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The Bristol Avon's Best Kept Secret

Submitted by admin on November 21, 2008 - 11:22am

Since their introduction in the 1950s at the hands of the local water authorities and the Angling Times, barbel have come to dominate the middle and lower reaches of the Bristol Avon. Venues like Lacock, Peckingells and Claverton have achieved national recognition, and specimens in excess of fifteen pounds have been caught.

To many, the Avon is a barbel river now, and I have pursued old whiskers in its waters as keenly as anybody. And yet, I don’t think of the Bristol Avon as a barbel river, or at least not exclusively so. The stocks of chub, bream and silver fish are healthy, and the trout fishing can be excellent too, in the upper waters towards Malmesbury. Our Avon, thankfully, is still a thriving mixed fishery.

Every year I spend hundreds of hours on its banks – usually fishing, sometimes baiting up or scouting out new reaches. I see a lot of fishermen. Most are after the silver fish, or the ever-popular barbel. Very few are setting out their stall for pike, and this baffles me. The Bristol Avon is as good a pike fishery as any in the country, if one knows where to look.

Perhaps it’s the abundance of quality stillwaters in the area, or the lure of the Somerset drains or the Thames that keeps the pike anglers away. I really don’t know, but whatever the reason is, I’m grateful. Pike, above any other species, thrive upon neglect. Repeat captures and rough handling can damage stocks with alarming speed, and it delights me that the pike on the Bristol Avon are, largely, left alone. They are, in my view, the river’s best kept secret.

The casual pike angler is often put off river fishing, preferring the sit-and-wait tactics of stillwater piking. The thought of finding fish in moving waters, and presenting a bait effectively, is widely regarded as difficult. Nothing could be further from the truth. River pike fishing is all about movement, and about roving. It is also all about simplicity, and I urge you to try it.

The first step towards catching pike from the Bristol Avon is to pare down your tackle to an absolute minimum – you will be doing a lot of walking, often in heavy mud and over rough ground. This is no time for carp barrows or bait boats. One rod will suffice – something with a test-curve around 2 ½ lb is ideal, with a length anywhere between 10 and 12 feet. Your usual carp rod will be fine. This should be coupled with a fixed spool reel with a reliable clutch - I use old Mitchells, but I’m funny like that – and a quality braided line. I use 30 lb. test. A small rucksack, a folding, easily-transported landing net, and a bucket will complete the outfit.

The rucksack will contain your floats, traces, scales, camera, unhooking equipment, unhooking mat, permits and other ‘essential’ ephemera. The bucket will contain your bait. It will also provide brief respite if you need to sit down. A heavy specialist chair will slow you down, and gradually sap your will to move regularly. Twenty minutes perched on a bucket and you will want to move!

The river piker can choose from a number of different approaches – dead baits, live baits, spinning and lure fishing, even fly fishing. They all work, but in the autumn and winter months, fish baits will out-fish artificials. Many of the clubs controlling the Avon prohibit live baits, and so frozen ‘deads’ are the way to go. Fortunately, they are highly effective. My favourite bait for all river piking is a small herring – they are high in attractive oils, appear to be accepted by pike without hesitation, and survive repeat casting. Smelt, lamprey sections and sardines all have their day, but it is rare for me to set out without herring in my bucket.

Invariably, I float fish. Usually, my bait is nailed to the bottom with 1-3oz of lead, and so effectively it’s a float-leger set-up. Occasionally, I’ll take the lead off and trip the bait slowly along the bottom past reed beds or sunken trees. It would be misleading to describe it as trotting, and ‘lurching’ strikes me as a more accurate term. Pretty it ain’t, but you will experience days when the pike want their food on the move, and this will invoke a take when static baits are being refused. Fish towards snags, reed beds, overhanging trees and anywhere else that offers the pike some degree of sanctuary. If nothing materialises in twenty minutes, move on – the Avon’s pike are largely uncaught, and if you find them, you will usually catch them, and in short order too. The sit-and-wait approach can yield fish too, but keep mobile and try lots of swims. You’ll find them.

Every river has its weir pools, roadside access points and easily-reached hot spots that see the bulk of the pressure. The Avon is no different, and you will find some areas where the pike receive concerted pressure. Avoid them – the best of the pike fishing on the Avon is off the beaten track, and the rewards can be considerable. An average day on the middle river can produce more than half-a-dozen takes, with a couple of good doubles among them. The bigger fish are there – the Bristol Avon has surrendered its share of thirty pounders in the past – and I have yet to get through a winter on its banks without encountering at least one twenty-pounder. Unless you compare your results with the unique bounty found in the trout reservoirs, that’s serious pike fishing. I used to drive to the West Coast of Ireland for much the same, little realising I needed only to drive one junction down the M4.

