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Fishing in the summer of 1976

The diary reveals what conditions and fishing was like in the summer of ’76 - out hottest and driest ever

The heatwave that began what seems to have been ages ago has continued through July, temperatures here in north-west England reaching 32°C in the shade in my garden. Despite the fact that heavy rain fell on the 12th, 16-17th (overnight), 20th, 28th (a real thunder storm) and 30th, which nicely watered my vegetable plot, it had little real effect on our rivers for the ground was so dry and cracked – some cracks on dry pastures were wide enough to put in an entire hand – that little reached the rivers. Indeed, as I write this on August 4, the Lune gauge at Killington, the Hodder gauge at Hodderfoot and the Ribble gauge at Gisburn are at summer low’s lowest, with the Gisburn marker lower than a normal summer extreme low! Some lesser streams in the region are now running dry, and the river water temperature is near lethal for salmonids, and on some river stretches – most notably in the middle-lower Ribble – thick growths of blanketweed (a filamentous green alga, Cladophora) are taking so much oxygen from the water at or within the river bed as the alga respires at night, that the more sensitive aquatic invertebrates (stoneflies, upwings and some caddis) are under serious threat.

On Monday 30th I called at the Port of Lancaster Smokehouse and talked with Mike Price, the proprietor of this gastronomic corner of Lancashire. Mike has a net on the Lune estuary and had been out that morning. There had been a slight rise in water height following the thunderstorm on the 28th (the rain on the 30th fell in the evening), but Mike reported it to have been a filthy rise carrying lots of blanketweed. Previously there had been plenty of salmon in the estuary and he showed me a lovely silver brace from the previous day. Looking out over the estuary and thinking of our other river mouths, I worried about other salmon that, prepared to run but unable to do, might not survive.

As I write, this hot weather is forecast to continue.

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If you were to look back in my diary to June 7, I began that day’s record with, ‘Hot & sunny. DRY – are we in for a ’75 or ’76 summer?’
Now people are asking if the 2018 summer will beat the 1976 summer for its duration and maximum temperatures.

Let me take you back there, for in those two hot summers, 42 and 43 years ago, I was working on the wildlife of the Ribble estuary, and making the odd very late evening trip with a trout rod up to the middle Ribble. Chub and dace then abounded in the Ribble and they came on to feed from last light and into the dark. I was then primarily a North Country Spider wet fly angler, with my favourite cast of Orange Partridge (with gold rib) on the point, Waterhen Bloa on the middle, and Snipe & Purple on the top dropper. Arthritis prevents me doing this now, but if you are fit and the weather continues like this, and you have good ‘coarse’ river fish handy, why not try it?

I used to tie a keep-net to my belt, wade out to thigh depth (few of us used chest-high waders then) and fish what Hugh Falkus called ‘round the clock’: stand in the one position and start by casting upstream, then up-and-across, then across, then down-and-across. Now take one stride downstream and repeat. Some nights in those two hot summers I caught a lot of fish and even hooked two and three chub on one single cast! At the end of the pool I would empty the keep-net and record the catch in my notebook and then, back at home, my diary.

If you live near an estuary you can fly fish in heatwaves like the one we are now suffering from. Back then, I used my old fibreglass 10ft 6in Bruce & Walker sea trout rod and my target species were mullet and bass, which were then abundant in the Ribble estuary.
I carried two flies for mullet: tiny spidery wet flies with a few strands of green floss and a bit of green seal’s fur to match a fragment of floating alga and the Killer Bug. Sometimes I would spot mullet feeding at the surface on an ebbing tide and frequently they would be taking bits of alga floating downstream. On a flooding tide I often saw them heading up one creek in only a few inches of water and taking the small mud shrimp Corophium volutator; then a size 14 Killer Bug was simple but effective.

My favourite time for catching bass was on the ebb, in the main river channel. The maze of salt-marsh creeks would be bank-high on a spring tide but empty at low water, and behind the stone boulder walls that bordered the shipping channel were pools that were full at high water and empty at low water. Both creeks and pools held lots of feeding fry and lesser fish at high tide and, during the ebb, the bass would be there, waiting for and devouring these titchy fish as they were forced out by the ebb. A fast-sinking fly line, a short (2-3 feet) hefty leader and the simplest of flies (silver tinsel body, and a mix of white, grey and olive hair with a few fibres of silver Twinkle on a size 8 long shank stainless steel hook). The short leader was essential in that, with a long leader, the fly-line is sinking but the fly on the long leader isn’t sinking fast enough. Sometimes I would put a swan-shot on the line in front of the hook-eye.

And there is always mackerel, if you are not far from the coast. If that lovely fish ran our rivers they would be rated almost as highly as sea trout! Early on Sunday July 18, 1976 three of us went out ‘feathering’ and fly fishing for mackerel off the south Lancashire coast. We landed 160 and went round the pubs at lunchtime selling them at 10p each.  When we came to divide the profits something was wrong. Then we realised why our funds were depleted. We’d had a pint in at least one of the pubs!

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