With baited breath...

A junior competition that is run as part of a three-day fishing trip on the Orkney mainland during school activities week has pupils hooked. Jean McLeish speaks to a Corsican fisherman about teaching and trout

Jean McLeish

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When Antoine Pietri left his home on the Mediterranean island of Corsica to travel to the Orkney Islands, he was 26 and only planned to visit for a year. Now, 20 years later, the French teaching assistant is still there. He liked the way of life so much he stayed.

Back in Corsica, Monsieur Pietri was a keen fisherman and decided to come to Orkney for his year abroad because he had heard the fishing was great. Two decades later and he is an ambassador for fishing in Orkney, teaching children across the islands the rudiments of fly fishing and where to catch the best brown trout.

Mr Pietri commutes to school by plane, taking short flights every day from Kirkwall to the two island schools where he teaches. Three days a week he teaches French at Stronsay Junior High and twice a week he flies over to Sanday Junior High.

"Sanday probably has the best wild brown trout fishery in the whole of Europe. There have been fish up to eight pounds caught there, so it's top water," he says in his distinctive Scottish accent, combining traces of Orcadian with hints of native French.

"I just enjoyed it so much here and 10 years ago I met my wife, who's from Shetland, and we have a five-year-old daughter now," says the 44-year-old teacher, blending into the lochside landscape in a green camouflage jacket and waders.

This morning he is running a schools fishing competition with teaching colleagues and volunteers at Loch Kirbister, a freshwater loch about seven miles from Kirkwall. Grey-lagged geese fly in formation low across the loch, as teenagers stand with their rods in the shallows, casting out into deeper water.

The loch is a peaceful place, where only wind, waves and birdsong interrupt the silence. These islands are renowned for their remarkable range of birdlife and, if they are lucky, the young fishers might spot a sea eagle or a red-throated diver.

There are 18 pupils here from Kirkwall Grammar and Stronsay Junior High taking part in this Orkney Trout Fishing Association (OTFA) and Angling For Youth Development competition. It is run as part of a three-day fishing trip on the Orkney mainland during school activities week and these young people are in it to win it. As well as sponsoring this competition, OTFA provides volunteers who are passionate about fishing to go into schools to pass on their skills.

Among them is retired teacher Jim Erskine, who taught maths at Stromness Academy for 30 years. This morning he is suggesting 15-year-old Keith Holland swaps a Loch Ordie fly for a Peach Muddler.

Nearby, 13-year-old William Harvey from Kirkwall Grammar has decided to re-bait his line. "I've had better days," he mutters, as he paddles back towards the shore. His friend Marcus Scholes, 12, has caught two small brown trout and William is opting to use worms for bait instead of fly- fishing.

William is already hooked: "It's the triumph when you catch. And it's outdoors," he says, ignoring a sudden burst of rain driving across the loch on a cutting wind.

Further up the loch, Natalie Rose from S1 at Stronsay Junior High has decided to warm up back at the car. "I have been doing Angling For Youth Development and I like learning about different fish," she says.

AFYD is an SQA-recognised programme introduced to the curriculum at Stronsay School two years ago by Mr Pietri, with enthusiastic support from the headteacher at the time, Susan Robertson.

It runs alongside a project he manages, called Troot in the Shed, where pupils monitor fertilised trout eggs at their schools until the tiny trout are sufficiently developed to be released into local burns and lochs.

In a fishy drama rivalling Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, children supervise the developing eggs on a daily basis between mid-January and mid-March, blogging about their distress when eggs die and sharing their excitement as the release date approaches.

This year, children from Kirkwall Grammar, Stronsay Junior High, Sanday Junior High and Dounby Primary took part in the venture, hatching wild brown trout eggs provided by the Orkney Trout Fishing Association.

The scheme was inspired by Trout in the Classroom, an earlier project run by Scottish Natural Heritage, and now takes its name from the school shed where the eggs are hatched.

"You don't have a big window for this to happen - it's got to be about mid-January when the eggs have been fertilised and they are safe to be transported, "Mr Pietri explains.

When he carried the eggs carefully in a Thermos flask from mainland Orkney on the flight to Stronsay at the start of the project, the flight assistants thought he had brought his own coffee for the short journey.

