Monday, 16 August 2021

                       
   “WHAT IS IT THAT YOU MOST ENJOY ABOUT FISHING”?



That was the question friend Martin Bowler asked me the other day while he created one of his splendid features for the Angling Times. Sadly, I failed to do his question justice, so here’s an attempt at a better answer.

I’m sure most of you would agree that one of the great joys of angling is that it takes you close to nature, out into a more peaceful world, full of the sights and sounds of wildlife and all the rewards that brings.



I found waterbirds magical when growing up in the Fens and I’ve been a passionate angler ever since. What’s more, the many challenges we face today makes angling even more relevant to our lives, the escape from reality a life saver. We hear plenty on the news these days about the healing power of nature and it certainly works for me.


The beauty of the unexpected is also an essential element in fishing, never quite knowing what will happen next, if at all, the  mystery of the unknown and what you’ll catch an essential ingredient that drives me and many other passionate anglers to keep looking for future adventures. It’s a journey in which you are always learning and that is one of the fascinations of fishing.


It’s often said that going fishing is simply an excuse for being there and that's partially true but of course, there’s more to it than that, like catching fish! Most of us always want to catch a bigger one and I’m certainly a specimen hunter by nature but now I’m growing older and maybe wiser, I’m finding that size isn’t everything and the trick is to believe that lesson from ‘A Passion for Angling’, “fishing is not about how to catch, it’s about how to enjoy”.


I grew up with Bernard Venables’ iconic ‘Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing’ as my bible and have been trying to recreate those magical scenes ever since, not just in my fishing but in films too, most notably when filming Bernard catching perch in our legendary 'Passion' series for BBC2.


 

 

 

 

 


Bernard’s inspiring paintings of rudd fishing in Norfolk had to be emulated of course and I was lucky to catch lots of two pounders in the school holidays, stalking the shoals in my little dinghy during magical days when searching Hickling Broad in the sunshine.



Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to catch a raft of big fish of many species, including this fish of a lifetime Fen giant of 3lb 9ozs, caught on freelined flake. It was raining at the time so I took a quick happy snap - very happy snap - and slipped her back. 

Nowadays, the varied tackle and methods I choose to use provide more enjoyment than the result, even if I know that I’m not always using the most efficient techniques. I simply love getting bites as this takes you away from normal life so effectively. Better still, if I can draw the fish really close to me and in the wildest places, then it's the nearest you can get to hunting and if you get lucky, you actually get to touch your quarry without hurting it.

I guess I’m a traditionalist, preferring to watch a float than ledgering and if that float is lowered in at the end of a pole, that’s even better. Pole fishing is so accurate and intimate, sensitive too and this lends itself perfectly to catching my favourite species, roach, tench and crucians, preferably big ones, though little ones are just as beautiful and seriously cute!



My enthusiasm for fishing reaches its height when trotting a float down a river for roach, where skill is required to catch the biggest ones. I’ve been lucky enough to catch a three pounder from both the Avon and Stour, the one from the Stour tricked by trotting bread flake on Christmas eve, the ultimate present! 

My biggest roach are from various lakes, I think I’m up to nine three pounders now but in many anglers opinion these don’t carry the same kudos as river roach and I’d agree, even if I still like catching them! Here's a three from Linch Hill, an 'easy' water to achieve that untimat roach goal.


However, I’ll never forget the evening of Nov13th 2018, when after four days and forty hours of fishing, [I don’t night fish], I got lucky with my only bite and landed the awesome fish below of three pounds, eleven ounces. I have no need or desire to publicise my catches, so a quick happy snap on the unhooking matt had to suffice to allow this beautiful creature a speedy return to it's home.
At just eight ounces below the roach record it was my ultimate fish of a lifetime. Happy days!

It’s simply great that fishing provides an endless variety of challenges and techniques and I’m quite happy to chuck out a helicopter rig for big roach or a worm kebab for tench at nine wraps and waiting for the bite alarm to give me a shot of adrenaline. But effective as these techniques can be, I’ll always use a float if conditions allow.

I’m not a carp fishing bivy, bolt rig and buzzer angler but there are few more exciting forms of angling than stalking lake edges for carp and waiting for those vortexes and tail waves as they nurdle over my free-lined bait. Then when the line tightens and the pin screams - magic!


One of my most memorable carp was at Redmire, waiting expectantly with Chris Yates as a golden common rooted in the mud at our feet in search of my worm. The indicator was a tiny sliver of stick and when it quivered and slowly sank, my Mk4 Avon and centre-pin were severely tested.


