Monday 30 December 2013

Happy New Year - The Annual Miracle

With Christmas past our minds turn to the year ahead and the annual miracle of the salmon's migration.  It's been happening every year for at least the last 500,000, during which the salmon has survived and adapted to a great ice age and some lesser ones; several iterations of global warming and cooling cycles; and most recently, the effects of human actions on temperature and the environment.   The inescapable genetic imperative of survival drives the cycle of outward travel to the best feeding grounds and the return to breed.  The individual salmon has no choice in the matter: the entire process is pre-determined by the accumulated experience of the species embedded in its cells.

80 billion cubic km of water
How many salmon?
The salmon's life from birth to departure has been extensively studied, recorded and filmed.  But once the smolt leaves the estuary for the open sea it is beyond our intellectual reach until it returns as a mature fish.  Our knowledge of the Atlantic salmon in the ocean is fragmentary.  We know roughly where they go to feed, but their navigation, route and activities along the way are largely unknown.   In relation to the volume of ocean the numbers of salmon are minute, which makes them hard to find.  Nor do we currently have any practical or affordable tracking solutions.  As a result there are plenty of theories but precious little hard research evidence.

The purpose of this post is to provide something to ponder in the dog days of the close season.  To help fill the long dark evenings it is much longer than my normal offering, and anyway it's quite a complex subject.  There's no way I can make it shorter, so please be patient and stay with me.  That said, I make no claim on great scientific knowledge, nor am I a fish or cell biologist.  By training I am a mathematician and economist.  What follows are not answers but thoughts for discussion drawn from my studies: I shall be most grateful for your comments.  

The Broad Bean
Brain section - Pacific salmon
However, in thinking about salmon we must detach ourselves from human perceptions.  The salmon does not have our type of brain in terms of size, experiential learning and storage capacity, or processing.  One quarter of its volume is dedicated to processing olfactory/smell functions.  It lacks our trillions of neural connection permutations, and so is not equipped to conduct the recall, analysis and reasoning that determine our lives. The salmon has some remarkable capabilities; few of them are intellectual; most are embedded and reflexive.

Genetic Printing

(Photo - Seymour Salmon)
The journey that the smolts make in migration is unique because none have done it before and few if any of them will survive to repeat the experience.  Unlike juvenile swallows and geese there are no adults to lead them.  Even if there were any physical waypoints in the open ocean the smolt lacks the capacity to store and order them for re-use.  Therefore I suggest that instead it may be following an environmental map embedded in its genetic material as a result of the consecutive successes of its 100,000 preceding generations.  Indeed, each smolt only exists at all as a result of those successes.  Evolution ruthlessly culled the unsuccessful navigators.  The wondrous and sobering realisation is that the very existence of today's smolt depends, not on a majority of successful events, but on an unfailing absolute 100% success rate across all 100,000 generations of its predecessors.  Moreover, the surviving strains have sustained that success rate in the face of all the adaptations demanded by the challenges of the past 500,000 years.  The odds in play are mind boggling in their enormity: nature is indeed miraculous.

No strawberries please
How is this wonder achieved?  Recent research indicates that repeated intense experiences induce heritable genetic changes.  Repeated experiments gave a sample of mice a strong aversion to the smell of strawberries.  The resultant detectable changes in DNA and behaviour were replicated in subsequent generations of mice that displayed an unprompted dislike of strawberries without previous acquaintance.  Survival and its essential precursors (fear, food and reproduction - the 3 Fs) are especially intense stimulants that we may reasonably expect to impact DNA directly, and 100,00 generations is a lot of repetition.

The Monarch Butterfly

A much-researched North American species of butterfly provides some useful insights that may help our understanding of the salmon's migration and the possible role of genetic printing.  The Monarch is native to the north eastern states of the USA, where it thrives in the warmer months.  Like many insects it only has a lifespan of a few weeks, so successive generations are born and die during the course of a summer.  The winter temperatures in Vermont too low for the Monarch to survive, so well before the start of the ski season the fourth generation heads south west to Mexico, 2,800 miles away. The destination is not just Mexico (an enormous target) but a very precisely defined group of mountains only a few miles in extent, where countless millions of Monarchs congregate to breed and die before the cycle restarts and they return to Vermont in the spring.

The journey back to Vermont
(US Government)
Clearly there can be no conventional brain memory of the route taken by each 4th generation.  This is not an intellectual exercise: the salmon's brain may only be the size of a broad bean, but the Monarch's is smaller than the eye of a fine needle.  We may therefore surmise that a 'map' of what it must do and where it has to go in order to survive, is imprinted in its genetic material.

How it navigates to its destination is another issue.  It is reasonable to suspect that the sun provides its primary orientation, but a simple sun-following regime would cause it to follow a daily series of semi-circular tracks across the USA, with an average heading of south rather than south west.  And of course it needs to head away from the sun on the return journey.  There is something much more complex in play here - not least involving time and azimuth correction - that far exceeds the Monarch's brain capacity.  On that basis the navigational data must be stored elsewhere in its body.

Salmon and Spatial Awareness

When I was a boy my grandfather told me that the salmon found its way home to spawn by detecting the special smell of its parent river.  This was and remains a widely held theory.  However, despite the extraordinary power of the salmon's sense of smell, I observed that this theory suffered from a gaping hole in its logic, in that it covered only the return leg of migration whilst leaving the smell-free outward Atlantic journey wholly unexplained. I was indeed an insufferable 10 year old and over the years my curiosity has not waned.  More recently I examined some Norwegian research data from an experiment in which they disabled the noses of a sample of salmon, which nonetheless found their way home to spawn.  The theory of smell being the key to navigation just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.  Navigationally its importance appears to be in the final river stages of the return migration.  We therefore need a better theory that covers both legs of migration and works at an oceanic scale.

