Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Water, Water Everywhere - 2017

Last day on the Ure
20th October 2017

So good they named it twice
The view of downtown Manhattan from dinner
If you've wondered where I've been since Tomatin, despite semi-retirement I have been unusually busy.  My friends, most of whom are long retired, tell me that they are busier now than when they were working.  The phenomenon didn't surprise me as I spent much of November on holiday in celebration of my wife's birthday.  It was so wonderful that missing 3 days' shooting didn't even register.  And I thought about salmon only once - really.  Who would be thinking of salmon when dining with a view like that?

The view from our window
180 miles off Canada
a beautiful winter's day
When crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary your course isn't a straight line to New York. Once past Ireland you follow a curved course that takes you well north before sailing south west parallel to the coast of North America.  Along the way you skirt the Labrador Basin, pass Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, sail over the Grand Banks and cut through the Gulf Stream.  As those are all significant features in the world of salmon it's possible that some detected our vibrations.

This view prompted my only salmon thought.  The horizon is 20 miles away, so there's 100 square miles of Atlantic in that view.  There's nothing in it.  If you went up to  the top deck you could scan 1,500 square miles: still nothing.  In fact we saw only one ship in a week.  The North Atlantic is an enormous empty expanse of ocean, just like the rest of the 70% of our planet's surface.  Salmon in migratory transit are a microscopic needle in the watery haystack.

North Yorkshire rainfall January - April 2017
The red cumulative line is within the official definition of drought

After years of writing blog posts bemoaning the lack of water and the reasons for it, in May I wearily prepared the graphic to the right.  Before my back collapsed I'd started writing an article about the appallingly dry winter and spring months - the driest since 1995.  On this occasion I was especially concerned by the potential impact of the conditions on the smolt exodus.  Without April showers and good spates to deliver them swiftly to the sea they are extremely vulnerable to in river predation by birds, pike and large trout.  To make matters still worse they arrive in the estuary in dribs and drabs, which invalidates their survival strategy of "they can't eat us all". 

We'll see how this affected the number of emigrants in 2 years' time when hopefully they return as 8-10 pounders.

Lying face down on the floor precluded writing so that post never appeared.  In any event it would have been overtaken by events because in late June the weather did a complete back flip.  It started to rain; and rain; and rain.  Perhaps it was El Nino abating and heading back from Peru towards the Philippines, or perhaps not.  No one really knows.  What's more, we didn't get any warning of the change from from the abnormality of the past 5 seasons to the real normality of Atlantic cyclonic patterns. From Midsummer's Day to the end of the season on 31st October we had above average rainfall every month, peaking at +80% in July.  As a man who had uttered umpteen prayers, performed rain dances out of sight in the orchard, and written endlessly on the subject, how could I complain when all my wishes came true - at once.  But every time I looked at a river or even thought of fishing, the water level rose.  It didn't matter where - England, Scotland or Norway - the effect was the same.  I've never had a season in which such a high proportion of my planned days were washed out with spates.  As a result the apple crop was enormous but the roses suffered terribly with every form of fungal disease in the book.  I have lovingly tended, pruned and shaped my collection of roses for a decade and more, so it was heartbreaking to have to hack so many back to ground level and douse the stumps with chemicals to prevent recurrence.

The closest parallels were 2007 and 2012, which were both very wet summers and autumns.  The neat 5 year interval is probably coincidental rather than indicative of a cycle.  The 2007 floods in Yorkshire were the stuff of legend and tragedy.  During our Tomatin week that year the Findhorn came over its banks twice, but we still caught plenty of fish including a high proportion of grilse, just as we did in 2017.  In contrast 2012 was very wet in Yorkshire: with the demands of 2 family weddings I did very little fishing and caught few Ure salmon.  Tomatin was comparatively dry: the main fishing constraint was the Arctic  temperature of the water rather than its level.  Overall, high water seems to benefit the Upper Findhorn, but seriously degrades the Ure.

Curve Pool
River Gaula
July 2017
In Norway it rained incessantly and the Gaula went up and down like a yo yo.  When it was big it was enormous.  Fishing the 50 yard span of water in the picture was a forlorn hope.  The salmon could have been anywhere as at this level the rubble-strewn bottom provides innumerable lies.  Of course it would have helped if there had been fish present, but they couldn't get up the Gaulfossen owing to the weight of water.

On returning to Yorkshire, spates washed out all 3 of my planned days in August and September.  When we arrived at Thoresby for the August day the river was up but falling and clearing nicely.  I said to my guest "it should be perfect by lunchtime".  Fine chance: that statement triggered an immediate rise and  by 1 pm it had gone up 6 feet.  The lesson is simple: don't express optimism within earshot of a Yorkshire river.

Dalnahoyn Pool
River Findhorn
September 2017
It rained incessantly in Scotland too.  For 5 days out of 6 the water was above +3 feet, with a maximum around +5', compared to the accepted 'good' level of + 12 - 18 inches. I offered 4 lessons on fishing in high water in 'Sins and Virtues',
written on return.  Despite losing 2 full days' fishing to spates we caught 27 salmon and grilse, including two 18 pounders, our second best  result for the week in almost 20 years.

I was really looking forward to October on the Ure; 2 days' father and son bonding with HMCX; 2 double rod days with guests; and 2 more with John and Patrick towards the end of the month.

