Thursday 17 April 2014

Sinking Feeling

Through the extraordinary generosity of Michael at AM Angling I took two sinking shooting heads to test on the Dee last week.  Venturing into the submarine world of sinking lines was a new experience for me, as followers of Just One Week will have spotted that I've got by until now by adding a variety of sinking polyleaders or tips to floating lines.  Without the challenges of especially deep or heavy water I hadn't felt the need to acquire a sinking line.  However, with the Dee running at +18", it was an ideal opportunity to do some learning and testing.  You will note the order of those words: this post is as much about me learning how to get the best out of a sinking line as it is an evaluation of the two lines that Michael had kindly provided.

The Contenders

Guideline is the ubiquitous brand in sinking shooting heads and possibly the market leader.  You don't achieve that status with bad products, so the PT Scandi would provide a reliable reference baseline for the evaluation.

When you take it out of the box for the first time you are immediately aware of the design and production quality.  It just looks right.  There are several features that are clearly born of long experience and intended to make life easy, and these imbue a certain confidence from the outset.

Loop introduced their Graduated Density lines last year, when I did an evaluation of the Low-Float, a thoroughly good piece of kit, but markedly different from the Rio AFS.  The GDC concept really applies to the sinking lines, in that the transition from S1 to S2 is spread over 5 feet rather than just a couple of inches as was previously the case with many multi-rate sinking lines.  The theory is that this causes the line to extend in a single continuum rather than a series of steps.  The physics is certainly true, but I didn't look underwater on this test to verify the effect.

When I first took the line out of the box my reaction was entirely different to the Guideline, in that I was irrationally irked by the fact the GDC is all one colour - olive green - with no simple indication of which end is which once you've removed the tags.  This required quick action with a permanent black marker pen - you can't trust to memory at my age.

Spot the difference!
Which end is which?
You can see the difference here.  Perhaps I'm idle and old, but it's nice to be able to find the right end of a shooting head without having to think too hard.  Another advantage of the Guideline's colour scheme is that even I can see the orange end coming during the retrieve and coordinate its arrival with the management of the running line.

You will also note the use of handy garden plant ties to secure the coils: simple and very effective.

On the Lawn

Profile at 10 feet
The next step was to lay the 2 lines out on the lawn to compare their profiles.  Because the first section of the Guideline is Intermediate it is correspondingly thicker than the Loop at S1, which is visible here.

Profile at 25 feet
However, as you progress onwards through 20 feet to 25, where the Guideline transitions into S2, you'l note that it is still (counter-intuitively) fractionally thicker than the Loop at S1 (normally faster sinking lines are thinner).  I didn't use a micrometer, just eye and image zooming, but started to form the view that Loop had managed something a bit technically novel here.

Profile at 35 feet
At 35 feet you are approaching the end of the Loop: the Guideline is 4 feet longer.  At this point the Loop is S2 and the Guideline is S3.  Again, and equally counter-intuitively, the diameters are similar.

In sum, the Guideline follows an entirely predictable taper pattern, with each stage clearly visible.  There's something different about the Loop.  After a bit of head scratching and reviewing of the Low Float pictures, I concluded that Loop might have done something remarkable.  Instead of achieving higher density by reducing the line's diameter, they appear to have achieved the effect by changing the density of the material.  I may be wrong, but the consequences of this innovation (if it be so) will become apparent shortly.

On the River

Upper Kirk at +18"
The main part of the evaluation took place on the Upper Kirk pool which is usefully concealed from public view.  On Waterside,with a road running along its entire length, you tend to attract spectators, including those with cameras, liable to record your embarrassing efforts whilst learning the intricacies of working with sinking lines.  I had some difficulty persuading the charming tourist from Nigeria with a £2000 Canon EOS 5 and a 300mm lens that I really wasn't a good examplar of Scottish salmon fishing technique.

Beyond privacy, Upper Kirk had everything - cold water, weight of flow, depth and breadth. From the left bank you are working to maximum range from thigh deep wading; from the right you're managing narrow angles from a limited roll-casting space off the grass.  The wind was around 15 mph downstream oblique, rising to 20 mph later in the day, turbulent and gusty.  As a result the majority of the casts were waterborne anchor: Single Spey was out of the question on safety grounds.

The rod was a Loop Cross S1 14' #9.  The running line was a well worn Rio standard.  At the business end I employed a 5' slow sink polyleader (equivalent to S2), 7' of fluorocarbon, and a choice of 1" weighted tubes and #6 doubles.

When reading what comes next, please bear in mind that my name is not Alan Maughan and that I'm not a great caster.


The Guideline was first up to establish the baseline.  As you might expect, the Guideline does exactly 'what it says on the tin', although some helpful hints on the box would have been handy during the first 10-15 minutes of getting the hang of its behaviour.

Like all heavy sinking objects it goes out like a rocket; slices through the wind and turbulence; and picks tubes up out of the water with ease.  The turnover is good.  Above all, it's very forgiving of limitations in casting.  If it can get out there, it will.  The arrival may not be pretty, but the Guideline will have done everything in its power to help.

It's nice to fish with and for the first time I could appreciate the virtue of a sinking line cutting down through the speed and turbulence of the surface flow into the smoother water below. Contact with the fly was direct and continuous.  The brightly coloured Intermediate section helped both visual management and retrieval.

