Wednesday 17 December 2014

Speaking Salmon


Have you ever wondered how?

  • Batches of spate-tumbled smolts arriving in the estuary find each other to form a school? There are very few of them in relation to the volume of water, so relying on sight with an underwater range of no more than 10 metres is not a viable option.  Of course they will form schools, because that’s the most efficient way to hunt and survive attacks, and evolution has long since eliminated the inefficient and vulnerable solo artists among their antecedents.
  • Having got together they stay together reliably, day and night; near the surface and in the dark depths; all whilst manoeuvring at high speed in 3 dimensions?
  • Having reached the Greenland Basin, they find their lunch?  There’s lots of food about, but there’s much more ocean.  The odds of accidentally colliding with a bunch of capelin, prawns, sprats or baby squid are very poor.  Furthermore the young salmon would expend a great deal of precious energy and muscle protein in the search process: your magnificent 3SW fish would return as a scrawny 5 pounder, if at all.  Again, relying on eyesight alone doesn’t work: the probability of a salmon spotting a 100 metre square collection of prey fish on each transit through a 1 Km block of water is less than 1% (it doesn’t improve with repetition because both parties move).  And that’s in broad daylight.  The chance of getting Christmas dinner by visual collision in the prevailing northern latitude darkness falls to 0.01%, which is a recipe for starvation.
  • And along the way they avoid being eaten themselves?  The species has not survived as long as it has by being unnecessarily vulnerable or being taken by surprise.

So what's the trick?

Sound and vibration in water

The underwater sound environment is entirely different to that in which we live in air.  Accordingly, when thinking about the underwater world we have to dump our experience and preconceptions.  Simply, salmon don’t ‘hear’ like us, because they don’t have ears: they sense, using large arrays of receptors.  However, the one thing we have in common is background noise: the ocean is far from silent.

The key features of sound in water are that it:

  • Is about 800 times more intense than in air, because the water is incompressible and therefore a much more efficient transmitter.  In addition the surface layer reflects sound back into the water.
  • Travels far further than in air: relatively minor events are detectable at ranges measured in kilometres, but the level of background noise is relatively very high because it is drawn from a much wider area.
  • Goes about 4.4 times faster.
  • Is influenced by the composition of the water.  The ocean is not uniform and has layers with differing salinity/density, temperature and motion.  The trapping of sound within layers is a common phenomenon in salt water, whereas it’s rare in air and usually only encountered in conditions of extreme atmospheric inversion.
  • Becomes increasingly complex as distance extends, which presents processing challenges for the receptor.
  • Works best at lower frequencies (50-700 Hz) equating to wavelengths greater than 1.5 metres.

Some of the most detailed knowledge of sound in water exists in the closed world of defence anti-submarine warfare.  It began in World War I with simple hydrophones; expanded rapidly in World War II; and culminated in the height (or depth) of the Cold War with the imperative to detect, locate and track very quiet ballistic missile submarines.  Billions have been spent on the science and technology.  Much of what the advanced navies know is highly classified because their national survival might depend on this knowledge.  But we do know that underwater warfare specialists receive extensive training in the identification of naturally generated sounds and their differentiation from those originated by nuclear reactors, turbines, pumps, generators, shafts, propellers and bearings.  Schools of prawns (“a bit like Rice Crispies”), herring, mackerel (“sawing”), squid and shad (“ticking”) all contribute recognisably to the cacophony.  For the sailors it’s enough to know those are natural.  For the fish biologist the meaning of the sounds takes on special importance.  Over the past 20 years affordable computing power and increasingly sophisticated signal processing software have delivered a revolution in capture and analysis.  One of the leaders in this field is Dr Rodney Rountree, Adjunct Professor at the University of Massachusetts, who specifically researches inter-fish communication.  Some of what follows is drawn from his pioneering work and is hereby acknowledged.

Knock! Knock!  Who's there?  Haddock!

Why do fish need to communicate?

  • First, if their evolved survival strategy requires communal coordinated activity in schools, they need to be able to find each other and stay together thereafter.  It is axiomatic that the latter requires continuous signalling.  Research (1976 - Pitcher) has demonstrated the ability of fish to rejoin a school reliably and quickly even when blinded.
  • Second, they must be able to raise the general alarm if there’s a threat approaching in order to be able to trigger a whole-school evasive action.
  • Third, to inform their fellows of the detection and location of food.
  • Fourth, to attract a suitable mate.  It always helps a relationship to be on the same wavelength!

How do they do it?

For conventional ‘round’ fish (which includes salmon) the air in the swim bladder provides a useful ‘sounding’ mechanism: mouths, gill plates and tongues may also assist in both generation and modulation.  Crustacea, squids and invertebrates have different mechanisms and thus produce different tones and frequencies.  Some species of prawn can generate very loud sharp “snap” sounds by means of diaphragm and shell movement.