HMCX into a fish
Frodle Dub, Thoresby Beat
River Ure
The first day with HMCX was great fun - we landed 2 each and lost a couple - until the river started to rise.  We enjoyed our picnic lunch on the river bank with wine, beer and banter, and the high quality time it provided.

An extra 2' 6" of unwanted water
While we were enjoying our steaks and Theakstons at the Bolton Arms the rain started and persisted all night.  In the early hours the river rose to +4' 6".  We did a little tourism, visiting my grandfather's birthplace in Askrigg up the dale, in the hope of the river falling.  It didn't so we counted the blessings of the day before and finished early.

Ure grilse in perfect condition
139 miles from the North Sea
My other guest days were paradoxical.  The first was blighted by high water, but there were plenty of fish about and I caught a beautiful grilse of close to 6 pounds.  But the second, on the same beat a week later, in perfect water and contrary to all reasonable expectations was as dead as the grave.  Not a take, not a touch and scarcely a fish seen.  I've got no concrete explanation for this disappointment.

3 spates in 6 days
from left to right
1st + 7'; 2nd +6'; 3rd +4' 6" and rising
For our final team outing the river started high and just fishable but yet again started to rise into the third spate in under a week.  We didn't touch a thing, our first ever blank on the Ure in 6 years.

So beyond the problems with excess water, why did we fail on the Ure this year, when there was clear evidence of fish in the river?  There's no clear answer beyond "I don't know".  My theory is that after the drought conditions of January - May which precluded a spring run, the fish came en masse in July with more following in August and early September.  By October there were few fresh fish left to run (and unusually few were caught this autumn) and stir up the residents with their arrival.  The relative earliness of the main run gave the salmon ample time to settle; the water temperatures remained below average for the time of year; and at no time after June did the water fall low enough to create friction through concentration.  Those factors would combine to make fish torpid, relaxed and much less likely to respond to a fly.  Active and alert salmon are easier to catch, and late season cock fish stimulated by testosterone and friction are the easiest of all.  Those conditions just didn't exist.  So be it, that's fishing and nature.  If it was easy there would be no magic and no enthusiasm.

Do I really care about the poor fishing this autumn?  No: nor do I believe it is a harbinger of worse years to come; salmon runs have always varied widely.  I don't care for a whole raft of reasons.  First, after the collapse of my back in May I am overjoyed to have beaten the medical predictions by being able to walk, fish and shoot.  When you emerge from darkness the light is so much brighter.  Second, the exhaustion of the Gaula taught me an invaluable lesson: balance is essential and especially between enthusiasm and the limitations of age.  It's time for the little fishing boy inside me to grow up - just a bit.  Third, we had a great fun week at Tomatin despite fishing about half the days.  The company of good friends is beyond price.  Fourth, and superimposed on everything are the joys of family, which are beyond description.  Another grandchild is due to arrive very soon, the ultimate Christmas present, which will make it 4 on the riverbank in the 2022 season.

So on that wave of happiness I wish you all a very Happy Christmas, a wonderful New Year and a delightfully average 2018 fishing season.

PS  I apologise for the lack of a Christmas Stocking post this year as a result of absence on holiday.  If you're desperate for Christmas ideas please consult last year's post, noting that Sportfish no longer stock the William Joseph mitten clamps.  They are available from the Glasgow Angling Centre and other suppliers.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Smile Machine - Vision Tool 11' 6" #8


I felt I had to issue that statement because my salmon rods are now 100% Vision.  Over the years I've owned or used salmon rods by Hardy, Loop, Daiwa, Sage, Guideline, Milbro and Fibatube.  Some were very good and others utterly useless in my incompetent hands.  Much as I may fancy a Hardy Zepherus or a Sage One, I can't justify spending £1,000 on a rod: giving the extra money to my children and grandchildren would give me much more pleasure.  Nor do I know whether those rods would be right for me.  As a result I restrict myself to rods costing less than £500 that I really enjoy using and which suit my moderate casting ability.  By chance or serendipity there are rods in Vision's range that meet those criteria.

My golden rule is "try before you buy".  So I duly broke it.  This post describes the result.

They want you to know what it is
The rough script is a deliberate Finnish style play

My eyes had just become hardened by the MAG's eye watering orange triangular tube when the Tool struck from the other flank with a colour scheme lifted from the interior of a footballer's wife's Range Rover, including a white zip fastener.  Yes, it's white.  In between amazement you have to admire Vision's eccentricity.  Who else would call a reel 'Ace of Spey'?  But what do you expect from a company staffed by angling maniacs led by a CEO who looks about 20, has a ponytail and rides a Harley?  But that mania brings a special guarantee: you know they've tested their gear to infinity and beyond.  If you don't believe me look at one of the videos of their testing team on expedition: you'll be exhausted in 5 minutes just watching.  And be in no doubt, they did a first class development job on the Tool 11' 6".

Its big brothers have a deserved reputation as ultra-powerful casting rods with distinctly artillery tendencies of indirect fire.  Put simply, they're at their best casting to the river over the hill rather than the one in front of you.  The 14' #9/10 gets into its stride with a 42 gram shooting head, and in expert hands is awesome to behold.  However, the 14 isn't the right rod for me as I have neither the technique nor strength required.  Anyway, I'm happy to fish the Ure in Wensleydale rather than the Swale from the same place.

First Impressions

What comes out of the WAG-inspired tube is notable for its understatement.  The first thing that strikes you is that it's tiny, a perfect double handed salmon rod in miniature.  Everything is in scale to its length.  Interestingly it's not marketed as a 'switch' rod', just as a double hander.

