Friday 27 April 2018

Old Photos

The weather forecasters got it dead right today. Wet. Knowing about the impending rain inspired me to get a bit ahead with work so that I could relax today. What did I do with the time? Frittered it shamelessly. More specifically, I got out some boxes of old photos and had a good wallow. This is one of the best ways to fritter that I know.

Anyway, I thought I'd share a few snaps that I found. Birds first...

Least Sandpiper, Porthscatho, March 1986
This obliging little beauty was poking around a damp gully on a Cornish clifftop. My old mate Ric reminded me of it a couple of posts back, so I was pleased to find this photo. Note the mirror lens 'donuts' in the out-of-focus background. Still the primitive Russian Zenit B and Helios combo, but I was experimenting with slide film and had a few prints made from the best shots. The Least Sand was a supplementary twitch following the mega Gyr Falcon at Berry Head that same morning.

Female Little Crake, Cuckmere Haven, 1985
A ridiculously tame bird, this. I recall it was a midweek twitch and that I went alone because my usual twitch companions were all at work. I also remember driving back through central London straight afterwards as I had to be at work myself that afternoon. And I made a couple of gloaty phonecalls too. Yes, I did that. Bad. Several years ago I posted a very poor colour photo of this bird on BirdForum and quipped about how this Water Rail just would not pose properly. Bit naughty really. It nearly got out of hand...

And back to 1984 now...

The friendly Pectoral Sandpiper, Staines Res, September 1984
Rear view of the cracking Pec that featured a couple of posts back.

Lesser Yellowlegs, Beddington, September 1984
I haven't been to Beddington for 25 years, but I don't miss it one bit. For one thing, Beddington was a nightmare to get to from where I lived in the NW segment of the London area. Yet I have seen some very good birds there. This Lesser Yellowlegs for example, a London tick at the time. Also Tawny Pipit and flight views of Quail. But it's the birds I didn't see that leave the most indelible memories. And not good ones...

It's February 1984 and I'm on night shifts. Just before leaving for work I get a call from John Herbert: Garry Messenbird had found a Killdeer at Beddington that afternoon. A Killdeer!! If I remember right, it had flown around a bit and he'd eventually lost it, but of course there would be plenty of hopefuls there at first light to look for it. I was now in a dilemma. After a night's work I didn't relish the ghastly drive to Beddington on the off-chance. But suppose it was still there and I didn't go? In the end I asked John to call me if it was relocated. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I got home, went to bed, and was woken a short while later by the inevitable phonecall. Half-comatose I crawled through the hideous traffic to Beddington. I was about 30 minutes too late. A flock of White-fronts later that morning were scant compensation.

Fast-forward almost a decade and Beddington is now a very different place. In the early '80s you could stroll down Mile Road, over the railway bridge and walk straight in. By the early '90s it was Fort Knox. Key-holders only. Which was no big deal until a Rustic Bunting turned up and decided to stay for the winter. This was a London tick for everybody, but now available to only a privileged few. I wasn't too bothered really, being on a bit of a birding hiatus at the time. However, one of the key-holders assured me that if I turned up on such-and-such a day, at such-and-such a time, someone would be there to escort me in and help me look for the bird. I duly turned up and was met as agreed. However, I was then informed that due to my 'known' friendship with certain West London birders (with whom some of the Beddington crew were evidently at odds) I was deemed persona non grata, and could therefore go whistle. The key-holder then stepped through the gate, locked it behind him and walked off. I couldn't believe it. Some stupid, petty, immature little feud that I knew nothing about had led to a grown man behaving like this towards a bloke he'd never met. Pathetic. Ironically, arrangements were made shortly afterwards to provide open access to non key-holders for a weekend in order to twitch the Rustic Bunting. I think there was even a Little Bunting present as well! But I didn't go. In fact, I doubt I'll ever go there again.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Too Many Birds and Not an Eel

Have you ever visited the Somerset Levels? No? Very sensible. Keep it that way, because birding the place will mess with your head. Up until Sunday afternoon I still got quite excited about Great White Egrets, Bitterns and the like. Such previous gems are now completely devalued. I probably wouldn't even raise my bins.

"Ooh. Hello. What's this white thing/brown thing?"
"Tsk. Just another stupid Great White Egret/Bittern/Marsh Harrier."

I blame our friends. Innocently accepting an invitation to go birding with them at the weekend, they drove us to Ham Wall RSPB and dished up an unhealthy surfeit of quality birds. As well as the Marsh Harriers, Bitterns and Big Egrets, they also picked out a distant flock of 8 Cattle Egrets and led us to a pool with 4 Garganey on it.

Pair of Garganey failing to hide

One of my other favourite ducks, Pintail, were represented by two lovely drakes, and Birders I Know were present in the form of Mr and Mrs Sidmouth Clive. There is a reason why I'd never previously visited the Somerset Levels. All-in-all the place is just too much, and I am now utterly spoiled. Apart from the odd seaward glance for skuas I can't imagine I'll bother birding again until autumn at least...

In other news I went fishing last night. The tench campaign continues. Rob had already done Sunday night, though for eels not tench, and mentioned that the area where I caught three tench last week was a bit crowded. So we chose a much quieter section of the canal, a very long walk from anywhere...

The surroundings were magnificent, with the Exe estuary like a choppy sea just behind us and Exminster Marshes across the canal. It was windy, it was fresh and chilly, double-figure flocks of Whimbrel whistled past in the evening (numbering up to 17) and a drake Red-breasted Merganser joined us for a spot of fishing this morning. The stove roared and the kettle boiled. Often. Mix up all that lot and it's pretty hard to beat for atmosphere...

