The following essay on fishing has been published at
Talking Walkham 2
(Talking Walkham 1 is appended)
In the course of asking questions about the Walkham, this column ended up directed to Robert Mountjoy of Crapstone – experienced fisherman, campaigner for fish, author of The Sea Trout Diaries and owner of the house called Weir Park, Horrabridge city centre, from 1985 to 2002.
He was unhappy with our uncritical reporting of local poaching stories.
“Tales of poaching also regaled me and I too could easily have fallen for the romantic nonsense purveyed by the locals to excuse the activity. From the landing window of my house I had ample opportunity to witness it in action. When night fishing, with night vision goggles, I was able to observe the application of all methods.
“For the most part it was largely unsuccessful but large multi-winter fish that had run early and taken up residence proved easy targets. Gravid fish amongst the autumn runs also proved easy to lamp, snatch or snare. I rarely saw a fresh fish taken. Not a lot of skill was involved – it was crude, clumsy and criminal.
“Poaching had nothing to do with feeding a starving family – it was mostly motivated by a desire to supplement benefits and stick two fingers up to authority. It had more in common with petty theft and vandalism than sport. The locals should not be proud of it. They should be ashamed … and I know some of the older ones (privately) are. (They think that they killed off the spring run).”
Well, okay. But the old poachers I’ve heard about were hard-working family men, looking to pay for a few pints or put something on the table for a wedding – although understandably enjoying the element of two fingers to authority, no doubt.
If you are a rural villager by a river, it is understandable to think you have as much right to take a fish from it as the friends and customers of some lordship away over the hill. And poaching was surely never more than a pipsqueak in the balance of man and salmon.
Still, Mr Mountjoy has stripes I’ll never earn.
Let’s turn, with his permission, to the Sea Trout Diaries, which you can download for free as an iBook – if you have an Apple tablet or phone or a geek in the family. There are still print copies around, but all old ones, and Mr Mountjoy decided to give away a second edition, with some revisions, from 2014.
It is a great read for anyone who likes reading about fishing. The author is generous with technical information and tips and nice and low on expensive brand names.
When he started chasing peal (sea trout), he used spinning and wobbling lures on a small swivel, 18 inches from the hook, casting downstream and working upwards in a combing pattern. It worked sometimes and he learned where the fish were on the way to becoming a fly man. With fly, he found he got more bites than touches.
He says a well-designed fly line is worth its money and he often spends more on his next line than he did on his last rod. Gives them a wash and wax every now and then, using liquid car wax.
Interestingly, he used to use a spring-loaded clockwork reel to take up spare loops of fly line when he had a bite. You can still get them from American suppliers to night-line fishermen, although Mr Mountjoy nowadays favours a big-diameter reel, for fast uptake by hand.
He thinks most of the alluring nonsense of flies is a distraction. A Dartmoor trout will chase anything, he reckons, but he favours deer-hair flies for staying afloat in tumbling water; weighted nymphs when he is after the larger brownies. The peal won’t chase but will snap at anything that arrives within its resting “strike range” – which, from the sort of experience science would struggle to match, he estimates at three foot six inches in clear water, or just over a metre if you think that way. The job with a lure is to land or bounce it so the fish does not see it until it is already within striking distance. As one of his mates put it, you’ve got to not give the blighters time to think. So, the rule on lures is to use smaller ones as the water clears; big ones when it’s murky.
Mr Mountjoy warns that the fish can see you up to 50 feet away if you are six feet tall, so sometimes it is better to cast upstream.
The book includes instructions on tying his recommended range of sinking flies for peal.
Here at Walkham HQ, in Horrabridge, the local recommendation for peal on the move is a weighted line with a trace off to the side about 18 inches from the bottom, and big worm on big hook for big fish.
