Tuesday 24 September 2013

The Week

Sunday - Journey in hope, arrive in joy

The rain started shortly after we turned off the A1 onto the A66.  By the time we had topped the watershed and were heading through Cumbria it was coming horizontally on a south-westerly gale.  As we crossed the border into Scotland it became a proper downpour, which prompted my wife to ask, when she briefly awoke from her slumber in the passenger seat, "Now are you happy?".   Well, I was happier, but far from confident, because on several occasions we've driven through downpours in the Lowlands only to be held up by herds of camels on the A9 in the desert north of Perth.  However, I allowed my spirits a tiny fillip when the wipers came on after Perth, and a small uplift when we crossed the Slochd Summit into the Findhorn catchment through dense rain clouds.  We turned off the A9 and into the Tomatin House drive with bated breath: might there be some water?  It's a very long driveway and you don't get to see the river until the last 50 metres, so the anticipation, hope and fear built to a crescendo.

Sunday afternoon - the view from the drive
Oh, what joy!  There was water and plenty of it.  Park and unload the car; heft the suitcases upstairs; greet the other members of the party as they arrived; feed the dog; then put on the wellies and wander up the bank to Colonel's Pool to look at the gauge (along with everyone else - not all obsession is lonely).  Plus 3 feet and rising: alleluia!  Of course it wouldn't be in my Yorkshire nature to break into unrestrained delight: the rain had been intense but brief and there was no more forecast until Thursday, which meant that the level would fall off rapidly.  As this was the first proper freshet since mid-June, would the water stay up long enough to draw fish up from the estuary and allow them to run up to Tomatin?  Would the coldness of the water delay the run as it did in 2012?  No one had answers to those questions, but they gave us plenty to talk about over supper and the high spirits were almost tangible that evening.

Monday - Cold hard work

Dalnahoyn upstream - Monday morning
This was my view of Dalnahoyn Pool at sunrise the next morning.  The water was a bitter 43F/6C and the air a degree or so cooler, with a sharp 20 mph wind blowing straight downstream.  The river was brown but clearing and eminently fishable.  On the MCX scoring system it rated a full 12 points, which called for the DDC line, a 10' fast sink tip and a 1 1/2" Cascade Conehead.  Wading would have to be cautious for safety, and brief and shallow to avoid the hypothermia risk I had encountered in 2012.

Dalnahoyn downstream - Monday morning
My expectations weren't high.  Simple distance from the sea meant that there wouldn't be any new fish in the river until Wednesday at the earliest.  The residents from May and June were few and probably widely dispersed.  At least I had the consoling thoughts that I wouldn't have to confront a head wind until the afternoon change-over from upper to lower beats; and 90 minutes of Double Spey and cold wading followed by the bracing march back to the house in waders would treble the pleasure of a full breakfast. 

The rest of the morning on the upper beat followed the same pattern, with only one rather weak grilse take to keep me on the ball.

Churan downstream - Monday afternoon
After lunch I was on Churan facing straight into a 25 mph wind with gusts up to 30 mph, as evidenced by the waves in the picture all running the wrong way - upstream.  You can also see how quickly the water has cleared despite still being up by 18+".  The challenges with casting weren't with getting the line out - the Loop S1 and DDC line combination has near armour piercing capability - but with moving the rod round into the wind to form the D-loop and then keeping the D behind you (rather than downwind).  To that end the firm water anchor of the Snap T was more controllable and reliable than the Single Spey.  The other problems were that with the lack of fishing this year I was far from casting fit, out of practice and under-confident, whilst a strong wind has the psychological effect of making you over-exert, despite telling yourself the truth that the more you relax the better it will fly.  After 3 1/2 hours and one grilse on the hook for 30 seconds, I'd had enough and succumbed to the lure of a hot bath and a strong drink.  But I was not downhearted: I hadn't expected anything different; there were some fish in the river; and tomorrow would be better.

