Time to make the move

Time to make the move

Chris Avery | Wednesday, 28 February 2024

The open day of the season passed without fanfare, by the end of the first week fishing was written off for the foreseeable. The rains that seemed to slide in and settle in March, now seemed content to slum it and stick around for April. Occasionally, some optimistic soul would stop by the little bridge to stare down but catch sight  of a cold cappuccino running high between two slices of muddy bankside, its smooth surface being broken by giant plinks of droplets, tumbling off the leafs from the developing  canopy high above, leaving little circles of ripples to travel down under the bridge out of view. The very idea of a patch of blue in the endless mirky sky, felt like faded memory of a once wonderful dream, just pure fantasy.
By the end of April a few days respite was actually granted by the rain gods, and mischievous rumors of  some golden vision called sunshine were being touted around, the Grannom hatch was passed unnoticed , but the water levels, like the color, were dropping out of the brook and hopes were rising for the fishermen. Then the rains returned and settled in. Evidently now it was raining all over the world and would never stop, and so I started hatching a plan.

The momentum for change at the Willowbrook fly fishing club , faltering on the failing numbers of the hatchery box, and from the compromised, still too high stocking policy. This was suppressing the wild fish numbers in the upper beats . Dropping the number of eggs in the hatchery hadn’t raised the percentage of success of this project. With still, the gradual building siltation choking up the gravel inside the box ,coming from the coloured winter flood waters; this seemed to be the biggest battle being lost, along with a creeping apathy in the face of failure

I had being involved a few years earlier, but never saw it as viable recruitment, and soon lost faith in it. It was more a useful nudge in the right direction and change of mindset, now it had run out of momentum and ideas. What was frustrating the hell out of me was it was supposed to drop the stocking of large fish, yet that they were still stocking, at a reduced level, but not reduced enough for my liking and the catch returns were worryingly quite consistent with the bad old days.  I knew this was skewed by the number of informed people now fishing down the Apethorpe road and Groynes beats, catching from the increased population of wild fish. And although less stocked fish were being caught up stream.. that wasn’t reflected, and the bottom line of the catch return was constant. So, it was time to kick some momentum back into project of a wild fishery.

It’s hard to finally hammer through the need for change when things appear to be on an even keel.

“Ooh let’s just leave its as it is , rather than ruin it”

“If it ‘aint’ broke then don’t fix it”

“ …we’ve been doing it like this for years and its worked just fine, Im happy the way it is”

”How do you know it will make it any better? You will probably make it worse”

“ They stock the River Test don’t they. If its good enough for them …then why?”

The excuses and comebacks were of an infinite number along the same themes, but thankfully from a reduced number of sources. I still get three members who dropped out, who like to remind me in conspiratorial tones, how much “They” ruined the fishing at Willowbrook and its useless now.

I knew it could be so much better if we could stop unsettling the wild population with these dumb blundering stocked fish, brought up in an overcrowded pool looking for a shower of pellets at feeding time to rattle the water surface. If I had any reservation it was that we would probably end up with a large population of smaller fish than we used to stock, I never expected they would get much bigger than our biggest stocked fish.

Some of the members would need to learn how to flyfish and cast, if they were to continue to catch in a stream with fish that fed naturally, equipped with more natural instincts and predator awareness. They used fly equipment adapted from reservoirs but tend to toss a rod length or two of line down and let the stream straighten it and swing it round and then drift wet flies, gold heads and streamers randomly through pools where the ‘stockies’ seemed to settle and maraud around unsettling any wild fish from their feeding stations.

But any of us who could side cast under a bough, drift a dry fly or fish an upstream nymph, were starting to benefit from more sight fishing, and a longer season with the increase of the wild fish population sticking around. 

Still we would hear the bollocks about; “the stocked fish needing a few days to learn the ‘way’ of the stream and turn wild”. When patently they were living on borrowed time as soon as they were released in the Brook and wouldn’t make it past the end of summer.

As April showers continued into May and threatened an unfishable Mayfly season, I knew that his year the bottom line of that precious catch return was going to plummet, and I needed to take advantage of this.

The most likely outcome was that with the eggbox failing and the catch returns looking very thin we would lose some disgruntled members… Always good to free up a few places on the waiting list for new people looking to do stream fly fishing and say goodbye to a few frustrated stillwater fishermen wanting to catch stocked fish on their doorstep. And, there was bound to be a call from some of the ‘disgruntled’ to stop ‘messing around’ with the wild fish experiment, and return to stocking a thousand or so fish in the Brook.

