Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Spring on the Dee

Evening view of the Dee upstream from Waterside

It's been a while since I last wrote a post, simply because I didn't have anything especially interesting to say in advance of actually doing some fishing.  Then the postponement of the day on the Tweed in March meant waiting until April and our trip to the Dee.

Of course, as usual, my anticipation rose steadily as departure day approached.  Business didn't get in the way: from hotel rooms in Arabia you can track the Braemar weather forecast, SEPA river levels and the Dee's daily catches (or not) on FishPal with the same ease as from home.  The luxury may be greater, but the dearth of a refreshing beer after working in 30 degree warmth is a serious downside.  On the other hand, it was so cold when I was fishing last spring that we had to use the microwave to defrost the lunchtime drink (microwave? that's Tweed fishing hut luxury for you).

My anticipation and excitement was tempered by a degree of trepidation.  I'd not fished on Royal Deeside before, so sought advice from Patrick who has been an annual pilgrim to this salmon Mecca for a decade and more.  Would I have to wear a tie whilst fishing? (No).  Would my Simms thermal ninja pyjamas be acceptable? (Yes, provided I didn't wear them for dinner at the hotel).  Would I have to dress for dinner (aka black tie)? (No, but at your age do check that your trousers are on and done up properly).  Will the ghillie laugh at my rubbish casting finely honed on smaller rivers? (No, he's seen far, far worse.  Anyway he likes a tip, and therefore will even laugh at your awful jokes).  

Patrick's responses moderated my concerns, although the size of the water caused me to sneak off to the Tyne for a casting lesson with Alan Maughan.  He's an excellent instructor who's put immense thought into teaching methods and effective communication.  The challenge I gave him was to sort out my Single Spey, which is the cast I've used least in the 12 years since I started with a double-handed rod.  Think about it: if you fish rivers that flow generally east into the North Sea (Findhorn, Ure, Tyne etc) and the prevailing wind is westerly, then upstream winds are abnormal.  More often than not you've got a downstream wind, which makes you a dab hand at the Double Spey and the Snake Roll (in my case usually left handed because most of my fishing is left bank).  Finally, although its 'Single' title implies a certain simplicity, the Single Spey is undoubtedly the hardest cast to do well.  To make matters worse, it has the smallest margin of error in terms of anchor placement: joy and gloom are separated by a razor blade.  You can get away with all manner of sins with a waterborne anchor, but the airborne anchor of the Single can drive you to distraction.  Thus, with the aim of getting a decade's worth of embedded bad habits out and a sound technique in, I spent several hours in the wintry Tyne focused on getting the anchor placement right.  Persistence is a virtue, and I'll go back shortly for another session to polish the delivery.  That said, for 3 days on the Dee we had strong downstream winds, culminating in a near gale on the Saturday, so the new Single only featured for about 5% of my casting effort.

Fully prepared, armed, trained and reassured I set off on the Wednesday morning, via a brief stop at John Norris to buy a new lifejacket to replace the faithful item seized and destroyed by Royal Mail when I sent it off for servicing.  I'd failed to note the change in their postal policy last autumn - CO2 cylinders, however small are now totally forbidden.  Mine showed up on scanning and was then sent under guard to Barnsley to be blown up.  They rejected all entreaties for mercy and offers to collect - boom!  Be warned: no doubt MCX is now in MI5's files as a potential postal bomber.

As it was mid-week, far too early for tourists and caravans and there was little snow on the Cairngorms, I took the route from Perth to Braemar over the Glenshee Pass.  It's amazing what the Scots will grade as an A-road, but that does give you more time to admire the stunning scenery.  And as you descend from Glenshee you observe an ever-expanding snow melt stream sparkling beside the road, hurling itself exuberantly off the mountains, liberally accumulating the oxygen essential to all life and the Dee's quality as a salmon river.  By the time I reached Dinnet and the Loch Kinnord Hotel I fully understood what had so inspired the Victorians.

