Wednesday 19 November 2014

Emotional Highs and Lows.

Many years ago I came back from fishing, feeling very hungry, one Sunday night.   Shops and take-outs all long past closing time.   What to do?  I was still single and so did not have a well stocked fridge.  In point of fact all I could find in the cupboard was some curry powder.  But all was not lost, there was also the garden.  And so I made rhubarb curry.  And it  I don't think I could be more effusive than that about it. It was certainly not in Michelin Star territory, more Michelin Radial.   But I made a mistake: I told a long time friend about it.   And she has never forgotten, and, usually in company, takes the Mickey whenever possible about my culinary skills. She has little or no interest in fishing, except perhaps as a possible alternative to the fish counter at Tesco's.    So it was with great surprise that I found out that she had listened to a Radio 4 programme about night fishing for sea trout last week.  The narrator did me no favours.   He compared night fishing to sex.  So my friend has now taken up a fresh cudgel with which to beat me.   She has decided that my night fishing has more to do with involuntary nocturnal emissions, than with intentional night time captures. And I know I will never see an end to the rib poking from her.  So I choose to dedicate this entire post to her.  She knows who she is.

But how emotional is fishing really?  In most angler's experience there are a few special fish, maybe special for their size, for the mode of their capture, or as the successful end result of a long campaign.   These special fish can have a dramatic effect.   After returning the fish to the water the angler can suddenly find himself trembling. Quite unable to hold and re-bait the hook.   I, in an unguarded moment, explained all this to Cathy.  Mad, bad move...more high calibre ammunition for the phase II Mickey taking to come.   The trembling is something I have only felt in two different scenarios, firstly, maybe a dozen times over the years whilst fishing, and secondly as a symptom of delayed shock following a car crash.   Uncontrolled trembling.   Heightened adrenalin levels?  Maybe. Either way the symptoms I felt were similar. Did I enjoy my crash? No, but by senses were very much heightened during it.  Adrenalin must play a major part in all this.

I continued my year long quest for a two pound grayling last week. Every trip has not been about that species, but probably a third of my fishing has been with them in mind.  Choosing a new swim, I travelled light with simple trotting gear, centrepin reel, light rod and headed for another area of the river, one from which I have only so far landed one grayling, but it was a fish of just over the pound.  Maybe the stretch holds other, bigger fish? I was pleased to find the swim very suitable for trotting, although on the negative side it shallowed up rapidly downstream, and was overhung with several trees that definitely got in the way of a wildly waved rod and line. But a long cast was not needed, and with a good depth only ten feet out from the bank, casting was not really needed at all.  The out of season trout soon made themselves known to me, and I was to take half a dozen in this short three hour session. All were returned quickly, none were large fish. But something I have noted before in recent weeks: the larger the fish, the slimmer it was. The bigger fish again looked very much out of condition at a time of year when I fully expected them to be at their healthiest and fattest.

The grayling stayed well away, maybe because the depth of water and speed of the current made any form of loose feeding very imprecise indeed.  Few of the red maggots would have sunk deep enough, quickly enough, and any that did would have become very scattered.  The grayling quest did not look good, until fairly late on, when I struck into a very good fish after a tentative dip on the float.  This fish fought well, and stayed deep, leading me to think it was another, much better spotty.   But after a significant scrap I suddenly saw that fin, the unmistakable dorsal of a good male grayling.  That fin must help a grayling in a heavy current in its fight against the angler. Any fish with a broad profile can use the current effectively. I have hooked a couple of bream in very fast water, water well out of the comfort zone for a bream, but each turned sideways on in the rapids and became almost impossible to draw back through the current. In neither case did I imagine that they were bream, unseen.
My mind now concentrated even more on controlling the centrepin reel, and after some more tourism around the swim, the fish was heading towards the net.  And it looked certain that very first two pound fish was at last mine.  I was already elated,  my emotions running sky high. Euphoric.  

And then the hook pulled out.

 The fish, just out of reach of the landing net, sank back into the depths.  And my emotional state sank equally quickly into a black hole, from which there would be no return. Certainly not on that day, as I was to have no more bites.  Only in angling can the emotions rock so violently back and forth, and so quickly. Only in angling.  And why is it always that very good fish when it happens?   I can answer that one easily:  the smaller lost fish are just not remembered, and don't matter so much.    They swim away with a wave of their caudal, and a flap of the dorsal. The required curses are uttered at the time, but the escapes of those smaller fish are then quickly forgotten. I determined to return the next day, to fish the same swim, with a secret desire to hook the same fish.  But the rain beat me to it, and it was obvious by daylight that overnight the river would have become unfishable.  The EA river levels site was, as ever, several hours behind the fact, and was of little use.   I did venture up later in the day to look at the river, without a rod,  and the water was still 18 inches up, going like a train and looked to be carrying more chocolate than the combined annual production of Belgium and Switzerland. But it was falling.

