John Bailey: On the lookout for Tarka

Just the other day I bumped into a Kingfisher Fishing Club member in the middle of a wet afternoon.

He was somewhat agitated, telling me that he had seen a lot of signs of otter activity at the head of the lake, close by the bordering river. I could see why he was so concerned. As the cold weather settles in, our resident lake fish, carp and tench in particular, become slower, more lethargic and obviously much easier to catch by any passing otter. The loss of a big fish is appalling, the creature all but irreplaceable. As a result, I put my own roaching session on hold and went up to scout out for myself.

My friend was most concerned about the otter slides that he'd seen amongst the rushes and I spent the next hour examining every inch of both the lake bank and the margins of the river. Of course, I'm not Davey Crockett, but this is what I found and what I think I discovered.

There were indeed a couple of very marked slides down the steepish bank of the lake into the water. There's no doubt about it that the reeds and rushes had been flattened in a very systematic way. I looked very carefully, both at the slides themselves and all the surrounding land. There were absolutely no spraints whatsoever, which you would have rather expected to have found close by. There were no prints of any mammals, though there were one or two of waterfowl. There were no scales, bones or any sign of dead fish. Nor were there any remnants of signal crayfish. I did find the half-eaten carcass of a mallard, but the prints around it suggested fox and certainly not otter.

I went to look along the riverbank. Once more, I found a slide, but this had almost certainly been created by ducks entering and exiting the river. Droppings lay everywhere along with prints and there was nothing to suggest the landmark had been made by a large aquatic mammal.

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Lower down the river, however, there were two water-level shelves. These were interesting and they did tunnel back into the marginal vegetation. However, on both the platforms there were water vole prints in huge numbers. Now, it's well known that Ratty doesn't hang around when Tarka is in the building! On the downstream platform, it is true there were some larger prints but they were four-toed, almost certainly made by an angler's dog perhaps and certainly not the five-toed prints of an otter, joined very recognizably by web marks. There were also swan droppings on both platforms and this, to me, indicated that swans were probably responsible for their construction.

By now the dark had almost descended so I decided to position myself with binoculars on a nearby bridge with the wind blowing away from the suspected area and into my face. I didn't have to wait long to see a straggle of geese come from one of the adjoining fields and make use of the supposed otter slide to get back into the lake. I was pretty confident, therefore, that I'd found the culprit this time. I did wait until full darkness, however, despite the persistent rain. I heard no sign of otters calling or whistling to each other and, through the field glasses, I could see no sign of anything running up and down the banks. As the waterfowl on the lake, too, were very placid, I suspected no sign of otters.

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What totally reinforced this feeling was the fact that I was also watching coots and moorhens in profusion acting in a very relaxed manner. It is well known, of course, that otters like feather as much as fin for their evening supper. When I left the lake, I had no shadow of a doubt that there was any immediate or obvious danger to our treasured carp stocks. Obviously, I was both relieved about this and encouraged that our syndicate members are so caring and so aware of the environment.

I spend more time than I should on the banks of the River Wensum, my literary agent tells me. So be it. All work makes JB a dull boy and I've always believed that to write about fishing it's important that you're actually doing it. I have no doubt that I am seeing far less otter activity up and down the 20 miles of river that I know well than I did four or five, or even three years ago. I'm not saying that I do not stumble across the occasional dead fish, but nowhere near the shoals of them that I once came across. There's little doubt in my mind that otters are, once again, finding a natural balance and the valley is reverting to something like normal. Introducing otters wantonly is a tragedy for the aquatic environment and frequently brings disaster to the animals themselves. When it comes to otter populations, those who would play God would be better to leave the situation in the hands of Mother Nature.

Of course, I am never saying that the situation along our valleys is eternally stable and that we can relax in any respect. The aquatic world is extremely volatile and I'm quite sure that this winter lakes will lose venerable, extraordinary fish. All I'm hoping is that some harmony is slowly being achieved and we can direct our attentions to other areas of our angling environment that need our full focus.

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