Friday 26 July 2013

Seven Deadly Sins - Common Novice Error 6

Being Surprised

Hugh Falkus' contention that catching a salmon is a complete fluke implies a degree of surprise.  While being surprised can sometimes be nice, much more often it is associated with things going wrong and sometimes getting worse thereafter.  Owing to its 350 year history of taking nasty shocks from Americans, Afghans, Afridis and Ashantis, via Germans to Zulus, and a long and close acquaintance with Murphy's Laws, the British Army takes surprise seriously.  It has a saying that is equally apposite in salmon fishing as warfare:

"By all means be amazed, but never, ever be surprised"

 When you're suddenly faced with the unexpected, emulating a headless chicken is a sure-fire way of losing battles and salmon.  Of course we shouldn't be surprised by a salmon taking a fly, because that's what we set out to achieve, but we still get truly surprised and all too often lose the fish thereby.  It's an awful shame to go through all the effort, frustration and cost of trying to catch a salmon, only to blow the opportunity in a blinding sandstorm of mental chaos induced by surprise.  Catching a salmon may be a rare and unlikely event, but it helps to be practically and mentally prepared.

Murphy's Laws and Salmon

It's clear that in between studying the nature of warfare and military matters, Murphy had an alternative existence as a salmon, in particular because:
  • If it can go wrong, it will.  When a salmon takes all bets are off.  The infallible reel will seize up; the recessed handle will snag; and a knot will appear in the super-smooth line.  If your wife is watching, the probability doubles, but at least the camera won't work.
  • It will go wrong at the worst possible time and place.  Forget all this nonsense about 'induced takes' because there's only one certain way of inducing a take, and its nothing to do with wiggling the fly.  Tuck your rod under your weaker arm; take your cigarettes/cigars/pipe/chocolate bar/mobile phone out of your inside pocket; and one or more will fall into the water.  During the crazed scramble to recover, the chances of a take increase 100-fold.  If you can find somewhere especially dangerous to do it - wading down a ledge on the North Tyne - you gain an extra 10-fold  bonus.  An old friend of my father's used to demonstrate this skill with infallible repetition of incompetence on their annual trip to the Tweed, with a dividend never less than 17 lbs in weight.  In fact, the late Jack Thomas was so shambolic that it was impossible to surprise him.  He could thus ruthlessly exploit Murphy's Laws to his profit via pipe, lighter, hip-flask (large and frequent), spectacles and false teeth - deployed individually and often severally.
  • When everything seems to be OK, it's about to go wrong.  In other words, even if you're prepared, look out, and never get complacent.  I witnessed a highly experienced angler closely focused on a nice fish showing on the far side of a pool on a lovely summer's evening, doing a complete base-over-apex in 12" of still water, during which his £400 Simms Goretex waders found the only sharp stone in the River Ure to secure a return trip to Diver Dave Wader Repairs in Aberdeen (an address worth saving - he's superb).
  • When several things can go wrong, generally the most inconvenient and expensive happens.  Wading on the freezing Tweed in March I slipped and fell in 18" of water (yes, me too).  In the ensuing chaos the loose line found my forceps with unerring accuracy and inflicted hara-kiri.  Fortunately the line could not run away as it was frozen solidly in the rings, so saving a £3 fly was some consolation for writing off a £70 Windcutter, which, needless to say, is no longer made and thus irreplaceable.
  • Murphy's Law of Thermodynamics states that things always get worse under pressure.  When you're a novice, that's called hooking a salmon.  The first is the worst.  Having got up most unusually early (see Morning Glory), my youngest son, fishing on his own, hooked his first very large fish.  Having no net with him (and no plan for the eventuality) he tried to beach it up a 45 degree grass bank.  Amazingly he got it up; unsurprisingly it didn't stay there.

Be Prepared - Physically

Frodle Dub, Bolton Water, River Ure
Viewed from High Thoresby Bank
Spring fishing 2013
Unless you are a graduate of the Jack Thomas School it pays to be prepared and organised.  At my age the climb in waders back up from Frodle Dub to the car parked 250 feet above at High Thorseby is a major incentive for good personal organisation and double checking everything before setting off (to compensate for failing memory).  It is, however, one of the best views in the world on the way back.

