Thursday, 14 November 2019

MCX's Christmas Stocking 2019

It's that time of year again.  As I get older it seems to come round with ever-increasing speed.  I suppose it's the fault of all those little monsters who "can't wait for Christmas" causing clocks to accelerate.  On the other hand, I need to be a bit more charitable about little people after the grandchild count reached 5 earlier this year.  They're still too young to start fishing but I'm looking forward to the 2022 season when they will enter the frame.  From the moment I caught my first trout I was totally hooked: the magic of the take; the excitement of the fight; its beautiful red spots; and the pride of success.  It's still crystal clear in my mind, yet so, so long ago - Winston Churchill was then the Prime Minister.  I desperately hope that they in their turn will enjoy the same thrill as the foundation of a lifetime's pleasure.

I wrote the first Christmas Stocking in 2013 and with the exception of 2017 it's been an annual event, in the belief that you may find it useful in advising Father Christmas (or in my case Mrs Christmas).  The items described:
  • Work well and add value on the river
  • Are cheap enough to consider putting in a Christmas stocking
  • Offer good quality and value for money
  • Can be purchased without technical knowledge by internet or phone
  • Fit in a large sock


Followers of this blog will of course note that there are hardy perennials.  It's not that I lack originality: if something's good and worth having, it wouldn't make sense to displace it purely for the sake of doing so.  Anyway, I doubt that many readers will bother to go back through the back numbers, so I hope that repetition bothers you less than it does me.

Budget Nippers

Sportfish own-brand nippers
Year after year I've bemoaned the price charged by some brands for nippers.  Abel's £159.99 effort is an especially egregious example.  I suppose someone must buy them, but I can't for the life of me think why.  The search for good budget nippers has thus become something of a personal crusade, during which I have sampled 4-5 different designs across the price range £3.99 - £14.75.  The cheapest ones rapidly disintegrated, and the more expensive Fishpond is still going strong, albeit after 4 seasons it's showing signs of going blunt.  Last summer I needed a new pair for trout fishing, which led me to Sportfish's own brand.  They're described as de-luxe, but are absolutely austere and fuss-free.  More importantly, they're very sharp and do exactly what's required.  It may be that they'll go blunt after a couple of seasons, but on that basis you should get 50 years' fishing before you equal the outlay on the Abels, and you'll never worry about losing these.

Gloves

The Snowbee gloves are the ultimate perennial, featuring in every edition of the Christmas stocking since 2013.  At a mere £12.99 they're unbeatable value.  On average they last 2-3 seasons and work well in all but the lowest temperatures.  As the years go by, the blood thins and my resistance to cold declines, I need the gloves more often than before.  I wouldn't be without them.







Mitten Clamps

Every time I come to unhook a salmon I give thanks for my clamps, which are so much easier to use and far more powerful than conventional forceps.  My trusty William Josephs are now longer in production, but these Loons at £21.99 from John Norris are first class.  The advantages of having a full-hand grip on a nice rubbery handle are huge, especially when you're dealing with a lively fish in the water.





Digital Thermometer

My little device continues to be an object of remark everywhere I go to fish.  All you have to do is walk to the water, point, press and read the result on the screen, all in less time than it takes to read this sentence.  It weighs about an ounce and the batteries last for years.

Specialised digital fishing thermometers are about £40-50, but this device from Labfacility in Sheffield costs £13.20 inc VAT.  They do charge you a whopping £9 for P&P, but even so you are still saving a full £20 and more against examples sold by angling retailers.





Wader Repair

For many years Aquasure was a hardy perennial.  However, I've generally found that you buy a 60 gm tube, use 3-4 grams and then throw away the other 55 grams that have gone solid.  To answer the requirement for quick, easy repairs to waders and jackets on the riverbank, without the need for curing time or hairdryers, McNett have come up with self-adhesive, instantly curing Goretex patches, 2 in a pack for £6.99.  That's the same price as a tube of Aquasure and there's no waste.  As an alternative you could also consider the Aquasure quick kit at £7.99, in which the tube only contains 6 grams, for more deliberate repairs.


Basic Fly Box


The Wheatley Comp Lite fly box I recommended last year has given a good season's service.  Its price is now £12.99 for the 6 inch version.  It's simple, functional and does just what I need.  I don't carry a lot of flies and have just 2 boxes for doubles - one marked 'High' and the other 'Low' reflecting the prevailing water level.









Small Tube Fly Box

I continue to miss the baby Snowbee box - they've gone all flashy, plastic and big now.  The neatest design around at the moment is the C&F Small Case, which is suitably compact and works well.  The clear plastic internal lid that keeps the tubes safe has a cunning magnetic latch.  I bought one of these 4 years ago and it's thoroughly satisfactory.  It's a bit more than an average stocking price at £27.99 from John Norris (£2 cheaper than Sportfish), but I haven't found anything as good at a lower price.





Seat Covers

I discovered these handy things 5-6 years ago and keep a pair in the car.  If you need to drive between beats (or to the pub for lunch) in wet waders, they are a very cheap and convenient way of protecting your car upholstery at £8.99 from John Norris.  They're very quick and easy to fit and pack away into a pouch no larger than a pair of socks.








Cranky Kit

When I change lines and shooting heads I meticulously coil them to fit in an old cardboard reel box.  This is all very fine but it's time consuming, especially if the head in question is 55 feet long, and it also puts a slight twist in the line.  This year Rio have come up with this clever device to allow you to wind the head straight onto a line holder that you then detach and stow.  Unusually for Rio it's sensibly priced at £7.99 from John Norris and other suppliers.  Purist coilers will probably say it's unnecessary but I'm going to drop the hint to Mrs CX.  It will certainly work much better than the C&F shooting head winder that I tried and discarded 7 years ago.