The aesthetics are (mostly) modest with a matt grey blank and tone-matched whippings.  The quality of finish is excellent with nice PacBay snake rings.

The reel seat shows a little eccentricity within an attractively minimalist regime.  The choice of uplocking is driven by dimensions and the need for balance with a grown up reel, a point to which I'll return.  The 2 nut locking is dynamite and fool-proof.  The cork is pleasant but with some compromises in quality that I now accept as inevitable at this price point.

The philosophy is simple.  If you're making a rod for salmon then it should be matched to a salmon reel with an appropriate line capacity.  That doesn't mean heavy: the Danielsson LW5 #8/12 and the Lamson Guru 4 tip the scales at around 220 grams.  If the rod and reel are properly in balance you don't notice the weight of the reel.  As you can see in the picture, the Tool and the Danielsson are an exact match, balancing perfectly at the top hand point on a lump of Norwegian granite.


I've never been a great fan of multi-tip lines.  First, they're much more expensive than the base line and polyleaders.  Second, because I keep my kit for so long, I worry about the long-term availability of replacement tips.  And third, it's another loop clattering through the rings (I only added that one recently as a result of my new hearing aids!).  Nevertheless the dealer, a superb fisherman whom I greatly respect, convinced me to overcome my objections and purchase a Rio SSVT #8 multi-tip.  Behold, the match with the rod is perfect.

On the river

I haven't got any pictures of me using the little Tool, because casting and taking photos simultaneously is beyond my powers, so you'll just have to take my word.  The Tool came on tour as an insurance against low water, first to the Gaula and then to the Findhorn.  It's clearly an effective rain-making wand as we enjoyed an excess of water on both rivers.  On the Gaula it was just a brief casting exercise when the bright sunlight made serious fishing on Flaekken impractical, whereas on the Findhorn it was most of the Wednesday when the water level allowed the use of a light front end.

My first cast on the Gaula prompted disbelief: I don't do exquisite loops.  Subsequent casts proved it wasn't an aberration.  After ten or so I was grinning and chuckling like an idiot. This was quite the most remarkable double-hander I'd ever used in terms of feel and responsiveness.  Even I, an incompetent caster with a lifetime trout fishing right arm and a disability that impacts control and coordination in 2-handed casting, couldn't get it wrong.  My 12' GT4 Lite is wonderful, but this is something else.  The beat change came and I had to get back to serious grown up fishing with a big rod.

I didn't get another opportunity to use the little Tool until we went to Tomatin.  I'd taken it up to the Ure in August but it prompted a flood.  At Tomatin, on the Wednesday the river had fallen enough that I could use it sensibly, albeit you can't call + 2' 6" low water or Churan a narrow pool.  Once I had finished the fast water at the head with the MAG I brought the Tool into action with a plain fluoro leader and a #8 MCX Dark.  It was every bit as much joyful fun as it had been on the Gaula.  Moreover, with minimal effort I could cover almost the entire width of the pool without wading more than a D-loop distance from the bank.  Casting reasonably obliquely that's around 25-27 yards into an upstream wind with an 11' 6"rod whilst wading 12" deep, which I reckon is respectable.  Normally it takes me a little  while to get my Single Spey timing right, but with the Tool it just seems to come naturally.  It also throws a neat C-Spey and Snap-T.  The wind direction precluded trying a Snake Roll or Double Spey.

The worst salmon photo of the year?
Everything was going perfectly until I hooked a good fish just on the edge of the flow-line, when it became marvellous. This irascible 11 lbs cock provided a good test of the Tool's muscle.  I felt completely in control throughout (not always the case with the GT4) and completed the fight in about the same time as I might have done with a bigger rod.  Steering the fish to the net was straightforward, and even perhaps a little easier than with a longer rod and your back against the bank owing to the lack of 'overhang'.  Judging by the speed of its departure I'd not wasted any time.

With my morale sky high I fished happily on down the pool whilst falling ever more deeply in love with this magical little rod.  Along the way I hooked and lost 2 fish, one small, the other large perhaps 12-14 lbs, but the Tool bears no blame.  You win and lose: the angler proposes but God disposes in such matters.  Perhaps with a longer rod I might have stopped the bigger fish going vertically downwards to grind its nose in the rocks, but as it was 30 yards away at the time the difference would have been marginal at best.

Then the water rose and I had to put away my favourite toy, a feeling that took me back 60 years.  I had enjoyed a magical morning's playtime.


Perhaps all switch rods are like this.  I don't know, because the little Tool is the only very small salmon rod I've ever tried.  On the basis of 4 hours' use, it's wonderful: it casts beautifully whilst transmitting to your hands with the greatest fidelity; fights good fish in short order; and throws a line a long way with minimum effort.  I bought it to cover the smaller sections of the Ure like Swinton Park in low water, but on bigger rivers in higher water it excelled.  I have fallen madly in love with this little gem and thus perhaps have lost my usual objectivity, quite simply because it makes fishing so much fun.

Do try one.

Sins & Virtues - 4 Lessons from Tomatin 2017

I always try to learn something from every day and every week spent fishing.  In that respect I'm guilty of over-analyzing things, but insofar as fishing is concerned, I find reflection a very pleasant activity.  Whilst plainly guilty as charged (not least in teasing by my wife and children), my plea in mitigation of sentence is that however detailed the analysis, I do try to keep the lessons simple.  Here are a four from the week at Tomatin.