Mr Mountjoy has seen plenty of evidence that they like little sluggy things like those pea-sized slugs you find under pots. But, he warns, a slug-filled peal somehow does not taste the same. Otherwise, a good peal is commonly rated better eating than salmon – and they are still reasonably plentiful in Walkham, Tavy and Plym. Best are maiden peal, returning from the sea for the first time, April-June, weighing up to a couple of pounds. They are followed upriver by small school peal, still learning the lifestyle.
My team, the Horrabridge Bodgers, has tried the worm rig a few times this summer, in a private pool, and we know of at least a couple of fat ones taken by it in the least likely looking of locations – the pool below the newly-made central Horrabridge weir, after spates. It’s open to anyone with a basic Environment Agency licence and any old rig will do. But on most of the river, and on most other trout and salmon rivers, there is a rule against any real bait, although it is more or less unenforceable. The flytocracy thinks it against the spirit of the sport but the driving spirit of the sport for most of us is to catch a fish. And I have met salmon gillies who told me they used worm on their days off, catching for their own pots. So that’s what they think of yer Whistling Doodlehack, tied from hare’s armpit fluff and a feather from the greater spotted bee-eater.
Anyway, effective as the worm might be in the right place, getting it there is by no means a simple job. Finding good worms is not a doddle, for a start, and they have a talent for escape. And the ones that make it to the sacrifice take revenge, by tying knots in your rig. Our advisers tell us to thread the worm on the hook head first, so at least it wriggles in the right direction. This means identifying the front end, which is usually the fattest third, but it’s not always easy.
Keeping your trace stood out from your line also demands a bit of shed time in advance of the fishing. We are currently experimenting with a forked hazel twig with a bit of pipe around the stem for weight. No luck so far, but we are enjoying our own cunning.
We sometimes troll for trout with a cork riding the current, carrying the bait below it, which is a useful technique where casting is hard, but the local wisdom says you’ll never take a peal using a float. Come to think of it, we can’t remember when it last worked for us for anything, but we have folk memories – or maybe they are just dreams – of taking fish that way.
Bob Mountjoy says he has no doctrinal prejudice against worm but there are environmental arguments against it. Fish tend to swallow worm and hook right down in one go, and they will not survive with a hook in the gut if you ought to let them go. If you do use worm, he suggests using a “circle hook”, which is less likely to be swallowed. We would submit, m’lud, that our hazel-twig boom might also be regarded as a guard against foul hooking.
With the season fast running to a close, we found a couple of hours to try the free stretch of Tavy, through the Tavistock meadows, equipped with spinners and Bob Mountjoy’s advice. Access was not as easy as it looks when you are just strolling past, but we got down to a couple of spots where it was possible to lob in the direction of possible underhangs in rock. But without waders, we couldn’t get into position for systematic trawling of the likely lies and we were mainly pulling the lure uselessly across open shallows.
For the price of a fly, Paul the Fisherman, now sadly moved on from Tavistock Market to a role in a much bigger angling shop at Homeleigh Garden Centre, Launceston, gave us a couple of tips on finding peal, and both were for the Plym. One was under the bridge at Cadover, when the kids have all gone home. See http://www.twpfishing.net for the necessary permit.
* Chris Benfield wrote this report. He is working on a directory of access to the Walkham and would appreciate any information on that, or other chat about local fishing, at firstname.lastname@example.org/
Talking Walkham 1 was first published in The Bridge magazine, September 2015 issue …
Between 1724 and 1727, the author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, published three volumes of essays called A Tour Through The Whole Island of Great Britain.
He came down the north coast of Devon and paused at the Tamar to note that the common people around it and its tributaries were all fat – which at the time was a compliment, of course – from the eating of salmon, to the point that they would have it written into their contracts that there was a limit to the number of salmon they could handle in lieu of actual wages.
Defoe might have fallen for a widespread urban myth that rural people got so much salmon they turned up their noses at it. Even so, things have obviously changed a bit.
In the 1950s and 1960s, I am in a position to remind you, salmon was the very definition of luxury, even in Devon. What would you imagine people had at a dead posh do? Salmon and caviare.
