Thursday, 12 January 2017

My otter friends are back

My otters are back and it is not a good time to be an overwintering rainbow trout in the lake here at Nether Wallop Mill.

Usually from November to March they have a blessed life. No pesky anglers turning the water to foam. No strange coloured, sharp things interrupting the daily routine. Just the fast, clear waters of winter, with enough nymphs to snack on during daylight hours, plus a shadow that arrives twice daily dispensing tasty pellet treats.

But come nightfall chaos reigns. If I don't first hear the otters I will hear the fish. Glooping swirls as they twist beneath the surface to escape hungry jaws. Desperate splashes as they leap from the water. They retreat to the darkest, deepest sections of the lake for safety. The morning after the night before is always evident to me; it takes a brave trout to abandon his hidey hole even when tempted by the lure of pellets. For a while the food will lie untouched on the surface instead of the usual instantaneous feeding frenzy. But eventually hunger gets the better of the night time survivors as they poke their noses over the parapet in dribs and drabs.

Despite the carnage, it is good to have the otters back. They don't appear every night, I'd say two out of three nights, arriving with a chorus of highly voluble 'eeks' soon after dark. You don't need a still, windless night to hear they have arrived. At this time of year I'll be able to hear the calls over the sound of the early evening news as they keep tabs on each other.

This time around I am fairly sure the family is the mother and two cubs; two years ago it was mother plus four, though one pup died early on. They are, I guess, around 3-4 months old so still firmly hanging on to the apron strings. Otter pups, especially the females, will stay with the mother until they are 12 months old. They need to be taught how to hunt, a laborious process, and should the mother die before they reach that first anniversary the pups will, in all likelihood, die of starvation. Such is the scale of maternal dependence that infant otters even have to be taught to swim. In case you are wondering where the father is, don't. His contribution began and ended at the conception.

So, as the countdown to a new season continues, I suspect I am losing five good trout a week though the attrition rate will increase as the pups grow bigger. At that rate I estimate we will have around thirty fish left in the lake, which will be close to being the fittest, most wily and turbo-charged rainbows on the planet.

And do I mind the attrition? Well, I used to but I don't any longer. There is something magical about otters, for so long extinct from this part of the world. The other night the mother left one of the pups on the island for most of the night as she patrolled her territory. Every so often the pup let out a tentative eek that echoed across the dark, a sort I'm-here-don't-forget-me call. For hours it went unanswered until a distant reply came, the chattering increasing exponentially as the distance between the two narrowed until combined they splashed down the lake and off to find a holt ahead of the upcoming dawn.


I don't know about you but I always think of insects as very local, barely straying more than a few hundred yards between the place of birth and death. But apparently not.

Painted Lady butterly - one of our 'immigrants'
A recent study from Exeter University makes this view look very parochial. Apparently somewhere up there in the skies above us a staggering 3.5 trillion insects are arriving to the United Kingdom on a northwards migration as summer approaches, returning southwards before autumn takes a hold. It is truly a massive number, 3,500,000,000,000 in good old longhand, making the migration of songbirds at 30 million pale into insignificance. 

The data, built up over ten years, measured insects flying in at heights from a few hundred to thousands of feet in the air, where they sometimes reach speeds of 30-45mph, presumably carried on winds or thermals. The recordings don't tell us the origin of the insects but we do know that they arrived (and departed) over either the North Sea or the English Channel.

Who were these intrepid invertebrate travellers? Well, it wasn't just confined to larger and apparently hardier species such as butterflies, ladybeetles or moths. The vast majority of the insects were tiny creatures like cereal crop aphids, flies and midges.

What is actually quite fascinating is how they find their way here. At first glance you'd think it is a random get-yourself-up-in-the-air and hope for the best, but that is no way for any species to survive thousands of years of evolution. No, believe it or not, the medium and larger insects do have a compass mechanism that allow them to take flight, assess the wind direction before catching the breeze or returning to ground to await more favourable conditions.

I'm going to show our insect pals just a little more respect from now on.


This is not the best video clip in the world (note to self: buy iPhone 8 with enhanced zoom) but it gives you some idea of the spawning activity currently happening on the headwaters of the Test.

I've seen this fish for a few days. He lies inert over the redd for long minutes at a time before, as if electrified, flipping on his flank to power down as if attacking the gravel indentation before returning to rest.

Hope a mate arrives soon!

No theme this time around, just three random teasers. It is just for fun and the answers are at the bottom of the page
1)    What would you be scared of if you suffered from paraskevidekatriaphobia?

2)    How heavy is a fully grown male otter?

3)    How many eggs would a 1lb brown trout lay?  200, 800, 1600, or 2,400


Diane keeps a low profile
It is strange how marketing has changed with the advances of technology. When I first started Fishing Breaks the new brochure was the marketing 'event' of the year, firing the starting gun for bookings.

Months of preparation and creative energy went into each annual edition. The office would be piled high with boxes and mailing labels, the drudgery of stuffing envelopes sparking many a weird conversation into the late hours. Then there was the heated discussion as to posting date and the optimum day for it to drop through your letter box.