It helps to keep things simple and have a consistent stowage scheme for your jacket, box and car.  I pack my wading jacket at the start of the season and do not change or empty it until the end.  There's a place for everything and everything's in its place: the contents of each pocket are unchanging.  Tips and leaders inside right; camera, phone and tape measure inside left; flies outside right; tubes, priest and chocolate outside left. The car keys go in the waterproof wader pocket because RF door openers are not submersible and there's not much worse than being stuck outside your car in the snow after falling in.  Anal perhaps; reliable certainly.

I don't wish to appear pompous or conceited, but I am amazed by how shambolic my otherwise intelligent, successful professional friends can be.  If they organised their businesses as badly as their fishing gear, they'd have starved long ago.  When you've hooked a salmon it's a bit late to discover that the drag on your reel is solid for want of maintenance after the last season.  I've watched two of our Tomatin party losing fish this way.  My carpenter/plumber/electrician friends are a complete contrast: a lifetime apprenticeship of needing to be able to find the right tool first time and keeping it working has embedded a natural mental organisation.  Of course there are exceptions: G keeps so much salmon gear in his van he can never get to the plumbing stuff.

Be Prepared - Mentally

You have to believe that you can and might hook a salmon.  Given that triumph of hope over experience it helps to think through what you're going to do when it happens.  In Walking to the Water I described a thought process for planning how to fish a pool.  If you wish to avoid surprise then you should make an outline plan for hooking, playing and landing any fish that succumbs to your efforts, which you update continuously as you progress down the pool.  Of course you need to concentrate on fishing, but equally you must maintain awareness of your surroundings (not least for your own safety).

It begins with a series of questions, starting at the far end of the operation and working backwards:

Where are the best places to land the fish?  

A small gravel beach between the rocks

You're looking for a gently shelving beach of gravel or pebbles where you can run the fish aground in shallow water and get behind it without risk to get hold of the tail to gain control.  Don't try a steep grass bank or a ledge against 6' of water, or rely on the dog.  When you get to the right place, don't try bringing the fish towards your feet: the rod will merely bend more as you raise the tip.  Once you've got the salmon's head up and pointing towards your beach, hold the rod steady at about 45 degrees, and if the terrain permits,  move back a couple of brisk paces 'surfing' the fish onto the shore.

Dalnahoyn Pool, Tomatin House
Leading the fish to the small gravel beach
Note the concentration on safe movement
You may have to move the fish some distance to the landing point.  Don't worry and don't rush.  You can make your way there gradually during the fight, provided the bank allows easy safe movement.  If not, don't take the risk, because Murphy will ensure that either the fight or the movement ends badly.  I learnt the hard way at Tomatin, falling into a small drain concealed in the grass: the fish took advantage of my misfortune.  If you can't fight and move, play the fish out first, then 'lead' it slowly and steadily to the landing point, whilst concentrating on traversing the bank safely.  You can lead a played out fish a long way if you maintain firm tension and smooth jerk-free progress.

Where are the best places to play the fish?  

Once you've gained some semblance of control you need to get first into shallower water and then onto dry land.  If it's practical, getting up onto the bank gives you 3 advantages: the first is speed of lateral movement - you can travel much faster in pursuit of a big fish on grass than on pebbles in 2' of water; second, you gain a helpful extra dimension in wearing the fish down; and third, the salmon cannot swim between your legs.  But do avoid trees and bushes, because you will always wind up on the opposite side to the fish.

If I hook a fish now, how do I get to the bank? 

As I wade down a pool I ask the same question at regular intervals:  "If the river starts to rise sharply; or I hook a fish; or something goes wrong, what will I do?".   If the wading is especially difficult you may have to fight the fish from where you are until you've worn it down enough to allow you to concentrate on your movement rather than the fish.  But in all cases you need an exit plan, which in 99% of cases will involve mostly downstream movement, because the point 10 yards upstream is non-viable in any sort of current.  Get to know and always be aware of the bottom topography between you and the bank.  For example, getting off the wading line in Dalnahoyn Pool involves passing through deeper water, and if you're under the bridge, you're better off going a further 30 yards downstream before heading inwards.

