The Fall of the Maggot P1

Ideas for a Big Test come from all kinds of weird places. A letter or a question from a reader might trigger an idea. For example, coming up later this year is whether you should or shouldn't  groundbait before feeder fishing. This is an popular and relevant subject because we get hundreds of letters a year from readers of Declic asking that very question. Other ideas, like the Cralusso Rocket test came from new items of tackle which claim to out-perform existing equipment. A Big Test on the bank can help prove this. But most ideas come from seemingly random sources, a conversation with an angler, a thread on a fishing forum, or a chance picture in a magazine.

Which, of course, brings me to the subject of this month’s Big Test. I was sitting in my own private fishing library one morning (the one with a seat that flushes!), reading Dave Hall’s Match Fishing, were there's a fair bit on commercial carp fisheries, a good mix of articles on canals and rivers, plus there's Alan Scotthorne writing every month! The content is, to say the least, usually very UK specific. However, this particular edition I was reading that morning was a bit different. Inside was a feature on Jacopo Falsini fishing in Italy on a crystal clear river for chub and he was describing his favourite trotting methods with a Bolo rod for these super wary fish. In the opening shot that accompanied this particular article, Jacopo pointed his baited hook at the camera. On it was a maggot, hooked handlebar style through the middle. This caught my attention as it really looked odd! Jacopo claimed that this gave a slower, more natural, drop to the bait as it fell through the crystal clear waters. Because of this the fish tended to follow the bait down less cautiously, which in turn prompted more bites.

I stopped and paid attention to this feature for a number of reasons. First, I was brought up being told that there was only one way to hook a maggot properly and that was as lightly as possible through the back of the thick end of the bait between the eyes. Over the years I have always hooked maggots this way, as I suspect most of us have done. But here was Jacopo, a true world class angler, showing us all something completely different.

Jacopo was talking about fishing in clear rivers in Northern Italy, which are fed from the mountains so have always been crystal clear. I then started thinking about the past few years while I've been fishing on the Seine. The river had got clearer and clearer every time I've visited. Our own rivers in England have all become much clearer, and consequently a lot harder. All over France you can see the same thing happening, water becoming cleaner as the rivers became clearer... while the fishing gets harder. Believe me, the rest of Europe WILL, no doubt, follow this trend!

So Jacopo’s piece sent my brain into overdrive. If the way we hook maggots affect their fall through the water... by how much? What other factors are at play here, for example, how much difference does the weight of a hook have on the descent rate? And, would any of this make a difference to how many fish you could actually catch?

This is what I set out to establish in this months Big Test. But first I needed to do some research on the reasons why our rivers are getting clearer. What I found was a worrying tale which could spells the end of an era of great river fishing on our major waterway networks throughout Europe.

The decline of the UK river match scene
Twenty years ago, UK river matches were big affairs, attended by hundreds of anglers. Take my local river, the River Wey. Open matches in the 1970’s and 80’s were 200 plus peg affairs with anglers travelling hours to get there. Last Sunday there was an open on the same river and a mere 16 anglers turned out, the furthest had travelled just 15 minutes to get there. The Thames, Trent, Welland and Nene are legendary names in UK match fishing but while their waters' may run clean and clear, their banks become devoid of the once prolific match angler!

The reasons why UK match anglers have abandoned the river scene may at first seem complicated, as some in higher places may have us believe. Some may argue that commercial fisheries have given easy guaranteed fishing with comfortable parking and short walks to pegs. Matches have got smaller and more regionalised as anglers are prepared to travel less for fishing. But, the simple truth in all of this has been that the steady decline in the quality of river fishing throughout the country has coincided with the improvements in water quality and clarity, driven through by stringent implementation of legislation, like the EU Urban Wastewater initiative.

Water quality – a blessing and curse
The drive across the European Union to improve water quality must surely be a good thing? In the 21st century, the idea of discharging partially treated waste into our watercourses is totally repulsive and unacceptable. You can walk or cycle along our major rivers today and look down at clear water with a thriving weed growth in the margins and tell yourself, this must be what water quality is all about, creating a cleaner more healthier environments for us all.

That is, until as an angler, you start tackling up to fish the Seine or Thames for a summer roach session. Looking in the water you realise that you can see the bottom 6 or 7 metres out from the bank. The water is as clear as from your own kitchen tap. Predators use the clarity to chase prey. You can spot a few perch darting around the marginal weeds after small prey. Sure the perch are small, but what about the bigger predators out in the deeper water. They can see just as well and the roach know this. In goes the feed and you start getting a few fish, a few roach and the odd perch. Then the bites stop. You try beyond the feed and snare a roach only to have it grabbed by a pike on the way in. As the day goes on, the roach vanish, despite their hunger these fish know that to sit exposed feeding in one area is to probably end up dead.

