Nature-like Fishing Platforms

As a result of the habitat enhancement and bank reprofiling carried out earlier in the year, some areas of the new banks are slightly wetter than I would like them to be. The wet summer and the fact that this is only the first year of vegetation growth on them means that there isn’t a lot of support in the margins from the root structure.

This is good for the aquatic environment, as it provides that semi-wetland marginal habitat for reeds and marginal plants which in turn provide marginal cover for juvenile fish, invertebrates and small mammals (including, unfortunately, my nemesis – the mink!).

However, it does mean that the banks are starting to erode and become very boggy in areas where the rods like to fish from, which is only going to increase through the winter with the limited vegetation dying off and the expected higher water levels. So I came up with a solution – build some nature-like fishing platforms which would be in keeping with the natural banks whilst providing some firmer areas to fish from and prevent the boggy areas from getting worse. This method of building them works well on steeply or gently sloping banks, but on steep banks some digging will be needed to be able to key the sides of the platform back into the bank, whilst ensuring the actual platform is more or less horizontal and level.

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To do the work I needed the following:

10 x        6ft untreated pointed Chestnut stakes (half round / quarter round) 3-4”

1 x           Reel of 2mm galvanised fencing wire

1 x           Willow trunk approximately 8ft long by 2ft diameter

2 x           Willow trunk approximately 5ft long by 2ft diameter

2 x           8ft Hazel faggot bundles

Tools     Chainsaw, post rammer, post maul, claw hammer, 40mm fencing staples, shovel, large pry bar, fencing pliers, 150mm hex head decking screws, battery electric drill.

In addition to the above, a tractor with a front loader for moving the trunks and an excavator to level the bank slightly / dig the trunks in would have been helpful. I would normally have scraped out trenches for the trunks, but the ground was so wet I didn’t want to risk it! I have to say though, please don’t use any of the kit unless you are suitably experienced and trained and have the correct protection.

I started off by selecting a good site for the platform – in this case behind a hinged willow branch, where the ground is soft and immediately upstream of a nice gravel run alongside a reed bed that looks like an ideal glide for summer barbel. I knocked in three of the chestnut stakes to make the front edge of the platform (the stakes need to be spaced out to the length of the longest tree trunk you are going to use, in my case around 8ft long).

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I then scraped a shallow trench behind the stakes, wide enough to lay two 8ft long hazel faggots in. I used faggots rather than just placing the trunk in straight on the mud to prevent it sinking over time, and also allowing the vegetation to grow out through the faggots along the front of the platform next year.

I risked getting the tractor close enough to roll the main 8ft long trunk off the log grab and onto the top of the faggots, and squashed it down with the front loader before trimming the end to suit with the chainsaw.

A fourth post was added in the middle on the rear of the trunk (the inside of the platform) to allow it to be wired down (only in the middle, you’ll see why later) and then the middle posts knocked in some more to hold the trunk down to the ground and prevent movement. Tourniquet the wire up and then staple it to the posts as low down as possible. The posts can then be knocked in some more using the post maul to tighten the wire and pull the trunk down flush with the ground / faggot bundles underneath.

I also used a 150mm decking screw through each of the posts for added security before cutting the top of the posts off as low down as I could. In hindsight, with the wire I wish I had cut a small groove across the top of the trunk with the chainsaw to allow the wire to lie flush – I can see landing net mesh catching on it in the future!

The two sides of the platform were made up from the two remaining shorter (5ft) trunks set a right angles back from the main trunk, and I scraped out the area they would lie in by hand to make them lie more or less level. A stake at each end on the outside and one in the middle on the inside works pretty well. The stake on the inside won’t be seen or above the ground once the platform is infilled anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

I then wired across the trunks from end to middle to end on each one, knocked a fencing staple into each post to hold the wire and knocked the posts down some more with the post maul to secure them, before cutting the posts off as low as possible with the chainsaw.

