The waterways of the Falkirk district have been fished for centuries giving the area a rich resource to feed hungry families.
These days most of the fish we eat comes from a shop or a chippy, but walk down any of the local canals or rivers at any time of day and you’ll find many a keen fisherman stalking the banks for a bite, hoping for tight lines on their rods.
In 1933 a small group of anglers started Slamannan Angling Club and its members have fished the upper reaches of the River Avon ever since. They aren’t the only ones who use, or depend, on the river though.
The fishing club is now called Slamannan Angling and Protective Association (SAPA) and focuses on protecting the Avon and the wildlife that is dependent on it.
The last eight decades has taken its toll on this particular waterway and its wildlife forcing the club to evolve to protect the habitat and with no little success thanks to the small group of passionate volunteers led by evergreen George Mackintosh.
George, from Westquarter, has been hooked on fishing since he was the height of waist-high waders and remembers his dad Robert taking him fishing to the likes of Loch Lubnaig near Callander – travelling in a motorbike and sidecar to get there.
The 69-year-old could now be considered an expert on the life of the Avon after spending much of the past seven years on it – to the annoyance of his long-suffering spouse.
“My wife Christel says she’s going to change her name to Avon so I will do things for her because I’m down here that much,” said George, a former BA worker who has been a dedicated member of the angling club for 40 years.
“As well as all the biodiversity stuff the project is doing, one of the aims is also to keep angling cheap and affordable for people. Despite all the work we’ve done we haven’t increased our prices to fish for more than six years.
“We’re only £25 for a full season, £10 for juveniles and OAPs. You can’t go to a fishery and fish for half a day for that kind of money. It can cost up to £50 for just one day at a fishery.
“There’s brown trout. They’re not enormous but your average fish is about three-quarters-of-a-pound. There’s salmon and sea trout coming into the river now that the environment for them has improved, mainly from since we started doing our habitat project.
“We’ve got salmon spawning in the Culloch Burn too, not far away. There used to be the odd one or two but there’s definitely been a bigger increase over the past few years. Every year we’re seeing more salmon. We reckon some of them are in the region of six or seven pounds and we have seen some fish in the region of 10 pounds. Some of them are bigger than the car tyres people throw into the river.
“The main fish you’ll see now are sea trout, brown trout and salmon. We’ve plenty of stone loach and minnows although there has been a decline of these in recent years. I don’t know why this has happened but it’s the same in all burns and rivers.
“The river is one of the few in Scotland that has a hatching of the true mayfly , the danica, so the results are speaking for themselves and we’re quite proud of what we’ve done so far”
Since 2007 the group has received around £160,000 to carry out work on the river that includes laying gravel beds which help fish breed and putting massive boulders in the water to divert it away from the banks.
Both measures enable wildlife to flourish to provide food for the local fish and keep nature the way it was intended to be away from human interference.
Industries like paper mills and open cast mining have adversely affected the river and in 1976 it was dug out and canalised with boulders and gravel beds removed.
Parts of it were also straightened out in a bid to prevent flooding, but it almost destroyed the habitat for fish, birds, invertebrate, water voles and otters – animals which are being spotted around the water once more.
The group has put in fencing along much of the banks as well to keep cattle, which damage the foliage, away and it’s worked a treat with plenty of wild growth visible again on the banks. Money for all the work has been given from the likes of Falkirk Council, SEPA, Forth Environment Trust, WREN waste recycling group, Avondale, BIFFA and Wild Trout Trust.
George added: “we are trailblazing this type of project. A lot of the money has come from landfill tax so it shows that it does go to good use and we couldn’t have done any of it without this help and the help of the land owners along the river so we owe them a big thanks.
“When we first started we didn’t really know how to go about getting funding and all the ins and outs of it but it has all come together nicely.
“We’re now involved with a lot of other local groups and they have benefitted from our experience.
“People from projects on the River Kelvin have been out here too to see what we’re doing are taking back the ideas to do there.
“We go to schools as well for spot the species days and help them grow trout in the classroom and the children love it. It’s amazing how excited they get when they see some bugs. We’ve also done some electro fishing so we can study the fish.”
Falkirk Council’s planning and environment manager Alan Rodger said the association’s work has “substantially” improved habitats on long stretches of the River Avon.
He added: “This has benefited both migratory and local fish stocks and provided a sustainable recreational resource to be enjoyed by local people. Much credit is due to the drive and commitment of George Mackintosh.”