If you do decide to target the river’s pike, there are several clubs to consider. The Bath and Bristol, Bathampton, Chippenham, Calne and Keynsham associations all offer quality sport for those willing to do a bit of pioneering. There are others, but I have yet to try them – if the prey fish are there, the pike won’t be far behind. Speak to the local match and pleasure anglers – they are usually all too willing to reveal the location of unwelcome pike.

When you do find them, enjoy your sport. If you are among the first to fish a stretch for pike, you can expect the action to be fast and furious at times. Ensure you are ready for them when this happens – long-nosed forceps, wire cutters, a soft mat and barbless trebles will make the business of returning these wonderful creatures so much easier. For all their perceived ferocity, pike are fragile animals; clumsy unhooking methods, gags, hard ground and barbed hooks can all cause irreversible damage, and have no place in modern predator fishing. The Avon’s pike are, after all, a secret worth protecting.

My top ten tips for catching your own Bristol Avon pike:

  1. Travel light, and be prepared to walk long distances – the biggest specimens won’t be in the car park swim!
  2. Use barbless snap tackles, and don’t be afraid to step down to Size 8 or 10.
  3. Strike as soon as the float stays under, or when it is moving steadily across the surface. Only the little ones fall off from striking too soon.
  4. Pop up your bait with an orange poly-ball, especially if there is some colour in the water or leaves on the bottom.
  5. Tread carefully and quietly – the pike are often under your feet in the margins, and can spook easily.
  6. Try to get fresh bait from the fish counter – it is better, and cheaper, than frozen bait.
  7. Experiment with added oils and attractants – one of my favourite ploys is to add a garlic or fish-oil pill (the clear jelly-type ones sold by health food shops) on to the bend of one of the trebles. It leaves a tasty little slick for the pike to home in on.
  8. Don’t be put off by a little colour in the water, but try to move your bait a few inches at a time around your swim – the pike will be less inclined to chase after a bait when visibility is poor, but they will seize a bait that ends up on their nose.
  9. The Bristol Avon often carries a hint of colour, but if heavy rain leaves it thick and soupy, leave the pike alone and get your barbel rod out!
  10. Make sure you have a long, extending landing net handle. There will be swims with high banks where you will struggle to net your pike with anything less than an eight-foot pole.

The Fisherman's Hut

Submitted by admin on November 18, 2008 - 6:46pm

I stopped on the bridge, as always, to peer into the river below. The sun shone and the water took on that blue green translucence typical of springtime. A few martins and swallows swooped, seeking nourishment following their long flight from far off lands and, after a brief survey of the pool, I moved on and came to the old gate that leads to the river bank.

The gate hung partly unhinged, it’s fastening broken, a few bits of litter caught my eye, probably discarded by some ignorant motorist, a problem that blights our country’s hedgerows. Continuing down the steps I glanced at the old fishing sign, rusting and grimy, the club’s name still present above the words, “Private Fishing Club Members only”. The pathway beside the river had always been well trodden at this time of year (early April) yet now it was partly grown over. Celandine flowers brightened the waterside meadow with their yellow hues. It felt good to be walking the river bank again but strange, melancholy feelings drifted into my being. I glanced at the old corrugated fishing hut. It's door was open, someone was about I thought, tidying up or fishing somewhere downstream.

My club membership had long since lapsed and I was heading to fish the free water a hundred yards or more downstream. I had fished this section of river heavily twenty five years ago hoping for a silver spring salmon but had returned rarely over recent seasons. However a river is like a long lost friend, familiarity returns quickly and certain things retain a core character. The constant flow of a river towards the sea has always given me an almost spiritual, reassuring sense of stability. A feeling I had always treasured each spring as I trod the banks rod in hand hopeful of one of anglings greatest prizes, a fresh run silver salmon. The grass flourishing, buds bursting into life on riverside trees and spring birds filling the air with song, a sign of the coming warmth of summer.

I had very little time today just a stolen moment from life’s busy schedule, no time to fish methodically, just a few random casts into favourite lies. I remember long ago seeking my first salmon, a prize that seemed unattainable. Eventually after many days by the river I tempted a fish and what had seemed so difficult I realised was really quite easy. You just had to be in the right place at the right time and have a little good fortune. Salmon are a perplexing fish, totally ignoring all offerings one minute then suddenly erupting from the water to seize your bait, lure or fly with an unbelievable determination. After catching that first salmon an angler will always be able to cast in hope for he believes in the impossible. This faith remains forever, fuelling the desire for cast after cast.

