Friday, 21 December 2012

Otters

I have just watched the "Springwatch Guide to Otters" on the TV.  Very worthwhile programme. Otters are on the increase in the UK, with the latest figures suggesting that there are about 2000 in England, and some 8000 divided between Scotland and Wales.   Many of these, especially in Scotland will be seafaring individuals, still the same species, but with their behaviour very different, being affected more by the cycle of the tides, than by darkness and the nocturnal habit.  Their numbers are still below those recorded up until the fifties, even though otter hunting was still legal back then.  I don't think otter hunting was ever very successful, being more of an excuse for grown men to go and paddle about in the river.
The 60's and 70's were not good for the otter.  Pollution of the rivers, and pesticide aggregation in their food chain had a dramatic effect on numbers with less than 10% of the original numbers surviving.  |The recent numerical increase has been mainly due to our rivers becoming cleaner.  Many anglers, some of whom actively detest the otter, blame the Otter Trust, who did indeed introduce 117 animals into the wild between 1983 and 1999. No others have been released since.   But natural recovery was a far stronger force, and the numbers would have recovered very nearly as quickly even without the assistance of the Trust.   It is my belief than anglers themselves have done more to increase the otter population than all the efforts of the Otter Trust. The last 30 years has seen the emergence, and indeed the proliferation, of "commercial" freshwater fisheries.  These are heavily stocked waters, holding so many fish that even the most incompetent of angler would find it difficult not to catch fish.   And the otter is far from being an incompetent fisherman:  an opportunist, it sees these waters as  fast food takeouts, although the carp that are often stocked, are far slower than the trout in the otter's more usual haunt.   So the carp become lunch, and dinner, and breakfast.  Expensively so, because anglers like to catch big fish, and to stock big carp is an expensive business, very expensive.   Rivers too have had their fish populations augmented by anglers, who throw in huge amounts of high food value bait, in order to attract their quarry.   What happens is that the rivers become, like the lakes, greatly overstocked with big, fat, obese fish.   Such fish are slow and easy targets for otters, which are recovering into an environment that now has massive food surpluses for all.  Eventually the otter numbers will settle down and stabilise, probably at a higher level than that of the fifties.
Otter hunting will never be made legal again: public opinion sees otters as lovable cuddly creatures. "Tarka the Otter", and "Ring of Bright Water" have firmly cemented the otter into the British conscious, and they will never allow them to be culled.   Anglers will have to accept that as status quo, like it or not, or they will see calls for angling itself to be restricted. 
I had never seen a wild otter until some 18 months ago.   I was fishing in Warwickshire at the beginning of the season, in a small river.  It was low down, carrying little water, and after 24 hours or so I had taken one barbel and about 15 chub, mainly from a swim containing a dead tree, which was lying in an upstream/downstream orientation, the trunk being visible a few inches above the water's surface.  About mid-day, I noticed a movement upstream of me. I quickly realised it to be an otter, which came downstream, climbed onto the dead tree, and slowly walked past me along the trunk.  There is no way anyone, ever, should confuse mink with otters.   It paused for some 20 seconds to take a good look at me but was seemingly unimpressed, and totally ignored me.  Its whiskers gleamed in the sunlight, and it eventually slipped away downstream, leaving a short trail of bubbles, showing where its path had been.  The animal was no more than 5 or 6 yards from me.  I am unable to provide a photograph, my camera being in my rucksack at the time, and I had sat immobile, not wanting to move and scare the otter.  I have to say that the creature was utterly captivating, and I felt so privileged to see it in broad daylight. Had it dived in to take a fish, I would not have minded one jot. It was in view for no more than a minute, but what a minute!  As a wildlife moment it surpasses even that of a little shrew in the Lake District which unconcernedly  allowed me to approach and actually stroke it, before it ambled away into the forest.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Grayling and Those Irritating Ounces

At this time of year most waters can prove difficult to fish.  The temperature has dropped, along with most of the leaves.  I am torn between loving the leaf fall, and hating it.  Which side I hang probably depends on my proximity to the water at the time.  





My Maple... Minus its Lower Branches
Maple Leaves in the Pond.
I have, in my garden a fairly large Japanese maple.  In the Autumn its leaves turn a deep crimson, and the tree dominates the view from my lounge window quite spectacularly.  Unfortunately its magnificence remains at its best for only two or three days, and the red colour is at most only present for a fortnight. Many of the fallen leaves end up in my pond, where I am again torn between admiring them as they float around in the pond, and rushing to get them out before they sink and decompose.  This tree is, without doubt, my favourite, but it has had its problems.  The branches used to cascade almost to ground level, but I didn't mind weaving my way between them throughout the year, looking forward as I was, to the fireworks display some months later.  But a few years ago my wife's twin sister visited us for a couple of months during the Winter.  She is Asian, and as such would sometimes be seen doing very odd things. So I came home one day to find her hacking off all the lower branches of my precious maple...using our best kitchen knife.  I was horrified, and told her in no uncertain terms, with judicious use, I am afraid, of language that was somewhat alien to her dialect.  It was two, maybe three, days later that I realised what she had been doing: just trying to help with the garden.   In her country there ARE no deciduous trees, and it suddenly hit me that she must have thought the tree to be dead.  Trees in her own garden each lose two or three leaves a day, and any with no leaves at all on it is therefore dead: firewood.  I can only thank God she didn't start to fell the 100+ year old lime trees in the front garden.  Had I arrived home much later I imagine I would have had a list of fallen trees not far short of those that were blown down in the infamous 1987 hurricane. Well, it was a BIG kitchen knife!  But surely she should have noticed that nearly all the trees in the garden, and those in the nearby road, and most trees in the town's parks were "dead"?
But enough of that. At this time of year, late Autumn, fish, of most species, are sluggish and unco-operative.  Lake species, apart from pike are often far more difficult to locate and catch. River fishing can become a nightmare, with countless leaves drifting downstream, giving false bites, accompanied by drifting and dying lengths of streamer weed, perhaps the odd branch, and even full sized trees if the rain has persisted long enough to significantly raise the river level.  Grayling and chub are perhaps the most obliging of the Winter species, but water, coloured by rain can deter them from feeding, or perhaps even from finding the bait. But there had been no rain for some time, and so I set out in search of a grayling or two.  My first  trip to this river had been a couple of months before, and it had given up a dozen of its grayling, and a similar number of trout to my rod.    Most of the grayling were 6-8 ounces, with one outstanding male fish of a pound and eleven ounces, a personal best and on my first trip to the river. So I was hoping for a similar result this second trip.  The river looked sad, as did the surrounding fields and trees.  Everything appeared grey, solid grey cloud cover,  even the grass appearing to have a greyish tinge to it.  The trees were bare, and the venue looked thoroughly unenthusiastic.  But, as every experienced angler knows, such conditions can make the fish feed well. There were no drifting leaves and the grayling fed, but spasmodically so, and only five fish were landed.  Grayling being grayling, another 4 or 5 had shed the hook.   The top jaw of a grayling is very solid, very hard for the point of a hook to penetrate there, and it is inevitable that some fish are lost.  A couple of dace were also added to the total catch.  But another personal best grayling, a female fish of one pound fifteen. Excellent. 
Not Quite Two Pounds

  But what is it with that final irritating ounce or so?  I always seem to have to pass though fish just short of a target weight, before I finally achieve that target.  I had a couple of roach of 1-15, before that first 2 pound plus fish.  A pike of 19-12 preceded my first 20 pound fish.  Tench, barbel, so many species have made me wait  before I hit  the nail properly.  It is uncanny.   Not that there is any more skill needed to catch a bream of 9-15 as opposed to a 10-4.  But try telling something like that to an angler who has just landed his first 30 pound carp!    I tried once. I said that, in a lake containing just two carp, one of 10 pounds, and another of 30 pounds, the bigger fish needed three times as much food to maintain its body weight, and therefore should be three times easier to catch.  I admit I was being a little "poky in his ribs", but he would not have the theory at any cost. Nope: the 30 had to be at least 3 times harder to catch than the smaller fish. 
But again I digress.  I wasted the last 90 minutes of the day chatting to a guy on the bank.  I had seen his split cane rod, and asked to see it.  Carp fishing was discussed, and he remembered my name from the early days of Cheshire carp fishing.  Apparently he had spoken to me once on the bank when he was a teenager. I had taken 30 odd years away from angling completely, rods gathering dust in the attic, and so, for someone to remember my name after one meeting nearly 40 years ago was quite astonishing.