For the next step in the reasoning we return to North America and the migration of Pacific salmon.  Owing to the huge value of the commercial catch, the sea life of these species has been far more intensively researched than their Atlantic cousins.  Whilst perusing the scientific journals I came to the conclusion that the salmon may know where it is - what's described as spatial awareness.

The trigger for that thought was Vancouver Island.  It's 300 miles (500 Km) long and lies between migrating salmon and a very large number of spawning rivers.  There is no reasonable way that a salmon approaching from the Pacific Ocean can smell its parent river from the far side of such a big obstacle.  The river water is too diluted in the ocean to be detectable, and in any event the ocean currents flow southwards away from the salmon's direction of travel.  If the salmon makes the wrong choice between turning left or right when it meets Vancouver Island it could add  up to 500 miles (800 Km) to its migratory journey.  Bearing in mind that the main run of each species is extremely concentrated, the errant salmon risks missing the boat and hence the possible extinction of the DNA it strives to preserve.  However, the research published in the Journal of Current Biology in March 2013 indicated that the salmon made reliable decisions for getting around the Island, which suggests they have some degree of spatial awareness.  The researchers surmised that it might be based on a mixture of ocean currents and magnetic orientation.

What might be the foundations of any spatial awareness?  For an ocean going fish like the salmon we can rule out the use of physical features and landmarks employed by humans, primates and birds in their localised travels.  They just don't exist, and even where they do the salmon's range of vision is too short for this to be a viable navigational foundation: you can't navigate over hundreds of miles with a field of view of 30 feet.  The sun may be helpful but it's transient during the day and between seasons; unreliable, in that it can be obscured by clouds; and invisible underwater every night and for 3 months of the year at the northern latitudes of the salmon's feeding grounds.  There has to be something else that differs from place to place and so allows the differentiation of location.  Only 2 universal forces unaffected by water come to mind - magnetism and gravity.  The science of the latter challenges my brain and we don't know enough about its spatial characteristics (until the space survey reports in about 10 years' time) to make decent inferences that may be relevant to salmon.  Accordingly, I'll turn to magnetism, about which we now know a great deal more by courtesy of the MAGSAT project's mapping of the magnetism of the earth's surface crustal layer.


(Diagram - Morlands School)
There are 2 magnetic phenomena we need to consider.  At the largest scale our entire planet is magnetic owing to the iron content in its inner core.  The magnetic field it generates is one of our primary defences against harmful radiations emitted by the sun and other stars (the Northern Lights arise where they meet).  The field is similar to that created by a standard bar magnet - you may remember demonstrations in school science lessons with iron filings on sheets of paper displaying the field's patterns.  In fact our planet is a bit like a giant bar magnetic running vertically through the axis of rotation, albeit offset by about 10 degrees.  The regular pattern of force lines is disrupted by both large-scale and local anomalies.  The orientation of those lines is what provides us with the general indication of the direction of magnetic North as a navigational aid. 

However, we need a compass to give us that indication as we don't have a magnetic sensor system within our bodies.  There is, however, evidence to suggest that some species do have magnetic materials in their horizontally arranged spinal structures, which might arguably provide a means of orientation.  The most often quoted example is dairy cows, which when not grazing appear to orient themselves North-South, except when power lines influence the local magnetic conditions.  If this is correct then we may be observing natural orientation (direction), which is one essential component of spatial awareness.  But it doesn't meet the other component - location - which leads us to the second phenomenon, crustal magnetism.

Crustal magnetic map of the North Atlantic
There are all sorts of materials either on the earth's surface or in the shallow crustal layer that have magnetic characteristics.  Iron, cobalt and other elements are obvious examples, but the list is much longer.  For example, surface magnetism is especially strong in areas of historic areas of volcanic outflow (basalt etc) and where tectonic activity is a present or historic feature.  We now have detailed mapping of surface magnetic characteristics for  most of the globe.  What we observe is linear ridge-like features (often parallel over extended distances), shaped hot spots and edges. 

Linear magnetic phenomena near Iceland
The white gaps indicate polarity reversal
Note that the local magnetic field is offset
from the whole-earth field by about 75 degrees

When you look at the detailed maps there is a profusion of clearly identifiable local magnetic features distributed throughout the Atlantic salmon's range.  Indeed, there is a complete family of near parallel magnetic-tectonic lines in the area from the UK past Iceland to Greenland.  Their magnetic intensity declines with distance from the centre-line of the formation, and the polarity reverses between stripes.  The Reykjanes Ridge magnetic feature runs all the way from just south of Iceland to the feeding grounds where the Gulf Stream meets the Continental Shelf.  For the return journey, looking back towards the UK from Iceland you can observe unique local magnetic signatures and patterns, both coastal and inland.

GEE navigation 1943
How you found Berlin at night in a Lancaster bomber
If the salmon has the capacity to sense both local magnetic effects and the earth's magnetic field, and the relationship between them, then it would have the basis for locational spatial awareness.  The frequency, wavelength and wave forms of the 2 types are different.  Once upon a time, long before GPS, we used such dual-wave sensing for navigation.  The GEE and later DECCA systems employed radio transmissions of differing frequency and polarity, which allowed you to plot your location on maps showing the wave patterns. 

There has been ample consideration of the salmon's ability of otherwise to detect and respond to the earth's magnetic field, but this could only ever explain orientation.  The MAGSAT programme has now given us detailed imagery of local magnetic conditions, which could provide the basis for the salmon's embedded map, and thereby complete the spatial awareness riddle.   Certainly you can construct a logical hypothesis from the evidence that if salmon have magnetic sensitivity, then crustal features and the whole-earth field could give it the means of knowing where it is at sea, day or night.