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Essentially, the platform is more or less complete now – I tided the corners on mine up with the chainsaw because I was feeling pedantic. The platform can then be infilled with some decent firm material (Type 1 or scalpings will work well) which can be blended back into the natural bank, but will still ‘green up’ with vegetation. I shall probably use a layer of geotextile (coir matting) inside the platform as a retaining ‘bag’ to prevent the material from being washed out in the event of high flows over the winter. However, the infilling can wait until the ground is dry enough to back the tractor trailer down the bank without causing too much damage to the ground.

Another method of finishing the platform is to use some timber (old scaffold boards, decking boards or 12″ x 2″ boards) across the top to create a decking effect and screw each one down to the trunks with a void underneath. However, I shall infill this one as I would like it to look as unobtrusive and natural as possible.

I shall let you know how it fares!

ACC.

Having the Weather Gage…

…is an old naval expression, taken to mean that you have the wind and weather in your favour as you prepare to engage an enemy warship downwind of you (at least in times of sail power). It is slightly applicable to working in the countryside too – particularly as I don’t have it!

I have been caught stating for the past few weeks that the hay crop had been less than expected and the ground far too dry to harrow and roll the fields in preparation for use as paddocks and that a few days rain would be a good thing. Not only would the ground soften up, the fields be green rather than brown and the new hedges that had been planted have a fighting chance, but the river would also colour up slightly, giving the fish the confidence needed to venture through the shallower areas into the upper reaches on my estate, hopefully improving the dismal catches so far in the season. It would also make installing all the fencing, grading/levelling some of the bumpier bits easier. Unfortunately most of the sub-soil on the estate is gravel (hence the areas of fantastic spawning gravel in the river), which means that it needs riddling before spreading on the fields – or it has to used to fill in the larger holes and a layer of topsoil spread on the top to seed. This isn’t the nicest job to do in the pouring rain…

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Sadly, I asked for the rain too soon. The garage extension is half-built and the roof is being delayed due to the rain, the stack of cordwood and tree trunks is increasing as using a chainsaw and PTO log splitter on wet muddy ground in the rain is too risky, the compost heap is saturated and I haven’t been able to cut channels through the reed growth in the river due to the ground conditions. I hadn’t cut it earlier in the season as the reeds holding back water were the sole reason the river levels were still fishable higher up the channel. The old outbuildings are still standing, as I haven’t wished to demolish them too early on in the year prior to the stable yard and new barns being built. On the plus side, digging out a lot of the old tree stumps in and around the garden with the mini-digger is easier with softer ground, but only if you turn a blind eye to the mess created! I’m not too worried as half of the current lawn will end up as paddocks anyway, but still – I should have got around to this earlier!

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I definitely don’t have the weather gage, and it looks, sadly, as if the stable yard build shall be put off till next year due to the weather and the un-erring ability (or lack of it) of the planning department to know what each hand is doing at the same time.

All the best,

ACC.

That Didn’t take Long…

…for the barbel to show up over some of the gravel areas which previously were very dark due to the overhading by the tree canopy. However, having reduced the overshading and carried out some gravel cleaning, I am pleased to report that one decent size barbel made a cursory inspection the other day. I estimate the fish to be around 12lb or so.

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I am intending to install some woody debris features in this top channel to improve the habitat for the barbel (and other fish), as well as move some of the gravel around to remove the fines and improve and increase the spawning potential of the area. This should hopefully result in the river using it’s own energy to create some variation in depth, flow and morphology. I shall, as always, keep you up to date!

ACC.

Preparing for Paperwork and Planning!

After tweeting about submitting an application for Flood Defence Consent (FDC) from the Environment Agency (EA), I had a couple of people email me asking what it is and why it is needed. If you want to do any work (whether habitat enhancement or not) on a main river, flood or sea defence or make any changes to a structure that helps control floods (such as a weir), you must apply to the Environment Agency for consent prior to undertaking any such works. It can be downloaded and filled in from the Environment Agency website. I thought I’d broaden my response to cover a bit of how I plan work as well.

