Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Edge of the Known World - The Helmsdale

Naturally I was delighted and excited when a very kind friend invited me to join his party on the Helmsdale in late April.  For those unfamiliar with its location, the Helmsdale enters the sea about a little finger's width below Wick at the north eastern extremity of the map.  I'd never fished that far north in Scotland before - the Carron was my previous frontier - so the idea of heading to the edge of the known world added an extra sense of adventure.  Indeed, the fact that the top of the Scottish mainland is a straight edge endows it with the special quality of a defining boundary, after which you enter somewhere else.  It's also a very long way away - 450 miles by road from my bit of North Yorkshire - which takes a full 8 hours' driving.  I appreciate such a distance is trivial if you're a citizen of Montana or Russia (I've driven in both), but for an older Englishman it's a bit of a psychological epic.  Thank goodness comfortable and reliable modern cars have taken the physical elements out of the epic.  As a callow 20 year old I drove a real Mini Cooper (not the modern BMW imitation) from Carnoustie to Surrey in one night, an epic of manifold dimensions, without the benefit of dual carriageway on the A90, the existence of the M74 or of the M1 beyond the Midlands.  At least there were no speed cameras in those days.  On the other hand there was nothing edible for 450 of the 550 miles (life before Ronald MacDonald) and with a 4 1/2 gallon (20 litre) fuel tank you had to be pretty canny about choosing your stops.  That's enough reminiscing: this is a fishing blog not History Hit.

A few drops of Fairy Liquid in gently warm water,
pull the line trough the sponge, one way then the other.
Leave the line to ease in the sun, then dry and polish.
Anyway, the traditional annual outload of the GFC into the car boxes and jacket took its usual course, while a conveniently sunny day allowed me to wash, inspect and polish all my lines.  The process of unspooling and rewinding also confirmed the adequacy of last winter's post-season servicing of the reels.  It's a pretty menial task, but the fact that it's fishing related makes it a pleasure while its simplicity gives you ample scope for salmon daydreams.  As this was to be a non-dog week - lambing was in full swing at Suisgill - everything fitted into the car with ease.  Unusually I wasn't fretting about the water level, which was low and likely to remain so throughout our stay.

The drive to Inverness was as deeply familiar but rendered tedious by the cameras.  As a matter of habit and fond memory we checked the height of the Findhorn at Tomatin as we crossed the A9 viaduct over my favourite Dalnahoyn pool, noting that it was far lower than we expected in mid-April.  The Allness and Brora were even lower.  The further north we drove, the drier the land became, but conversely the shortage of grazing told its own story of a hard late winter.  Once you leave the Black Isle the A9 follows the coast, which diminishes the feeling of being in the Highlands.  North of Dornoch Firth the villages are more widely spaced and the traffic much lighter: it feels like a totally different country to the prosperous valleys of the Tay, Dee and Spey.  Once we reached the village of Helmsdale we left the main road and headed up the glen on a single track road beside the river for 12 miles to Upper Suisgill, a perfect antidote to the long drive and a sure-fire stimulus to my already high anticipation.

The Helmsdale
from Upper Suisgill Lodge
Water at MSL +5"

The Helmsdale is a small river, perhaps little more than 30 miles in length, with its flow moderated by the Badanloch at its head.  It is the perfect salmon river in miniature, with everything in proportion and balance.  Under the tutelage of my host Tony (the Master Netsman) and Donnie the ghillie I quickly learned to recalibrate my thinking and methods to match the environment.  Although I've fished plenty of small (and some tiny) rivers, the Helmsdale was a unique, joyful and fulfilling experience.  Every pool - and sometimes situations within a pool - required fresh consideration and different approaches, often within the space of 3-4 casts.  I've always thought myself a lively fishing thinker and analyst, but the Helmsdale and Donnie demanded a much higher level of mental effort.

Behind the Clan Gunn Kirk
Kildonan Farm

Despite the low water - 2 of the 5 inches were supplied by releases from the loch, which caused bizarre variations in the water temperature - there were fish in the river and still fresh enough not to have gone into suspended animation in the quiet corners.  Tony had me out before breakfast on the Monday morning to fish the lower end of 6 Below.  The MCX score - low, clear, slow, shallow but cold 6C - of 5-6 suggested a very small Alistair tube (adamant local knowledge kept the MCXs in the box) and a fine 15 lbs fluorocarbon leader to give it movement.  The 11' 6" Tool was the ideal rod for the short casts required.  I started on Swirl, casting little more than 6-8 yards from the gravel bar.  On my third cast a fish came at the fly but turned away after 3-4 feet.  It was a near miss and more than enough to lift the spirits in time for breakfast.

