“They’re away up the Laid”

Current Chair of the Association, Andy Moore writes about his introduction to fish and fishing on the banks of the upper Threemilewater River.

When you’re in your early teenage years you sometimes take notions for things. It is often at this time that many people are finding out who they are as a person, what they’re about and what to do with spare time. I was never really into sports as such. I played a bit of rugby in school and some hockey at Mossley Hockey Club, having been encouraged to join probably because of the successful club’s very close proximity to my house. Rugby and hockey fell by the wayside though, so my free time didn’t really have any structure to it for a few years. I ended up mucking about with a few different things, usually bored.

This was until one day that my childhood mate Willy said he was heading fishing with his dad and asked me if I wanted to go too. I had always wanted to try fishing but never had the opportunity before. I come from a long line of countrymen, but unfortunately the last of the anglers in the family died out the generation before me.

We ended up going to Waterfoot Pier, which is probably the place where a lot of anglers that live along the eastern side of the country start out. That day we caught nothing. The fishing could have easily went the same way as my previous sporting endeavours but something spiked my interest that day. Remarkable though, having not seen a fish the entire time we were out.

After the first initial trip, I wouldn’t shut up about fishing. It was then my grandmother who bought me my first rod. It was a Shakespeare telescopic 9ft spinning rod with a black foam handle. As part of the starter kit it came with a pre-loaded reel and some light spinners. From then my tackle collection slowly started to build. The next came the fly fishing. My next door neighbour Bobby is what many would call ‘an auld hand’ at game fishing. He gave me a fly rod and reel, and a handful of flies. For the untrained eye it would have been a strange sight to see a boy casting on grass in the back garden, but that’s how Bobby taught me the basics of fly casting.

Not long into the fishing career, Willy and I took every opportunity to get out. Unfortunately though we didn’t get the chance to do much fishing, with no waters worth a throw nearby. Or so we thought.

One day we stumbled across what was known locally as ‘the Laid’. This was what the upper reaches of the Threemilewater River was referred to by Mossley people for many years, called so because the river used to run into the dam at Mossley Mill. The dam fed wheels in the 18th century cotton printing and flax mill, which later became a Hilden-Barbour thread mill before it eventually closed in 1995. At the time, Willy and I saw the overgrown stretch of river as a place to fish, but the problem was that it was totally overgrown and filled with all sorts of refuse, from car parts to household appliances. With no activity around it, we decided that it was worth doing a bit of cutting and clearing up before a line could be cast.

GETTING TO IT- working to clear back the overgrowth and let light into the river again.

Soon, all of our weekends were spent working away at “our river”. We borrowed saws and loppers and set to work cutting back the brambles, willow and gorse that prevented access. It was with great excitement that we cleared away dense overgrowth to uncover deep pools and potholes, they always looked like fishy spots. Months passed as the cutting and clearing continued. As well as opening up the river, we created a path running the entire length of the one mile stretch. Along the path we left huge piles of tree branches, gorse and other cut material. Looking back now, it was amazing what we managed to get through with two bow saws. At the time, nobody really knew what we were at, apart from my neighbour Bobby and my mother. We didn’t know who owned the river or if we should even be cutting the trees and cleaning it out in the first place but we didn’t care. We didn’t want praise or recognition, or even to be found. We wanted a place to fish on our doorstep.

With the river sufficiently clear and free from casting obstructions and underwater snags, we began fishing in earnest after many months of hard work. After more than a few outings, trying every method from the fly, worm, spinner and others (which I won’t admit to!), we found that in terms of fish life, the river was more or less devoid, save for a few sticklebacks and an eel that we came across once when pulling out a trolley. 

Out of sheer ambition and probably naivety to a certain extent, we asked ourselves “how can we make this better? How can we get fish to return?”  At an age when most other youngsters were discovering gaming, girls and alcohol, I, oddly, discovered the concept of river restoration. I used up a lot of time in my school ICT classes searching up ways to improve fish habitat and also searching for bits and pieces on trout ecology (as what I now know it to be called). Consequently, I also used up a hell of a lot of printer ink because I printed much of what I found on the subjects! Nothing like having a printed ‘guide’ on the bank to show you what to do instream.

Willy hard at work along the Laid. Note the tractor tire fly-tipped into the river upstream- the lads couldn’t move it at the time, so they tied ‘brush bundles’ around it to create a stickleback and invertebrate refuge, which was successful.