I climbed down the river bank, entering the water above a sweeping bend in the river. An old tree stood, its roots exposed from the annual attack of winter floods. Beneath the tree was a favourite lie that had held many salmon and sea trout over the years. I waded out into the river, relishing the feel as the cool water pushed against my legs. I extended my fly line above the water and dropped a bright orange Ally’s Shrimp fly near the far bank. I allowed the fly to swing tantalizingly across the flow, took a step downstream and repeated the process. Many times in the past I had seen salmon and sea trout leap from the water at this spot. I hoped to see one now.

Strange really, since the introduction of catch and release in the early season I have lost much of my determination to seek salmon. I always used to relish taking that first fresh Springer home to enjoy with new potatoes and lashings of butter. I regularly fish for a wide range of species and return ninety percent of the fish I catch. I have no problem returning a coloured salmon in the autumn but I somehow struggle with returning a bar of silver sea liced salmon.

I often think of Hugh Falkus’s comments on catch and release and his view that it was somehow wrong. Somehow I feel he had a point there is something undignified in toying with a fish so magnificent as the Atlantic salmon. Perhaps I just don’t like being told I have to return the fish, I remember catching a well mended Kelt several years ago. It had inhaled the Mepps spinner to the back of its throat and was bleeding profusely. I gently returned it to the river, to my horror it keeled over and drifted away to die. How would I feel if this happened to a prime fresh run fish?

I continued to fish on downstream, ice cold water started to seep into my chest waders. I realised that my repairs to the holes had failed and a new pair would be needed before my next trip.

It was soon time to leave as I had to collect my young son form his cricket coaching. I climbed from the river, my boots squelching as I retraced my steps along the riverside path. I came again to the old fishermen’s hut. The door was still open, inquisitive I strolled over and peered inside. The door had been broken from its hinges, the old leather seat was torn, old mugs stood in an old wooden cabinet where mice had made their home and the old hut was damp and derelict. A feeling of sadness came upon me. I immediately understood the melancholy feeling I earlier sensed. Twenty odd years ago I had spent many hours beside this river and talked with the club anglers of the day. They were generally anglers in their fifties or sixties who had fished the river for many years. They generally had a tale to tell of the good old days, of encounters with huge spring salmon, some won some lost. They had intimate knowledge of the river and a deep respect and love for the salmon. Each year working parties would trim troublesome branches and carry out repairs to gates and stiles. The fisherman’s hut was a meeting place where tales were swapped over cups of hot tea. Fishing magazines sat on the table to provide inspiration during break in fishing or tending to the river bank. There was always a rod leaning against the old rails that segregated the front of the hut from the bank side. A bench dedicated to an angler invited one to, “rest here and find pleasure”.

It dawned upon me that a generation of anglers had passed away. Few anglers now trod these banks in search of spring salmon. Upriver on prime beats people still pay large sums to fish, but here on the club and free water few bother to cast a line. Perhaps restrictions have taken away the motivation for these anglers to fish or perhaps people no longer have the patience to chase dreams. I realise that back then we seemed to have time to talk, time to fish, time to dream.

The faces of a host of anglers fill my minds eye as I walk away from the river and the derelict old fisherman’s’ hut. I realise that whilst the river flows relentlessly on we anglers are just passing spirits. The comfort of the rivers immortality is temporarily shadowed by the realisation of our own fleeting visit to its banks.

As I walk across the bridge I again pause as always for one last look at the river. A car races past, a train thunders along the nearby track I re-enter the modern world and walk back to the car. On getting home I think back to the old fishing hut and vow to jot down my thoughts before they get lost and drift away like the old anglers who once fished the river.

Cornish Cream - Surf fishing for Bass - Updated 2012

Submitted by admin on November 17, 2008 - 6:22pm

Bass! The very mention of the word in sea angling circles is enough to make many anglers sit up and take notice. Many regard the bass as the salmon of the sea and, as one our most attractive sea fish, it has an almost fanatical following among those who appreciate the sporting and culinary qualities of this fish. Invariably, shore fishing for bass in Cornwall takes place against a backdrop of spectacular coastal and cliff scenery on clean surf beaches warmed by the Gulf Stream. This provides a challenging and exciting backdrop from which to lure a wild and hard fighting fish. In the 1960's and 70's, bass were regarded as common and widespread on the Cornish surf beaches with fish caught from open beach venues averaging 4 lb. However, with the advent and unrestricted use of monofilament gill nets and a market value of up to £6 per lb, the species was steadily and remorsefully exploited wherever it existed. In particular, estuaries supporting large stocks of juvenile and adolescent fish, were targeted by commercial netsmen resulting in the eventual decline of the future breeding stock.

