Ever considered developing and running an independent fishery? It can take passion and years of dedication, but little beats success on your own terms. Dominic Garnett met up with Brian Cox at Devon’s Stenhill Fishery to find out more on the pleasures and pitfalls of the game, along with a cheeky cast for the venue’s specimen roach and perch.
At some stage, virtually every angler must have dreamt of running a fishery. What could be better than nurturing your own lake, hand-picking your dream fish stocks and watching that vision develop?
Needless to say, in any career the grass tends to be greener on the other side of the proverbial fence. When I’m typing away on a laptop in July, I can easily look at fishery staff or outdoor workers with envy. By December or January, though, it can be a different story, as I am about to discover in a leafy corner of Devon.
I say leafy, but in fact most of the leaves seem to have turned and fallen now, as Brian Cox does his rounds. He picked out forty odd wheelbarrows of leaf litter from the lake this season alone, using his own homemade removal device! It’s just one of the many tasks he attends to week by week in running Stenhill Fishery, a pretty lake and fishing lodge near Cullompton, Devon.
A job for all seasons
As we have a coffee and a stroll around the lake, I’m intrigued to hear about the many tasks that go into the upkeep of a lake. Indeed, alongside pipe dreams, fishery management plans are also necessary! Stenhill has evolved over the years, to put it mildly. Originally dug as a nature reserve, then a trout fishery, it has shifted from a carp syndicate to a successful holiday lodge for groups of anglers. So often, this is the way with those taking on fisheries, as digging your own takes an even greater level of planning and legal work!
Carp fishing is the main draw, but it’s also refreshing to hear that Brian has been deliberately keeping a healthy balance with other species. For those visiting in the winter months there are fabulous perch and some of the biggest roach in Devon, in fact, fish we’ll have a try for this afternoon (more on this shortly).
Of course, this is no accident but a combination of nature and nurture. Brian is an all-round angling fanatic himself, and it shows. On the odd day off, he loves fishing all kinds of venues and has done everything from specimen carping to traditional match fishing in his time.
The story of Stenhill, though, is one of steady evolution and hard work, some of which is fairly mind boggling! I’m already wondering how he manages to do so much as a solo player-manager, in effect.
“On the surface, it’s every angler’s dream to have a fishery” he says. “But it’s hard work and definitely not a nine to five job. You need dedication. But to watch the sun rise over your own lake, or see a guest catch their best ever fish, those things are priceless.”
A rough guide to running a fishery!
A lot of Brian’s craft has been learned in practice. He loves coming up with his own solutions, for example. Some of these, such as his silt removal devices, are contraptions the A-Team would be proud of! That said, he has also made the most of educating himself and using various resources.
A selection of courses at Sparsholt have helped a great deal, for example, fitted around his other commitments. Environment Agency staff have also been supportive and willing to give good advice. He is also a big fan of the Angling Trust’s regional forums.
“I’m often surprised more of my fellow fishery owners don’t attend the meetings,” he says. “Hopefully these gatherings will get bigger and bigger, because they’re extremely useful. There are so many fishery management tools and bits of know-how that can make our lives so much easier. Why not make the most of what’s available?”
For his Angling Trust fishery membership, Brian is also grateful for liability cover and other benefits, including access to the Trust’s friendly network of professionals and fishery experts. Indeed, he’s been on board from year one of the Trust. “I think it was a talk from Mike Heylin that prompted me most to become a supporter” he recalls. “The talk he gave at an event was all about anglers and fishery owners getting off their backsides and building a better future. Truly inspirational stuff.”
Above all, you get the sense that success for Brian is about making the most of the community that is angling, both regionally and nationally. “I like to work with others and share knowledge” he says. “We’re all here for the same reason and if you don’t reach out and tap into that shared knowledge, nobody is going to hand it to you on a plate.”
Tradition and innovation
The best way I can describe the fishery is that everything seems to be in harmony. As an all-rounder myself, I don’t like the idea of featureless pools or those with only carp in them. How refreshing, therefore, to see willow trees, islands and bays, besides nice open, accessible swims. It’s clearly a fishery designed by a keen angler.
Creating and keeping attractive natural features can be tricky, though, as Brian explains. You’re open to the forces of nature and seasonal changes, too, and lessons are often learned the hard way. He has had brushes with mink in the past and erected an otter fence to keep his prized stock safe. Or there was the time he spent several days planting reeds by hand to enhance the the lake’s island. Unfortunately, the carp decided they wanted to spawn the very same week, trashing most of the new vegetation in the process!
It’s fair to say that there are both privileges and hazards to running your own fishery, then. In the many years of running it, guests have come to love the place. “241 anglers staying here have caught a personal best” says Brian. “They come from all over Britain and beyond- and one even came from Chicago!”
Bookings are healthy and he caters for a good variety of guests, too, from carp nuts to fishing families; with summer holiday guests and also those in search of short winter breaks. But behind all that peace and enjoyment, there is a lot of invisible but intense graft. In fact, if anyone deserves a quiet few hours fishing after another busy year, it’s Brian.