It was time to make my move, the next AGM was going to be a humdinger!

The sun returned as it always did, and I continued to keep finding ways to remodel the stream and produce more habitat. Of the people fishing the lower beats who caught fish near any of these projects I was getting some credit for their successes, which wasn’t strictly true. We had kept the stockies out and cleaned the gravels. They were benefiting from an increase in wild fish with better breeding and nursery grounds, and the fly fishermen using methods more suited to catching them now, but it was nice to know the work was appreciated. More importantly though, when the topic came up on the bankside, I could get to talk about the stocking and how I was convinced that the real improvement to our fishing would come when we finally stopped putting these fish in.

From these conversations I knew I had about a third of the membership, at least, now thinking this was the way forward for the club. As the season progressed and the AGM neared I started letting it be known to the individuals that I would be pushing to stop stocking for a year and made sure they would be attending the AGM so I would have they’re backing.

A year was a gamble, for one thing the disgruntled probably wouldn’t fish to prove a point that it was worse, so we wouldn’t have their contribution of numbers on the catch return. And if April and May was again a “wash-out” I’d be in trouble, and playing serious catchup.

But if the weather was on my side and I got my head down for some serious fishing, I could out-catch that club annual catch return on my own now, and, with a few more people fishing regularly, we could probably double the entire clubs catch return between us.

That, I thought ,would put an end to stocking. Going for an all-out permanent change in one go though, was asking too much from the doubters at the AGM . We would have to trial it and make damn sure we proved it with numbers.


Back in those early days of habitat improvement, and preparing to turn it wild, while waiting to get rid of that Bugger of the Bridge, we still had a situation above the Culvert that would remain, even with the removal of that barrier. Very little gravel in areas suitable for Redds and quite a lot of siltation which we suspected came from two cow paddocks, one the Meadows beat and the other the Village section where the cattle had access to the Brook for drinking and were treading down more and more banks  and constantly churning up the mud, silting up everything for a long way down stream.



Photo of cattle crushed banks source of much diffuse pollution down stream


The obvious solution was to fence off the areas and provide cattle drinkers in the meadows, then repair the banks. The farmers were fine with this and under the Water Framework Directive it was seen as an improvement in water quality so some funding could be raised to install the drinkers. All seemed to be going ahead, then our objections came from an unlikely source, as mentioned before on these pages. The chairman, and some misplaced nostalgia he had for seeing cattle in a clean Trout stream as being a very English tradition that he was going to fight to preserve on “his” Brook. And a flock of irritable emails left the roost laying down the law to all of us. 

That mad cap lone voice was silenced somehow, and he was given the task of procuring 30 tonnes of gravel to add to a channel in the beat below the meadows that had lots of meandering adult and juvenile habitat , in which we would create some new redds  and fry habitat in an attempt to rebalance the stream. Even that was a ‘stuff’-up though!

A local gravel pit was approached and asked to supply the material in the right size range, which they were happy to oblige and the transporting was very local. The stones in the area they were excavating  were deposited there by the retreating of the Glaciers in the last ice age; mostly ground round, very smooth pebbles of many different rock types, picked up by the slow progression of the glacier as it ‘grindered’ its way down old Blighty from the grim northern wastes to our gentle midland pastures.

The gravel naturally found in the stream, much of which had been excavated by past farmers for use of making tracks, was of crushed lime stone and more flat and angular. None of us realised the mistake at the time , nor did our Wild Trout Trust advisors who had surveyed the chosen area for a flood assessment and got us the permission. However the gravel that we carefully  and painstakingly, sculpted into place to look really natural, started to behave like the glacier tens of thousands of years before, and slowly started a southern drift downstream and refused to be dictated to as the round shapes refused to bed in.

It was however, instantly adopted by both Trout and insects. A few months later we did a comparison kick sample with a settled part of the Brook 400yards up stream, and all the insects and Gammarus were present in comparable numbers, except the large Mayfly nymphs that tend to prefer silty areas. And then the next winter, many cleared divots, and pristine clean patches on the new surface, showed where the Trout had actively been using it for Redds.