Tench-wise it was dire, our new-location experiment a total failure. I caught one mini-rudd, and Rob nothing at all. Well, nothing on his tench rods anyway. But Rob had a third rod out, for eels again. At 04:45 this morning he woke me up to tell me that his eel rod had scored. Only the culprit was not an eel. It was toothy and stripey and weighed a phenomenal 22lb 8oz!!

22lb 8oz canal pike. A photo simply cannot convey just how impressive are pike of this size in the flesh. 'Awesome' is a dreadfully overused word but entirely appropriate in this case. 'Knackered' is another word, equally appropriate to describe the state of Rob's overtrousers.

In our piking efforts I was the first to score a twenty, also the second, 11 months later. At that point I was feeling a bit sorry for Rob, who had never caught a twenty but witnessed both of mine. This year he's caught FOUR!! Between us we've landed six (four different) twenty-pound pike from the venue in 17 months. The tentative plans we hatched at the back end of 2016 have succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation. And I no longer feel sorry for Rob.

On a different note...

Like some other bloggers I have always adopted the practice of capitalising bird names and highlighting them in the text with bold font. The capitalising thing is simply what I've always done with birds, and the bold font dates from BirdForum days, where I did it to help species names stand out in a post so that anyone speed-reading could instantly home in on the important stuff. With fish I do neither. It just doesn't seem right somehow. I can't explain why not, it just doesn't. So, there we are, a nice little idiosyncrasy to close with...

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Starting a New Campaign

I think it's fair to say that coarse angling today is very different to the hobby I so loved as a boy. There are heaps more fisheries now. Lakes and ponds stuffed with silver fish and small carp are legion, and available to all for the price of a day-ticket; a netful is virtually guaranteed. Many species are far more widespread than they used to be, and grow much, much bigger. The fishing tackle industry has morphed into a monster that will provide you with absolutely any item you could ever imagine needing. And I would never have guessed that there would one day be a similarly vast empire dedicated to the supply of bait. In my youth it was basically maggots, bread, worms, hemp, cheese and luncheon meat; in 2018 the array available is ridiculous.

So, if one's idea of improvement involves various aspects of  'more' and 'bigger', then I would imagine the modern coarse angling scene looks a good deal better when compared to what it was four or five decades ago. For me though, fishing is not solely about 'more' and 'bigger'. Big fish - and more of them - is nice, but at least as important are surroundings, a degree of mystery, a tricky challenge, stuff like that...

Less than 18 months ago I wrote a post entitled A First Love Rekindled, and mentioned my intention to try the Exeter Canal for pike and carp with my son Rob. At the time I'd never caught a twenty-pound pike. Just a few weeks later I landed only my second pike of the campaign; it weighed 24lb 14oz! This winter also, I managed a twenty-plus, and Rob caught two! Unqualified success! The carp have proved much more difficult though. Much! In fact I have yet to catch any, and Rob has only managed the one...

March 2017 - 24lb 8oz

Compared to some of the locals we are very much part-timers, but even they struggle to get among the carp sometimes. One of the regulars managed carp to 32 pounds last year, but had gone eight months without any at all! Anyway, neither of us fancied another spring and summer of frustration, so decided that this year we would target the Exeter Canal tench instead.

Tench-wise, both of us have a similar personal best. Rob's is 8lb 2oz, and although I can't remember exactly what mine is, it's about the same. Now, a canal tench of 8lb+ is pretty huge, but from what we can ascertain, the Exeter Canal does contain such fish. Quite how big they go is still a mystery though. Which is good. I like a bit of mystery.

So, Monday afternoon we headed west...

The forecast was appalling. Lots of rain. I arrived first, and by about 17:30 had picked a swim, found a relatively weed-free area and baited up. I fished two rods, one with maggots, the other with sweetcorn. Rob was about 50 yards up the bank from me, and got his rods out before darkness fell. Then the rain started. It's a nice, cosy feeling, all warm and dry in a bivvy as the raindrops rattle down, but I wouldn't have minded being roused from my slumbers by a noisy bite alarm. It didn't happen though. Not until about 06:30. Beep-beep-beee-e-e-e-e-e-p!!! It was light by this time, and I frantically pulled on my crocs and hurried to the rods...and fell flat on my backside in the mud! The fish was still on though, and after a good scrap I landed a lovely tench of 4lb 10oz. I was chuffed to bits. The first outing of a new campaign and already we were off the mark. Brilliant! I packed up about 19:00 yesterday, adding two more tench in the meantime. Here's the biggest...

6lb 10oz of gorgeous Exeter Canal tench

This is the biggest tench I've caught for probably 20 years or more, and is an absolute beauty. Long and muscular, with very little gut on it, I would imagine this fish has the potential to carry a lot more weight, and I reckon the possibility of Rob and me catching a new personal best from this venue is very real. Unfortunately Rob didn't get among the tench this time, but at least between us we've made a start on the learning curve.

And learning curve it is. We have no idea what is going to be the best area to fish, the best bait, the best time of day, etc, etc. Apart from a few snippets of gen gleaned from the carp anglers and one or two pleasure fisherman, we are fishing blind. We have yet to meet anyone who specifically targets the tench.

Three fish so far then: 4lb 10oz, 6lb 10oz and 4lb 1oz (a current average of around 5lb 2oz) all caught during the daytime, with two falling to maggots and one to corn. It's highly satisfying to actually catch what you're fishing for, and I could not have asked for a better start to this new campaign. I'm quite excited about it!