Today it is all very different. Yes, we do produce a brochure but it is not the critical thing it once was and we don't do a mass mailing. However, it is sometimes helpful to have something in your hand as a point of reference so if you would like a copy of the 2017 Edition please ping me an email confirming your address.

Enjoy the snow!

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 1) Friday 13th   2) 22-26lbs so just a little less that a female Cocker Spaniel.  3) 800

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

2016 in Photos

2016 in Photos

Dear Simon,

Before we completely consign 2016 to the dustbin of history there are two more duties to close out the year: voting in the the inaugural Fish & Fly Annual Awards and a quick gallop though a fishing year in photos.

Fish & Fly is one of the great on-line resources for us fly fishers and the ever inventive editor Paul Sharman has given us all the opportunity to give our verdict on the best bit of kit, retailer, fishing guide, personality of the year and much more in the first ever Fish & Fly 2016 Awards Survey. I am delighted to say that Fishing Breaks has been nominated in the Fishing Travel section. Do vote! 

The poll closes on January 2nd; click here to vote.


This is the most popular photo I have ever posted on social media. Only in Stockbridge would you be greeted at dawn by a man in waders, crossing a zebra crossing with a scythe over his shoulder on the way to work. Long may it continue.


When all about you is bleak one gorgeous fish can brighten a drab winter day.


Cow parsley heads in a frosted water meadow.


They may have come last in the One Fly but they seem mighty happy about it!


By my estimation only a 137 days to go ......


Duncan Weston, who was there with me in the trenches from the early days of Fishing Breaks right up until he retired due to ill health a couple of years ago, died on June 8th, his 76th birthday.


Our first ever Kids Fish Camp that ran for five days in July. 


Dusk on the River Nadder in Wiltshire with nothing but a few sheep, a last fluttering of sedges and glooping trout for company. Perfection


Yes, such is the parlous state of our native water vole that we rear them in captivity for re-populating otherwise barren rivers. This is one of a 110 released on the River Meon. PS The Pringle can is a cunning device to scoop them from the carrying cage - voles bite hard and don't let go!


This was the moment the Mop Fly arrived in the UK ...........


Dawn and -7C at The Bends on the River Test just upstream of Stockbridge this morning. It felt like it looks.


Our fly fishing capital town Stockbridge is looking very festive this year thanks to a big effort by all those who live and trade on the High Street, including lighting up the river.


Six fins to test your knowledge; they are all freshwater. Answers at the bottom of the page. It's just for fun!

My thanks to Chris Cooper (no relation ) for the  February grayling photo and Minnie Cooper (relation) for the May mayfly photo. And in case you have scrolled all the way down, please don't forget to vote in the Fish & Fly Awards poll.

All the best for 2017.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 

Rainbow trout pectoral fin.                    Perch dorsal fin
Grayling dorsal fin                                 Brown trout dorsal fin
Atlantic salmon adipoise fin                   Mirror carp pectoral fin

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Take the hard road


By the onset of dusk on Sunday I had had enough of being shrouded in mist; with the exception of a glorious Wednesday us Wallopians have barely seen the sun for two weeks. We rise to mist and go to bed to mist. It hangs around all day gathering in ever increasing swirls of density to become fog as soon as the sun starts to dip from its already feeble zenith.  It is the shortest day on Wednesday; it cannot come soon enough for me for it is the starting point towards a new summer.

But frankly by the time the church clock chimed three I could not wait any longer; somewhere up there at the far extreme of Nether Wallop is a much higher place, the hill they call Danebury Ring. On a clear day you can spy the Isle of Wight from the top even though it is 40 miles distant.  At night red warning lights blink from tall poles ushering the training helicopters from the nearby Middle Wallop airbase away from catastrophe.

Within a few dozen paces of leaving The Mill the steep climb starts. In summer the footpath is garlanded with daisies as it weaves you up a sloping field of shimmering corn. Today it is rotting stubble. The path is starting to turn to mud.  I refuse to slacken my pace even though the incline starts to make me puff, so I distract myself recounting in my head for the umpteenth time the disputed origin of the suffix to the name of our village. Some say Wallop refers to the family name of the Earls of Portsmouth, once mighty land owners around these parts. Others say 'wallop' means hidden valley. As I breast the rise I turn to see what I know I won't see; even on a clear day the village will already be hidden from view. Today it snuggles under a white duvet.

Likewise Danebury Ring is still nowhere to be seen but the route to it is marked by the grass swathe that was once Stockbridge racecourse that gently rises away from me into the distance for a straight 10 furlongs. I know it is a mile and a quarter because today, even a hundred years after the last race was run, the bouncy turf is training gallops to the local racing stable who have helpfully laid out marker dollies. As I pass one the next looms up ahead, a vague form hidden in the mist which slowly comes into sharper focus as I approach.

As I count each passing marker the mist is definitely thinning until, without warning it breaks. Whilst all behind me is clouded, ahead, in sharp relief, in bright, clear air is the Iron Age fort we call Danebury Ring.  I quicken my pace to reach the summit ahead of the soon-to-set sun.  I am not the first. Men have been drawn to this place for seven thousand years or more. It is the highest point for miles around.  As an easily defended settlement it pre-dates Stonehenge. The climb is harder than anything earlier so I do pause for breath at the natural breaks as the hill, as prominent in this landscape as a jelly mould on a table, rises then plateaus before rising again.