Recreational Sea Angling

Submitted by admin on November 17, 2008 - 4:27pm

As Recreational Sea Angling increases its footprint within the process of formulating marine fisheries policy, what are the risks?

In last year’s ‘Get Hooked’ guide, I reported how the Government now formally includes Recreational Sea Angling (RSA) as part of the marine fisheries sector. Such recognition, whilst essential if the many legitimate concerns of RSA are to stand any chance of being addressed, also carries risks. Historically ignored and overlooked by Government, the RSA voice has largely been ineffective in the arena of formulating fisheries policy and sea anglers have felt impotent, unable to do anything about the ongoing diminished quality of sea angling due to commercial over fishing. Such a long term feeling of impotence will take a while to shake off.

The plus side of remaining off the radar screen is that our activity has largely remained free of restrictions and responsibilities. There is a dilemma - sea anglers keep their heads down and confine their concerns to moaning over a beer at the bar amongst their own constituents - OR, put their heads above the parapet, organise effective lobbying of decision makers in order to try and bring an end to overfishing. The latter course of action raises the profile of RSA with the risk of attracting suggestions for restrictions.

I take the view that to maintain a low profile for fear of attracting attention whilst the quality of our activity deteriorates is simply not an option. RSA remains a very popular and rewarding activity, BUT it could be much, much better. I would like future sea anglers to experience the quality of sea angling that existed in the south west during the 1960s and early 1970s. If raising the profile of RSA, acquiring a voice in the process of formulating fisheries policies and management measures, means we are more likely to be targeted with restrictions, so be it. RSA must responsibly engage with the decision process to ensure that any suggested restrictions are not unjustly imposed on RSA. I believe the risks are worth taking. The alternative, doing nothing, risks the continuing decline in the quality of our sport.

Current ‘live’ issues for sea anglers include: bass minimum landing size, marine protected areas, sea angling licences, bass bag limits and a Government RSA Strategy.

Bass minimum landing size (mls)

Following DEFRA’s consultation, the Government announced an increase from April this year of the current national mls of 36 cm (approx 1lb-2oz) to 40 cm (approx 1 lb-8oz) for England. The Government also undertook to monitor the situation with a view to increasing the mls by 2010 to 45 cm (2lb-2oz).

Many commercial fishermen vehemently oppose the 40 cm mls, claiming there are insufficient numbers of bass over 40 cm from which to make their living. A few recreational anglers also object because they rarely catch bass over 40 cm. I take the view that if one and a half pound bass really are as scarce as some claim, then that is all the more reason for the increase! Such a small bass (if a female) will not have even matured and potentially will live for a further twenty years by which time it would weigh well into double figures.

Claims that foreign boats will simply hoover up all the bass between 36cm and 40 cm are simply unfounded. Firstly, the latest research shows that the main benefits of management aimed at protecting juvenile bass in our coastal waters accrue chiefly to fisheries operating within the UK 6 mile zone and no foreign vessels are allowed inside the 6 mile zone. In any case, catches of bass taken in off-shore fisheries consisted of negligible proportions of bass less than 40 cm. For many older sea anglers who recall being able to routinely catch 55 – 65 cm bass, 40 cm still seems very small but it is a step in the right direction.

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)

A hugely complex topic for which there are hundreds, if not thousands, of published papers from across the globe. Essentially, MPAs are areas where some degree of protection from fishing exist, and include measures such as protection from dredging, up to fully closed areas. RSA might gain through reduced competition for fishery resources, improved abundance of fish or improved average size of target species. On the other hand RSA could loose out through loss of access or restrictions on what fish can be retained. An example of an MPA restriction is the Cornwall Sea Fisheries Bylaw that specifies two areas (Manacles & Runnelstone) where no nets with a mesh size less than 250 mm may be deployed. This by-law effectively prevents the targeting of bass in the two areas with nets and was introduced to protect the interests of those who commercially caught bass with hook and line. Undoubtedly, these MPAs are beneficial to sea angling.