Looking upstream towards Dog's Nose
After a well-earned and hearty breakfast I was introduced to Donnie who took me up into the rocks closer to the falls to test my mountain goat credentials.  For me this was pure switch rod work, mostly single-handed, casting to precise targets that Donnie indicated, with a 1" conehead Alistair.  Mid-morning Tony turned up to see how I was getting on and to report catching a fish.  Shortly after he departed, I was perched on a ledge against an overhanging rock just upstream of the Dog's Nose casting to a point some 20 feet distant at about 30 degrees to the flow.  Donnie told me to let the fly come right round to the dangle, fold round the corner out of my sight and then slowly handline it in.  The fish would take just before the fly came back around the corner.  Obedient to Donnie's orders, a strong fish took exactly on cue. This presented me with 3 concurrent challenges: first, keeping the fish under some semblance of control; second, getting back up on top of the rock whilst doing so; and third, avoiding falling into the very deep water at the foot of the rock.  Having overcome those three problems I could concentrate on fighting a strong and determined salmon in a confined space bounded by large lumps of granite, half of which was round the corner out of sight, with fast water leading to some falls at the bottom end to add further interest.  If it got any distance downstream it would be away, so I applied serious pressure.  Twice this succeeded in bringing the fish into the narrow and deep water in front of me where I could see what was going on (whilst admiring a lovely silver deep bodied fish of 10-12 lbs) and fight with some confidence, but it had other ideas and a marked preference for going around the corner.  After it had gone round the rock for third time and was heading downstream with me applying every ounce I could muster, the leader parted with a sharp crack.  I managed to retain my footing but the fish came clear out of the water and landed on its back before departing with my fly.  

This disappointment was entirely my own stupid fault and a consequence of failing to think, a cardinal sin.  The 15 lbs fluorocarbon leader I had set up before breakfast for the open spaces of Swirl and a very small fly was pathetically inadequate for the abrasive terrain in which I was now fishing with a conehead tube.  Fluorocarbon is exceptionally thin compared to Maxima of the same strength and therefore more vulnerable to forceful abrasion.  Not only had I failed to think of changing the leader, worse still I had left the spools of 24 and 30 lbs in the car box, when the best solution would have been 8' of 30 and 18" of 24 lbs.  Donnie gave me the benefit of his withering opinion of fluorocarbon and insisted on the use of Maxima for the rest of the morning.  We were to maintain a lively debate on the virtues and vices of fluorocarbon for the rest of the week.

Lunchtime marked the change of beats, and I went upstream to 6 Above with Tony as my guide.  The beat arrangements on the Helmsdale are unusual - perhaps 2-3 other northern rivers have similar systems - but work extremely well.  The estates cooperate, share the river in 12 sections (6 above and 6 below the falls) and have 2 rods fishing at any time.  Each day you move down one section, giving you one rod on each of (say) 6 Above and 6 Below. The following day you shift down one to 5 A and B and so forth.  Once you reach the bottom you go back up to 6 and start again.  This system gives you wonderful variety: over 6 days you fish 12 miles of water and every section is different in character and its fishing demands.

At the top you're fishing a large burn, exploring the nooks and crannies with a switch rod and short leader at point blank range;

1 Below
about a mile above the tide
and at the bottom, a conventional salmon river with a 13 or 14 foot rod at 30 yards.

Where the rock allows the Helmsdale meanders in its valley, twisting and turning, forever shifting its course through the alluvial sand.  In the space of 15 minutes you can find yourself casting into, out of and across the wind from any and all directions, in an exacting audit of your repertoire of casts and your imagination in applying them to the conditions.  And we had some wicked winds during the week.  Indeed the air was rarely if ever still.

I fished diligently through Tuesday and Wednesday, including overtime before breakfast and after tea, sadly without a result.  Tony was absolutely determined that I should catch a fish and in that endeavour his extraordinary enthusiasm even exceeded my own.  Thursday brought a change of fortune: under Donnie's eagle-gaze I hooked a respectable fish in Upper Torrish, but the copious splashing on the surface and head-shaking didn't bode well.  As a result I treated it quite gently - there was ample room and no rocks - but after 3 minutes or so it came off.  At least I was hooking them, even if I couldn't get them onto the bank.