 Bullhead
Weed Wrapped Around my Hookbait.
Another week passed, and I was again on the river, looking for that 2 pound plus fish.  No chance!  I knew it had rained a little during the night.   My wife, who sleeps lighter than myself, told me later that the rain came down by the shipload.  I think that is what she said.   So when I arrived I was a little surprised to find the river up a couple of inches, but carrying a large load of leaves and weed.  Fishing was dire, but I stuck it out.  The river continued to rise very slowly over the day, but the debris load increased massively.  Not a total blank if you consider a minnow and three bullheads a catch. A couple of dace also sucked at a maggot, but the day was blighted by masses of drifting weed.   One of the bullhead astonished me by taking two good sized worms on a size 4 hook.  That fish was no more than three inches long.    Bullheads are surprisingly common in many of our rivers, often the second most numerous species after the minnows, and very much a favourite kingfisher food item. Large pectoral fins allow them to "glue" themselves to the riverbed even in very fast water. They spend a lot of time in and about the gravel and are rarely caught by most anglers.  Three in one day, I consider an achievement.  Eventually though the weed beat me, and I retreated.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Starry, Starry Night.

    Blank nights can be wonderful.  Not if you are intent on having a good night's sleep in your comfortable centrally heated 5 star bivvy of course, but to sit out under the stars on a warm still night amongst the woods and wildlife, can be so much more satisfying.  Everyone should have a few good old blanks each year.
    And so, a couple of weeks ago I approached the lake, carrying a minimum of gear, chose my spot, seeing two or three carp swirl even as I prepared my tackle.  All looked good for the fishing to come.  It wasn't to be, and neither rod registered so much as a twitch all night, despite good fish being obviously present and moving well.  As darkness fell, the wildlife started to move.   Skeins of Canada geese had already passed over, heading towards other, nearby, lakes, flying in noisy and untidy V formations.  The first woodmice had stirred, scuttling around my feet.  And only a little later the tawny owls started to hoot in the trees behind me.
    The sky was very clear, unusually so for the UK, and three prominent planets were visible during the night, 3 very bright dots of silver in the sky. I am fairly sure they were Venus, Saturn and Jupiter.  Not a cloud obscured them at any time during the night.   I sat there, with little to do, other than watch the heavens rotate about me.  The Milky  Way was just about visible, and it is now many a year since I last saw it clearly in the UK. The eye naturally wanders (or so I tell my wife), its attention is so easily caught by any shiny little trinket, and aeroplanes suddenly appearing, whether directly in front, or at the limits of peripheral vision, seem to become instantly visible, with the very first distant flash of their navigation lights.  Their lights, be they ever so dim, are instantly spotted.  Many planes flew over and around the area overnight.  I suspect I saw most of them.  Our eyes may have far less acuity than those of the predatory birds, the hawks and eagles, but they are still astonishingly capable. I made one of my many daft mistypes whilst writing this paragraph.   So I will now define the word "Earoplane"  as being any aircraft that you can hear but not see.
    Other things moved, and were seen, in the sky.  Several meteor trails angled down above the horizon, rapid, short streaks of light, dust particles burning up in the atmosphere.  Only 4 or 5 on this occasion, but there have been nights when thousands were to be seen. One or two man made satellites also silently drifted across the sky, far too high and too fast for aircraft. Had I recorded their times and directions, there are web sites that would have identified them for me.  A sort of Observer's Book of Satellites. The silhouette of one or two herons were seen as they flew over. Herons are far more nocturnal than most people suspect.  I often see them flying up and down above rivers, in the middle of the night.  It seems likely, therefore, that they fish at night too?   Usually they see me.   I may be completely stationary, in dark combat gear, at 1 a.m. in the morning, but, when it gets to within 20 yards or so, the bird will suddenly shear off a previously straight flightpath, as it takes a panicked avoidance route.  Can it see in infra red?  There seems initially little point in it having such, fish being cold blooded, and therefore at a temperature very similar to their environment.  But once or twice, there have been pictures in the daily papers, of herons swallowing rats, or even small rabbits.  I saw one heron, perched atop a metal structure that crossed the river.  It was trying to catch bats, stabbing at them as they flew past.   I didn't see it succeed in its aims, and would have been very impressed had it done so. 
    I do a lot of thinking at night.  As a kid, maybe 7 or 8 years old, I would lie in bed, wondering how big was the universe. For kids that age, everything has to have a size, and so I wondered how large it really was.   Surely it could not go on forever?   But if not, how does it end?  Maybe, like so many other things, it ends at a wall?......But what is on the other side of that wall?   Dunno.   Maybe the wall just goes on and on, an extremely thick wall?....but even a wall cannot just go on and on, too many bricks would be needed, if nothing else.    Hence I concluded, aged maybe 8 years old, that the universe was infinite.
   Later, when I heard about the "Big Bang" I was immediately sceptical.   How? Why?   Suddenly, when I asked such questions, the scientists seemed to be going almost religious on me.
"What caused the Big Bang?   What was there before the BB?"   
And the scientists were saying "It makes no sense to ask such questions, time did not exist before the big bang."  Ask a religious person:"Where did God come from?"  and you get similar answers:  "God has always been there."   The last thing I want is for science to go all religious on me.
It seems, to a religious person, quite credible for a God to have created the amazing miracle of "Life, the Universe, and Everything Else" that surrounds us. But point out that, for such a creative God to actually exist in the first place, would be an even bigger miracle, and you make, apparently, an invalid argument. You just cannot use logic with women, anyone upholding religion, or small kids wanting an ice-cream.
     But it has pleased me greatly , that, over the last ten years, the cosmologists have started to ask those same questions about before the Big Bang.    Others, like myself, are even starting to say that the Big Bang was impossible.   I have long suggested, only partly with tongue in cheek, that Hubble got it completely wrong with red shift.   Why could that change in frequency not be due to a loss of energy?   Red light is less energetic than blue light, the energy of a photon being E=hf.  Energy of a photon is therefore proportional to the light frequency.  Maybe the photon loses energy as it fights its way across all those billions of light years, struggling through all the dark matter that our astrophysicists have so carelessly misplaced.  Put simply, a blue photon is ejected by a star some billions of years ago.   It then hits our eye as  a photon of red light at about half past breakfast this morning.   Where has the extra energy gone?    Hubble obviously got it wrong.   That should be the JayZS telescope up there, floating in orbit around the earth.
   Back to the blank night. I was staring up at the clear sky, with all the many stars that were visible, thinking how great it was to be able to see so many ...and...whizzz.....back to the photons!   How many, I wondered, how many photons does a star emit per second, for us all to be able to see it?  Now, you may be thinking that this is not the sort of question to be answered over a commercial break during the latest episode of "Shameless", but out there under the stars, it seemed entirely appropriate... at least for an idiot like myself.  But how to do it? How to calculate it?
I made the assumption that at least one photon would have to hit the eye, and assumed that the eye could detect that,  and with a  frame rate of 10 per second. I had a number: 10,  of photons per second making little dents in my retina.  I then chose to work with the furthest star visible to the naked eye.  I struggled with the internet on my phone, eventually finding that Deneb is a bright star, but at an estimated 1425 light years away, is possibly the furthest visible star.  Choosing this distant object would provide my minimum number of photons required to see a star in the eye.  All that was necessary now was to work out the surface area of a sphere 1425 light years in radius. :-)   The old 4 pi r squared cuts in at this point,  added to a conversion to square metres, and a quick estimation of how many night time eye pupils would fit into a square metre, and suddenly Bob's your auntie.
My answer, worked out with a stick, in the mud at my feet, was 2.4 times 10 to the power 44 photons per second, emitted by the chosen star.   That is quite a lot,
 240,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in real money. Or 2.4e44 to those of you with grade C GCSEs. My sincere apologies to the person who was next to fish the swim.  The mud writings must have confused him.  I am sure he can have no idea of how momentous a calculation had been performed at the very spot where he was standing.  But I had no idea whether that answer was anywhere near being correct.
Later that night, and actually well into the early morning, I wondered whether anyone else had done a similar calculation, and fairly quickly  found one on the internet. A scientist had approached the question from an entirely different angle, and had obtained an answer of 4.2e44.  I was astounded!  His answer was less than a factor of two different from my own, my own answer, engraved in front of me, in the mud, using just a bit of bent stick.  He probably had a slightly bigger star than me. :-( 
I may have caught no fish, but I went home with equally as great a sense of achievement, as I would have had, had I caught a double figure tench that night. 

Friday, 5 October 2012

A Not So Blank Session

I fished a certain gravel pit a couple of weeks ago.  The weather was warm, the water deep, and so, despite the clear sky, I was expecting to catch.  And I did, although the fish were neither of the size nor species I had aimed for.   Tench were once more the target, but not a sniff of a tench was seen.