"Usually we take 200 to 300 eggs into the school. The pupils set up the tank and the pump, they get water from a burn or the loch and put the eggs into the tank. Then it's really up to the children to do the monitoring. They have to write down the water and air temp every day and remove all the dead eggs, which is absolutely crucial," he says.

Last year, fishing activities at Stronsay Junior High were praised by an HMIE schools inspector who was amazed at the extent of the children's knowledge and impressed by the standard of writing on their blogs.

"All the Stronsay bairns will be able to tell you how the brown trout came to Scotland. They will know that after the Ice Age some of the sea trout population got isolated - landlocked in lochs and that's how brown trout developed," says Mr Pietri proudly.

"These youngsters could look at the map and pinpoint areas where you would catch sea trout or brown trout. But it's not just about catching a trout. It's learning about the environment and the trout itself."

He believes fishing is beneficial for children of all abilities and that it encourages their self-esteem and provides cross-curricular learning opportunities in subjects like science, biology and ICT.

He has seen children's eyes light up when they catch their first fish and shares their moment of glory back at school when their classmates learn of their success.

Parts of the Troot in the Shed blog are in French when Mr Pietri's parents join the discussion from Corsica. Pupils are keen to know what they are saying and he helps out with the more challenging aspects of French vocabulary.

As well as learning about the trout life cycle, pupils have to get to grips with paperwork. "We can't just hatch the fish and release them anywhere," says Mr Pietri.

"They have to put an application in to the Scottish government. I get the pupils to help me fill out the application to Marine Scotland to release fish, so they know the source of fish and can track fish to make sure we are not introducing alien species."

The hope is that the tiddlers the pupils are releasing will be fat brown trout in five or six years' time - hopefully on the lookout for Keith's Peach Muddler.

Another passionate fisherman here is Neil Ewing, principal teacher of social subjects, who is project leader of the Orkney branch of Angling for Youth Development. He runs the fishing club at Kirkwall Grammar, along with Troot in the Shed.

"This loch has a lot of fish in it and they are relatively easy to catch, so it's probably the best place in Orkney for the youngsters to catch a few fish," says Mr Ewing, who is originally from Dundee.

He teaches pupils about fishing at the after-school club every Thursday, where they learn about fly fishing and fly tying and develop expertise about angling.

"This gets them outside and gives them an interest in the countryside and wildlife. It's something that can occupy them for hours and hours," he says.

The idea is that once pupils from Kirkwall have been introduced to this loch, they can hop on the bus for a few pounds and come here under their own steam.

Mr Ewing says fishing is huge in Orkney. "A lot of folk go sea fishing because there is so much coastline and lots of people go trout fishing on lochs like this, which are very well stocked."

By the lochside, his colleague Jean Murray is waiting for a second lesson from him. "I'm a complete beginner," says Ms Murray, a biology teacher and depute head at Kirkwall Grammar.

She is a newcomer to fishing. "It's maybe about being a 21st-century hunter-gatherer," she suggests. "You get a nice day out and something to take home for tea."

When the day's catch is totalled later, the pupils have 51 brown trout for the pot.

- https:blogs.glowscotland.org.ukorTrootintheShed


Chez Pietri has some interesting recommendations for brown trout. But first, find your Wendy house.

"I usually fillet the bigger fish over the 2lb mark and after marinading them in a sweet brine, I cold smoke them over an Orkney peat fire in my daughter's Wendy house," says Mr Pietri.

He prefers to use a peat fire because it produces smoke and very little heat: "And my daughter's OK about me using her Wendy house because smoked trout is her favourite food."

For the sweet brine, take three litres of water, 300g of coarse salt, 100g brown sugar, one tbsp treacle, a couple of tbsps of mixed herbs and two bay leaves. Boil until everything dissolves, then cool before adding fish to marinade overnight.

For smaller fish, he favours a Corsican recipe called truite a l'aiolu, which means "with garlic" and can be served hot or cold. For this, you clean and dry your fish and heat a cup of vegetable oil in a frying pan.

Add the fish to the frying pan and when it is golden on both sides, set it aside in an oven-proof dish. Fry a dozen cloves of garlic with skin on until golden. Once the oil has stopped bubbling, stand back and very carefully pour a cup of red wine vinegar (25cl) into the pan with the hot oil and garlic.

Then pour the hot oil, vinegar and garlic over the trout in the oven dish and season before serving hot or cold with a glass of dry rose wine. Bon appetit.

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Jean McLeish

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