Who am I?

An individual, of no great importance, who is unable to see the natural world as a place for competition. I catch fish, watch birds, derive immense pleasure from simply looking at butterflies, moths, bumble-bees, etc - without the need for rules! I am Dylan and this is my blog - if my opinions offend? Don't bother logging on again - simple!


Friday 29 March 2013

Hertfordshire half-hour!

I took my dad up to Bourne End (Herts) to spend a little time with my brother Tim, and his family (Julie, Luke & Joshua) - there are plans to hold a memorial service for mum in the local church, so that many of her friends, acquaintances and former pupils, who were unable to get to Kent, can have their chance to say good-bye.

It took a little tweaking with Adobe photoshop 7.0 to get anything remotely close
to being usable from this sequence of images. Smart birds all the same!
Dad seems to be holding up remarkably well; sixty years of marriage must take a hell of a lot of adjustment when suddenly there is only one, of the couple, remaining! We made good time, on our journey from Ash, arriving just before 12.30hrs. - a coffee and a chocolate biscuit later, Luke, Josh and myself were on our way across the A41 for a quick wander around Little Hay Golf Course and look for a few raptors - so common are they in the Hertfordshire countryside. We didn't get as far as the A41 bridge, before a pair of Common Buzzards appeared overhead. The light levels were atrocious and so were my efforts at a photo!

Luke was more interested in finding golf balls (he's a county player) whilst Josh & I contented ourselves looking at the local bird life. We saw a few bits, including Kestrel, Redwing, Long-tailed Tit, Goldfinch and Woodpigeon before I spotted our target species, gliding high above a distant ridge. An adult Red Kite allowed me to grab a series of hopeless record images before it drifted off towards Boxmoor. We ended up in The Anchor, for a swift "light ale" before my time to return home arrived.
Not the greatest trip I've ever had but at least I know that dad is safe and I will be back, very shortly, to support the Hemel gang as they get a chance to pay their respects to my mum.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

How much longer can BTO ringing remain relevant?

I have absolutely no doubts as to the massive scientific advancements that have been made and as a direct consequence of the fitting of metal rings on the legs of birds, captured in mist nets, by legitimately licensed BTO ringers. Only a fool could argue otherwise! However we are now in 2013 and the BTO,  themselves, are using radio tracking technology to follow the migration of UK bred Cuckoos - so why is it that stupid metal bands are still being used? Colour ringing schemes are a fantastic method of gathering data on the movements and longevity of birds - the BTO metal ringing scheme is well past its' sell-by date. Like the advancement of mobile phones and laptops, light weight electronic tagging technology has moved on (very rapidly) thus removing this random attachment of metal rings. If ringing is continue to play a role, then colour ringing has to be the future. Why have I raised this issue today?

A female Greenfinch appeared at our garden feeding station, this morning, sporting a shiny metal band. Although I was within 25ft, the ring details are completely un-readable, thus useless - this sighting of zero worth to science, the ringer, the BTO or the bird! If the BTO wish to remain at the forefront of bird study, then this particular scheme must be replaced by something more in keeping with current times. I have no gripe with ringers or the BTO; I just feel extremely frustrated that this (and many other) encounter is of no scientific value whatsoever.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

The Hemel Hempstead legacy

Although I was born in London, most of my life has been spent in the Hertfordshire "New Town" of Hemel Hempstead. From around 1959 to 1993 I grew up, was educated, got married and started to raise my two children within the Dacorum boundaries. The town was a great place to live, jobs were easy to come by, the local industrial estate being home to Kodak, Dexion, Golden West (the bun makers for Mc Donalds) and Atlas Copco - plus many, many more; BP had their headquarters, which housed a monster computer, at the Moor End end of the main high street and Kodak theirs on the adjacent "Magic Roundabout". The infamous Buncefield Oil Depot was just beyond the Leverstock Green boundary and, in Apsley, John Dickinsons had a huge paper mill, cooled by the waters of the Grand Union Canal. (How times have changed - I'm not sure if many of these businesses are still in existence?)
We had moved to Hemel, as a family, because my father had taken the post of headmaster at Hobb's Hill Junior School, my mum soon finding a job as a teacher at Rossgate JMI School; where she was later to become deputy headmistress. We originally lived at No. 27 Cole's Hill, Gadebridge - a council house where my youngest brother, Simon, was born. In those days teachers were not particularly well paid and I remember my dad working as a coal delivery man and on the Gade Valley watercress beds, during the summer holidays, in order to supplement the family income.
We moved from Gadebridge to a new house in Leverstock Green, No. 8 Burliegh Road - this was mum and dad's first purchase. If my memory serves me correctly the price was around £3,600 for a detached 3 bed roomed property with garage and large garden - it certainly wasn't any more! This was around 1964? It wasn't long, however, before we were on the move again; this time it was to be our family home for the next twenty years! No. 75 Warner's End Road - right opposite Cavendish Gramar School (at that time) was purchased for under £4,700. It was here that I had my first aviary, got my first airgun and caught my first proper fish, using this house as a base, my exploration of the surrounding countryside, and the natural history to be found there, began in earnest.