1.  In high water, if in doubt, think about energy saving

Not all pools at every water height are amenable to analysis.  The running lines, defiles, holding areas and short-halt lies won't always stand out from the seemingly bland expanse of bumpy brown water before you.  And when the river's high, the area of water is often much larger, making the problem even more difficult.  Furthermore, the running lines you've previously identified at lower water levels may not apply when there's another 18 - 30" on the gauge.  If you fish to those alone you may be sadly disappointed.

If there's nothing else to guide you, go back to first principles.  The foremost evolutionary imperative on the salmon is to breed, and to do that it must survive.  When its reserves of cellular energy are expended, it dies.  Consequently the salmon's survival strategy is rooted in energy conservation, and this becomes an imperative in heavy water.  If there's an easier way up the pool they will take it, even if it means compromising security by passing through and briefly holding in shallower water than they would normally accept in daylight.  Grilse, which are the least efficient swimmers and thus must conserve energy by any means, will take greater risks with water depth than their MSW relatives.  The shallowest water in which I've ever taken a grilse was less than 12", on the Deveron in 2015, although I must stress that wasn't deliberate, just a fluke whilst putting my line out.  Nonetheless the point is valid.

The deductions from this are:
  • Dump your preconceptions based on lower water levels
  • Look at all the water deeper than 12-18"
  • Identify the easiest ways through the pool

Here's a practical example based on the very productive Churan pool.  The normal lower-water running line is shown in blue. The high water option for large fish is in red: John hooked his 18 pounder beside that line.  The grilse line in orange shows that the angler downstream is wading too deep!  Yet all the temptation is to cast to the normal line: the next lesson will explain why that's not a great idea.

2.  Oblique fly presentation adds value so shorten your cast

Views of a Cascade Conehead
Replicated conditions
This is a salmon's eye view of a Cascade conehead from my archive, adjusted to exactly the water and light conditions in which we were fishing for most of the week.  I've not adjusted the size of the image for real range (-4.5X), otherwise you would scarcely see it.  You will note that even at 90 degrees it's not easily detected; at 30 it's still visible; but at 60, representing the approach to the dangle, it's a very small target.  A fly presented at a broad angle has 4-5 times the probability of detection of one at the dangle.

under the A9 looking towards the tail

I confess: this photo proves I've broken one of my own golden rules.  Unable to resist defying my age and the temptations of the Vision MAG, I cast to 'O' under the far bank, in order to cover the maximum area of water.  However, if you look at N1, drawn down my line in the water, you will see that it's already straightening with the fly at a narrow angle.  By N2 it's to all intents at the dangle in the slower flow.  But as the blue arrow shows, this means I will present the fly end on for 40% of the area, thereby reducing my chance of catching a running fish.

Now repeat the exercise with a shorter cast to A, then throw a downstream mend to B.  With only 60-70% of the casting distance you increase your amount of oblique presentation by half, whilst reducing the end on fraction to about 10-15%. The effects on the odds of you getting a running salmon's attention and possibly securing a take have increased considerably. Presentation always trumps distance, so play the percentages.

3.  Play the percentages

Garden Pool at +3' 6"
early on Saturday morning
showing the percentage lanes

Here is another example of how the percentages should influence your thinking.  There will be some big fish in holding lies under the heavy water beyond the centreline (I caught several 9-11 lbs there in 2011 at +2' 6"), but at this height you need a very heavy front end to get down into their taking envelopes.  That rig is right for 20% of the water (but the fly will only work properly for half of that), although not for the rest.  In the slower water the fly will be below the salmon's sight line, harder to detect and less likely to be taken.  By virtue of simple odds (confirmed by experience), the lighter option with a shorter cast to the near edge of the fast water will catch more fish.

4.  When the evidence changes, change your mind

Bertha's Channel
Garden Pool tail
This is another lesson drawn from an error of judgement. However, the photo shows me about to catch a nice grilse, so I did obey the dictum above. At the beginning of the week, when the height allowed I fished down to the bottom of Garden, working the 'banker' lies by the copse on the far side that have previously yielded me a good crop of fish in the 8-14 lbs range in medium to higher water.  Coming in having caught none, I passed through a channel running up the near bank that was much deeper than the water in which I had been wading.  Bertha or Frank has opened up a new line of approach that was now deep enough for both grilse and MSW salmon.  Better still, it would require fish to make a turn that would lead them to see a fly at the dangle at a very broad angle.  The evidence suggested that this would be more productive than the copse lies, so every visit thereafter I disregarded my previous experience; dispensed with wading altogether; and focused my efforts on the 'Pocket' and 'Bertha's Channel'.  The strategy worked: over half the fish I caught that week came from those two areas; and our host's wife hooked her first salmon in Bertha's Channel, an aggressive cock fish that took her 350 yards downstream during the fight.

The trick is to identify and reflect on your mistakes in order to profit from them.  My biggest sin all week was casting too far, because I could: the MAG 13 is a serpent of temptation in that regard.  On the other hand, total virtue is boring whereas casting 30 yards off the bank on Dalnahoyn puts a smile on my face, even if it doesn't catch me extra fish.