Tuesday & Wednesday - the horns of a dilemma

After Monday's rapid fall the level steadied at about +8-10".  However, deciding on the right approach was tricky.  On one hand the water was crystal clear, suggesting small flies fished shallow, and on the other, still a distinctly chilly 45F/7C, suggesting larger, deeper and slower.  This awkward dilemma occurs frequently in spate rivers that clear quickly like the Findhorn.  The difficulty in resolving it one way or the other was that although fresh estuary fish started to appear on Wednesday morning, they weren't present in sufficient numbers to provide a reliable indication of what worked and why.

We also need to understand that water clarity depends on your point of view.  We'd all agree that this water is clear when viewed from directly above.  However, when we move out into the stream, go down 18" and look sideways to replicate the salmon's view, things are rather different.
This is the same pool in overcast conditions around 3 pm, looking horizontally.  The dark area is Window 1 (explanation of terms), with the reflective Window 2 occupying the top third of the frame.  The boundary with Window 3 is at the very top of the frame.  I've corrected the tone to suit the human eye, but the visible range in Window 1 doesn't change: even quite large rocks cannot be discerned clearly beyond 6'/2m.  The low light level of an overcast September day at a high latitude explains the lack of brightness and clarity of Window 2.  

It also suggests that the salmon will see your fly more easily over a larger area when the sun comes out from behind the clouds.  Here is almost the same view taken 4 minutes later with the sun out, but not hue corrected for the human eye.  The camera is looking slightly more upwards and you can see the bright clarity of Window 3 with foam floating on the surface.

Coybrough Croys downstream
There is of course another way when nothing else works - exploiting Murphy's Law to induce a take.  Here you see me wading down the Corybrough run with the rod tucked under my right arm arm; the camera in my left hand; and the wading stick in the left, about to negotiate the maximum current at the tip of the croy.  This was a sure-fire way of inducing a take - have a look at the rod top at exactly the moment I pressed the shutter!  Thankfully I had attached the camera to my wrist with a lanyard, but the fish only stayed on for 5-10 seconds.

Thursday and Friday - hope fulfilled

Salmon continued to run into the Tomatin water in increasing numbers over Wednesday night despite the level falling to around +8".  Whilst they will usually avoid shallow water in daylight, the security of darkness encourages them to progress, even through minimal runs.  Around 11 am we started to catch, with 4 fish before lunch.  The key was uncertain, but a number of possible factors coincided. The light level increased significantly; a small shower during the night put the level up by 2"; and the water temperature climbed towards 50F/10C.

HMCX - Churan Pool - Thursday
Here the youngest MCX sends a lightly tanned 11 pounder back on its way in time for lunch.  Its colour, strength and condition suggested that it had run directly from the estuary since Sunday.  It took a #10 Ally Shrimp fished slow and shallow in the mid-stream, top centre in the picture.

Purdy prepares to retrieve a fish
The taking resumed in the afternoon.  With help from the family labrador I fluked another nice light tan hen in the end of the fast water at the head of Garden Pool. Fresh and frisky, she laid on a pleasing aerobatic display.

By the end of Thursday we had 7 fish, including a 5 lbs sea trout, the largest taken at Tomatin in recent years.  The most successful rods had used small flies, mostly #10, in a mixture of patterns, with Silver Stoat and Ally Shrimp predominant.  The sea trout had fallen for a #12 Hairy Mary fished just below the surface on a long leader (a deliberate response to seeing it taking flies off the surface).

Friday followed a similar pattern up until lunch, with 4 fish landed.  The water and air temperature were creeping up steadily.   The water level was falling very slowly, but still allowed fish to run into and through the Tomatin beats.  However, around noon the river went completely dead.  No fish were showing, no takes, nothing.  This was a bit desperate because we still needed a cock fish for supper for 16 people: 10 of the 11 fish taken so far had gone back, and we weren't in the business of killing hens.  The one kept was a coloured 16 lbs cock with one entire gill plate missing, presumably ripped off by a seal, which was judged unlikely to survive to spawn.  The pressure was on and we were running out of time before we might face the degrading decision to send the wives to catch one in the Inverness Tesco.

