And a brief history of the Guash Fishing Club
By Graham Cornish
1900 – 1920
Since the 1880s fishing rights on the River Gwas (the Club has always preferred an earlier spelling of the river’s name) belonging to the Burghley Estate were leased to the Stamford Welland Angling Club, along with their rights along some 20 miles of the River Welland. In this period of relatively few anglers the Gwash saw little angling pressure. Gordon Turnill tells us that around 1900 the Gwash was heavily stocked with brown trout fry and no fishing was allowed for two years; even then fishing was limited to two days per week. Most fishing was done on Saturday mornings for no fishing was allowed on Sundays, a ban, incidentally, that was not lifted until the mid 1970s.
Initially a fly-only stretch was reserved from the beehives at Ingthorpe downstream to the Red Barn (now beats 4 to 6); otherwise most fishing was done with lobworm or spun natural minnow in the pools and deeper holes. Gordon Turnill, who was aged only 10 in 1910, recalls talking to older anglers about the quality of fishing which was superb. Fish were seen in selected places up to an estimated 5lbs in weight.
At that time the natural flow in the river could drive three water mills. Lush streamer weed on clean gravel shallows provided ample cover, and prolific fly life included a good mayfly hatch.
Grayling were introduced a few years after trout were established. Other coarse fish were relatively few in number, although some superb dace to specimen size were occasionally caught with the odd roach, perch and chub. There was also an abundance of minnows. With such rich food the trout grew quickly resulting in many fish over a pound in weight in the third year after stocking, the two best brace of trout weighed 5 3/4lbs and 7 3/4lbs, caught on mayfly and natural minnow respectively.
In the period prior to the First World War, angling on the Gwash increased in popularity and continued to 1920, when despite or because of further stocking of mature trout and the indiscriminate use of bait, the fish became harder to find. A contributory factor may have been large numbers of tame ducks reared on the river during the years of wartime food rationing, which according to Gordon Turnill, destroyed weed beds and ate the trout fry and insects. As a result, when the war ended, a number of interested parties, with the encouragement of the Marquess of Exeter and the assistance of Major Bailey, the Manager of the Burghley Estate, decided to form a fly only club with preference for membership being reserved for those living in or near Stamford.
1920 – 1950
In September 1921 the Guash Fishing Club was formed with 56 members. A joining fee of £2 and an annual subscription fee of three guineas (£3.15 today) were imposed. A keeper was engaged and a program of river improvement and stocking implemented. It is interesting to note that the rent for some seven miles of Burghley Estate water was less than £5 per year.
By this time the grayling were increasing rapidly and were so prolific that winter fishing with bait was sanctioned, many fish being killed for the benefit of the trout. The once abundant minnows had practically disappeared. Gordon Turnill blamed the tame ducks and the grayling for eating their spawn, but whatever the reason, fewer big trout were caught despite regular stocking with two-year-old fish.
Interest in the Gwash as a trout fishery spread to the larger towns, and small syndicates were being formed to lease other stretches of the river, prompting the Club to acquire more water outside the Burghley Estate holdings, increasing the Club’s water to something like we have now.
In the 1930s the Catchment Board, as it was then, began to embark on flood relief schemes. Fortunately; their worst excesses were blocked by the Club in negotiation and only a stretch between Blackstones and Newstead Mill, near the confluence with the Welland, was canalised. In later years some less drastic work was done to alleviate flooding in the Ryhall – Belmesthorpe area.
Following advice from Dr. J.C. Mottram, a noted expert in his day, and an Honorary Member of the Club, a hatchery was built at Great Casterton on Beat 5 and stocked with unfed fry from Blagdon Reservoir. An attempt to form an enclosed “stew” in an island channel failed due to floods.
Fly boards and shrimp hurdles were introduced in 1934, and shrimps and snails were obtained from the Greatford watercress beds alongside the River Glen – now converted to arable farmland. All this contributed to good quality fishing, as by the late 1930s a typical two-year period would produce an average of forty-eight trout per year according to twenty members’ fish returns. Two thirds were of takeable size including a number over 2lbs. A catch of two or three brace of these fish was not unusual on a good day.
The Second World War saw a decline, again mainly due, it is said, to those ducks of world war one origin. There must have been a lot of them! Low rainfall and abstraction of water from the river and the North Brook at Empingham added to the problems. The North Brook, then as now, provided the majority of the natural summer flow along the Gwash. Alarm was raised when invoking powers’ granted by recent legislation the Oakham R.D.C. as it was then, proposed to tap the springs feeding the North Brook to supply their district. Nothing new here, as in the 1870s there was talk of tapping the same springs for Leicester’s needs. Fortunately nothing came of the earlier proposal and the R.D.C. schemes were carried out without serious consequences. Much more serious was the building of Rutland Water of which more anon.
Two social events occurred in this period. The first was a coarse fishing day in winter using bait, where it was stated that minnows as well as trout did not count! The second was the first of what was intended to be an annual dinner held at the George Hotel, Stamford on 18″ October 1938. One of the toasts was proposed by a Rev. D. Witty, whose claims to at least fishing fame included two dace caught from the Gwash in February 1934 weighing 11b 5ozs 7drms. and 11b 8drms, the former still being among the top ten dace caught in this country. Both fish are cased and can be found in a back room of the Stamford Museum.
