From specimen barbel to iconic British wildlife, Kent’s River Medway is a waterway showing excellent signs of revival. Key to this success have been the keen volunteers of Royal Tunbridge Wells Angling Society. Dominic Garnett went to meet the group, who show just what is possible with collective effort and a little help from the Environment Agency and its rod licence funded Fisheries Improvement Programme (FIP).
Something curious is happening in rural Kent. At least, that’s the impression you might get from from the sawing and hammering sounds. It’s a late winter’s morning and, as I was warned, the so-called Monday Club are out in force in club chairman Clive Rainger’s workshop, not far from Tunbridge Wells.
Gate-crashing the work party on a typical start to the week, I discover a real hive of activity. It’s here that the group assemble many of the things that benefit the river, from roach spawning boards to bird and bat boxes. Clive is a farrier by trade, so his workshop provides a handy space, while another keen club member with a neighbouring unit donates his leftover wood.
“We’re really enthusiastic about what we do” says Clive. “It’s addictive and the more you do, the more you want to do. It creates a feel good factor that spreads beyond just fishing.”
As the ringleader of the group, Clive doesn’t let much stop him and his cohorts putting in a shift at the start of every week. It’s here that with hammers, nails, saws and cups of tea they have come up with so many strategies to work wonders on their local river. On my visit, Clive has only recently recovered from heart surgery, but wouldn’t miss this weekly get together for the world.
The bird and bat boxes, in particular, have been a huge win on more than one level. “They’ve been fantastic for getting the dog walkers, riparian owners and others on board” says Clive. “Once you get all the different groups of people onside, everything works better.”
Stencilling everything from bat to kestrel boxes with the club logo is also a great PR move- walkers and wildlife fans certainly love what the club is doing and happily engage with the anglers. However, the boxes also serve to protect river banks from occasional unscrupulous flood management work. After all, you cannot simply remove trees that have roosting bats and birds; a clever trick which I can’t help thinking lots of other angling groups could easily copy!
As the club’s very own “Bat Man” Ian Tucker tells me, it has been a fascinating exercise and they’ve found that different bats prefer different types of riverbank. The smaller pipistrelles, for example, love the smaller, winding sections of river, while others, such as the Daubenton’s Bat, prefer more open sections.
A walk on the Medway
After a quick cuppa, it’s time to head for the water and see what the gang have been up to, by nipping over to their water at Fordcombe. Also joining us is Vicki Gravestock of the EA; she and her colleagues have been hugely supportive of the club’s efforts and have helped out with FIP (Fisheries Improvement Programme) funding, which has been put to good use.
It was this legendary stretch of river that produced a one time British record barbel, along with specimen chub, roach, perch and other species. However, more recently the Medway has seen challenges to its former glory, from tricky access to the dreaded Himalayan balsam taking root.
The banks are steep, for one thing, and the river can rise quickly and become slippery in poor weather (in the winter, you’ll hear locals nickname it the “Mudway”!). Hence, one huge improvement has been putting in steps down to the water and staked out fishing spaces. Not only do these make access safer, they’ve also helped stabilise the banks against erosion and prevented the soil getting washed and trodden bare; a cycle which can assist the dreaded balsam!
“We also have a rule that any member setting up in a swim with Himalayan Balsam has to take out at least ten plants before fishing” says Clive. “That quickly becomes more, though, once you get the habit- and we’re now at the stage where we’re well on top of it.” Of course, better access and more swims also help to disperse fishing pressure and keep things peaceful.
River habitat improvements, from flow deflectors to roach boards
In their quest to improve the legendary fishing on the River Medway, our Monday Club have done a wide range of tasks to help things along. The effort has never been an issue; and indeed any club could learn from this. But getting support has also been key and they have been willing to learn at every twist and turn of the river.
“I know they get their critics, but the EA have been great at supporting us” says Clive. “After we contacted them, staff took the time to walk the river with us and tell us what we could do at every step.”
Here are just some of the features they have been introducing, which any river fishing club could also consider, with support from the Environment Agency and rod licence funds:
To try and improve fish stocks, they spent their first year of support enhancing faster sections with many tons of gravel. The members speak vividly of their thrill in seeing chub and barbel move into these areas to spawn the very next spring, a fantastic visual indicator of success!
The EA were so pleased with the club’s efforts that they supported additional gravels in following years, including a further 64 tons in 2017 alone.
In several places, these simple structures can be seen, funnelling or diverting the river flow. This has several desirable effects: concentrated flows can help clean gravels and lead to greater depth in shallow sections.
Fry refuges and in-river cover
Along the banks you can also see willow wicker fencing to provide marginal sanctuary for fry. There are also special underwater areas of cover created by faggots and Coir rolls, which also add valuable cover from predators such as cormorants and mink.
“We’re seeing a lot more fry than we used to” says Clive. “Most will end up as food for bigger fish –and we’ve had some cracking perch- but in the longer term it means more adult fish.” Verdant Solutions can supply these for any fishing club (http://www.verdantsolutions.ltd.uk).
Spawning boards and woody cover
Other key features are special cover to support spawning fish and the invertebrates fish feed on. Inspired by the River Avon Roach project, Royal Tunbridge Wells AS have created their own roach boards. These are fairly simple, made with floating wood and sections of old nets donated by club members, to which eggs can stick. Roach are already showing signs of recovery- and today’s tiddlers could well be the two-pounders of 2029!
Other woody cover is vital for the river too, of course, and not just for fish. Creatures like caddis and mayfly will also benefit and hatches are improving. Some of the members also enjoy fly fishing on the upper river, so it’s good news for them as well as trout, grayling and chub.
A Brighter future for British Rivers?
At the end of a busy morning, we’re just about ready to pause for a pint. Of course, it’s not all about work and the members also enjoy these meet ups for the prospect of some sociable fishing and a pint at the nearby Spotted Dog Inn.
Inevitably, over lunch the talk soon returns to fishing and the exciting prospect of a revived River Medway. “It’s not so much about today as tomorrow, and in some ways we’re doing this not for us but future generations,” says Clive.
It’s a lovely thought and just chatting to the Monday Club I can see that they what they do here has given them a deeper appreciation of the river that goes beyond just catching fish. All of them have their own tales from this great river, but are determined to ensure that this classic river has a great future as well as a legendary past.
It’s very much a long term project, therefore, but even in the short term, things are looking up. In one recent EA survey alone, 13 species of fish were found in just a short section of river. It’s becoming rich once again and the results are already showing this; two-pound roach are showing, along with some wonderful barbel (some one in three is a “double” here!).
What inspires me most about the club, however, is that they show just what is possible with a bit of collective will. After all, this is not a team of scientific boffins or fisheries lecturers; just a group of caring, committed anglers who want to help. But by reaching out to access the support and knowledge from the likes of the Environment Agency and Angling Trust, they are making a huge difference.
We all know that our rivers need more help than ever, which is why collaboration between anglers, volunteers and other groups and experts will be vital. Could your fishing club do something similar?
Useful links and further reading
Royal Tunbridge Wells Angling Society: Find out more about the club’s waters and activities and apply for membership here: www.rtwas.co.uk
The Fisheries Improvement Program: Our previous blog post explains more about this scheme, which uses rod licence money to improve freshwater habitats across the country: CLICK HERE TO READ.
River Habitats for Coarse Fish (RRP:£11.99) by Dr Mark Everard is a book that comes highly recommended for any club or fishery looking to make habitat improvements. It is available from various bookshops, including Amazon UK.
There is a nice video of Dr Mark Everard talking about habitat improvement anglers can get involved with below