Steve Parton: The Stillwater Revolution part 3: Small waters and Stocking

It is fair to say that with the decline in the construction of major new waters there has been something of a slowdown in big stillwater flyfishing but the last three decades of the 20th Century saw a massive expansion in the other side of stillwater flyfishing - based on smaller lakes and ponds. Syndicated smaller lake fisheries have been in operation since before the First War but never contributed greatly to tactical development largely because they were very definitely the purlieus of the better off. There can be very few counties in the UK that didn't have at least a couple by the late 30's and some were better supplied than that.

But the only ones in my early lifetime that were seriously written about were Alex Behrendt's Twin Lakes started in the 50's and maybe Charles Guernsey's operation at Packington - important because it was the first to deliberately stock massive trout and begin the weird process whereby fishermen were encouraged to break the 'British Record ' with supercharged stockfish.

The development of smaller privately operated fisheries exploded from the 70's and a study conducted by one of the fly fishing magazines (to more accurately target its real customers) in the 90's startled editors by revealing that over 65% of all stillwater flyfishing was being conducted on smaller waters.

Probably over 400 pay and play fisheries came into existence over those 30 years and oddly quite a few of them are still in some form of business. Clubs and syndicates also had a major impact with significant ones like - Derby Council Council eventually owning, leasing or otherwise operating 9 separate smaller pond and lake fisheries including Ogston Reservoir. Quite how many private waters opened and still fish it is difficult to estimate due to an effective lack of detailed information that isn't radically out of date.

Significant numbers of amateurs opened fisheries and subsequently got severely burned. Every year brings a new crop of the hopeful and a few actually do survive!

Probably the most surprising thing to me was the way that small privately operated fisheries actually got going in Scotland. I really never thought that Scots with the profusion of very cheap wild brown trout stillwater fishing would ever be in any way interested in rainbow based operations. This has proven not to be the case and there are now significant numbers of smaller stillwaters operated in much the same way as in England. With typically a canny version in which holidaymakers are encouraged to catch their own dinners in ponds at hatcheries - and one even cannier one as in a few hatchery based fisheries harassed parents can even purchase pellets so that the kiddies can amuse themselves by feeding the trout! (Would that I could charge my customers for doing work for me!)


Rainbow trout came into the UK in the early 1880's. Initially to the Howieton Hatchery attached to Loch Leven. The Victorian era saw the British going all over the world one way or another. And wherever they went they took their fieldsports with them. Howieton prospered greatly because British trout were most famously the 'Loch Leven' strain.

The British stocked most of the world with brown trout initially and then followed through with rainbows. The list of where the Victorians took brown trout is relatively impressive:

USA (where, although most of the introduced browns came from the UK the fish was referred to as  'German brown trout' for decades, why I have little explanation!)

Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, the Falklands, Chile, Peru, Australia (most successfully into Tasmania), the Kashmir, Kenya.

The brown trout being a hardy and adaptable soul did well in most sensible environments and even did its usual trick of turning into a seatrout - especially in Argentina, on the Falklands, Chile, New Zealand, Tasmania and even in a minor way in a few US West and East Coast rivers (where due to Night Fishing being banned it isn't nearly as well loved as it should be!)

Unsurprisingly the British were rather slow to start stocking rainbows into stillwaters. It took them about 3 years! But there were and still are very major problems associated with the rainbow, largely due to the bulk of introduced ova having been collected mainly from steelhead strains. Frankly we got had over!

Steelheads run to sea and as a result very few self-sustaining populations of rainbow exist in UK river systems to this day. Worse, very few rainbows in the UK live for longer than 4 years - they appear to have major problems in spawning that have never been genetically resolved by selective breeding or by introducing ova from genuine stillwater strains.

In Alaska in the massive lakes of Iliamna and Naknak it is not uncommon to encounter rainbows in excess of 20 years of age. And in Pyramid Lake in Nevada they can last longer yet and still (despite the total extinction of the giant rainbows in that lake accomplished by the Army Engineering Corps in the 1930's when an alteration in level wiped out spawning grounds) grow on naturally in excess of 30lbs!

Quite why DEFRA has never done something sensible and reconsidered its policy of blocking further introductions of specific stillwater rainbow strains into the UK with a view to cleansing the UK stock and using types that actually were long lived once more I have no idea. There appears to have been a block on introduced rainbow stock in operation since 1911. Oddly a few years ago genuine landlocked salmon stock was allowed in but experiments with them in stillwaters appear to have been generally stillborn - I did once catch one at Newbury and put it back because I thought it was a brown trout kelt! Possibly vested interest has something to do with it.

The rainbow was probably the major key to the explosion though. It is approximately half as cheap to rear to releasable size as the brown. And it is easier to harvest. In mixed stocked fisheries it is unusual to recovered more than 30% of all brown trout stocked. Rainbow harvesting can exceed 60% upon occasion.

Combine these figures and it is immediately apparent that stocking with rainbows is 4 times as cost effective as stocking with browns. And whereas my heart is always with browns my head is firmly with rainbows - and of course, if they lived longer and a higher percentage yet could be harvested...  think on!

It is very sad that the fast growing hard fighting rainbow is dead before it is 5 years old (unless hand stripped - and that is a cold, costly and difficult game to achieve with any degree of effectiveness). And the situation has been further complicated by the modern technique of heat-cracking the eggs (at a specific time into fertilisation the eggs are heated precisely which has the effect of turning all ova into females). It is now over 7 years since I last saw or caught a cock rainbow!

And of course most of the specimen rainbows caught in the last 30 years in the UK came from either burned out brood stock being fleshed out a bit and then introduced at very large size into waters or from opportunistic fish that chewed their way through sinking pellets or ordure underneath the in reservoir cages used to grow on stockfish.

This method of 'cheaply' growing on stockfish seems itself to be in decline since the unfortunate business that occurred at Hanningfield a few seasons past when their entire stockfish population contracted a rather unpleasant liver disease which rendered them susceptible when stressed and led to fish being refused movement orders and a collapse of the restocking business being run from there.

It has proven possible to deliberately force on rainbows to over 30lb in weight but the process usually involves multi spectrum antibiotics being introduced into the diet of these fish with quite what long term results for folks consuming them one is uncertain!

There was a theory that if one was unlucky enough to catch AIDS a partial solution could be to feed oneself exclusively on larger rainbows from Dever Springs some years ago! I understand that these practises have, to all intents and purposes ceased these days.

Cheap stockfish were quite critical to what happened.

Sadly with the onslaught of inland cormorants and the changes in stocking size practises - larger fish to frustrate the cormorants which are only capably of eating fish to 3lb 10oz (Blithfield actual autopsy recovery). Stocking costs have increased very significantly to the point at which they have probably added 50% to the costs of a day's stillwater fly fishing in real terms since 1980. This has probably contributed to the recent declines in numbers fishing.

Steve Parton needs no introduction to the UK readers. Midlands reservoir angler, obsessional float tuber, author and "in the trade", Steve owns Sparton Fishing Tackle (drop by for a visit!) and is well known in the UK for his in-depth flyfishing knowledge.

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