Rivers Well Travelled

John Bailey

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Abstraction.jpg


Many of us were brought up in our fishing infancy by the wise words of Mr Crabtree, aka Bernard Venables. Yes, baits and methods were covered in Crabtree, but perhaps the abiding memory was always the insistence on watercraft, the core of what fishing is all about for me, probably you. I have no doubt watercraft is massive on stillwaters, but I have been beginning to wonder about its present-day importance on rivers. My slight reservations were given a nudge by an excellent piece by Denise Ashton in the recent Wild Trout Trust magazine, entitled Trout Travellers. Much of what she said is of course trout-focused, but the piece is broader than that in my view and encompasses most river species… apart from perhaps gudgeon and bullhead! What I propose to do is not quite an article of the old school, but more a list of points and observations that might trigger responses of your own?

THE BIG TROUT LIE

Otters.jpg

Otters flush many big fish into new territory

OtterKill.jpg

A very obvious otter kill

The traditional big trout lie. Denise queries whether the concept of a lie being occupied and held by a specific big fish for years is a true one. We can all think of examples where this has happened, but perhaps these instances are exceptions rather than rules. I always liked this concept myself and tried to apply it to not just trout but chub and barbel as well. These five years past, though, I have been forced to give up on it, and accept that all big fish use lies for a while, but nowhere near as long as they did in the 70s and 80s. My observations on endless intimate rivers, where sighting is possible, suggests that otters are the biggest factor in this change. Big fish of all species are nowhere near as relaxed as they once were, and much more likely to move lie frequently. Angling pressure has exactly the same effect, so I am not blaming otters exclusively.

NOT THE STAY-AT-HOME TYPE

Barbel.jpg

Barbel… great travellers everywhere​

Denise cites one River Deveron brown moving 84 kms over the course of a month. This was not a stay-at-home type fish, for sure, and if you had tried to target it in a specific lie you wouldn’t have had much luck. But that fish is not unusual I’m thinking. EA research on the Broadland rivers has recently proved that bream and pike, especially, rarely keep still, but can be almost on continual migration. Spawning, spring tides, salt tides and temperature changes are considerations, but fish move all the time irrespective of these. I have personal knowledge of individual chub swimming two miles in a morning, and barbel even further than that on a regular basis.

OFF DOWN-RIVER

Abstraction.jpg

Abstraction has made many upper rivers too hot in the summer

Denise wonders if trout tend to move downstream as they grow. Probably. The head waters where they are born might be too shallow in heat or too poor in food for bigger fish to tarry there. But I feel much the same might happen on many rivers with many species. Take the Wensum. The upper river has long held small chub, and a very few big ones, but has never been prolific. It is very much my suspicion that as chub reach a pound or so, they wander down-river. Looking back, I am semi-sure that roach behaved the same.

WEIRS NO BARRIER

Bullheads.jpg

Even bullheads get displaced by floods and hunted by predators

Denise wonders how weirs and mill sluices impede fish movements, and soon we might have to add beavers’ dams to the study. Karen Twine, that excellent fish biologist, told me that her work on the Ouse showed conclusively that tagged barbel routinely climbed and descended weirs with little effort. My own Wensum experiences from 1980 ’till the present day mirror this exactly. I have caught/seen barbel two or three weirs up/down from their original sighting/catching place. Chub are the same and in my experience use the whole river, and not just the section they find themselves in.

VULNERABLE ROACH

CormorantBeak.jpg

The killer cormorant beak

CormorantDamage.JPG

A classic example of cormorant damage

Denise does think that weirs and sluices might slow migrating fish down, and make them vulnerable as a result. She uses the example of 80% of tagged Tweed sea trout smolts that disappeared above one weir alone. She suggests fish-eating birds were the culprits. I have no doubt that roach suffer the exact fate. Repeatedly this century I have located large numbers of Wensum roach happily in situ above mills for some weeks… until cormorants find them. Sometimes the annihilation is complete. In winter 2005/06 there were in excess of 25,000 smallish roach above Lenwade Mill on the middle Wensum. I lead a couple of groups to India in January and February and on my return, every roach had gone. I was told 40/50 cormorants had been in residence for nine weeks and had hoovered the lot. Some might have escaped through the mill sluices but it must have been a case of devil and the deep blue sea. It does not, however, have to be a barrier to create the conditions for this carnage. Many times I have been aware of roach concentrations that gather and swell in numbers, and then are located and completely wiped out by flocks of cormorants that target the area for as long as it takes.

