Monday, 23 November 2015

Look Back in Sadness - 2015 Season

Unless you're a professional meteorologist, writing about the weather isn't much fun. Personally I should prefer to write about salmon fishing.  However, the unusual weather has been the dominant factor in the 2015 season, as indeed it was in 2013 and 2014.  By the end of June I was so concerned with the weather and its effects that I penned The Vital (Missing) Ingredient.  Unfortunately the optimism to which I clung so gamely was defeated in the following months.

I'm not going to go into analysis of why the weather behaved as it did as there's too much complexity and hypothesis in that side of the business, so I'll stick to the simpler measurable stuff.

Average figures (C) Met Office
The vital measurable ingredient is of course water, but it's been in short supply this year.  The red bars in the graph are the readings from my garden gauge.  It's not wholly accurate: pups knock it over; the labrador drinks from it; and on rare occasions it's even warm enough for a bit of evaporation. Nonetheless the message is clear: it's been a very dry year. As a result my apple crop - normally a pride and joy - has been very poor, with small, thick-skinned flavourless fruit. Moreover, much of the rain that did fall between May and October came in brief but concentrated bursts - 28 of September's 38 mm fell in a single storm, which contrived to miss Wensleydale entirely.  Thus, when the river did rise, it wasn't by much or for long, and the general absence of water downstream caused any spate to dissipate quickly. Without any signal to run, the salmon waiting in the Humber just stayed put.

Readings (C) Environment Agency
In the peak months of the season for the upper Ure the river fishes best with falling water at the levels between the two blue lines.  You will observe that those conditions obtained only 6 times in the 3 months. In any event, the lack of summer rain meant that there were precious few fish available to catch in August, which accounted for half of the theoretically 'good' days. Thereafter salmon were unable to run the river until October.

For most of the season the Ure was on its bones with the gauge flat-lining at 30cm and not worth fishing. Indeed, I cancelled 60% of my booked days despite my natural desperation to be on the river.  Despite the lack of water, HMCX and I fished our annual father and son bonding expedition at the beginning of October, with only one fish hooked and lost (which, of course, was a repeat of 2014). It was desperate: I caught fish only on the back of the early October spike and the subsequent minor bump.  The spate at the end was too much and the fish just weren't interested.

Readings (C) Environment Agency
In many respects 2015's abject lack of water was similar to 2014, when the run didn't start until well into October.  As a result there were only 8 days in that month that combined both fish and 'good' water.

Readings (C) Environment Agency
The issue is highlighted if you contrast the last 2 very bad years with the outstanding 2011.  Not only was the river well topped up by frequent bigger spates, but also the smaller ones provided a steady succession of no fewer than 33 'good' fishing days with falling water. In addition, the small rises in September delivered a further 6 days' excellent fishing.  We started catching salmon in mid-August and thereafter at an increasing rate all the way to the end of the season.

Here you can see the marked differences between one good and two very bad years on the Ure. Having 80% fewer good days and 5 times as many bad ones certainly meets the definition of a very poor season.
That figure is also reflected in the sharp decline in my average salmon per day, from 1.8 in 2011 to 0.3 this year and last.

It is, however, essential to remember that a run of bad fishing years doesn't indicate the imminent demise of salmon.  If the water conditions don't encourage or permit them to run, then the salmon will wait until they change, or possibly go elsewhere.  They are not constrained by the arbitrary dates of our seasons, and in the Ure at least have probably been making up for lost running time during the November floods.  Provided that there are fish present our ability to catch them is determined by a wide range of variables.  Amongst them the water level is a preeminent factor as it directly impacts our ability to fish effectively and the salmon's response to our efforts. It therefore provides a respectable retrospective differentiation between potentially good and bad years, even if we can't do anything about it.

Let us also remember that the Ure is a recovering river, in which salmon were declared extinct in the 1960s.  Over the past decade we have witnessed a wonderful recovery, born of the consequences of de-industrialisation and change in the 1980s and 90s.  In October, even if I couldn't catch them, each night there were hundreds of salmon scrabbling their way up through the shallows below Masham, their backs exposed to the moon, relentlessly pursuing their life's mission.  So I refuse to be glum: I'll put 2015 behind me and face 2016 with the happy optimism that has been the feature of my past 60 years' fishing.  After all, El Nino may yet manage an about turn.