Picture by British Sea Fishing
Here is an example of possible talking haddock and what may be their routine schooling signal drawn from Dr Rountree’s work.  Click on the spectral diagram to listen to the recording of the knocking sound issued by haddock in the Gulf of Maine.  In the zoomed and filtered display the knocks are clearly visible as the orange peaks; and in the smaller display above you can see the frequency composition of a sample of knocks, noting the sharp rise and slower decline, and the distribution of intensity between frequencies.

If you look at the recording of mating haddock, you will note a different signal profile, and particularly its extended duration and frequency concentrations, which together are capable of conveying more detailed information. If this is indeed what Dr Rountree suggests, then the reasoning above indicates that haddock need a vocabulary of at least 4 distinct sounds. There are 3 in the ‘possible haddock’ category on Dr Rountree’s website.  I suspect that the “Attack!  Dive! Dive!” alarm is harder to capture.  Nevertheless, the data Dr Rountree has accumulated clearly shows the existence of fish chatter with distinct characteristics.

Hello Salar

Given the fact that the salmon is a round bodied schooling predator, then it is reasonable to infer that evolution may have given it the capacity to communicate in at least 3 of the 4 modes outlined above whilst it is at sea.  The need to communicate in fresh water is less clear cut and perhaps less pressing owing to closer proximity and the use of smell (a later post), but in the absence of any data we can’t rule it out.

Of course the ability to detect, process and interpret sounds is arguably even more important than transmission.  For a predator the capacity to detect, identify and locate prey species through their schooling signals is a critical capability.  Taking the example used at the start of this article of transit through a 1 Km block of water, if the salmon can detect prey signals at say 50 metres, then the probability of intercept rises almost 25-fold.  The probability increases with the square of the increase in detection range, so once it approaches 100 metres the success rate starts to look distinctly good for the salmon, provided that detection includes a respectable directional component.

We don’t know what the salmon’s detection range may be for any species, including its own mutual communications.  They’re too rare and widely distributed in the ocean to be a viable research target for Dr Rountree and others.  But we do know that nature has endowed the salmon with a remarkable sensor suite in the sound and vibration domains.  The two key areas are the hard upper surfaces of the head and the lateral line, which appears to be nature’s version of the towed array passive sonar (in addition to its other functions in motion and direction sensing etc).  By virtue of its length of the lateral line provides not only a large number of detectors, but also, a directional capability from the timing of the arrival of signals onto each detector.  The salmon needs both head and lateral sensors because they have different functions, which become clearer when you realise that the utility and efficacy of the lateral line is much reduced when the salmon is facing directly towards the target.  This leads to the reasonable supposition, supported by indicative research (2001 - Coombes, Braun, Donovan) that the lateral line is primarily for surveillance, detection and location; and the head for homing target acquisition in the final pursuit and attack phase up to the point at which the prey enters the field of view.  During their research, fish whose lateral lines were artificially stimulated turned directly to attack the frequency generator head on.

The importance of the lateral line is evidenced by the intense concentration of nerves and synapse channels, which you can see clearly amidst the motion sensing ‘hairs’ when taking a salmon apart.  The darker material along the flank gets progressively wider and deeper as it approaches the head, indicating the accumulating volume of material.  It’s especially clearly visible in a smoked fillet.  Put simply, in any fish, the bigger the dark area, the greater the sensor bandwidth (i.e the capacity to transfer data to the brain). The salmon is very well equipped in this department.

It’s also interesting to cut up other species to observe the scale and density of the lateral discolouration.  As an avid sea angler in my childhood, and being generally inquisitive (aka bothersome child), I dealt with a wide range of species.  What I observed was that generally slow moving, solitary and sedentary flat fish like flounder, turbot and plaice had relatively small lateral line nerve concentrations.  In contrast, the round-bodied, mobile, high speed schooling predators like bass and mackerel had especially large arrays.  Indeed, relative to its size, the mackerel’s lateral array was remarkable, a feature that is possibly determined by the nature of its prey.  Pollack, which tend not to cover large areas when hunting, were less well equipped.  

Looking across the field, the salmon is near the top end of the scale of lateral sensitivity, signal processing and employment, consistent with its long and comprehensive evolution as a voracious predator and agile survivor.  It clearly depends on sound and vibration for critical functions that are essential to its survival in the ocean.

So what?

So much, so interesting, but what is its relevance to the angler?
If certain frequencies can stimulate a salmon to attack oceanic prey, can we exploit this in fresh water?  In thinking about this it helps to grasp what 300 Hz sounds like in air : for comparison Middle C is 261 Hz.  It is certainly much higher than the dull thrum of commonplace line vibration in fast water, which is in the range 10-30 Hz.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, several companies, notably Vibro and Mepps, marketed spinners - vibrating spoons - that they claimed would stimulate takes by salmon.  As this preceded legislation on descriptions and advertising standards, they were not required to furnish the evidence to underpin their claims.  I’m not aware that either spoon was markedly better than the competition such as devons and tobies (some of Abu’s lures were also claimed to have frequency stimuli).  The difficulty I observe is how a spinner rotating at about 3-6 Hz (rpm) can generate consistent vibrations in the 1-500 Hz band that mean anything to fish. The lures do generate vibrations across a broad spectrum, but there's no way of knowing what the fish make of the noise.  Needless to say, the makers of bass lures in the USA make extraordinary claims for the stimulative properties of the frequencies generated by their lures.  You can even buy powered lures, complete with batteries, chip controllers and vibration chambers (“chatter-bait”).  I note, however, that their competitors remain in business, which suggests first that these lures don’t come with a performance guarantee.  It also shows that American bass anglers are even more fixated than their British salmon peers.