I generally use an excuse to stretch my legs (and perhaps walk the hound) as the first step to planning any work in the river channel. Photographs never really work for me in terms of seeing what work I could implement somewhere I have never seen, so I like to get out and take lots of photos, especially on my own place. This is particularly true, if as I have done on the estate, you are planning on using site-won materials in the habitat enhancements, as you don’t truly know what there is to win until you’ve had a good look around. Taking a notebook and a few maps along also makes life a lot easier (at least for me), when I transform my scribbles and short hand notes into something much more decipherable on the computer at a later date!

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The EA suggest it takes up to 8 weeks to approve these applications, which means I use that two month period to draw up all the other arrangements – plant, materials, equipment, tools and other necessary items and plans (and other consents or permissions). I have never and will never use any ‘agents’ who allegedly specialise in completing and gaining FDC permissions due to horror stories heard from other people of extortionate fees charged by these so-called ‘agents’ and FDC being unforthcoming! I have no need to use such ‘agents’ anyway – so if any are reading this, please don’t contact me!

In fairness, much as I have an intense dislike of filling in forms, the FDC isn’t a particularly onerous form to fill in when compared to some (such as anything that the now defunct MAFF used to plague me with!). It essentially just asks what work you wish to carry out, why you wish to carry out the work, who will carry out the work and how the work will be carried out. It downloads as an editable PDF document, which makes life a lot easier. If you do what I do, which is fill in your details in the first section, then save it on your computer before carrying on, it helps. This means you can open it up every time you need to apply for a new FDC and the first section is already completed. I also have several generic method statements for installing and securing woody debris, introducing gravel, bank repairs and channel narrowing which come in handy.

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It’s a good idea to get in contact with the local Environment Agency Fisheries / Biodiversity team before you decide to do any habitat enhancements in a river channel – they are usually very happy to get out of the office for a while and come and have a site visit. There may also be some way in which they can help with habitat enhancements, but that seems to vary depending on which area you happen to be in.

I’ve had quite a bit of practice at filling in the FDC application both for myself and for other landowners / individuals I have undertaken work for, and I always send it more information than I think the EA will require to make a decision. They do occasionally come back and ask for further information on a few points, but I’ve never had any serious issues, and the FDC is normally approved and sent out by email in time for the work!

What I do tend to do is create some ‘Notice of Intended Work’ signs to put up anywhere the public have access to (such as a footpath across the estate), just to make life easier and prevent silly questions along the lines of ‘Why are you dredging the river?’ – which has happened!

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Hope this helps and all the best,

ACC.

First Barbel Sighting!

I haven’t touched the top beat of the river channel (upstream of the weir), other than to pollard a couple of the willow trees which had snapped and windblown as a result of being allowed to get too large. However, whilst out on the tractor and topper in the weir pool paddock last week, I downed tools and had a quick wander along the bank. For the most part, the channel is deeply incised, similar in width, straight and trapezoidal, although there is evidence of some deeper pools and reasonable gravels through the length. Very little in-channel cover is present, with the exception of alongside the weir, where a Willow tree has collapsed into the channel. Interestingly, there is little macrophyte growth – probably because it was heavily overshaded, but I’ve reduced a few of the trees along the lengths, both to allow to some sunlight in and encourage some in-channel macrophyte growth, and also allow some fishing to take place.

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I was wandering along the channel when a slight movement fairly tight to the bank I was walking on caught my eye (there is little marginal habitat due to the steep and incised banks). Four Barbel between 4lb and 12lb were tightly packed together on one of the shallow (2ft deep) gravel areas, in the only spot of sunlight coming through the trees onto the gravel – caused by me reducing a tree a few days previously. They seemed incongruous there, as there was no cover for some distance up and downstream, and the rest of the channel was in the shade. Tightly packed they were, with the two smaller fish at times resting on top of the two larger fish. I believe three of these were the same fish I had seen spawning a few days previously. The two best photos are below, and apologies for the quality but unusually I didn’t have my DSLR to hand, so they are taken on my phone camera. If you click on them, they should enlarge!