But the afternoon was not wasted, for there were dragonflies and damselflies everywhere, and of several species.  The fish, apart from a few very obvious carp cruising, were inactive, and so certainly were the tench.  But the dragonflies provided me with a few photographs. This first photograph is of a "migrant hawker dragonfly".  As dragonflies go, it sounds, from the "migrant" tag, to be a rare visitor, but that is not the case, and it appears to be fairly common.   Easily confused with the common hawker, but I think I have the ID correct.
Later in the day I photographed a pair mating on some nearby vegetation.  I think these are also migrant hawkers, but cannot be sure. I think the male is on the right, hanging on to his female just behind the head.  Note the little blue damselfly, that appears to be taking an almost pornographic interest in the events happening nearby.  This photograph has redefined how I thought dragonflies and damselflies mated.   I had often seen pairs flying in tandem, the male, with the end of his abdomen, gripping the female just behind the head, and the pair flying "line astern".  I had always thought it very odd that the females' sex organs seemed to be positioned just behind the head.  But, as can be seen from the photo, the female at some time has to curve her own abdomen to a position underneath the male's thorax.   So mating cannot take place in flight, and indeed, not without the consent of the female. I saw several pairs of damselflies arranged in a similar position later on in the day. The damsels adopt an almost heart shaped configuration...awwwww!   But the female's consent is not seen as necessary by the male damselflies, which seem to vastly outnumber the females.   One poor female appeared to be drowning, yet there was a queue of males attempting to mate with ( rape?) her.
The carp, though not many, continued to swim past, including this very large individual.  This fish I would guess at about thirty pounds, but I am not really keen on carp angling these days, and so I did not try to catch it.  I don't like the way many carp look, overweight, bloated, and I have only seen one mirror carp that I thought looked truly handsome. It had a much slimmer profile, and was a linear mirror that even I had to admit looked wonderful, despite its not being fully scaled. But I would be happier if all carp had remained wildies, and regret that so much selective breeding has taken place.  But I suppose that selective breeding with cats and dogs has also produced some of this earth's ugliest creatures.
The clear water also revealed a good half dozen small pike, mostly quite motionless, awaiting their prey.
This one was very easy to approach, even in the clear water, and was 11 or 12 inches long.  Some others were no more than six inches, but all had that menacing look about them.  One, slightly larger , at about fifteen inches long swam past.  It had a piece of white plastic, rectangular in shape, stuck in its jaws.   The edges of the plastic were draped with bits of weed.   I have no idea how it got into this condition, nor whether it would survive.  The gravel pit is very clean, with remarkably little litter, a pleasing sight these days, so how the pike found one of the very few bits of junk, I have no idea.  And even less idea why it decided to try and eat it.  I was not able to rescue it, so its fate remains unknown to me.
Twenty yards out, and another surprise visitor.  A small dot appeared on the otherwise flat calm, motionless surface.  It took me a while to figure it out, but the dot was the head of a terrapin, no doubt discarded by some pet owner, who no longer wanted to feed it daily.   They are getting more common, as this is the third water in which I have seen them.  With luck, they will not find the climate suitable for breeding.  A friend of my wife astonished us a while ago.  She had smuggled a couple of small terrapins, or perhaps they were tortoises, back from America, in her clothing.  I have always know her to be a little scatterbrained, but hearing she had flown home,  tortoises crawling about in her knickers, left me almost speechless.   Silly woman.
By this time I had given up all hope of tench, the sun was far too high in the clear sky. So I decided to fish for perch.   I chose to use a slow sinking feeder, stuffed with maggots and a lump of polystyrene, cast into the deep water.  It took quite some time for the bait, a small worm to sink the 16 or 18 feet, but a bite came fairly rapidly, once it had hit bottom.  A roach of some 6 ounces, very dark across the back, but with wonderfully coloured red fins.  No other bites came until I changed the bait to double maggot, still fishing the same method.  Eventually I had about thirty such roach, all 6 to 8 ounces apart from one that was a pound.   Any pound roach is always a welcome fish.  Only two perch took the baits, one a six inch fish the other a fish of one pound eleven ounces.  This fish surprised me, as it did not have the expected bright colouration that I associate with such clear water.  Its lack of black stripes can be seen in the photo, but its size is such that a winter perch session or two might be well worth a go on the pit.
As I left the pit a little later, a carp angler had just arrived.  His wheelbarrow was loaded fully, so much gear that I was in total disbelief, almost shock.  I calculated he had about 36 cubic feet of gear on that wheelbarrow.  There was even a patch of artificial grass "so he didn't have to lay his reels down in the mud if he caught a fish".  He could have survived a couple of months deep in the tropical rainforest without any signs of discomfort. I will never understand the need to take so much gear.  I have even seen anglers in their bivvies with portable TVs, space heating and duvets.  They sleep the night away, door zipped up, use a bolt rig so that the fish hooks itself, and have radio controlled fish alarms to wake them up.   All they need is an electrically powered reel, and there would be no need to stay by the waterside.   Cast out, go home to the wife and return to net the fish from the shallows next morning. It would only need a couple more minor inventions and they could return in the morning, and their only action would then be to check the camera to see what they had caught, before publishing the results on Facebook:  "Look what I caught last night".  Fishing changed so dramatically whilst I took the odd thirty two years away from the bankside. I don't like very  much of what has happened during that time.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Mystery Roach

I had decided to spend last night on a gravel pit, with those gorgeous green tench and the slightly less lovely bream as the primary targets. No problems if a carp or two should get in the way of the peace and tranquillity of course. It proved  interesting,  with bream rolling all night, fairly near my groundbait,  carp splashing about in the distance, and with the odd tench ever so casually breaking surface close in amongst the prolific elodea pondweed.
 I had gone with the intention of photographing some little bank voles that had kept me company right through my previous night shift on the water.  I had not knowingly seen voles before, but didn't take the big camera last week, and so had the SLR in tow this time.  Inevitably, as a result, the bank voles made themselves completely absent for the whole night.  Not one appeared on the platform from where I fished.  But five or six wood mice darted about onto the open area, grabbed  morsels of groundbait and then returned to the grassy bank.
The mice most people are acquainted with are house mice.  I remember seeing them in my grandmother's terraced house.  She used to catch them in the kitchen.  None of these new-fangled traps for her.  She coated one side of a sheet of brown paper with treacle and left it on the floor.  In the morning the mouse would be trapped, its fur solidly glued to the treacle.  She would then wrap the mouse up in the paper, hit it with her solid cast metal flat iron, and consign its remains to the bin.  The house mice always looked very dirty creatures to me, but wood mice always seem to have a glorious sheen to their coats.


  Two Woodmouse Photos Taken Near My Feet
 

At times they stayed for minutes, confident that I did not intend to harm them, and the most in view at any one time was five within a yard of my feet.  They sit upright on huge pink hind legs when feeding, their big ears sticking up like miniature Sky aerials, whereas the voles I saw last time seemed to prefer being on all fours. The voles were also much slower, and I cannot help but wonder whether the owls, that are quite common in the trees around the lake, have fed well during the last week grabbing them as they leave their holes for the fishing platform.  Vole-au-vents?
I don't propose to describe the fishing here and now, but shortly after the first rays of daylight there was an unusual event.
To my right, and above some fairly deep water, maybe 20 feet plus, covering an area of at least 80 yards square, there were fish rising.  A lot of fish rising.  But the rises were almost all very splashy, and I suspect they must have been roach.  Much too small for carp, far too frantic for bream or tench, and the lake does indeed hold a good head of roach, as I had proved a couple of weeks ago. The splashy rises continued for  30, perhaps 45 minutes before stopping completely.
I have absolutely no idea what these fish were doing.   A local told me that the splashy rises happen almost daily, and certainly at this time of year.  There was little or no surface fly life, the lake was flat calm.  So what were all these roach doing? And why were the rises so splashy?  Why were they all congregated in that one area?  There were few, if any, elsewhere on the lake.  Had all the roach assembled in one area?  Or was it just in that area that the roach behaved thus?  Other areas of the lake have a similar character. It is a mystery that has me flummoxed.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Sparrowhawk Returns

Just a short note:  Gordon still lives on, but the continued presence of the sparrowhawk has made all the local birds wary, and the bird feeders are now deserted for much of the day.

Today the hawk made a dash at a goldfinch.  It missed, and both the goldie and the hawk hit the lounge window.   The finch left a single feather stuck to the glass, and three inches to the right, the hawk left its clawprints visible on the glass.   The centre very long forward pointing toes, clearly identifying the bird.  The photo may, or may not be clear to the reader.

After its clash with the glass, the sparrowhawk flew a yard or so and perched, initially on my privet hedge, and then on the edge of next door's conservatory roof, posing rather nicely for a couple of pictures.

I think that, by clicking on the photos, you will get a larger version of them.

