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
....in 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.


  1. Another great post, thank you. Falkus wrote (I paraphrase) 'You can never overfish a lie; I watched my wife give up on fishing as the water was too low, and practise her casting. After about 100 casts over the same spot, suddenly a fish took her fly.'

    Now, I'd always wondered whether that might be because a fish moved into an otherwise empty lie. This is a fascinating proof that it is in fact a bored/irritated/whatever fish that has been there the whole time. I love your suggestion in a previous entry that fish haven't developed the instinctive fear of a line - unlike of bears.

    I'm amazed at your ability to tell the difference between a hen and a cock; particularly when it's a splashing thing on the end of your line. Tell us more (yes, I have looked at the 'net, and it's far from easy to tell the difference...)

  2. A great post; it has given me confidence to keep fishing when I am sure something is there. Interesting how fish will completely ignore a hooked fish fighting for its life; I have hooked fished myself immediately after the first.