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With this in mind, I am currently working on a plan and drawings to add some woody debris cover into the top channel. Hopefully this will provide both mature and juvenile fish with some much needed flow and hydro-morphological variation and cover to lie up under. I shall also (consent permitting) create some pool and riffle areas with the excavator, both to break up some of the concreted gravel, but also not only provide some features to fish to, and change the substrate and bed level around. I shall keep you up to date on the plans, which will probably take place in the autumn before the winter flows come.

I believe in the last century that the bed level of this particular channel was increased in height, chiefly to back the water level up and divert the flow through a (now disused and infilled) decorative canal on the neighbouring estate, which may be the reason why there is still a good gravel substrate in the channel, when much of the gravel which originally would have been present in the other beats has been dredged out.

ACC.

Opening Day of the Season: First Innings

As I spent the opening day of the fishing season in fine company, it is only fitting I spent the evening with fine ale. So I wrote this whilst enjoying a pint of Sharp’s Doombar, drowning my sorrows in the local watering hole as I scored a duck!

I invited two stalwarts of river restoration, John Sutton and Dominic Martyn, to spend the opening day of the coarse fish season on my stretch of newly improved river channel. This was done, you understand, purely with the intention of undertaking a ‘creel survey’ to establish if fish stocks had improved since the enhancements started three months ago. (I’m sure the fact that a bottle of fine wine was offered up as the prize for the first barbel and/or the biggest fish in no way ensured their attendance!)

I had given them free access to fish where they liked, and Dom arrived before the birds awoke to pick his first spot just upstream of the fallen Willow tree towards the downstream limit of the river, a spot where I hadn’t carried out any enhancements, but which had resulted in a 6lb+ Chub for my father just before the end of last season!

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Just upstream of Dom’s swim, thousands of small fry were gathered in the edge, amongst the woody debris, native lilies and marginal reed in one of the areas I had gently narrowed previously, which was a fantastic sign of life since the enhancements started.

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I arrived to say hello around 0800, having my customary morning wander around with a .17 rifle on the look out for Mink and supplying fresh tea to my old boss, John, who had settled himself fishing in the weir pool on the float and centrepin, matched to a very nice (and very new looking) Greys rod along the tree line downstream of the weir.

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A smattering of Perch and Gudgeon performed well, but the bigger fish such as Barbel and Chub were conspicuous by their absence. Several smaller Chub in the 2lb – 4lb bracket were caught, but the bigger 5lb+ fish, of which I know there are a number, were hiding well! John, for the second time on the trot, hooked and landed a nice wild Brown Trout of around 18oz from the weir pool which is encouraging. Trout in this particular river, 20 years ago would have been unheard of. Unfortunately, for me at least, duty called, and I had to retire to the office to do some work for the morning before rejoining them on the bank at lunchtime, to show the way to the nearest pub for refreshments and a superb light luncheon!

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The mid-section of the river was looking sublime in the afternoon sun, with beds of Ranunculus sp providing some useful in-channel cover and the marginal vegetation taking hold! Suitably refreshed, we resumed our ‘creel survey’, with me electing to fish on the upstream side of the weir to John (on the Top River), where a large Willow has cracked and fallen in the channel over some lovely gravels. The water is shallow, fast and clear here (around 2ft), but I was confident that with over 80% of the channel covered by the willow, there would be a Chub or a Barbel lurking under it!

IMG_7063My hunch was correct, for on my first cast, a large barbel swung out from under the weed raft in the centre of the photo above, looked at me in disgust at disturbing his mid-afternoon sunbath, and drifted off downstream with scant regard for the lump of hair-rigged meat 12 inches away! A further half an hour trying various spots in the same swim resulted in nothing, so I moved downstream to the site of the disused weir.
DSCF9226With the lower flows in the summer, I was able to see just how shallow and gravelly this run is, as well as evidence of recent spawning. Not wanting to disturb the swim, I left it alone and retired back inside the office to try and keep the paperwork side of things ticking along, having not seen any of the usual shoal of Chub sat up on the gravels. It was just downstream of here I had witnessed three Barbel of around 8lb, 10lb and 12lb respectively, spawning on the marginal gravels.

