Wednesday 7 August 2013

Seven Deadly Sins - Common Novice Error 7

We've reached the end of our penitential journey.  For those readers who have stayed the course over the past 2 months, I commend your patience and thank you for your loyalty.  I'm especially grateful for all the helpful and encouraging comments you made along the way.

Although this series has been all about sin, it's not a sermon delivered from a lofty pulpit of personal rectitude.  Along the winding path of my own learning journey I've committed all of them all too often.  Indeed, I still do, so I can't be judgemental - we're all human.  But in the early days, when your head is full of thoughts jumbled by the need to remember so much, a few simple inexpert things are more useful than a torrent of detailed expert advice.

The final sin is burnt into the very heart of this blog.  Although I may express my views clearly and firmly, I never claim that mine is the only way, still less the only right way.  My purpose is not to tell you what to do, but rather to stimulate you to think about what you are doing, why and how.  Dogma and salmon fishing are wholly incompatible, because every day, every river, every pool, every run, every lie and every fish are different, and the relationships between them change by the minute.  It's all about applying our minds to the mystery of salmon, knowing that we shall never fully understand, which makes this sport so uniquely rewarding.

The Ultimate Sin - Not Thinking

We may be a little daft, but none of us are stupid.  If we were we would not have earned enough money to go salmon fishing.  We all have the potential to become good salmon anglers because we have the necessary capacity to reason, act accordingly and convert our experience into knowledge.  The physical elements of fishing - especially the casting that so preoccupies us - will come with instruction and intelligent practise.  But it is the quality of our thinking that will determine the speed of our development from novice to angler.

The Initial Maelstrom

I remember the first time I arrived on the Findhorn at Tomatin in 2002, clutching an old 2-handed rod inherited from my late father, without the first clue of what to do.  Preparation?  Absolutely nil: I hadn't even bought Hugh Falkus' book at this stage.  Spey casting?  You jest: the wonderful Michael Evans casting DVD appeared in my stocking the following Christmas.  Fly selection?  A roast chicken would have been a better choice than my stabs in the dark.  My head was both whirling and completely empty.  Any ideas that emerged were no more than wild guesses.  I was an experienced but foolish trout fisherman who had blithely assumed that he could convert from one discipline to the other by serendipity on the basis that the salmon was just a very big sort of sea trout.

My experienced and ever-helpful host humoured my silliness and did his best.  Other experts tried but only served to increase my confusion in a welter of jargon.  The harder I tried, the worse it got, with the complete absence of water accelerating my decline.  What I really needed was a simple minimum list of mental anchors as a starting point for thought.  And of course a stern "Calm Down Dear" from either the late Michael Winner or the Prime Minister.

Now perhaps you may understand why some experts view Just One Week as awfully simplistic: it reflects what I required when I started.  Walking to the Water is the anchor-set I craved then, and I still use it today.

The Early Experience Trap - 'The Favourite Fly Syndrome'

Finally, in my third week at Tomatin in 2005, I caught my first Scottish salmon.  Small, stale and nearly black maybe, but it was so welcome I could have kissed it.  Then I got another, which was even darker and truly ugly, but a salmon for all that.  At last I'd found something that worked - a small black Stoat's Tail - which in view of the desperate relief involved, caused short term experience to trump thought completely.  That was a sin, because every year is unique: the Magic Stoat didn't work in 2006.

River Findhorn - weekly average height (L) & daily variation (R)
Shenachie gauge, data courtesy of SEPA Dingwall office
To make the point, this graph shows the year to year variations of water level and its rate of change each day over my first 10 years at Tomatin.  The drought years of 2002, 3, 5 & 9 are clearly visible.  The best fishing years of 2004, 7 & 11 are circled in yellow (I missed 2004 celebrating our silver wedding elsewhere).  It shows why the Magic Stoat didn't work in 2006. 

Indeed, this graph has marvellous powers of hindsight.

  • In 2006 medium-sized Ally Shrimps caught fish, including my first forays into double figure weights.
  • But bigger Shrimps and Cascades worked better in the slightly higher water of 2007, which brought me 7 fish in the week.  The rods who stuck to their established favourites did less well.
  • 2008 was almost identical to 2006, but there were precious few fish in the river.
  • In 2010 I was caught flat-footed by the water conditions.  My limited experience had not included high strong water.  There were plenty of fish, but only one rod was catching.  My standard approach of a bigger Shrimp or Cascade just didn't work, because I wasn't deep enough.  I'd caught a couple of fish, but I knew I should have done better in such good conditions. 
    Subsequent reflection on the relationship between fly size and water level shown in the graphic led me to develop the 'Thinking Toolkit'.  In turn I expanded my armoury to include tubes and sink tips to cover all water heights; and bought a Skagit line to throw the heaviest tackle into the wind.  I was learning and above all, learning how to think systematically.
  • In 2011 the water was at the same ideal height, but as you can see from the lower deviation, the level was much more consistent.  This was pure tube conditions for all but one day: otherwise the decision was on the speed of sink tip required.  The rods who stuck grimly to floating lines, plain leaders and conventional flies caught few fish (the lesson of 2007 repeating itself).  During 2011, on a variety of rivers, I caught salmon on every type of fly in my boxes from a tiny #16 Blue Charm to a 1.5" copper tube Cascade.
  • 2012 - not shown on the graph - saw the water at perfect height but freezing cold, another variable that called for different flies and approaches.
The conclusion here is that your experience should inform and guide your thinking, but not dictate it.  By all means have a favourite fly for a given set of conditions, but be prepared to wait a long time for them to repeat!

Latter Days - Hubris and Nemesis


Twelve years on and I've gained confidence and even more equipment.  I catch my fair share of fish.  Some people even seek my advice.  But the truth is that the salmon generally win in the contest of chance between man and fish.  No matter how much I think, it's still a fluke when it happens.

There are still moments when I fail to think.  Either because I'm thinking of something else (I'm sure the two weddings last year caused me to catch fewer salmon than in previous seasons, but the joy and delight of both occasions exceeded a lifetime of fishing) or on account of my age the brain kicked into neutral.  Then I wake with a jolt to realise that I've just wasted a premium stretch of water fishing the wrong fly the wrong way.  I can never have the time and the water again: both have flowed relentlessly away.

And sometimes I think that I think too much - my wife and friends would all agree on that.  It may be a fluke, but I convince myself that with a little more thought I can tilt the odds a fraction more my way.  For me at least I find the thinking adds greatly to my enjoyment whilst stretching it out into the close season.  Many people will rightly consider my crunching SEPA's data sets with Excel macros as exceptionally sad, pitiable behaviour.  But for me, each coincidence of water and time on the screen brings back a stream of happy memories to be added to all the others.

The biggest risk is nemesis.  If you write a blog to get people to think more about their salmon fishing, then the Greek gods will surely revenge my human presumption by causing my catch to return to 2002 levels, without the pleasures of being ravished by Diana on the river bank or skewered by Neptune's trident whilst wading.  But on the other hand, pushing your luck isn't a sin hereabouts, so whatever else you do, please think!


If you've loyally followed this series and you consider that by virtue of committing all 7 Deadly Sins you merit either execution (painless, instant and sub-contracted to the Inquisition) or the prize of a day's fishing with me on the Ure in Yorkshire (long and painful), please contact me via the Comment tag or the e-mail address at the top of the page.

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