SERIOUS FLOODING

WaterEverywhere.jpg

Water everywhere

This winter much of England has seen serious, prolonged flooding. My fear is that very many fish have been displaced by this, possibly fatally. On my local rivers, prior to Christmas, there were several “hot” roach areas where big bags could be taken by my friends. Over the more settled conditions of the last two weeks, these friends have returned and without exception the roach have vanished completely. There is nothing new in this. Back in the Eighties, a large percentage of Wensum roach were flushed, winter after winter, down-river into the centre of Norwich where phenomenal bags were taken. Deep dredging and bad sluice control were almost certainly to blame for this and both factors are still at play today. Long areas of Wensum still show the scars of dredging forty years back, and some sluices are privately and badly controlled, basically thrown open and the river allowed to surge through. I doubt the electronically-operated EA sluices are any better, however. Think too of the huge numbers of bream caught by trawlers in the ‘70s and ‘80s in the Wash, of all places. These fish had been washed down the Relief Channel, and out to sea, by failure to control flow patterns once again.

MANY REASONS TO WANDER

OtterDroppings.jpg

A frightening world of otter droppings

EndtoRoach.jpg

Sad end to a big roach

I would totally agree with Denise that left to themselves most river species will move up and down river, sometimes frequently, and that they have been doing this since time began. However, this century many factors have come into play that have hugely increased this tendency. Abstraction has made smaller, upper rivers and tributaries uncomfortably low and overly hot during warmer summers. This means fish, large and small, are far more likely to wander down-river for as long as it takes to find better habitat. The huge increase in otter numbers has put all big fish on constant red alert, and made them much more likely to desert established lies far more frequently than before the otters’ return. It is no good repeating the old mantra that our rivers have always held otters. Back when they did, there were far more fish in existence, and the pressure on large individual specimens was less intense.

A DESPERATE PROBLEM

Cormorants.jpg

A caption hardly needed

Cormorants – and goosanders – are a relatively new and desperate problem. They target conglomerations of all smaller fish, whether salmon smolts or roach, and either devour them or scatter them to oblivion. The effect on all stocks is devastating. Tweed salmon. Frome grayling. Stour roach. This is a nationwide problem. Warmer, immeasurably wetter winters are here to stay. The floods we have witnessed this year are colossally damaging, and push fish even to the sea itself – think of those Relief Channel bream. Dredged rivers, badly operated sluices, and bad floodplain management make the carnage worse.

'GONE FISHING' GOOD FOR ME

Grayling.jpg

Grayling too face hard times

This piece started out in my head as an interesting and comparatively light look at fish migration. However, the more I considered it, and the more examples I mulled over, the darker my notes became. Things are bad in the East of England, but I have to say that working for Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing these past four years has been good for me. Both researching and filming, I have travelled the length and breadth of the UK, and there are not many river systems that are not experiencing the problems I have outlined. The big questions are what we do about all this, and what use do Bernard Venables’ lovely river swim diagrams serve today?
 

easker1

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well now you managed to Blacken the Otter, and gave the Anti cormorant brigade more ammunition, You only have seals and herons to go,Oh and mergansers and Goosanders?will we sterilise the country to cater only for Anglers?, I like my fishing and I have no issues with wild life it's part of my fishing Day, easker1
 
D

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well now you managed to Blacken the Otter, and gave the Anti cormorant brigade more ammunition, You only have seals and herons to go,Oh and mergansers and Goosanders?will we sterilise the country to cater only for Anglers?, I like my fishing and I have no issues with wild life it's part of my fishing Day, easker1
It is know after. Any many years being noted the damage cormorants are doing to fish especially in estuary mouths I think the thread was about damage being done nit about annihilation of other predators more a point of what else is damaging our beloved fish..
We all enjoy the sport.. Just my take on the article...
I enjoyed it.
 