Be Prepared - Safety

The worst sort of surprise is when things go seriously wrong, so please:
  • Always wade with a stick, remembering that the shallow water is the most dangerous owing to sunlight driving the growth of slippery green stuff.  Trying to move without a stick in waist-deep water with a 20 pounder on the far end is a recipe for swimming lessons.
  • Always listen to the water for the change of note that warns of a rapid rise.  At the risk of repeating myself, one day on the Findhorn I caught the change of note.  I left my wading line with the water at calf depth; by the time I reached the bank 2 minutes later it was hip-deep, brown and ugly.
  • For that reason, never plug in to an i-pod or MP3 on spate rivers or those with hydro releases.
  • Wear a life preserver, and get it serviced every 2 years.
  • Just once, practice survival swimming in waders.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Seven Deadly Sins - Common Novice Error 5

When signing off the previous Sin - Error 4 - in late June I cheerfully promised the next post in a week's time.  Like salmon, things didn't work out according to plan.  On reflection I thought you might like a break from sin as I was beginning to sound like the return of the Puritans and the weather was far too nice for unremitting gloom.  On the other hand it was much too nice for salmon fishing, with little or no water and what little there was heading rapidly to 20 degrees and beyond.  So in between work and gardening I wandered off into a little diversion lightened by the beauty of the Carron and the antics of the young at Tomatin (not a full post because work intruded).  And accidents happen.  In my case this involved self-inflicted non-elective surgery by trying to shorten the middle finger of my left hand whilst pruning a lime tree.  Despite the exceptional sharpness of the blade I didn't succeed, but the presence of a large dressing has severely limited my typing: you don't make a lot of sense with words that lack e, r, d & c, or have gained random s, w & f; and having never caught a fish on an eof or a ros I wouldn't wish to mislead or cause you to scour the John Norris catalogue for them.  However, if you're prevented from fishing it's much better when the river's low rather than when it's full of running salmon, which is why I'm writing instead of fishing.

Sin 5 - Forgetting the Fly

"Your cast is not perfect until you present the fly to the fish in the right way"
Henrik Mortensen

Henrik frames the sin perfectly.  When we're starting we focus so much on our casting that we lose sight of its purpose - putting a fly behaving sensibly in front of the salmon.  But that does not happen by accident: it's certainly not achieved by just chucking it out, letting the current fix the wiggly bits and hoping for the best.  We have to engage our brain, look at what's happening and take an active part in making the fly do what we want.  If we don't an alarmingly high proportion  - at least half - of our cast may be completely wasted.  Let me put that in context and grab your attention: you wouldn't be happy if the price of your day's fishing doubled; a 50% cast wastage rate has exactly the same economic effect.

To control the fly's behaviour we need a direct connection between it and us, which requires tension, however light, all the way from our hand, through the rod, line and leader to the fly.  If there's slack in the system things start to go wrong.  First, in the absence of the force provided by the line tension, the fly stops wiggling and in the worst case just hangs inertly with its head pointing skywards.  It has become just another piece of debris in the water for the salmon to disregard.  Second, the fly's direction of travel changes from the optimum (or stops altogether).  And third, you may start catching rock salmon, especially if you are using a heavy fly that will sink even faster when the leader's slack.

You will recall this cast profile from Sin 4.  In its final stage the tip of the line descends almost vertically onto the water.  As a result the leader and fly are not laid out straight.  There will be all manner of loops and curves adding up to as much as 6-8' of slack.  In addition, because the line is not fully extended there will be several more feet of slack.

Let's now put this onto a river with uniform flow across its width and an 80' cast made at 45 degrees.  I've exaggerated the start state (1) representing 10' of slack.  Owing to its greater cross section the line responds more directly to the current: remember that a slack leader always lags.  By (2) the tip of the line has moved 10' laterally and thus taken up most of the slack.  However, at this stage the leader and fly lag leaves the fly pointing downstream at about 45 degrees.  It's only at (3) after half of the swing that the fly is fully effective.

