Tuesday 19 November 2013

Looking Back - 2013 Season

I apologise for the delay in finishing this post.  Work's got in the way (I'm currently in Abu Dhabi), although my wife will suggest that it's the combination of pheasants, visiting Doris the geriatric neighbour in hospital and just a little professional effort.

In retrospect it would be easy to write 2013 off as a very bad season and look ahead to 2014 with the usual optimism that keeps salmon fishermen going.  However, it's not in my nature to allow another year of my lengthy life to pass without hunting for some lessons that might help in the years to come.  Of course, in salmon fishing every season, day, hour, minute and fish is unique, so you have to be very careful not to over-extend.  Descartes is the father of our reasoning methods, but he didn't work underwater and as far as history relates, he wasn't a fisherman either.  This is important with fish, because you can reason all you like, but you just don't know whether your conclusions are correct.  On the other hand the perversity of salmon makes it very difficult to disprove anything, positive or negative.  This suggests Hegel's approach, which appears popular amongst fishermen: start with a hypothesis (choice of fly); subject it to analysis (cast and see what happens); and arrive at synthesis (it didn't work).  However, you can't be sure, because the conclusion might be right, but the salmon generally decline to participate in its proof, because fish, like humans, find Hegel's dialectic process complicated and boring.  The lesson here is simple: don't intellectualise nature.

For that reason I tend to avoid hypotheses for which a series of coincidences or outrageous luck might be the only foundation; and prefer those based on observation or experience.  Of course, even those may be flawed: a recent philosopher, rather fond of recreational substances and blondes, described life as a series of cock-ups connected by coincidence and sex.  The only certain fact is that having followed a different evolutionary branch of existence, salmon don't think like us, so anything I say is likely to be 50% wrong.  The challenge facing you is working out which half of what I write is complete rubbish, even if the fish won't help you to prove it (they're on my side).

Cold Comfort

In early March a generous trout-fishing friend very kindly treated me to a day on the Tweed at Rutherford near Kelso.  This is an exceptionally attractive beat of a breadth that makes my 14' rod a viable option.  I knew the weather would be bleak, so took all my specialist clothing and stayed overnight with friends near Corbridge to break the journey.  Early the next morning the car thermometer read -3C, there was a light dusting of snow and more was coming.  By the time I reached Otterburn there was 6-8 cm lying and I had seen only one car.  Getting to the top of Carter Bar was the easy bit: the descent to Jedburgh on standard tyres was something else.  When I reached Rutherford at the appointed hour the temperature had risen to zero and there were light flurries of sleety snow on the brisk easterly wind.  The river was low and clear but infused with a slight cloudiness (Michael the ghillie ascribed this to road salt run-off: I'll return to that theory in a later post).  Sadly we caught nothing and just before lunch I slipped on a smooth flat rock and fell in about mid-thigh depth water.  In the event very little water entered my waders and I remained warm enough to fish out the day for reasons described below.  So what did I learn from this bleak blank day?

  • Modern multi-layer synthetic under-wader clothing is massively superior to its conventional predecessors.  It continues to retain warmth even when wet, so don't wear cotton under your waders.
  • Its hydrophobic coating caused the small amount of water that actually got into my waders to run down to my feet, limiting the arctic changing operation to socks alone.  I only had to change them because they were cotton QED.
  • The kit I use isn't cheap but it's extremely comfortable in normal fishing and worth its weight in gold in extreme conditions.  Ask Mrs Christmas to develop a relationship with Mr Norris.
  • Keep your wader belt and jacket cuffs firmly done up and very little water gets in.  Better still, the buoyant air stays inside.
  • You're most likely to fall over in a seemingly easy bit as a result of not concentrating. Focus; always use a stick; and re-stud your wader boots in the close season.
  • If you want to fish and use your fingers for everything short of tying complex knots in such extreme conditions, get some thin, skin-fit neoprene gloves.  My normal Snowbee fingerless neoprenes, excellent down to 5C and great value, were well short of the thermal requirement, so I bought a pair of Patagonias.  I haven't tried the Simms specialist gloves, but £50 does cause a certain hesitation In Yorkshire.
  • Red wine can be warmed in a microwave and is better than the alternative.
  • My Fluorocarbon tippet purchased the previous September failed Michael's shock-snap test (a Tweed ghillie party trick): always start anew even if it means throwing away £5 worth twice a year.

Early Promise

Frodle Dub in sparkling sunshine
16th April 2013
Although the spring was exceptionally chilly (the coldest March since the big freeze of 1962-3, when I took my sledge out on Boxing Day and used it daily until 28th March), the portents were good.  We had plenty of water and salmon started running the Ure in numbers in April, certainly as far as Ripon.  The Ure Salmon Trust's imaging fish counter recorded more than a dozen exceeding 1.2m in length, which equates to about 35lbs/16Kg.  Filled with enthusiasm and optimism I had my first day on the 16th in near perfect conditions, missing a strong fish mid-morning.