This pose reminds me of those emperor and king penguins in the Antarctic, the males shuffling around with the egg balanced on their feet, Very upright with the breast feathers allowed to droop down to warm the egg.   After less than a minute the bird flew off again, giving me a blurred and unusable third photograph as it did so.  The bird visits the garden daily now, but I doubt I will get much better photos, unless I catch it in an action shot.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

A Gluttonous Greenfinch

     I live  in a large town, but in a fairly leafy area which has always had a few birds and other wildlife to watch.   Robins, blackbirds and blue tits were always frequent garden visitors, but other species have  been fairly rare...until recently.    4 or 5 years ago I caught a glimpse of a pair of goldfinches flitting about in the trees in next door's garden.  A birdfeeder was purchased, stocked with peanuts, but the goldfinches did not return. My wife persevered, added more feeders, and even a couple of nest boxes.   Slowly the birds started to visit...greenfinches, coal tits, and great tits were early arrivals.  The addition of other seeds, particularly those of sunflowers tempted other species too.   The list now  includes long tailed tits,  nuthatches, greater spotted woodpeckers and quite a few other species.   Jays  take the peanuts daily, and the goldfinches have finally arrived in numbers, especially this year, to feed on the other seeds.   As many as 25 of them squabble on the feeders at any one time. 
One of the young goldfinches.
The goldfinches flock, often with a dozen or so greenfinches, adults and young alike. The goldfinches had two broods this year, and young with various developments of plumage colour are there to be seen.  Sparrows and starlings remain absent, and are observed in the garden no more than once a year.  A couple of hundred yards away is a council estate, and there, in the more open spaces between the houses, sparrows and starlings abound.  Maybe they don't like trees and shrubs?
     The flocks of green and goldfinches on the feeders are regularly scared off by the arrival of larger birds: jays, magpies, even collared doves.  They then perch in the dead sycamore tree in an adjacent garden, waiting until the coast becomes clear.   But one greenfinch, a young male, began to act differently last month.   Let's call him Gordon.  A few weeks ago Gordon became reluctant to leave the food. He would remain on the bird table, despite the nearby presence of jays and other big birds. And he really liked his food, eating so much that we began to notice an increase in his girth...quite a large increase in his girth. He has become quite fat, and thus is now easily recognised amongst the other greenfinches.
Typical Gordon: fat, fluffy and scruffy, food dripping from his chin, wings akimbo.
   As the days have passed he has become ever more attached to the food, rarely straying far from his next meal, a meal which usually is taken very soon after his short rests.  He no longer stands up, but squats down, legs invisible.  In the evening, when the other birds fly off to roost, he remains much later, finishing off the last scraps of food, finally, at dusk, hopping into the nearby privets to sleep away the night.  He can fly, but his flight is slow and fluttery, struggling to gain height.  His wings no longer seem to fit  properly, and won't lie flat against his ample body as he feeds.  When Nina, my wife, adds fresh food in the morning, Gordon remains on the table, no more than a couple of feet from her.  She has developed a soft spot for Gordon.  She has taken to shooing away the jays and magpies.  She stands in the lounge and tries to scare them away, so that her favourite smaller birds can get to the food.   The jays in particular are highly intelligent birds and are starting to ignore her, remaining on the patio, 3 or 4 yards away, wondering why this mad woman is wildly waving her arms about.  There were five of them on the patio one morning.
 
A jay, on the patio, ignoring me completely.
       I have feared for Gordon for some time.  His spot in the hedgerow is unlikely to remain warm enough as Winter approaches, and our bird table, with its regular visitors, has occasionally attracted the attention of a sparrowhawk.  We returned from shopping one day to find the bloodied remains of a male bullfinch on the back step.  So our Gordon, with his slow reactions, tendency to sleep on the feeders, and poor flight is, I feel, holding a very short straw.
       And indeed, he had a lucky escape yesterday evening.  As usual, he was on the table, long after the other goldies and greenies  had gone to roost.  As I watched he suddenly flew down to the ground, this being unusually athletic for Gordon.  He had spotted the sparrowhawk as it swooped in for the kill.  The hawk missed his target, and finished the attack perched on a patio seat.    Nina, protective of Gordon as ever, and not realising that the hawk had missed, leapt up and waved her arms around, scaring off the bird.   Two seconds later I would have had a superb photograph of it, not more than two yards away.   Had it either failed or  succeeded in its attack, there was no longer any point in it being scared away.  The deed was either done or not done, and it was far too late to wave at it through the window.   But I understand how she reacted, almost instinctively, to protect her little finch. So I bit my lip, and just about suppressed my wish to moan at her.
A photo of the same sparrowhawk, standing below the bird table.
There can, I am sure, only be one end game, Gordon will soon end up as breakfast, or perhaps supper for our local hawk.  He is too slow, too lazy, and the presence of many of his near relatives is too great an attraction for the sparrowhawk.  I have not, as yet, seen the hawk catch any birds, but she did snatch a woodmouse after swooping low across my lawn a few weeks ago, and then slowly dismembered the little rodent whilst perching in my apple tree.

Hawk With Partially Eaten Mouse.
.....................................................................................................................
A Day Later.

     After a day spent feeding heavily yesterday, Gordon is now nowhere to be seen.  We last saw him about 8 PM last night, as he flew off, to our surprise, into a nearby tree.    The hawk also visited us last night, and appeared to be hunting...and therefore hungry.    This morning the "sprawk" was back again, still looking for food, so maybe our greenfinch has survived, but moved on to stage a sit-in on someone else's bird feeders.   The hawk was near our feeders at 6.45 this morning, and in low light  ( 0.5 seconds at F 5.6 ) I managed this photo.   Very pleased with it, for, with the prevailing light conditions, cloud at dawn, I was lucky she ( I am fairly sure it is a female) did not move and blur the photograph.  Sunlight would have been far better of course!


The sparrowhawk stayed around for another hour or so, chasing and being chased by the jays, and finally being moved on by the magpies, which slowly crowded it out of its tree, by creeping ever nearer on the branches, chattering loudly.  I suspect it will be back, mainly mornings and evenings when the low light is to its advantage.

48 Hours Later Still

     Nina is a happy bunny again, ecstatic almost: Gordon has returned.   Two days away from the food have told on him, and he now looks a  little slimmer, as he joins 4 or 5 long tailed tits on the table.   He has also gained some degree of caution, following a lesson in living dangerously, and flies away when the magpies arrive.   He still doesn't fly as far away as the other birds, which effectively disappear, but satisfies himself with putting three or four yards between him and the nearest magpie.   But the sparrowhawk has, in Gordon's absence, visited each morning and evening.   Sometimes the hawk sits near the birdtable for up to 20 minutes at a time, which does not seem to be the best tactic, as it scares away all her potential prey, including Gordon.   But, and don't anyone tell Nina, I am sure Gordon is doomed before the week is out. Once the sprawk gets back into stealth fighter mode, and attacks under the radar, that will be it.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Sunday Challenge, Part 2.

I have been back for a couple more of my Sunday, 45 minute challenges. One of them was  this morning, a Wednesday, because, due to the odd nature of the catholic church and its feast days, my wife "had" to attend today.   Not to worry, a ready threaded rod, a disgorger and a single slice of bread were added to the car, secretly, before we set out.
The last Sunday challenge had been a blank, didn't get my choice of swim, or rather my choice of hole in the weeds.  But it was nevertheless worth the trip, as a kingfisher soon made his presence known, by diving and catching what looked like a tiny rudd. Several species of dragonfly and damselfly darted and danced above the water surface, and a large brown dragonfly landed on a small protruding wooden post, not a yard from me.  Putting its oviposter into the water it appeared to lay an egg, or perhaps some eggs, before flying off again.  Not too much can be expected in what turns out to be no more than 30 minutes by the waterside, but this half hour certainly had its gems.
Today's  "Sunday Challenge" was more about the fishing. No one else on the pond, casting into the tiny open space in the weeds was made more difficult by the side wind. But with a pinch of flake on the hook, the float hit the spot, and almost immediately twitched and sailed slowly to the right.  A strike resulted in a two ounce rudd, wearing its full coat of red and gold, shimmering in the sunlight.  A second cast produced a similarly sized tench, which used all its strength and slipperyness to try and evade my grasp. They really are "as slippery as an eel", but at the same time very pleasant to touch.