The Grand Union Canal, which connects London to Birmingham, was our playground; the stretch from Hunton Bridge (between Kings Langley and Watford) right up to Marsworth (The Tring Reservoirs) was our regular stomping grounds. Generally accompanied by fishing rod, catapult and/or airgun, my mates and I would find endless enjoyment along the tow-path. Kingfishers, Grey Wagtails and Water Voles abounded and occasionally we would stumble across other creatures - a Slow Worm, a Green Sandpiper or maybe a sunbathing Pike, lurking just below the suface of the murky water. In the fading light of summer evenings it was possible to walk the tow-path and collect Glow-worms and the water quality was such that there was a huge population of Crayfish - proper wild ones and fantastic bait for Chub, none of the America Signal Crays that now plague the fisheries of southern England.

Gadebridge Park (and The Old School) was just a few hundred yards away from our front door; a huge open space which, at the time before the building of the Kodak education centre, was a wild and wonderful playground. Tawny Owls were particularly common in this parkland environment and I remember there being numerous Spotted Flycatchers during the summer months. Grey Squirrels gave us something to shoot at as we wandered around - I would image a Police Armed Response Team being deployed if a kid was seen carrying an air rifle around there today? Treecreepers and Nuthatches were regular and I found my first Garden Warbler's nest in a neglected orchard right in the centre of the park. There were still working watercress beds along the valley, right in the middle of what is now the main recreation area and the clean waters of the River Gade provided home to massive shoals of Minnows and good numbers of wild Brown Trout (later to be replaced by Rainbows which moved downstream from the Upper Gade Flyfishers stretch above Water End.) I saw my first Essex Skipper here, in the summer of 1991 - as birding and other aspects of wildlife watching started to make inroads into my angling time.

Roughdown Common and Boxmoor Golf Course was another very productive area for discovery. The wooded area of Roughdown was a great place to ride our bikes and generally get up to mischief. We made rope swings, climbed trees and learnt how to make a proper fire. It must have been quite a special place as Willow Tits were very common, nesting in the rotting stumps of Elders - I know we found quite a few of their excavations as we explored the site. Edible Doormice were also present in the vicinity, although we didn't realise quite how fortunate we were to know their whereabouts. A still warm evening would see these charming little rodents scurrying around in the mature trees, like tiny squirrels - a privilege.

Ashridge Forest is a magical place of which I have particularly fond memories. The huge herds of Fallow Deer can be found in the depths of the woodland and the diminutive Muntjac is a very regularly seen species, by anyone who wanders away from the main footpaths. There is a population of melanistic Grey Squirrels along the Ringshall to Ivanhoe Beacon road, where Foxes and Badgers abound. In the 70's there was a small population of Lady Amherst's Pheasants in the pine plantation below Ivanhoe - many a time I would watch them heading back towards their roost site as I awaited the first Badger activity of a summer evening. Common Redstart, Pied Flycatcher (a pair took up territory by the Monument - a big event in the early 90's), Wood Warbler, Hawfinch, Tree Pipit, Crossbill and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker all seen, and learnt, whilst I spent time in this fantastic place. I saw my first Ring Ouzel at Step's Hill, just over the Buckinghamshire border and would occasionally be lucky enough to watch a Sparrowhawk or Common Buzzard soaring high overhead - how things have changed in 20 odd years! If I go back now I expect to see Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and Red Kite; plus I know that Raven and Goshawk isn't out of the question. Stoats and Weasels were regularly encountered as I explored the quieter areas and I learnt to find Common Lizzards, Slow Worms and Grass Snakes by turning over items of discarded sacking or wood. Quite often there would be a frog or toad, sometimes even a newt, the forest containing many small hollows complete with pool, where the deer would come to drink.