I think it was probably not until the 1990s that fish farming killed its own golden goose, so to speak, by over-producing to the point they served up salmon sarnies in the canteen.
During most of the second half of the 20th century, by all accounts, the Tamar and the Tavy and the Walkham still more or less teemed with salmon, peal (sea trout) and brown trout, and there was still a market for a ceremonial fish for a wedding or Christmas. At Walkham hq, in Horrabridge, you can still find men who boast of having poached the citizens’ share. Hardly anyone used a legitimate fly but some skill and cunning went into herding the fish and taking them with a snare or a gaff.
The bailiffs and the police were quite fierce on the snaffling and insisted on the odd show trial. But they could not be everywhere and in practice they tolerated a little local tithe taking in exchange for some feedback from the eyes and ears on the river. My chief informant, Jinks Fitzsimmons, already known to most of you as elder of a famous Horrabridge clan, and archivist of village life, tells a nice story of being hauled in for questioning about a fine salmon at Christmas but discharged after the constable and his sergeant had taken the best cuts out of it and given him back the tail end.
Fishing is always quite hard work in some ways, however you do it, and most of the poachers are now getting on a bit. The youngsters don’t see much in it. And anyway, the river has changed. There are still good fish in it, by all accounts, and reports filter back to us about salmon being taken in this pool or that, peal on the move, etcetera. But on the whole they are from private stretches, although the Tavy Walkham and Plym Fishing Club – http://www.twpfishing.net/ – gives you access to some parts of them for a reasonably priced permit.
The stretch from the Horrabridge bridge up to the upriver end of the playing fields is open to anyone with an Environment Agency rod licence but you’ll be lucky to get anything much there nowadays. The weir above the bridge was made for a hydro-electric scheme, now dismantled, and that and another hydro scheme, upstream, have had their effect on fish movement and lies. Some nice weedy channels were concreted over during construction. A lot of access to some of the best pieces of the river, between Bedford Bridge and Huckworthy Bridge, has been fenced off, by farmers or fishing interests or householders. Grenofen Bridge to Double Waters remains relatively unspoilt, and holds some promising pools, but is outside the sphere of influence of a TWPC permit. The high Walkham, from Huckworthy up to Merrivale, is still said to be good for river trout, at least, but is hard to get at, because of both fencing and terrain.
It used to be a practice to seed the headwaters with salmon fry, from a hatchery on the old Endsleigh estate. Jinks used to sometimes help a mate out with the job – pouring fry from buckets into good nursery areas where they might grow until they felt the call to migrate to the sea (and eventually come back again).
The Duke of Bedford started the practice, when he effectively ran the Tamar system, and it was continued even after the Environment Agency became the ultimate authority over English rivers. At some point the Walkham was dropped from the scheme but it continued on the Tamar, through a collaboration between the Endsleigh Fishing Club, representing private interests, and a charity called the Westcountry Rivers Trust (WRT), channelling funding from various sources. Two years ago, funding cuts finally closed the hatchery but the WRT is still counting fish and attempting to work out what difference the interventions made.
Sowing fry is nowadays controversial because it is an interference with the natural order. If it is allowed, it is on the condition that the fry are bred from fish native to the river concerned, which might be genetically different, in tiny ways, from those which head up other rivers – even those in the same network. Bruce Stockley, head fish scientist of the WRT, guesses that the Walkham lost out because the Endsleigh fry were bred from Tamar salmon. Other rivers do still have their own hatcheries.
“In some places it has been calculated that it has cost £10,000 for every extra fish caught,” says Dr Stockley. “But there is still some interest in stocking as a potentially useful thing and we are still collecting figures.”
PS: I ran a draft of this article past the local fishing club and got a reply from Robert Mountjoy, veteran Walkham angler and author of the Sea Trout Diaries (free as an iBook), challenging the “romantic nonsense” that poaching was a skill.
“It was crude, clumsy and criminal,” he says.
More on that point of view later.
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