 Another beautiful little creature.  But the best was yet to come, and the next three casts produced three very delicate bites, resulting in three small crucians, 6  - 8 inches in length, deep bodied little bundles of pure gold.   And they scrap so well on my J.W. Young travel barbel rod.   I have not used this rod for barbel yet, and it seems to be far more suitable for light float work.    Catching a barbel on it will be an experiment that will have to wait for the next river trip I think, although I have doubts as to how well it will deal with a large barbel, heading downstream at a rate of knots.
But I just love crucian carp,  fishing for them is rather like catching little teddy bears, they just seem such cuddly little fish.  They don't even need to be big: larger ones, especially from heavily fished waters often look to be old warriors, but the smaller specimens are invariably quite delightful.
So: five fish in about 30 minutes, half a dozen casts: the Sunday challenge has been very well met this Wednesday morning, and I return to pike up my wife, with an unexplained grin on my face.
A grin that remains, as I realise my Freudian mistyping of the word "pick" in the last sentence.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Sunday Challenge

    I have never liked Sunday mornings. Well, not for the last five years at least.  Five years ago my wife was treated for cancer.  Christie's Hospital did a grand job and she now seems very healthy, with no visible signs save for the scar showing from whence the main tumour was extracted.    The subsequent chemotherapy is now long past, the hair regrown.     BUT....she now sees the need to thank God on a weekly basis for her recovery. I will continue to thank the medical staff.  But even as an atheist I cannot really deny her the Sunday morning trip to the Catholic church. Forty-five minutes the service lasts, from the moment I drop her off outside, to the moment I pick her up.  This process of course wrecks any chance of my fishing Sunday mornings, and so I have long been taking a 35 minute walk down by the river, once a week.
    But last week I decided to try and catch a fish during those 45 minutes.  A rod was prepared the night before, requiring only to have its sections joined.  A folding seat, a disgorger, scissors, spare hooks and a couple of slices of bread completed the equipment.  
    At the church, ground zero, deposit wife, whilst trying not to look to be in a hurry.    Drive to the nearest little pond, gear out of the car and sit down:  time 7 minutes, not bad.  Float hits the water on 9 minutes.  The usual 4 pound carp swims past.   On 20 minutes I miss my first bite, but five minutes later I have a 4 oz bream to hand.    A second one, slightly larger, follows  some 6 minutes later.  I am surprised to catch bream in such shallow and clear water, but they have no deeper home to go to in this 18 inch deep water, and I have found in the past that bream seem to dislike being near weed, so this open swim is the most likely place for any bream to be in.  No more bites and so, on 35 minutes I pack up, with the moorhens watching me as I rush back to the car, and I get to the church just in time.
  The wife notices the smell, her nose is the nasal equivalent of Joddrell bank, but I convince her it must just be due to being near the river, for she must not know I went fishing.  She doesn't really like me fishing, but I manage a few trips.  Fishing Sunday morning would be one more on the list, so I want to avoid that.
   So: 2 fish in 45 minutes, time that included the drive to and from the water.  Not bad at all.  I tried the same this week,   missed the only two bites I had, but the challenge gives me a reason to be by the pond and an objective to aim for.   A harder challenge might be to try and catch  fish, other than minnows, from the river.   The river is a couple of minutes further away, and much harder to fish.  Planning might need to be more meticulous.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Pond Dipping

   With little time to fish over the last few days, I have only been able to manage three short sessions.   There is a local pond that has drawn me alongside it several times when walking, and it finally, this week, tempted me to cast a line.  The surroundings of the pond are quite gorgeous, trees, reeds, rushes, and with no visible  hint of the road, just 5 or 6 yards away.  The nearby housing estate also remains out of sight, masked by the steep wilderness that is present just a yard from the pond itself, which is at most 15 yards wide, and 80 long. The trees are indeed, so dense as to allow the traffic, and its noise, to go unseen and largely unheard. The trees have not hidden it from the local kids though, and their presence can usually be seen even  in their absence,  by the copious amounts of litter and cans that sadly decorate the banks, and even float amongst the weed in the pond itself. I remove a bagful of rubbish each trip, but more appears almost immediately.  I was pleased to see, one morning, that someone else had also had taken time to remove some of the more obvious detritus. My thanks to you sir, or perhaps to you, madam.  But the pond has long been abandoned by the club that owned it, and its free fishing status, in these modern times, will always attract anglers young and old, many of whom have little regard for the natural world amongst which they sit.
    Moorhens patrol the edges of the pond, along with one solitary mallard.  Occasionally a heron ventures onto the end of the pond, where the shallow water certainly affords it some good hunting opportunity. Occasionally young sparrowhawks can be glimpsed and heard in the trees opposite.  They do not show themselves well enough for a photograph. 
    The pond is nowhere more than a couple of feet deep, most being half that, and the Canadian pond weed covers at least 95% of the surface, and rises partway to the surface in much of what remains.  A few smallish carp always wander just under the surface, scarcely noticing the presence of people, unless they make their presence too obvious. The kids regard them as uncatchable, but one readily took the small piece of flake that I threw near to it.  I have seen one carp of maybe 8 or 9 pounds, the rest reaching 4 pounds at most, but still a challenge to land through the thick weed growth. The kids of course talk of 15 pound carp, and one even talks of having caught tench to 11 pounds here.  I don't for a moment believe any of it.   Apart from the carp I have seen a few 6 inch rudd swimming along when the water is gin clear.  Clear enough to see that swan mussels are present in numbers on the bottom of the pond.  After any fair amount of rain,  runoff from the hill opposite quickly colours the water, and the clarity of the water can change tremendously from day to day.  A couple of days sees it clear again, as another thin layer of fine sediment drifts to the bottom.  The pond will probably be too shallow for fish in a very few years time. Even now, I fear a bad cold snap could kill all fish life in it.
   I arrive for my first session at about 6 pm, two kids are in the "best" swim, that one swim with enough clear water as to not need accurate casting.   There are just two other fishable swims, and no fish can be seen in either open area, for today the water is tapwater clear.   But there is a small gap in the  pondweed at the far side of one clearing, offering the fish some shelter, and I decide to go for it.   I am unpractised at casting a float with precision, but soon find that my travel barbel rod is perfect for the job, and I have little problems landing the float on target.  Line is 5 pounds to a 14 hook, a little heavy, but I foresee problems with fish and the weeds. I am aiming at no more than a couple of square yards of open water at maybe 12 yards range, and I soon get the hang of it, but so often the bait is impeded as it falls to be bottom, by strands of the rampant Elodea canadensis.  But it is not long before my flat float twitches, as something investigates the tiny pinch of breadflake on my hook.  The float sails away and I miss the bite.  A second cast results in a pricked fish, felt just momentarily before it sheds the hook and dives into the weed.   I see a flash of gold, and so suspect a rudd.   The point is proved next cast as a pristine 6 inch rudd, gloriously coloured red and gold, is landed and returned.  A similar sized roach is next.  This fish too has surely never been hooked.   I muse that the kids probably, in the main, catch little with their Decathlon telescopic rods and heavy lines, and so the fish retain their condition.  I fished similarly myself, with a tank aerial rod aged about  12, and caught very little myself, but gradually taught myself more and more with each trip.   I would not myself have welcomed advice from the adults back then, and decide not to volunteer information to the kids unless they ask for it.  In any case one of them tells me he has already caught a bream of a pound.   Being a naturally suspicious sod, I doubt both the species and the weight, but say nothing other than a mumbled congratulation.
  One of the kids draws my attention to "a bug" in my landing net.   He shows signs of being worried by it.  So I look and it proves to be the empty shell of a dragonfly larva.  The shell is brown and quite dry, and I am surprised as to how it reached my landing net, which was a yard from the water.   But a couple of minutes later a gorgeous green dragonfly drifts past me.   I hope it came from my empty larval  case, and hatched out in my net, but will never know.
    My float dithers again, and I am into a better fish, which immediately reaches the pondweed.   Canadian pondweed usually pulls free from the bottom with steady pressure, and the fish comes quietly, its head covered in weed. he weed trails a muddy track behind it from its roots.  The fish is a mirror carp of some 3 or 4 ounces.    I am surprised, but pleased, as it suggests very strongly that those few carp have bred successfully. 4 more carp, mirrors and commons, of similar size follow, each after a short interval, together with more, but even smaller rudd, and a tench of 8 inches or so.   I had not expected tench either.   All gave good bites, and all the fish were scale perfect, of great colour and very  healthy.  Several came in with a garland of weed around them.  Bites dried up, and as dark closed in I decide to pack up.  As I reeled in that last, last cast, I felt another fish on the end of the line.  A spirited little fight saw a 4 ounce crucian carp on the bank, a 5th species, and also unexpected.   It had, with typical crucian behaviour, not given any bite indication at all.
   All in all, a dozen fish from a tiny pond.   And what an enjoyable session it was, a pleasing change from the expectation of a sizeable fish.   Many years ago,  I was a big fish only angler, I finally stopped fishing, suddenly, one June 16th after catching a personal best tench.   It had all become too easy, and I didn't then cast another line for 33 years. It was probably a mistake, way back then, to have exclusively targeted monster fish.  Even the regular successes became a bore.    Maybe I should have varied my fishing back then too, taken in some small waters, with small fish, and probably enjoyed my fishing far more.    Maybe I wasted those 33 years, for, over the last three years since returning to the fold,  I no longer need to seek out those big fish every trip.  No, what I need now is variation, something different every trip, if that is possible, and this small pond fishing has been a revelation. Having discarded that "specimen hunter" tag three years ago, when I once more picked up a rod, I now enjoy my angling  again.
My second and third trips added a couple of small bream to the species list, 7 or 8 small tench, some no more than 4 inches long, none bigger than 8 inches, and some of the smallest rudd I have ever seen.  Fish this size are unhooked in the hand, and reminded me how silky smooth and pleasant to the touch  small tench are.   And how damn slippery too!  Perhaps evolution has given them silky smooth skin, (smooth enough to make the wife jealous), to enable them to slip easily between the weeds?
I shall be back, both to this and to other, similar, waters.