Dalnahoyn upstream Friday noon
showing 2 primary short halt lies and running line
Up in Dalnahoyn Pool the head was deep enough for fish to run through in broad daylight, and it was obvious that they were doing so in numbers.  I needed to confine my efforts to the short halt areas and the run line into the neck in an attempt to ambush a passing cock fish.  There would be fish in the tail pausing after running up from Wade's below, but they would be dispersed over a wider area and required sustained bone-chilling wading to cover all the spots.

Over the past decade all the fish I've caught on this approach line have been cocks, which seem to display a greater propensity for snatching at flies whilst running than their sisters.  In 2012 one even took a weighted tube as it hit the surface.  This tactic required wading out towards the middle of the rapids, casting at a narrow angle and then mending the line to and fro.  A sinking polyleader and short tippet were essential to get the #10 Ally Shrimp down quickly and steady its movement in the turbulent water, otherwise it might churn randomly and be disregarded as debris.

Friday supper - 7.5 lbs
On the second circuit, just before 1pm, a respectable cock fish crashed into the fly on the run line beside the upstream short halt.  After an unusually aerobatic display and a good 6-7 minute fight I led him to a small gravel beach.  After checking his size and gender I despatched him without hesitation, even without the justification of the seal bite out of his rear underside visible in the picture.  He was very slim with about 10-15% body mass depreciation.

Saturday - A quiet finish

Coaching in ambush tactics
Dalnahoyn - Saturday afternoon
As I've previously noted this was almost certainly my last week at Tomatin, so after 12 visits the last day had a particular poignancy.  As a result I was keen to catch a memorial fish but failed.  In a final note of pathos I missed a take on my last cast of the day: I'm not clear as to the symbolic significance, but I handed the beat over to my son without further delay.

After a long day's fishing the other rods had added 3 more to the score to total 15 (13 salmon, 2 sea trout).

Tomatin 2013 - Reflections

Despite the challenging conditions, very cold water and the lack of fish on the first 3 days, we reached a bag close to our 10 year average.  Within that each rod, including me, finished somewhere near their personal average.  We'd been very lucky to get at least some rain and just enough water to start pulling fish up from the estuary.  In that respect we had fared better than several other east coast rivers - back at home the Ure still has no water whatsoever.

The dilemma posed by cold, clear water is not unusual and requires careful thought to resolve.  As a general rule, smaller and slower is best, but you have to be persistent if the density of fish is low.  It is not contradictory to use a sink tip with a small fly: it helps to get it down through turbulence and steady its movement.  I find that the 5' slow sinker is a useful compromise.  The trick is in choosing the right one and being ready to change it as you progress down the pool.

The honours were roughly equal between orange shrimps and black stoats.  We generally agreed that it didn't make a lot of difference: if you put it in the right place and the fish was minded to take, that was it.  Two of the 3 fish taken on Saturday fell to small Blue Charms: while you could speculate on clearer water, more sunlight and rising water temperature (52F/12.5C), there wasn't enough evidence to draw firm conclusions.  Indeed, there rarely is in this game.

Having recorded and plotted air and water temperatures, meteorological conditions, water level and relative clarity 3 times daily, only 2 potential trigger factors appeared to stand out.  First, the small hikes in water level shown in the graphic above; and second, sunny intervals that allowed fish to see flies over greater distances, hence bringing more of them into play.

The punishing wind that featured on the first 3 days, and occasionally reappeared on Friday and Saturday, underlined a critical point.  If you don't have a reasonable repertoire of 3-4 Spey casts capable of responding to any wind direction your are at a real disadvantage.  The better casters covered more water and more fish, and thereby caught more.  Three out of 4 in that category had previously undergone professional instruction.  QED: take lessons (in casting, not Latin).

As always it was great fun, beautifully organised and managed by John and Gilly in a wonderful location.  It's not just about fishing, it never has been.  It's the banter, company and transport into another world in beautiful surroundings shared with like-minded people that adds the magic to the fishing.

