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.

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.

Preparing for Rivers Week 2015

Carrying on from the previous blog, I had a little bit (lots) of preparatory work to carry out on the weekend before Rivers Week 2015 to make the site safe for when the volunteers arrived on the Tuesday – (bear in mind some of these volunteers had never worked in a river before). First off, there was an area of hard standing (road planings) with a concrete pad built on top, which had once been a muck heap. Why by all that is Holy, the previous owners of the estate had thought the eroding river bank would be an ideal place to build a muck heap is beyond me, so one of the first tasks with the excavator was to break it up and scrape out the road planings. (During the course of this I also discovered a buried and long forgotten lawn roller which will be cleaned up and probably either be pressed into service or painted and used as a garden decoration). Around 25% of this concrete pad was sat on thin air as a result of erosion by the river over time, which meant keeping well away from river bank with the machine until I was certain which bits were capable of supporting 13 tons! It had to come out as I didn’t fancy someone innocently walking over it, only to disappear vertically in cartoon fashion with a wild yell and a cloud of dust!

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Secondly, there was a rather large and rather dangerous windblown Willow tree which had cracked, fallen over and been hung up on a neighbouring Willow tree (which also happened to be dead) on the edge of the Willow stand at the bottom of the fields. I am a fairly experienced tree climber / tree surgeon and common sense dictates that the only two things required to spike up these particular trees were a donor card and a suicide note. Much as I wished for the tree to come down to the ground in a timely fashion, I had no particular interest in riding it on it’s way there. Working on my own for most of the time means I readily develop innovative ways of working to keep myself safe (rather than Health and safety, read self preservation). In this case, it meant using the pulling power of the excavator and some long winching straps to make the tree drop where I wanted it to whilst working from the ground with a chainsaw.

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The windblown tree was much easier to deal with than I was expecting with some nifty cutting from both sides and the use of some high lift wedges to make it fall back on itself and fold up, and then extracted both halves of it with the excavator. It was later used to generate some of the T-Bar woody debris items which would be installed in the river channel later that week!

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In the pouring rain, and alternating between on the chainsaw and on the excavator, I also felled and extracted around another 12 Willow trees from the Willow stand halfway along the reach, both to generate woody debris to install in the channel, and also to allow some sunlight into the area, hopefully to transform the bare earth in the stand of trees into a natural woodland, with low level ground vegetation, making for an increase in habitat for native species. This area will also have the banks re-profiled, but later in the year with a smaller excavator as the 13t is slightly unwieldy to use in confined spaces. Working in the rain is never an attractive prospect, and in full chainsaw equipment (including a climbing harness), I admitted defeat at 1400, going in search of the woodburner, fresh coffee, dry clothes and some soothing cream for some hideous chafe marks!

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However, the majority of the materials needed for the volunteers were on site – brash was stacked up to start the bank repairs and channel narrowing, large woody debris items were laid out to be wired together and the pallet of chestnut stakes was left on the river ban over night. Despite the rain, the site was ready. I just hoped the rain would stop to allow work to be carried out on the Tuesday without the river rising to prevent anyone from working in the channel.

To be continued, yet again…

ACC.

Improving the River – Introduction

The gallant chaps of the Wild Trout Trust in my neck of the woods are the sort of unflappable types you need around when large gang of enthusiastic volunteers arrive all at once for a day to give you a much needed hand improving the fish habitat on your stretch of watercourse. This was ably demonstrated when on a grey & moody March morning, two dozen willing and able volunteers turned up to give me a hand with a project to improve 800 metres of the lower River Blackwater. This was the fourth year on the hoof that the local Environment Agency Fisheries Team, Wild Trout Trust and Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust had run their successful ‘Rivers Week’ in the catchment. Having been heavily involved with the previous four Rivers Week projects in a practical capacity, I am pleased to say that like a good wine, it has improved over time. Flood Defence Consent for all the work I had planned was granted by the Environment Agency, and with orders placed for 13t excavator and 6t dumper hire, 15 cubic metres of 40mm2 clean gravel, untreated chestnut stakes, steel rebar, geotextile fabrics and the ever useful fencing staples and wire, the practical planning and preparatory work started.

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This 800 metre stretch of the Blackwater is not a quintessential trout stream! Although John Sutton, one of the firm stalwarts of Fisheries habitat enhancement, proved by catching a lonely small wild Brown trout on his first visit to the river, the water quality has improved massively over the last few years. At the top limit of the land all the flow splits through two channels immediately upstream of an impassable crump gauging weir, and both channels historically have been straightened, dredged and impounded. Both homogeneous channels were deeply incised and trapezoidal, with a distinct lack of variation in depth, flow velocity, and habitat. Marginal vegetation was non-existent through most of the reach through a combination of over shading and vertical banks. Potential spawning habitat was very limited due to historic dredging and what gravel substrate remained had become choked through deposition as a result of the low flow velocities. Interestingly part of the stretch below the existing crump weir has only been around 40 years since a new channel and crump weir was constructed to create a better means of flow measuring in the 1970’s, and the original (if not natural) channel infillled and forgotten, along with a smaller distributary channel which used to flow across one of the fields. This area of newer channel contained the only viable spawning habitat in the reach – perhaps because it had not been dredged as heavily or for as long as the original channels. The site of the old, forgotten Victorian red brick and concrete weir still remains, underground, infilled with concrete, but the crest is just visible in the margins of one channel as a disused relic of a bygone age. (Perhaps a future project…)

Phase One of the project to improve the reach between the crump weir and the brick road bridge, and revolved around improving the connectivity with the flood plain, addressing the vertical incised channel banks, introducing some marginal and in-channel habitat, and improving the viable spawning areas in the channel. Much of the heavier work was undertaken by myself with the (delicate) use of a tracked excavator to push the banks in where I could, both narrowing the channel to increase flow velocity and providing some much needed marginal habitat, along with a more pleasant river bank for all. This also had the added benefit of reducing flood risk downstream as the limit of my land is marked by aforementioned elderly brick built and lined bridge with a very small arch. In times of high flows, this acts as an impoundment and results in the water backing up. As rivers are prone to doing, the water then finds an alternative route – unfortunately in this case it merrily flows along the road through the village. Due to the lack of connectivity, the flood storage capacity of the flood plain (of which the majority of my land is) had been greatly reduced as a result of the spoil from dredging being placed on the banks, creating bank heights higher than the surrounding land. (There was a berm comprised of around 30 cubic metres of gravel which had been dredged from the river, just upstream of the road bridge – taking up capacity in the flood plain!)

Much as I could do on my own, working the odd day between work off-site and at weekends – sometimes a few more (for few, read a lot more) pairs of hands are needed to really make a difference. In areas with slack, shallow margins, it was possible to delicately remove the top 3 or 4 inches of vegetation and roots with the excavator bucket, and slide this down the bank into the margins. This was in order to keep the roots intact, allowing marginal vegetation to be neatly transplanted from the top of the bank to the river as a slab – making it more likely to stay there and less likely to break up. The rest of the spoil behind was then removed to bring a gradual slop back to the bank, and the remainder compacted with the bucket to reconnect the flood plan and river channel (hopefully around what it should be naturally). In places, the banks were so high that pushing down the banks as described above with the excavator would have just resulted in whole sections of the bank washing away due to the lack of vegetation and root systems to bind it together. Some form of bank protection and structure was going to be needed to narrow the channel, increase the flow velocity whilst also retaining the structure of the bank to allow it to colonise over time without risking serious erosion. Along came Rivers Week 2015.

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To be continued!

ACC