Startop's End, Marsworth and Wilstone Reserviors (The Tring Reservoirs) were an eleven mile bike ride away from our house, cycling directly along the canal tow-path. To me, these reservoirs have had the biggest impact on my appreciation of the natural wonders of the English countryside. I first plucked up courage to tackle the vastness of these fisheries in 1974 when, accompanied by Roy Johnson, we set about fishing for Roach in Startop's End. If we caught, we didn't get much, although I do recall there being 1,000's of tiny carp fry in the margins - the origins of the fish that are now present in that section of the GUC. (The reservoirs only existing to keep the canal topped up as it climbs over the Chilterns). At these mighty fisheries, over the years, I've caught some fantastic fish, met with so many like-minded people and enjoyed moments of discovery and delight which will stay with me forever. My first Osprey, Little Stint, Grey Phalarope, Slavonian Grebe, Long-tailed Duck and so the list goes on. I found a Storm Petrel one foggy October morning, as the Mitch's and I were pike fishing on Startop's - no mobile phones; so we were the only ones to see it! I was later to find the 10th Avocet for Herts when I discovered one swimming around, in the middle of Wilstone. Rob Young (the County Recorder) lived just up the road and I was able to contact his wife who set in motion the subsequent "twitch" for the county faithful.

When I go back there now, Hemel has lost its' spark - I hear people bemoaning the place, yet the geographical location hasn't changed, all these places, to which I refer, still exist although they will have changed somewhat over the years. I cannot help but think that there is still much scope for discovery for anyone with the desire to look beyond the obvious. I don't know if Tree Pipits still parachute display above the bracken clad slopes by Berkhamsted Golf Course or Tree Sparrows  inhabit a small copse in the centre of an Ashridge field; the Alpine Meadow LNR is still there, I read about it occasionally on the Herts Bird Club website. On the odd occasions I've spent time at my brother's house at Bourne End (right on the GUC at Winkwell) I have still had some reasonable sightings, including a Night Heron! There are Firecrests wintering in the woodland around Little Hay GC whilst Kingfishers and Grey Wagtails are as plentiful as ever I remember. Bullfinches persist around the area of Berkhamsted SF and it is now possible to see Little Egret fishing in the cress beds of the area. Yes, I have a lot of things to be grateful about and living in Hemel Hempstead for that part of my life is certainly one of them!

Saturday 23 March 2013

Bloody North Downs!

Steve Gale left a comment, a while back, making reference to non-birding stuff (music on that occasion) with the hint that "top-ten" sandwich fillings could be worthy of blogging? Visiting his site, yesterday, I see that his "top-ten" idea has been given a further airing - this time his subject was birding encounters, but who knows what it'll be next time? Drat and double drat!! I too had been toying with that post. So as an attempt to keep within the theme, but not plagiarising the ideas of others, I have trolled through the archives to find my top-ten birding images that I have taken.

It is a very personal thing, "best", yet I hope to explain why each image is included. Technically they are quite basic - to me they are memories and so much more!

No. 1 - Black-throated Diver: an adult in full breeding plumage. This bird was one of three that frequented Kilchurn Bay, Loch Awe, during April 2012. The stunning plumage pattern, with the intricate markings of the throat and upper breast combining to produce a stunning mix. Throw in a beady red eye and the water droplet - job's a good un!

No. 2 - Golden Oriole: digiscoped from the balcony of our apartment at the Anna Marie complex, Pefkohori, Halkadiki, NE Greece. Our first holiday to mainland Greece and we had a blast. The weather was superb and the birding way beyond anything I'd previously encountered on our travels. There were many better sightings; yet this image sums up the holiday!

No. 3 - Alpine Swift: my first day in Icmeler, Turkey. I'd climbed to the top of a small hill (where the Turkish flags flies proudly above the town) to be surrounded by masses of Alpine Swifts. I have no idea how many shots I took, but do know that this one is a bit special - for me.

No. 4 - Cretzschmar's Bunting: We could talk all night and leave it all un said! This bird was a fabled creature, the Holy Grail? Spoken of by birders, within my clique, with such reverence. When I finally set eyes upon the species, a great longing, a huge weight, had been lifted - a magical experience which I savoured in my own company - I'd done it my way.

No. 5 - Hawfinch: Simon Mount found this individual feeding in gardens at North Foreland in April 2009. A species which has almost enigmatic status within the UK - a delight to be able to get such an intimate portrait in a Thanet cul-de-sac !

No. 6 - Common Crossbill (Crossbill sp.): I'd specifically targetted this species and travelled to the Clowes Wood complex, just beyond Tyler Hill, in order to get my image. It took several trips, yet this effort seems to encapsulate the period and do justice to this very smart little finch.

No. 7 - Lesser Spotted Woodpecker: Another target species from the Spring of 2009. This stunning male performed in the sunshine at a site near King's Wood, just outside Canterbury. Just the best time to be out and about, early spring in the Canterbury "ring woods" - Buzzards "mewing", drumming woodpeckers, singing Nuthatch and Treecreeper - Brimstone butterflies; wonderful memories.