Then there’s those magnificent golden barbel making the pin scream and the nerves jangle with the battle that always follows.
Variety is the spice of life and mullet fight even harder than barbel, especially if hooked in shallow estuary water.



They simply never give up and the speed of their endless runs is unbelievable. They often escape of course and the ospreys we sometimes see overhead are better at catching them, but all this makes mullet fishing as good as it gets.

So those are some of the reasons why I enjoy fishing and I haven't even mentioned that most important ingredient of all, fishing with friends, let alone those adventures abroad after the many exotic monsters.



Being close to nature and protecting wild creatures is the key to enjoying fishing and as anglers we do a lot to ensure our wildlife flourishes, not least because we pay the Environment Agency an annual fee of twenty five million pounds through our rod licence fees to look after our rivers and lakes. 

Whether they do enough with that money is open to debate as our rivers are in a sorry state and the threats increase every year. Us anglers also provide significant protection through their club work parties and by supporting the Angling Trust. We also raise many thousands of pounds for public health charities such as Cancer Research UK through fund raising initiatives and we should all be proud of that as we enjoy our adventures.


Hopefully these answers to Martin Bowlers’ question “what do you most enjoy about fishing” have triggered a few happy memories for you and that you’ll be out there more often now, chilling out while surrounded by wildlife … and that includes those fishy mysteries that swim below the surface, adding many more ‘tales of the very unexpected’.

Friday, 26 March 2021

WOW!

                                            

Yes, it’s ‘World Osprey Week’ and these most charismatic of birds are fast approaching on the eternal skyways from the west coast of Africa. Hooray for High Flyers!


We live in sunny Dorset and several ospreys have recently passed by on their way to Scotland, including the famous pair ‘Maya and 33’ that have already arrived at their nest on Rutland Water. Remarkably, after their two and a half thousand mile flight from Senegal they landed on their nest within half an hour of each other. Appropriately, it was at mid-day on March 20th, the vernal equinox and first day of Spring, cause for celebration all round! 

We are also getting increasingly excited here at Poole Harbour, for we had a nest occupied here by our own star female CJ7 for all of last spring. 


She was raised and fledged from Rutland Water in 2015 and in spite of this being her first attempt at breeding, she behaved impeccably, building up her new nest and defending it in the hope of attracting a mate. Sadly it wasn’t to be but ‘The Birds of Poole Harbour’ team and all us locals have our fingers X’d that this year will be the first time ospreys have nested on the south coast since their extinction here a hundred and eighty years ago. We were treated to daily excitement by watching her on the camera the team had set up on the nest. We hope that this image from Scotland is replicated in Dorset soon.

Being just six miles from our cottage, it is an extraordinary success, for it was only in the late 1950’s that ospreys successfully returned to nest in Scotland after being driven to extinction, the last pair nesting in 1916. The same happened along England’s south coast and it’s thanks to our friend Roy Dennis and his team and the translocation of youngsters from Scottish nests that they have every chance of returning here too. You can read the whole story by visiting the excellent Birds of Poole Harbour website - www.birdsofpooleharbour.co.uk/osprey/

It seems like only yesterday that Sue and I were living in Scotland for two years, [it was actually in the late ’70's], to make a film about ospreys for the RSPB and with the help of Roy [seen mending one of our nests], we completed the task so successfully that the film sold to forty six countries. This neatly goes to show what truly remarkable and exciting birds ospreys are and just in case you are unaware how remarkable these big birds are, I’ll quote the opening lines of the film Roy and I made all those years ago. The BBC even honoured us with a Radio Times front cover.

                                - THE RETURN OF THE OSPREY -

“The Scottish Highlands, a wilderness of rock and heather, providing refuge for many wild creatures, and one bird in particular, a very special bird, one of the world’s most spectacular hunters - the osprey.

Evolution has set the osprey in a class of it’s own, equipped it with a unique anatomy for supremacy in it’s watery world : five foot wingspan, exceptional eyesight : from it’s sickle beak to it’s strong legs and raking talons, everything about it is designed for a purpose, the only bird of prey in the world to feed exclusively on live fish”.


Our children grew up under their wings so it is no wonder that one of Katie and Peter’s first words was ‘Osprey’! It was in the early years of the osprey’s re-colonisation of Scotland and we lived alongside these charismatic birds for two years. Our love for them is deep in our souls and we pray that this year will see them nesting just down the road in Dorset.