   So I did go back, the next morning, fairly early.  As I breasted the slope up to the pond, a startled grey heron took flight, annoyed with me for disturbing it.   The moorhens were absent, still kipping in the reeds I guess.  I was fishing within two minutes, having travelled very light, and only needing to assemble the 5 rod sections, bait the hook and cast in.  A few carp were to be seen disturbing the surface, and when one swam towards me, across the weed-free area, I decided to test whether they were, as the young kid had said, uncatchable.   I drew the float and bait back, stopping a couple of feet in front of the carp, directly below the rod tip.  The flake fluttered slowly down, and with no hesitation the carp took it: I saw it disappear into its mouth and struck.    The effect was instantaneous and expected, for the fish, about 4 or 5 pounds accelerated and dived straight into the weedbeds, within a second or so of being hooked.    Having the rod tip immediately above the fish was not helpful, and no lateral force could be applied to slow the fish. ( think O-level resolution of forces).  And so the fish, as expected, was lost, the 5 pound line snapping very quickly as the fish changed course within the weedbed.   I knew beforehand that I had no chance of course, and maybe should not have even tried.    But point proved, the carp are catchable  ...  with suitable tackle.
   A few 3 inch rudd, and a 3 ounce tench followed.  Later I struck at a very tentative nibble, the sort of thing I had been ignoring all morning, but somehow this one was different, and a hard fighting 3 ounce crucian came to the bank.   Beautiful fish: crucians, and how anyone could confuse F1 hybrids with them is beyond me.   Hybrids always "look wrong" and purebred fish always "look right".
   At around 8 am the moorhens appeared, and so did their young: one by one 4 young birds emerged cautiously from the reeds.   One of their parents even appeared to chase off a cruising carp, much to my amusement.  A second mallard flew in to join the lonesome female seen yesterday. Then a flash of brilliant blue, and a kingfisher landed opposite.  Over the next 20 minutes it made several dives, from various trees, but caught only one small fish, probably a rudd. It looked like a young bird,  not quite as brightly coloured as kingfishers usually are.   Its dives looked amateurish, at far too shallow an angle.    But it had no problems battering its one capture against a tree branch to stun or kill it. 8 or 9 raps, and the fish was then swallowed.   Had the bird in that song about "the old lady who swallowed a fly" been a kingfisher, there is no way that the spider would have still been wriggling after being swallowed.   Which would have been a good argument if kingfishers ate spiders, I suppose.  The kingfisher was still around when the heron returned, to perch in a tree opposite me.   A somewhat scruffy young bird, whose preening did little to improve its looks.   It finally flew off in the ungainly manner that herons have, and I left the pond, well satisfied with my couple of hours by the water.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

All Grebes, Swallows and no Crucians

Set out very early yesterday, still dark as I left home, no glimmering of daylight, although the heavy cloud cover may have blocked out the impending dawn.  I reached the lake, a pretty reed fringed shallow water, with the first rays of light now penetrating the cloud, and I could just about see my float, some ten yards out.  Rigged up in a sort of lift method crossed with float legering.  With bread baited  and bated breath I had cast out into the gloom.  On the grass, in a field to my left were a couple of rabbits.  Black rabbits!   Only seen one black one before, near Manchester Airport, on a grass verge, but maybe they are becoming more common now in Cheshire.  Too far away for the camera.

Bites soon came, tentative little knocks that I assumed were from my chosen quarry: Carassius Carassius.   Crucian carp, another species I have caught very few of lately.  Tenacious little scrappers, Carassius Clays which don't just float like butterflies when hooked.   Hooked? Not a chance, and I missed quite a number of bites before finally connecting with...a two ounce roach.  And so it continued, regardless of bait changes, all that came near my bait were small roach and bream, the best of which would have struggled to register a pound on a set of scales.  And the rest were far smaller. 

But it was a pleasant day, for a moment at least.  Swallows arrived with the light, and drank by gliding on stiff wings, lower beak scooping up water.  Later when the water became rougher, the birds changed tactics, and set down briefly to take that drink, causing a moment's hesitation in the flight, a minor hiccup and splash. They appeared to have a number of regular flight paths, along which they spent much of their time.   It became quite noticeable when swallow after swallow flew past, along the same compass heading, and always exactly over my float.  I picked out several other regular routes, some of which were parallel to the bank.    I wonder if they in some way choose their flight path along routes which optimises the insect count?    Later in the day they had time to play, and chased each other in pairs and at speed.   The reactions of the following birds were incredible, with changes of directions in the tag game, in order to follow the "on" bird seeming to occur with millisecond precision. Some military pilots can experience G-forces up to about 9 Gs.   I wonder how many G the swifts and swallows are pulling during their own aerial dog fights?   Whatever the value, these birds have a good life, certainly enjoying themselves, and each with a long African holiday planned for later in the year.

There was a family of great crested grebes on the lake as well.  Four birds in total, although this was just one adult, with three 3/4 grown chicks.   Another lake I fish also has four, but that family comprises two adults and two young.  There I quite often see them in pairs, with both adults often having just one of the young in tow. And that lake has plenty of suitable fish, together with very clear water to aid the grebes' fishing. I saw as many as 40 or 50 fish fed to the young in a single day, and probably missed others.  The single adult on the other lake has life far more difficult, as the water is quite turbid, with maximum visibility as little as 10 inches. The small fish population in the shallow water is also probably less, so with three mouths to feed the adult was having a hard time coping with the incessant cheeping of three hungry young grebes.
  
After a couple of hours the largest of the three young attacked the smallest and drove it away.  The bird tried to return, but was again attacked by its eldest sibling, which literally had it by the neck, possibly trying to drown it.   And then the adult joined in to chase off the chick.  The youngster made one more attempt to return, but then wandered around the lake keeping a good safe distance between itself and the others.   Later in the day, the adult was to drive away the second chick.   The largest stayed very close to the adult, even making some amateurish attempts to dive and follow the adult. The youngest grebe kept wandering around the lake, coming quite close to myself and other anglers.  Which gave me an idea.  I offered it a 4 inch roach that I had caught, held the fishlet flapping in full view of the grebelet, which was maybe 5 yards away.   And it showed some interest.  I thought it was going to come and take the fish but it shied away when only a couple of feet away from my hand.    Maybe my camouflaged jacket has its limitations.   The roach was allowed to swim off. But it was all quite encouraging and I prepared my camera for a second attempt to entice the bird.  But it then kept a safe distance so no shot of me hand feeding a grebe. Instead, a shot I took a few weeks ago, before the eggs hatched.


I then suffered the first of 5 or 6 heavy and short-ish showers.   Cowered underneath my brolley and prayed for an absence of bites.   Momentarily, once, just once,  I dozed off...I had been up since 2:30 AM !   As I dozed a fish bit sufficiently well to drag line off the reel.  I struck, and was in contact with a good fish for 20 seconds or so before the hook pulled.   Damn!     As the light faded slightly, more due to heavy cloud than the lateness of the hour, a mink swam across the lake, and took up residence in the willow immediately to my right.   Mink do not seem very strong swimmers to me, and I doubt that they would have much success in catching fish.  This one did dive briefly once or twice, but I remain unconvinced that it had eaten many fish suppers.    But perhaps it did account for the second adult grebe?  So I staked it out for a photograph, but made an error.  I thought that, with the poor light I would need a flash.   The photo is dreadful, and a test shot I did a few moments later, without the mink, showed that I had errored in switching the flash unit on.  Oh well.  But I did get to see the mink quite well as it wandered through the lower part of the willow.

A little later a crow flying over the lake descended, and delicately, with its beak, took a small dead fish from the surface.  It scarely got its feet wet.   I have seen a crow do a similar thing on the River Trent a year or so ago, so maybe it is a quite normal behaviour for a crow.

After the 5th, or was it 6th, short shower, I decided to pack up, and as I reeled my line in, a pike grabbed the bait.   After a short tussle it either let go, or else bit through the line.   Either way, my float rebounded into the alder, from where I was just about able to reach and retrieve it.  

This is one of very few waters on which I have not seen coots or moorhens. Neither revealed themselves all day on this typical coot lake.   More mink action I fear.   The  willow had also harboured a pair of small birds, flitting about from branch to branch. I watched them for ages, thinking they were probably some sort of warbler, but the leaves were always obscuring the birds from my view.   I gave up hoping for a photo, and moments later they were sitting in good view, in the alder to my left.   They were very young, extremely fluffy, blue tits.   One other bird, a bird of prey, had flown across the lake, but with my poor ID capabilities of such birds I do not know what it was. Female sparrowhawk size-ish, but rather paler, and with a grey look to it, but I don't think it to have been a sparrowhawk.  Not an eagle, nor kestrel, nor kite nor buzzard, although one buzzard did show itself as I drove home, landing on the grass near the hard shoulder.  The red kite I saw last week over the same motorway, was no longer to be seen.

All in all, a poor day's fishing, with just  a dozen very small fish to report, but a day rich with other experience, and a day well spent by the waterside.  Just wish I could convince my wife that the time was not wasted.  Any time spent without a paint brush n my hand is time wasted...or perhaps  time to be avoided!

