Thursday, 6 October 2016

How smart are fish?

How smart are fish?
How smart are fish? Well, some days I am tempted to think very smart, but maybe that talks more to my inability to catch them rather than some innate intelligence on their part.

Museum of Fish Culture c. 1880
Regardless it is a fascinating question and one that is going to be addressed at the Institute of Zoology in November in  a talk and discussion organised by The Buckland Institute entitled, "How smart are fish? Integrating what scientists and fishers know".

First up will be eminent fish scientist Felicity Huntingford, from the Universities of Stirling & Glasgow who has worked on the behaviour of fish for more than 45 years, having a special interest in their social interactions and how they avoid predators. Dr Huntingford will be followed by renowned angler Charles Jardine who will use his extensive knowledge of fish, their behaviour and the ecosystems to give an anglers-eye view. After that the audience will be invited to join the discussion. Here is what to expect:

"The talks in this event will challenge the commonly-held view of fish as robot-like animals with no intelligence and a 30 second memory, which often leads to fish conservation being ignored in favour of more charismatic animals. As our first talk will show, this view is very far from the truth. Fish vary of course, but the group as a whole have a well-developed capacity for learning, a good memory when this is needed and perform many complex behaviours that in mammals, for example, would be deemed intelligent or "smart". Thus fish form mental maps, use tools, build complicated structures and develop traditions. The dissonance between popular image and reality arises because most people do not have the time or opportunity to discover just how complex fish behaviour is.

However, it needn't be this way. Recreational anglers spend a lot of time observing and interacting with fish, so in this session we will explore what they have to say about how smart fish are. We will draw on the experience and observations of our second speaker, a lifelong angler and commentator, and also, we hope, on the expertise of anglers in the audience. Our aim is to promote creative discussion between people with different perspectives and to highlight the value of the traditional knowledge that anglers possess and pass on to successive generations."

Frank Buckland
As alluded to, this is the first of a series of talks organised by The Buckland Institute, a charitable foundation that was endowed by a remarkable man, Frank Buckland, who left a substantial sum on his death in 1880 to promote the understanding of fisheries through public lectures given by an annually appointed Buckland Professor.

Buckland was one of those amazing men of the mid-Victorian era who used his verve, intelligence and wealth to carve out a new set of beliefs for the benefit of the working man. It was his desire to make it known that around the shores of Britain lay a wealth of nutritious and cheap food that was there for the benefit of all. But as a naturalist he was wise enough to understand that you needed knowledge before exploiting this precious harvest.

So it was that that this prolific writer, campaigner against river pollution, and researcher on fish-culture and fish farming came to establish the UK's first fisheries museum in South Kensington in 1865. He was clearly an unorthodox scientist; for reasons I have not been able to ascertain he fed a porpoise brandy, the act immortalised in an engraving. His contemporary, Charles Darwin loathed him, but that maybe because he was unwise enough to attend a dinner at Buckland's home. The menu is said to have included boiled elephant trunk, rhinoceros pie, porpoise heads, and stewed mole.

44lb Irish salmon caught in 1869
Whatever his failings as a host Buckland assembled the most amazing collection of fish casts that were on show in what was called the Museum of Fish Culture. 

Sadly after his death the exhibits fell into decay until in 1968 the remaining 45 casts were transferred to the Scottish Fisheries Museum where they are being continually conserved to this day. 

It is a salutary thought that 136 years on from Buckland's death we still know remarkably little about fish, though maybe it is worse that we are still fighting river pollution.

If you would like to attend the talk entry is free with a ticket. It takes place on Wednesday November 2nd 6pm-9pm at London Zoo. For tickets click here.

A monster garfish


Here is a unusual view of the chalkstreams shot from the air over the upper reaches and wild meadows of the River Test by Nico Gubbins earlier this summer.

Nico, who is a commercial film maker with a niche of work shooting properties from the air, bought his brother along as the 'model' as they spent the day on the river as the drone captured an eagle-eye view of the four beats. 