Katie and Peter still get excited whenever they see an osprey, as do Sue and I, so we can’t admire the Birds of Poole Harbour team more for their brave and exciting initiative to re-establish the breeding of ospreys just six miles from our home. These are trying times but if you want the best possible news, the osprey’s imminent return is it! We're all watching and waiting - every day! So far only crows ...


***She's back now though, arriving for a mullet lunch on April 1st and on the nest most mornings. We're praying that she attracts a mate this year, even if it means I'll be wasting hours watching her every move and hopefully, the growth of her chicks. Our fingers are firmly crossed.
But that’s not all the good news. Thanks to Roy’s energy and foresight, another high flyer is now winging around above us here on the south coast, the sea eagle.


This remarkable picture was taken from Hengistbury Head in Christchurch Harbour on March 23rd, just a couple of days ago! It shows two of the youngsters that Roy and his team have translocated from nests in Scotland in the hope that they can recolonise their old haunts around the Isle of White.


Like the osprey, sea eagles were exterminated from Scotland, the last ones nesting in 1916 on a steepling sea cliff on the Isle of Sky. I enjoyed the privilege of making a film for David Attenborough’s BBC One series about their remarkably successful reintroduction to Scotland between 1975 and 1985. Our film followed a few of the 75 translocated youngsters on their journey from nests along the cliffs of Norway to the Isle of Rum on Scotlands’ rugged west coast. Here they were raised by John Love and learnt the skills necessary for their survival and it is the same techniques that will hopefully prove triumphant down here on the Isle of White. They last nested here on Culver Cliff in 1780!

These two great pics were taken by friend and ace lensman Mike Read in Mull.

There are now one hundred and thirty territorial pairs of sea eagles in the UK and in spite of continuing persecution, numbers are increasing and providing substantial support for rural economies. These dramatic birds help raise £2.4 million on Skye and an impressive £5million on the Isle of Mull. You can read all the detail on Roy’s Wildlife Foundation Website - https://www.roydennis.org/

This splendid pic was taken by ace photographer Laurie Campbell for our Catching the Impossible book

Yet another high flyer is also helping stressed rural economies, the extraordinary success of the recolonisation of red kites across much of its’ former range. Their numbers have reached an unbelievable 1,800 pairs and they are increasing every year. 

In fact, it still shocks us that not so long ago we had to travel to remote valleys in West Wales to see one of only a dozen surviving red kites but can now look up and see red kites circling over our Dorset garden. Every one is a moment of magic.
So thanks to all these inspiring conservation initiatives and years of hard work, there is a lot of good news out there, so instead of walking head down, look up and be amazed by all these high flyers overhead. These truly are exciting times - WOW indeed!







Thursday, 11 March 2021

SAVING WILDLIFE - SNOW LEOPARD




“Some parts of our planet are so brutal that any animal surviving here acquires an almost mythical status.
 

This is the greatest mountain range in the world - the highest, the toughest, the most hostile - the Himalaya. Towering above India’s northern borders, these remote mountains are home to what may be the most glamorous animal on earth.

Just to see one is a dream, to film one nigh impossible - this ghost like creature is the Holy Grail - the ultimate wildlife challenge - the snow leopard”.
 
 

Those above are the opening words of narration for my film on this legendary cat, the first ever attempt at making a film about them. I have always loved cats and having made films about lions, leopards, tigers and mountain lions I had to try an even greater challenge. However, having read lots of scientific research and books, I was in no doubt about just how difficult it was going to be.


Recognised by many as the world’s pre-eminent field biologist, George Schaller described the mountains in which snow leopards live as “a land of just enough” and that refers not just to the animals but the human inhabitants too.
 The tracks of a snow leopard can be seen on the right of this photo and shows just how difficult it was to follow them with camera gear.


Like many mountain adventures, our quest was to end in tears and triumph and for one of us, the dream became a nightmare, his determination driving him close to death, no surprise I guess when trying to conquer this Everest of the natural world.

Ex Australian marine Mitchell Kelly was my main cameraman and in the first couple of years he achieved great success. For instance, snow leopards had never been seen mating, let alone filmed but Mitchell rose to the challenge and succeeded, along with many other firsts. We also managed to film a lot of intimate scenes and got to know how and where they moved around in their precipitous terrain.

However, he had to be evacuated from the mountains three times, once for torn stomach muscles from carrying heavy camera equipment up steep mountain sides, then more seriously, from altitude sickness twice, the last time nearly killing him. It was an immense relief that he survived but from then on the film became a damage limitation exercise.