D

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Oh Well just my take on the Article then, just felt there is enough said about fish predators without stirring the pot, easker1
And I agree with you fella and surely we as anglers see and know of the damage they do..
As said you read it in a different way to me.. That's the joy of these threads..
But cormorants have hammered fish stocks especially salmon in the estuaries and river systems..
 

benisa

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Think Cormorants are Big Problem be it on Stocked fishing lakes or the river and they are not going go away so it needs be sorted

In Bosnia they have Otters swimming with the fish and have no problem : yes they get there teeth into the fish but still seems a good head fish in all the rivers each time I go
 

easker1

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why are the cormorants a problem? because man has taken the sea fish that the Cormorants need to survive, remember what we do is a hobby we don't need fish to survive,most of us practice C&R, Cormorants don't have that option, easker1
 

benisa

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why are the cormorants a problem? because man has taken the sea fish that the Cormorants need to survive, remember what we do is a hobby we don't need fish to survive,most of us practice C&R, Cormorants don't have that option, easker1
Thing is that they are taking fish from the stock ponds/lakes both where you are Catch + kill + Catch realise and for a small fishery owner in this now Cov time it can eat a Big hole into there pocket
 

JoeOh

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cormorants don't have any option but to eat fish, easker1
I am not sure if the huge Cormorant population that infest Rutland Water are familiar with saline water. They seem to be resident. As for the lack of sea fish they need to survive, seals seem to be doing quite well. Without getting into deep debate, it's a problem I just wish we didn't have to consider at all.
 

ohanzee

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Not another black death thread, I once saw a dead otter proudly held up in a hessian sack, trapped and clubbed at a rainbow pond that stocked fish with no tails, it was probably the only wild thing left.

Easker(and I) fish where man has yet to screw it up manage nature to the point of competing with birds and fish eating mammals, so apologies for a slightly different view.
 
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ejw

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It is the numbers that concern me. Otters I like to see, but I can live with what they take and they do keep Mink away. Now Cormorants are a different thing altogether -
Some years ago I worked on a committee advising the EA ??? Unfortunately the EA did not believe that Cormorants grouped together.
In my "normal" work at the time, my office overlooked a water confluence (2 rivers and a canal) there was no access to the banks here, so no disturbance. I showed a picture to the EA of over 200 Cormorants in 200m of water !!! They came for the eels at migration time (as there were very few fish in this area as it was too polluted ) The catch rate was 1 eel every 2/3 dives (I had a telescope set up to view this). They stayed for nearly a month ! You can imagine the damage done. It concerned me that the EA did not know or understand the issue.

FYI part of my normal work covered Environmental issues, not just that I liked looking out of windows !

For me, I would like to see Cormorants on the "Open List" for shooting. I am also sure that I will get flak for this post.
 

John Bailey

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I am, as ever, grateful to those who found Rivers Well Travelled of use. Believe me, it was put together on the back of daily experience built over decades. My degree might be in History and Classics, not Fishery Science, but I don’t honestly think that matters if you keep your eyes open, along with an open mind. Which is why I have to pick up on easker1’s comments.

First, I have just reached an age where anything and everything I write has resonance for me. I realise I just don’t have time to kill, and I’m never going to write again for the sake of it. I truly believed RWT might not have been perfect, but those who relish wild fish in natural waters really should pay it heed. If Easker1 were to read more of what I write, he would realise that I constantly defend otters. I do not see them as the prime problem, and if the rivers had the fish stocks of years ago, they would be no problem whatsoever.

He (presumably?) talks about seals too. I’ve never discussed seals, but I should. Being Norfolk-based for 60 years-plus, I have seen the exponential growth of the seal population there over decades, to the point where they are now a plague. Everyone who knows a thing about them realises totally that there are way too many for their good, as well as the environment’s, but we live in this weird world where everything, no matter what, is to be cherished - providing they are not fish.

As for herons, kingfishers and grebes, Easker1, I love them all, but as for cormorants they are a complete death knell for our natural fisheries. But again, Easker1 shows complete ignorance of his subject. The cataclysmic rise in cormorants this century has nothing much at all to do with stocks of fish in the sea, as many ill-informed like to think. Our indigenous maritime-feeding cormorant population has remained largely static during these years.

The problem comes from European, freshwater-feeding cormorants that have increasingly come to overwinter in the UK. This is the curse that in this country and in Ireland we have done nothing about - largely through indolence, partly though ignorance, and partly because of the Beatrix Potter-type ideas on wildlife that are currently prevailing. If Easker1 wants to spend the rest of his life fishing for F1s and rainbow trout, that have all been delivered by lorry, well, he is going the right way about it.
 