Stocking Fillers

Here's a selection of low-cost but useful items to fill any gaps in your stocking.

Airflo polyleaders are a hardy perennial that I request every year.  They're currently discounted by £2 to £4.99 for the 10' salmon version at John Norris.











Leader rings are a very convenient way of joining elements of your built-up leader and of providing a durable junction at the bottom of a polyleader.  When you need to replace the tip section it's much easier and quicker to tie a single Blood knot to a ring than fiddle about doing a full double.  £1.99 for 10.









Knot Sense is another hardy perennial.  I like the ease with which you can form a smooth shape over a knot, which renders it less vulnerable to abrasion.  There's also a degree of flexibility with Knot Sense that you don't get with cheaper super-glues.  I've never had a knot fail while using this.







Father Christmas Goes Bonkers



As in 2018, the retailers seem to be holding their nerves and breath in the run-up to Christmas.  There's very little discounting of kit in the 'bonkers' zone.  I have, however, found one superb offer.  John Norris is selling Lamson Guru reels with 30% off.  This brings the 4.0 model - a perfect #8/9 to match most 13' and 13' 6" double handed rods - down from £290 to £202, which is below the price of die cast models from some other makers.  I've used this reel for years on the MAG and Charles Burns, and as a result I'm a great fan of the elegant simplicity of the Guru's design, manufacture and utility.  It's a delight to behold and use, and requires minimal maintenance.  I suspect that this model is about to be superseded, but I can't see that they can improve its function.  The changes are likely to be purely cosmetic.  At £202 it's a great bargain and will probably sell out quickly.  The smaller 3.5 at £188 is a #7/8 and would work nicely on a switch rod.



So I wish you a very Happy Christmas, a great New Year and hopefully a nice average season's weather in 2020.  Tight lines!




Friday, 25 October 2019

Truly Unpredictable - Looking Back at 2019 & Lots of Lost Fish

The Glories of Autumn
October on the Ure

The weather - again!

In closing my last post of 2018 I raised a small prayer for a nice average year.  Like most salmon fishermen I was fed up with bizarre weather patterns and seemingly endless droughts.  In the 6-year period 2013-18 we had well below average rainfall during the salmon season in 5 of them.  You can't catch fish in the puddles between bare rocks.  The exception was 2017, when it poured.  Every time I so much as looked at a salmon river it rose by 6 feet.  But after so much abnormality all I wished for in 2019 was bland normality.


An outrageous but delightful fluke
Tweed at Rutherford
May 2019
It didn't work out that way.  Following an unusually dry winter - I drove an excavator across the lawn in February without the need for crawler boards - we looked set for another drought.  The arrival of Storm Gareth in March prompted both a surge in morale and a very strong spring run into the Ure.  But by the time I returned from work in the Gulf the water had dropped back to summer lows and I'd missed the chance, apart from the outrageous fluke of catching 2 spring salmon on the Tweed in impossible conditions.  It then stayed dry for the next 4 months until mid-August.  Sadly the summer was also cool and very windy, which gave us beautiful roses but rather spoilt the joys of the trout season.




Coul silver on the Conon
August 2019
The August spates reasserted some normality and prompted another surge of salmon into the Ure.  At the end of a day's fishing (my guest had caught, I'd blanked) I stood at the bottom of a pool watching a steady succession of fresh fish arriving into the tail with a mixture of joy and relief: we might actually have good autumn fishing.  At the end of August we spent a delightful week on the Conon with our friends, enjoying great company, excellent conditions and catching salmon.






Work
It's called the Empty Quarter for a good reason
I was away for most of September working (I'm not fully retired)  and on holiday.  In the middle of the month it started to pour with rain.  In the last 2 weeks of September and the first week of October we received 3 months' rain, which was topped up by successive showers.  The land has been so wet and releasing so much water that the Kilgram gauge has been at or above good fishing height for the past 6 weeks.  It's most welcome, but you certainly can't call it average - they're forecasting 2 months' rainfall over this weekend!




The Autumn Fishing


I've reached the end of the season feeling content.  It's been an unusual year in that its most memorable moments haven't been the salmon I've caught, but rather the marvellous fish I lost on the Conon and Ure.  Indeed, it's been a season of missed takes and lost fish in unusual numbers.  If I'd landed all the losses my season's total catch would have been closer to 30 than the dozen, and I lost count of the missed takes.  But all this activity made me feel positive, engaged and optimistic: there were plenty of fish available for the next cast.



From top to bottom
Gallander's at + 2' 6"
August 2019
Two memories from 2019 will stay with me forever: the first is the excitement of a fresh 20+ running the full length of Gallander's Pool on the Conon in heavy water while I pursued it down the bank praying for it to turn; and the second is the magnificent sight of a yard or more of perfect silver Ure salmon in a vertical jump clear of the water, glistening in the autumn sun, kicking and turning in its successful attempt to throw my fly.  Of course I was disappointed to lose them, but the experiences, excitement and imagery were unforgettable and uplifting.




It may not be silver,
but a first salmon is always the most
beautiful fish in the world
Thoresby 10th October 2019
Another great memory is helping the Brigadier, one of my oldest friends of almost 50 years' standing, to catch his first ever salmon.  His excitement whilst playing it and the look on his face once it was safely in the net were worth a million.  It was as if all the years since his first childhood trout in Wales had been pulled back like a curtain to let the joy shine out.

