Saturday 11 March 2017

Lessons For the Perennial Hobbyist

Today there has been a significant arrival of Wheatears, that perky herald of spring promise. In times past this blog would have tried quite hard to feature a nice early Wheatear photo. That's because its author was a keen birder back then. Quite what he is now I am not exactly sure. I wonder if there is a technical term for a fickle multi-hobbyist?

Not wishing to be accused of navel-gazing I shan't dwell on this thought any longer, but instead offer a couple of lessons from my long and seemingly capricious pursuit of various interests.

1. The Pleasure Principle
I've hijacked this Freudian term in order to state the blinkin' obvious: when the fun stops, change tack. You'd think this would be simple really, but surprisingly it is not. It is quite easy to pursue your hobby down a path of diminishing joy until you reach a dead end, at which point chucking it all in will seem like a good option. I have done this a few times. Here's one of them...

I took this vintage photo at Wilstone Reservoir, Tring, in (I think) 1983. Attached to a tench is Tony Chester, former UK record holder for that species with a 10lb 1oz 4dr fish from probably this very spot in June 1981

The scene pictured above depicts what I had aspired to, angling-wise, a couple of years previously. Like many kids of my generation I started fishing as a young boy, serving an 'apprenticeship' on ponds, rivers and canals which had modest potential when it came to really big fish. Slowly though, pursuit of the whoppers became an important goal. Tring Reservoirs was an obvious venue; despite being a lengthy drive away it was home to the biggest tench in the land, as well as monster bream, roach etc. However, in 1981 I was newly married, with the added responsibilies of a mortgage and a house in need of much DIY. At the age of 22 these circumstances precluded any serious involvement in the world of specimen hunting. What I should have done was adjust my focus and forget Tring. Instead I pressed on regardless and joined the Tring syndicate. Inevitably I wasn't able to dedicate either the time or the resources needed for success on such a challenging venue, and soon burned out. Fishing had stopped being genuinely enjoyable some time before this point, but I had failed to heed the warning signs. I'd like to say "lesson learned" but judging from the next 30-odd years it clearly wasn't!

Anyway, soon I was flogging all my fishing gear and taking up birding in a big and proper way. Within a short time I'd swapped Tring Res for Staines Res, and the rest is history.

2. Pass it on if you can
The love of a hobby is a precious thing. Having a passion that gives pleasure and a sense of fulfillment is a terrific antidote to many of the harsher realities of life. In addition, any 'success' in your chosen pastime surely builds confidence and self-esteem, never a bad thing in this thankless world. For example...

Me, aged 11 or 12, with 2 perch and a tench from Barn Hill Pond. Yes, I was taking the place apart with consummate skill, and feeling pretty good about it too. I was quite independent and would walk there from home with my sarnies, my bottle of squash and my serious fishing hat, and the day would fly by...

Here's a photo taken 20-something years later...

Rob, aged 12, brings a hefty Startops Reservoir perch to the waiting net wielded by Baz, then 9 years old.

Baz never caught the fishing bug, but Rob certainly did. Passing on that love of fishing is one of my great satisfactions in life. I've been pleasantly surprised at the positive effect on our relationship as adults provided by having a common interest in this simple pastime.

So, nothing profound there really, just a couple of lessons from many hours spent in the idle pursuit of various pastimes.

Oh, and Baz, meanwhile, shares my passion for carefully folding and knotting empty crisp packets, chocolate wrappers etc. To be fair, I am not sure if I deliberately passed this on or it's simply an inherited tendency to dispose of rubbish with obsessive neatness, i.e. a genetic thing. Whichever, apart from the obvious fact that the world would benefit hugely from having its waste packaging thrown away nice and tidily I cannot in all honesty advocate it quite as heartily as fishing, birding, cycling, golf, squash, running, playing the guitar, etc, etc, etc, etc...

Friday 10 March 2017

The Haig Men Get Competitive

Well, this must be a bit tedious for the birders who drop in here. Fishing again. Rob and I recently joined Dorchester & District Angling Society and over this past week have tried a couple of their waters. The club has access to some of the Dorset Stour upstream from Blandford Forum, plus a host of small lakes and ponds. On Wednesday we spent a wet day on the Stour, catching just a few small fish - roach, dace and gudgeon. It was hard going on a very full, fast and coloured river, made more difficult by our unfamiliarity with it. Rob tried one of the lakes last night and had a small carp and a bream of almost 6lb. So this afternoon I skived off work and headed for the same venue, a lovely spot hidden away in the folds of land NE of Bridport. I took two rods, one for catching carp off the surface, the other a lightish spinning rod set up for 'drop-shotting', a method completely new to me but apparently superb for perch. I didn't know if I could get any carp to feed off the surface this early in the year, but as it's always been one of my favourite methods I couldn't resist having a go. And as for drop-shotting, well, I rather fancy catching a decent perch or two and, though I was going to be out of my comfort zone, felt it was time for an old dog to at least try some new tricks...

I was fishing by about 1:45pm, and by the time I packed up four hours later had tried three different lakes and caught two carp and a perch. I found the first carp in the margin, sucking delicacies from the raft of weed covering the surface. I plonked a dog biscuit nearby and watched it disappear with a loud slurp. Very exciting stuff.

12lb 6oz of lovely common carp

Meanwhile I was struggling with the drop-shotting. The rod I was using was far from ideal - too stiff really, and designed for heavier lures than the flyweight drop-shotting outfit. And then, out of the blue, a wallop on the rod top resulted in this little beaut...

1lb 9oz of prickly perch

I say 'little' but in fact this is the biggest perch I've caught in well over 20 years. Mind you, I haven't done much fishing in that time! Although I caught just the one, it was a massive confidence booster. In angling, as in many pursuits, confidence is everything; it breeds success. I already knew that drop-shotting catches perch - I've seen enough published evidence - but now I know that this strange and unfamiliar method works for me, and that makes all the difference.

I managed to get some carp feeding off the top later, but their caginess and my ineptitude meant I caught just one more, a small mirror carp of about 7lb.

Rob and I have decided to spice things up for the year by adding a competitive element. The biggest fish of every species earns a pint. Here's how things lie as of 10th March:

Pike: 16lb (Rob)
Carp: 12lb 6oz (me)
Barbel: 7lb 7oz (me)
Bream: 5lb 14oz (Rob)
Gudgeon: currently no winner - both of us caught some, but neither off us stooped to measuring their size in any comparitive way. This will change though. After all, a pint is a pint.
Dace: c.2oz (me) No dace for Rob yet.
Roach: 20cm (me - the length of my hand from middle finger-tip to wrist crease). Back in the day a roach of 20cm (or rather, 8") would have been known as a 'goer'. A prize to anyone who can tell me the etymology of that term. If you can, I guarantee you'll be older than 45!
Perch: 1lb 9oz (me)
Minnow: Rob has caught one of these and, as I have not, is claiming the species at present. This grates, and clearly smacks of desperation.

So, I am leading 5:3 right now. All that skill for just two pints... More effort required I think.

This little competition has encouraged us to broaden our horizons somewhat. Rather than narrow our focus to just a few species of fish (which is where we initially saw things going, with mainly carp and pike on the agenda) we're all of a sudden rather interested in every species!

Finally, a token birdy snippet: I saw my first proper migs today when 4 Sand Martins briefly visited the lakes, pausing just long enough for a bit of twirling and dipping. All the way from Africa. Never less than awesome.

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...