Friday 6 September 2013

D-7 - Divine Madness

The Vanishing Rain of Inverness

It's awful.  From this screenshot of the BBC website you will see that everything I predicted in the last post has happened exactly as forecast.  The rain has both postponed itself and reduced its intensity and duration.  If it does fall the parched earth will soak it up in an instant, leaving the Findhorn resolutely unmoved.  I can't even cling to false hope for the Week (starts on the 16th), because the barometric pressure is heading off the scale.  At 1020 millibars the 2 salmon at Tomatin will need to stick their heads out of the water to relieve the pressure, and I haven't got any flies that operate in mid-air.

It's getting worse.  The Fishpal Findhorn page reported the first 100% blank week in living memory, and this week's party at Drynachan reportedly abandoned on Wednesday.

Photo courtesy of the Daily Mail
And worse: the poor salmon are stuck outside the estuary waiting to run and every predator in the universe knows where to be each September.  Here's Danny the Bottle-Nose Dolphin having fun with a nice 16 pounder.  Of course there's no scientific proof that dolphins eat salmon.  It's probably only a coincidence that each April 260 of them take up residence in the Cromarty Firth off the estuaries of 10 major salmon rivers, where they remain until November.  If they do eat salmon, they need 2 good fish per day to meet their protein requirements.

Photo courtesy of Natural Scotland
Then there's Sammy the Grey Seal, but there's no proof that he eats salmon either. On the other hand, the largest grey seal colonies in the UK, which have grown by 20% in the past decade, are all coincidentally adjacent to the estuaries of the major salmon rivers.  It can only be a further coincidence that the arrival of Sammy's relatives in the Humber was contemporaneous with the return of salmon to the Ouse system.  If Sammy does eat salmon he needs about 15-20 pounds daily.

There's no proof in the UK, but the US fishery authorities are generally more robust.  Some years ago they decided to do something about the seal that had taken up residence at the bottom of a fish pass in a salmon river's estuary in Washington State and thus was heading towards gross obesity.  They couldn't shoot Sam as he had gained a degree of local celebrity, so they caught him, tagged him and transported him several hundred miles up the coast to a place thick with herring.  The fact that Fat Sam was back at the fish pass inside a week suggests that he preferred something there to herring. 

However, Danny and Fat Sam are both part of the natural system, so I shall await the arrival of Orca and Jaws the Great White to strike some balance.  But it's probably our fault to some degree.  We've cleared the North Sea of cod and haddock, the herrings are long gone, and the teeming masses of mackerel of my childhood are a distant and fading memory.  Not content with that we (well the Danes) simultaneously attacked the bottom end of the food chain, hoovering up the sand eels and sprats on which all the North Sea's fish depend, and especially salmon smolts in their outward migration, to make fertiliser, cow food and power station fuel.  How mad is that?  On that basis we can't blame Danny and Fat Sam if they've changed their menu, but I do wish they'd pick up the birth control habit and give the salmon fishermen a break from the effects of unremitting climate change.

You can tell from the rant that I haven't been on a river this week and so have nothing really interesting to say, but that's why I called this post Divine Madness.  On a saner note I list some tips for your preparation:

  • Don't forget to charge your camera battery and check the SD card.
  • Check the laces and studs of your wading boots: if laces are going to snap it will be on the Monday morning, so add them to your John Norris shopping list.  But buy them first because they're down at the wife's end of the shop.
  • Carry on making your list for flies, polyleaders (well there may be some water and you should ditch all those you used last year), leaders and tippet material.  I like Seaguar Fluorocarbon for its clarity, abrasion resistance and flexibility, but I know there's plenty of contrary opinion on fluorocarbon.
  • Add some knot glue to the list.  I use Loon Knot Sense but normal Super-Glue products work fine. Long ago I lost a huge trout when the knot failed.  I've glued knots since and haven't lost a fish to knot failure.  The salmon of my life straightened out both sides of a #8 double, but the knots didn't fail.
  • Have you got some Aquasure for emergency wader repairs?
  • Have you checked the weight of the gas bottle on your life preserver, and do you have a spare?
  • And remember there are lots of other things that you're responsible for packing into the car.  This may include all her boots, socks, wet weather kit, gilets, jackets, hats, gloves, which by their nature are viewed as being on your side of the business.