What I had forgotten, or rather taken for granted over the years, is the ribbon of unspoilt woodland and meadows through which Bullington Manor runs. It is very special and explains why it is such a great place to see so much wildlife and where the fly life flourishes.

To watch the clip click on the photo or here.


The last full month of the chalkstream year has drawn to a close and we are into a stunning autumn. Well done to Chris Coleman who fishing Middleton Estate and School Farm on consecutive days and wins the Vuefinder Fly Patch.

October is the big one. We'll have the usual monthly draw and then absolutely everyone from April to October goes back into the metaphorical hat (actually it is a randomised electronic draw ...) for the Sage reel pictured opposite.


In the news today were toads. Apparently the population has declined by two thirds in the past two decades which might explain why we have so many slugs, which are a favourite food. So, a few toad related questions this week.
1)    How many varieties of British toad are there?

2)      What are the two primary differences between toads and frogs?

3)      How long are toads thought to live in the wild?

4)  For how many years was Mr Toad sentenced in The Wind in the Willows?

5)    What do herpetologists study?

It's just for fun and answers are at the bottom of the page.  

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 1) Two. The Common and Natterjack. 2) Toads have warty, dry skin and frogs moist, smooth skin, whilst toads crawl and frogs hop.  3) 10-12 years with 50 years recorded in captivity.  4) 20 years.  5) Amphibians and reptiles.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

I ended up watching more of the Olympics than I ever intended; by sheer fate I flew out on the day of the opening ceremony and flew back on the closing day as the flame was handed to the next host city, Tokyo. My destination didn't offer much in the way of TV choice but as we were in the same time zone as Rio the ESPN sports network made for easy viewing with two channels dedicated to the Games, one anchored from the Caribbean and the other Canada.  I never quite worked out why that was so, but deprived of Clare Balding I soldiered on, soon becoming quite knowledgeable in the workings of the Trinidad and Tobago athletic community and coming to the view that the Canadians generally prefer the Winter Olympics.

Dave Brailsford
Actually it was refreshing to be spared the jingoistic home coverage but it must be said that both the ESPN channels were in awe of the Great British effort as we scaled the medals table with each successive day. They seemed to be positively gleeful as we pushed China into third spot. As Francis Urquhart in House of Cards would have said, "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment". Well, I do have readers in China ......

The really interesting discussions on ESPN asked the question as to why Team GB had been so successful. There was no side to this, just genuine inquiry. We were expected to do well in London 2012 but to improve in 2016? Well, that blew away all known metrics. Lottery funding is the most obvious reason but the more thoughtful commentators kept drawing the attention to cycling coach Dave Brailsford and his concept of "aggregation of marginal gains" that seeks for "the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do."

For Brailsford this meant examining every aspect of competitive cycling, finding that 1 percent in everything - the athlete, the lifestyle and the kit. They started by optimizing the things you might expect: the nutrition of riders, their weekly training programme, the ergonomics of the bike seat, and the weight of the tyres. But Brailsford and his team didn't stop there. They searched for 1 percent improvements in tiny areas that were overlooked by almost everyone else: discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels, testing for the most effective type of massage gel, and teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection. They searched for 1 percent improvements everywhere.

Which had me thinking: could we apply the same to fly fishing? Of course the immediately exciting part of this is that it provides the perfect excuse to buy new stuff - rods, reels, lines, flies, clothing - well, the Brailsford theory seems to suggest no boundaries. Good bye cheap and cheerful B&B, hello five star luxury. But then again, try explaining that credit card statement away to your loved ones using the 1 percent argument. Good luck. But, on the serious other hand, Brailsford does have a point and his theory does work for fly fishing. But how?

Flies are a good point in case. In the tackle trade the old adage is that flies are tied to catch fishermen not fish. I'm sure we have all been snared this way as the huge array in the shop assail the senses so that after a few sensible choices we revert to buying on the basis of flies we like the look of regardless of utility. In the world of Brailsford such indiscriminate behaviour would have no place. Flies would only be bought to match the hatch and each successive fishing trip would be dedicated to adding a small new fact to our entomological knowledge.