The two salmon I caught later in the day in the space of 20 minutes were purely incidental.

When not working in London he lives up in Bishopdale overlooking the Ure, so there will be nothing holding him back now.  I'm looking forward to days with him during the coming years.  Two old codgers on the river bank chewing over half-remembered reminiscences of their military youth: "we were soldiers once and young".







As always I enjoyed the annual father and son bonding trip to the Ure with HMCX in early October.  We had rather too much water at close on +4 feet, but that didn't stop him from out-fishing his father 2:1.

Despite only a fishing a couple of days per year it only takes 20 minutes or so for the rhythm of his Spey casting to emerge from hibernation.  It's a great pleasure for a father to watch, and even greater when he gets a fish.

On the first day it was a 14 pounder, taken on a fast sink tip and big Cascade conehead tube fly in very heavy water close to the tail of Frodle Dub, which kept him fully occupied for close on 20 minutes.









Amidst all the demands of a City career, family and fatherhood, his 'salmon' smile never changes.

His second fish, taken on Day 2, was one of the August runners, still holding a nice light colour and with little body mass loss at around 9lbs.










Between Frodle and Flesh Dub
I finished my season with 2 days on the Ure with John and Patrick, arriving late in their week to fish the Thursday and Friday.  In very high water they'd been averaging something over a fish per day, including Patrick's 20 pound hen on the Wednesday.  By the time I arrived it was down to +3' and falling and clearing nicely.  Things certainly looked very positive.




Frodle Dub
Looking perfect on Day 2 at +18"
I fished Flesh Dub first without result or even a touch.  This came as a surprise because over many years this has always been my 'banker' pool.  Blanks have been very rare here, and on one occasion I  landed 4 and lost 3 in a morning.  However, on this occasion, over the 2 days I fished Flesh Dub 4 times without the least sign of a fish.  On reflection I put this down to the level of disturbance by the rods on the opposite bank, who in their desperate desire to reach our side (where there are no fish) wade too deep, through or very close to a succession of lies on the flow line.


Undeterred I went down to Willow Bush, confident in the knowledge that it's rarely fished properly from either bank.  The secret is that the most catchable fish lie near the tail, not the head.  There are fish just below the head of the run, but you need 10 feet of T14 and a tungsten tube to get at them effectively.

This one of around 7lbs came from the tail and fell to a 1/2" MCX conehead on a slow sink tip.  The weight of water flattered his mass and made for a good fight.



The water level brought into play the Hut Pool into which Bishopdale Beck flows at the top of the Thoresby beat.  There are lies across its entire width - at +3' there are 2 good ones within a couple of yards of the near bank, and another under the trees on the far left of the photo.  Although it looks bland, the wading is awful, with lots of egg-shaped boulders.  Fishing after lunch on Thursday I missed a grilse on the way down.  On Friday morning I'd lost one fish before  even taking my first pace, followed a few casts later by hooking and landing a 10lbs cock from under the ash tree on the right.



However, the real excitement was down towards the tail, where the flow from Bishopdale Beck comes in on the far side.  The best approach is to stay close to the near bank to fish the lie on the near left side of the photo; then the lies in front of and each side of the obvious rock in the centre; and finally the channel beyond it and onwards down to the break into Frodle Dub. I followed this formula on Thursday afternoon.  After a brief handshake with a fish on the near side of the rock I extended my line to reach the 30+ yards needed to get the fly into the channel with an oblique cast to avoid the drag around the rock.  The water level was almost a foot higher than in the photo taken on the Friday (into the morning sun), which meant near waist-deep wading very close to the bank, seriously limiting the size of D-loop I could deploy.

On about the fifth cast there was the most almighty thump as a very strong fish turned away and kicked violently.  Meanwhile my line was entering the drag zone behind the rock putting further unwelcome downstream pressure on the fish.  With 30' of running line outside the top ring there was nothing I could do to solve the problem.  At first it held its position against the force - I could feel each kick of its tail - before accelerating upstream and then jumping vertically clear out of the water, showing its full length.  It was silver, fresh and beautiful, a yard and more long and probably around 15-16 lbs: the image is printed on my mind. With the line bowed in the heavy water below the rock I was unable to give the slack needed for its landing back on the water, so when the hook hold failed it was no surprise.  Some you win, some you lose.  The established trend continued right to the end on Friday, when I lost another good fish from behind the rock with my penultimate cast of the season.

I was surprised that I hadn't caught more in perfect water that screamed salmon.  Nevertheless I wasn't greatly disappointed.  There were plenty of salmon in the river of every shape and size from solid grilse to a 4 foot submarine that showed briefly in the evening light, and lots had paid attention to my MCX Dark.  On the other hand, if all the losses had stayed on and half the takes had converted I would have wound up with about 10 fish in the 2 days, which I haven't equalled since 2011.  Certainly the potential was there and events underlined the Ure aphorism - "Give them water and you'll catch them".

While the season was far from average, it suited me very nicely, thank you.



