Friday, 26 July 2013

Seven Deadly Sins - Common Novice Error 6

Being Surprised

Hugh Falkus' contention that catching a salmon is a complete fluke implies a degree of surprise.  While being surprised can sometimes be nice, much more often it is associated with things going wrong and sometimes getting worse thereafter.  Owing to its 350 year history of taking nasty shocks from Americans, Afghans, Afridis and Ashantis, via Germans to Zulus, and a long and close acquaintance with Murphy's Laws, the British Army takes surprise seriously.  It has a saying that is equally apposite in salmon fishing as warfare:

"By all means be amazed, but never, ever be surprised"

 When you're suddenly faced with the unexpected, emulating a headless chicken is a sure-fire way of losing battles and salmon.  Of course we shouldn't be surprised by a salmon taking a fly, because that's what we set out to achieve, but we still get truly surprised and all too often lose the fish thereby.  It's an awful shame to go through all the effort, frustration and cost of trying to catch a salmon, only to blow the opportunity in a blinding sandstorm of mental chaos induced by surprise.  Catching a salmon may be a rare and unlikely event, but it helps to be practically and mentally prepared.

Murphy's Laws and Salmon

It's clear that in between studying the nature of warfare and military matters, Murphy had an alternative existence as a salmon, in particular because:
  • If it can go wrong, it will.  When a salmon takes all bets are off.  The infallible reel will seize up; the recessed handle will snag; and a knot will appear in the super-smooth line.  If your wife is watching, the probability doubles, but at least the camera won't work.
  • It will go wrong at the worst possible time and place.  Forget all this nonsense about 'induced takes' because there's only one certain way of inducing a take, and its nothing to do with wiggling the fly.  Tuck your rod under your weaker arm; take your cigarettes/cigars/pipe/chocolate bar/mobile phone out of your inside pocket; and one or more will fall into the water.  During the crazed scramble to recover, the chances of a take increase 100-fold.  If you can find somewhere especially dangerous to do it - wading down a ledge on the North Tyne - you gain an extra 10-fold  bonus.  An old friend of my father's used to demonstrate this skill with infallible repetition of incompetence on their annual trip to the Tweed, with a dividend never less than 17 lbs in weight.  In fact, the late Jack Thomas was so shambolic that it was impossible to surprise him.  He could thus ruthlessly exploit Murphy's Laws to his profit via pipe, lighter, hip-flask (large and frequent), spectacles and false teeth - deployed individually and often severally.
  • When everything seems to be OK, it's about to go wrong.  In other words, even if you're prepared, look out, and never get complacent.  I witnessed a highly experienced angler closely focused on a nice fish showing on the far side of a pool on a lovely summer's evening, doing a complete base-over-apex in 12" of still water, during which his £400 Simms Goretex waders found the only sharp stone in the River Ure to secure a return trip to Diver Dave Wader Repairs in Aberdeen (an address worth saving - he's superb).
  • When several things can go wrong, generally the most inconvenient and expensive happens.  Wading on the freezing Tweed in March I slipped and fell in 18" of water (yes, me too).  In the ensuing chaos the loose line found my forceps with unerring accuracy and inflicted hara-kiri.  Fortunately the line could not run away as it was frozen solidly in the rings, so saving a £3 fly was some consolation for writing off a £70 Windcutter, which, needless to say, is no longer made and thus irreplaceable.
  • Murphy's Law of Thermodynamics states that things always get worse under pressure.  When you're a novice, that's called hooking a salmon.  The first is the worst.  Having got up most unusually early (see Morning Glory), my youngest son, fishing on his own, hooked his first very large fish.  Having no net with him (and no plan for the eventuality) he tried to beach it up a 45 degree grass bank.  Amazingly he got it up; unsurprisingly it didn't stay there.

Be Prepared - Physically

Frodle Dub, Bolton Water, River Ure
Viewed from High Thoresby Bank
Spring fishing 2013
Unless you are a graduate of the Jack Thomas School it pays to be prepared and organised.  At my age the climb in waders back up from Frodle Dub to the car parked 250 feet above at High Thorseby is a major incentive for good personal organisation and double checking everything before setting off (to compensate for failing memory).  It is, however, one of the best views in the world on the way back.

It helps to keep things simple and have a consistent stowage scheme for your jacket, box and car.  I pack my wading jacket at the start of the season and do not change or empty it until the end.  There's a place for everything and everything's in its place: the contents of each pocket are unchanging.  Tips and leaders inside right; camera, phone and tape measure inside left; flies outside right; tubes, priest and chocolate outside left. The car keys go in the waterproof wader pocket because RF door openers are not submersible and there's not much worse than being stuck outside your car in the snow after falling in.  Anal perhaps; reliable certainly.