Life's more problematic in the river because magnetism has very long wavelengths (about 2.5 Km for the whole earth field), which means it's not precise, give or take a few miles.  That's fine at sea when looking for Greenland, going around Vancouver Island or finding the meeting of the Gulf Stream and continental shelf, but even the Tweed is only 200 yards wide.  Of course you can use your nose for the closing stages.  But differential magnetism may good enough to lead you back towards where you spent the first part of your life, facing into the current 95+% of the time, with your horizontal spine recording the local magnetic map and adjusting your inherited DNA.  If, however, you were brought up in a hatchery and release pond with all sorts of metal in their construction, then it might just be that your magnetic map is less clear.  Could this be why reared salmon are less reliable navigators (one Tyne hatchery fish turned up in Canada and another in the Mersey)?  That's a debate for another article in the next close season.  Until then, I wish you a Happy New Year, in the hope that the 2014 season will bring a major improvement on 2013.


I wrote this article in December 2013.  On 13th May 2020 the Times reported the outcome of Canadian research into the navigation of Chinook or King salmon, which confirms my central hypothesis.

Monday 2 December 2013

MCX's Christmas Stocking

Life is tough when you're starting salmon fishing.  The fickle fish are hard to catch; your mind is a whirling mass of things to remember to do or not do; and the retailers confront you with an overwhelming array of goodies supported by advertising fit to tempt Ignatius that peaks at Christmas.  How do you know what's worth buying and what may end up on EBay?  What's good value?  The latter is a tricky question, because in salmon fishing as in life, you generally get what you pay for and false economies abound.  The challenge is telling which from which, and separating where spending more is advisable from the areas in which 'good enough' applies.  Of course, as a Yorkshireman value for money has a weight all of its own, so some of my judgements may be skewed towards economy.  But on the other hand I'm not writing this article for hedge fund managers and divorce barristers, or for the tackle fanatics whose spending patterns bear little resemblance to their incomes.

Let's consider a simple example, the humble wading stick.  The range runs from the basic type at around £40 up to bespoke cherry wood specials at £200.  No doubt the bespoke job is a thing of joy to own and I won't criticise those who buy them because customers create jobs.  But as its name implies, it's a stick that helps you to wade without falling over, and it doesn't do that any better than most other sticks at 1/5th of the price.  I use a Snowbee folding stick - the original version before they stuck on a fancy top and thereby weakened the lanyard attachment - that's given nearly 10 years' sterling service.  It's simple, robust, reliable, neat and indispensable, a triumph of good design.  I'll replace the elastic shock cord over the winter (£2.40), which should give it another 5 years' life.  Why pay more?

As I still believe in Father Christmas (or at least Mrs Christmas who lives with me), this post offers a range of items that:
  • 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
I've tried to spread the hyper-links around the tackle dealers (the pictures are copied from their sites).  The fact that a couple of the items are Snowbee is not because I have shares in the company, but on account of their good quality/value balance (I also have their cheap and cheerful Gye net.  The frame's still going strong after nearly 10 years, but the mesh needs some repair).


The Snowbee fingerless gloves have been my comfort and friend for years.  As you get older you tend to wear gloves more often, and up here in Yorkshire we view them as essentials.  At only £10, so I didn't expect them to last half as long as they have.  The elastic is getting sloppy and holes are appearing, so a new pair is definitely on this year's wish list.

If you're daft enough to go spring fishing in near Arctic conditions you need something more serious.  Last February I tested the market to find some gloves that provided the warmth to cope with a snowy day on the Tweed whilst preserving enough feel to allow sensible line control.  The Patagonia R1 met those criteria and I was delighted with them.  I fished for 6 hours at 0C and retained warm working fingers throughout.  Their only deficiency is that you have to be precise on the sizing (measure your hand width and length) to get the benefit of the snug fit.


The next 2 items are in my 'can't live without' category (and within your children's budgets).

Ever since losing an enormous trout to knot failure I have (obsessively) glued my knots.  As a result I have not lost a fish to that cause in the past 10 years.  After trying a range of formulas, Loon Knot Sense comes out top for salmon fishing.  It forms a nice clear blob that you can shape before exposing it to sunlight for near-instantaneous setting.  I still carry normal Super Glue in my tool pack for repair work, but no longer use it for knotting.

Finding a leak in your waders rates quite highly in the gloom stakes, so keep a fresh tube of Aquasure in your tackle box.   This year John was the beneficiary when boot foot and wader leg divorced.  For big repairs there's no substitute for Diver Dave, but this will cover most emergencies.

The Greatest Little Tube Fly Box

After several years' frustration with wandering tubes and ambushing trebles I happened upon a pocket sized gem from Snowbee.   It costs only £20, holds a dozen tubes and trebles securely and is about the size of a cigarette carton.  It's another triumph of value design, and I don't find its limited capacity any sort of handicap whilst fishing.  Even with only 12 to choose from there were 4 unused at the end of the season, and I don't need any more reasons for indecision.

Must Have Forceps

If you try to take a double or treble hook out of a salmon with cold wet fingers alone you stand a fair chance of hooking yourself equally firmly.  The salmon's jaw is tough and sinewy so strong 6" forceps are essential.  A locking facility allows you to do the job single handed (whilst restraining the fish with the other).  The basic John Norris branded product is only £4.99 and does the job as well for me as the specialised versions.

Casting DVD

There's no substitute for lessons with a good instructor, but within the criteria set for this post Jim Curry is far too large, and although Alan Maughan is more compact, he still won't fit into your stocking.  Nevertheless, instructional DVDs are very helpful and good value for money.