For the fly fisherman, frequency generation is problematic.  There are no moving parts in a fly, so you’re wholly dependent on the effect of water passing over or through the fly’s body.  The external flow will generate vibrations, but their frequency and power will vary with the speed of the water and with any discontinuities or apertures in the body over which it passes (the ‘bottle top’ effect).  However, for the apertures to be effective vibration generators you would probably have to dispense with all of the fly’s body dressing to obtain the requisite smooth surface flow.  The internal flow effect is similarly influenced by speed and additionally by the size and shape of the aperture and passage through which it travels.  The small frontal diameter of most fly designs poses a severe limit on the options: water doesn’t pass rapidly through small holes if it can easily disperse sideways.  Unless and until someone does some research and underwater measurement I shall remain sceptical.

So what else?

If we can’t exploit it directly, how might the underwater sound environment influence salmon behaviour?

Mechanical noises

Given the sensitivity of the salmon’s faculties, we might reasonably infer that it would find extremely noisy environments difficult and therefore avoid them if possible.  If one of the roles of the sensors is to detect predator threats, then a salmon will feel insecure if that capability is disabled by extraneous noise.  The most recent research in this area (Bristol & Exeter universities) was into the predator awareness of sticklebacks in enhanced noise environments, which clearly showed changes in behaviour.  We don’t know whether it applies to salmon, but I should be surprised if it didn’t.

Of course much depends on the frequency and modulation of the sound.  Just as we can’t hear the ‘silent’ dog whistle (or much else besides at my age), there will be noises that fall outside the salmon’s working range.  For example, the thump of HGV tyres over the expansion joints on the A9 Tomatin Viaduct, which the bridge piers transmit directly into the Dalnahoyn Pool below, are at a very low frequency.  However, the productivity of the pool suggests that those sounds don’t trouble the salmon at all, despite their evident loudness in air.  The same appears to be true of railway and smaller road bridges.

The fact is that there are relatively few sources of 2-700 Hz vibration that are likely to impact salmon rivers.  One exception is diesel engines, commonly used in pumping, power generation and propulsion, which emit vibrations right across that range.  The engine, the transmission system and the application device will all emit vibrations at different frequencies across the critical range.  For example, one make of 4 cylinder diesel engine, which has many common auxillary applications, when running at 1850 rpm under load displays 4 frequency peaks centred on 400 Hz.  If diesel engines and the associated machinery are employed and mounted with inadequate damping on metal structures that stand in the water or on the adjacent rock or soil bank, then they will transmit their vibrations directly into the water.  This will raise the level of underwater background noise to what may be uncomfortable levels for the salmon’s highly sensitive receptors, irrespective of whether the human perception is of no more than a hum.

The second exception is electric motors, commonly used in water and sewage processing.  The vibrations emitted by electric motors vary with loading.  However, the driven device (e.g. pump) and the transmission system is likely to be the greater source of undesirable frequencies.  Again, the mounting, damping (or lack of it) and location are all critical factors.

Taken together this suggests that fishing near water processing and industrial sites undertaking continuous mechanical activities (e.g. sawmills) may be less productive as salmon are unlikely to remain in the area.  It would be interesting to examine the factual historic data and subjective anecdote relating to catches (or lack of) in their vicinity.

The Noisy Angler

The moment you step into a pool the salmon's formidable sensors will detect your activity, even if you have felt soles and a light step. However, they don't know it's you or what you're doing, because in evolutionary terms humans haven't been angling long enough to achieve any genetic impact on salmon. Unlike the calls of whales, seals and other fish, salmon anglers' noises aren't in the salmon signal library. Certainly they wouldn't be able to connect the crunch of your studs on the gravel and the clink of your wading staff on the rocks with the drama of being caught, except perhaps if they'd been caught shortly before by another heavy-footed fisherman.

On the assumption that you don't make enough noise to jam the salmon's receptors and processors you will otherwise have to try hard to disturb them greatly. However, bearing mind that being 'on the take' is at best only an unusual and transient state for a salmon, it won't help if you make enough noise to divert their attention and thereby stop those unknown aberrations going on in a taking salmon's brain. It also helps to remember that the salmon's sensors are closely connected via their directional capability to vision, in that an unusual sound may cause a salmon to focus on its source. If they see you coming their way, they'll take flight. Put simply, if you're noisy it increases the chance of you being seen, so please don't wade near lies or the running line through a pool.