Lessons from 2019


I always to try to derive some learning from every moment of my fishing, so here are some thoughts from 2019:
  • Unless a fish is heading somewhere truly disastrous or getting too far away for comfort, take it easy in the opening minute or two of the fight.  In the salmon's initial panic there's lots of random force and some odd angles that may combine to lever the hook out, especially with the softer mouths of fresh fish and grilse.  I lost several fish this year by being too firm too early.
  • If there's space and no hazards, let them run, because that wears them out most quickly.
  • This year I've watched plenty of people wading much too deep when there was no need to do so.  In most cases it was driven by a pointless desire to reach further.  There are plenty of lies on your side of the river, and most fish will be on or near the flow-line.  Salmon will hold in short halt lies in about 30" of water, so once you reach mid-thigh depth you are amongst them.
  • Clear the water under your feet before extending your line to full casting length.  There may be fish lying close to you.  This year I hooked (and lost) 3 fish before I'd even taken my first pace downstream.
  • While you may be casting a consistent 25 yards to cover the pool, you should be ready to shorten your line and change the angle of delivery to fish closer lies more effectively by adapting to the flow or offering the salmon a more rectangular view of your fly.  Make a plan for each lie you identify, don't just rely on mechanical progression down the water to do the job.
  • Sometimes, like the Bishopdale case, there's no perfect way to get the fly to the fish.  Manage the risks you can, live with the rest: it's fishing not nuclear physics.
  • The MCX Dark works very well.  Yet again I fished the same pattern for the whole year, only changing the size and depth to match the conditions.  By the end of the season it had bettered the totals of any other fly used by my peers.  No doubt the confidence it engenders helps.
  • Wading the Hut Pool at +3' taught me that after 3 seasons it's time to put some new studs in my wading boots.
  • Never despair: at 1st August this season looked totally dire, but lo, it worked out well in the end.

Looking Ahead


Now I'm old time seems to go faster than ever.  In the blink of an eye the salmon fishing has finished for another year and we're into the shooting.  Christmas will be upon us in no time, so I must now turn my mind to that hardy perennial, MCX's Christmas Stocking.










Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Vision XO 13' 6" #8 - Yar in Excelsis



Sharp-eyed readers of J1W might have spotted something in my last post about the week on the Coul fishings of the River Conon.  I'm showing the picture again at a larger size.  The Danielsson LW5 reel is familiar enough and has previously featured in my writings.  It's the rod you haven't seen before.

Following Trout & Salmon's rave review of the Vision XO 13' 6" I was keen to get my hands on an example to see whether it lived up to the hype.  A coaching session on the Ure with Brian Towers - one of the testers - further whetted my appetite.  In his opinion it was one of the most remarkable rods he'd ever handled.  With that in mind I laid siege to my local friendly Vision dealer.  After a brief negotiation the rod shown above travelled up to the Conon for a week's intensive use.


A bit of background


The XO range is Vision's first foray into the premium segment of the rod market.  Over the 20 years that they have been designing their own range of products, Vision built an excellent reputation in the mid-price range with successive generations of rods that offered casting and fishing pleasure at a sensible price.  Their naming, branding and packaging may seem a bit eccentric, but the underlying theme was their consistent adherence to a fuller action than you usually encounter in some other Scandinavian brands.  They considered that bringing the entire length of the rod into the casting and fishing equation was not only more efficient but also more pleasurable for the angler.  From the early days of the GT and Catapult models, through the Cult, MAG and Tool you could detect this clear design intent.  Of course there were variations from the centre-line, with the softer Cult and firmer MAG and Tool actions reflecting opposite boundaries, but the basic feel was consistent.  The XO action is faithful to that tradition.

It isn't easy to design and manufacture a double-handed salmon rod down to a price.  You have to make compromises and hard choices.  In the mid-price range you see this immediately in areas like the quality of the cork and the choice of fittings.  Some years ago I tried to explain all this in detail in Rod Value - Where the Money Goes.  Because salmon rods are generally made in relatively tiny quantities, the hidden sunk costs are disproportionate.  If, say, you want a range of 4 rods - 12, 13, 14 and 15 feet - you need one or more of each for prototype testing. These are one-off bespoke builds and correspondingly expensive.  And you may not get it right first time, which adds more time and cost.  Quite soon you're looking at serious money, all of which the company has to recoup in sales margin.

Many anglers baulk at the price of salmon rods, protesting that the manufacturers are ripping them off and making a fortune.  In fact the reverse is the case.  Very few salmon rod brands make a sensible profit, several lose money (Hardy was losing plenty before it was bought by Pure) and others like Loop rely on enthusiastic and philanthropic owners.  Once you've delved into the manufacturing economics you realise that by and large you get what you pay for.

What makes the XO different is that for the first time Vision chose to make a rod up to a standard without any compromises, which explains the £899 price tag.  That poses the question, is it worth the money?  Obviously a lot of other people think so: the 13' 6" #8 is currently the fastest selling rod in Vision UK's range and to date not one has appeared in the used market.  But for me the question was simpler: is this a truly great fishing rod, blessed with the magic quality of "yar".


First look

In common with other premium rods the XO comes in a well-engineered screw-capped protective alloy tube.  The weight alone suggests that it could protect the rod from the most severe impacts.  Inside is a neatly machined buff rod bag.  It all reeks of quality, but personally I just love the ease and convenience of the compartmented tubes in which their earlier models arrived.

The real delight comes when you take the rod out of the bag, culminating in the butt section.  The down-locking reel seat is conservatively decorated with curly birch wood,  but in all other respects entirely functional.  The two-nut locking is bomb-proof and didn't move at all in a week's fishing.

In a bit of cunning I first detected in the MAG 13, the base of the butt is ballasted.  This allows the rod to balance with a lighter reel and achieve a lower overall weight of rod and reel than would otherwise be the case.