If you're just starting, then Michael Evans is the answer for the basic casts in the classic style.  The DVD contains everything you need, delivered in a clear simple style.  My wife gave it to me shortly after I started, and lots of my friends (and their children) have borrowed it over the years since to the entire benefit of their casting.  What's more, although it's introductory in pitch, you can keep on going back to it, year after year, which makes it very good value for money.

Once you've embedded the basics via some lessons and river experience, you will wish to expand your repertoire of casts.  If you've reached that point then Rio's Modern Spey Casting - led by Simon Gawesworth - is a good solution.  Please don't buy this as a first DVD, because the sheer volume of material (3 discs) and variety of casts will get you in a muddle.  On the other hand the volume of material does justify the price, the imagery is excellent and the 'bio-kinetic graphics are helpful.

My Own List

All of the above are things that I've either received or bought, and which have given me good service.  So what's on my stocking list this year? (posted in the hope that my wife and children may read this blog!)

  • Loon Knot Sense
  • Aquasure
  • Airflo polyleaders
  • 1" Cascade tubes
  • A small cheap Celsius water thermometer (my grandfather's is Fahrenheit)
  • A better fishing season in 2014

Happy Christmas!  I hope that your wishes are obliged.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Looking Back - 2013 Season

I apologise for the delay in finishing this post.  Work's got in the way (I'm currently in Abu Dhabi), although my wife will suggest that it's the combination of pheasants, visiting Doris the geriatric neighbour in hospital and just a little professional effort.

In retrospect it would be easy to write 2013 off as a very bad season and look ahead to 2014 with the usual optimism that keeps salmon fishermen going.  However, it's not in my nature to allow another year of my lengthy life to pass without hunting for some lessons that might help in the years to come.  Of course, in salmon fishing every season, day, hour, minute and fish is unique, so you have to be very careful not to over-extend.  Descartes is the father of our reasoning methods, but he didn't work underwater and as far as history relates, he wasn't a fisherman either.  This is important with fish, because you can reason all you like, but you just don't know whether your conclusions are correct.  On the other hand the perversity of salmon makes it very difficult to disprove anything, positive or negative.  This suggests Hegel's approach, which appears popular amongst fishermen: start with a hypothesis (choice of fly); subject it to analysis (cast and see what happens); and arrive at synthesis (it didn't work).  However, you can't be sure, because the conclusion might be right, but the salmon generally decline to participate in its proof, because fish, like humans, find Hegel's dialectic process complicated and boring.  The lesson here is simple: don't intellectualise nature.

For that reason I tend to avoid hypotheses for which a series of coincidences or outrageous luck might be the only foundation; and prefer those based on observation or experience.  Of course, even those may be flawed: a recent philosopher, rather fond of recreational substances and blondes, described life as a series of cock-ups connected by coincidence and sex.  The only certain fact is that having followed a different evolutionary branch of existence, salmon don't think like us, so anything I say is likely to be 50% wrong.  The challenge facing you is working out which half of what I write is complete rubbish, even if the fish won't help you to prove it (they're on my side).

Cold Comfort

In early March a generous trout-fishing friend very kindly treated me to a day on the Tweed at Rutherford near Kelso.  This is an exceptionally attractive beat of a breadth that makes my 14' rod a viable option.  I knew the weather would be bleak, so took all my specialist clothing and stayed overnight with friends near Corbridge to break the journey.  Early the next morning the car thermometer read -3C, there was a light dusting of snow and more was coming.  By the time I reached Otterburn there was 6-8 cm lying and I had seen only one car.  Getting to the top of Carter Bar was the easy bit: the descent to Jedburgh on standard tyres was something else.  When I reached Rutherford at the appointed hour the temperature had risen to zero and there were light flurries of sleety snow on the brisk easterly wind.  The river was low and clear but infused with a slight cloudiness (Michael the ghillie ascribed this to road salt run-off: I'll return to that theory in a later post).  Sadly we caught nothing and just before lunch I slipped on a smooth flat rock and fell in about mid-thigh depth water.  In the event very little water entered my waders and I remained warm enough to fish out the day for reasons described below.  So what did I learn from this bleak blank day?

  • Modern multi-layer synthetic under-wader clothing is massively superior to its conventional predecessors.  It continues to retain warmth even when wet, so don't wear cotton under your waders.
  • Its hydrophobic coating caused the small amount of water that actually got into my waders to run down to my feet, limiting the arctic changing operation to socks alone.  I only had to change them because they were cotton QED.
  • The kit I use isn't cheap but it's extremely comfortable in normal fishing and worth its weight in gold in extreme conditions.  Ask Mrs Christmas to develop a relationship with Mr Norris.
  • Keep your wader belt and jacket cuffs firmly done up and very little water gets in.  Better still, the buoyant air stays inside.
  • You're most likely to fall over in a seemingly easy bit as a result of not concentrating. Focus; always use a stick; and re-stud your wader boots in the close season.
  • If you want to fish and use your fingers for everything short of tying complex knots in such extreme conditions, get some thin, skin-fit neoprene gloves.  My normal Snowbee fingerless neoprenes, excellent down to 5C and great value, were well short of the thermal requirement, so I bought a pair of Patagonias.  I haven't tried the Simms specialist gloves, but £50 does cause a certain hesitation In Yorkshire.
  • Red wine can be warmed in a microwave and is better than the alternative.
  • My Fluorocarbon tippet purchased the previous September failed Michael's shock-snap test (a Tweed ghillie party trick): always start anew even if it means throwing away £5 worth twice a year.

Early Promise

Frodle Dub in sparkling sunshine
16th April 2013
Although the spring was exceptionally chilly (the coldest March since the big freeze of 1962-3, when I took my sledge out on Boxing Day and used it daily until 28th March), the portents were good.  We had plenty of water and salmon started running the Ure in numbers in April, certainly as far as Ripon.  The Ure Salmon Trust's imaging fish counter recorded more than a dozen exceeding 1.2m in length, which equates to about 35lbs/16Kg.  Filled with enthusiasm and optimism I had my first day on the 16th in near perfect conditions, missing a strong fish mid-morning.