At the time, Bobby regaled us with stories of the monster trout that used to live in Mossley Dam which then ran the gravelly stretches of the laid to spawn come the autumn. The words “gravelly stretches” and “trout” seemed strange to us, as we found that the Laid was devoid of both. The problem that we uncovered was actually fairly serious. Not only had the Laid stream suffered from neglect, it had also been ‘realigned’ to a completely new and artificial channel with a much shallower gradient to create an area that was earmarked for significant industrial development about 15 years earlier. 150 acres of marshy- wet scrub river headwaters was turned into hard standing with a small riparian area on each bank, no more than ten metres wide. It was there that the Laid now ran, no quickly flowing runs, no gravelly spawning areas and certainly no trout. During the initial clean out we uncovered several pipes which spilled into the river after rainfall. We discovered that these were draining the hard standing areas that were once boggy. Boggy land would have been able to soak up the rainwater and diffuse it out into the river over the coming days, rather than in one big blast of a flood.

One major plus of having the area turned over by heavy plant machinery in the not so distant past was the availability of stones. In hindsight, it is very likely that these very stones came from the old river channel, the trouty one, so we knew what we needed to do. Our earlier research gave us the idea to use the stones instream to create pools and other features, as well as to reinforce the banks in certain areas. This work was by far the most back-breaking. It was most certainly very ill-advised to carry the stones the distance we did by hand. Doing this all day Saturday and Sunday ensured you were broken for the rest of the week ahead. Teenagers don’t tend to be very health and safety conscious though!

HAND-BUILT- One of many stone groins and flow deflectors installed along the adopted length of river.

We used other materials that we found on site to create more habitat as well. Suitable pieces of cut willows proved very good for weaving. We drove a few posts in along the banks in areas that were being eroded, adding sediment, and we weaved softer fresh cut willow whips around them. These looked very good and we knew they were built to last when the willow started to take root and grow. Perhaps the ‘showpiece’ of the whole lot was the weir we made from a recovered section of telegraph pole. When found buried in an old spoil heap, it was much too long for the river so it had to be cut to size using our bow saws, again, another not so easy feat. We made sure to cut it so that we had over a foot in length extra on either side so it could be buried into the bank. That way, it would stay in place and wouldn’t get washed away in floods.

After another year or so, several tonnes of stone had been added through sheer determination and the willow weaves started to narrow down the artificially over-widened featureless channel, concentrating flow and providing instream. There were still a few bits and pieces to be done, as well as the regular maintenance of our pools.

We always enjoyed taking the time to show off and explain our work to the dog walkers, who were by now using the river path we created on a daily basis. Over the months and years, we became friendly with people that were undoubtedly startled at the sight of tool wielding youths ahead of them in the ‘middle of nowhere’ initially. We learned a lot about life in general through the conversations we had along the river, the good and the bad, and also how important the outdoors are to people. We started the project off in order to create a place for us to fish, but we found that people really appreciated what we were doing and they liked the river path, a place off the beaten track with some guys looking after it.

I managed to get my first job in a local chip shop, peeling the spuds and cutting chips, that didn’t interfere with my weekend’s scheduled river work. One day whilst leafing through the local paper in work, I noticed the title “Anglers reel in support for fishery”. My eyes almost popped out of my head when I saw a tiny in-text picture of Mossley Dam. Reading on, I discovered two things that definitely changed the course of my life completely (but that is for a different article). The first was that Mossley Dam was to be stocked with brown trout, an initial batch of fish to test if the water was suitable to support stocked trout, with a view to developing a fishery if successful. The second was the discovery of a group called the Threemilewater Conservation & Angling Association, a local angling club based on the Threemilewater River. To us at the time, the Threemilewater began at the downstream-most end of Mossley at the Manse Road. This was the game-changer Willy and I had been waiting for, but it was far better than what we could have hoped- a strong likelihood that Mossley Dam was to open as a trout fishery and also an angling club on our literal doorstep.

After a few enquiries, I managed to get a contact number for John Webster, the then Chair of the Association. After a call, he was more than willing to facilitate two juniors in applying to join, even more so after I explained what we had been doing on what was also the angling association’s waters, unbeknownst to us at the time.

To Willy and me, this was the hard work paying off, we were now members of an angling club and there actually was trout fishing to be had not so far away. That year turned out to be a great year- as did the next. At the time, I was chatting to my geography teacher about rivers, such was the topic on the curriculum then. I explained to her what we had been doing on the Laid and that I was looking forward to covering rivers in class. She was so impressed that she nominated our wee river project for an all-Ireland ECO-UNESCO award. We were of course delighted to win Young Environmentalists of the Year off the back of this and further, another award from the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers the following year.

WINNING TEAM- Willy and Andy with their ECO-UNESCO Award in 2009

Fast-forward what must be more than 13 years later, Willy and I are still enjoying catching trout along the Threemilewater River. The Laid isn’t the gleaming trout river we hoped for but what it is, is a clean, important headwater for the main river, a great spot much improved for wildlife and is also what must be the most popular dog-walking spot in Newtownabbey. Mossley Dam has been operational as a successful trout fishery for almost ten years and the Threemilewater Conservation & Angling Association is still the close-nit, welcoming, forward thinking and progressive club it was when we joined those years ago, and it gets better every year.

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