Sea Angling Licences

This is understandably one of the most emotive issues being commented on by sea anglers. The forthcoming Marine Bill will almost certainly include the creation of a legislative framework that would allow the Government to introduce a licence for sea anglers if it chose to. Most sea anglers feel aggrieved that this issue appears so high on DEFRA’s agenda so soon after recognition of RSA.

Licences for commercial fishing boats, not the fishermen, were handed out free of charge in the early 1990’s and anglers question the rationale for charging anglers whilst those who exploit the same common fishery resource for profit were given licences. Some proponents of a sea angling licence point out that freshwater anglers have to buy a licence, so why shouldn’t sea anglers? However, the situation in freshwater is very different. Firstly, the licence revenue is collected by the Environment Agency who ring fence funds for improvement of fresh water fisheries.

The Environment Agency is also required to promote and develop recreational angling. Furthermore, all commercial fishing managed by the Environment Agency such as for eels, elvers, salmon and sea trout, unlike marine commercial fishing, have to pay the Government substantial amounts for an annual licence.

Bag limits for bass anglers

Many anglers who fish for bass recreationally, return most of their catches whilst some retain enough for their personal consumption. Rod and line fishing is however a method used to take bass within both the licenced and unlicenced commercial bass fishery. The only licences ever made available were issued to motorised fishing vessels for which the owners were able to provide evidence of having sold fish captured from that vessel. So currently, bass caught from an unlicenced motor vessel can not legally be sold.

However, bass caught from a vessel that is not motorised or caught from the shore, can be legally sold even though the activities are not currently licenced (no licences having been made available for such activities). Those who operate licenced vessels have raised concerns about those who sell bass from unlicenced vessels (illegal) and the authorities are considering the imposition of bag limits for bass upon all unlicenced activities including those of genuinely recreational anglers who do not sell their fish.

The situation is more complex than it may appear at first because when licences were originally issued some 15 years ago, the authorities failed to consider all those who elected to fish commercially from either the shore or a boat without an engine. Arguably, their activities were every bit as valid as those of owners of boats with engines. The situation is even more bizarre because in respect of bass, the only catch restriction for licenced vessels is a maximum of 5 tonnes weekly which is irrelevant for 99.9% of boats who don’t catch that amount a year. RSA representatives are currently trying to establish whether the proponents of bag limits are motivated by a perceived need for ‘conservation’ or whether the bag limit proposal is simply to aid enforcement against those who catch and sell bass from unlicenced motorised boats.

Prior to the mid 1970s, bass were almost entirely an angling species and sea anglers accounted for 90+% of mortality. By the late 1980s anglers and commercial fishing shared the mortality approx 50-50. Latest research suggests that 66% of all fishing mortality derives from commercial fishing. The imposition of bag limits on anglers would likely drive up the proportion of commercial mortality even further, which ironically is totally contradictory to the recommendation of the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit’s report ‘Net Benefits’ which suggested bass may well provide a better return to the UK plc if re-designated wholly recreational.

In other parts of the globe where sea angling bag limits are just one measure amongst a full suite of measures applied to all extractive stakeholders in favour of protecting the abundance and structure of the stock, anglers are only too willing to fulfill their conservation role. For example, in Massachusetts, when fishery managers increased the striped bass bag limit from one to two fish, the main cries of opposition came from the recreational sea anglers.

Recreational Sea Angling Strategy

DEFRA are currently working on a draft Strategy for RSA. The work is being carried out by DEFRA’s Inshore Fisheries Group. This Group consists of a range of stakeholders including commercial fishing, recreational angling, non governmental environmental organizations and statutory organisations. Inevitably, the drafting process will not be easy. Inclusion of recreational sea angling into the process of formulating fishery policy and strategy is breaking new ground for all players and even where this process is further advanced in other parts of the world, the profound and often competing differences between recreational and commercial exploitation make for challenging dialogue.

Later this year, DEFRA’s Strategy for Recreational Sea Angling will be the subject of a full public consultation. DEFRA, together with the scientific institutions that historically support DEFRA, all have enormous experience of commercial fishing, but relatively little understanding of recreational sea angling. Recreational sea angling presents many new challenges and there is urgent need for a research programme to develop robust data for angling catches, viability of catch and release, angling behaviour, angling preferences etc. Ideally, such research should be carried out annually so that a time series data set becomes established to inform the decision process.

May I ask all anglers to keep up to date with developments by logging on to websites such as:
www.ukbass.com
www.sacn.org.uk/conservation-and-political-news
www.nfsa.org.uk

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