No. 8 - Black-winged Stilt: another holiday image from Greece. This bird was present for a couple of days around a small marina. Some careful stalking and a huge slice of luck allowed me to get this shot. Again; very happy memories.

No. 9 - Cattle Egret: a digiscoped shot of a  breeding adult at a colony at S'Albufuera, Mallorca in June 2007. The approaching storm clouds producing a dramatic back-drop to the sunlit bird perched in the tree top along the reserve entrance track.

No. 10 - Red-rumped Swallow: an adult male singing from the exposed metalwork of a building site in NE Greece. Not showing the usual grace of these wonderful fliers - this shot recalls my time wandering around Halkadiki and the fantastic encounters I had.

I'm sure that there are many other images I could have used but, as a first attempt, these aren't a bad selection. Firecrest, Goldfinch, Kingfisher and so many more could have been included, there's not a single raptor or owl - hey-ho! If I was asked to do it again next week - maybe 10 different images?

Friday 22 March 2013

Patch birding

The biting easterly that "blew" me to work, this morning had little to commend it as I struggled across the newly ploughed cauliflower fields. Thoughts of Wheatears being nothing more than folly - in such testing conditions. I arrived at Fujifilm SIS around 05.45hrs and was very surprised to see a large flock (40+) of Redwings headed northwards then astounded when a Woodlark flew south, calling frequently, just a couple of minutes later - a patch tick!
One of the pair of Collared Doves which deigned to visit our feeding station this afternoon!

Work was a relatively painless affair and I was back home by 13.15hrs. The aviary sorted and the garden feeding station replenished, I was able to spend much of the afternoon watching the action. I did have some distractions, as Emily was in my care whilst Bev and Debbie went shopping (with Harry)
Greenfinches on the sunflower heart feeder - local or migrants?

Chaffinches continue to grace the garden, although it is noticeable that the demographics have changed, there are now many females in the feeding groups. Greenfinches are still regular visitors to the sunflower heart feeder, possibly local breeders? A pair of Collared Doves joined the Feral Doves and Woodpigeon, feeding on the garden bird seed - the finches happy to peck around beneath the feeding station picking up the scraps (and scattered aviary sweepings)


Thursday 21 March 2013

Thought provoking PAC meeting

I attended the March gathering of the Canterbury & Thanet region of the Pike Anglers Club of GB (Region 30/60) but was unable to stay for the whole evening due to work commitments. However, the time I did spend was very enjoyable and educational (as always). The "round robin" section of the meeting allows the members to share tales of their triumphs and disasters from the previous month along with the chance to hear other opinions and reactions to the problems encountered - plus get an idea as to how successful you have been in comparison to other local anglers. A much better indicator than reading the weekly angling papers and attempting to compete with the publicity machine of the sensationalised press. If nothing else, my return to angling has demonstrated just how scarce 20lbs pike remain. If the results from the commercial trout fisheries were removed from the reports, then the true stature of a pike weighing over 20lbs is the same as it was when I packed it in, way back in 1993! (Not true of almost every other native - and non-native - species!)

A cased pike of 15lbs 5oz, this fish remains my largest Scottish pike despite the fact that it was caught in May 1982
and I have been back many times since. It is set up due to my incompetence; quite simply I took too long
unhooking it, then spent more time trying to get photos! A magnificent fish that died for no other reason
than my need of a photo - fish of this size, prior to the 35mm camera, were killed purely for the taxidermist.
Cased specimens being the norm from the Victorian times when pike anglers did battle with these superb opponents, using some fairly basic tackle. They didn't have photo albums, so their memories were set up and displayed on the walls of their
grandiose homes - during that period, pike fishing was a preserve of the wealthy.
I was the sole representative from our "gang"; Gadget, Benno & Tom all unable to attend for various reasons, and took my laptop along with the photos of our recent successes and so bathed in the glory, for a while! We haven't performed too badly in comparison with our peers. It was whilst I was sharing our photos that a couple of subjects came into the discussion. Firstly was the "best" way to hold a pike for a photograph - if such a pose is possible? I have had some problems with this - going way back into the past. I'm not sure that it isn't subject to "fashion" that a particular pose becomes the accepted norm for a while? Certainly, if I take a look through the archives I can see that a certain pose was the preferred option at various stages through my angling journey.