Bearing in mind that our casting is unlikely to improve overnight, how do we minimise the wasted part?
    • However much it grieves you to reduce the length of your cast, stripping in most of the slack as soon as possible is the right thing to do.  This straightens the leader and establishes the direct link between you and the fly.  It's a simple choice between losing just 5-10% of your swing or a full 50%.  It's far better to have the fly fishing effectively at a shorter range over a wider arc for a longer time than to preserve your vanity.
    • You will see the picture showed the angler keeping the rod pointing straight across the river.  Next time you're fishing, conduct an experiment.  Cast at 45 degrees then follow the swing downstream with your rod tip.  You will feel little if any tension and it will take correspondingly longer for the slack to sort itself out.  Next cast and hold at 45 degrees; and finally cast then move the rod out to 90 degrees.  You will note a progressive increase in tension between the 2 positions; and that the upstream motion of the rod to 90 degrees also takes out a useful 4-5' of slack, which makes your fly almost fully effective at (2).  The experiment tells you several other useful things: first, by traversing the rod downstream you can reduce the fly's speed and motion, which may be appropriate for smaller flies and in fast water; and second, doing the opposite by holding at 90 degrees will accelerate a larger fly and decrease its depth.
    • As you complete your cast note where the fly falls onto the water relative to the end of the line.  This will help you to work out how much corrective action - strip and counter-swing - you need to apply.  In particular note whether the fly is up or down-stream, because in general down requires less corrective action than up.
    • Whatever else you do, please don't forget the fly because it won't sort itself out without your intervention.  Always watch the far end, work out what the fly is doing and take whatever action is necessary to optimise its presentation - stripping, moving the rod, applying mends up or downstream, or consciously doing nothing.  The last 1-2' of a floating line will often indicate the direction of the leader, but this is not always reliable.  If you can't see, try to visualise what's happening: we all get better at this with experience, and dumbly doing nothing is the worst option.

    There's another good reason to have a nice firm connection between you and the fly: a salmon might just take and you will have a better chance of knowing about it.  It's remarkable how little you can feel of the salmon actually taking the fly into its mouth.  The picture of a fish taking a fly is from the well-known Icelandic underwater film that shows several takes.  Despite the angler using a light single handed rod he felt little or nothing until the salmon turned away, even though the fish were quite aggressive.  In sum, you need all the help you can get and slack is a handicap you don't need.

    If you do nothing and allow your brain to slip into neutral, then when something happens you will be mightily surprised, which is the basis of the 6th Sin.  If this hot dry spell continues I might yet surprise you with the speed of its production, provided I stay out of the garden.


      Saturday 6 July 2013

      Afternoon Delight - An Alternative Approach to Low Water

      I wouldn't want you to think that I was all serious science and no fun: indeed I was young once, but the less said of my sins the better.  Anyway there's half I can't remember and the other half I'm incapable of repeating.

      One of the great pleasures of our regular week at Tomatin is the broad mixture of old and young rods and families.  This makes for a lot of fun, especially if the fishing is rather slow.  For the young it offers the opportunity for some noisy partying, which is banished to the kitchen at the far end of the house in order to protect the oldies' sleep. 

      In 2009 we arrived to find the river at zero low, where it had been for the previous 8 weeks.  The salmon were all stuck below the falls in the lower river unable to run upstream.  There were almost none in the Tomatin water.  We caught the odd fish by sheer fluke: I confess to a completely blank sheet for the week despite my usual early morning hyper activity.  After a few days realism and despair set in.  We slipped into easy torpor -  a bit of fishing to take in the hoped-for mid-morning peak, a little tennis, golf or tourism and a leisurely lunch in the unaccustomed sunshine - which suited the oldies very nicely.

      The young thought otherwise and chose to distract themselves by making a YouTube film.  It's based on the song 'Afternoon Delight' that featured in the cult movie 'Anchorman', and represents their view of an alternative approach to low water.

      Tuesday 2 July 2013

      Calm Reflections - Fishing in Low Water

      Lower Garden Pool, Amat, River Carron
      It's very pretty and certainly makes a nice photograph, but it's amongst the salmon fisher's worst nightmares.  You're in a companionable party for several days' fishing on a new river; your anticipation is at fever pitch during the 425 mile drive; and then...... 

