When I was growing up, a hundred yards from the nearest trout stream, I led a sheltered life. I was, however, educated to some extent in conservation and wildlife; bred bantams, ducks and pheasants for their moults, made my own flies by hand and used them on the small stream at the bottom of the field. My library consisted of Skues, Hanna, Stewart and Pritt. The world was very small; tractors more common than motor cars.
The river trickled past wellington boots in the wider parts in summer. We had competitions to jump across and as we got older we would succeed. After snow melt or heavy rain she would burst her banks and come up the field, banking up behind the little bridge, rising maybe twelve feet; a torrent in the fields.
She drains a bogland of about ten square miles and about twenty square miles of farmland with woodland and lakes. She rises fast and runs off slowly, draining those lakes and bogs.
When we went off to fish the falling spates our mothers worried, but we knew the right holes through the hedges so we all came back intact, all with bags of fish, taken on worm or fly. Between spates the fishing was different. Some of the lads reckoned the trout only came into the river during a flood, though where they went to between times remained a mystery. Fishing downstream wet fly on a small stream, with a total ignorance of fieldcraft, the mystery remained unsolved for many seasons. Fieldcraft came later. Little olives and midges covered the water and filled the air. I learned that if you sat still behind the fish they would come to ignore your human presence. Later we learned to use the upstream approach and would come up from behind, keeping low, unseen.
One day in early summer I was going down to the bottom bridge to fish the mile back toward home. I noticed that the neighbour downstream had a new digger. Yellow and shining, the dragon posed at the bottom of the field. I carried on downriver to chat with the owner who would pay us to help with haymaking and picking spuds. George was feeding his animals if the acoustic fuss were to be believed. When I finished giving him a hand and the din had subsided, I learned from George that the new machinery was there courtesy of the River Authority; sent to clean out the riverbed and relieve the flooding.
Devastated! They were going to kill the stream.
It started on the Monday above the second bridge. By the time I got back from school - I carried on unto the next stop to get an aerial view from the bus - the dragon had eaten about a hundred yards and was attacking a rock face above the ledge which it had just chopped out. The walls were tapered mud and the bottom was flat.
I went home and passing up, for the time being at least, a choice of four shotguns, picked out my seven and a half foot fly rod. Putting up a team of three spiders at two foot intervals - a Greenwell's on point, black spider on dropper and an orange partridge - I proceeded downstream to face the dragon. I was so angry I did not cry.
Arriving at the scene of devastation and corruption, I strayed so close that the dragon had to stop. A few minutes of respite for the stream ensued. The respite was brief. The digger driver asked me if I had a death wish as I had come way too close; then he realised what the problem was. We had a bit of a chat.
John was a salmon fisher. He tried his best to console me with some strange logic. John's job was to dredge almost two miles of river, my house being halfway along the proposed canal. The new course was to take away the winter rains at an improved pace. The work was subject to inspection by the Authority and, if deemed satisfactory, John would get paid. He said there was little point in cutting rock to make the new course, so when he hit bedrock he would leave a little waterfall. Also where possible he would follow the original streambed. As he passed he left a pile of rubble, rocks, weed, larvae and eggs four feet high on one bank. The inspector should be delighted.
John explained that he was not killing any trout. They were frightened off by the machinery and ran off in front of it. He told me to catch as many fish as possible in the pools upstream of his work every evening and to drop them over the ledge into the newly cut river. This proved relatively simple, as any trout upstream of the digger had been hiding under rocks all day developing an appetite. Every evening we would catch trout up to a huge ten ounces, rarely more, and transport then downstream, where they could get safety in natural surroundings. We probably moved three hundred in a couple of weeks. After that, cutting through gravel and bog, John said let them fall over or get driven upstream.
It proved, in the end, that the driver of the dragon was one of the good guys. John did a neat job. I have only recently, over thirty years later, come to realise that in showing me how to rebuild the pools, he made me his co-conspirator and his right hand man in restoration. I had never thought of it like that before.
Progressing upstream, he made sure to leave a few good-sized boulders alongside the banks. He even managed to find a couple of invisible rock faces, coinciding with a tree hanging over a bend - just a couple. He followed the bends of the old river. He told me that when the work was completed the stream would be good for drainage for twenty years, but that it would eventually silt up again. He also told me that, if I wanted to prolong its longevity, I should make the stream clean herself.
John explained that a good trout stream rushes around without really going anywhere, except slowly to the next pool. A sprinkling of boulders, placed strategically on the streambed, could divert the water just about anywhere you wanted. Like before a drop into a pool or above a bend - placing a boulder on the outer edge of the stream would divert the water, speed it up, aerate it and force it to scour out a hole behind and downstream Another rock in front of this would protect the bank from erosion - so build a wall. Make sure the boulders are secure against the heaviest flood. Put a dozen boulders where the neck of the pool is to be and this will reinforce the pools above and below. Let the torrent do the work for you. Nature will recreate the environment. You do the planning.