Thinking of smiles, my next post will be a review of the Vision Tool 11' 6" #8, which I bought for low water but was christened this week with an 11 pounder with +2' 6" on the gauge.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Welcome back - a return to Tomatin House

It's often said "don't go back to the places of happiest memory, for you shall surely be disappointed".  Despite having this in mind, when invited to Tomatin House, the base of so many very happy memories, for a one-off week in September, I leapt at the chance.  It wasn't wholly for the fishing - it's not a premium beat and is completely water dependent - but rather for the breadth and balance of the whole package.  We would be there with old and comfortable friends to enjoy each other's company; eat and drink together; and undertake all manner of activities from golf to walking via bridge and reading as the weather dictated.  This year's trip to the Gaula had given me a salutary lesson on the value of balance, and the return to Tomatin, the birthplace of Just One Week, would be balance exemplified.  On the other hand, this is a fishing blog, so you'll understand if I do focus on the fishing.

The build up to the week was completely out of character.  Normally I busy about doing all manner of things in a well established order whilst fretting incessantly about the weather and water levels.  Posts like 'D-14 - The Countdown' and 'D-7 - Divine Madness' describe this in detail: my wife considers the title of D-7 especially apt.  However, this year was different: the family complete with grandchildren, bumps (joy, two more on the way) and dogs occupied the second half of August.  Laying out a fly line for cleaning and polishing would have been seriously high risk: the two toddlers would have tied wonderful knots; the Jack Russell would have buried one end whilst the Puggle chewed the other (he got the rain gauge again) and the Ridgeback got tangled up and ran off with the middle section. Pedantic preparation was off the agenda: my primary responsibility was to be the avuncular grandfather, so it was just a quick check of the car boxes and lock the garage.  After the family departed my wife and I headed off to Provence to spend a week with friends, enjoy the food and sunshine, and soak up the relaxation.  It was the perfect cure for salmon neurosis and weather anxiety.  It was so sybaritic that I was disinclined to view the Fort Augustus weather forecast more than once per day.  We left the beautiful Luberon warmth and returned home around 11pm on an autumnal Saturday night. We had barely unpacked before we were stuffing the car for Scotland and on the road before 9am.  Amazingly, only one item was left behind, my wife's waterproof trousers (outdoor kit therefore my fault).  The significance of that omission would become apparent all too soon.

France had worked its magic and I was remarkably relaxed, despite the annual phenomenon of the 'Vanishing Rain of Inverness'.  It started in earnest as we crossed the border into Scotland.  I suppressed any elation, because so often in the past, rain in the Lowlands has been succeeded by camels on the A9 in the desert north of Perth.  However, on this occasion it was chucking it down on Tayside and all the way to Bruar.  We perversely crossed the highest point in brilliant sunshine, but my morale was lifted by the ramparts of cloud out to the west and the strengthening wind.  Viewed from the viaduct the Findhorn was low, but no matter, I was being balanced (or rather, even my amateur meteorological skills told me what was coming).

Dalnahoyn @ + 5'
2pm Monday

It rained all Sunday night and into Monday.  The river rose 6' and there was no point even thinking about fishing that morning.  I went out after lunch to have a look and placate the fishing gods, starting at the top pool and working my way back to the house.  Unfortunately at this height you couldn't form a picture of the effects of storms Frank and Bertha on the river. The overall picture was familiar and largely unchanged, but there was no possibility of identifying individual lies.  The greatest joy was knowing that this was enough water to bring fresh fish up from the estuary, probably by Thursday.

First grilse
Garden Pool
7.15 am Tuesday

During Monday night the water fell steadily, so in accordance with tradition I got up early to fish before breakfast.  Garden was at a high but fishable + 3' 6".  With the water a frigid 9C but clearing nicely, it rated a full 10 on the MCX scale.  As Garden isn't deep I opted for a fast polyleader and a conehead MCX plastic tube rather than a sinking shooting head. Within 10 minutes I had this feisty little grilse, and shortly after, another larger one. Sadly I forgot the photograph the second, which was admirably plump and much prettier.  I duly went to breakfast feeling fully justified in my early rising.

Churan @ +4'
3 pm Tuesday
The river held steady at around +4' all day, which with a strong wind and the need for heavy flies and leaders made fishing hard work.  On the lower section the upstream wind made casting easier because you could form a good D-loop from the bank or shallow wading.  In contrast up on Dalnahoyn and Wade's it was 180 degrees opposite downstream and too deep to wade safely to create space for the D-loop.

11 lbs cock fish
Churan 10.15 am
MCX Dark #8 double
Over Tuesday night the river fell steadily so by Wednesday morning we had near perfect high fishing water at + 2' 6".  Members of the party caught fish  throughout the length of the beat.  I took this 11 lbs cock mid-morning before losing two more fish in the next 15 minutes, and another slightly later.  There were fish showing all over the place as those running up from the middle river started to crowd the residents.  Churan fished brilliantly until it suddenly went quiet around midday.

Rory took the best fish of the day up on Dalnahoyn, a very senior resident stirred up by new arrivals, and estimated at 16-18 lbs.  Long term followers of this blog may recognize him from 'Morning Glory' hefting another coloured lump.  Six years later he was even more delighted after a serious battle in a pool that gives ample opportunities to a strong fish.  It was a great day's fishing all round with everyone getting a share of the action, including Charlie's wife Camilla catching her first salmon, which took her 400 yards downstream.