One of the larger specimen Chub put in an appearance shortly afterwards from the slack at the edge of the Hinged Willow swim further downstream in the meadow, with Dom acknowledging the battle-scarred fish an ounce under 6lb at 15lb 15oz – and the biggest fish of the day to be caught.

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I hope to keep you updated on further work and catches throughout the season. If you are interested in fishing the river, please contact me on ACountryChap@outlook.com.

Regards and Tight Lines,

ACC.

Rivers Week – Day One with Volunteers

Carrying on from my previous blog entry: Improving the River – Introduction…

The first of the volunteer days arrived, but fortunately, on that first grim and gloomy March morning, the familiar figures of Andy Thomas and Mike Blackmore from the Wild Trout Trust also arrived on cue to put some semblance of order into the day (just as I put the coffee on – I guessed the wind was in the right direction!) Following the obligatory briefing over coffee, three groups were formed from the score of volunteers to undertake the varied tasks of gravel cleaning with the EA Fisheries Team’s venturi cleaners, building faggots from the number of willow trees I had felled the day before, and installing the chestnut stakes to hold the faggots in the channel to provide the new bank edge. This meant retrieving all the equipment from the back of my mobile storage shed (which it seemed my trusty Land Rover had been relegated to!)

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                The existing gravel riffle at the tail end of the weir pool had been compacted over the last 40 years, resulting in a shallow, fast flowing area devoid of submerged macrophyte growth. The existing concreted gravel was also mixed with fine sediment, meaning that any spawning carried out was unlikely to result in the eggs hatching. This is mainly due to the build up of fine sediment in the gravel, resulting in a lack of oxygenated water passing over the eggs. Under the competent gaze of Dr. Karen Twine (or alternatively ‘The Barbel Lady’), two venturi water pumps were fired up and the gravel cleaning commenced. A steady stream of fine silt poured to my position downstream where I was demonstrating the noble art of using a handheld post rammer without causing yourself (or anyone else) any serious injury to my group of volunteers.

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Concreted gravel being notably harder to drive 4” stakes into than silt meant out of the three groups, I was the one flagging! Ade Bicknell from the EA Fisheries Team took charge of another group of volunteers, and under his expert tuition, the volunteers quickly worked their way through the piles of Willow brash I’d chopped up to make some very large faggots to be installed behind my posts on the stretch of highest bank. That quickly in fact, that someone was sent to purchase some more binding twine, and another Willow tree was pollarded to generate some more brash.

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These bulky Willow faggots would be wedged in behind the stakes I was installing with some larger woody debris and wired tightly to pull them down to the bed. This would allow me to push the existing high bank edge down on top and behind them with the excavator, creating a narrowed, faster flowing channel with shallow marginal habitat, woody debris to provide some scour and a site for the introduction of some of the fifteen cubic metres of gravel currently sat in the dumper on the bank, which would increase the spawning potential of the reach.

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After a lunch and a large volume of coffee had been consumed in the sun, the faggots and woody debris items were swiftly lowered down the bank behind the stakes, wherein commenced the comical spectacle of myself jumping up and down on them to wedge them in whilst doing my utmost to remain upright. Then came the time consuming job of securing them! In the afternoon sun, fencing wire, fencing staples and hammers were liberally distributed to the volunteers, and the faggots were swiftly wired in and the stakes slowly but surely knocked down to pull the faggots tight to the river bed.

Day One complete! I am greatly indebted to the volunteers from the local village, the local angling club, Angling Trust, Environment Agency, Flood Resilience Group, Clearwater Photography and the Wild Trout Trust for their help and enthusiasm.

Some more images from Loddon Rivers Week 2015. Copyright – Clearwater Photography.

I shall be writing up Day Two shortly!

ACC.