A second large area we put in fared no better than the first in terms of stability. The Brook got to work on it immediately; tumbling it down stream and sorting it into pockets and smoothing out hollows.

Hours of careful sculpting with landscape rakes callously disregarded by the constant current and tossed aside by the winter floods. Now a dozen or so winters have passed and the stream seems to have finished its redesign and has settled on a plan. Plants have established in areas binding the gravel with roots and the inevitable siltation has worked into the spaces and helped stabilise the piles.




The open day in the village hall for monitoring insects, that had been a social success and bonding exercise. I decided to repeat. This time I invited the Wild Trout Trust to come and have an open day of demonstrating Trout habitat improvement. It caused the usual predictable reservations and objections , but I was ready for that. We were inviting the experts to come with their equipment to demonstrate to people from various clubs to have a go in the Willowbrook. So I was getting a dozen or more active volunteers doing a free days work for us supervised by the experts, the very definition of a “no-brainer”, and it kept the talk of wild fish on the agenda and topical.




As the AGM approached I got back to the old papers of research that I had collected years earlier about the effects of supplementary stocking  of hatchery Trout on native populations, and started revising for any argument that may come my way.

A Thursday night in late November always feels remote, and far removed from the previous fishing season, now barely passed. The dark evenings, horribly early; cold, and wet, with a terrible hint of impending Christmas.

It started in the bar as usual, which I typically avoided and kept my powder dry.  I went straight into the remote meeting room across the little dark yard, and got a seat ready on a corner where I would see everyone’s face and waited for them to start drifting into the meeting, drinks in hand. Enjoying the moment’s peace, shuffling paper and reports, collecting thoughts.

Typically at these events we had most of them interested in the meeting’s contents while those pints lasted, then came the impatient scurry to round off the proceedings to get back to the bar before returning to domesticity. I noted half the people in that room roughly were on my side of the argument so if I got it to a vote, I stood a chance of getting it through.

The catch returns were read out and they were abysmal as I expected, some excuses were offered for the wet spring and late start to the fishing and some grumbles about stocking numbers.

As a proposal for a motion entered before the meeting, I’d put forward that I’d like to get Stuart Crofts to visit for an open day in the village hall to do a talk on the sex life of Caddis and a fly tying session. This gave the secretary chance to prepare an argument to derail me as was becoming a custom, and distract him from any thoughts of what else I might be up to. That would need to be a surprise and catch them on the hoof.

I’d seen Stuart give this talk at a Fly fair and it was really entertaining in his endearing blunt northern manner and infectious enthusiasm. His passion for his topics was infectious.

His fly tying was super simple and very practical,  he thought around conventional approaches and found practical solutions. Rather than the obsession most of us humans have with unquestioningly sticking to rituals and perceived wisdom. He openly questioned and tested it. I’ve always admired that rebellious approach. I thought it an ideal topic for a more dry fly outlook that would be needed for fishing the improved Brook.

I explained I would bring in extra materials from a fly tying shop on sale or return and borrow some vices for anyone who didn’t have the equipment.

“Why not just do our own fly tying? Why do we need to have someone there?. And just who is this Stuart Crofts anyway?” was tossed at me by El Secretario.

“He’s the ex England international fly fishing captain, a lovely chap, he does demonstrations all over the country,  were lucky to get him, and we will learn lots from him.” …was what I tossed back.

That seemed to swing it and I was asked to organise a day early in the season.


They discussed and voted to cease the hatchery box, I kept out of it, just relieved that it was finally over and had done its job of kickstarting change in recognising and understanding habitat and attitudes towards the management of the fishery.

Most of the pint pots had emptied by the time it got to the “stocking policy for next year”, so people were trying to wind the meeting up quick, and fill up their glasses.

The secretary started it with a suggestion that as we had a surplus of funds and we were no longer doing the hatchery box, we should increase the stocking numbers again.

(What follows is a very abridged version of me stalling them from getting to the bar, until they had agreed to make a decision, I’d like to think some were desperate for the loo too.)

So I piped up. ”No, that’s wrong, I think we should completely stop stocking” .

There were murmurs and strange looks, and I had everyone’s face in view to see where any descent came from. The secretary tried to be conciliatory.

“Look I know you’d like it to be a wild Trout stream but it’s too early for that, the club’s not ready for it and we don’t know if it will work.”