I don't wish to appear pompous or conceited, but I am amazed by how shambolic my otherwise intelligent, successful professional friends can be.  If they organised their businesses as badly as their fishing gear, they'd have starved long ago.  When you've hooked a salmon it's a bit late to discover that the drag on your reel is solid for want of maintenance after the last season.  I've watched two of our Tomatin party losing fish this way.  My carpenter/plumber/electrician friends are a complete contrast: a lifetime apprenticeship of needing to be able to find the right tool first time and keeping it working has embedded a natural mental organisation.  Of course there are exceptions: G keeps so much salmon gear in his van he can never get to the plumbing stuff.

Be Prepared - Mentally

You have to believe that you can and might hook a salmon.  Given that triumph of hope over experience it helps to think through what you're going to do when it happens.  In Walking to the Water I described a thought process for planning how to fish a pool.  If you wish to avoid surprise then you should make an outline plan for hooking, playing and landing any fish that succumbs to your efforts, which you update continuously as you progress down the pool.  Of course you need to concentrate on fishing, but equally you must maintain awareness of your surroundings (not least for your own safety).

It begins with a series of questions, starting at the far end of the operation and working backwards:

Where are the best places to land the fish?  

A small gravel beach between the rocks

You're looking for a gently shelving beach of gravel or pebbles where you can run the fish aground in shallow water and get behind it without risk to get hold of the tail to gain control.  Don't try a steep grass bank or a ledge against 6' of water, or rely on the dog.  When you get to the right place, don't try bringing the fish towards your feet: the rod will merely bend more as you raise the tip.  Once you've got the salmon's head up and pointing towards your beach, hold the rod steady at about 45 degrees, and if the terrain permits,  move back a couple of brisk paces 'surfing' the fish onto the shore.

Dalnahoyn Pool, Tomatin House
Leading the fish to the small gravel beach
Note the concentration on safe movement
You may have to move the fish some distance to the landing point.  Don't worry and don't rush.  You can make your way there gradually during the fight, provided the bank allows easy safe movement.  If not, don't take the risk, because Murphy will ensure that either the fight or the movement ends badly.  I learnt the hard way at Tomatin, falling into a small drain concealed in the grass: the fish took advantage of my misfortune.  If you can't fight and move, play the fish out first, then 'lead' it slowly and steadily to the landing point, whilst concentrating on traversing the bank safely.  You can lead a played out fish a long way if you maintain firm tension and smooth jerk-free progress.

Where are the best places to play the fish?  

Once you've gained some semblance of control you need to get first into shallower water and then onto dry land.  If it's practical, getting up onto the bank gives you 3 advantages: the first is speed of lateral movement - you can travel much faster in pursuit of a big fish on grass than on pebbles in 2' of water; second, you gain a helpful extra dimension in wearing the fish down; and third, the salmon cannot swim between your legs.  But do avoid trees and bushes, because you will always wind up on the opposite side to the fish.

If I hook a fish now, how do I get to the bank? 

As I wade down a pool I ask the same question at regular intervals:  "If the river starts to rise sharply; or I hook a fish; or something goes wrong, what will I do?".   If the wading is especially difficult you may have to fight the fish from where you are until you've worn it down enough to allow you to concentrate on your movement rather than the fish.  But in all cases you need an exit plan, which in 99% of cases will involve mostly downstream movement, because the point 10 yards upstream is non-viable in any sort of current.  Get to know and always be aware of the bottom topography between you and the bank.  For example, getting off the wading line in Dalnahoyn Pool involves passing through deeper water, and if you're under the bridge, you're better off going a further 30 yards downstream before heading inwards.

Be Prepared - Safety

The worst sort of surprise is when things go seriously wrong, so please:
  • Always wade with a stick, remembering that the shallow water is the most dangerous owing to sunlight driving the growth of slippery green stuff.  Trying to move without a stick in waist-deep water with a 20 pounder on the far end is a recipe for swimming lessons.
  • Always listen to the water for the change of note that warns of a rapid rise.  At the risk of repeating myself, one day on the Findhorn I caught the change of note.  I left my wading line with the water at calf depth; by the time I reached the bank 2 minutes later it was hip-deep, brown and ugly.
  • For that reason, never plug in to an i-pod or MP3 on spate rivers or those with hydro releases.
  • Wear a life preserver, and get it serviced every 2 years.
  • Just once, practice survival swimming in waders.

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