Kit? Well, I don't think you have to have the very best or most expensive rods, reels, lines etc. but you do have to keep abreast of the times. Even the quite backwater of fly fishing technology moves on apace. Buying a new rod every year will not help, but buying a new one every five years will. Clothing? Well, I am not suggesting a skin-tight body suit but do dress for the weather. The fish are wet already so they don't care about the rain but if you keep dry and warm you'll catch more fish than if sheltering in the fishing hut.

I think suggesting a fitness regime might be a step too far, but ask any fishing guide the morning greeting they dread most for the day ahead and it will be "we all got slaughtered last night", accompanied by groans and a rush for the coffee pot. A vow of abstinence is too much to ask of any red-blooded fly fisher but generally it is better to get p****d the night after rather than the night before.

I am not going to attempt to list every variable in a fly fishing day that can be incrementally improved; you are smart enough to work them out for youself. But the interesting correlation to marginal gains is marginal losses i.e. repeatedly doing the same thing badly.  How many times have you lost a fly in a tree only to lose the replacement in exactly the same tree? The Brailsford theory holds in reverse, though he notes the losses have a tendency to snowball - it is a lot easier to get worse than better.

The big but to all this is the 'aggregation' word. Marginal improvement does not come in a rush nor will it be immediately noticeable. It is like being on a diet where you vow to lose a stone at the rate of an ounce a day and keep to it - that eureka moment will be a while coming.  


Just a few random ones to stretch the brain ahead of a relaxing weekend:

1)     When were Bank Holidays enshrined in law?

2)   Where in the UK would you receive the most Bank Holidays each year?

3)      Who has caught the biggest salmon so far this year in Iceland?

4)      What was the unexpected catch by a German angler earlier this month? 

It's just for fun and answers are at the bottom of the page.  

Have a great Bank Holiday weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 

1)      1871  2) Northern Ireland and Isle of Man with 10 each. Scotland 9. England 8.  3) Eric Clapton at 28lbs  4) The intimate area of a nudist swimmer. Read article ..... 

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

How to Spend It


Well, that is me sorted for Christmas which is a relief. I always start worrying around this time of year as my family begin to badger me for my Yuletide shopping list. My advice to you all - get in early and go big.

Now, let's face it the new Bentley Bentayga, the luxury SUV wagon, is an OK sort of a request. For the fishermen it is practical and safe. Always wise to emphasise the 'safe' word as your loved ones don't like the thought of anything bad happening to you. After all we do go to VERY dangerous places just off the M3. But on its own, let's face it the Bentayga (named after a rugged peak in the Canary Islands apparently), is something of a paltry gift. I laugh at the £175,000+ price tag.  

So, as I say go big and insist on the ultimate optional extra with the Bentayga Fly Fishing edition which has been created by Bentley's in-house coachbuilding division Mulliner. For a mere additional £80,000 Bentley tell us you may upgrade to all this:

"Four rods clad in special leather trimmed tubes sit under the parcel shelf, above landing nets in matching leather bags stored in carpet-trimmed pockets in the boot side. Three individual, saddle-leather-trimmed units sit at the heart of the setup - a 'master tackle station' with a sliding tray, a refreshment case and a waterproof wader stowage trunk.

That station houses a Burr Walnut veneered drawer containing fly-tying vice and tools, as well as a selection of hooks, feathers and cottons. As you would expect, the refreshment case contains a set of Mulliner fine-china tableware and metal flasks, perfect for when you need a break from reeling them in. All three units can be removed from the Bentayga's boot, giving maximum luggage space back.

For those fearing a fishy hue could detract from the smell of diamond quilted leather, Bentley provides a handy electronic dehumidifier unit to ensure your favourite hobby doesn't sully the Bentayga's interior. Further protection comes in the form of rear-sill protection covers and a waterproof boot-floor."