“No”, I said flatly, ”Your wrong about that. Most of those fish that were caught on that Catch return are from the wild areas. If you were not stocking the three beats upstream there would be more of them being caught, but they can’t settle in a feeding spot as the stocked fish bully them off.  So they have to move trying to find another space, unsettling other fish like a chain reaction down the Brook. They can’t sustain condition like that and just like the stock fish they’ll mostly die off during the season. You’ll find more Trout in the Brook available for fishing, if you stop putting stock fish in.”

I was asked by the chairman how I could be sure of this, and I explained the research that had been done in American, Canada, and Australia. Showed the size of the pile of research papers I’d brought with me, and the methodology used, and then hammered the point home that we should never put anymore stock fish in the Brook. And concluded that we should vote there and then, to cease all stocking.

This seemed to shock a few of my allies who thought I was asking for just a one year trial, this was a turn up for the books and I could see some confused looks.

The Secretary tried a different tack. “Why don’t we vote to study it for a year and discuss it at the next AGM.” This satisfied the empty beer pots who were looking for a quick solution.

“I have studied it, what do you need to know? You will damage all the work we have done so far by overloading the stream with stocked fish again”. I was playing the drama queen here, but I was hoping the bar was calling strongly now and soon they’d do anything to be released from this dry hell. They were, I knew, in huge danger of heading home from this night of freedom without that dreamed-of last pint in the bar to round up the session. Disaster loomed for them.

“How about we drop the stocking for a year to 400 fish and see how it goes” was suggested.

“That will tell us nothing, you're still introducing Stocked fish that will upset the  more numerous wild fish, why do we have to have any at all? We don’t need the extra numbers, let’s just stop stocking and concentrate on habitat work for the fish that we have and that will breed in the Brook.”

One of the disgruntled stocky bashers piped up that he could remember nights when they used to ”properly” stock the brook, he could come and catch 3 or 4 fish in an evening in the Meadows.

I countered that when they “over” stocked I’d find it hard to catch 10 fish all year in the Nassington Road bridge beat, now I can catch ten in an evening … “and if we didn’t have stocked fish dropping down from upstream it would probably be more!”

Someone tried to compromise a solution that we drop the stocking to 200 and stock higher up the meadows and the village and Conegar farm.

“Thank you, but that’s not a compromise. That makes no one happy, it’s too few fish to last you very long. At the percentage of waste of stocked fish in this Brook, you’ll be lucky as a club to catch thirty of them, yet still, they will be moving down the Brook dislodging native fish. We will learn nothing and we’ll back here next year none the wiser.”


Then, the old doctor who had been supportive of what I was trying to do and the work I’d done on the Brook, said “Why don’t we try what Chris is suggesting for a year and see how it goes?”

No one answered, a room full of expectant faces turned to me to see if the intransigent ‘Git’ in the room would finally shift a little, and they could mercifully finish the meeting.

I buried a smile deep out of view and gave them a resigned sigh of someone whose just compromised his every principle and belief.

“Ok we try it for a year and see what the catch return is” …. And I added…  “and it’s catch and release!”

There was a little rumbling explosion of descent. They were like a pantomime audience now.

“How about we word it as; We encourage catch and release.” someone suggested.

“That won’t work” piped up the secretary. “People need to have clear rules”.

This was a fatal mistake, the room now realised it wasn’t the Git but the secretary who was delaying them from the barmaid.

“Look,” I said, trying to be the voice of reason in the room now. “Why can’t we just say if it’s deep hooked and it looks like it won’t survive then it’s OK to kill it, so if a few really want to take the odd Trout home they can, but we encourage catch and release as a policy.”

“I propose we don’t stock for a year and encourage catch and release. Then next year discuss the option of ceasing stocking altogether at another meeting when people have chance to think about it and try it out.”

Some voice snapped “I second that”, Quickly it was then voted through with a majority, the whisky raffled, and in an instant, the room poured out across the yard, and lapped up at the door for the bar and the toilets.

I waited for them to all go, busying myself shuffling my papers, keeping my eyes down while checking a blank screen on the phone. When the coast was clear, without any goodbyes, I headed straight to my car and drove home. Relieved and elated!

They could get a skinful in the bar tonight now, next year I’d need to catch a skinful out of the Brook and I’d spend winter doing habitat work and praying for a dry April.