As you pack up, your mind goes back to what the rivers used to be like. Summer meant colour, but not the colour of floodwater. The colour of our rivers used to be either green or brown caused by blooms of summer algae. The algae were feeding on the nutrients discharged into our rivers by sewage and agricultural run-offs. It was these algae that gave the hint of colour to the water that kept fish feeding throughout the day.

The other great issue surrounding water quality and angling is 'natural' feed. Many of us knew where to look for joker years ago. Downstream of any towns’ sewage work you would find the joker beds. Well, if us anglers knew where the joker was, so did the fish! Nature does not have the same prudishnessas as we do when it comes to feed. Fish don't stop to question whether the source of the nutrients providing their rich feeding is a 'tad' dirty. The organic pollution of our rivers provided rich pickings for huge populations of fish. If you want a comparison in nature today, look at the number of birds feeding on landfill sites. Not just the seagulls, who we regard as scavengers, but flocks of swallows, starlings, chaffinches. Our waste provided a rich food source for massive shoals of bream and roach in the past. Today this rich source of food is disappearing all across Europe, let me explain how.

Sewage treatment, how it works
To understand better how our rivers are getting cleaner we need to look at the way our waste water is treated. There are three levels of sewage treatment. Primary, secondary and tertiary treatment. Briefly at each stage this is what happens:

Primary treatment
This is the removal of elements of waste that can easily be filtered from the waste. Primary treatment involves filtration, to remove solids like tins, gravel, condoms and solid bits of waste. Then the waste is laid in sedimentation tanks. Here floating materials like grease and oil are skimmed off the waste. What is left is a sludge, which can be further treated, and a liquid water which can be treated or returned to the water course. This is little more than a filtering of the waste and a removal of large particles. The organic content of waste is little affected by primary treatment.

Secondary treatment
In this stage the biological content of the sewage is broken down by bacteria. This is the stage where large lagoons of filter beds are used to allow aerobic bacteria to get to work on the waste. These bacteria and protozoa will munch away on the waste removing nitrogen and breaking up sugars, fats and biological carbons. This process can take several weeks depending on the systems being used.

Tertiary treatment
This is the final stage to raise the quality of effluent before it is returned to a watercourse. Here processes remove nitrogen and phosphorous from the water and finally the effluent is disinfected before being returned.

This final stage, disinfection, is also called effluent polishing. Mostly it is done chemically by adding chlorine to the waste to give it a final sterilisation before return. Chlorinisation is not without impact as it is decidedly not good for the eco-systems of rivers and lakes and many treatment plants chlorinate waste then de-chlorinate the chlorinated waste (if you follow me). The same level of treatment can also be achieved through more complex ultra violet treatments, but at much greater expense.

Tertiary treatment is expensive and produces not just clean but sterile water for returning to the water system. Implementation of tertiary sewage systems has been slow throughout Europe because of the expense involved but gradually more and more plants are being upgraded to tertiary treatment. This level of treatment poses the greatest threat to our rivers, as the water that's returned is chemically cleaned and totally sterile. Put simply, it's just TOO CLEAN to support rich coarse fisheries.

The EU and waste
Treating sewage is expensive and the more stages of treatment you apply to your waste, the greater the expense. The EU have set out minimum standards and guidelines for waste water quality across the community. But because of the serious cost implications to member states of implementing these standards they are far from being met.

The Urban Waste Water Directive
This is the major legislation covering urban sewage. Here in brief are the targets laid out by the EU

  • by the end of 1998, all towns of more than 10,000 people discharging sewage into sensitive waters should have had the highest (tertiary) level of treatment;
  • by the end of 2000, all towns of more than 15,000 people should have installed 'secondary' sewage treatment, which dissolves pollutants and eliminates solid waste;
  • by the end of 2005, smaller towns should have installed secondary treatment as well.

Not surprisingly, this legislation is still not fully in place yet. In 2004 only Austria, Denmark and Germany had complied with the regulations. Of some debate is the amount of water in countries classed as 'sensitive' and needing the highest level of treatment. Interestingly new EU members like Poland and Bulgaria, along with older members like Belgium and Holland have identified their whole country as sensitive. The EU has ring-fenced 35 billion euros to help the 10 new member states improve their sewage infrastructure. For those of you who enjoy the quality of fishing currently on offer in Eastern Europe be warned! This will change dramatically the shape of fishing in these countries over the next 20 years, as all their sewage plants get upgraded.

I have not touched on EU directives on agriculture or industrial waste, which are pushing for similar improvements in reducing nutrient load. But for us anglers the sewage discharges are of fundamental importance.

What is clear is that this transformation in our waterways is either here, or coming. The impact of cleaner waste being pumped back into our rivers is only starting to be fully realised by the angling community.