Of course the canny amongst you will be wondering what are these rods. Trout or salmon? Cane or carbon? What weight? What make are the reels and lines? Are the hooks barbless? And so on. Sadly, despite much trawling through numerous Bentley press releases and web pages I have still no idea. It seems to be something of a secret. But hey, why spoil the surprise for Christmas Day.


Sedge Cottage
Not every home on a river needs to cost a fortune. Matthew Hallett at Winkworths in Salisbury sends me word of three houses with fishing rights attached on the Wiltshire chalkstreams. 

You may take your pick between a quaint cottage at Bishopstone on the River Ebble,  a rather more modern house on the River Bourne and the aptly named barn-style Fishermans Reach on the River Nadder.

It is fair to say none of these are massive beats but speaking as one who lives over and beside the Wallop Brook it is hard to resist the allure of a river. The ever-burbling stream is a wonderful sedative to the stresses of life and aside from the fishing any bit of chalkstream, however apparently insignificant to the uninitiated, is a haven to be treasured.

Here are links to all three:

Of course if you don't want a home on the river but just the river it seems Wiltshire is the place to look this month with a good, long beat on the River Wylye on the market through Strutt & Parker. The guide price is £415,000 for both lots, the land and the fishing.

River Wylye at Stapleford, Wiltshire


A few random teasers this week.

1)      How long is the Tour de France?

2)      Does the Tour circuit France clockwise or counterclockwise?

3)      Has angling ever been an Olympic Sport?

4)     Jeremy Fisher of Beatrix Potter fame was what kind of a creature?

5)    And who tried to eat him?

It's just for fun and answers are at the bottom of the page. 

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature    
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers:
1) 3,500 km or 2,200 miles over 21 stages. 2) The race alternates between clockwise and counterclockwise circuits of France. 3) Yes. Angling was an unofficial sport at the 1900 Olympics in Paris. At a series of competitions in August, some 600 fisherman participated in 4 separate events. No results have yet been discovered for these competitions. 4) A frog. 5) A large trout.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Ratty to be rescued

How many people does it take to release a water vole? And how long does it take? Well, the answer is fifteen people and five years. How do I know? Well, that was how I spent my Tuesday morning in what is a tale of extinction and salvation.

Vole release vole on tube close up
Water Vole Arvicola amphibius
The Meon valley in east Hampshire is one of those few places that the urbanisation of southern England has (as yet) passed by, largely I suspect because the road through the valley doesn't really take you anywhere. 

There are better routes to the south coast for lorries or those in a hurry. So the A32 is still mostly a single carriageway, wending its way through chocolate box villages, past steepled flint churches and from time to time you will catch a glimpse of the River Meon beyond the verges that are flecked with white-flowered Cow parsley at this time of year. However, the splendid isolation has not deterred all interlopers and a few decades ago one particular menace moved in.

That was, in case you didn't know it, the American mink that first arrived on our shores in the 1930's for fur farming. They soon escaped into the wild, adapting to the British climate, inserting themselves into the food chain just below otters but above water voles that soon became a favourite food.  When the otter population collapsed in the 1960's mink soon became kings of the hill, spreading across the British Isles and in river catchments such as the Meon they hunted water voles to extinction. So about five years ago the South Downs National Park Authority, along with local conservation groups, decided it was time to do something about this.
EMF Hemlock bankside
Hemlock water-dropwort bankside

Step one is first eradicate your mink, which is not as hard as you might think. Ironically having denuded the valley of their food source most of the mink had died or moved on, but those that remained were trapped. I'm told by one of the volunteers who sets the traps that he hasn't seen a mink in the past year.  Step two is bring back the voles. Where from you might ask. Well, believe it or not in Devon there is a water vole breeding farm that supplied the 115 (or maybe 116 nobody was quite sure) voles released on Tuesday by the fifteen volunteers.