Installing rocks in the pools that form has to be done with care. The rocks have to be big enough to remain stable in severe flood; yet not be so large as to overpower the stream at low water. You are after all trying to create the perfect fishery. Slabs about two feet across and a foot deep are a great help, any length over a couple of feet is good. Drop them into the river at a point above where you want to place them and the current will help you get them home. As you go, put in stepping-stones so that you have the best places to stand and cast a line up into the pools you create. You do not want to build a great holding area with nowhere to stand and fish it; nor do you need a tree behind the best casting spot.
When dealing with a length that is straight and flat, you need to build the neck and tail of the pool, then go upstream and do it again. Use boulders to stagger the flow, trying to divert it right and left, to and fro, over the rocks. In time the tail of the pool will silt up and the neck will get deeper. I found that the best pool is about three times as long as it is wide. Depending on the flow, you may see this differently. For the neck/tail area I used rocks about a foot across -combined with a few bigger slabs to stand on.
In detailing the structure of the riverbed, you can define the holding areas for the fish. Knowing where you want them to sit you make that spot the best in the pool, so you can approach it blind and catch them - on a good day. You need to provide good cover for the trout. One way to achieve this is to place good sized boulders just out from the bank. This will force the flow to speed up, erode the bank and provide shadow and a slack which will silt up and support life, weed and fish food. By providing areas of slack and turbulence you will create an environment capable of supporting a diversity of life. Thereafter you wait and will find midges, later the mayflies, caddis flies, beetles etc will come back because the headwaters and downstream areas still harbour the native species. We are talking massive destruction here - not pollution. We still have to look to the powers above to protect against that.
The digger finished. The inspector said it was a good job. The stream looked like a canal, the man had to be subnormal. John got paid, I guess. I never asked. The next inspection would be in twenty or thirty years. It was time to start work.
My pals thought a rebuild was a great idea, so they lent a hand. By now it was summer holiday time. The lads had time in hand so they worked hard for a few days, got to hand that to them. Then someone got the idea to dam part of the stream to create a swimming pool. They created a pool about two feet deep and forty yards long on a flat stretch. This became a playing ground for the young pretty and talented for the summer and, as if by magic, my workforce disappeared. There were even a few good trout showing there, more difficult to tempt in the flat water. I learned finesse.
Overall I suppose it was about two years of hard work later - with hundreds of wheelbarrows full of weed being moved; tractors borrowed to move rocks; experimentation with currents, worn out jeans and soaked pants - that the riverbed again became stable.
The stream had helped herself to the bounties of nature. The winter floods had scoured and silted. Weed was regrown, bankside vegetation was regaining a roothold. The fly life was again thick on the water and in the air and in early winter the spawning gravels looked like a herd of steers had stampeded up there. The dippers were the first birds to come back on the scene. I even saw a kingfisher one day. The best trout were now just on sixteen ounces, an increase, I believe of about fifty percent in weight across the herd; and they appeared more silvery, which I attributed to the reduced bankside cover.
One day, after a downpour that had lasted for days, I went fishing again with the lads. They had given the stream up as lost. We caught about ninety fish over a couple of hours on the falling spate, keeping a couple for the grannies, who liked a brace for the dinner.
Another balmy evening, having returned about twenty, I approached a lovely little corner pool, up near the school. I was using a size #16 copper wire and hare's ear nymph developed from the school of thought of the great Sawyer. Taking out the rearguard and slipping them back into the next pool down, I managed twelve trout averaging about ten ounces before they stopped rising at about two A.M. Next day I crept back with a pair of polaroids and took about a quarter of an hour to count thirteen in the pool. RATS. missed one.. Thinking about it, I did prick one just before the rise stopped! That pool was about twenty feet long and at low water was five feet across and two feet deep at the neck, the rest of the width being silted up and full of cress.
Now, nearly forty years after the rebuild, she still rises fast, she drops a bit more quickly than she used to, she still drains the bogs and lakes and she keeps herself clean.
I could go on forever about this little stream as she goes on forever to the big river and to the sea. I will stop, instead, and let you get out and throw a boulder in your secret stream.
Before you go, please take a moment to join me in respect to the late John Shaw who passed over some years ago now, and whose gift of knowledge and love of nature I was privileged to receive and which I hope to have passed forward to future generations.
Roy Christie (email@example.com) is a flytyer and Sexyloops' board member, who likes to tie flies backwards, upsidedown and inside out.
Related reading: Mike Connor's series on Conservation.