On Friday afternoon I was paired with David on the very pretty 2 Above and enjoyed a grandstand view as he hooked and landed a classic shiny Helmsdale springer in accordance with Donnie's instructions.

It was a classic case of acute local knowledge of where a fish would lie in a particular run through a narrow rocky pool.  David's challenge was to get the fly to the right place in a stiff downstream breeze with a vertical bank directly behind him and only a few feet of line outside the top ring.  This was certainly a far cry from his usual fare on the wide open spaces of the Spey.

The fish had taken the fly right down which necessitated some rapid bank-side surgery.

Shortly after David had caught his fish the sky darkened and its started to rain hard.  Further downstream on 2 Below it was snowing: in all about 2" of snow, hailstones and sleet accumulated, but none fell above the Lodge.  The river started to rise gently, although Donnie advised that it would be altogether different down at Helmsdale, where he anticipated a rise of at least a foot, which would be enough to bring some fresh fish in from the sea.  This proved to be the case, with anglers on the Club water catching 3 later in the evening.

I was becoming increasingly conscious of my tail end fish-free charlie status.  Although I was fairly relaxed I was keenly aware that Tony and Donnie were both utterly determined to put me into a salmon.  The overtime session on Friday evening was an inevitable blank in a rising river, so the pressure was on for the last day.

Donnie took me first to the Garden Pool by the new Kildonan Lodge.  With the air at 1.5C and the water at 6C and +9" I would normally have been reaching for a sink tip and an MCX or Cascade conehead, but Donnie's adamant advice was for a plain leader and a simple Alistair aluminium tube of his own tying.

The Donnie Alistair Tube
It's about as simple and as sparse as you can imagine.

9 lbs Helmsdale springer
28th April 2018
By 1130 we were on the Old Lodge Pool with the clock running down towards lunch.  Halfway down under the end of the trees is a large sub-surface rock about 2/3 rods of the way across the flow.  I anticipated a fish on the edge of the 'vee' wake nearest me about 6-8 feet downstream.  It followed the fly for about 2 feet and hooked itself on turning back towards its lie.

The fight was energetic but uneventful, with the salmon choosing to conduct the battle in the open water upstream of the rock.

It appeared to have been in the river about a week, having shed its lice and gained a slight purple sheen on its back.  Something had chewed the lower corner of its tail but without impairing its swimming abilities.  Yet again the hook was well down, which necessitated high speed surgery on the bank, before sending it on its way like a torpedo.  I was delighted and relieved in equal measure.  My host was over the moon having achieved his objective.

Last pool of 1 Below
Hostess Sheila acting as ghillie
Full range casting at +12"
The Club water starts just around the corner
I fished out the last afternoon on the bottom beat 1 Below down towards Helmsdale and the sea.  This was classic salmon river water about 30 yards wide and running fast and heavy.  Despite feeling extremely fishy, none obliged before the clock stopped at 5pm to close a very perfect week at the edge of the world.

So what did I learn from the experience?

  • Avoid the idle default: make sure that your set-up and tactics are right for the pools you are going to fish.
  • On a small river with relatively few fish present, local knowledge is invaluable.  After 23 years' experience Donnie knows his water intimately and his signposting of possible taking fish was inch perfect.  Always heed the ghillies advice (I did).
  • Stay focused: the features of a small river and the appropriate fishing responses change every few yards so there's no let up in the thinking processes.
  • Start with a short line and clear the water under your feet first.  At the head of a pool don't start pacing down straight away.  Start short, clear the foreground and gradually extend your line before stepping off.
  • If in doubt, work the fly by hand lining, stripping or whatever.  After a week's chiding by Donnie I had become a much more active handliner.
  • Master all the basic casts to give you the essential foundation for the ad hoc solutions a small river demands.
  • If in doubt present the fly above the fish so it can see the silhouette against the sky in Window 3.
  • Just keep on doing the basics right and your luck may well come good.

It was a fabulous week with a great house party in the lodge and good company on the river bank and around the table.  Tony and Sheila were the ultimate hosts who derived the greatest pleasure from their guests' success and enjoyment.  What a privilege.

Upper Suisgill at sunset April 2018

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.