Waterside Pool - sparkling in the spring sunshine
Day 1 - +18"
We were on the Waterside and Ferrar beat of the Upper Dee on the Glen Tanar Estate.  It comprises some 4 miles of double bank fishing with 14 named pools.  It is an exceptionally attractive beat owing to the variety of water and setting that every pool offers, with each posing the angler a different challenge.  It's the epitome of classic salmon fishing - the idealised vision of the tackle catalogue and the box of shortbread - with well tended banks, nice benches indicating the best lies, and huts with pot-bellied stoves.  I loved it.

Upper Kirk viewed from the wading line
The running line is up the right side
On Day 1 we had perfect water at +18", a real morale booster.  It was a frigid 6.5C, but with no obvious temperature barriers between us and Aberdeen this wouldn't stop the fish coming (if they so wished!).

Using the MCX Scoring System Upper Kirk pool where I began Day 1 scored 2 for level, 3 for speed, 3 for temperature, but only 1 for clarity.  Indeed on the gin scale the clarity scored about 70 Proof (or 37% ABV for the younger reader).  With a point knocked off for the brilliant sunshine I arrived at an aggregate of 8 points, which suggested a lightly weighted 1" black and yellow Dee tube and a 10' sink tip.  The system isn't designed to be precise, but rather to lead you to a logical and sensible choice that isn't likely to be far wrong. Indeed, about an hour later Davie the ghillie appeared and endorsed my judgement.  Over the 3 days the air temperature remained above the water's throughout, from a morning low of 7C to a tropical 16C on the afternoon of Day 1.

Upper Kirk - knee depth, mid-morning light
After years wading the burgundy shades of the Findhorn I was amazed by the clarity of the water.  Standing on the bank you could see the bottom across nearly one third of the width.  The sunlight penetration was accelerating the growth of the green weed and algae on the rocks in the shallows.

This extreme clarity caused a wobble of confidence in my choice of fly.  Having never been to Iceland or Norway to fish snow-melt fed rivers, this was beyond my experience. So too was the counter-intuitive paradox of rising air temperatures raising the river level. Nevertheless I stuck with the Dee tube for most of the first day: I'm not much convinced by frequent changes of fly, which seems to do more for the fisherman than the fish.

Waterside Pool - thigh depth
This shot gives another view of the clarity: there's at least 15'/5m of unusually good horizontal visibility in the normally opaque Window 1.  The sunlight penetration is striking.  The green/yellow tinge is caused by 2 factors.  First, water absorbs more of the red part of the spectrum, thus emphasizing the remainder.  Second, the strong green tone near the bottom is owed to the vegetable growth stimulated by the sunlight, which is not evident when viewed from above the surface.  It was this evidence that caused me to change to a smaller fly - initially a 3/4" Monkey and then to a conventional #8 double.  Lesson learned: if in doubt take the underwater photo to confirm the real sub-surface light level and visibility.

Bank Pool - Day 2 - +15"
At the top of the beat is Bank Pool, which swings to the right in a long arc of 90 degrees. The running line is near the far bank (left) and the conventional wisdom is that it is best fished from that side.  While that may be easier, it does deprive you of half the pool's length once you reach the visible cliff of its name.  Moreover, as the right side is very shallow, an easy wade to knee depth puts you within 25-30 yard casting range of the far bank, even in a blustery down and across wind.  Anyway, it's much more fun doing a full cast than a series of modified rolls off the bank into a narrow angle.  It was a different matter by Saturday, when it was blowing a full Force 5, but both right-handed Double Spey and Snake Roll kept the fly safely downwind whilst meeting 90% of the range requirement.

Duguid's Pool looking down towards Upper Kirk
Day 3 - +12"
Next down is Duguid's, where again the running line is on the left, easily approach via shallow wading from the right when allocated that side.  Located directly above the fast water leading down to Upper Kirk, Duguid's looked like a classic 'tail' pool.  Armed with appropriate optimism I fished it thoroughly - sadly without result.  Even on the running line it's not very deep, so I was using 10' of slow sink polyleader and a #8 double Cascade (also endorsed by Davie).

