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The Urbantrout Diaries 2: Bashing Balsam

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I've been carrying my 1wt Superfine with me on balsam bashing trips - there's deceptive steel in it...; I've been carrying my 1wt Superfine with me on balsam bashing trips - there's deceptive steel in it...;

This time out our urban angler is getting to grips with a few of the aliens on his patch...and making solid progress!









Fully four years after we got serious about tackling invasive non-native species on the Wandle, 2013 has finally felt like the summer of noticeable progress.

'Start at the top of your river’s catchment and push it downstream' has always been the rubric for eradicating Himalayan balsam, and that’s what we’ve been doing. Recommendations from the Monnow Rivers Association’s super-successful clearance project also say 'do your first clearance with glyphosate before following up with hand-pulling by volunteers' But glyphosate weedkiller is indiscriminate about which bankside plants it kills, and the poor little Wandle has been hit so hard with chemical and other forms of pollution in recent years that we agreed immediately with the Environment Agency’s preference for hand-pulling first, using chemicals only as a last resort.

For the first couple of years, it seemed we’d never get off the stretch of river at Richmond Green, right where the infant river trickles out of a concrete culvert on the boundary between Sutton and Croydon, echoing with post-industrial mockery of a proper karstic cave-mouth.

This year, however, with many more of our regular volunteers realising the benefits of clearing the Himalayan balsam monoculture from the upper Wandle, we’ve suddenly seen much more progress. A big volunteer effort in partnership with Thames 21 and 500 corporate interns in August 2011 had already made a huge difference. In the meantime, I’d also taken took huge personal pleasure in clearing that bloody balsam from the Carshalton arm of the river, repeatedly sweeping the area around the famous ponds where, urban rumour insisted, a nameless park attendant had brought the spring-loaded seed-pods from Croydon because he thought the plants looked nice…

And now, this summer, we’ve been pulling the stuff all the way down through Beddington Park and Culvers Island - three miles as the river flows, the full length of the chalkstream headwaters until they meet what comes out of Beddington sewage treatment works and become a lot less chalky in character.

Several evenings in the past two months, I’ve followed the track of one of our previous volunteer balsam-pulling days, sniping late stragglers that pop their heads above the parapet of rusting brambles and bindweed. Absent overshading and other competition from its fellows, it’s amazing how the most inconspicuous seedling will snatch its chance to shoot skywards: these are the late-germinating plants that can scatter enough of their own seeds to cause problems next year, so it’s well worth taking an hour or two to make sure as few as possible get through.

A 'hefty' dace...I’ve carried a rod on most of these trips, not so much planning to fish as being prepared for the places where good fish sometimes happen. One of those was a hefty dace (you won’t often hear those words in close conjunction), another was a three-pound chub that suddenly wandered down-river towards me, slurping negligently from the surface, ripe for interception with a favourite midge pattern. There’s deceptive steel in my little old Superfine 1wt, but in the fight’s final seconds the tippet caught a splinter on the rim of my landing net, twanging as the tension came off and the trophy shot was gone.

Oh well, that’s fishing. And it wasn’t the evening’s real work anyway.



Theo PikeTheo is a freelance marketing, fly-fishing and environmental writer. He’s also Chairman of Trustees of the Wandle Trust, and founding editor of Urbantrout.net a website dedicated to the urban fly-fishing and river restoration improvements.


Theo’s trailblazing book Trout in Dirty Places: 50 rivers to fly-fish for trout and grayling in the UK’s town and city centres was published by Merlin Unwin Books in 2012. His new book on invasive non-native species is due in April 2014. 


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theo pike, Urbantrout diaries, River Wandle, Himalayan balsam

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