Ron Thomas with a 23lbs+ pike from Grebe Lake at Emberton Park (early 1990's)
A cracking pike, well presented, but does this particular pose suit all sizes of fish?
I lost contact with Ron in 1993 - the last I knew was that he was living (with Alwyn) in Slip End.
If anyone has any idea where he is now - I would love to know. They were crazy times!
The 18lbs 8oz pike from the East Kent drain - a nothing photo!
I caught my first decent pike, of my return, in November 2011 and, without thought, posed for the subsequent photos with the fish held "chin up". It was a fabulous creature, yet I couldn't help but feel that the photos let it down - they certainly didn't do it justice. Fortunately, I was to recapture this fish twice more (Benno & Tom also landing it - 5 visits to the bank in 12 weeks!) and able to get more images. The second time I caught it, at 19lbs 2oz, I was on my own and had to resort to self-take images. The results were an image of the classic "M" shaped pike of the angling press.  Andy Larkin, the joint RO, made comment that the the position of my hand, closest to the head, was actually pressing on the fish's heart, so potentially fatal!

My self-take image clearly showing the "M" shape created due to the weight of the fish
 - pressure on the heart a direct result! Does it make this fish look better than the previous image?

The third time that I took this fish. Yes, I am holding it in the "best practise" manner, yet the image isn't particularly pleasing. The curved spine doesn't work for me!
The smaller the pike, the worse the pose looks! This fish weighed in at 9lbs 14oz and looks awful when held in this manner.
I am always willing to accept that kind of criticism (education) and will do my best to ensure that my future images will be posed in such a manner that the fish's well-being is not compromised. The guys at the meeting offered much advice about their particular favoured way of holding a pike, the general consensus being that one hand is supporting the body whilst the other is slipped inside the gill cover, thus under the chin! Having looked back through the files, I can see this has been a fad from time to time, maybe now there is more reason to adopt a uniform approach?

I've used this image before, but this particular fish does portray the very "Broadland's-like" large head - I'm also
holding it in the typical "M" shaped pose which was so popular during the early 1990's.
It came from Pixie's Mere, Hertfordshire - a fishery which held a large stock of tench and roach; bream were
not a species that were present during this period. Tom says this fish looks "pre-historic!"

The second subject that arose, as a direct result of the recent RMC pike captures, was raised by Richard Gibson and asked "if these fish were specialist bream feeders?" He based the question upon the apparent large headed appearance of the pike that we had captured. I was/am unable to answer, this question, as I've never fished the canal for any other species. I've since had time to chat with Benno and Tom, they both reporting that there is a healthy stock of carp, bream and tench along with a tremendous population of roach and perch - these pike are spoilt for choice! Richard made comment that the RMC pike reminded him of the Norfolk Broadland fish, which also have large, broad, heads - an evolutionary feature which allowed this population to prey upon the most prolific of prey species in these waters. Bream being very different in shape to roach, perch or carp - almost like comparing a plaice to a cod? Their body shape is very well described by the "dustbin lid" slang of the early carp anglers - bream are tall in stature but narrow in a head-on profile - any population of pike which seeks to feed on these fish will need to evolve a particular body shape in order to tackle their chosen prey.

Any excuse to use another image of this RMC 20lbs 9oz pike - yes it does look large headed, but could this be
a result of the way I'm holding it? Not quite an "M-shaped" fish but my left hand is certainly in a position to put
pressure on its' heart. Specialist bream feeding, or are carp and tench the key to this evolutionary feature?

I've included this image purely for Benno - he doesn't think a 19lbs 11oz could look this big!
Taken with an Olympus OM 10 - 28mm lens using Kodachrome 64 slide film
Yes it did only weigh 19.11 and yes I do blame Kevin Keegan for that ridiculous perm!
So my original question remains - "Is there a pose which allows a pike to be presented to the camera to best effect?"

Sunday 17 March 2013

Some more - looking through the back door!

I don't think that our back garden is anything particularly special, yet I have to admit that I get a great deal of pleasure from the general comings and goings of the visitors to our feeding station. The three pairs of local Herring Gulls are a very effective garbage disposal unit - the majority of our food waste being consumed by these birds. They don't do greens or carrots - so have an awful lot in common with me and my brothers - but will eat almost anything with fat/oil content; even my discarded dead baits!
Looking outwards through the glass of  our kitchen door.

We use the sweepings from the aviary as loose feed - much to the liking of the local Collared Doves and "Micky's". (Micky Streeter was a business partner of my brother Tim, many years ago) So all feral Rock Doves are known as Micky Streeters! - street pigeons and homeless racing pigeons.

A nice sighting - this individual providing a cameo appearance as it grabbed a chunk of bread that I'd thrown on the patio.
With all this loose feed spread around the area, it is hardly surprising that we are also attracting some non-avian visitors. This morning it was to be a Wood Mouse that provided extra interest. I managed to grab a couple of shots as this individual collected a chunk of bread before scurrying off back under our adjacent coal shed.
Cock Chaffinch in our Norwegian Spruce - ISO 800 - 1/320th sec - so a very grainy image

Chaffinches continue to feature around the feeding station, a minimum of 17 individuals seen today, along with a few Greenfinches. The Robins are as aggressive as always, but have provided a little interest as one has learnt to use the sunflower feeder.

