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.

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