We had already suffered tragedy when my original colleague and close friend on the quest, Chip Houseman was killed in a Thai Airlines crash just days before we were due to start filming. We had made an Academy Award winning film together on tigers in India and it was during the filming that we hatched a plan to tackle this unconquered challenge.

 

This is not going to be a story of how we made the film, even if we did manage to complete a film about these beautiful cats and learn a lot about how they lived in the unforgiving Himalayas of Ladakh in NW India.


I would lay awake at night, not because I couldn’t sleep in a tent with a broken zip in minus twenty temperatures but because it was the best time to hear the mating calls of the cats. Their high pitched screams would carry a long way through the valleys and give us an idea of where they were located and interestingly, those descriptions by mountaineers thinking they were hearing the yeti calling in the night were actually snow leopards!

I met an English school teacher in Bhutan who described seeing a yeti in a snowstorm on a high pass. It stood by the road edge looking at him, similar to a large grey langur monkey but more like human size, then shuffled off into the trees. When you consider that Bhutan is covered by 60% of dense forest and bamboo and impenetrable, it is easy to hide a large primate from prying human eyes. So yeti’s do exist!
 

That’s a story for another time, so back to snow leopards and our struggles to film them and though our story only scratched the surface, the film was shown on prime time ITV and around the world to big audiences. However, our main achievement was to prove to the wildlife film-making world that snow leopards could indeed be filmed and like my previous story about pumas in the Andes of Patagonia, several film crews followed.





Most notable was cameraman Mateo Willis, the son of a great friend, David Willis who took the wonderful Radio Times pic. I was able to help Mateo a bit on location details etc. and he and his colleagues from the BBC filmed some amazing behaviour for David Attenborough’s series ‘Planet Earth 2’ and if you saw it, you would never forget. The images of three snow leopards and their violent behaviour as a mother defended her cub from an aggressive male were magical.

The result of all this filming success in our chosen valleys in Ladakh is the direct way it has saved snow leopards from persecution, for just as with my pumas, tourists want to see the mythical cats. The local people are as delightful as humans get and were extraordinarily helpful during our filming and they have since become the perfect hosts for tourists seeking snow leopards.

This is our terrific team of Ladakhi helpers who were wonderful companions, some of whome are guiding tourists up there right now. The high ridge above them was a favourite patrol route for snow leopards in the evenings - sometimes!

Attracting tourists was the brain child of the world’s leading snow leopard scientist, Rodney Jackson [who is on the right of our happy snap] and who took this picture of our star cat with his remote cameras. He rightly argued that if the wildlife was worth lots of dollars to the rural economy, they would be looked after by the locals instead of persecuted for killing their sheep and goats. So he encouraged the locals to set up ‘home stays’ for tourists in the tiny mountain villages near the main travel corridors of the cats.
 

One entertaining story from the village which I'm assured is true is of a young girl who took out the family's sheep and goat herd for their daily feed int the hills. It wasn't long before a snow leopard rushed out of the mountain side and grabbed a sheep and the girl, instead of running away, rushed forward and grabbed the other end of her sheep. A tug of war followed and eventually the snow leopard let go and slunk away into the mountains. One sheep saved by a young girls bravery!
 

My friend Mateo Willis who filmed the wonderful snow leopard behaviour for Attenborough’s ‘Planet Earth’ close to this village told me recently that the remote mountains where we filmed in the ’90’s have now become a honey pot for wildlife seeking visitors from abroad and the valleys are full of tents and telescopes. 

 

He also said that the cats have become more tolerant of humans, just as our pumas did in the Andes Mountains and this has now made them easier to see. So it's a win win result all round.

Given the recent skirmishes between the Indian and Chinese armies on the Ladakhi border nearby, this tourist hot spot wouldn’t be a healthy place to be right now, but we are praying that all the snow leopards survive and flourish as they have done these last few years.

 

 

Our films legacy was a small contribution to start the ball rolling in environmental tourism in our chosen patch but you could argue that the peace and tranquility of the area has been spoilt. Maybe George Schaller would think that ‘the land of just enough’ has become ‘a land of too much’, but a lot of wildlife has been flourishing, including the rare and endangered snow leopard and this in turn has allowed many folk to enjoy seeing this mythical creature for the first time.


Given the increasing climate crisis makes me wonder if an increase in wildlife tourism is such a good idea but that’s a debate for another time. However, it’s a likely truth that if wildlife isn’t worth money it’s unlikely to survive and for better or worse, that’s a contribution that television has made a reality.

The wonderful drawings of snow leopards are by that leading artist Gary Hodges, so thank you for sending them to me Gary.