Day three saw me back with the rod, in the same swim. Fairly quickly a small trout took the trotted bait, but all then went very quiet.  The river was still a little above normal winter level, but I was expecting a little more action.  A dark coloured bird flashed past, a foot above the river and an equal distance below my rod tip.  My mind made an instant identification: a swallow.  Ridiculous, and having quickly told myself off for being so stupid as to think it a swallow in November, no matter how briefly, I settled back to the fishing.  A short while later the bird flew back upstream along the same path.  A kingfisher of course. During its first speedy flypast its blue colour was not on show.  I read that kingfishers are not actually blue, the apparent colour being due entirely to the structure of the feathers, which refract the light, generating colour in a similar way that petrol spilled on wet ground does.

Time for a rethink.  I was still not happy about where my loose feed was going. Was it ever reaching the bottom? Were the fish finding it? If so were they feeding?  And where?   I decided to set up my float in a stret pegging style.  It was not an easy option. The method is very badly affected by leaves drifting in the current. And this was autumn, with the river carrying enough dead leaves to disrupt Britsh Rail's entire Southern timetable.   Stret pegging is a very old fashioned method, allowing the angler to search out the swim on the bottom, gradually easing the float further downstream, its speed not at the whim of the current.  Few modern anglers have heard of the method, and many more will have never tried it.  Myself included, and I admit I was not even quite sure what it entailed.  On my return home I checked it out on the internet and had, luckily, got it about right.   After a short while my float, lying flat on the surface, trembled, and I struck into a good fish, which immediately went very splashy on the surface.  Another trout?   No.  A good grayling.  It spent quite some time refusing to come back upstream, and I just held the rod across the river, finger holding back on the centrepin spool edge, whilst the rod did the work of tiring the fish.  Even when exhausted the fish was near, it was not easy to guide into the net, the stream's power helping its attempts to head downstream.  But into the net it went and weighed 1-14.  It looked bigger than that, and I realised that the fish I lost a couple of days ago might not have been as large as I had proclaimed it to be.    Richard Walker, largely the founder of big fish techniques, once said "Of all fish, a big perch is the biggest of fish".  That statement is unlikely to be fully understood by any non angler reading this.  But I think he was wrong, and I believe that there is no bigger fish than a big grayling. So many male grayling look to be way over their real weight.  Again, emotions cut in.  But do I think "Wow!, my biggest grayling from the river", which it was?  Do I think  "Damn, yet another fish under two pounds"?   Or do I add more doubt that the river will ever produce a fish over the magical two pounds?

I didn't have much time to ponder. A couple of casts later another fish was on, and was staying deep, and using the current to make my work harder. I play fish very differently using the centrepin, consciously allowing the rod to do far more work.  But the grayling was landed, and with great anticipation was weighed in the net.  Over three pounds with the net, and I knew I finally had that two pound fish.  2-2 to be precise.   Having carefully returned the fish and sat back on my chair, the trembling began, rebaiting was just not going to happen for a minute or so. I was all fired up.  After all this time the fish I had sought was caught.  Not much later another fish of 1-13 took the bait.   My three best grayling from the river, consecutive fish on the same day. One more good fish shed the hook. All were male fish.   All adding to my theory that most of the bigger grayling are males.  

Once more the fish seemed to be shoaling by size.  I wonder why.  Maybe the bigger fish all migrate into the most des res swims, Maybe the swim has a better food supply and simply grows its fish rapidly? Or maybe these bigger  fish are all of one year class that is getting near to the end of school, and  have not much of their lives left?   As an aside I watched a TV programme recently which gave different meanings to the phrases "shoal of fish" and "school of fish".   I always thought them the same, but wondered why we have two different collective nouns.  My old OED also assigns exactly the same meaning to the two words.  The scientist in the programme defined a shoal as a loosely associated group of fish, looking very relaxed, and facing in various directions.  A school is what they become once they have a purpose, and thus become more tightly grouped, each individual facing the same way.  This may be as a result of feeding, panic, or moving their station.  An interesting separation of meaning, but I fear one that has only been assigned fairly recently.

As I watched my float, expecting a fourth fish, a goosander  surfaced not six inches from my float.  Only a half dozen yards from me and I was a little startled.  Not as startled as the bird, which flapped and splashed its way downstream in blind panic.  Goosanders are not very sociable, not people persons at all. It is rare to get anywhere near one. It must have swum past me sub-surface, for I had no idea of its presence.   Nice to see it, but it had killed the fishing.  A couple of hours later two much smaller female grayling took the bait, and it was then time to head home.  But a great day, and one that confounded my theory that the river would never give up a fish of that size.  Was it to be a one off?  Time will tell.

