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In the Soggy Mid-Winter

"Studies have shown that putting stocked brown trout into a river in late winter or spring results in the trout fry that have just hatched and grayling fry that will hatch being gobbled up."

Malcolm has some advice about wild & stocked trout.
Malcolm has some advice about wild & stocked trout.

November 2015 has been a very wet month; in fact, the last twelve months have been wet. Manchester is famed for being a wet city, which led cricket commentator John Arlott to point out, when the Test at Old Trafford was held up by rain, “This is the only city in the world where they have lifeboat drill on the buses!” Mean rainfall for Manchester is 35 inches per annum (87 and a bit for those who prefer foreign measurements). In the last twelve months we have enjoyed way over 50 inches and I reckon that 2015 may see a total of 60 inches. So back-end grayling fishing, with the last sparse afternoon hatches, has been a rare event, with the rivers here in northwest England anything from three feet to over ten feet above summer level. So my rods and reels have been cleaned and put away, fly-boxes tidied, and I look forward to, perhaps, February, when, on a warmish day, a few large dark olives will hatch, the grayling rise, and I will catch some on my dry flies. I just have to wait and instead enjoy a few weeks in the Canary Islands.

We are starting the day after I write this with a dozen days on Fuerteventura, the Island of Wind. This is the best wildlife island in the archipelago, where one can see birds of the Sahara, like cream-coloured coursers, black-bellied sandgrouse and houbara bustard. My ambition, yet to be fulfilled, is to find a fresh road casualty or perhaps accidentally run over one of each of these with my hire car. Then I could offset the cost of our trip by selling the feathers to Steve Cooper, of Cookshill, for a vast sum. [I’m only joking!]. But last year I had a bustard only a yard from the front right hand headlight! The car was stopped.

With all sensible fishing clubs and syndicates giving up the practice of stocking their river beats with thick farmed brown trout there has been much talk of improving the populations of wild brownies and grayling with habitat enhancement. But before I rabbit on about that, may I just say something to those who feel we should still be chucking five pound notes – I mean, farmed trout – into our rivers.

Studies have shown – just in case some of you are now yelling that fly-fishers know more about trout than scientists, studies by two clubs on the Ribble, plus my own on the Aire – these studies have shown that putting stocked brown trout into a river in late winter or spring results in the trout fry that have just hatched and grayling fry that will hatch being gobbled up. Furthermore, that without stocking the numbers of wild fish grow so large that they more than compensate for the lack of stockies. There are beats on some famous northern rivers where overstocking with big tame trout almost wiped out grayling and made wild trout rare. I know that wild trout are awkward squads, hiding in cover when they are not feeding, and (the best) taking up feeding lies that require a very careful approach, and great accuracy and delicacy in the cast. However, when you do catch a nice big wild trout from a difficult lie you may feel pleased with yourself. You have achieved something. What have you achieved by catching a daft stockie? Nowt, as they say up here.

There are two sorts of habitat improvement, inexpensive and expensive.

The inexpensive is dead easy. Wild trout like cover, which is why the words chainsaw and riverbank ought not to feature in the same sentence. “If I cut that bush so it doesn’t overhang the river I will be able to catch the trout living under it!” Yet take away that cover and you will have no trout there. The Eden, probably the finest wild trout river in northern England, is probably the finest because there are so many overhanging trees and bushes. Trout living there can be caught when they are feeding keenly in open water a few inches from their cover. And looking back over the 2015 season, some of the best trout I caught – such as three caught in one brief spell from the Cumberland Derwent – were all hooked a tiny distance from their hideaways.

So look to your rivers and, where there is water ten inches or more close to the bank, but the bank is bare, stick in some willows or alders. In very late winter, before the buds begin to burst, cut some willow twigs and stick them in. Most will root and provide the cover. Or buy a lot of already rooted cuttings or large seedlings (dead cheap on the internet). Such cover will give the trout a lie that keeps them from the prying eyes of predators.  And don’t tidy the river banks! If a big branch or whole tree falls in the river, leave it. You could even use the hedge-layering technique by cutting partway through a vertical branch at the waterside, pulling it down and then letting it trail in the river. The branch will survive and give you the cover.

The expensive is more difficult because it costs a lot of money, needs planning properly, and may need the advice of experts in the field of river management. Oh, and permission of the EA and local landowner. The oft maligned Environment Agency is strapped for cash because of government austerity measures. Fishing clubs often show willing. But suppose you are in a club with, say 200 members, each contributing £20 every year to habitat work, £4000 doesn’t go far when you may be talking of stock-proof fencing, or putting in three or four natural stone groynes.

The point is this, that in this day and age, expensive major habitat improvement can only be done by team effort, the team being the clubs and syndicates, EA, Rivers’ Trusts and national angling/fish charities. And when we talk of the charity when it comes to wild Salmo trutta, the charity to support is the Wild Trout Trust. Their autumn 2015 newsletter is crammed with conservation issues and major projects, on Cumbria’s Eden, Derwent and Kent, on Thornton Beck, the Bristol Avon, the Wandle, the Welland, a good handful of West Country rivers (Axe, Exe, Dart, Teign and South Hams), the River Lark in Suffolk, and the mighty little Yorkshire Aire. Not forgetting across the water, on the Lough Derg system.

Anyone and everyone who fishes for wild brown trout ought to be a member of the Wild Trout Trust, just as all those who enjoy fishing for the lady-of-the-stream ought to belong to the Grayling Society. You owe it to your fish. And if you, or your club, or your syndicate need some expensive but essential work doing, talk to your Rivers Trust, the EA and the Wild Trout Trust. As Mr Punch would say, “That’s the way to do it!”

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