percentage of that record. A devilish beast!