Skagit - pretty, no; indispensable, yes.
The problem was the gale straight down the water.  Getting the line out wasn't the problem: getting it back to re-cast was, as you couldn't move the rod against the wind.  Then, during the return swing to form the D-loop, the loop blew straight downstream, rendering the forward stroke ineffective.  This is when a Skagit line comes into its own, combined with an ad hoc cast.  This comprised half of a left handed Snake Roll, which laid the line onto the water at about 45 degrees ahead; a low slow draw to form the D-loop; and up into to the vertical plane for the forward tap.

 In the event I faced identical conditions on my next outing on 13th May.  So what did I draw from the experience?

  • You have to be prepared to work in whatever conditions you encounter and adapt your technique and expectations accordingly.  In a strong wind you won't cover the whole water, so don't even try.
  • You can only do ad hoc casts if you're well grounded in the basics, so take casting lessons.
  • Develop the ability to cast with either hand off both shoulders.
  • Even a good spring run is unlikely to amount to more than 10% of the river's annual total, so it's not like fishing in September.  Resign yourself to long, cold days and don't get down if you catch nothing.

The Long Dry Summer

Yorkshire went dry from mid-May to October.  The Findhorn followed suit after a brief lift in early June.  Everywhere the spring fish settled down, switched off and became ever more comatose as the water temperature went up and its oxygen content down.  In the next 4 months I went up to the Ure just once (to do the evaluation of the Loop Cross 14').  Although there were fish in the river only an hour away from the office, I just couldn't bring myself to bother them.  It's a different matter if you've got a beat booked on a nice river and feel duty bound to try, although it was so bad this year that I heard of one person abandoning his week on the Middle Findhorn on the Wednesday.  

Heat-stressed stale fish
that wouldn't go away
Tomatin September 2005
I've posted before on fishing in low water (Reflections) but a prolonged drought is something else.  We've had several drought years in our time at Tomatin - 2002, 2003 (when the water temperatures were off the scale), 2005 & 2009 - in which catching poor brown fish was as unfortunate as it was dispiriting.  The memorable years in Yorkshire were 1976 (when the rain stopped in March), 1995 (when it was so hot I even tried swimming in the North Sea), and of course 2003.  In those conditions I have reservations about fishing, because there is a serious risk that the fish will not go away after the fight, like the one to the left.  I should have left it alone and not cast to it.

The Short Autumn

The rain came on Sunday 15th September as we went up to Tomatin, which meant that most of the little fishing I did this year was concentrated into just one month.  I recorded Tomatin in The Week, and the first two October days on the Ure in Autumn Glory.  I went back to Thoresby for another day on the 30th to make up for lost time and to close the season.  We arrived on the perfect water at 9.30 - remember, when our clocks go back, the salmon's don't - to experience a mad half hour.  My guest Simon took two good fish in Frodle Dub and I missed 3 takes in Flesh Dub downstream.  We thought we were in clover, until about 10.15 when it was like someone had turned a switch: the lights went out and the river went dead.  We didn't touch a fish in the next 6 hours, until Simon hooked and lost a very big fish just before we finished. It happens sometimes and seemingly there's nothing one can do beyond remaining philosophical when some other philosopher is pissing in the river upstream.

So what else did I learn this autumn?

  • When the sun is lower in the sky the sub-surface light level can change dramatically, from this.....

 to this.....in 2 minutes, so always keep an eye on the water and be prepared to change your fly and tactics quickly.

  • You need to get the fly down within the salmon's radius of action, but it will see a fly slightly above its sight line more readily in difficult light conditions.
  • If in doubt, fish smaller and slower.
  • Use a slow sink tip with smaller flies as the water clears and falls, especially if you have to get down through turbulence.
  • and finally, when you take your waders off for the last time of the season, check carefully for any signs of leaks, and note where the damp patches are located (for when you send them off for servicing in the spring.


Packing up for the winter

I'll close with a few broad winter pointers:

  • Clean and dry all rods and reels.  Do not put polish or anything else on the joints (they're precision machined to fit exactly).
  • Lightly lubricate reel spindles and slacken off the drag.
  • Ensure that reels are thoroughly dry internally (allow 3 days, somewhere other than the kitchen) before storing them in a warm, dry and dark place.
  • Wash your waders (and wading jacket) with Goretex re-proofer and hang up to dry inside out.  Do not use conventional detergent: it contains ultra-violet enhancers and reflectors to make your shirts look whiter that may make your legs visible for considerable distances underwater.
  • Store your waders in a mouse-free zone.
  • Throw away all tippet materials, even if unused (that hurts a Yorkshireman).
  • Check your fly boxes and cull any flies with bent or damaged hooks.
  • Download all the photos from your fishing camera and then back them up to a cloud application (e.g. Google+, MS SkyDrive).
  • Start your wish list for your stocking from Father Christmas - read my next post.

Make a note of the high points of your salmon fishing year, and give thanks for the glories of the beautiful places in which we are privileged to pursue this wonderful fish.

Smile, next year should be better.  Note that I don't use 'must', which would be tempting fate.