Saturday 8 November 2014

The Pound Shop Swim

About ten or twelve days ago I fished for a little over three hours on one of my regular rivers.  The river was quite low and clear for a winter's day, but I had a really good session.  No shortage of fish, rather a surfeit of them, although a couple of dozen of them were out of season brown trout.   The trout were being a little suicidal.  None were over a pound, most much smaller. But the day was made by 14 grayling.   The grayling in the river this season appear to be in one of two size bands.  Between 8-12 ounces, or over about one pound two ounces.     I might simplistically say that there are two year groups present, the result of two separate, very successful spawning years, but I suspect it is a little more complex than that.    I don't know what sort of ages these fish might be.     The odd scientific paper I have read about grayling relates length to ages, and in that respect do indicate growth rates, but will in any case be specific to the river that the fishery biologists were sampling.   So I don't  really have any idea how old these two groups of fish in my river might be.     That I don't catch any smaller, or many in between these two size groups suggests that spawning is not very successful every year, although the numbers of fish suggest that if spawning is successful in one particular year, then it is very successful.   I read something else that described grayling as prolific breeders.   Maybe floods, or other river conditions largely wipe out the deposited ova in some years.

Of those 14 grayling, the last two were taken in what I have started to call my "Pound Shop Swim". The first time I fished the swim I landed  five grayling, all over a pound in a fairly short session.   I now quite often drop in on the swim on my way home, and it usually gives me a fish or two, and if I do catch, there is always at least one pound plus fish landed.   It is a useful end of day confidence boosting spot.

A couple of other trips elsewhere on the river also produced a few ( far less) fish, but then plans had to be abandoned.  I became ill. Very ill.   So ill that I stopped fishing for 6 days.  I spoke to the lad, who as a qualified doctor said  "Sore throat".  I mean:  5 years of medical school, Over two years as a hospital doctor, and the best he can do is a sore throat?     After my phone conversation things became worse overnight and I was struggling to swallow anything, and the throat was ever more painful, deep pain on swallowing, a prickly sensation on top if I actually succeeded.   So next day: see the GP.      She quickly summoned up all her years of experience and concluded I was not at all well, and prescribed for tonsillitis.   A diagnosis she was forced to revise when I revealed that my tonsils went over half a century ago, and I doubted that I have grown new ones.   But it is a little worrying that a GP, dealing with flue, sore throats, coughs and colds on a daily basis, cannot, even with that modern instrument of torture, the "tongue depressor", is unable to determine that I have no tonsils.  Now even I, as an ex avid consumer of TV cartoons know what tonsils look like: they are those those flappy things that you see in Tom's throat, dangling down and wobbling about frantically when Jerry has just done something else horrible to poor old Tom.   Maybe medical students don't get to watch Tom & Jerry as part of their training these days.  Oh yes: tongue depressor...wooden spatula to you and me.  So it was antibiotics to attack a mass of nasty material blocking my throat.   Except that I could not swallow them, even in liquid form.   Had to visit A&E overnight as, if I could not swallow the medicines, I figured I would not get better.   Additional stuff prescribed and I could then just about swallow the prescribed doses.   Eight days from onset, my throat remains sore, but I have picked up my rod and walked...several times now actually.   So all over bar the shouting....not that I feel my throat is quite up to shouting just yet.

