Chalk talk

Si­mon Cooper pays trib­ute to the in­domitable na­ture of trout

Trout & Salmon (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Si­mon Cooper cel­e­brates the sur­vival skills of our na­tive brown trout

IF YOU WERE A BROWN TROUT around this time of year you’d be ex­hausted. Spent. Three months of courtship and spawn­ing will have di­min­ished your plump au­tumn bright­ness. Your chances of see­ing the up­com­ing spring are no bet­ter than one in four. Months of ba­sic sur­vival stretch ahead. Hunker­ing down in a deep hole or among a tree root you’ll eke out each day with a lit­tle food and a lot of in­ac­tiv­ity. You don’t ac­tu­ally know that bet­ter days are ahead, but mil­lions of years of evo­lu­tion point you in that di­rec­tion. So you wait. It is a strange thing, but many peo­ple think of Salmo trutta, one of our few truly na­tive freshwater fish, as a sen­si­tive soul, yet it is tougher and more re­silient than you might sup­pose. Of all our fish, it is the most widely dis­trib­uted across the Bri­tish Isles by a coun­try mile; there is barely a pond, lake, stream, river or canal that doesn’t con­tain brown trout. How might that be? Well con­trary to gen­eral opin­ion they are not, left to their own de­vices, great trav­ellers; there is no mass mi­gra­tion to the head­wa­ters for spawn­ing. In all like­li­hood, when you catch that lit­tle wild “fish with speck­led skin” as the Ro­man writer Aelian de­scribed them, it will be born, live and die within 50 yards of where you made your cast. Brown trout re­ally have sim­ple needs: wa­ter, food, cover and gravel in which to spawn. If you have those, why bother to move? We tend to think that trout pre­fer fast, clear, tum­bling wa­ter, but they will live any­where. Talk to any­one who has trekked miles over the Scot­tish High­lands; even the re­motest loch, devoid of ap­par­ently all other life, will pro­duce a trout. When we were film­ing the movie Chalk, trout were liv­ing just a few yards from Bat­tersea Power Sta­tion in a river many might re­gard as Wandsworth’s storm drain. There are, of course, the per­ils of man-made pol­lu­tion, but even then, trout are far more tol­er­ant of that than their game-fish cousins, the grayling, who dis­ap­pear at the first sign of dif­fi­culty. To sur­vive for mil­lions of years takes some do­ing. We worry about cli­mate change to­day, but it is as noth­ing com­pared to what the brown trout has en­dured to main­tain its pro­lific sta­tus. Floods. Droughts. Ex­tended pe­ri­ods of heat. Ex­tended pe­ri­ods of cold. It has sur­vived them all. But how? Well, take its abil­ity to be­come a sea-trout. This is sim­ply a sur­vival mech­a­nism. A way of pre­serv­ing the species as the fish, largely fe­males, driven from the river by some cat­a­clysm, stay away un­til it is safe to re­turn to lay down the seeds of a new gen­er­a­tion. And as for spawn­ing, they have made it as sim­ple as pos­si­ble. Courtship is not overly elab­o­rate. Redds are a mod­est in­den­ta­tion in loose gravel. The great­est dan­ger is a lack of well-oxy­genated wa­ter flow­ing over the eggs, but even in a lake or slow-mov­ing canal, they’ll find a spring­head to do the job. Trout, like all fish, are food ob­ses­sives. This is what de­ter­mines their daily lives. But trout, un­like some fish, have in­cred­i­bly gre­gar­i­ous feed­ing habits. There is re­ally noth­ing a trout will not con­sider eat­ing, which is part of their amaz­ing abil­ity to sur­vive just about any­where. Think of the vast ar­ray of flies (us­ing the term loosely) we have in our boxes: in­sects of ev­ery type. Spi­ders. Ants. Shrimps. Bee­tles. Moths. Fish. Grubs. Snails. I could go on, but you get the idea. I’m sure plenty of you have sat be­side the River Test at the Mayfly Inn, watch­ing kids feed­ing crisps to the wait­ing trout un­til some smart Alec flicks a cig­a­rette butt into the cur­rent. Nine times out of ten a fish will come up to swal­low it down be­fore promptly spit­ting it out. Trout are both cu­ri­ous and smart when it comes to food. They don’t let an op­por­tu­nity go by. Years ago, in Dorset, I came across a rot­ting sheep float­ing in the Sy­dling Brook; it was mag­got­blown. Con­sid­er­ably de­cayed. I smelt it be­fore I saw it. And there, nudg­ing its bloated corpse, were two trout gorg­ing on the mag­gots they dis­lodged. This abil­ity to adapt to chang­ing cir­cum­stances goes a long way to ex­plain why brown trout are now a global species but, in evo­lu­tion­ary terms, this is only a re­cent de­vel­op­ment. If you flick through any glossy cof­fee-ta­ble book of amaz­ing fish­ing des­ti­na­tions there is sure to be some­one hold­ing a mon­ster New Zealand brown trout. But these are not na­tives: they were in­tro­duced in the late 1800s when the indige­nous grayling all mys­te­ri­ously dis­ap­peared. Salmo trutta is re­ally a Euro­pean fish, its nat­u­ral range a box, the north­ern ex­tent be­ing Nor­way and Rus­sia. The south­ern, the At­las Moun­tains in North Africa. The east, Afghanistan and Pak­istan. The west, Ice­land. So any of those fish you see in the Amer­i­cas, An­tipodes, Asia or any­where else for that mat­ter had their ge­n­e­sis in ei­ther Eng­land’s River Itchen, Scot­land’s Loch Leven or Ger­many’s Black For­est. So let’s take our hats off to the brown trout: sur­vivor, mi­grant and sport­ing fish that now en­com­passes and en­rap­tures the globe.

“Nudg­ing its bloated corpse were two trout gorg­ing on the mag­gots they dis­lodged”

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