Our morale was sky-high: despite losing a day to high water the book was already in the teens, and the river seemed set to fall a mite more, further improving the fishing.  Generally, as the density of salmon grows as the water falls and running slows, the friction between cohorts builds up, and the likelihood of takes increases.  Put another way, active, alert and agitated fish are much easier to catch than calm residents.  Furthermore, amongst the melee in Churan we had spotted the first fresh fish arriving.

Nemesis follows hubris as night follows day: it rained and the river went back up to + 4' while the water temperature went down to 8C, leading to another tough and largely unproductive day's fishing for those who braved the rain and near gale force wind.  Indeed, from this point on the rain hardly stopped, and on Thursday night the river shot up to +6'.  An improving forecast gave grounds for optimism, but the river was unfishable on Friday morning: the young departed to the golf course and I joined the wives' bridge crew (that's real balance in action).

Garden Pool tail
Fishing the 'turning point'
Friday afternoon

The water fell and cleared during Friday morning, so I took an early lunch and as it was still too high to wade Dalnahoyn I departed to Garden.  At this height running fish entering at the tail hug the left bank before crossing over towards the middle exactly where my fly is swimming in this picture.  At that point they have a much better near rectangular view of the fly rather than the usual end-on that characterises the dangle.  Identifying such running lines and turn points and fishing them carefully can greatly increase you chance of hooking a running fish, whereas in plain water the odds are stacked against you.

Airborne grilse
Garden Pool
Friday afternoon
Cunning works.  This feisty performer taken from that point spent most of the preceding 4 minutes doing an impressive sea trout tribute act in the air above Garden before launching himself some way up the beach. Once I'd recovered him and got the hook out he was away like a rocket.  I can only hope that with this attitude he survives to come back as a big 3SW to pull my arm out of its socket.  I hooked and lost 2 more, which is frustrating but often the way with grilse. Certainly they have softer mouths than adult fish, but they also seem to take the fly more 'end on' as they're not returning to a lie like most adults who thus get hooked in the scissors.

River Findhorn Shenachie gauge
Image and data courtesy of SEPA

The pattern was now clearly established.  Every time the water started to fall and our hopes rose, so did the river.  Just when we thought we were heading for a perfect Saturday, the next 6 foot spate came down on Friday night.

Garden Pool @ +3' 6"
Fishing the 'Pocket'
7.45 am Saturday
Note the 'turn point' is down at the little promotory
in the distant left of the picture
As it was the last morning I surrendered my virtuous balance and defied the conditions of high water and rain to fish before breakfast.  Given an upper section allocation the water was too deep to fish the top pools and my favourite Dalnahoyn effectively, so I opted to return to Garden. The shocking quality of this photos is owed to the conditions: 7.5C in the water, 5.5C in the air and raining. However, what it tries to show is me fishing a short line along the boundary between the fast and slow water.  In such conditions there's not much point casting a long way into the fast water: just concentrate on where the fish will run and hold before exiting the pool.

Strong grilse
Garden Pool 7.50 am
MCX Dark #8 double
Yes, this also works.  Because the water was shallow and not very fast, a medium polyleader and double fly sufficed.  I took another grilse out of the same pocket within 10 minutes, before losing a third hooked at the turn point discussed above. To fish the fast water effectively I would have needed a very fast sinking polyleader and a weighted tube fly to cut down through the turbulence.  But that combination would have been right for only 20% of the width of the pool and mostly wrong for the other 80% and especially for fish in the 'pocket' and 'turning point', as the fly would have been out of their sight line and potentially snagging the bottom.

The conclusions are simple: don't be seduced by the far bank; and play the percentages.

Friday afternoon
Contrary to our high hopes the river stopped falling around breakfast time and held steady for the rest of our last day.  In the afternoon I went down to Churan, which was flowing hard and heavy.  In these conditions the grilse come up the shallow water along the left bank (I hooked and lost one about 10-15 feet out).  The larger fish, which are much more efficient swimmers, can use the full width.  This of course makes catching them at this height a much more hit and miss affair than when lower water confines them to well defined and easily identified running lines and lies.

John with 16 pound hen fish
Churan Pool
Saturday afternoon
But sometimes fate smiles on the virtuous.  John hooked this fish on the near edge of the fast water on a small tungsten conehead tube and slow sink tip. Having the light behind him in the photo makes it look darker: this was a beautiful grey hen fish up from the estuary and weighed at 18 lbs.  In the heavy water it took 26 minutes to bring to the net whilst giving him some worrying moments.  It was the perfect end to the week and a fitting gift to someone who has given so much in leading our team's fishing over many years.

Despite the challenges posed by the weather and water levels, which reduced us to around 4 full days' fishing time, we had a tremendous week with 26 salmon and grilse in the book, our second best ever result at Tomatin.  Everyone caught some fish and a lot more were hooked and lost.  And throughout we had a lot of fun in good company.  I respected my age; didn't fish too hard or too long; caught 7 fish and lost 5 without any regrets; played some bridge; read half a book; and came away happy and thoroughly rested: that's a well balanced result.

The next sessions are on the Ure, so we'll see how Yorkshire compares to Scotland this year.  I'll pick up the novice learning points from the Tomatin week in a separate post.  Meanwhile, have a great autumn's fishing and tight lines.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Spot the Lie

One of the most common novice errors is fishing at the wrong target - where you think the fish are, rather than where they're actually located - which inevitably leads to missed opportunities and disappointment.