Some nice feeding behaviour - a Robin actively taking sunflower hearts from a feeder.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Back door birding

With the weather doing its best to ruin the weekend (Aston Villa adding to my woes!) as a period to get out and about; even a trip to Westwood Cross was a dour affair with wind and rain dominating the proceedings. Asda was little better - although the packed supermarket ensured that Bev wanted to get away just a quickly as I did!

An adult Woodpigeon on the bird bath.
Song Thrush below the feeding station - a scarce garden bird in 2013
Our grand-daughter, Emily, had stayed overnight, so my morning was spent in and around the bungalow. I was able to watch the feeding station, from the comfort of the kitchen, looking through the double-glazed back door. I kept the EOS/ 1.4x converter & 170-500mm Sigma to hand and was able to enjoy some nice garden birds. Chaffinches (the vast majority being males) and Greenfinches were very noticeable, for the first time this year, but the chance to grab a few images of a Song Thrush was far more notable - this species being a very scarce bird locally. A Fieldfare has been hanging around the garden for nearly a week, so it was nice to be able to get a chance of a photo when it appeared at the far end of our garden, just beside the aviary.

This Fieldfare has been hanging around the garden for a week, or so, and is happy to feed at the far end of our lawn
if the rose-hips, of our hedge, are getting blasted from the prevailing wind and rain.

Male Greenfinch
The sunflower feeder was the attractor for the Greenfinches, as well as the local Great and Blue Tits. A Wren remained unseen, yet regularly vocal, and the garden hosted a minimum of 5 Dunnocks and 2 Robins, along with 3 Blackbirds and our three local pairs of Herring Gulls - all prospecting the rooftops. Johnathan and his mate, looking to nest behind our chimney?



Female Greenfinch

Male Chaffinch - in the rain

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Catfish capers

With snow falling, I am sat indoors awaiting the start of yet another shift at FSIS. I've once again delved into the archives and discovered some photos that I had used for a talk that I gave at the National Angling Conference - way back in the 1980's at Loughborough College - Junction 23 on the M1.  The subject of this illustrated lecture (slide show) was the catfish (Wels Catfish) of the Leighton Buzzard and District AC waters at Claydon and Tiddenfoot and how me, and my gang of merry men, went about catching them. This was a period just before Kevin Maddocks and Bob Baldock elevated the status of this species out of the "localised"  and into the "global" awareness of UK anglers.

My PB Catfish - 25lbs 2oz - taken from the Middle Lake at Claydon - one of the original stock fish from Woburn!
By today's standards, these fish are small fry - Wels Catfish of 100lbs+ can be captured within the UK, a trip to Spain's River Ebro can produce a fish of twice this size! My youngest brother, Simon, has gone there and taken some fantastic fish, but that is not what this post is about. Back in the early 1980's, the only realistic chance that an English angler had, of capturing a Wels was to visit the Shoulder of Mutton Lake at Woburn, or join the Leighton Buzzard & District AC who contolled four waters that held these enigmatic fish - Claydon, Tiddenfoot, Rackley Hills and Jone's Pit. Living in Hemel Hempstead meant that I was right on the doorstep of the action! Cuddles, The Mitchalek Brothers, Simon and myself set about doing battle with these fish, armed with a great deal of enthusiasm, but very little skill. We caused utter chaos; Cuddles and the Mitch's capable of downing a good few cans of Tennants Super during a day! I could manage about half their total - so just a light weight! We brought more than a little anarchy into the genteel world of angling; we could certainly match any of the "carp boys" when it came to bank side lunacy - we were either loved or hated - but we weren't ignored! The bottom line was that we were catching a lot of fish and many others were wanting to find out how and why!

My set-up at the Shoulder of Mutton lake at Woburn. Very early in the 1980's - it wasn't a very productive venue.
The original stocking of Wels was made at Woburn, home of the Duke of Bedford. When a netting operation was required, members of Leighton Buzzard AC were involved and part of the reward was some catfish to put into their club waters. The Middle Lake at Claydon being the most well known; many of the top specimen hunters of the period took their PB at this venue - the same five or six specimens which topped 25lbs - the heaviest weighing in just over 32lbs. As far as I am aware, these fish were the original stock fish and the origin of the population that rapidly spread around the fisheries of the local area. (All very covert and highly illegal!)