Skagit - pretty, no; indispensable, yes.
The problem was the gale straight down the water.  Getting the line out wasn't the problem: getting it back to re-cast was, as you couldn't move the rod against the wind.  Then, during the return swing to form the D-loop, the loop blew straight downstream, rendering the forward stroke ineffective.  This is when a Skagit line comes into its own, combined with an ad hoc cast.  This comprised half of a left handed Snake Roll, which laid the line onto the water at about 45 degrees ahead; a low slow draw to form the D-loop; and up into to the vertical plane for the forward tap.

 In the event I faced identical conditions on my next outing on 13th May.  So what did I draw from the experience?

  • You have to be prepared to work in whatever conditions you encounter and adapt your technique and expectations accordingly.  In a strong wind you won't cover the whole water, so don't even try.
  • You can only do ad hoc casts if you're well grounded in the basics, so take casting lessons.
  • Develop the ability to cast with either hand off both shoulders.
  • Even a good spring run is unlikely to amount to more than 10% of the river's annual total, so it's not like fishing in September.  Resign yourself to long, cold days and don't get down if you catch nothing.

The Long Dry Summer

Yorkshire went dry from mid-May to October.  The Findhorn followed suit after a brief lift in early June.  Everywhere the spring fish settled down, switched off and became ever more comatose as the water temperature went up and its oxygen content down.  In the next 4 months I went up to the Ure just once (to do the evaluation of the Loop Cross 14').  Although there were fish in the river only an hour away from the office, I just couldn't bring myself to bother them.  It's a different matter if you've got a beat booked on a nice river and feel duty bound to try, although it was so bad this year that I heard of one person abandoning his week on the Middle Findhorn on the Wednesday.  

Heat-stressed stale fish
that wouldn't go away
Tomatin September 2005
I've posted before on fishing in low water (Reflections) but a prolonged drought is something else.  We've had several drought years in our time at Tomatin - 2002, 2003 (when the water temperatures were off the scale), 2005 & 2009 - in which catching poor brown fish was as unfortunate as it was dispiriting.  The memorable years in Yorkshire were 1976 (when the rain stopped in March), 1995 (when it was so hot I even tried swimming in the North Sea), and of course 2003.  In those conditions I have reservations about fishing, because there is a serious risk that the fish will not go away after the fight, like the one to the left.  I should have left it alone and not cast to it.

The Short Autumn

The rain came on Sunday 15th September as we went up to Tomatin, which meant that most of the little fishing I did this year was concentrated into just one month.  I recorded Tomatin in The Week, and the first two October days on the Ure in Autumn Glory.  I went back to Thoresby for another day on the 30th to make up for lost time and to close the season.  We arrived on the perfect water at 9.30 - remember, when our clocks go back, the salmon's don't - to experience a mad half hour.  My guest Simon took two good fish in Frodle Dub and I missed 3 takes in Flesh Dub downstream.  We thought we were in clover, until about 10.15 when it was like someone had turned a switch: the lights went out and the river went dead.  We didn't touch a fish in the next 6 hours, until Simon hooked and lost a very big fish just before we finished. It happens sometimes and seemingly there's nothing one can do beyond remaining philosophical when some other philosopher is pissing in the river upstream.

So what else did I learn this autumn?

  • When the sun is lower in the sky the sub-surface light level can change dramatically, from this.....

 to 2 minutes, so always keep an eye on the water and be prepared to change your fly and tactics quickly.

  • You need to get the fly down within the salmon's radius of action, but it will see a fly slightly above its sight line more readily in difficult light conditions.
  • If in doubt, fish smaller and slower.
  • Use a slow sink tip with smaller flies as the water clears and falls, especially if you have to get down through turbulence.
  • and finally, when you take your waders off for the last time of the season, check carefully for any signs of leaks, and note where the damp patches are located (for when you send them off for servicing in the spring.


Packing up for the winter

I'll close with a few broad winter pointers:

  • Clean and dry all rods and reels.  Do not put polish or anything else on the joints (they're precision machined to fit exactly).
  • Lightly lubricate reel spindles and slacken off the drag.
  • Ensure that reels are thoroughly dry internally (allow 3 days, somewhere other than the kitchen) before storing them in a warm, dry and dark place.
  • Wash your waders (and wading jacket) with Goretex re-proofer and hang up to dry inside out.  Do not use conventional detergent: it contains ultra-violet enhancers and reflectors to make your shirts look whiter that may make your legs visible for considerable distances underwater.
  • Store your waders in a mouse-free zone.
  • Throw away all tippet materials, even if unused (that hurts a Yorkshireman).
  • Check your fly boxes and cull any flies with bent or damaged hooks.
  • Download all the photos from your fishing camera and then back them up to a cloud application (e.g. Google+, MS SkyDrive).
  • Start your wish list for your stocking from Father Christmas - read my next post.

Make a note of the high points of your salmon fishing year, and give thanks for the glories of the beautiful places in which we are privileged to pursue this wonderful fish.

Smile, next year should be better.  Note that I don't use 'must', which would be tempting fate.

Thursday 24 October 2013

Autumn Glory - October on the Ure

Flesh Dub, River Ure
17th October 2013
October is often one of the most beautiful months of the year in North Yorkshire.  Of course we get the full variety of English weather across the span from crystal blue skies to snow and everything in between, but that's part of the beauty.  But views like this will always lift your spirits, especially when you know that the pool in front of you is filling up with fish running up from the estuary, and the water conditions are becoming absolutely perfect for fishing.