Effects of improved water quality on angling
I have hinted already at the effects cleaner rivers are having on our rivers. They are:

Increased biodiversity
Cleaner waters bring a greater variety of fish. A good thing you might think. Migratory fish are returning to our major river systems, salmon in the rivers Thames and Seine, along with sea trout and shad. The arrival of ten salmon in the fish ladder at Poses (Eure) made national TV news in France. The Seine now has 29 recognised species of fish in its lower reaches, a situation unthinkable 20 years ago because of the levels of organic and industrial pollution. What happens as water gets cleaner is fish which were intolerant to pollution start to re-establish populations and slowly 'new' fish start to spread through a river basin. There can be no better example of this than barbel.

It was thought impossible to be catching barbel in the sluggish lower reaches of our big rivers. But now the best barbel fishing and the biggest fish are coming from the wide lower reaches of many English rivers. When I recently visited Vernon on the lower Seine what did we find? Local anglers were starting to catch barbel. Give it another 10 years and barbel will be a main target fish all through the lower Seine. You see it's not that barbel didn't like the slower sections of our rivers in the past, it was the pollution they couldn’t tolerate!

Eutrophication: too many nutrients entering a water system causing increased levels of algae and weed. This can result in serious oxygen depletion in many waters especially when the algae die.  Fish do not do well in seriously eutrophied conditions.

Oligotrophic: there are too few nutrients in the water to sustain a decent food chain. Oligotrophic waters cannot sustain large fish populations.


Decreased biomass
The flip-side of this increased bio-diversity is simply less weight of fish present. When our rivers were more polluted there were large numbers of coarse fish present. Those who could tolerate the pollution thrived and the pollution itself drove a food chain which could support huge numbers of fish. As a result, fishing on our rivers was good and weights big. There is no doubt that many of our rivers in the past were seriously eutrophied. The problem for many fish species was not that there was nothing to eat, the problem was rather one of oxygen. The organic pollution was feeding huge populations of algae and invertebrates, like joker, which used a lot of oxygen both in life and death, as they rotted in the water. Improved water quality, less algae and joker present and meant a return to cleaner foodstuffs like caddis and freshwater shrimp. Sound good, healthier natural larders and a rich feeding ground for all sorts of fish. If only it was that simple. The problems for rivers arise when the waste water becomes too clean the rivers actually become oligotrophic, where nutrients are in short supply. Think of upland trout streams. Crystal clear water, low in nutrients and not a lot for fish too eat. The result, less fish per square metre of water because there is less feed available!

Fish becoming more nocturnal
This is a trend we are noticing more and more on our clear rivers in England. A fish is driven by a number of instincts. There is the need to feed to stay alive, a strong instinct in ANY animal. But this is overridden by the need to stay safe. Clear water means danger to all prey fish. If you can see the bottom of a river down the edges as an angler can, think what a pike or a catfish can see. The dangers for fish are not just in the water, cormorants, grebes, herons, all these birds rely on sight to catch fish and the clearer the water the more fish can be seen. Fish know this and when they feel exposed they simply will not feed. More and more we find fish starting to feed as the light fails and then continue to feed into the night. There is a whole breed of English angler who now only fishes evenings and into the dead of night. And they catch fish, plenty of them, right through winter as well. Unfortunately this leaves the normal match angler in an awkward position. Fishing 10 to 3 in the afternoon is becoming more and more difficult on English rivers The number of times I have fished a match on our river and the whole field has struggled for a few bites and some small fish. Anglers start moaning about there being no fish in the river and we need to stock more etc, etc. Yet you talk to the twilight anglers and they are catching big nets of bream, big chub, barbel and carp. All in the swims that the match guys are struggling on! The fish are there, they are just feeding in a different way!

You need to fish lighter and present baits better
As rivers get clearer the fish can see better. This may seem like a stating the obvious, but it has a profound impact on how we fish. Clearer water means more light gets through the water, visibility improves even at 4 metres deep and the fish can see our lines and baits better than ever before.

If fish can see our baits better they will be much more aware of what appears 'natural' in terms of presentation and what appears simply wrong, So finer lines, using more fluorocarbon lines, lighter hooks and greater care to the way we present baits become more important as the water gets clearer.

Which brings us back to the point of our Big Test. Jacopo Falsini was hooking maggots through the side to get a slower rate of descent with his bait. The chub he was targeting would only follow a bait down and take it, if the bait dropped naturally. It was the photo of Jacopo with his maggot hooked through the middle that inspired me to do this test because, to be honest, I've always hooked maggots the same way, without question, for years. In Parts 2 and 3, we'll go over the different ways of hooking maggots and see just how the results compare against each other... so don't miss them, they make fascinating reading!