1950 – 1975
The trout hatchery was discontinued in 1951 in favour of stocking mature fish for more instant sport. Ongoing management included a visit by the late Frank Sawyer, a renowned keeper on the upper Hampshire Avon, in May 1955. In his report to the Club he saw no reason why the Gwash should not produce a hundred sizeable trout per mile of fishery, there being sufficient food to sustain them.
He also suggested the cutting down of trees obstructing sunlight to encourage weed growth, especially on the gravel shallows, and the removal of dams the Club had installed as they contributed to the accumulation of silt and mud. At that time he estimated the natural fall of water as being about eight feet per mile, Sufficient to clear the riverbed of normal silt deposits with winter floods clearing the more stubborn areas.
Whether the Club heeded his advice is not known, but certainly in the 50s and 60s there was considerable improvement in the size of fish. For many years a 10 inch size limit was in force, this was increased to 12 inches with the stocking of three year old trout – up to 12 inches – though members were imposing their own personal limits of 13 to 14 inches. The weights of fish killed averaged 11b, with a number over 2lbs at this time.
The 60s appear to have been a halcyon period. The biggest brown trout ever recorded was caught in 1966 and weighed 4lbs 9ozs and was 23 inches long. This beat the previous record of 3lbs 6ozs and 20 inches long, taken back in 1952.
Grayling had made a comeback in the 60s and it was not unusual to take as many as many as 20 fish to 1/2 lbs in a day. Grayling culls with bait in winter were regular events which ultimately became the Club’s Grayling Day, with a trophy for the best catch, an event revived in the 90s. 1971 saw the best ever grayling, caught by a lady member, at 2lbs exactly.
The 60s also saw the involvement of the River Board in fishery management in the form of coarse fish removal by the then new method of electro fishing. One such exercise removed fifty pike above Tolethorpe Mill, not then our water, and at other times many hundreds of other coarse fish, including many grayling. Probably the most notable catch by electro fishing was a bag of 716 grayling, 97 eels, 21 pike to 12lbs and 313 roach, dace and chub. Although no one complained about the removal of coarse fish generally, the 1968 AGM noted comments about the loss of winter grayling fishing, no less than 1700 having been removed in the period 1964-1967.
In the 1950s there is the first mention of working parties. Presumably prior to this the keeper, later two keepers, were kept busy weed cutting and bank clearing in addition to vermin control such as in 1924 shooting herons at five shillings per head.
One of the first working parties included a group of senior boys from Stamford School who bank cleared at Tickencote in their 1950 Easter holidays. At a later date they helped build a footbridge at Little Casterton (Beat 7), one of three along the Gwash which gave access to the far bank. The water level was higher then and the flow faster than it is today, and unfortunately the winter floods washed away their first efforts within a year. The winter floods also concerned the River Board to the extent that major relief work was carried out from Ryhall to Newstead, which fortunately has long since naturalised. Other fishery improvements included depositing powdered chalk and limestone in the river to increase the pH value, although there is no evidence that this improved the water quality, if indeed it was necessary.
1975 – 2000
This period is overshadowed by the building of Rutland Water on the upper reaches of the Gwash, accompanied by a disastrous poisoning from the over-zealous use of Rotenone, ostensibly to kill the coarse fish population of the Burley ponds during reservoir construction. The effects were felt downstream throughout the length of the Gwash to its confluence with the Welland, with an almost total loss of both trout and coarse fish in all the Club’s water. Fortunately invertebrate life was largely unaffected so that the river could be restocked without delay with trout, the Anglian Water Authority, although refraining from publicly admitting responsibility, nevertheless contributing considerable numbers of brown and rainbow trout of takeable size. Both did well, the brown trout soon establishing a breeding population, while in 1980 a rainbow trout of 3Ibs 10/20zs was landed. Although many coarse fish re-established themselves, grayling failed to revive in their former presence.
About this time the first of a regular three year survey by the AWA’s fisheries department commenced, the 1980 report concluding that the total biomass of fish was on a par with the River Kennet in Berkshire.
Meanwhile, however, conditions in the Gwash were declining. The legislation authorising the construction of Rutland Water had set the compensation water, the minimum flow released below the dam, at only 1 million gallons/day. To begin with, however, the AWA were more generous and released up to four or five times that amount. But by 1982 the released flows were reducing to nearer the compensation flow level, a practice which has continued since privatisation. The reduced flows and absence of spates has encouraged silting of the river bed and a narrowing of the channel as the river has adjusted itself to the lower flow. Increased weed growth and bank herbage has been an additional consequence.
In 1977 Gordon Turnill, who had served the Club so well and for so long, died and a younger management developed which encouraged members to open up stretches of the Gwash which had for years been left to literally vegetate.