But the ultimate delight is the cork. It is so smooth and tactile it's almost erotic.  The first time I held it I was struggling for an appropriate metaphor.  My current experience as an enlightened, modern nappy changing grandfather steers me away from the classic 'baby's bottom' analogy on the grounds of unpleasant collateral.  The same modernity makes me wary of possibly sexist references that might upset any female readers of this blog.  But make no mistake, any supermodel would be jealous of its smoothness.




When a carbon rod is made the resin impregnated cloth ('pre-preg' as it's known) is wrapped around a steel mandrel and then held tightly in place by heat resistant tape to ensure consistent adhesion between the layers during the heat curing process.  On completion of curing the tape is removed, leaving a slightly ridged outer surface.  Most manufacturers remove this surplus - you can machine carbon like metal - to give the blanks a smooth gloss finish.  As you can see here, Vision have chosen to omit this process.  They've done this before: the Cult was only partially machined. However, on the XO the ridging is much more pronounced, which jars slightly on first inspection as your thoughts stray from supermodels to lugworms - a major mental shift.  Outwardly it's typical Vision eccentricity, but I suspect there are some good reasons for the choice and that final retail price wasn't a determinant.  Consider these points.  First, when you're striving to make anything as light as possible, the less machining you apply, generally the stronger it will be.  Second, when you're making prototypes to test the action of a rod you don't want or need to spend money on cosmetic finish.  But once you've got the action just how you want it to be, why take the risk of removing material and possibly changing something?  And in any event, like all Vision's little quirks, you cease to notice it very quickly.





The rings and whipping are everything you would expect at this price point.  The colour and decor is extremely conservative.

The titanium bendy recoil guides are an expensive luxury, but seem to be what wealthier customers expect nowadays, even if they rarely if ever put their characteristics to the test.




So, it's beautifully presented and finished.  What's it like as a fishing rod?



On the River


Upper Boat Pool
Coul Fishing
This pool presented a nice easy start, beginning with a very short line to clear the water under my feet.  At this height most of the fish in Upper Boat are on the flow line and the near side, so no great effort was required.  This was convenient because fishing from the left bank with a blustery downstream wind meant that I spent most of the morning casting left hand up.

The first thing that strikes you is a feeling of extraordinary lightness in the hand.  The extra 6" makes it feel bigger than the 13 MAG, but it's lighter.  Indeed, it's nearly 20% lighter than the 13' Tool, itself no bunter in the weight stakes.  


Compared to the 13' 8" Cult, a mere 2" longer and to date my choice for larger rivers, the XO is much lighter and in the first minute you discover that it is far, far more responsive and dynamic in every phase of a cast.  I love the Cult dearly, but by goodness, it really does feel pedestrian in comparison to the XO.  In my earlier tests of the Onki and Tool I used the analogy of the BMW 320 and 320M to compare their feel and performance.  On that scale the XO is the full M3, but thankfully with the savage bits removed (and a beautiful handle added).


New Pool
Lower section
It was only later that I had the opportunity to explore a bit more distance.  Towards the tail of New Pool the fish are more spread across the width than they are at the head.  The tall tree on the far bank marks the start of a succession of lies on and beyond the centreline, which require a a cast of some 30 yards to cover.  You are limited in achieving that by the depth by the near bank: once you're a couple of yards out, the minimum for any sort of a D-loop, the water is at the top of your thighs and the conditions underfoot dissuade you from venturing further.


So, you're thigh deep, casting left handed double Spey in a nasty wind, using a 13' 6" rod with a 15' sink tip and a tube fly, and you, a very ordinary caster, wish to go to 30 yards?  With a sceptical ghillie watching?  Relax, look up, lighten the grip, slow down and don't apply power too early and blow the anchor.  Feel the load and stop!  
Oh yes, yes, yes!  (and repeat for 20 minutes).

"What length is that rod?" the ghillie enquired.  
"13 foot 6", I replied with a self-satisfied smile.  
"That's something really different (or words to that effect).  When you get to the bottom of the pool can I have a try?"  

I'm not sure which provided him with the greater amazement - the rod or its £899 price.



Junction Flats
Coul Fishing



On subsequent days, further down the beat when and where the wind direction allowed, I could use single and C Spey casts.  At Junction Flats with the wind over my right shoulder it took no effort whatsoever to hit the wall on the far side.  Of course in casting everything always works better with less effort.  Nevertheless, the sensation of the rod loading right down to the butt was utterly delightful.  The XO communicates clearly and precisely: you know exactly what's going on at every stage.  For me that's an absolutely essential quality in a salmon rod, especially as it helps me to detect and correct my frequent errors.



Gallander's at +2' 6" and rising
Friday afternoon
Coul Fishing
The sternest test of the XO's performance was on the last day, in a big pool, with rising water and a weighted MCX Dark conehead at the far end of a 15' sink tip.  The far bank is more than 55 yards away.  I was less than 2 yards out, thigh deep in heavy water and difficult ground underfoot (not conducive to relaxed casting), with a stiff wind downstream and slightly into my face.  The lie I needed to cover was more than half the way across: its back edge is just visible at the extreme right of the photo.  I couldn't cast square owing to the uneven weight of the flow between me and the lie.  Around 60 degrees was the most I could allow if the fly was to be moving sensibly as it passed over the lie.  After 5 days with this rod I was confident that I could pull it off.  Relax, look up, 3 good loops of running line on the bottom hand, and  hope the D-loop doesn't catch on the grass (only one did thanks to the strimming by Head Ghillie Ian Menzies).  On about the tenth cast I felt the kick of a very big salmon, which when it showed was clearly a 20+.  The full story was recounted in Coul Fishing and need not be repeated here.