Obviously sharp sounds within the salmon's working frequencies are most likely to catch its attention. Don't do anything hasty and place your feet steadily and carefully: the scrabble of misplaced studs is very loud underwater. Don't rush into the water and through the shallows: the noise you make in 6" of water will be transmitted as a jumble of sounds across the whole pool. The vibrations from your progress along the dry gravel may also precede you. Avoid big slooshing strides through the water: you may be mistaken for a bear (without the smell) which remains in their library despite its extinction in the UK.

It's sensible to put a rubber ferrule on the end of your wading stick to avoid sharp clinks on rocks that will travel a long way through water. I buy a stock of them at the local hardware store before each season and plan on losing 3-4 stuck between rocks. The best ones have parallel sides and a plate in the bottom that stops the shaft wearing through the rubber.

Remember that loud noises above the water can be transmitted into the water. Research has indicated that some fish can detect the calls of predatory birds, so unless your name's Domingo or Jenkins I'd advise against singing along to the I Pod tracks. Anyway, the salmon may not share your musical tastes.

The bottom lines are remember that the salmon hears at least 400 times better than you do; good water craft starts the moment you get out of the car; and mind your language.

The Noisy Ocean

With the huge growth in international trade, shipping and offshore activities, the levels of underwater noise in the oceans has increased dramatically.  A major Dutch research work published in 2010 (Slabberkoorn et al) highlighted both the the sources of increasing noise and its effects.  There is a respectable summary on the BBC Science site.  There is also a growing body of evidence of the effect of excessive oceanic noise on migratory fish, albeit no-one has yet looked at salmon.

In that respect the biggest problem confronting British salmon is offshore oil and gas related activity in the North Sea.  In oceanic terms the North Sea is small, shallow and exceptionally industrialised.  The exploration and infrastructure construction phases of operation are very noisy, but they are transient.  The less obvious but potentially more serious issue may be the continuous transmission of machinery vibration in the sub 1 KHz range  from piles, legs, pipes and other infrastructure into the water.  What seems relatively quiet to us above the water may be both noisy and unpleasant for fish. Those vibrations will travel great distances from their origin, mix and combine with others and accumulate into a cacophony of discordant noise that has the potential to drown inter-fish communication and jam their sensors.  This may make it difficult for migrating smolts to form and maintain the schools that are essential for their survival; maturing fish to locate prey; and returning adults to protect themselves from predators.  Perhaps the root problem may not be marine mortality of salmon per se, but rather their marine confusion.

For those who fish the Dee there is the very specific problem of Aberdeen harbour, which is one of the busiest marine environments in the world.  The large number of diesel powered vessels, the frequency of their transits and continuous manoeuvring in such a confined space, together generate exceptional levels of underwater noise.  It would be a simple and quite cheap research exercise to characterise Aberdeen’s noise environment by frequency and volume; correlate the product to known fish sensitivities; and establish control samples in other harbours and estuaries.  Unfortunately for the salmon anglers, Aberdeen University’s current primary research interest in this field is focused on the effects of noise on seals and dolphins rather than their prey.  However, in advance of any investigation, I remain persuaded that there may be a connection between the high levels of activity in Aberdeen harbour and the reduced salmon catches on the Dee, especially of the more hesitantly running spring fish.

Happy Christmas

Monday 1 December 2014

MCX's Christmas Stocking 2014

Happy Christmas: it's that time of year again.  My first thought was "last year's post was quite popular, so I'll do it again."  Like all first thoughts it seemed sensible when it floated into my head.  However, slower consideration caused me to hesitate, because it became apparent that I didn't have very much new or original to offer.  Why's that?  Well, when I wrote last year's I wasn't thinking ahead!  My intent then was to identify a range of affordable things that were useful, good value and would fit into a stocking.  As this area of salmon fishing kit is little affected by leaping technological advances or more significantly, gross marketing hype (elsewhere the abundance of the latter is never constrained by the lack of the former), then the range of suitable recommendations doesn't change much from year to year.

So why bother?  First, only my most loyal and methodical readers will recall that I did a post last year and seek it out.  Energy is at a premium at this time of year, so I'm lending a helping hand.  Second, there's an inevitable temptation to expand the parameters in order to add a little interest.  To that end I've added 2 more sections, one covering an item that I've found to be really good during prolonged use; and the second, a remarkable offer.  Third, the Finns claim that Father Christmas lives above the Arctic Circle beyond Rovaniemi.  If you leave his elves to their own devices they'll fill your stocking with Vision goodies rather than what follows!