At the top I marvel at the full circumference of the scene below me. In some respects it is not so remarkable. The rolling, sheep-grazed chalk downs disappearing into the mist. The spindly silhouette of the leaf-bare beech trees on a ridge so many miles away that those colossal trees appear no higher than matchsticks at this distance. No roads. No people. No buildings. The only colour is from the static grey sky where breaks in the cloud allow for bright patches of the pinky-orange setting sun to show through. The crows provide the soundtrack, swirling in their hundreds beneath my feet as they caw-caw in incessant unison whilst seeking out their night time roost.

Actually I am wrong. It is remarkable. Because for thousands of years men have stood at the very spot I am now and seen the very self same landscape. Heard the crows. Watched the sunset. And like me shivered in anticipation of the chill hours ahead. For this continuity we as a nation should be very proud. In a turbulent world we still have on our doorstep some of the most amazing, beautiful and unchanging landscape that remains, for me at least, a thing of great wonder. But we stand at a threshold.

In my lifetime I have seen the population of Britain rise from around 50 million to close to 70 million, most of the increase in the already densely populated parts of England. Steel pylons have strung electric power cables across what we now call National Parks. Motorways have obliterated villages. Where there were once rivers there are now just boreholes. The sleepy market towns Pevsner celebrated are surrounded by a mish-mash of development, a beleaguered hole in an ever growing donut.  Agriculture has long lost its way farming solar parks, wind turbines and government subsidy.  Where once we had communities we have boroughs, or if you are really unlucky, a unitary authority. And industry does whatever it chooses; the lure of jobs and taxes blinds all to any possible downsides.

It is a horrible triptych of urbanisation, industry and pollution that threatens what we hold dear. Thirty years ago The Economist wrote tongue-in-cheek that no UK government would rest easy until all of southern England was concreted over. Sadly they may well be right. In our own way all of us recognise this, doing our bit to fight the fight: recycling, green energy, eco cars, campaigning where we see damage and misdeeds. I could go on, but you get the idea - it is a long list of battles. But let us be honest we are fighting the symptoms of the disease not the disease itself.

At some point, if we wish to preserve what we hold dear, the time will come to call a halt.  No more new houses. No more roads. No more factories. No more of the disease because the medicines will not work forever. Individual communities, be they towns, villages , counties or whatever groups coalesce around the cause should be entitled to say, accepting the consequences of that decision,  'we are full'.

It was completely dark by the time I made it back to The Mill to the welcoming warmth and light of a home which made me think: is it the ultimate complacency of entitled nimbyism to hold up the FULL sign to exclude progress to those that follow me?  I guess in a way it is. But then again progression assumes an upwards path with a duty to nurture a better world for those that follow.  As a nation we need to realise that we stand at something of a crossroads. The correct road to take is the hard-to-argue one. Whether we take it depends on a collective will.


Jonathan's Balcombe's book What a Fish Knows is a complex read. On the one hand it is full of fascinating insights into the behaviour and lives of fish. How they live, how they communicate, how they navigate their lives. Read it today and you will, with little effort, be quite the bore over Christmas lunch.

But on the other hand Balcombe's book is a Crie de Coeur for all fish. He firmly believes (and I am with him on this) that fish should have equal rights to animals. But clearly they don't. 

As he says of vegetarians who eat fish they do it, 'as if there were no moral distinction between cod and a cucumber'. This might be fine if we are treating our oceans with care, but we are not. Ever increasing demand for fish allied with prodigiously efficient commercial fishing fleets is gradually extinguishing sea life.

Balcombe wants us all to stop eating fish now. See if you agree. Buy it on Amazon


We will be shutting up shop for a few days over Christmas, but us fly fishers are a restless bunch so it will not be for long. With the start of the new season now closer than the end of the last this is the time to start planning.

If you had an opportunity to read my last Newsletter you will know we have lots of new stuff for 2017 and that the web site is loaded up, ready to go. 

So, if you are happy to book on-line it is all there for a few clicks of a mouse. That said should you prefer a chat on the phone or like to ping a few emails back and forth we are happy to help in any way.

Closed                 December 23rd-27th
10am-4pm           December 28th & 29th
9am-1pm             December 30th
Closed                 December 31st-January 2nd
9am-5pm             January 3rd onwards


Who am I?
You will notice a trend that I am becoming something of a magpie. This week the questions come from What a Fish Knows.
1)      What is the fish on the right?

2)      How many species of fish are there in the world?

3)      How many eggs does an Ocean Sunfish carry?

4)      How many million years ago did the first fish evolve?

It's just for fun and answers are at the bottom of the page. I will be back between Christmas and the New Year with 2016 in Photos and the great 'Who's Fin is That?' quiz. 

In the meantime from all of us at Fishing Breaks, and the fish as well, have a very Happy Christmas.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 1) Pufferfish  2) 33,249 and counting. 4 new sharks were discovered last year  3) 300 million  4) 530 million; homo sapiens appeared 2 million years ago.