      View from Amat Bothy the charming June light of the Sunday evening you arrive at the bothy to be greeted by this picturesque but unwelcome view.  Enjoying a very strong and less long drink whilst overlooking the scene you start to ponder your response to the conditions. 

      The first step is to re-calibrate your hopes and expectations.  There's no way you're going to catch a lot of fish: one would be generous indeed.  In the dry years of 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2009 I caught but three in total, so was in no doubt as to my limitations in difficult conditions.  But there's no point beating yourself up and being miserable in such a beautiful place.  There's more to salmon fishing than quantity.  You're here with friends and it's far better than work.  Nor is there any point in pining for what might be.  You just have to accept nature's course and get on with it as best you can.  The blessing on the Carron in 2011 was the moderate temperature of air and water: it's a long way north - on a level with Oslo - quite high and even in early June there was a distinct chill in the early mornings, so the fish were not boiled into torpidity (as they were on the Findhorn in 02,03 & 05).  In the salmon fishing business any fuel for optimism, however ill-placed, is always a welcome motivating factor.

      The next factor to consider was timing.  My experience and data gathered on the Findhorn each September for the previous decade showed that there were well defined peaks of activity and hence taking chances in the early and mid-morning, and a smaller one in the afternoon ('Good Morning Ladies' gives a full explanation).  But this was June in the far north and the sun barely went below the horizon - you could read Trout and Salmon at 11 pm whilst sipping a malt and enjoying the view over the home pool.  The only way to find out was to spend most of the day on the river to find out, albeit taking a chance on a leisurely lunch.  The one constraint on my energy was the local rule of no fishing before 7 am, so I would spend the first hour after rising taking photographs.....whilst watching the water like a hawk.

      The first morning I took up station at the top of my allocated beat and watched the pool before me.  The water was low and slow apart from a little tumble at the neck, which was too shallow for fish to run out.  These were small fly and light leader conditions.  About 3 minutes before 7 a nice fish showed in a slow porpoise just off the point in the middle of the shot.  As I moved round and up to the head of the pool it (or another similar) showed again, about 10 metres further up.

      Amat 1
      Speculating that in the absence of a Starbucks this fish was looking for its morning oxygen boost, I cast no more than 6-8 yards and then did a series of small mends to keep the fly working to and fro in the back edge of the aerated flow.  At 0702 this pleasingly fresh hen of about 9 lbs obliged by taking a #12 Blue Charm.  On a 12' #7 grilse rod she provided good exercise for both of us before driving downstream into the net at speed.  Normally I'd do the unhooking in water, but the small fly was lodged sideways in the back of her tongue requiring careful forceps work. Over the next 20 minutes I watched 2 more fish show the same pattern of behaviour, but caught neither.  Frankly, I was so pleased and relieved, I didn't mind.  Breakfast has rarely tasted better.

      The next fish I saw was caught by Patrick in the Long Pool at 1050 - a nice fresh 11 lbs hen that fell to conventional swing tactics and a small Red Frances - which proved to be the last of the day.  Nonetheless the day had made for a happy evening.

      A frustrated 20 pounder
      The next day was ultra-bright and clear and the water continued to fall.  Again fish showed until 7 and around 11 am, but we failed to connect.  By the third day, my last, it was even lower, brighter and clearer.  My morning allocation was up in the Gorge - not easy water to fish well, especially if you want to get the fly down, owing to the very short range.  I certainly failed, but around 11 I was teased by a variety of large fish having a surge of activity, and giving me the two fins gesture.

