Saturday, 4 March 2017

Gulls. And Memories...

I wish I was a bit more disciplined when it comes to blog post regularity, because I wind up with more material than I can do justice to. Anyway, here we go again...

It's been pretty good for gulls down here of late. If you read Steve Waite's Axe Birding you'll already know that. Although my occasional 'lunchtime' perusal of the Axe Estuary hasn't given me a white-winger yet it has been nice to bump into Steve once or twice, and a couple of weeks back we shared a 2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull and a whole bunch of intermedius Lesser Black-backs. One of the latter wore a Danish colour ring - a nice confirmation of its sub-specific status. Back in 2006, on 23rd March, I counted 162 LBBGs on the Axe, and reckoned 100+ were comfortably dark enough for intermedius, though who knows, perhaps all of them were? There's clearly a hefty passage of this subspecies to be witnessed in E Devon, given the right conditions.


It's probably a function of getting older, but I do find myself reminiscing more often. Sometimes there is very good reason. Like yesterday.

Rob has long fancied a trip to the Royalty Fishery, on the Hampshire Avon at Christchurch. It's not exactly the most scenic fishery in the country, but certainly one of the most iconic. Over the years I would imagine that just about every angling 'name' has fished there; it is steeped in piscatorial history. To coarse fisherman it is most famous for its barbel, a powerful species that fights like stink and grows big enough to pull your arm off. I have caught a few barbel from the Royalty, but until yesterday had not wet a line there for 36 years. However, my first acquaintence with the place was even longer ago...

As a mad-keen teenage angler in 1976 I was desperate to catch my first barbel. In July that year I finally got a decent crack at them, a week-long holiday on the Royalty with two fishing friends. We stayed at a B&B just around the corner from the fishery gate and were on the water at opening time every day. 1976 was the famous drought summer and the water level was very low, the fish hard to tempt. Nevertheless, after a couple of days getting the measure of the place we finally began to catch barbel. By the end of the week we'd all had several. The biggest jammily fell to me. Here it is in all its sepia glory:

The original B&W photo (on the apalling 'silk' paper) suffers from camera shake and the print has gone all faded, discoloured and spotty, as you can see. To me, none of this matters. The barbel weighed 7lb 9oz and was caught, uncharacteristically, in the heat of the day. My rod, with much-loved (and long-gone) ABU Cardinal 44 Express reel attached, lies on the ground. The elbow on the left reminds me that there was quite an audience on that sunny afternoon. Yes, this rather tenth-rate image brings it all back...

Visiting the Royalty after all this time truly was a trip down Memory Lane. There were many subtle changes, but the course of a river doesn't change a great deal in 40 years, and much was familiar. Rob and I favoured a roving approach, trying many swims from the top end of the fishery all the way down to the bypass bridge. But it was hard. Very hard. We could not buy a bite. Despite our own lack of success there was ample compensation in the morning when we witnessed someone else's! I mentioned earlier that the Royalty is most famous for its barbel, but to a game fisherman it'll be for the salmon and sea trout. Some enormous salmon run up the Avon, as the following sequence of photos proves...

Salmon on! Rob waits with net.
The angler measured the fish and consulted a length-to-weight table to gauge approximately how heavy it was. 37 inches long translates to roughly 21lb apparently.
Absolutely stunning creature, fresh from the sea...
...and gently returned to continue its journey upstream...

The only other salmon I've seen caught was in 1977, also on the Royalty, also around 20lb.

Anyway, Rob and I pressed on, but without reward. I saw a chap on the opposite bank catch a barbel, but other than that it seemed most, like us, were struggling. Late afternoon came and we split up, both of us choosing different spots to sit out the last hour of light. By now the weather had deteriorated to torrential rain, and I was sitting hunched up in my not-so-waterproofs, willing the rod to hoop over. Just on dusk, it did. The battle was immense, the fish making full use of the swollen river to surge away downstream several times. Eventually though, it was mine, and surprisingly not the monster the fight had suggested. Just for posterity, here is a pretty lame 'in the wet grass' trophy shot of my first Royalty barbel for 36 years...


It weighed 7lb 7oz, and just to add to the day's nostalgia-fest, it was caught literally across the river from the 7lb 9oz fish in that vintage photo above, and in fact the very spot where I caught my first barbel ever. More than 40 years later and here I am landing a barbel which must have picked up my luncheon meat bait within just a few feet of riverbed from where those two historic fish snaffled lumps of the very same disgusting stuff.

Mind you, a lot of water has flowed over it in the meantime. The riverbed, that is...

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