Friday, 29 June 2012

June Tenching

     Before this year I had not fished for tench recently, not during the 4 years since my return to fishing.  No: most of my tenching was done 40 years ago, and I consider that I did quite well back then.   But tenching, as with breaming and carping, has changed dramatically over the years. Far more people fish for tench these days, far more waters hold good ones, and far more bait is fed to them.   Each of these factors has fed upon the others, and as a result more anglers are catching tench, feeding them far more nutritious food, and thence catching them at considerably larger sizes.  Oddly, back then, catching my first 6 pound plus fish, at 6-8 was the final nail in my angling coffin. After landing that fish on June 16th one year I was to put away my tackle for over 30 years.  I felt I had done as much as I wanted, achieved my targets and it was time to try to pick up what little remained of my social life after so much bank time.
     The tench record back then was 9-1. An unimaginably large fish.  The record was subsequently raised to 12 or so pounds by Alan Wilson. And the record is much larger still now. Alan had been a sort of apprentice to myself , John Watson, and Chris Keelager for some years, with myself and Chris guiding him, maybe even forcing him into the big fish lark, initially via tench, and then by carp and bream.   A great guy Alan, the most patient angler I ever met. He could occupy a swim more solidly than anyone else I knew, and it was pleasing to hear of his subsequent successes, and so sad to hear he had passed away, in his bivvy at Tring.  I miss him, even more than the breakfasts he used to cook for us in his old grey Austin Van. Unfortunately by stopping fishing myself, I regrettably lost contact, and so I missed seeing most of his angling successes, and I still do not know exactly how well he did.    But everyone seems now to know of him.
   So, to this year, and the tench. I have been surprised how easily the tench have fallen to my rod, and by their sizes. A good half of the fish have been over 5 pounds with no less than four topping six. Not quite had a seven but it can be nothing other than a matter of time. For they are, even with conventional baits, present in such numbers and sizes as to make modern tench angling so very much easier. So much time spent years ago to catch a six pounder, something that seems almost trivial today. But unlike many modern anglers I have retained that appreciation of a good fish, and I still measure them in old money. So many anglers only fish for big fish these days, (as did I way back when), but maturity now allows me to enjoy any day by the water, fishless or not, and regardless of the size or species of fish that take my bait. Being on the bank, watching the kingfishers flash past is enough.  And when joined by the cheeky chaffinches or a robin, who can resist throwing them the odd maggot?  Even very shy birds can be persuaded by the angler's bait, and I was very pleased to tempt this magpie close enough for a good photograph.  Hard to get within 15 yards of most magpies normally. This chap came to within a foot of me.   Intelligent birds.   I once saw one bury something white by poking it into a lawn,  It then plucked blades of grass to cover and hide its prize from other birds.



 A fish a little under 6 pounds, but just look at the sheer beauty that is a tench.

                                
            This fish, a female gave a really good account of itself, suggesting that its  portly profile is down to muscle, rather than spawn.  Indeed I was informed that the tench had spawned two or three weeks earlier. The tench: everything that a fish should be, and more.

    But I have had problems this season.  Too many mistakes made.  And the first was on hook choice. I lost two good tench trying to stop them reaching the lily pads.   Hook size 14, baited with maggots, and forged, yet I had a couple straighten out, before abandoning them to the next grayling trip. So I upgraded to a much larger hook size, of a pattern that I normally use, without problems, for barbel.   More problems: missed bites, and hook pulls, lilies and braid.  A good dozen more fish that should have graced my net.   I don't understand the hook pulls yet, hooks are far sharper these days, and should cope with baits similar to those I used to use.   Even hair rigged bunches of maggots have resulted in a couple of hook pulls. I lost one very good fish, which to judge by the speed and power of its runs must have been a carp.  But after the hook pull, the foot or so of slime coating the end tackle confirmed that yet another tench had slipped the hook.  I am back now on smaller hooks, still forged, but far stronger.   The jury is still out on these new hooks.  I briefly toyed with braid, but being old school I have difficulty not striking at a legered bite, and so snapped a couple of times on the strike.    Braid now abandoned for short range tench angling. Lilies remain an occasion barrier to landing fish too, but the number of fish lost to them can be minimized.  So to summarize: fair success despite the disasters.  But my memories, or those I can recall, suggest that the lips of the tench were so rubbery, that we never lost any fish once hooked.   Has my memory wilted?  Perhaps we also used to lose a fair few fish back then?
   I'll get it right soon, and will no doubt be in touch with several more tinca over the next few weeks, before other species start to compete for my time.
P.S.
The ease with which tench are caught by anglers these days has a down side.   I never used to see a tench with damage to its mouth.   About one in  four of the fish I have caught this year have visible damage.   May I appeal to anglers to take far greater care when unhooking their quarry. Please!


Saturday, 23 June 2012

An Ebro Week

I sit here, in enforced idleness, prepared to suffer the rain down by the riverside, but unable to easily get there due to some severe sciatica that sneaked up on me whilst tench fishing a couple of days ago.   I never fully understood what people meant by "shooting pains", until Wednesday.  I had planned to target some grayling ( I think they are grayling) in a very difficult swim, where I have seen a fair number of delicate rises of late.   But my chances of getting down to the river, and less importantly, getting back to the car, are remote, given the pain of the sciatica.  As remote as my chances of winning the lottery.  Even my wife's dreams, in which the Pope whispers the winning Euromillions numbers to her, have not yet translated into Aston Martins and big riverside houses.

So by popular demand...OK, OK, one person casually asked me...there follows a report of my recent catfishing trip to the Ebro.  May/June, 2012.

I had foregone a trip the previous year, because the company I had contacted told me they only flew from London.   A long way to tote gear from Manchester, so I declined and fished locally instead.   This year I decided I really had to go somewhere spectacular, somewhere for an experience, and the Ebro seemed to be calling me.   I have caught a few small catfish in the UK, including a beautiful jet black specimen, and the species has in turn captured some of my interest.  So I booked with a company called "Angling Direct", recommended by a very, very famous barbel angler, whose name completely escapes me.  Well, I had never heard of him at all until someone told me he was famous. Angling Direct told me they only flew from Gatwick, so, based upon last year's information, this seemed realistic, and so I booked the trip, together with some return train tickets to Gatters.   Packed my bags the day before, managing somehow  to get two rods and reels, some baits, plus other appropriate tackle into the 20 kilogram allowance.

Suffered the long train trip, cursing myself for having packed the full 20 kilos, plus 7 Kilos of hand carry.  Tubed it from Euston to Gatwick, and spent half the night bored to death in Gatwick.    Passed the time teaching a couple of airport first aiders how to juggle.  No objection to my smelly baits by the baggage handlers and so I caught the plane to Barcelona.   Out through customs and scanned the area for the guy in the yellow T-shirt, whom I was told would have my name on a card.  The only yellow T-shirt was playing mother duck to a gaggle of OAPs who looked more Bingo than Catfish.    Decided not to join then, as I don't qualify for either my government pension nor "clickety clicks" for a few months yet.   It became very lonely at the airport, everyone else had left. Oh my God, the solitude!   Getting a little worried, as I had no idea even of the town name where I would be staying, let alone the hotel name.   

Eventually a dubious looking character in a grey T shirt, advertising another company approached me. Martin from  "Catfish Capers".  This was the first time it became apparent that Angling Direct had  sub-contracted my trip to another company.   They had not informed me of this, and in consequence "Angling Direct" appears to be something of a misnomer. They don't appear to have their own direct presence on the Ebro.  So I was taken to join some of Catfish Capers own clients in a ramshackle old minibus,   a group of lads who were on a stag do fishing trip, and who had therefore been drinking since early morning.  Some more drinks, and then back to the airport to pick up the final two anglers.   It was at this point that I discovered that Catfish Capers regularly met planes from Manchester, as well as from London.  Not a bad bunch the Catfish Capers' Crew. Angling Direct were somewhat incompetent in not having researched this, and hence I suffered an extra cost of 84 quid for the train tickets and a considerable amount of inconvenience and extra time spent, as a direct result of their poor knowledge.   I tried to reclaim the extra cost from A.D.on my return, but they were having none of it.   They offered a discount on a second holiday, but that was just not appropriate.   So any future trips will not be with Angling Direct...I will deal directly with companies who have their own presence at the venue. Or perhaps go it alone, now I have the base knowledge required. I was the only A.D. client, the others all being with C.C.