Stocking Fillers

Mostly these are hardy perennials, subject to the usual criteria, in that they all:

  • Work well and add value on the river
  • Are cheap enough to consider putting in a Christmas stocking
  • Offer good quality and value for money
  • Can be purchased without technical knowledge by internet or phone
  • Fit in a large sock


Yes, it's them again, the Snowbee fingerless gloves.   As you get older you tend to wear gloves more often, and up here in Yorkshire we view them as essentials.  At only £10 they are real value, effective and remarkably durable (mine have done 11 seasons).  You can spend £50 on Simms if you wish, but I doubt they're common up here. Mrs Christmas didn't pick up the blog-hint last year, so I've sent an e-mail round the family asking for a new pair.


I always glue my knots and haven't lost a fish to knot failure in the past decade.  In my view, Loon Knot Sense comes out top for salmon fishing.  It forms a nice clear blob that you can shape before exposing it to sunlight for near-instantaneous setting.  I still carry normal Super Glue in my tool pack for repair work, but don't use it for knotting.

Finding a leak in your waders rates quite highly in the gloom stakes, so keep a fresh tube of Aquasure in your tackle box. 

Yes, it's still the Best Little Fly Box

This pocket sized gem from Snowbee costs only £20, holds a dozen tubes and trebles securely and is about the size of a cigarette carton.  It's another triumph of value design, and I don't find its limited capacity any sort of handicap whilst fishing.  Even with only 12 to choose from I didn't run out of choices, and I don't need any more reasons for indecision.

Forceps and Pliers

In my last post, Lessons from 2014, I highlighted the essential requirement for a good pair of forceps and announced the start of my hunt for suitable lockable pliers at a price below the King's Ransom £159.  I found lots of stainless steel point-nosed pliers (at prices as low as £12.99) but none of them were lockable, and you do need to be able to let go of them if something more urgent happens.

These nifty things at £18.99 from Sportfish are a half way house between forceps and pliers.  They're big enough, the right shape and have a nice rubbery grip to get a good hold powerful hold on them; and they have a cunningly simple locking mechanism.  I haven't used them yet on the river, but thought them good enough to buy for myself when I saw them in Farlows during a business trip to London last week.

Good Kit

Warm Trousers

In the colder parts of the past 3 seasons I have been wearing a pair of Simms Cold Weather trousers.  They key features are the micro-fleece lining and the breathable hydrophobic exterior coating. Depending on the temperature they can be worn on their own, or as Layer 3 of a system (e.g. 1+3; 2+3; 1+2+3).  They are seriously good kit, very warm (whole day sub-zero), well finished and nicely cut for British shape.  The hydrophobic coating comes into its own when you fall in.  Having tested its properties twice, I can confirm that it works brilliantly, keeping your legs completely dry and allowing you to fish out the day.  In contrast, wet jeans or cotton trousers under your waders will bring fishing to an unpleasant and immediate halt.

At £85 they're not cheap and they won't fit in a normal stocking.        I reckon they'll see me out, so they rate as excellent value on a per year basis.  They're one of the very best things I've bought in the past 5 years.

Good Offer

Here's an idea for a serious Christmas present.  Angling Active are currently offering the Loop Multi #9/12 reel at £70 off.

The Multi has been around for 10 years or so, during which it has earned a reputation for ruggedness, reliability and smooth operation.  It has huge line capacity and the mass to balance 14 and 15 foot rods.  At its heart is the Loop sealed drag system which you find throughout their range.

This offer may suggest that the production of the Multi is about to end, but unless you're the person who really must have the latest gear, this is an outstanding deal.  The price is probably within a few pounds of what Active paid at wholesale, so you won't find it cheaper.  I'm not a man who likes spending money on reels, but at this price it may even sell in Yorkshire.

Happy Christmas - I'll be back with something philosophical around the New Year.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Lessons from 2014

At the end of every season I try to identify the lessons to inform my experience.  Some are general and therefore useful on every subsequent trip.  Others are specific to circumstances and so need to be dredged up from memory as necessary.  That's becoming more difficult for me, but hopefully they might be useful for younger readers.

On the rare occasions in 2014 when conditions permitted, I encouraged the novices among my friends to come out onto the Ure.  Some of them are more than keen enough, but lack the confidence to go out alone.  Others work too hard and need to be forcibly prised out of their offices or bribed with a birthday gift of a day's fishing.  Others that I know less well turn up on the river of their own accord.  What follows is the product of observation of their and my activities, suitably anonymised.  It should come as no surprise that the Seven Deadly Sins of Common Novice Errors feature: they wouldn't be Common otherwise.

 Lesson 1 - Smile and be happy

No matter how dire 2014 has been, fishing is still far better than working.  Relax, enjoy the beautiful surroundings and the good company.  I learned in my rural childhood that there was no point worrying about the things you couldn't change, and to treat whatever nature offered me as a bonus.

Lesson 2 - Don't forget the fly

I wrote about this in Common Novice Error No 5.  We become so wrapped up in trying to cast well that we forget its purpose.  I watched one novice doing the Single Spey and creating exquisite loops in 4/5 of her casts.  Unfortunately, in only 1/5 of the 'good' casts was the leader anything like straight.  With the other 4 it was all wriggled up, leaving the fly dead in the water thereby wasting all the prior effort and concentration.