Not a lot of room! A typical Claydon swim consisted of a small gap in the marginal reeds -
allowing the angler to get two baits into position.
Fishing at Claydon was a dawn to dusk activity, the club rules not allowing night fishing since a break in at the Manor House, which overlooked the lake. It didn't mean that there was a total observation of this particular rule - it was stretched on many occasions and resulted in the club printing the start and end times in the membership book. Trouble is that catfish are very much night feeders, and in the shallow muddy water of Claydon trying to catch them during the middle of the day was usually a fools pastime - no wonder we played up so much! Swims at the lake were small gaps in the reeded margin and could be at a premium during the school holidays, such was the popularity of the venue.

Playing a fish at the  Dam end of the Middle Lake, even at its deepest, the water was little
 more than 4 ft.
My youngest brother, Simon, with a nice Claydon fish of around 18lbs
At the time, just before the launch of the Catfish Conservation Group (The Kevin Maddocks Travel Agency and Tour Operation) there was very little written advice on how to set about tackling these enigmatic fish. The 1979 publication "The Big Fish Scene" has a nicely written chapter, by Pete Frost; but, by and large, apart from odd articles in the angling monthlies, it was a matter of getting out there and doing the spade work for yourself. Claydon was a fantastic place to start! If ever a decent fish was hooked the ritual "Claydon Wave" as a 4ft long fish tried to dive in 3ft of water, so the tail showed above the surface, followed by the Claydon "excuse-me" as the angler did his/her best to stop the fish from going through the lines of the adjacent anglers - never a dull moment once the hook had been set. Catfish, like Eels, can swim backwards just as easily as they do going forward and I have witnessed, on many occasions, an angler heave a sigh as the fish enters the landing net only to see it immediately engage reverse and swim back out again!

"Trees" - the most famous cat in Claydon; so named because of the branched feeler.
It was one of the hardest fighting fish in the lake, although we never caught it at
a weight above 15lbs 8oz.
The fishing at Claydon was always fun; the chance of hooking a catfish was realistic, the company was first class and life was good. We realised, however, that if we were to discover more about the species we would have to spread our wings and look for new challenges. Just outside of Leighton Buzzard is Tiddenfoot Pit, an old sand quarry that had flooded and contained catfish along with a healthy stock of carp,tench and roach. It also possessed variations of depth; over 20ft in places, and extensive weed beds; so nothing like the featureless puddle at Claydon. Best of all, however, was the fact that this fishery allowed night fishing - so another dimension to our ongoing quest.
Looking down on Tiddenfoot Pit, the extensive shallows and associated weed beds
clearly visible to the left. The water quickly dropping away just beyond the
edge of the weed growth - providing an obvious feature for us to position our baits.

It was at this venue that we really started to feel like we were learning about the species. The best fish we took, fell to Simon, and weighed just over 23lbs, yet it was the diversity of the features and the influence that weather played in fish location that made the fishery such a great "classroom". Our behaviour hadn't improved, but as fish became less frequent, so Cuddles and The Mitch's spent less time in their pursuit - hence the local off-licence didn't reap the rewards they might have done.

Simon with one, of many cats, that he took from this fishery.

Despite our raucous behaviour and associated lunacy, there was a lot of serious effort put into learning about how best to catch these fish. We developed a live-bait rig specifically for fishing tench, which were abundant, around the shallow margins, and weighed little more than a couple of ounces. We also played around with various fish oils and attractors (colour being of no consequence as catfish feed by taste and feel, not sight, as is obvious from their appearance - long feelers and tiny eyes!). Baits were allowed to go rotten, our thinking being that bacterial action would release enzymes that would render our baits more attractive; this was certainly the case with eel sections.

A selection of flavours, braided hook links, hooks and light weigh monkey climbers.
We did actually put an awful lot of effort/thought into our angling.

And, on the subject of eel sections, I digress for a short tale of our antics. Within the National Association of Specialist Anglers was a network of regional groups, the London region being one of the best run, and forward thinking. They arranged regional conferences and many other activities which put the rest of the regions to shame. We went to many of these shows with the sole objective of causing havoc - usually in the bar area. However, there were many tackle stands and trade stalls where a few freebies could be had, if your face fitted - mine did! David Hall, the publisher of Coarse Fishing Magazine, ensured that our reputation was enhanced by frequent (almost monthly) mentions in the "Snide Rumours and Dirty Lies" column. I also wrote several articles for him. It was at Reading University where we first saw the National Anguilla Club's superb photo display (Eel anglers). One particularly passionate enthusiast brought to earth with a juddering thump when, on inspecting the photos, Simon Mitchalek (all 25 stone of him) was approached by said disciple who asked "what did he think of the display?" to which Mitch's reply was "so, that's what a whole one looks like!" Priceless - the guy went into rant mode which was signal for our hysterical laughter and subsequent torrent of abuse. Happy, crazy days!

