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Beavers – good or bad news for a trout river?

Are beavers good or bad news for a trout river?

Did this trout enjoy the safety and shelter afforded by the woody debris in the pool?
Did this trout enjoy the safety and shelter afforded by the woody debris in the pool?

In my last blog, I looked at the effect beavers are having on the river and my fishing. There are lots of beavers on the stretches where I fish, and I wrote that, whilst I believe that beavers are bad news for migratory fish – mainly through their incessant damming activities – they perhaps aren't such bad news when it comes to wild brown trout.

Last July, I found myself walking downstream looking for fishable water in a rocketing river. Rain had fallen steadily for a few weeks, and the river was high – much higher than I thought it would be. I walked down the whole beat and never saw a single rise. I tried 'searching' in some pockets to no avail, so then walked back upstream.

I stopped at the head of a right-angle bend, my eyes focused on the current of a big back eddy, searching desperately for a chance of dry fly action in the curling flow. Then, in the smooth flow at the back of the pool, as the current bent into the eddy, I saw a slow, purposeful head-and-tail rise of a quality trout. I know this pool well, and so, obviously, did the trout. It had taken up a position where bankside trees make back-casting impossible, and the channel of the back eddy cuts deep under the bank, so wading here in high water is also difficult. The back of the pool is deep, steep and inaccessible, so this trout obviously felt pretty safe.

I tried three different ways to present my fly to that fish, and none of them gave me the space to drift my fly in the correct part of the river. If it had been a chess player, the trout would have said: "Check!", somewhat smugly, if I'm honest.

Looking for my next move, I realised that on my bank, directly opposite the fish, a beaver had conveniently felled a small bankside tree (as they do). Closer investigation revealed a beaver slide (a muddy chute down which they slide on their bellies to launch into the depths). I realised I could borrow their slide and use it myself to slide into the river without the fish seeing my outline on the high bank, so that was a start. Once in, up to my chest, I gingerly waded out, and across the channel of the back eddy. To my relief, the water shallowed here. Protected by branches which had been part of an old beaver dam, a sandy ridge had developed here behind the dam over the winter. Every step I now took towards the middle of the river got shallower, rather than deeper. Still just a few yards out from the bankside trees, I side-stepped further downstream a yard or two, so my back-cast would unfurl into the gap where the small tree used to be, before the beavers had felled it. If I made a back-cast at this angle, then I could deliver my fly far enough across the river in order to drift it down to the trout.

I cast out my Deer-hair Emerger, it landed in line with the rising fish, and floated down on the current, it then disappeared in a sip, and I made contact with the fish.

"Check mate!", I said, somewhat smugly.

A little too smugly, I realised, because from my vantage point, looking over the whole pool and deep into the clear water, I could now see that the river bed here was festooned with old, dead branches – the result of years of beaver-family felling and damming. There was the derelict, sunken dam – a tangle of twigs and branches – just upstream of me, woody debris from many beaver feasts coating the bottom of the eddy, and an old bough lying underwater, typically 'pencil-sharpened' by beaver incisors, which reached all the way across the eddy's flow at the back of the pool. I realised that this was the best trout I'd hooked in this Covid-foreshortened season, and the game was far from over.

It had already powered across the whole river like a tearaway bull, and had leaped on the far side, but the mainstream out there was clear. As I got it on a shorter line, I was suddenly transported back to my youth, playing trout and chub on tiny, tree-lined streams, bending the rod right round with side-strain to coax fish away from roots and sunken branches. There was very little open water around me in which to land this fish. The fish seemed to know this, and kept diving deeply and strongly, trying to reach the safety of the rotting and waterlogged leader-grabbing branches. It didn't matter which way it dived, sanctuary seemed to be close by. My five-weight bent deeply, my four-pound line sung, and I held tight. Luckily, I had my net on my back and could persuade the fish into it - a beautifully marked fish of about two pounds.

Now, there's a couple of points that I can make about that pool. It holds a lot of trout. It's not easy to fish, so that might be one reason, but another might be that, due to the amount of gnawed, sunken woody debris that has gathered in it, there's plenty of cover – one of the most important aspects of creating good trout habitat.

Secondly, there is no doubt that this fish sought the sanctuary of the sunken wood to escape – the ideal hiding place. And there's another thing. Like most UK rivers, there's a lot of cormorants, mergansers and goosanders that hunt here. A disproportionate number. However, the more woody debris underwater, the more cover trout have to escape such avian predators.

I've a feeling that such tangled, woody pools may offer welcome sanctuary and protection for trout large and small, so perhaps beavers will have a positive influence on our wild trout populations after all?

There is a postscript to this, however. Yesterday, I fished my favourite pool for salmon, where the far bank looks as if it has been attacked by one of those tractor-mounted hedging flails. Only this is not human damage, nor is it mechanical. If beavers keep doing this on our banksides then we are going to have a massive erosion problem soon, from destabilised banks.

Furthermore, if those beavers continue to ring-bark my favourite tree on my favourite pool, underneath which the salmon and sea trout lie in summer, then, when it eventually falls – which it will soon –  I'll be cursing them once more, and wishing they'd never been introduced.

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