      That afternoon my allocation was further downstream: mostly shallow and quite heavily treed.  Around 3 pm I saw a fish move: it barely broke the surface before moving back into the shade of an overhanging tree on the far bank.  Careful fieldcraft and a closer peer through the bracken found 2 fish lying close together near the bottom in no more than 3' of water, up against the tree's roots.  The nearer fish was a respectable 8-10 pounder; the far one, half as long again, was probably 20 lbs.  This was an irresistible challenge, but one that would demand stealth, care, novel casting, trout tactics and monstrous good luck.  If I hooked the overhanging branch they'd be gone.  The best angle for the casting was almost square across the gentle flow, but this would reduce the range to about 15-16 yards and hence the weight of line available to form the loop and deliver the turnover.  The dense bracken on the near bank ruled out overhead casting: I would have to get into the water, reducing the range still further.  I would also have to cut the length of the leader from my fair weather norm of about 15' to around 8-9' to keep the fly as low as possible.  With a #16 Blue Charm it had to be 12 lbs fluorocarbon to achieve the presentation, but a serious risk if the larger fish obliged.  It took me nearly 10 minutes to get into the water and complete the excruciatingly slow stalk into position: at my age moving so slowly is something I usually avoid, let alone crouching fit to ring bells.  A couple of experimental casts upstream of the targets confirmed the technique and shape required: present above, drift down, then slow swing and strip at nymph speed, about 2"/sec.

      On the 8th cast the smaller fish moved up towards the fly, then sank back.  On the 14th the larger came up and followed it over the top of the other for about 3-4' and then returned.  I had to stop for a break to steady my hands: kneeling on the gravel in shallow water was not comfortable but better than the Quasimodo crouch.  Back to work:  between presentations 15-25 the salmon showed not the least interest, but nor had they spooked, despite some duffs casts.  At 26 the smaller moved again, and the larger at 27.  This was both nerve wracking and fascinating to be able to watch salmon behaviour at point blank range in crystal clear water.  One of my fellow rods stayed awhile to spectate and tease before moving on to tea.

      Amat 2
      On the 31st presentation the large fish rose towards the fly and started to turn, when the smaller turned inside her, sipped the fly in and on turning back to his left, hooked himself firmly into the grisle on the inside of the right hand scissors (another forceps job requiring spectacles).  We then had an interesting tussle in a confined space involving tree roots, the other fish and some amphibious action over a gravel bar into the water above.  Through all the splashing, crashing and bashing, the large fish remained wholly unmoved.  To avoid disturbing her (silly greedy and presumptuous man) I released her 8 lbs companion into the water above.

      The whole operation had taken over an hour from first sighting to release.  My knees and back had solidified.  I went back to the task: somewhere around the 50th presentation the large fish gently drifted back 8-10' into the deeply shaded shelter and disappeared from view.  It was time to stop and make my way back for something stronger than tea.  Although I had not caught what at that time would have been the fish of my life, I'd been outrageously lucky and privileged to catch a respectable fish. 

      The big lessons on low clear water I took away were stealth, patience and persistence: I commend them to you.  If you stay out of the line of sight and don't make noise, salmon can be remarkably stolid.  And in this week at least, there was a discernible pattern in fish activity (on one day in June 2012 all 3 of us caught fish almost simultaneously at 1055 am in 3 different pools separated by 1/4 mile).  There are of course lots of other flies and tactics you can apply: Bombers fished dry on the surface; riffle hitched plastic tubes; and high speed Sunrays.  There's nothing to say that any or all of those might, or might not, have been a better choice that week.  I can only describe what I chose to do at the time and which seemed to work reasonably well, but you'll have your own views and preferences.

      Of course, you wouldn't expect me to tramp 1/2 mile back to the bothy on the last evening of the holiday without waving my rod on the odd pool along the way.  Not least it would pass the time to get the sun in the right elevation for a drink.  Four pools done, then through the undergrowth and over the round stones to the Curve.  It's a bit like fishing in a bottle: a long narrow neck and dark green all round with trees.  I was tired and not concentrating, allowing the rod to follow the fly round to ease the next cast of the sparse Thunder & Lightning #10.  Bang!  A good cock fish caught me with my mental trousers around my ankles, brain in neutral and the rod pointing straight at him with a classic dangle hooking at the very front of his jaw.  it didn't last long: you can't expect to be lucky all the time, and I'd used a year's worth that afternoon.  You need to know when to stop, but we fishermen never do.

      But at its end I'd committed the 6th novice sin - Being Surprised - I'll write about that another time.