Flesh Dub
10th October 2013
It's been an unusual year, with the longest dry spell that I can remember since 1976 or before.  We had a good lift in the Ure in mid-May - sadly not big or sustained enough to pull many spring fish all the way up to Thoresby - and then nothing significant for almost 5 months.  By early October I was becoming truly desperate - writing is a poor substitute for fishing - so even a very small lift of 6" was enough to prompt an escape from the office.  In good fishing conditions the rocks in the foreground are completely submerged, but you can't always have the optimum in anything.

Dick Dub
10th October 2013
Undeterred we drove up into Wensleydale and opted to start on Dick Dub at the bottom of the Thoresby beat.  This is a first class holding pool but tricky to fish for several reasons.  First, wading is impossible for much of its length owing to the depth under the near bank.  Second, that depth extends right across the upper half of the pool, which often requires weighted tips and flies to overcome.  Most fish lie between 2/3 and 3/4 of the way across.  Third, the big back-eddy evidenced by the scum-line presents all manner of line management challenges whilst also gathering all the autumn leaves for you to collect with your back-cast.  With vegetation behind you and a swirling wind, Dick Dub is a test of your casting adaptability and invention. 

John with resident hen fish
John opted to start half way down with a conventional floating line set-up and hooked this hen fish shortly after I took the photo above.  Her behaviour and colour indicated that she had been in the river since the summer, so we went for an early netting to get her away as soon as possible.  John fished on into the run below, where he lost another after a brief connection.  Having done my net and photo duties I went up to the top of the pool to work the deep water with a weighted Ally Conehead and sink tip.

Cheerful MCX with Mr Grumpy
It wasn't long before this cock fish took a swipe at the fly before setting off down the pool.  After a brisk fight and some aerobatics in the comparatively rock-free middle I led him down to the beach at the bottom where John was waiting to return the honours.  Many novices are surprised by the distance you can lead an active fish.  Provided you maintain a firm and consistent tension in the line and modest rate of movement down the bank, the fish will come along with you.  This chap came nearly 60 yards to give a much better place for landing, unhooking and releasing than anywhere available on a steep bank with boulders at its foot.  As a result he staged an ill-tempered and speedy departure.

We then made our way up to the top of the beat for a bite of lunch in preparation for fishing Frodle, Flesh and Willow in the afternoon.

It was clearly John's day: he took 2 more fish, including a thumping 22 pounder, whilst all I could manage were a couple of misses.  Sadly I was not in range with the camera for the big one, and remained a distant spectator of his antics on the ledge between the 2 oak trees at the bottom of Frodle Dub.  As I've previously noted, Murphy's Law says that when fighting a fish you will always be on the wrong side of a tree, so John was really tempting fate by working between 2 trees.

A week later we were back on a pre-booked expedition, with part of the team staying overnight at the Bolton Arms at Redmire, and others coming and going between the Thursday and Friday.  The Bolton is an outstandingly good pub, with nice rooms, great food (a truly heroic breakfast), real beer and genuine atmosphere.  Its 5 star rating on Trip Advisor and means that lots of people agree with us.  I joined John and Patrick for breakfast on Thursday morning before heading out full of food and optimism.

Flesh Dub at +24"
1015 am 17th October 2013
The river was well up but falling and clearing nicely.  You can see the difference between this photo of Flesh Dub and the one above.  Applying the MCXFisher Quick Calculator outlined last May, this rated a score of almost 12, so it was on with a sink tip and a 1.5" Copper Conehead Cascade, and then into the water with extreme caution.  The reason for the extra care is simple.  After months of low water, sunshine and high temperatures, every rock in the river is coated with slippery green stuff that will remain in place to the end of the season and beyond.

Hen fish - Flesh Dub
17th October 2013

After a dozen casts came that delirious sensation of the strong turn away of a good fish aided by heavy water.  On completing the turn she delivered a marvellous sea trout imitation with a perfect vertical take off completely clear of the water before going down and across the flow at top speed.  As you can see from her steel-grey colour and shine, she was straight up from the estuary in perfect condition and fighting fit.  As a guide my wading boot is 13" long and positioned to stop everything slipping back down the steep bank after a solo netting (there was no better option).  The hook was lodged in the back of the scissors of her right jaw (opposite to my fishing bank) and would not have yielded to anything short of dynamite.

Willow Bush Run

I fished on down to Willow, which was running at high speed (no, that's a leaf, not the take that I missed shortly after putting the camera away).  This run fishes better with the water somewhat lower and slower, which allows good oblique presentation of the fly across the tail and entrance.  This run is a classic example of the pointlessness of chasing the far bank.  The flow there is much slower and in seconds you have a giant belly in the line and a fly travelling at warp speed.

I trudged back up to Frodle to have lunch, taking in the delightful view in the opening picture of this post.  Patrick had caught a fish there earlier, but we agreed that we should be doing better in such conditions.  In retrospect I reckon that we were perhaps being a mite hard on ourselves because the river needed to shed another foot before attaining perfection. 

Spurred on to try even harder, despite the digestive demands of a truly enormous Scotch egg, I dully went back to Flesh Dub.  By now the water had dropped and cleared, the low October sun was quite strong and moving towards shining straight down the pool.  There was pronounced scattering of light in the water and a high level of sub-surface brightness.  Taken together these factors were causing a significant loss of horizontal underwater visibility.  These were not easy conditions for salmon, who lacking an iris in the eye to adjust to awkward light, rely on a slower-acting pigment that works like a form of biological dark glasses (there's a fuller explanation in 'Here's Looking at You').   Although the water level and speed (and the MCX Calculator) still suggested using a well-sunk tube, the unusual light conditions led me to select a lighter tip and a #8 Cascade in order to give the fish the best chance of seeing the fly in the clearer regions of Windows 2 and 3.  Of course this was taking a risk that the fly might be too far above them and moving too fast, but it was worth a try.  As an aside, the coloured bits of a Cascade are irrelevant in these conditions and presentation.  The dark body gives a clear-cut silhouette against the bright surface: everything else is just supporting extras.

