September and October
I regret that my optimistic forecast in the August report was completely trashed by the early onset of autumn rain and wind over the last 6 weeks of the season. “Difficult”, “pretty grim”, “fish very spooky”, “not much activity” were typical remarks in the returns. But as the Secretary has pointed out to me, the ratio of rod/days to fish caught at 2.1 per outing was better than in August which was only 1.6. So those who braved the wind and rain will have had some satisfaction, and indeed some very nice fish were landed – mostly on a nymph, but also on the elk hair caddis, and in particular on c-de-c emergers which in the last weeks of the season are usually more effective than conventionally hackled patterns. But there was only one report of a proper hatch of olives, so fly life was definitely suppressed by the weather.
Overall Returns for the 2019 Season
But turning to the overall totals for 2019 the picture is much rosier. This has proved to be a second successive season of exceptionally low flows and high air temperatures (including the record highest temperature ever recorded for southern England, in July). Yet a comparison of our catch returns between 2018 and 2019 makes interesting and encouraging reading.
I am of course delighted that there has been such a significant uplift in takeable brown trout, particularly in a season when water conditions have given a lot of concern. There are several reasons for this success. First of all, a low water season coupled with high air temperatures concentrated the fish in the deeper, slacker stretches, and this is clearly reflected in your returns which show that Reaches 7, 8, 9 and 11 have performed exceptionally well. Likewise the modest drop in undersized wild fish is probably attributable to the fact that their habitat is quite different: they prefer the well-oxygenated shallower riffles which have not been fished as hard this year.
Secondly it is interesting to note that our members are returning more and more fish. In 2009 we killed 604 takeable brown trout; ten years on (this year), we killed only 376 despite catching nearly 500 more. This change is reflected in any of the fishing magazines you care to pick up. There is definitely a cultural shift underway in fly-fishing, and in all probability it will eventually result on the chalk streams in a complete cessation of stocking and a voluntary move to full time catch and release of entirely wild fish. If this does come about, our fishery is exceptionally well placed to meet the challenge.
Finally, two years ago we increased our membership ceiling from 120 to 150, so the fishing effort has been intensified. There was some tooth-sucking in the committee when this was agreed, but I am quite relaxed about it and I have seen no indication that the river is under too much pressure. Our “100 yard rule” has been observed politely by most of our members (perhaps rather more so than the rule about the arrow on the dashboard!), and even during yet another memorable Mayfly month a quick tour of the car parks showed that there was ample opportunity for hassle-free fishing away from the main hot spots.
The figures for grayling (quite a big drop from the past two years) are perhaps surprising, and the decline is very similar to that experienced on the Wylye, where the Piscatorial Society monitor stocks very carefully. However I am not fussed about this trend: back in 2012 the total grayling return was even as low as 412, and stocks are proverbially volatile being very dependent on spawning conditions in April. Also, once past the 1+ year stage, the grayling preferred habitat is for deeper, slacker water, so much of the restoration work we have undertaken over the past 20 years is actually not particularly favourable to grayling although benefiting wild trout stocks.
But be in no doubt, we do have some specimen grayling in our water and the next two months will see the best of the grayling fishing for those who enjoy a challenge in the autumn. The big lift in water during the second week in October has cleaned up the river extremely efficiently, so the deep, slow holes which hold the bigger grayling will now fish a Czech nymph without the irritation of being constantly hung up on weed. There is no need to submit a catch return for grayling either, but please do let me or the Secretary know of any trophy fish you catch.
Poaching, Dog Walking, Wild Swimming
Contrary to some predictions this has not proved to be a huge problem this season despite the hot weather, but perhaps we have not yet seen the full impact of the big population uplift from the Army rebasing programme. In any event military poaching is easily dealt with – and perhaps might even gain us some junior rank recruits! More interesting has been the fury of the Figheldean population over the use of their mill pool by vandals and drug pushers, resulting in the decision by DIO to fence the entire area off. This has proved very effective and it was encouraging to see in the catch returns that some good fish have once again been caught in the mill pool.
Dog walkers and ramblers on the river bank are a more difficult problem, and at least one rod has had his fishing disturbed by dogs plunging into the river around him. As you know we decided to experiment with a deterrent measure by “re-wilding” the bank between C Crossing and Gunville hatch pool (Reach 11). We would very much like to hear your views on this. Has it actually deterred dog walkers? Is the resulting inconvenience to those rods who want to use the bankside path (now completely overgrown) worth the hassle? Or does it merely send a negative message about our standards of river management? Would anyone who has a view on this please let the Secretary know by e-mail in time for the committee meeting on 20 November. Many thanks.
Restoration Project: Reach 7
As I write this in mid-October the big restoration project upstream of the Gated Crossing is in full swing. There are two parts to the project. The first part aims to re-profile the channel in the deep section immediately upstream of the bridge by so-called “bed-raising” – that is by the insertion of very large quantities of gravel to rectify the long-term damage caused by drastic dredging in the 1970s. Elsewhere this has produced great improvements to the in-stream habitat, enhancing flylife and improving spawning opportunity for both trout and salmon. The second part, further upstream, aims to energise and narrow the over-widened and shallow section which has been unproductive for many years. This we hope will be achieved by inserting large-scale current deflectors using woody debris, and by hinging bankside willows – a technique which proved highly successful on Reach 10 downstream of Figheldean road bridge.
This will inevitably look a bit raw and untidy to start with next season, but once the willow growth starts and the changes bed in, we are confident that the fishing potential of that reach will be improved.
Finally I must thank all those who signed up for work parties this year. I could not possibly manage the 6 miles without your help, and I am most grateful to you. Likewise I should mention the team which works so hard to help me in the April stocking session, in particular Steve Hannant, Sarah Tipping and David Cross. Without them we could not move the stock fish to the river, or distribute them throughout the fishery in an efficient manner.
If the autumn so far is anything to go by, I think we may well see much more water in the river next year. Interesting times lie ahead!