The golden rule applies:

No tension = No wiggle = No stimulation = No takes = No fish

In anything other than fast water and shallow casting angles the fly won't sort itself out until it's nearly at the dangle.  You have to do something positive.  No matter how much it grieves you to forego any of your hard won distance, you must strip in enough line to straighten the leader and get the fly working effectively.  Moving the rod round to right angles to the current also helps.

Lesson 3 - Tomatoes aren't heavy

#10 WF Intermediate Tomato
This is Common Novice Error 4.  A #10 Scandi shooting head weighs around 38 grams, or about 11/2 ounces for my generation. Give or take a little, that's about the same weight as a golf ball (1.62 oz) or a middle-sized supermarket tomato. And you've got a 14 foot lever made of premium carbon fibre to help you shift it, so what's the purpose of all this heaving, grunting and effort that I'm watching?

Question: If you stuck a cup on the end of your salmon rod, how far could you throw the golf ball or tomato?

Answer: If you don't make a positive stop, about 13 feet!  If you do, about 60 yards with minimal effort.

So just relax; apply only the force that's appropriate to a tomato (don't rip the skin off, it's messy); and remember it's the stop that makes it go!

Lesson 4 - Only salmon kick

I've previously said that you don't feel when the salmon takes the fly, because most often it's coming towards you.  What you feel - and many people mistakenly call the take - is when the fish turns away back towards its lie.  There's a fuller explanation of all this in Crash! Bang! Pluck!

Hard taking leaves
the bane of autumn fishing
Of course autumn leaves give the best takes of all - forceful, realistic and nerve-jangling. But once they've taken, they don't swim sideways and struggle (only branches do that) so you quickly get the message.

There are plenty of hungry brown and sea trout in the Ure, quite ready to attack the biggest tube in your box.  Indeed, the bigger the better: one feisty little chap was no bigger than the full dressed length of a 1.5 inch Cascade. They take with an unmistakable sharp bang, but again, there's no Premier League kick.

Only salmon kick, so unless it kicks, don't think you've missed a salmon, only a trout!

Lesson 5 - Sometimes there's no easy option

Pole Position
Dead Tree Lie, West Wood Pool, Bolton Hall
30 October 2014
Superb pool, plenty of fish, shame about the rise
It's hard enough catching salmon at the best of times, but once the water begins to rise, it gets even more difficult.  Yes, there's a brief period at the start of the rise that can be good, but thereafter things are turning against you.  Not only is it getting heavier and colouring, which means re-scoring and changing the fly or more, but also the fish start behaving differently.

In his magisterial tome 'Atlantic Salmon Magic', Topher Browne espouses a theory about behaviour-influencing hormones being triggered by increases in water flow past the salmon's flanks.  Put simply, they become wholly focused in running mode.  I don't know whether or not it's valid - the lift certainly excites the leaves - but it may explain why salmon are harder to catch in rising water.  My normal response to the fish going into running mode is to shift into ambush tactics at places where the running line is confined or changes track abruptly.  Unfortunately that option wasn't feasible in West Wood, where the fish could employ the entire 30 yard breadth, and the first defile is a good half mile (800m) downstream.  In those circumstances there's no choice but to reach for the trusty Cascade Conhead and a sink tip, and then get on with covering the water, in the remote statistical hope of putting it right on the nose of a hormonally aggressive cock fish.  Sometimes there's no easy option.

Lesson 6 - Have the right tools

Thoresby Beat
17 October 2014
8lbs grey hen
Here is my one and only salmon of 2014, where I least wanted it - on the bank rather than in the water where it belongs.  The reason it's misplaced is because the kind and well-meaning person who acted as No2 on the net was armed with a pair of forceps better suited to removing a #18 dry fly from a trout.  They certainly weren't up to the demands of a rock solid, side-jaw, opposite bank, two-hook, dynamite-proof hold deep into the gum of a strong and uncooperative fish.  Indeed, during the fight the feisty beast had thrown herself up the grass bank at the end of a determined 20 yard run upstream, before wriggling back into the water.  In the event she swam strongly away from release.

However, on balance it's better to knock a bigger hole in the salmon's jaw by being forcefully quick in the water than it is to risk oxygen deprivation and consequent brain and heart damage by having it out of water too long for pretty surgery.  It won't bleed much from the jaw gristle, which is not a wide pathway for infections (compared to the gills or vent).  Make sure that your forceps lock positively and are big and strong enough to allow firm application.  Mine are, but what I'd really like is a pair of ratchet action, rat-nosed pliers in stainless steel, at a much more affordable price than Mr Simms' £159 de luxe product.  This may mean making friends with an orthopedic surgeon (they call them 'big hemostats': chunky operators those chaps - I'm told that they also use hammers and chisels on your hips).  On second thoughts I'll avoid their acquaintance for as long as possible.