About a third of the way down I missed a light take about half way round the swing.  It might have been a leaf, but nothing ventured, I repeated the cast on the same length and line.  At exactly the same point, bang, thump and fish on.  After 10 minutes of non-stop aggression, Mr Angry, resplendent in his fighting pyjamas and a growing kype, came into the net.  He was clearly a long-term resident, so at 35 inches on the tape measure, minus a couple for his kype and a hefty discount for dieting, I scored him at 11 lbs and sent him on his way (he's almost upright in the poor photo - I try not to waste time on positioning the pose).  Was he the fish that took and missed?  We'll never know, but it's possible.

Duly elated I chopped off the last 6" of tippet (a life-long habit); checked the hook points and re-tied the battered but serviceable cascade; glued the knot; and carried on down the pool to no effect whatsoever.  By the time I reached the bottom the light was starting to fade (as were my companions - fishing with the angling equivalent of an elderly Duracell Rabbit can be very tiring).  I made my way up to Frodle for a chat, essential chocolate and some coffee, while we agreed the plan for the last half hour. 

Frodle Dub Tail
17th October 2013
I drew the bottom part of Frodle; Patrick the top; and John took Flesh.  By now the water and light levels were significantly lower than when I took the photo that morning.  The shallower water in Frodle's tail meant that I didn't need to change my existing rig of short sink tip, 9' leader and #8 Dishevelled Cascade.

As I got right to the bottom hope was fading.  At this point you are casting a long line at 45 degrees towards the round tree in the centre of the photo: tips, AFS and about 30-40 feet of runner to get a broad but slow coverage of a series of quite shallow lies in which fish hold having ascended the shallow haul from Flesh.  About a quarter of the way round, bang!  A fish was on and heading determinedly back to the Humber.  Faced with the imminent risk of it getting into the fast water below, losing control and probably a good salmon,  I got out onto the bank as fast as possible, detached my wading stick, and set of in pursuit as fast as the multitude of leg-breaking rabbit holes allowed.  By now it was 60 yards away and still intent on going south, so it was time to gain the initiative.  After due application of drag and left palm the fish turned, before deciding to explore the alternative of a trip up to Hawes via Aysgarth.  As it passed I could see that it wasn't huge - about a yard long - but beautifully proportioned and fighting fit.  After another 10 minutes it got its first sight of Patrick's net, which prompted a combination of high speed run and aerobatics.  About 3 minutes later I got her head up for the first time and drew 15lbs of shiny steel grey, deep-bodied hen fish towards the net.  In dark water and failing light this was tricky.  Up on the bank looking down I had a good view.  Down at water level Patrick could barely see the leader and nothing below the opaque surface.  In the final moment something went disastrously wrong in the net: the fish somersaulted in a shower of spray; in the melee it seems that the loop between tip and leader caught on something; and the 15lbs leader snapped just below the loop.  It was a beautifully proportioned fish in prime condition, a great fight and a sad loss.  Even if she couldn't go in my book she was a valid score for the estate's records.  You can't expect to win them all, and you've got to take the hits.  As John drives a 4x4 I didn't have to walk all the way back to the car at High Thoresby Farm with the added burden of disappointment.  And there's still next week to come.

We are indeed most lucky people to fish in a beautiful place for wonderful fish.  The Ure's late runners are large, strong and in lovely condition.  You couldn't ask for more.


A view of heaven
Frodle Rapids upstream with Bishopdale Beck Junction
17th October 2013

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Crash! Bang! Pluck! The dynamics of a take

I apologise for the delay to this post, which is long overdue.  Unfortunately 10 days ago our 93 year old neighbour fell and broke her right leg very badly.  As a result I've spent much of the intervening period visiting the hospital rather than thinking and writing.  In between visits I did manage to fit in a successful day on the Ure last week, which will form part of a future post.

Iceland film - the instant of a take
Last January in 'Revelation' I looked at an example of a salmon taking a fly live on a film made in Iceland.   If you haven't viewed it before I strongly recommend doing so, not least for its remarkable insights and excellent underwater resolution.  Of course this is only a small sample of one group of fish, in one river, on one day, so we have to be careful not to draw too many inferences.  Nevertheless it is the best illustration of sub-surface taking behaviour that I have seen.  It also provides some confirmation of my own observations of the angle at which salmon approach flies; the sort of distances they can cover in moving to the fly; and the lack of indication to the angler of the fish taking the fly into its mouth.

There is a lot of good footage of salmon taking a variety of flies fished on the surface - bombers, hitched tubes and giant caddis - with especially good examples from Newfoundland and Labrador where dry fishing is a widely used tactic.  However, all of the film I have seen is taken from or near the angler's perspective: I haven't found any underwater sequences of surface takes showing approach angle and so forth.  In addition, the small number of salmon that I have caught in the UK either on the surface or in the surface layer does not give me adequate evidence for analysis and discussion.

Equally, I haven't equalled Hugh Falkus' endless hours of observation from elevated points of fish behaviour in clear water responding to a variety of baits and lures.  Nor is my armoury as broad as his: worms and prawns are not part of my repertoire.  Accordingly, this post only examines the dynamics of sub-surface takes whilst fishing with sunk flies.  

In thinking about takes there are 2 cardinal points we must bear in mind.  

