From its early beginnings, Abbey Cross became involved with controlling its own fisheries, firstly on a leased basis and then with the purchase of the Rib fishing as a riparian owner. Leasing and owning fisheries came with a responsibility to manage and maintain them.
In the early years of the Society much of the fishery work was undertaken by the committee as a whole with Bill Meredith and Bill Lamas soon becoming joint Fishery Officers co-ordinating the work programme. The work involved was often back-breaking hard labour, building sand bag weirs and bridges on the Rib at a time when very little equipment was available. Nonetheless their efforts ensured the Abbey Cross had fisheries that were the envy of many. The role of fishery officer was eventually passed to Reg Le Mesurier who with Ron Charge as Assistant Fishery Officer continued the good work on the Society’s ever expanding portfolio of fisheries in the late 70s, Bob Fox, who had risen through the Society’s junior ranks, joined the fishery team eventually taking over as Fishery Officer in 1980.
On taking on the role, Bob soon realised he could not oversee every work programme on every fishery and decided a different approach was needed. Fishery Officers were appointed to each of the Society’s major fisheries, they were responsible for maintaining and formulating work programmes for each fishery. Periodic fishery committee meetings were held and programmes and work party dates were agreed.
Bob in turn would present an annual work and stocking programme to committee which would be agreed as part of the budgeting process. This system allowed for several work parties to be in progress at the same time which initially presented its own problem; a lack of equipment!
The committee were and still are very supportive of the need for funds to be available and as a result the fishery team has a large stock of tools, machinery, nets, boats, electrode-fishing gear and two containers to store it all in. Although Bob’s new team lacked experience, this was more than made up for by their hard work and enthusiasm, seeking professional advice when necessary.
The Society also sent Bob Fox, Neil Adams and Peter Arnold to an Institute of Fishery Management course at Holme Pierrepoint.
Soon after Bob took on the fisheries role, a project to introduce Tench to Taylor’s Lake was initiated, with Bob Chambers sourcing a stock of around 40 fish in the 3-5lbs range from a Norfolk Lake. At this time Taylors held a large stock of Crucian Carp and Roach so on match days 2 keepnets were set aside for retaining undersize fish which were subsequently released into the river Stort. One of the less successful attempts to reduce the numbers of small fish was the introduction of some large male Brown Trout which it was thought would predate on the fry. Unfortunately only American Brook Trout were available, these were easily caught and most ended up in the frying pan before they had chance to settle in.
With Carp fast becoming the most popular fish it was decided to stock Toyhall Pit with small Carp. Bob Chambers was again in action sourcing 1500 fingerlings from Norman Simmons at Fishers Green. The fish did well and in latter years were caught in excess of 20lbs. one of the more controversial projects was on the Carp Lake at Green Lanes. This was one of the most prolific fisheries around at the time with fish reaching nearly 20lbs, but there were large numbers of wildie type commons to about 7lbs. it was agreed to remove a number of these and re-stock with a fast growing strain of King Carp, this caused concern amongst a few of the regulars who feared the new stock would ruin the fishing. Nonetheless 100 small commons and 20 mirrors were introduced, each carrying a blue dye marked spot, hence they became known as “the blue spots”. These fish grew fast with some of them reaching weights in excess of 40lbs.
Netting in the early 80s and 90s were common, the Society often acquired fish from places as diverse as small farm ponds to large gravel pits. Most of the fish were obtained free or at a very little cost, all that was required was the time and effort of the fishery team to undertake the netting work. Nettings were physically demanding but essentially great fun especially if the catch was good. On one occasion a trip was made to a large Lincolnshire gravel pit to survey it for possible netting. The Society had just purchased new echo sounder/fish finder equipment and the fishery team keen to try it out. The pit looked ideal for netting, with gentle sloping sides down to around 5 feet deep with plenty of fish topping and the new equipment indicating large shoals of fish present. A plan to return in the autumn when the weed had died was agreed. With the team returning in October with a convoy of flat back transits loaded with tanks, boats and nets. On arriving at the pit, after a 2 hour drive, the nets were set and after several trawls of the pit the total catch was a mere 14 Roach of about 3ozs each. It was a long, disappointing drive back to Hertford that day.
Another netting expedition to a Carp syndicate lake finished up being quite expensive. The syndicate wanted silver fish removed, which the Society wanted to have for stocking into the recently acquired Coopers Lake. First trip around the lake was successful with the fish finder showing a large concentration around a small hump on the end of an island. The net was set and a good bag of Bream was brought to the bank, however on setting the net for a second attempt nearer to the hump everything ground to a halt as the net became snagged. Try as they may the netting team could not free the net, eventually having to tear a large hole to remove it from the water. This put paid to any further netting on that day and a subsequent conversation with the lake owner revealed the small hump to be a Ford Capri, the tailgate of which the net had become caught on with efforts to free it merely opening and closing the tailgate.
Troublesome vehicles seem to be a recurring theme with Abbey Cross. On one occasion Alf Fox was going about his bailiff duties at Toyhall only to find a Ford Cortina floating in the lake. The local police were called and divers sent into the lake to check that there were no persons in the car or the lake. When all was declared safe the car was dragged out.
On the right hand lake at Nazeing a motorbike and sidecar were found resting on the marginal shelf in an area where fish were often lost. The Fishery Officer managed to remove the bike half of the vehicle, but the sidecar toppled into the deeper water taking the Fishery Officer with it. The sidecar remains in the lake but the fishery officer managed to extract himself from the water.
The Society has had its share of problems on its fisheries. In the late 80s Taylors Lake was suffering from low dissolved oxygen levels which caused a major fish kill. The Lake had to be dredged and many trees were removed. After many years and heavy restocking the fishery is beginning to return to its former glory. On another occasion during a summer of drought conditions, the River Rib all but stopped flowing and visibly shrunk to a few pools. Many hours were spent mostly by Neil and Anne Adams saving fish from the pools that were quickly drying out. The Environment Agency joined the rescue effort moving many fish downstream to the river Lea. Fortunately, when the rain eventually arrived, the river soon recovered but it took a while for the fish to re-establish themselves.
The purchase of what was to become known as Coopers Lake has become a major asset to the Society. Now transformed from a hole in the ground rubbish tip into a prolific fishery, abundant in plant and wildlife, it’s a fitting testament to what can be achieved with good management and a band of members willing to get stuck into making something worthwhile.
Bob Fox has now been Fishery Officer for 30 years and in his own words has enjoyed every minute of it, making many good friends along the way.