One of the early Tiddenfoot "doubles" - a fish that Neville Fickling was to capture
a few years later.

Back to the catfish of Tiddenfoot Pit and those enjoyable night sessions; many of them total blanks. Slowly, however, we began to unravel a few of the mysteries and solve problems of bait presentation and fish location. These fish were much better looking than the anaemic individuals in Claydon, maybe something to do with the water quality/clarity? The Tiddenfoot fish were nicely marked, very dark, individuals which, as with pike, can be recognised by their individual patternation. Sadly, the work that we undertook was fairly quickly surpassed with the advent of fishmeal boilies and the advances in bolt-rig type carp tactics. Whilst we had concentrated on resistance free presentations, the use of fixed (semi-fixed) leads and mass baiting has seen a new generation of catfish anglers who have approached this fantastic fish from a very different perspective. One thing is for sure, once you've stuck a hook in one the conclusion is far from certain - they certainly know how to have a row!
The late Vic Gillings with his PB - from Claydon.
Memories of crazy times, great company, loads of beer and some fantastic fish.
I'm not sure I want to try to relive this period, or just allow it to be in my past?

Thirty years on, I still look back on this period as some of the happiest times of my life. There are a few local waters that contain catfish, can I be bothered?
P.S. - apologies for the poor quality of my accompanying photos, they are copied from some very old slides which have not been particularly well cared for!

Sunday 10 March 2013

Close, but no cigar!

The best laid plans, etc, etc... I arrived at the RMC just after 05.30hrs this morning. Had I realised just how much rain had fallen during the previous 48hours I mightn't have bothered. Water levels were about a foot higher than last week with a strong flow, due the open sluice at West Hythe and rafts of floating debris making for very trying conditions.
As the sky lightened, I got three baits out, rod tips just below the surface in order to avoid the flotsam. My baits were all that I had left over from the previous trip, but with the added factor of newly applied red mixed fish oil - in these dirty conditions, anything that might enhance the bait is always worth a try.

A chunky little fish, showing some scarring, from recent spawning activity?

Around 07.30hrs, my middle rod was away (flavoured Bluey) and, after a brief scrap, a pike of 8lbs 15oz graced the folds of my landing net. I grabbed a few token images, as it lay on my weigh sling, feeling sure (correctly; as it turned out) that it might be my final pike of the season. In an attempt to make the image, slightly, more interesting - I placed the Duncan Kay and a Cardinal 155 in the photo. I fished on until 10.30hrs without any other bites. Cracking views of the adult male Marsh Harrier and a rather active Chiffchaff being the avian highlights. Very few people braved the elements, this morning, and I spoke to just two dog-walkers during the entire session. I have very mixed emotions about the RMC, at present, yes we've had some very good fish, but have we really started to get a feel for the venue?
I look forward to next winter and another concerted effort at this wonderful fishery, however, in the interim, I have new challenges and more fish to catch. I might take a couple of weeks off and spend a little time looking for the first Spring migrants - maybe I'll get a photo of a Northern Wheatear, that would be nice!

Saturday 9 March 2013

Pastures new

I am going back to the RMC tomorrow for my final pike session of the 2012/13 season. I have it in my head, to try an area where none of us have previously fished. I have a theory that our recent run was because we'd dropped in on a spawning area and as a consequence there was a concentration of big fish. Our trip, last Sunday, seemed to demonstrate that these pike are now dispersing and moving away from our chosen section. I hope that, by moving some distance, I will put myself in with a chance of one last "double" before I get the pike gear away and seek out other angling challenges. Being Mother's Day means that my time will be limited - am I good enough to get one more?
To be perfectly honest, it really won't make any difference. Between us (Tom, Benno and myself) we have had a very successful season, taking some lovely pike from this superb fishery. We have worked hard and learnt a great deal as we faced up to the challenge of a 27 mile long pike swim! I'm still not sure what makes a good swim any better than a bad one - features, on one section, seem completely useless on another. Baits have been interesting, all of our fish coming to dead baits; the use of dyes and flavours allowing us to present "different" Mackerel, Herring, Bluey and Sardines, to those available at the local tackle shops and supermarkets. I already have the basis of a plan for the winter of 2013/14 - let's hope that the RMC pike remain receptive.

A very young Dylan with a small  pike from the Grand Union Canal - near Winkwell, Herts.
If only I'd realised where this obsession would lead?  Don't suppose anything would have changed - I'd still be a twat!
I'm on my own tomorrow - so will have to rely on a passing dog-walker if I am fortunate enough to land another decent fish. Photos might be a problem.