An afternoon off…
One thing I always wonder about owning a fishery is whether there is still a kick in fishing your own waters. Brian very definitely enjoys the occasional cast into his own lake, I’m pleased to report. The real issue is perhaps it’s finding the time and a suitable excuse!
“I’m glad you’re here today, because that gives me an alibi,” he laughs. “If I fish on my own, I keep thinking about all the jobs I still have to do. If the bites aren’t forthcoming I’m soon painting a fence or fixing something.”
Surely he knows most of the potential of the lake already, as the owner? “You might think so, but there are so many fish here that are hardly caught” he says. “The roach are a classic example. By thinning out the smaller ones by having perch and removing some of the excess, they have really come on. “
Over the last few seasons, a colossal 4,200 lbs of small roach have been “cropped” At the last netting we could not believe our eyes!” he enthuses. “There must have been thirty odd two-pounders, including a fish bang on three. Not that this makes them easy to catch, I have to add.”
Today, we are rather up against it, with bright skies and a bitter north-easterly wind. Brian has a bit of a trick up his sleeve for the extremes of weather though. His special aerator is not only useful for baking hot conditions, but can be a life saver in the chill of winter. Not only does it keep the surface ice-free, it even raises the temperature slightly!
So, while keeping natural features and a balanced stock, Brian isn’t averse to using technology at all. Other solutions include use of a special additive Siltex and bacteria, which literally remove inches of troublesome silt build up. Other lessons he has learned include modern ways of monitoring oxygen levels. These days, this can be done automatically and monitored from a smart phone! If the levels drop, aerators kick in immediately. Much better than the bad old days of getting up at the crack of dawn to check levels- and further evidence of why Brian avidly attends forums and meetings for those fishery tips that make his life easier.
Besides this kind of monitoring, though, Brian also has an underwater camera that he likes to place at different parts of the fishery. It’s certainly great fun to keep an eye on. Better than Eastenders, any day, to be viewing shoals of roach and lumbering carp!
Bites in the cold
Even with the benefit of local knowledge and a little tech, sport today needs some patience. Not that surprising, given that it’s bitterly cold. Say what you like about man-made waters, it’s bloody handy to have access to shelter and a cup of coffee when you need it!
Sensibly, we both have worms and maggots to try and winkle out some fish. Our initial aim is to catch on the pole, but it soon appears that the fish are out in the deeper and further swims. Every so often there is a shower of fry at the surface as the perch go on the attack!
A switch to the feeder is inevitable- as is the first bite being from a perch. Bites two, three and four are stripy customers as well. Not our original target, but they are in fine fettle and really excellent fish. The average stamp is well over a pound here, and they run a lot bigger than this too. A godsend on a cold day!
Interestingly, it’s only by switching to helicopter rigs and maggot feeders that the sport really kicks off. As crude as speci set ups appear next to match tackle, they produce superbly positive bites.
The next fish brings a shiver of excitement, rather than cold. There’s a broad flash of silver at the surface, before the net bulges and we’re both intrigued to see a roach. At a pound and a half, it is a stunning, young looking fish with bright orange fins, in immaculate condition.
Hopes are now high as the late afternoon light begins to dim. Brian tells me a lot of the large roach give drop-back bites here. So, when my tip suddenly slackens, my heart skips a beat or two.
There’s a slow, thumping presence on the line. Could it be? My imagination runs riot. Along with numerous two pounders here, Brian has seen a colossal roach lost at the net last season, which a roach fanatic friend estimated at comfortably over three.
This time, it’s no roach but a better perch again. Out of sheer curiosity we weigh it. It’s a fine fish of 2lbs 2oz, in spite of being in the lean and long bracket. Brian has one of the same weight in our session, among many other pound plus fish, and you would bet your house on there being a monster in the depths somewhere.
With the light fading, however, that dream might just have to wait for another day. It has been a fascinating little visit- and I get the feeling we have only just scratched the surface of the potential here. After all, few guests even target the roach and perch- but with half week stays available in the winter, a keen specialist angler could make a little bit of Devon history, you suspect!
It’s an intriguing proposition, to put it mildly, and testament to the natural balance Brian has achieved at this tempting fishery, thanks to a lot of hard work and a little support from the likes of the Angling Trust and Environment Agency. Even on the chilliest winter afternoon, the future looks bright here and there’s a lot that any aspiring fishery boss could learn from this unique Devon fishing retreat.
Further links and useful reading
Stenhill Fishery offers excellent quality specimen fishing in a peaceful Devon location. Fishing is by booking only, with an exclusive lodge available all year round. For full details and prices, see http://www.stenhillfishery.co.uk
Angling Trust Regional Forums are FREE to attend and funded by Environment Agency rod licence money to give a wealth of expert advice to fishery owners and fishing clubs. CLICK HERE to find out more and look up your next regional event.
Angling Trust Membership for your Club or Fishery brings great benefits, from friendly expert advice to cover against fish loss due to pollution. To read further details, see our membership section HERE.