PaulD

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well now you managed to Blacken the Otter, and gave the Anti cormorant brigade more ammunition, You only have seals and herons to go,Oh and mergansers and Goosanders?will we sterilise the country to cater only for Anglers?, I like my fishing and I have no issues with wild life it's part of my fishing Day, easker1
Easker1, with respect, your location indicated 'Highlands' where you're experience of the impact of 'wild life' as you refer to it, bears little or no relevance to the experience of those of us who live in the more populated areas of the UK.

In common with most 'thinking' anglers, I have no issue with the Otter, it's a joy to see one when fishing but what you need to acknowledge is the devastating effects their 'reintroduction' and mobility has had on many fisheries. I live near the Gt Ouse, one time 'home' of the record barbel. Subsequent to the reintroduction of otters, the barbel population was wiped out, as were the large chub and many of the smaller silver fish. The Environment Agency restocked the area the record barbel came from with immature fish. A friends small still water trout fishery was cleared of fish by two otters in a short period of time.

With cormorants, it's not just 'a few' birds. At Rutland the remains of the 'drowned' trees often look like they're in full foliage with the numbers of roosting birds. Again, not the birds' fault, we have provided them with a trout hypermarket for their delight. We stock these days with 2 - 3lb fish but Mr and Mrs Cormorant are very persistent.

Cormorants.jpg


One wonders if your delight and forbearance would continue if the 'Re Wilding' movement were successful in reintroducing wolves and bears to your 'fishing day'?
 

JoeOh

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Although it's nice to hook into sizeable trout, I miss the days when reservoirs were stocked with smaller trout with little predation, and a 3lb'er merited a note in the diary.'
Trout fisheries may have a roll in providing fresh protein to the population, shame much of it prematurely ending up as guano.
 

benisa

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Look at that lovely Grayling in the above picture

just waiting for one of us to catch him

But if those Buggers get there teeth/craws into him By By Mr Grayling

So sorry to say Shot the Buggers !
 

ohanzee

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I reckon predators are all much of a muchness, its easy to dislike creepy looking cormorants, and for sure they cause damage, but getting to that stage was not their design, what you see is the end stage of a man made tragedy, shooting them now strikes me a bit like blaming the cancer for the smoking habit.

Some here might know North and South Uist, and the otter road signs, and if you fish there any length of time you see them, the first one is... 'look an otter', that soon turns to...'a lot of otters out tonight'...there are a lot of otters on the islands, and lots of fish, hence why there are lots of otters, its an indicator of prey species population health, an abundance of predators is a sign of a healthy supply of food, when there is too little food you don't get predators, if predators damage a food supply they leave.

If you mess with the physical environment enough, usually for our own convenience, it can often make it convenient for other animals, cut a few trees down and remove places for fish to dart and hide, mess with the flow of a river and corral fish behind a weir, you create the perfect conditions for predators to find food easier, pour an unnaturally large number of rainbows into an open pond and...is it just me that sees this?
The next step is a population explosion of predators, where does the next generation go to find food? and the one after that? in parts of the UK we(almost literally us) have created a cormorant breeding program that has been up and running for a few years now, calls for curbing numbers has blocked out discussions on how this came about and how to reverse it, the scientists say that if you shoot some they will be replaced, individual shareholders say it gets them off their fish population, you effectively now have groups of individuals wanting to control individual populations while we continue with the accidental nationwide breeding program.

This is my opinion based on reading what feels like a million black death threads, and they all take the same direction, with shooting them being the usual solution, its a bit like sewing grass seed then complaining about having to cut it because its growing, and I know someone will say its ok for you with your pristine wild lochs, we have different circumstances, my only logical answer is you are too late, if you can't reverse the circumstances there is no point in moaning about the natural result.
 
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easker1

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John Bailey Knows F-All about me or where I live, at over 80 I have been around a bit, my experience of rainbow trout is minimal as is my fishing of them, I have done it 3 times when on Holiday in Englandshire, I fish wild hill lochs, some of them have resident Cormorants, with nest sites on 2 lochs that I have come across, I get to fish for seatrout occasionally,but almost exclusively wild browns,I see a good cross section of wildlife Otters, Herons, sea eagles, goosanders and mergansers ,I keep their existence to my self, but the members of our club also feel the same about the local wild life,while I have no real proof I think our cormorants are Mainly local, eASKER1
 

easker1

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I only know what I read in the post, and I have no Idea where he lives or any interest either, I replied to the post with my feelings on the matter, if we make comments on how wild life affects our hobby we play into the hands of the Animal rights folk, and we know what they are like, easker1
 
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