Lesson 7 - No surprise

Upper Park, Bolton Water
30 October 2014
(Waterproof camera)
The repeat of Common Novice Error 6 is on me.  About 2 hours before this photo was taken I had waded across to fish West Wood above: a straightforward exercise with good studs and a stick.  Whilst I was fishing the river rose about 4"/10cm. Even that small amount changed its character from placid to what the picture shows. When I came back the prospect of a 1 mile hike to the Lord's Bridge led me into the danger zone of misjudgment and lack of respect for the power of water.  About 5-6 yards out from the near bank I slipped and went for a 40-50 yard swim.

The rules of the game of swimming in waders are:
  • In fast water, once you're going, don't try to stand up, because you'll fail, and at worst go end over end, which is both undignified and dangerous.
  • If you can (or if you think you're about to go), get rid of the rod onto or towards the bank.  Thrown reel end first it flies quite well and you're unlikely to fracture a section. If you miss the bank you're more likely to recover it in the shallows than in the main flow
  • Apart from your rod and hat, make sure that everything else is attached to you. Expensive sunglasses are the most common casualty.
  • Try to fall backwards.  Failing that, turn onto your back as soon as possible to get the open front of your jacket facing upwards and out of the water.  The pressure behind you stops much water coming up your back (mine remained completely dry).
  • Relax, don't panic, you're very buoyant.  Less than half a pint of water got into my waders, and I was able to fish out the rest of the day without great discomfort.
  • Go with the flow whilst using a semi-backstroke to close with the nearest bank.
  • When you get there, make sure you have a firm hold on grass/bush/tree/whatever before you start trying to get out of the water.
  • Stand up; check your kit; look sheepish; curse yourself for your silliness; and politely ask the next rod down the beat to catch your hat (thanks Chris).
  • Try not to repeat the performance, but don't be surprised when you do!

End of season packing up

A few quick reminders:

  • Open up your reels and leave them to dry in a warm place for a couple of days before lightly greasing spindles and moving metal parts.  Those models with unsealed brakes like the Vision Koma should be stripped,dried, cleaned, greased and reassembled.
  • Give the lines a clean, lubricate and polish.  Then store lines and reels somewhere cool and ideally dark (certainly not in direct sunlight which damages PVC line coatings; and not at risk of freezing).
  • Throw away used leaders and all tippet materials, especially fluorocarbon.
  • Wipe rod surfaces clean, whilst checking for any damage or cracks, especially near the joints.  Some manufacturers (notably Hardy) recommend a very light waxing of the joints.  I'm unconvinced, but if you do, ensure that they are 100% clean before applying anything.
  • Dispose safely of all damaged flies.
  • Wash jacket and waders with NikWax Goretex wash and re-proofer. Do not under any circumstances use conventional detergents which contain UV enhancers (that make your whites look whiter) which will make your legs appear silver-white to any salmon within 50 yards. When dry (inside and out), repair any obvious damage with AquaSure: then hang waders clear of the floor in a mouse-free place.
  • Dry wading boots slowly, inspect for damage and repair.  My trusty old Visions have finally expired after 8 seasons' hard work, and require replacement in the spring.
It's only 5 months to Dee time, but I won't be wishing the shooting season to pass quickly.

Tuesday 11 November 2014


I haven't posted anything recently for the simple reason that I've not had much to say that's original or interesting.  In the absence of water and hence time on the water, writing about fishing in the abstract isn't everyone's preferred reading.  However, I am pulling together some material drawn from the days I've spent leading novices to the river, which I'll publish very soon after this philosophical post.

No matter how much I try to rationalise the extreme patterns of this year's weather, there's no escaping the fact that the salmon fishing has been almost universally dire from south west Ireland to north east Scotland, and in most places in between.  From that perspective, not being on Tomatin this September spared us a week that would have been deeply reminiscent of 2002, 2003 and 2005.  On the other hand, I really missed the fun of the large house party of friends and their various offspring.  So did the dog: she was completely dippy for most of September.

Only now in November is it starting to rain seriously.  The 30mm we got for the whole of October was helpful but not exactly normal.  You need a sustained lift to bring fish up the Ure from the Humber, or indeed up any river system.  That thinking led me into the serious error of expressing my disappointment to my long-suffering wife when delivering the morning mug of tea, which led to the firm riposte that I was worse than the farmers, always complaining and ungrateful for wider mercies.  I admit that she's right: as a lamentable salmon season drew to a close, I was so desperate for some possibility of even one day's decent fishing that I'd lost sensible balance. Perhaps the introduction of an EU single fish payment like the farmers' SFP might redress the imbalance.  That said, even the 'single' fish I caught mid-month was nice,  but confirmed that I'd be cheap for DEFRA to keep.