Among the pioneers were Brian Parsons, the new Secretary and Tony Rawlings, then Vice Chairman, who led teams of members with considerable enthusiasm, clearing stretches that had been neglected for many years. Not only were banks cleared, but limestone blocks and rubble were deposited in selected places to create riffles and pools, as can be seen upstream of White Post Bridge, Belmesthorpe (beat 12) and at Great Casterton (Beat 6). The National Rivers Authority, successors to the AWA following privatisation, also contributed and their work can be seen at Little Casterton (beat 7), all of which has since naturalised.
Spraying with herbicide to reduce the excessive weed growth in the river was tried with but little success. Manual weed cutting in selected places during the Summer gave better results. Mechanical strimming of bankside nettles and other growth proved successful and is now widely practised.
The stocking policy continued with the stocking of larger fish in the 1/4 lbs bracket, and restricted to the indigenous brown trout. It was found in the regular AWA and NRA surveys that the wild fish, in places quite prolific, did not reach takeable size, six to eight ounces being the average upper limit, and were not growing beyond about three years of age, due perhaps to less food and loss of habitat. Over-wintered stockfish reached a maximum of 3lbs in this period.
A grayling stocking was tried in 1986 with fish from Derbyshire and although they provided some sport for a year or two, no discernible breeding population was established. Further stockings of large numbers of grayling fry were done by the NRA in the mid 90s with similar results.
In 1981 the Marquess of Exeter died and his role as President was taken over by the only surviving founder member – Major Bailey. All went well until he too died in 1988 but the loss of his influence over the Burghley Estate resulted in a change of policy regarding the Gwash fishing rights. The Estate wanted a commercial return on their letting, which had been free through the Major’s influence for many years. A formal lease was prepared with a three yearly review and a substantial rent was demanded. Prolonged negotiations resulted in some improvement in the terms, but the extra costs to the Club could only be accommodated without an excessive rise in the subscription by increasing the membership from 53 to 73. This constitutional change was gratefully accepted by those in the long waiting list who thereby benefited.
Further serious problems arose when the District Valuer realised that the Club was now rateable and without warning assessed its rateable value at twice the rent which had just been negotiated with the Burghley Estate’s agents. The Treasurer, Peter Smith, became involved in prolonged negotiations with the Revenue and eventually, with valuable help from one of the Club’s members, Joe Gresty, himself an experienced land agent, the assessment was halved. Unfortunately, even with the help of the Ombudsman, it proved impossible to persuade the Rutland District Council to use their discretionary powers to reduce or waive the rates, for which they provided no service at all. It was a great relief to the Club therefore when in 1997 rating of sporting rights was abolished.
Peter Smith, now in his capacity as Water Resources Officer of the Salmon & Trout Association, also became engaged in ensuring that various proposals for abstracting water from and discharging effluent to the river were carried out without detriment to the river. These included arrangements for the Gwash/Glen river transfer scheme and the development of two trout farms.
All in all it could be said that the 90s were the toughest period the Club has ever faced one way or another, but there have been compensations. Conservation has become popular. Even the Water Authority changed its name: on privatisation, splitting between Anglian Water plc and the National Rivers Authority, the latter now merged with other government agencies to become the Environment Agency, but still committed to help keep the Gwash as a viable trout fishery. Otters have been re-introduced to the river after a thirty year absence which should make short work of a vastly increased population of eels and it is hoped deter mink. Farmers are encouraged to leave a five metre strip of grassland corridor alongside the river on arable fields to allow undisturbed passage for the otters moving up or downstream, which will also be of benefit to anglers.
An initial free supply of wood hurdles sourced by Secretary, Simon Bonney, from the EA, has been distributed along selected stretches to increase holding areas and keep the flow moving to clear silt: this improvement is ongoing. But it was realised by the management committee that there was a limit a small club can do with some fourteen miles of river bank available, much of it very little fished. When two excellent stretches of the River Welland became available with good access and little work required, they were immediately snapped up. These stretches are ideal for stocking trout and possibly grayling, and form a reserve against any possible loss of Gwash fishing for whatever reason. Incidentally, the Welland offers the best chance of beating the Gwash’s biggest brown trout. Two fish caught in the 90s, near to but not on the Club’s water and on bait and out of season, weighed 4 1/2lbs and 4 3/4lbs respectively. The smaller fish was 24 inches long but out of condition; in September there is no reason why a fit fish of this length should not weigh in the region of 6lbs.
Meantime, the record fly caught trout weighed 3lbs 14ozs landed by our Treasurer, Peter Smith, on a hare’s ear nymph, in May 2000 from our upper Welland stretch, which sets a standard for others to aim for.
Despite all the changes over the years, there are still parts of the Gwash which are a joy to fish. If you want wild brown trout fishing, albeit Small ones, in wild beautiful natural Surroundings, then I can recommend Ingthorpe and Tolethorpe (beats 4 and 8) as places to recharge the old batteries. There’s more to fishing than just catching fish, so it’s said, and these beats are the epitome of it. Both the EA and the Club are committed to the Gwash as a trout stream, so despite the ups and downs of recent years, we can look forward to the next hundred years with optimism.