There's only one more post before departure, so keep the rain dance going and here's to tight lines.

Sunday 1 September 2013

D -14 The Countdown

Our annual trip to Tomatin is now just a fortnight away and the anticipation level is rising rapidly.  It's especially high this year because in the absence of fishing water I've only been out on the Ure once since May (to do the Loop Cross S1 and DDC evaluations); and poignantly, this may be our last year at Tomatin House.  'Just One Week' may have to be re-titled 'No Week Whatever', which will be very sad.  We've had lots of fun over the past 12 seasons, interspersed with all the effects of the total unpredictability of both weather and salmon.  We may go elsewhere next year, but at this stage we don't know when or where;  team leader John with Patrick in support has been doing a reconnaissance on the Deveron this week, but his Wednesday report recorded an even lower level of water than Yorkshire.

It is of course entirely typical and a manifestation of Murphy's Laws of Fishing Meteorology that one's anticipation and the river level move in exactly opposite directions.  The harder you wish for rain and the more often you consult the BBC forecast web-page, the less likely it becomes.  Over the years I've noticed a strange phenomenon - the Vanishing Rain of Inverness.  On Friday, when I started writing this post, the forecast said that there would be some rain from next Tuesday onwards.  However, based on 12 years' experience, I confidently forecast that by Saturday it would have slipped to Wednesday (it did), and when we reach Tuesday the rain symbols will have migrated to next Saturday.  It's always 4 or 5 days away, but it never actually appears.  How do millions of tons of spare water hanging in the sky just disappear?  Can evaporation happen twice, and if so, what does the water become then?

When I did geography at school nearly 60 years ago, the big lump of air over the eastern Atlantic in summer was called the Azores High for the simple reason that's where it was, most of the time.  When it wasn't, for example when the French blew it to pieces testing nuclear bombs in the Sahara in the late 50s, we had wet summers as well as amazing sunsets.  Now, for the past 12 years of salmon fishing it's spent most Septembers in the big gap between Ireland and Newfoundland, as far distant from the Azores as London.  If it gets any further north and west it will have to learn Danish in order to relate to the locals who will re-name it the Greenland High, something they've only previously achieved by eating fish fermented in buried barrels and washed down with Skidoo fuel additive.  I wrote that bit in the hope that the insulted Greenlanders will send it back where it belongs - venligst: vi vill vaere meget taknemmelige og sende dig mange billeder af laks.

In a vain attempt to console myself I also look at the Fort Augustus forecast covering the area to the west of the Monadhliath catchment that supplies the Findhorn, but that usually makes the condition worse.  "How can it be?" I rant to the dog, "that somewhere a mere handful of miles from Fort William, the wettest place on the planet this side of the Congo Basin, gets less summer rain than Hull, which has Manchester to draw the incoming fire?"  Or more correctly water, but you'll get my meaning, even if my wife doesn't.  This is the worst time of year for her, when I'm preoccupied and thus more than ordinarily deaf, domestically useless and snore more loudly.  In that respect I failed to give you this advice in Walking to the Water: you can't practice a Single Spey in your sleep lying on your side; only on your back can you freely swing both arms to form the D loop whilst minimising the divorce risks of the forward cast that unfailingly delivers a perfect V loop - if only.

When fully awake I can inflict serious domestic damage.  Checking and servicing reels must be done in the kitchen.  It's got big, hard, oil-proof work surfaces and bright overhead lighting. However, Murphy's Domestic Law dictates that your timing will be infallibly wrong, and the reel servicing will always coincide with an essential requirement for pastry rolling and activities involving lots of flour.  There are some serious risks here.  Vital parts of your reels, especially the legendary Vision Koma flying circlip, will end up in the bread and subsequently require at best embarrassing and difficult recovery, or at worst an expensive visit to the dentist. On the other hand, self-raising flour is a useless reel lubricant.