Summing Up


Over the years I've owned a wide variety of brands of salmon rod from bargain basement to premier league.  Some suited me well and I loved them, others were complete dogs with which I never achieved happy union.  Price was never a good guide to affection, and the worst rod I've ever owned was the most expensive (albeit I bought it second hand).  The mid-range Vision rods have in most cases always served me well.

The XO is a truly beautiful fishing rod that I really enjoyed using.  Day after day in all conditions it put a beaming smile on my face.  For someone of my age with a seriously bad back its lightness is a real boon.  Its communication and feel through your hands is a delight.

Is it a "game changer"?  No, fishing is still fishing, and performance gains are incremental.

Did it help me catch any. more fish?  No: of the 9 I hooked, 7 were within easy range for the 13 MAG, so arguably would have been hooked anyway.

Did it help me cast miles further?  No, not miles, but perhaps a useful few extra yards beyond what I could achieve with the Cult.

But the real secret was that with the additional confidence it engendered I relaxed more and as a result cast better and further with less effort, thereby gaining more pleasure from my fishing.

According to Tracy in the musical High Society, the definition of 'yar' includes the words quick, responsive, taut and agile.  On that basis the XO 13' 6" is 'yar' in excelsis.  Sometimes you find things that are just so beautiful to use and deliver so much joy that you just can't resist them.  If I'm lucky I may have 10-12 seasons of salmon fishing left to me, so why not maximise the joy?

I bought it.





Thursday, 5 September 2019

Coul Fishing - Just One Week on the Conon

Coul Fishing
Upper Boat Pool

The River


At the end of last year, with no Findhorn week in prospect for 2019, Patrick started the search for an alternative location for Just One Week.  During his research he identified an opening on the Conon, a river about which we collectively knew absolutely nothing.  After a bit more work and some enquiries on various forums it became clear that the Conon was a very good option and well worth a try, so we went ahead and booked the last week in August.  This isn't usually available, but this year the owner - a Yorkshireman - was unable to take up his regular week, which created the opportunity.



River Conon (blue)
Coul Fishing (red)



The Conon isn't especially well known.  It's located about 20 minutes north of Inverness and flows into the head of the Cromarty Firth.  Like its neighbour the Beauly, the Conon is heavily exploited for hydro-electric power.  The main fishing section is below the final Achonachie dam, with the Coul fishing highlighted in red and amounting to approximately 2 miles/3 km of river.

Salmon that run up to the dam enter a fish lift that allows them to access the 10 miles of river between the Achonachie and Luichart dams.  However, there's no return route for kelts and smolts, other than taking their chances with the turbines.  Fortunately, significant numbers of fish spawn in the bottom section of the river.


It may not be well known, but it's certainly pretty and a classic fishing river about 50-60 yards across.

Robin's Run from the Gap
looking upstream and across to the north bank in low flow conditions



The Coul fishing is predominantly on the north bank on the opposite side to the road, a variety of lodges and the hut.  Access is by rowing boat from 3 points at the top, middle and bottom of the water.  There is no road access to the far side - the significance of that point will become apparent shortly.  We found that with 5 rods and a single ghillie, getting everyone over to the other side of the river each morning, back for lunch, the afternoon and at the end of the day involved all manner of time consuming faffing about.  However, by Wednesday the head ghillie was satisfied that my rowing skills justified independence, which made life easier all round.

SSE's Conon hydro operations are controlled by a computer in Perth, using all manner of clever algorithms to balance predicted demand, water availability and wind power inputs off the surrounding hills.  As a result there are 4 general water states:

  • Minimum sustainment, when they aren't generating and there isn't enough water in the reservoir (or rain in prospect) to allow greater release.  In this situation the gauge goes down to around 8-10" but the river never goes onto its bones.
  • Base flow, which obtains either when SSE are generating at a low level or are spilling some excess water, giving levels in the range 10-18", creation very pleasant fishing conditions.
  • Full generation, which lifts the level to anything between 18" and 2' 6", when you can have good fishing.
  • Full flow, which pertains when they are at full generating capacity and are spilling high levels of excess flow, taking the level to 3' and beyond and placing clear limits on fishing.
Changes of level are announced by the sounding of the 'Death Ray', a warbling siren at the dam, with a tone reminiscent of 1960s sci-fi films.  Whenever it sounds you half expect to meet Captain Scarlet in waders.  However, the changes in level - generally steps of 4" or so - are much less rapid and pronounced than those I have experienced on some spate rivers, most notably the Findhorn.  Nonetheless it does pay to keep a close eye on the gauges positioned near the 3 boat stations, because once it reaches 3' boating stops and you would be stuck on the far side without road access and have to walk 2 miles down the bank to the main road to get picked up.

It all sounds like a lot of bother but by the end of the week we'd all got used to the routine and the shortening of fishing time involved.  We also noted that the hydro operations had very little effect on water temperatures: at base flow the river generally ran at 16C, which only dropped a degree to 15C in full generation.  Nor did they seem to trouble the salmon much: we caught fish at every water level throughout the week, and they ran into the beat in all conditions except minimum flow.