After a narrow squeak with the police at the airport, who came close to arresting one of the drunks, during a comfort break, the stags  and the other three of us were ferried into Caspe, a small town near the Ebro, at a speed that I found somewhere at the completely petrified end of worrying.   The drunks slept through it all.  C.C. have a bar/guest house in Caspe, and I was told I was the lucky one, and had been given the luxury of a single room.  To their surprise I reminded them that I had specifically  paid a single supplement.  More Angling Direct miscommunication.  Very basic room,  bed, two drawer cabinet, and a broken bedside lamp.  Luxury item was a waste paper basket.   Make your own bed and empty your own waste bin.  En-suite?   Don't be silly.   But I was not expecting luxury. Indeed I prefer the informality of such arrangements...as long as the wife is not with me!  Food truly excellent, but far too much of it to aid my diet plan.
The most drink affected, and indeed obnoxious, member of the stag party ventured out late to one of the few local tourist attractions: the out of town brothel. Having, apparently, enjoyed himself rather more than his inebriated state should have allowed, and refuelled by a bottle of vodka (the brothel bar only served it by the bottle), he got a taxi back which dropped him right outside The Jolly Fisherman.  However he was too drunk to recognise his surroundings, and so hailed a taxi to take him to guess where:... The Jolly Fisherman.  A car whisked him away to an industrial estate where he was mugged and relieved of all his money.   He did not fish the next day!      But his lack of cash watered down his less appealing qualities to an acceptable degree for the rest of the week.

I had learned, during the evening, that the usual catfishing areas were all completely closed off to fishing, because there was a three day World Catfish Classic Competition taking place.  55 teams of three, each fishing for three days. Effectively the world championship. This had a major effect on swim availability, and so I was ferried well upstream the next day after breakfast. The river was very high, up into the trees, eliminating 99% of the remaining swims, and I found myself having to share some 8 metres of muddy and rocky bank with three other anglers.   The contest was something else I feel Angling Direct should have told me about.   I would have gone a week later or earlier, had I known to avoid the crowds.

The location was in a near desert: very dry, very rocky, and the far bank looked almost like a mini Grand Canyon.

 Many outcrops of rocks protruded between the fields of spindly crops, which survive only because the river is used as an irrigation source.  I was told the area had been used to film a number of spaghetti westerns, and indeed the area was more  Rio Grande, than what I had imagined the Ebro would be.  The swim was on a section of  river well over two hundred yards wide, with the main channel being over against the far bank, so fishing was at a range of 150 yards plus.  C.C. had provided a guide, and a small inflatable dinghy, to allow the baits and groundbait to be rowed out to the fish.   Unfortunately there was a force eight downstream wind active all day, and it made quite a slave out of the guide, who despite working very hard, had great difficulty in getting hookbaits anywhere near groundbait.   He then was swept well downstream by the wind and wasted considerable time getting back up to us in the inflatable. A more unsuitable boat could not be imagined.  Day two was similar, the wind having abated to a mere force 7.  It wasn't until day three that a powered boat was finally provided, an error that certainly cost me a few fish.  Day one produced just one catfish for me, but at 35 pounds it was a new personal best.  The fish was a superb green colour, almost similar to the green of some of the paler tench I have caught. Quite pretty.
Photo: 35 pound tiddler.

Day 2 produced a blank for me.  
Day 3 dawned with still weather conditions, ideal for getting the bait into the water accurately, and, now that there was a powered boat, getting it in quickly.   So each of the next four days produced four or five fish for me, for a total of 19 catfish. The still weather brought other problems:  Mosquitoes.
 Voracious buggers, that were biting right through my jeans, and through my denim shirt. Tiger mosquitoes the locals called them, and they appear to be an import from the other side of the Mediterranean. Day 4, 5 and 6 saw me fighting back against them.   Newly purchased mozzie spray, but wearing two pairs of jeans, a T-Shirt, denim shirt and a woolly jumper, together with a scarf wrapped around my neck, kept all but the most persistent mozzies at bay.  A Crocodile Dundee style hat kept the sun off quite well.   Not ideal though, for the temperature soared into the forties.  The area is a haven for birds of prey, and there were Egyptian vultures circling overhead, ready to pick up whatever the mozzies might leave. This shot, taken at extreme range of a vulture overhead...thought I was joking about the vultures, didn't you?


  Other birds were eagles ( of unknown species), ospreys, black kites, kestrels, and a pair of peregrines with a newly fledged young bird were constant companions on the cliffs opposite.  Goldfinches were nesting three metres away, and the odd hoopoe flew past.  No ducks though, or rather none that landed on the river.  I was informed that any ducks landing would end up as catfood.
The third day saw my personal best beaten twice, initially with a fish of 74, and finally with one of 82 pounds.

  All took large halibut pellets, and each "cast" was accompanied by a small bucketful of freebies to attract the cats.  The cats, and the odd carp were making themselves known on the surface. The cats  surface head first, and then vigorously slap their tails as they go back down.  The idea seems to be that they disorientate or perhaps stun the bleak, which are then mopped up.  I had no previous idea just how much of a predator the Wels is, but they have been caught with 20 pound carp inside them, and a 5 pound zander makes a frequent livebait choice.  I was even told of someone using a 3 pound roach as livebait...that's right: a 3 pound roach.  They are very active predators, not at all the bottom hugging, find me a dead fish, catfish that I used to imagine they were.  But livebaiting for them is illegal in Spain...as is night fishing for them!   Oddly you seem able to night fish for the carp.
As I played the 74 pound fish I was standing on a rapidly eroding foot wide section of mud bank,  and at one point was quite taken by surprise, for the fish came quite close to having pulled me in.   A sudden power surge on the 5 pound test rod, 12 feet long, caught me unawares and I came near to making a practice dive for the Olympics.  Make no mistake about it; any catfish over 50 pounds is a prodigiously powerful fish which will bore its way along the river bed.  Any 100  pound plus fish will almost certainly take considerable line from you, no matter how hard you may be pulling back, no matter what your clutch settings.  And it might well be heading upstream as it does so.

Photo: 74 pound fish.  Note the Velcro like toothy pads.

Day 4 and 5 produced more good fish, more PBs, and I had to chase one of 88 pounds by taking to the boat, so as to drag it out of the trees.   Entertaining, especially when it dragged me and the aluminium boat, complete with idling outboard, upstream.

Day 6 more of the same.   Entertaining to see a parent peregrine fly right across the river to chase off a black kite that had appeared some 50 feet above my head.   Wrong lens on the camera unfortunately. Having had a few cats, I then lost a certain hundred pound plus fish, still unseen after a long fight, to an unexpected hook pull.  But all was not lost, and on the very last cast of my final day's fishing on the Ebro I hooked another good fish.  This was a different beast again, and for some time seemed not to notice any of my attempts to slow the fish down.   Upstream, downstream, across: no difference, it simply took back any line I gained and more.   I was visibly tiring, prompting a passing idiot angler to ask me if I would like him to take over.   Daft question of the day, and I informed him I would rather lose the fish than let another person land it.   Eventually I did land it, after some 25 minutes of heaving as hard as I could.  No strength left to lift the fish, and I needed help to hold it for the photographs.  When I released it, I was shattered, but the fish swam off as if nothing had happened to it at all.  So much strength, so much power and stamina.  It weighed 151 pounds.

Not at all sure if I would go again, for it was expensive for the trip, more expensive than I thought: for I needed to buy an additional 160 Euros worth of bait, on top of the 50 or so kilograms of pellets that came free with the trip.  I cannot say the angling involved any great skill levels, some experience in playing big fish certainly helps, so it is, and will probably remain, a one off experience.  I certainly would not fly there again with Angling Direct.  If nothing else, the fact that they sub-contract their  Ebro holidays, suggests that without their cut of the profits, going with an on-site company should be significantly cheaper. They were not properly sympathetic to the problem they caused me, and it would not be difficult to assume they would take a similar attitude to other problems.

A few notes on the World Catfish Classic:
The match was won by a Dutch team, the Captain of which, and overall winner of the match, had by coincidence, spent a number of days practising in the same swim that he drew during the week before the match.   And thereby prebaiting it!   This invoked various comments of the "lucky bastard" genre.   But if we add the fact that he won the match last year, and that he runs a guiding company on the river, his website and reputation, deserved or not, now looks set to gain him a few clients.
All fish caught in the match had to be killed, as, in theory do all other cats caught.   The Eastern Europeans have been seen to take vanloads of fish, but most British anglers tend to return them of course.   But increased European presence may well reduce the number of the larger fish. During the match itself 4215 Kilograms, about 4 tons of Wels catfish were removed from the river!
Of course there is the inevitable difference of opinion: that of the Spanish EA who see the cats as an environmental disaster ( quite rightly in my opinion), and that of the town Mayor, who wants to promote the tourism in the area.  I was also told that in the extensive area where the cats are commonplace, they have exterminated, note: exterminated rather than decimated, the barbel, the chub, and even the pike.
 Another huge figure is the estimate of how much bait was used.   Over 20 tons of pellets was a figure I heard. I have no confirmation of that being accurate, but I should not be at all surprised: I saw quite a number of pallets of bait by the roadside one morning.  I used over a hundredweight myself.   Multiply that by 165 anglers, who were probably not being as conservative as I was with bait use, and you get big numbers.