  • First, there are plenty of theories but we don't know what prompts a salmon to take a fly: every take is aberrant behaviour that currently defies explanation.  I have difficulty accepting the 'induced take' as anything other than good fortune based on getting the fish's attention.
  • Second, the way in which an adult salmon takes a fly is markedly different from how it takes prey at sea, even though the fly may emulate a marine species.  Like other predators the salmon attacks at high speed - 3-4 m/sec is typical - as it scythes through a shoal of sand eels.  I've watched salmon feeding in the surface layer and there is an audible hiss as the dorsal fin cleaves the water.  If salmon hit our flies at that speed sprained wrists and broken rods would be commonplace.  In addition, the salmon's mouth and throat is designed to trap and swallow prey fast enough to make room for the next sand eel, yet I have never hooked a salmon in the gullet.  In sum, it's doing something abnormal prompted by factors other than hunger.

Thus every take is different and unique to the fish and the circumstances.  Nevertheless they appear divisible into some 'classic' groups.  This post looks at 3 broad types - 'Against the Fly''With the Fly'and 'Minimum Shift' - that have been the commonest in my experience and are therefore most easily described.  Beyond those is the realm of  the random, usually involving later-season cock fish, which includes extreme cases such as the  'Headlong Charge' and 'Surface Slash'  While these make for amusing anecdotes they are not amenable to analysis beyond noting the power of testosterone.

Crash!  Against the Fly

Take - Against the Fly
You're fishing from the right bank with your fly tracking from left to right.  The diagram shows in 3-D the track the salmon might follow from its lie at A to a take at T, before turning away at D to return to A.  Whether the fish takes by interception as shown here (a likely scenario with a slow moving fly) or follows it (the converse case) matters little.  The key factor is the direction of turn after the take, which is opposite to the movement of the fly.  This increases the relative speed of fish and fly and so makes it harder for the fish to eject the fly.  The tension on the line L comes immediately into play, usually causing a good hook-hold towards the rear of the salmon's jaw.  You probably won't feel anything at T, but as the fish turns D-E, feels the drag of the line and reacts, its acceleration will leave you in no doubt.  The 'crashing take' is at E not T, when your fish is usually well hooked.

In this scenario you have to do precious little, beyond smoothly lifting the rod and leaning back to get the hook all the way home.  Never do anything hasty or violent, and as always, ensure your drag is on a sensible setting.  Barring bad luck you will land the majority of fish that take like this.  You'll be able to identify them by virtue of the hook often being in the side of the jaw opposite your bank - i.e. right bank, left jaw.

Bang!  With the Fly

Take - With the Fly
You're still on the right bank.  The next fish comes up from A and takes at T.  At D it turns with the fly and swims parallel to X.  You are even less likely to feel the take.  In this case the relative speed of salmon and fly is much lower, so the fish has more time to eject it, largely untroubled by the line tension.  Three options follow: you don't hook the fish at all and feel nothing; or you get a weak hook-hold near the front of the right jaw which soon comes undone (bang-bang, gone); or if you're lucky the fish turns and dives sharply at E, giving you a strong take and a good hold in the upper right jaw. 

The simple fact is that if the fish turns with the fly the mechanics are much less favourable, but there are no sure fire ways of changing the odds.  Just observe the basics.  Keep a good working tension between you and the fly.  Use the rod as your first shock absorber by holding it upstream of the line.   Keep couple of feet of slack line as a back up to the rod (which reacts far faster than you ever can).  And again, don't strike or do anything hasty.  If you've missed, you've missed, and only one per thousand comes back for a second try.

Over the years I've heard a lot of advice such as giving the fish slack to run back to its lie before setting the hook.  This is probably more about stopping inexperienced anglers doing hasty and violent things than anything to do with hooking fish.  The salmon will only take the fly back to its lie if it has failed to eject the foreign object from its mouth; and the fly will only stay in there by virtue of the hook.  In any event the drag on a salmon fly line alone is more than enough to start the process of setting the hook.  I therefore suggest that the hook hold does not improve  much with delay.

Pluck!  Minimum Shift

Take - Minimum Shift
We now enter the realm of the gentler take, or more accurately, turn away.  Indeed, the salmon may not have to turn at all.  The minimum shift take occurs most often when the lateral movement of the fly is very slow and close to the fish.  This is the case at the dangle: lateral  movement has stopped and the fly may be sinking. Hence in this diagram the fly is shown as a point rather than a track.  The Minimum Shift take is also common in ambush fishing and when working a fly deep and slow in response to cold or dirty water, when the salmon reacts to something almost directly ahead at short range.  You get the same condition when a curious salmon has followed a fly over a considerable distance in quiet water, only taking it into its mouth when it starts to move directly away.

Minimum Shift Take
Hen fish from low slow water
Blue Charm #14 front centre of jaw
Dalnahoyn Pool Tomatin
 13 September 2010
Here the fish merely inclines its pectoral fins to rise gently to B, applying the minimum lateral movement.  It takes the fly into its mouth at T before reversing the pectorals and sinking back towards C.  Clearly without lateral movement there's not a lot of force in play.  As a result hook holds tend to be towards the front of the jaw and inadequately sunk.  The salmon gives a couple of shakes of its head to get rid of the fly; you feel the consequent pluck, but it's already gone.  All too often it stays on for 5-10 seconds before the hook hold gives way.  But if Murphy's looking elsewhere, sometimes they stay on.


It may seem strange that you will detect the merest fragment of leaf, weed or grass upon your fly, yet incredibly you feel nothing when a salmon takes it into her mouth.  It's simply because in most cases the first stage of the take is towards you and slackens the leader.  Which way the salmon turns from the take is the determining factor in what you feel thereafter and how soon.  Only then do you become an active participant.  There's no magic or tricks, just a few basics to observe.  Most salmon hook themselves without your help, so all you have to do is avoid upsetting that happy situation through haste and violence.

Hopefully by the next post some more salmon will have hooked themselves for you and me.