The fact that this mental imbalance is common to most salmon fishermen doesn't make me innocent (or you either).  After all, in law there's a clear difference between a plea of not guilty and a plea in mitigation of sentence.  The truth is we're all as bad as each other and can't claim a normal statistical distribution, as we're strongly skewed towards the fanatical. On the other hand, we're not as bad as some other groups.  In my comparative youth, the late great Bill Shankly, who managed Liverpool FC to umpteen trophies, was asked whether he regarded football as important as a matter of life and death.  He replied, "No, it's much more serious than that."  I don't know any salmon anglers so extreme, but there again, I don't live in Scotland, where the locals take the sport exceptionally seriously. Yorkshire frowns on excessive displays of enthusiasm unless there's a collective agreement to waive the rules - as we did the Grand Depart of the Tour de France, when the whole county went completely daft.  The proof of that unanimity and madness was in the broadcast aerial views of Wensleydale: I didn't spot a single angler on almost 30 miles of the Ure, Nidd, Swale and Wharfe as the peloton passed.

The Ure - bone dry 2nd October 2014
In the absence of water there weren't any there for the next 3 months.  However, at the beginning of October I spent 3 days on the Ure with HMCX, our youngest.  I'd booked the days back in April as soon as the Bolton Estate website opened for the new season, in the confidence that the Ure in autumn was as good a bet as anywhere in the UK for both water and salmon.  Of course, back in April not even the meteorologists had the least clue what was to come in May, let alone the rest of 2014.  As the date approached, morale went down and desperation for some rain went up in equal and opposite measure. We arrived on the Park beats of Bolton Hall on the Thursday in blazing sunshine with our expectations firmly calibrated at zero. The first challenge was to find some water deep enough to hold any sort of fish - about 30"/75cm is the the normal minimum for resident salmon - that was realistically fishable.  I'd never seen the Ure that low: indeed, I didn't know there was a 22cm point on the gauge at Kilgram: the previous low was 26cm.  We failed to find any water, so unfolded the directors' chairs and settled down to enjoy an extended picnic with a bottle of Ure-chilled white wine.

Spending time with your adult children is a rare pleasure that occurs all too infrequently. Once they emerge from the long dark tunnel of the teenage years (it's a neat saying but in truth all 3 of ours were very easy), they're off to university and away to the world of work in a flash.  For the fishing 2 of our three, work means London:  CCX does restaurants and food (she's keen to graduate from trout to salmon but finds the notion of catching and releasing such superb ingredients an anathema) and HMCX is in corporate insurance.  For them, time on a river is a rare privilege.  ECX in the middle goes wherever the Army sends him. Fishing doesn't really fit with his demanding schedule and extreme sporting tendencies that have displaced his childhood trout enthusiasm. In what seems the twinkling of an eye you find yourself the parent of mature conversational adults who are excellent company and share several of your interests.  Or more properly, is it the case that by good fortune I share some of theirs?  With that transformation come the realisations that you have to make the most of your time together before their own families arrive, expand and mature, and the cycle begins all over again in their turn; and that it's far more important than salmon fishing.

After a lazy afternoon and a short period of trying to catch small sea trout on microscopic Blue Charms we repaired to our accommodation at the Bolton Arms in Redmire, a cooling pint of Theakstons and more conversation.  Across England country pubs are going out of business at a frightening rate, but the Bolton Arms is thriving, largely as a result of doing the simple things outstandingly well.  There's no gastro-pretensions here, just excellent pub food, great beer, friendly service and value for money (and the most heroic breakfasts).  The evidence was plain: on Friday night the bar and dining area were packed with locals from 6 until closing time.

Friday dawned a mite cooler, but remained so dry that we could drive the car onto the river bank at Thorseby.  Here we had two pools of fishable depth - Frodle and Flesh Dub - and of castable width, albeit not with full sized rods.  HMCX opted for the 12' #7 two-hander and I settled for the 10' #7 single hander that provides the means for my challenge of trying to catch Yorkshire salmon on a dry fly.  There were a few salmon showing - mostly out of boredom I suspect - but bearing in mind that they'd probably been in the river since the sustained spate in May, they looked in surprisingly good colour and condition.  Sea trout of all sizes were hungrily scooping up the periodic hatches of both olives and sedges, including a tantalising pair in Frodle that were well into double figures.

Green sludge
We got 3 good sea trout up to 4lbs in quick succession in the late morning before everything went quiet.  Just as the turning leaves were beginning to fall, so all the green stuff that has grown profusely underwater in the long sunny summer decided to stage its autumnal bid for freedom.  We were wasting so much time taking weed off our hooks that it wasn't worth continuing the unequal struggle, and so decided that a leisurely pub lunch was in order.  In such circumstances a pint of Theakstons is capable of dissolving even my formidable resolve.  We returned to fish out the day - the weed release stopped once the sun was off the water - without success but free from the pressure and dissatisfaction that the possibility of success engenders.  I apologised frequently and profusely to HMCX for the lack of salmon: his response, which I do not reproduce here for fear of accusations of maudling sentimentality, swept away all disappointment.  

It's great when they grow up, but it's a shame that the pace of their lives so often deprives us of the pleasure of their company.  Times like this are pure gold.

The underwater photo monopod
does selfie duty