The following pictures give some idea of the effects of different flows:


Upper Boat Pool
Low base, around 10"















Upper Boat Pool
Full generation, around 24"














Gallander's
Low flow on a gloomy morning




Gallander's
Full generation
2' 6"














Gallander's
In full spate 5' 6"
looking across to the north bank
Saturday lunchtime














The Fishing


Upper Boat Pool
Upstream view - Monday morning
My week began in Upper Boat pool with good water at around 16-18" in pleasant sunshine.  It was lovely to be back on the water with the prospect of a full week ahead.  On the MCX booze analogy scale the water was a light Amontillado shade but clear and running well at a delightful 15.5C, and the MCX score came in around 7.  The resulting solution was a slow sink tip, 13' of Seaguar leader and an MCX Dark #10.  With a swirling downstream wind you never knew what cast you would need next.  While that precluded establishing a steady rhythm it did at least keep me on my toes.  About 1/3 down as the line approached the dangle at the edge of the faster water I had a good grilse take, followed by some head shaking and surface splashing - never a good combination in my experience.  Fresh run grilse have very soft mouths and frequently take the fly end-on near the dangle.  The result is a weak hook hold near the front of the mouth and a consequently high loss rate, which is exactly what happened in this case.  I was mildly upset but for several reasons not unduly concerned: grilse are rarely singular; the presence of a fresh fish was a good sign; there were several showing; and my choice of tackled was vindicated.  


Upper Boat Pool
Low flow - Monday midday
As I fished down the pool the water level was falling steadily: by the time I went back up to the top to repeat it had gone down by 8-10", which called for a change of fly to a #12.  Apart from a half-hearted effort in the fast water things remained quiet until  lunchtime.











Gallander's Pool
looking upstream towards the dam
Low flow - Tuesday

In the afternoon I went upstream to Gallander's, directly below the dam.  The best holding lies are towards the head of the pool - a large boulder field in the mid-stream - and in the tail.  However, in the low flow conditions on Monday and Tuesday the tail lies were very difficult to fish without snagging.  Indeed, I hooked and lost a 2 ton rock salmon at the end of the afternoon.  My session was lightened by another grilse hooked and lost on the near edge of the flow.

At the end of the day I was in good spirits: there were fresh fish in the river and what I was doing was working, even if for the moment they weren't staying on the hook.  It was one of those "Keep calm and carry on" times.


New Pool
Rising water - lunchtime
On the Tuesday morning the water was still low.  I returned to Gallander's for the first session.  By the time I had fished down to New Pool the water had risen by 8-10" and was looking very nice indeed.  After clearing the water immediately around me at the head, I progressively lengthened the line before starting to move down.  After the third step and about 2 minutes after this photo, a nice fish took on the edge of the fast water in the centre of the view.  Again it was close to the dangle and came up to the surface, from which I judged it to be around 8lbs and nicely fresh.  As it turned to run downstream the hook came out, my third straight loss, which earned me a fair amount of good humoured ribbing over lunch.




Oystercatcher
Low flow - Tuesday afternoon
Unfortunately the water dropped again in the afternoon when I went down to Oystercatcher and Junction.  It was low enough to allow Philip and me to wade across from the boat station on the bend barely wetting our knees.  The whole way down this long sweep to Junction the lies are beyond the centre line and commonly close to the far bank.  Nevertheless throughout the week we saw grilse moving across most of the width.  To be frank it was rather dull work in low water.  True to form I hooked and lost yet another grilse near the head of the pool.



Overnight the water rose slightly to a nice fishing height.  This gave me a thoroughly pleasant morning in New Pool, where, as you might guess, I lost yet another grilse near the dangle.  While disappointed with the number of fish I'd lost (5) I wasn't at all despondent.  What I was doing was hooking fish, so if I kept on doing the same thing, eventually one would stick.  And in any event I was enjoying the company of my wife and close friends (despite their teasing) in delightful surroundings: apart from a fish, what more could you reasonably ask?


Robin's Run
from the Gap on the south bank
Low flow


By now the head ghillie Ian Menzies was taking pity on me and was utterly determined that I should catch.  In fact I reckon he was even more determined than me, a condition that it not often encountered.  He directed me to Robin's Run, where under his direction I worked the obvious lies in the centre of the picture to death, to no effect whatsoever.  There were probably fish in residence but they just weren't interested.  Ian was so determined that he rowed me over to the other side to attack the lies from the north, again to no effect.  Ironically, at the end of the session, as he was rowing me back to the hut and I was casting idly from the boat, I had a light grilse take that failed even to achieve a hooking.


Junction Flats looking down into Junction
Moderate flow - Thursday afternoon

By Thursday morning the river had risen back to a decent fishing height and continued to rise steadily after lunch.  Following a quiet morning I went down to the bottom.  After positioning David on Oystercatcher I started on Junction Flats before following an angler on the opposite bank (Lower Fairburn) down into Junction. At 3pm, as I approached the grassy point in the left of the picture fishing a 1" MCX Dark conehead, I had a strong take on the centre of the flow about 3/4 of the way across.  At last I had grounds for optimism that this one might stay on.






And it did!  It was a lovely fresh solid 8 pounder, a picture-perfect salmon fit to put me on Cloud 9 of elation.  Its inclination to run upstream repeatedly made my job easy. Provided a fish doesn't get too far away, let it go upstream and tire itself out against the current and the drag of the line.  The challenge in this case was the netting because the foreground was very shallow.  Once I got out far enough to bring the fish to the net I was dealing with quite a strong flow, against which it was hard work holding the net left handed.  Despite the flow the fish could not be persuaded to head downstream into the net: for it the only way was up.  Anyway, on the third attempt it came good and I took it into shallower water for unhooking and a quick photo.  It never left the water.  Once unhooked it was so full of beans that it tried to swim off with the net until I lifted its head over the rim to allow it to stage one of those splashy departures you see on YouTube videos.

