Fish of the month: the Bleak (Mar 15)
Well known to anglers but perhaps less so to non-fishers, the humble bleak is one of the smaller fish that swims in our reach of the Thames. Locally it is likely to be the most prolific species. Rarely growing to more than six inches the bleak (Alburnus alburnus) has the appearance of a silver sprat or small herring.
As shoal fish, they have to compete hard for their food, which are typically small insect larvae, crustaceans and other invertebrates. A distinctive upturned mouth indicates that this little fish looks to the surface for its food. Isaak Walton in his 17th-century fishing bible the Compleat Angler referred to bleak as ‘river swallows’ on account of their endless darting and turning near the surface of the water.
As one of the rivers’ principal prey species, bleak are beautifully camouflaged for their life high in the water column. They have green blue backs identical to the colour of the river water for most of the year and no doubt adapted to protect them from attack from avian predators on or above the water’s surface. Their bellies are of pure cream to make them blend in with the sky from below and their fins are long, delicate and almost clear.
However it is the silver flanks which are their most distinctive feature with delicate, paper thin scales. Along with the Roach, the diminutive bleak is one of the most silvery of our river fish. In the past its scales were used as a source of ‘pearl essence’ or Guanine, a crystalline substance that gives the bleak its glitter and which was harvested for the production of artificial pearls.
To anglers the bleak is something of a mixed blessing. Their willingness to devour any small bait as it hits the water is welcome to beginners and match anglers alike. However that same enthusiasm quickly becomes frustrating for the fisher trying to get smaller baits deeper for larger species, only for them to be constantly pilfered by a hungry shoal of river swallows. - Richard Newton
Fish of the Month: the Bream (Feb 15)
Our local reach of the Thames flows quite slowly creating an environment that perfectly suits the Common Bream (Abramis brama).
he bream is one of those rather ‘fishy’ fish, attractively round in profile almost resembling a dinner plate with fins. It has a strikingly deep body with highly compressed sides, a dark back often with a greenish or bronze tinge, silvery grey sides with distinct scales and a whitish belly. The bream has a distinctive low slung mouth, ideally adapted for foraging on the river bed for aquatic insects, larvae and other morsels. Younger bream
tend to be silver.
Bream can grow to a considerable size, the British record being just over 18lbs, but a typical adult fish around South Stoke would weigh 5 or 6lbs. Younger fish weighing in at up to 2lbs or so are known as Skimmers.
Bream have a poor reputation as fighting fish as even the larger specimens tend to give up rather easily when hooked. However they are much loved by match anglers, those folk that fish in competitions to catch the heaviest ‘bag’ in a given time. The reason being that the bream is above all a shoal fish and so once an angler tempts one, it is likely that others will follow. Large numbers of good size fish can be caught in succession and local anglers tell of catches of over twenty or more bream with a combined weight of over a 100lbs in a single session.
To attract and keep a shoal of bream in their swim, anglers will use substantial quantities of ground bait, typically fine particles of bran, flour or seed, mixed with water rolled into balls of paste and thrown to the same spot to create a carpet of food on the river bed. Red seems to be the colour of choice for bait locally and a mild summer or autumn night is generally the best time to catch. - Richard Newton
Fish of the Month: the Pike (Jan 15)
The second fish after which our village pub is named is the Pike.
As the largest predator amongst British freshwater fish, the pike (Esox lucius) is relatively well known and has a considerable folklore. Legends abound of huge, ravenous pike swallowing waterfowl, snapping at the noses of drinking horses and even attacking
They are of doubtful provenance. I have though witnessed pike eating ducklings whole and most Thames anglers will have experienced reeling in a fish only to have it chomped by this ‘freshwater shark’. The pike will typically eat much smaller fish than itself, the roach being a particular favourite. They are not averse to a bit of cannibalism either,
which is probably nature’s way of maintaining an appropriate population. In clearing up injured, diseased, dying or dead fish they play an important role in maintaining healthy, balanced fish stocks.
Pike are perfectly adapted for their predatory role. Built for speed with a long, slim, camouflaged body and large tail, the ventral and dorsal fins are grouped together towards its rear. They lie in ambush, against submerged structures such as bridge piles, tree roots and marginal shelves and can accelerate at impressive speed.
In spring, when they spawn, they can sometimes be seen in the river shallows and
ditches around South and Little Stoke.
Smaller pike are known as jacks, for what reason I do not know.
Received angling wisdom is that male pike rarely grow above 10lbs and that larger fish are invariably females. They can grow very large and there is historic evidence of a true monster estimated at over 70lbs from Loch Ken, however the official British record is a fish one ounce shy of 47lb. A pike of 20lbs or more would be exceptional from our reach
of the Thames.
For all its fearsome reputation – and they do have an impressive set of sharp teeth – pike are surprisingly fragile creatures. Pike anglers should take great care in handling them and returning them to the water quickly, particularly in the summer when the water is
warm and less oxygenated. - Richard Newton
Fish of the Month: the Perch (Dec 14)
The revival of South Stoke’s Angling Club has sparked renewed interest in things fishy. Once again fishermen’s tales are to be heard at the bar of our village pub. So it only seems right that our scaly neighbours get their own write up in the village newsletter and where better to start than with one of the fish after which our local is named.
The fish we refer to in Britain as the perch (Perca fluviatilis) is a member of an international family of fish, the Percidae, which includes the Largemouth Bass,
widespread across the USA and possibly the most angled for fish in the world.
The perch is unmistakable in appearance and the most striking of our freshwater fish. Its
colour varies locally, but is typically dark olive on the shoulders and back, changing to bronze or silver along its lower flanks with bold dark vertical stripes and vivid orangey-red pelvic and anal fins. For good measure on the back of the perch is a spiky dorsal fin. The spikes are not venomous but they can pierce the skin if not handled carefully.
The perch has large eyes that give a clue to its predatory nature and it has what they call a “healthy appetite”. Smaller fish will eat anything they can, but as they grow larger – the British record being a shade over 6lbs – perch tend to become carnivorous and like its cousin the pike, they will prey on other smaller fish.
Perch and pike really are cousins and have cross bred to create the pike-perch or zander, but more of that curiosity in the future.
For many an angler, this writer included, the perch is the fish that kindled a lifelong passion. It has a particular weakness for a small red worm or brandling; the type
found in compost and manure heaps. Fished under a float the perch’s bite to the worm is quite distinctive. The float wobbles, lies flat and then tantalisingly slides under the surface. What happens next is down to luck, but for a novice the first sizeable perch they catch is a thing of wonder and a prize never to be forgotten.
Don’t tell anyone, but the perch makes reasonable eating. It has solid white flesh when cooked and fewer bones than other coarse fish and it is quite widely eaten in
central Europe. But here where the Thames runs slow and muddy they are far better to be put back and to live to be caught another day. - Richard Newton