They arrived in all age groups and sexes, the voles that is. There are family units with Mum, Dad and the litter of anywhere between five and seven young. There are breeding pairs ready to do their business; not hard as a female will have anything up to five litters in a year. Plus a few unattached adults who will roam, the oldest being about a year, late middle age in voles who rarely survive beyond 18 months. In case you are wondering about the Pringle tube, well it has a purpose. Transferring the voles from the transport cages to the release pens is not easy. They scurry about like mad and will deliver a nasty bite. But grasp them by the tail, slide them head first into the tube and they go quite docile.

Vole release food

The liberation from the pens is what is termed 'soft release'. The rabbit-like cages are positioned close to the river, fed and checked for the first 2-3 days until the door is opened and the voles make their own way into the world. Exton Manor Farm, where this particular release took place, is water vole heaven so they have no real reason to hang about in confinement. Their favourite food, Hemlock water-dropwort grows in abundance along the banks, which also provides plenty of cover as well. They need it as the attrition rate is 80% but the remaining one fifth will be enough to establish a self-sustaining colony.

So the next time you slip on your waders to fish at Exton you will have some companions. Ratty is back and it is good to know that the most endearing character from Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows has some champions - Grahame would be pleased.


Here is a fun children's book that arrived on my desk last week.

Just published, it is written by keen angler Alan Harrison who tells the tale of the curious Colin Carp. He spots a mysterious orange object (a boile I am told by people who know these things) floating in the pond, so he can't resist checking it out. His friend Marie quickly realises it's a fisherman's hook! She must race to save her friend before it's too late...

It has had some lovely reviews and I think children will enjoy the rather ethereal artwork. I'm no expert on children's books but I'm guessing this is for the 3-6 year age range. It is available from bookshops and Amazon at £6.99. 


I did intend to re-print all the entries that came in for the caption contest but you rather bowled me over with your wit and imagination. Except for the few advertising guys who wrote in I suspect most of you are in the wrong jobs! Far more than I ever imagined arrived at my Inbox so after some considerable consideration here are my top five, but really they were all good.

"A dapper dapper daps a dapper gentleman!"

"You really do need a Dandy long legs to catch one."

"Sedge hedge fly catches top and tailing gent."

"Fishing a cucumber sandwich 'on the dangle' Nigel had yet to receive an offer so he upped his game and switched bait to a Royal enclosure ticket for Ascot."

"Members of the Houghton club refute allegations that its beats on the Test are over manicured."

In order thank you to Hugh Foxcroft, John Crawshaw, Si Scott-White, Paul Sharman and Richard Mathewson. It is Richard who collects the commemorative fly box.


It was a long and extended Mayfly hatch, but not without its difficulties with some horrible bouts of cold, wet days plus some stupendous thunderstorms that turned the rivers to chocolate on occasions. 

All that certainly made it tough on us anglers but I'd rate this as a better-than-good Mayfly season. As I write we are just starting weed cut (continues on the River Test until around 19/June) with the hatch still going on.

The winner of the May feedback draw was Brian Langford who fished with success at Barton Court on the River Kennet right at the end of the month. The Vuefinder Fly Patch is on its way and everyone will go back in the hat for the end-of-season Sage reel draw.


"I really am a baby eagle"
In response to the phobia quiz last week (a bit tricky I am told) someone wrote in to ask whether I suffered from pteronarcophobia? I am happy to say not - the fear of flying insects. This week something less alarming.

1)      What does a cygnet grow into?

2)      A squab is the baby of which common British bird?

3)      A cheeper or squealer is which infant game bird?

4)      A poult is the offspring of what?

5)      What is the name for a baby eagle?

It's just for fun and answers are at the bottom of the page. 

Have a good weekend.

Best wishes,
Simon Signature 
Founder & Managing Director  

Quiz answers: 1)   Swan   2) Pigeon   3) Grouse   4) Chicken or turkey   5) Eaglet