Wishing to avoid domestic discord I head outdoors to complete an essential part of the preparation ritual, servicing the lines.  This is best done on a dry, warm, bright sunny day, after you've cut the grass.  We've had plenty of those recently.  The 5 step process comprises:

  1. Unspooling and easing.  Good modern fly lines have a marked resistance to 'memory' or holding the shape of the spool.  All you have to do is unspool the line and lay it out on the grass in the sunshine to ease for about 15-20 minutes whilst you're setting up for the washing.  Don't pull or stretch the line to take out bends and minor kinks.  It will only spring back, so it's a complete waste of effort.  Let the warmth do your work.

  2. Washing.  Fill a bucket or spare washing-up bowl with lukewarm water and
    a small squirt of detergent.  Hotter is definitely not better.  A small flat sponge is easier than a cloth, but it must be clean.  Fold the sponge over the line, submerge in the water and then pull the line through with the other hand.  When you reach the backing, reverse the process.

  3. Drying.  Using an old towel remove the excess water from the line by pulling it first one way, then the other, before leaving it on the grass to dry for 10 minutes.

  4. Lubricating.  Fold a piece of porous kitchen paper to about playing card size.  Apply a
    blob of line lubricant about the size of a pea (I'm currently using Loon Line Speed, which seems to work well) at the mid-point and spread it by folding the paper over.  Pull the line to and fro through the folded paper, topping up the lubricant about half way through if the paper has dried out. Don't use too much: you'll only wind up taking it off as excess in the next stage, or throwing it away with the paper. Leave the line to dry for 10 minutes.

  5. Polishing.  Pull the line briskly to and fro through a clean, dry non-linting cloth to polish the surface.  Complete the action by winding the line back onto the reel through the cloth.
At every stage stay alert for any signs of damage to the line such as abrasion. Cracking was the bane of the early PVC lines, but my 13 year old Series 1 Windcutter currently remains crack free.  All PVC lines benefit from lubrication at least annually, or more frequently if you're doing a lot of fishing.  They last longer if you store your reels in a warm, dry and dark place.  In that respect an unheated garage is a bad solution - mine went as low as -20 for 2 weeks a few years ago, which played havoc with all sorts of plastic items.

The process of stripping the line off the reel will confirm the adequacy of last winter's pre-storage service.  If everything is running smoothly just remove the spool and have a look to ensure that there's no debris, muck or flour in the frame.  If it isn't, then it's back to the kitchen for a full strip and service: hoping everything will be OK is not a good maintenance regime.

The other useful activity to start at D-14 is the development of the honest shopping list of what you really need.  The Spice Girls' question ("tell me what you want, what you really, really want") is a real fun-killer but certainly protects one's wallet.  In common with most English anglers heading to Scotland, my route to Tomatin is via John Norris in Penrith.  If you enter his shop without a disciplined list you are vulnerable to fancy, temptation, poverty and worst of all, large numbers of flies that you will never use.  I suspect that over the years Mr Norris has done very well out of those human weaknesses, and his beautiful shop is carefully arranged to enhance their effects.  To minimise restraint he has cunningly placed everything that most interests my wife at the furthest point away from the fly selection. There is no line of sight through the displays.  When she inevitably arrives at the till area before me (unknown elsewhere), all the items in the vicinity are either low price or on deeply discounted special offers, which no doubt is intended to create the impression of universally modest economy. The truth is that Mr Norris, whose experienced staff always pack the densely opaque carrier bag with the lowest price items on the top, is in league with the angler - he wants you to survive to return next year!

One tip for the older angler based on my experience: don't buy flies on the basis of cloudy memory of what you think is in your boxes.  Go, look, count, write down the result and put the piece of paper into your wallet. Then at least you'll be able to find it, provided you haven't left your wallet at home along with your left wading boot and whatever else.  On that note I'll leave you to your dreams until D-7; or if you're there on a river already, tight lines and I hope the clocks stop for you whilst it rains.