Dinner that night was a happy affair: I'd broken my jinx and by now everyone else had caught fish.  John topped the leaderboard with a shining 15 pounder, closely followed by David's 14 pound tartan warrior resident.


Junction
Full generation flow - Friday morning

Friday morning saw me back on Junction after a long walk through the fields (the level was too high for Ian to let me use the boat at the lower station).  The river was in perfect shape at an ideal height of 2' and running clear at 15.5C.  I was feeling optimistic and as positive as ever on a lovely bit of water that screamed salmon.  The wind was onto my right shoulder, so I settled into a steady rhythm of the left handed double Spey - 2 loops in the right hand, lift, cross, sweep, lift, shoot - to put the MCX conehead as close to the far wall as possible.




3 lbs 12 oz



I'd progressed about 30 yards down from the photo when this nice fresh grilse took on the flow line.  After a brief and uneventful scrap it came cleanly to the net in a small area of slack water.  The Conon is a Category 1 river so C&R isn't compulsory.  However, the local agreement is that each rod may keep a fresh grilse, so I had no hesitation in banging this one on the head.  It will feed at least 6 people well, and be utterly delicious with Hollandaise sauce and a good Chilean chardonnay or white Burgundy.  My wife, who doesn't understand C&R at all, was utterly delighted.  As a Cordon Bleu trained cook she'd much prefer that I always fished Cat 1 rivers.


Gallander's (middle)
Full flow and rising from 2' 6"
Friday afternoon






Over lunch the river continued to rise, with the 'Death Ray' sounding at regular intervals.  I rowed 3 other rods across from the upper station in 2 trips in heavy water in a boat that is about as responsive to oars as a carnival raft before making my way up to the top of the fishing.  With no one on Upper Fairburn I could start at the very top and get the best possible angle on the premium lie in the mid-stream.  Its back edge is at the right margin of the photo.  With the steeply shelving bank it was only possible to wade safely out 4-5 feet to give just enough water for a minimal anchor (well trimmed banks are such a blessing).  With a 13' 6" rod I could only cover about 2/3 of the width, but that was enough to reach the best lies.



Gallander's (lower)

Spot on cue, as the MCX conehead passed over the premium lie, it was taken by what was unmistakably a very large fish.  The sheer weight of the first kick said it all.  I leant back to set the hook with the line at about 45 degrees to the current. To my surprise the fish responded by coming to the surface about 5-7 yards upstream of where I expected it to be, such was the drag of the increasingly heavy water on the line.  This allowed me to see the tail and rear half of a very big fresh salmon.  I've caught enough 20+ fish to know what they look like, and this was a fully paid up member of the heavyweight fighters' club.


Its first run was upstream, about 30-40 yards, to the far end of the running line and beyond, where it held briefly at an angle to the current.  This gave me the time to sort myself out, get out of the water onto the grass and prepare for a long struggle and no doubt some running.  The plan was simple: at all costs stop it going out of the bottom of Gallander's into the fast water above New Pool because I couldn't go past the trees in pursuit; try to keep as much of the line out of the water as possible; and pray for a good hook hold by the Loop #8 double.

The fish turned, came briefly towards me and then set off downstream at speed to the tree in the right of the photo, a distance of about 80 yards.  Palming a reel and running at the same time is not a good option, so I relied on tightening the Danielsson's formidable drag.  Warning David and Rachel with a bellow of "coming down" I lumbered along the bank in pursuit.  For whatever reason and by the grace of the Almighty the salmon decided against going further downstream, crashed about on the surface ("don't roll over the leader, please!), turned and went rapidly back up to its lie, where it showed again.  I duly followed.  The next run was back down to the tree with me following; then back up to the bench in the middle of the pool; and next down again for about 20 yards.  I reckoned that in the heavy water this was going to take an hour to finish.  Would the #8 double last the distance?  Would I?  At the end of 40 minutes with the Beast of Wensleydale I was seriously worn, and that was in easy water.  Here I was fighting 50% salmon and 50% a big and rapidly rising river.

Its next run was straight at me at about 30 degrees to the flow at high speed.  Reeling frantically and reversing up the bank I struggled to keep the line tight while watching an ominous bow developing in the line.  It came into the rocks under the near bank, paused, turned and headed for the middle.  At some point in the turn, for reasons unknown, the hook came out: I saw no point in speculating.  I was simultaneously sad and elated.  I'd lost a magnificent fish, but landing it in the conditions would have required a miracle.  It was gone, but I'd enjoyed 5-6 minutes of the most incredible fight I've ever had with a salmon.  My adrenaline and endorphin count was off the scale; my pulse rate was around 170 ( a zone I know well from cycling); and I felt tremendous.  I was incapable of feeling disappointed: the fish deserved to win.  It was an utterly magnificent note on which to end the week.


With the river in full spate we couldn't fish on Saturday.  In a comprehensive display of balance, in the morning I joined my wife and our friends for a walk up to Rogie Falls, getting well soaked in the downpour, and in the afternoon played bridge.  That evening we enjoyed a very cheerful final dinner and toasted our thanks to Patrick and Tricia for all their work in organising such a successful week, and each other for the great pleasure of the joys of friendship.

You can't measure the success of a week in fish alone.  We only caught 9 between 5 rods - about half our long-term average - but we had a tremendous week that left me happy and relaxed.  In refreshment nothing else comes close to a week on a good river in the company of our friends.