So it was time to try yet another river. I chose one that I have fished very little.   As a kid my parents took me to picnic near it, and between banana sandwiches I fished for big minnows, one a cast...brilliant!    But then one day I tried a lump of cheese and was astounded to catch a decent chub.   Later as a teenager I fished it three or four times, catching bags of roach, dace and plenty of gudgeon.  There may have been some chublets in the keepnet too...cannot really remember.  So it is at least 50 years since I fished it.    
Male Pheasant
Nostalgia cut in deeply, and so I decided to fish near to where I had caught that chub.   As I walked down towards the river, I disturbed a couple of pheasants in the undergrowth, the flurry of wing beats being as diagnostic as their croaking calls. I didn't see them though.  In summer their croak is always followed by a short wing flutter, but I have no idea why they do it.  Maybe either linked to mating or territory I suppose.   The chub swim gave up no bites, and I hadn't really expected it to do so.  Even at the time, all those years ago,  I was surprised to find a chub there.  So I moved higher upstream, to a deeper spot just below a shallow rapids run, and was quickly rewarded with a decent gudgeon, and a couple of tiny dace.  Pleasing to see some of the  gudgeon remain despite cormorants, goosanders, mink, and if I am informed correctly, the odd otter.
A little later, another fish, silver with black mottled spots.  It was, as I was swinging the fish to hand, looking like another gudgeon, but no: a small grayling.  Grayling of an ounce or so could easily be confused with gudgeon...but only until you get a closer look at them in your hand.    Later I was to catch an even smaller fish, no more than 4 inches long.  A silver sliver of a fish.  And it was a dace until in my hand ...when the typical grayling snout and therefore the true identity of the fish was revealed.  Nice to see all these small grayling as it demonstrates good breeding success.   My usual river never produces any grayling for me of less than about 7 or 8  ounces.  Why it doesn't is an unanswered question, but suggests that in some years breeding success is minimal.  The day continued, with several more grayling...eight in total and four inevitable trout.   The trout all looked a
Small Grayling....Gudgeon Sized.
little thin, a surprise after a long summer, and so near the breeding season, although one was nevertheless well over two pounds.  Conversely many of the grayling had quite portly stomachs.  Back the next half day for more of the same, and as the grayling total for the two days reached 15, with no fish over about twelve ounces, I started to think I was again on the wrong river.   But yet another swim change produced five more grayling, each of them being a pound plus, three in the first three casts.  Maybe I have found another pound shop swim?   Somewhere else to drop a float in as I walk back to the car.     Two more half days, and two different stretches of the same river and my total grayling count was 43, with 6 of them over the pound.  Some of the grayling came from very shallow water under some overhanging
A Dark, Thin Spotty About to go Back.
trees.  Another similar swim gave up the largest trout.  Out of season but a very dark and heavily spotted thin fish, that looked as if it needed a good plate of fish and chips.  A couple or few more trout, and a solitary three pound chub completed the list for the four short sessions.   Very nice indeed.  
But it is not all about the fishing, especially when the weather has turned cold overnight.  But a welcome gang of a dozen long tailed tits, marauding up and down the banks of the stream, stopped to forage in a very nearby willow.  Some were as close as 6 feet away from me, their pink, black and white plumage very much on display as they acrobatically hung from the branches. 
My Wallace casting was briefly on display...luckily there was no audience.  Most of the time I was managing without any major tangles around the reel, and I had no need to cast any distance.   My first attempt though was nearly a significant disaster.  Having travelled light, I was seated on a small folding stool, and the cast unbalanced me.  I was heading towards the water. And as the old joke says: it was deep too.    But, calling on my skills as a unicyclist, namely a precarious sense of balance and blind panic, definitely not in that order, I regained my seat and remained dry.   But it was quite a close call.  The cold water of a river in winter has never seemed quite so near.
I had kept moving over those four sessions, having found that a few fish taken put the rest down...or maybe I had caught all that were there?   In one swim, I cast in, but then saw, in the overhanging trees on the far bank, a long dead bird. Probably a sparrowhawk.   It had become entangled.  I could not see any fishing line, but I am sure it was the cause.   Now I am not going to cast the first stone here, for I feel that the line was simply the result of a bad cast...actually a very bad cast given the location of the bird in the middle of the tree.   But tell me the angler that has never lost a float, nor a lead, in a far bank tree and I will show you an angler who never takes any risk, never tries for that bigger fish that just might be lurking in that little barely accessible corner, I will show you an angler who has far less fun.  But seeing the stricken bird does make me wonder whether I should continue to make all those risky casts.  Only the other day, I pulled a length of line from a bankside tree.  On winding it up into a ball for safe disposal, I found it had a small fly on the end of it.  A green colour.  Fly anglers also get caught up in the trees. Not sure what fly imitation it was but I'll call it a Greenwell's Glory.   One of few fly names I can remember from way back. Others were the Muddler Minnow, and the Hairy Mary.  I do wonder whether Hairy Mary was ever a suitable name for a fly, and just what materials it might actually have been made from?   But I don't wonder for long.
On seeing the dead sprawk, I was unable to fish that swim.  Too upsetting to see the bird hanging in
A Buzzard
front of me, so I moved twenty yards upstream.  A plaintive call high above improved my mood no end.   There were no less than five buzzards circling above me.   Five that the gamekeeper in today's news had not poisoned.    I know what sort of suspended sentence I myself might have given him,
and it would not be anything like the suspended sentence the judge gave out.  Late in the day I had a very unusual catch: a stone, a smooth pebble.  My hook had somehow slid into a caddis fly larva's case, and the caddis was attached sufficiently well as to lift the stone, remaining attached as I reeled in.
Late evening and a flight of cormorants in "V" formation passed over. Don't know where they were headed.  Some years ago I saw a flight of an estimated 3 or 4 hundred of them flying over Stockport.  I don't know where they were  headed either, but they would be trouble for some angling club or other.  

A Flight of Cormorants in V Formation.       ET   Eat Your Heart Out!
....and then the rains came.