West & Fens: Otter drops in to steer our tactics
It felt like miles by the time we made it to a far-off bit of fen drain no-one, but no-one, fishes these days.
So far off piste even Bear Grylls won't fish there, I told my mate. Out went the rods, while I rooted about on the bank to see if we were really the first ones there this season.
No, we weren't. Up and down the bank there were spraints – otter droppings in old money – all over the place. Some of them bristling with fish bones. Not just one Tarka, but two or three by the looks of things.
They use their droppings, for want of a better word, to mark their territories. Looked like a family have set up shop on this bit of drain.
Otters are attracting a fair bit of flak just lately. Unlike the cormorant debate, where anglers are probably 90pc right and there are signs of progress, there's a lot of nonsense being talked about otters.
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There's no doubt they do eat fish. That's a no-brainer. But apart from small 'commercial' type stillwaters, are they really going to empty our rivers?
Otters were nearly wiped out by pesticides like DDT. Parts of the Fens were among their last strongholds.
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As conservationists started to re-introduce them to the wild, the face of fishing was changing. Gravel pits along some of our major river systems were being stocked with fish. Then the new wave of commercial fisheries came along.
Both created perfect larders for the otters – why mess about chasing chublets in some coloured, swollen river when you can drop in a gravel pit next door and find a 20lb carp snoozing in clear water?
We never caught a thing on the stretch of far-flung drain near where the otters must have a holt.
As we leap-frogged the rods back towards civilisation, the runs did not come until we had almost reached the access point and began to encounter signs of human activity.
When one of the local pits went from a fairly good pike water to Blank City, Arizona, overnight, we blamed Tarka.
Whenever I didn't catch a pike – which was fairly frequently, even by my standards – I often saw an otter.
But towards the end of the winter, there were one or two days when the place came alive again.
Now the smart money says the otters hadn't eaten everything in the place at all. They'd just driven the prey fish off to other areas, and the pike had followed.