Upper Rhunavella looking down towards Waterside
Day 3 - +12"
You then make your way down through the three Kirks pictured above to Upper and Lower Rhunavella.  As Jones' sawmill occupies the right bank here,the Rhunavellas are fished from the left.  The photo doesn't do justice to either the speed and weight of the water, or the wind - by late morning on Day 3 standing up was becoming a more pressing challenge than the casting.  That said, the running line here converges from left of centre down into a narrow neck at the base of the large tree at the mouth of the small burn down on the left, which made it easy to cover.  Indeed, the neck is an ideal 'ambush' site for later in the season.  It's much less good for that purpose in April as you have to wait rather a long time for a fish to turn up!  None did on the Saturday.

Waterside Pool
End of fishing Day 3 - +10"
Finally you reach Waterside, which is fished from both banks and very long.  From the left it takes well over an hour to do it justice.  The running line is just to the right of the main flow in the foreground.  It's eminently reachable from the left bank provided the water is below +18".  Above that mark the wading becomes too demanding - it's much steeper and deeper on the far side than it looks.  The higher level also makes a good case for a sinking head, something with which I experimented on this trip for the first time.

Thus my Dee trip ended without a fish, which puts me in good company with lots of other people this year.  With the unusual warmth the salmon appear to have run straight through the Lower Dee (which normally fishes very well) but then came to a halt just above Banchory, to the delight of those fishing at Ballogie.  In the Upper river pickings have been very thin.  The beat above us caught one fish (a nice 20 pounder) whilst we were there, and a Swedish rod took a single fish on our beat in the previous period.  Otherwise the ghillies have been in a general state of gloom, lightened only by my dreadful jokes (thanks Davie, your laughter was good for my morale!).


So what did I learn from the experience?

  • Wading in cold water and casting in strong winds on a bigger river is tiring work.  Take regular breaks to warm up (important at my age) and rest your casting.  If you fish on relentlessly your casting will get progressively worse, deprive you of much pleasure and ultimately depress your morale.
  • Unless you're a seal, don't even think of wading the right side of Kirk - it's lethal.
  • Use the MCX Scoring System as a guide, but a waterproof camera provides a very useful cross-bearing on sub-surface visibility.
  • Bright spring sunshine makes the green slippery stuff grow very quickly, so never go into the water without a wading stick (I never do).  It's most slippery in the shallows.
  • As I noted in last year's spring post after fishing on the Ure, putting out a good line in strong winds depends on sound basic techniques, which you can only acquire through proper instruction, so take a pre-season lesson.  I'm not a good caster, but I could cover all the water required on all 3 days.
  • Be realistic about your chances.  With a 5 year average around 16 fish in April between 4 rods over 20 days' fishing, in a good year your catch probability is about 25-30%, and in a bad one as low as 3-5% (i.e. like 2013 and where 2014 is headed).  So don't fuss and fiddle, forever changing flies: just keep on doing the right thing and wait for the dice to roll your way.
  • There's more to fishing than just catching fish!  We had a thoroughly good week and we're already looking forward to next year, provided my wife discharges me from the secure psychiatric unit.

And Next

My next post, which will follow shortly, reports on the new kit that I tried on this expedition.  This included:

  • A comparative test of Guideline Scandi and Loop GDC sinking shooting heads
  • An evaluation of the new Rio Connect Core running line, with its thickened grip section

1 comment:

  1. Very good as always Michael!

    Lovely looking water, much more open than Inchmarlo...we didn't need to wade at all!

    I used a Gripshooter for the first time and loved it, in fact I got on with it better than the normal Rio running line. I tend to get line memory with the normal one (Powerflex?), even when managing the loops, and none with the coated mono of the Gripshooter.