Tomatin House Pool
Here's an example.  Many novices confronted with this view would assume the salmon are lying behind the obvious rock in the centre, and fish at its very visible 'tail'.  Quite apart from the challenges of presenting a fly realistically in that area, the bigger problem is that there aren't any fish there. "Why not?" they would say, "it looks perfect."  Actually it isn't.  If you look closely at the 'tail' behind the rock it's narrow and much longer than you'd expect given the modest pace of the water.  The reason for that length is turbulence, which makes it unfavourable for salmon, for reasons I'll go on to explain.  By the way, the two best lies in the photo are  one at 7 o'clock and 10 feet from the obvious rock; and the other is in front of you in the bottom right corner!

To help us identify good lies we need to understand 2 things: first, what the salmon needs; and second, how moving water behaves in the river's environment (but you don't require a master's degree in fluid dynamics).

What the Salmon Needs

Back in November 2012 I wrote a post titled "Where are They", which described the survival imperative that drives a salmon's behaviour.  The greatest threat to its fulfilment of its life mission to reproduce is exhaustion.  However, there are very few rivers in the UK that pose much sustained energy challenge to a salmon during its migration.  The fish to the left was caught a very long way from the North Sea in August 2011, and it certainly doesn't look even remotely depleted by the journey.

When it's swimming the salmon is extremely efficient and powerful.  The reserves of fat and protein layered in its muscles during the time at sea are huge in relation to the demands of its journey.  The energy challenge starts in earnest with the creation of eggs or milt; continues during the long periods waiting for spawning; and ends with the act of spawning.  If it is to survive this epic, the salmon cannot afford to waste energy holding its position in a lie.  Ideally it wants to be as close to motionless as possible, and it can only achieve this objective in a lie with a smooth low-speed flow of water of consistent density.  To that end the salmon will avoid turbulence - which demands effort to maintain stability and position - and excessive aeration - which changes density, causing unpredictable vertical shifts.  Turbulence and aeration are exactly what you often get in the 'tail' behind obvious 'lies', which explains the absence of salmon.  They also prefer to have a reasonable amount of water above them when they're static in daylight as protection against avian predators like ospreys.  I generally reckon around 30"/70 cm is a respectable assumption.  Salmon will tolerate shallow water and adverse conditions for short periods whilst running, but may not hang around long enough for you to catch them.

Here's an example of a good lie from a salmon's eye view 4 feet down.  The pale area ahead and right in Window 1 is aeration and turbulence - you will note the adjacent ragged edge to Window 2 indicating larger waves.  In the foreground the ridge of boulders is diverting the flow upwards into the wave forms at the top of the picture.  Down at salmon level, things are pleasantly smooth but well oxygenated in the pocket of slack water behind the ridge.

You don't always need rocks and ridges.  One of the best salmon lies I ever knew was no more than a depression in a bed of small pebbles and gravel about 4 inches deep, with a few medium-sized stones, perhaps 6 inches high, upstream.  It helps to remember that even a very big salmon is only 8-9 inches deep.  A salmon could hold its position in the lie by the simply expedient of rotating its pectoral fins to a shallow dive angle, which placed the main part of its body in almost slack water adjacent to the bottom.  As a result they were almost completely motionless and correspondingly hard to spot.  It was an educational treat to watch them through polaroids with the sun over your shoulder.  Sadly it won't be there when I return to Tomatin next month, owing to the immense volumes of stone and gravel shifted by storms FRANK and BERTHA in the years since 2013.  Nevertheless there will be others elsewhere in the beat for me to discover.

The other point to grasp is that apart from late season, testosterone-dosed territorial cock fish, salmon are very comfortable in close company.  Mostly they don't mind sharing a good lie.  One day I noted a large fish showing below the tail of Dalnahoyn pool near the Wade's Road Bailey bridge and resolved to catch it.  I found a place between the bushes to get down the bank and was about to descend into some slack water behind a large rock adjacent to the side, when I saw that I was about to put my foot into the midst of a group of perhaps 8-10 mature salmon in an area no more than 3 feet by 4, taking a pause before ascending the fast water.  In fascination I spent the next 10 minutes observing them from no more than 6-8 feet distant, by which time my target was long gone.  I didn't mind. But if a lie's good and you catch a fish from it, unless there's another angler coming down the pool, fish it again, quickly!

How Water Behaves

Dalnahoyn Pool, Tomatin
Running at +36"
If it looks something like this on the surface, with lots of 'standing waves' - the ones that stay in the same place - then you know that there's something on the bottom forcing the water upwards.  It helps, however, to understand what's going on down below.  By the way, the best lie shown here is the one at the far left of the photo.  The others are far too turbulent at this high water level.

Remember that the water near the surface is travelling much faster than that near the bottom.  The slower water piles up against the obstacle, forming a static wedge of water upstream and above (I've exaggerated the dimensions/proportions for illustration purposes).  The faster water above can't push it downwards or sideways and is thus forced upwards, appearing as a wave form at the surface.  If the current isn't too fast there may also be a quiet volume at the back, but this breaks down rapidly with increasing flow speed or reducing depth, especially if the obstacle is isolated or blunt-faced (a too-abrupt upward movement generates unwelcome turbulence).  You also need to think in plan view, with the near bottom flow being deflected outwards by the wedge.  In many cases the fish will lie in the front envelope; between the boulders; or by the sides.

