Sunday 25 November 2012

Reflections on 2012 - Brass Monkeys and Tubes

Over the past 10 years of our regular September week on the Upper Findhorn we have seen all sorts of conditions.  Often there has been too little water (2002, 2003, 2005, 2009), which in most cases coincided with high temperatures.  Occasionally there has been too much (2010) water, and in three years (2004, 2007, 2011) it was just right and we caught plenty of fish.  This year was unusual: there were almost perfect water levels and plenty of fish in the river, but we caught precious few of them. 

The most likely explanation for our failure was that both water and air were freezing cold.  The rain was falling out of the back of a succession of cold fronts in a northerly airstream.  Once we had sleet, but up in the catchment area several hundred metres higher it must have been close to zero every day.  As a result the river's temperature remained in the range 5-7 C (42-45 F).  By sheer coincidence I had, for the first time ever, packed my grandfather's 1920s Hardy water thermometer, magnificent in its nickel-silver tube, which allowed me to measure accurately in the first and only year that is was necessary.  The accepted wisdom is that in the spring salmon do not start running into fresh water until river temperatures get above 5 C (see Atlantic Salmon Trust ) and that once in the river they tend to be torpid and dour when it's very cold. 

The experts suggest that the answer is bigger flies, fished deep and slow.  In the event we only caught 14 fish, and they succumbed to such a variety of things that we couldn't tell whether the advice really worked.  As ever fluke remained the dominant factor: the first fish of the week was caught on the surface with a size 8 shrimp double on a plain leader in less than a metre of water; another took a fly as it hit the surface (the fact that it was a copper tube attached to a sink tip was wholly irrelevant); and two grilse displayed marked non-conformist tendencies in knee-deep rapids.  The only valid generalisation was that generalisations tend to be wrong in the short term.

Dalnahoyn Pool, Upper Findhorn
September 2012
As in previous years, we found that unique and undetectable factors created brief periods when one or more rods caught fish, irrespective of the techniques used.  For example, I caught all 3 of my fish in a period of 2 hours on the Thursday afternoon.  It was cold (air 6, water 7 C) and windy with occasional bright spells.  The water was perfect: lightly coloured and steady at about +10"/25 cm, which would allow fish to run freely if they wished.  The first (16 lbs) took a 1" copper Cascade tube on a 10 ft 4 ips sink tip in a classic 'pause' lie below the head of a pool (it's one of my favourites and very reliable). 

Head of Dalnahoyn Pool
Surface take
September 2012

The next (8 lbs), 20 minutes later was the 'dry fly' take described above, clearly a running fish in the fast water at the head, andthereby a complete fluke (the chances of such coincidence of moving fly and moving fish are microscopic, but at least a running fish is alert and active, which helps). 

Colonel's Pool
Deep and slow
September 2012
And the last (18 lbs) was a complete one-off fluke that obeyed the rules.  Walking back to the house I stopped to fish a very deep elbow pool that holds resident fish that show but never take.  Getting down 10'/3 m before starting the swing called for Skagit head, T14 tungsten tip and a 1 1/2" brass tube.  Knocking a fish unconscious was a distinct possibility.  This is not pretty fishing ( see video ), but it's a useful technique because you cannot overhead or single Spey cast that amount of weight safely.  Twenty five metres out; sink like a stone; and then slowly back, feeling the bumps on the rocks, until half way in there was one more animated bump that led to 15 minutes of deep, dour battle. 

What did I learn from all this? 

  • Buy a small, light and cheap thermometer, then hope that you won't need it.
  • It's hard work when it's cold because most of the fish are switched off.
  • Moving fish will offer the best chances, so focus your efforts on the heads (leavers) and tails (arrivers) of the pools.
  • Be careful and look after yourself - see below.

Health Warning - Hypothermia

Wading in water at 5C is potentially dangerous.  Even if you have all the Simms ninja gear (which is great) be very careful as hypothermia creeps upon you faster than you might expect, especially if you are over 50, or if younger, less than fully fit.  It will get you even faster if you drank a little too much the night before; and faster still if you then fish before breakfast.  Driven by enthusiasm I made all 3 mistakes on the first morning; forgot the military training of my youth; and lost half a day's precious fishing to recovery.

These are the danger signs of hypothermia onset:

  • General dulling of the senses: if you stop hearing the water clearly, beware.
  • Light headedness: small errors in casting and wading are telling you something.
  • Loss of colour, contrast and greying of vision: look out, it's now getting serious.
  • When you start seeing blue shading in the grey, get out of the water immediately, because the next stage is unconsciousness!

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