When I was growing up in Ireland, 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 (no vice) 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 stream bed. As he passed he left
a pile of rubble, rocks, weed, larvae and eggs
four feet high on one bank. The inspector should
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 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
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 stream bed, 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 which 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 which 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, caddisflies,
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 power 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
Overall 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
One day, after a downpour which 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 as a cat.
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 and join me
in respect to the late John Shaw of Stranocum,
County Antrim, who passed over some years ago
now, 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