Saeter Pool
GFF Water, River Gaula
So far so good - the fish are upstream of the standing wave - but it's essential to develop an appreciation of what this looks like in practice.  Here's a nice standing wave on the left side of the picture, but can you see the rock creating it?  On the far bank there are 2 small rectangular white stones at the water's edge: come straight down at 6 o'clock to a light streak, which a flat boulder about 4 feet long, in about 4-5 feet of medium-paced water.  The standing wave is almost 7 feet behind the boulder.  So if you cast to the wave you'd miss the fish just ahead and on the far side of the boulder by about 12 feet.  Ideally you want your fly to be above and ahead of the salmon at about 45 degrees elevation, which means it needs to be at least 15 feet upstream of the wave.  That's a long way.

The clue as to why the fish is lying on the far side of the boulder is in the photo - my shadow in the foreground.  Given an option, salmon will generally favour the shadier side.

Sverre Run
GFF Water, River Gaula
Here's another example, this time in shallow very fast water. Indeed, wading calf-deep I was having trouble keeping my footing whilst taking the photo. You can see the wave easily enough, but where's the origin?  No, it's not the swirl at the right side, but about 5 o'clock from the little bush, about 8-10 feet upstream.  The shallowness and speed of the water make the wave formation more violent.  If there are any fish in the picture they would probably be between the upstream swirl, caused by a small boulder, and the larger rock generating the wave, at about 4 o'clock from the bush.

Saeter Pool
GFF Water, River Gaula
 Running +4' 6"
It's also important to remember that turbulence can be very persistent in fast water.  Not only does it get carried quickly downstream, the motion can also maintain or even increase its effect.  The photo, taken at 0100 hrs on a dark rainy night in Norway on a longer exposure, emphasises the light scattered by turbulent water and air bubbles.  Its extent is about 25-30 feet.  There may well be quiet areas underneath the turbulence that will hold fish.  Your problem is getting your fly down through it, behaving sensibly and into the salmon's taking zone.  In this case the water is about 6 feet deep and flowing strongly, so I wouldn't bet on achieving all 3 steps without a lot of weight in the leader and fly in such an extreme case.

For interest, here are the same rocks in 2016 with 5 feet less water.

Practical Examples

Upper Netherdale beat
Deveron 2014
Nearer to home on the Deveron, here's an example of the lateral spread of turbulence from a relatively small boulder in medium paced water.  Because the water is deep relative to the speed of flow, there's insufficient force to generate a standing wave.  In this case the salmon can easily lie near the bottom under the swirl, but it's difficult to fish your fly well in that space.  The better option is to concentrate on the sides of the vee-shape and the fish on the outer edges, casting from well upstream to achieve a nice narrow angle.

Upper Kirk pool
Waterside & Ferrar beat River Dee

In this photo, taken on the Dee in lower water, there are lots of lies similar to the one above.  The best is immediately to the right of the red tape on my rod.  Again, it's best to fish ahead of the rock and down the sides.  Casting into or fishing through the swirl will lead to poor presentation of your fly.  In this case another angler hooked and lost a large fish on the edge of the swirl about 6-8 feet back on the near side (but lost it).  You can see the relatively narrow angle from which I am fishing the lie.  From here I could use small upstream mends to hold the fly close to the lie for much longer than a conventional 45 degree cast and swing would ever achieve.

Between the Caulds pool
Rutherford beat
running at +16" March 2017

Here's a nice choice of standing wave lies on the main flow-line on the Tweed.  The flow is strong, so the lies are well upstream from the waves.  When you're faced with a view like this, don't just progress mechanically down the pool, casting at a fixed angle.  Think ahead and work out how best to address each lie before its's in range.  If you're casting 25-30 yards - the case in this example - then you need to be looking 50 yards ahead.  A shallower angle and consequently slower fly is essential to give the fish more time, especially when the water is cold, fast or both (as it was here).

Garden Pool, Tomatin
River Findhorn
running at +24" September 2011
Sometimes I practice what I preach!  The lie was about 2 o'clock from my right hand, between the two small standing waves on the flow line.  I cast quite square to give the conehead and polyleader time to get down in the fast water, then put in an upstream mend to slow it down.  That week I caught 3 fish from the same lie, but this was the only one hooked with someone available to take the picture.

The advantage of height
Flesh Dub Thoresby beat
running at +18"

Often you have to look really hard, but it's well worth the effort.  Disregard the foreground here, because the water's too shallow. The clues won't always shout at you, so look from the elevation of the bank before you get into the water. Don't rush,take your time, scan and think first.  In this case you may have spotted these three: the first about 20 feet straight out from the tree on the opposite bank.  The next is about 15 yards downstream, just over the centreline.  And the third is on your side, about 40 yards downstream

Anne's Bank, Rutherford beat
River Tweed at +12", May 2016
And sometimes there are no clues whatsoever, so you just get on, cover the water methodically, and fish. Dull perhaps, but never, ever, be surprised by salmon.  Just after I took this photo I hooked and lost 2 fish in quick succession from the same lie.  It was probably no more than a slight depression in the gravel in less than 3 feet of water.


  • Scan the pool from the height of the bank to spot possible lies
  • Make an outline mental plan of how to fish them
  • Think ahead by 50 yards as you go down the pool
  • Remember how far the lie may be upstream from the standing wave
  • Don't be snared by the downstream swirl!
  • Fish the edges of lies from a narrower angle to keep your fly in play
  • If you catch a fish, cover the lie again as soon as possible