Perversely, that otherwise most useful and helpful orange Intermediate section was the source of my one gripe with this otherwise excellent line.  I was surprised by the effort needed to extract this comparatively short head into the back cast.  There were occasions, especially if the dangle was in slower water, when getting it out was a real chore.  The Intermediate bit just seemed to hug the water in a way that real sinkers do not (based on experience with my old Loop Multi-Tip line which has very long front sections).  Even employing my newly learned Modern Spey lift and swing technique, this limitation got to be very boring after the first half hour, especially with my age and dodgy back.  It was most reluctant to respond to a Snake Roll, so I didn't invest much time in trying to apply that approach to the problem.  Of course, 'rolling up' made life much easier, but that's a bit of a chore and yet more wasted fishing time added to that expended on stripping in the running line.

Perhaps I may have missed something; more probably my technique is rubbish and slick floating lines have made me a softie, but for me the limitation of the back cast took away too much of the joy of the Guideline's excellent delivery.


When I stopped to change the lines over, my morale was not great.  I was a mite tired, a little cold (the water was at 6.5C) and filled with trepidation at the prospect of another 3 hours of demanding back casts.  I was irritated by Loop's all green line.  After a short break; a stiff self-lecture to get a grip and man-up; and some morale boosting chocolate (my weakness), I re-entered the water.

And so,  I fed out the line, rolled it around into a shallow angle and stripped out some running line whilst waiting for it to reach the dangle.  Then lift the rod, push the bottom hand under and out and turn the torso in a movement calibrated an honed and hardened over the previous 3 hours.  Swish! An all-green 36 foot snake with a black blob on its tail shot past me heading directly into the wind.  Splash!  It landed straight upstream, but I failed to observe the turnover.  After a certain amount of self-cursing, thrashing (aka roll casting) and sorting out, I got the snake back to the dangle.  Try again with a bit less effort.  This led to the anchor being about 15 feet upwind.  Unashamedly mixing my animal metaphors, the green snake came out of the water like a jack rabbit set to turbo: certainly more Green Mamba than Green Python.

Once I'd got the hang of the back cast the forward bit was easy.  Like all sinkers the GDC is fundamentally heavy and makes short work of difficult winds.  If it had been more across or frontal I would have increased the length and weight of the polyleader and shortened the fluorocarbon.  The turnover was good and the design continuity with the Low Float I use in windy conditions was self-evident.  In delivery it equalled the excellent Guideline across the board. The GDC had the same directness of contact with the fly, but the near invisibility of the back end of the head was a significant bugbear.

By the end of the day's fishing I hadn't caught a fish, but I'd started to develop a real liking for the green snake and sinking line fishing, which is really surprising for someone with a lifetime aversion to snakes.


So what came out of the day:
  • A sinking line is probably essential if you are going to fish big fast-flowing pools like Kirk and Waterside in spring with cold water.  After this experience I wouldn't wish to be without one for future spring fishing.
  • The Guideline is an excellent product, with outstanding design features and perfect finish, that offers very good forward cast delivery.  But for whatever reason - possibly the Intermediate section or my poor technique - I found the back cast uncomfortably difficult.
  • Michael of AM Angling will need a crowbar to get the Loop Green Snake out of my tackle box: it's great.  Obviously lots of Swedes agree with me, because I'm told it's in short supply.
  • But if you do buy the snake, it will work best when used with a brightly coloured running line, which coincidentally is the subject of my next post.


I close by reiterating my gratitude to Michael of AM Angling for his generous support to this evaluation, and for his help and advice in a multitude of other matters; thank you.  A company of this quality is worthy of anyone's custom, so please use the links or side-tag to pay them a visit.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Spring on the Dee

Evening view of the Dee upstream from Waterside

It's been a while since I last wrote a post, simply because I didn't have anything especially interesting to say in advance of actually doing some fishing.  Then the postponement of the day on the Tweed in March meant waiting until April and our trip to the Dee.

Of course, as usual, my anticipation rose steadily as departure day approached.  Business didn't get in the way: from hotel rooms in Arabia you can track the Braemar weather forecast, SEPA river levels and the Dee's daily catches (or not) on FishPal with the same ease as from home.  The luxury may be greater, but the dearth of a refreshing beer after working in 30 degree warmth is a serious downside.  On the other hand, it was so cold when I was fishing last spring that we had to use the microwave to defrost the lunchtime drink (microwave? that's Tweed fishing hut luxury for you).

My anticipation and excitement was tempered by a degree of trepidation.  I'd not fished on Royal Deeside before, so sought advice from Patrick who has been an annual pilgrim to this salmon Mecca for a decade and more.  Would I have to wear a tie whilst fishing? (No).  Would my Simms thermal ninja pyjamas be acceptable? (Yes, provided I didn't wear them for dinner at the hotel).  Would I have to dress for dinner (aka black tie)? (No, but at your age do check that your trousers are on and done up properly).  Will the ghillie laugh at my rubbish casting finely honed on smaller rivers? (No, he's seen far, far worse.  Anyway he likes a tip, and therefore will even laugh at your awful jokes).  

Patrick's responses moderated my concerns, although the size of the water caused me to sneak off to the Tyne for a casting lesson with Alan Maughan.  He's an excellent instructor who's put immense thought into teaching methods and effective communication.  The challenge I gave him was to sort out my Single Spey, which is the cast I've used least in the 12 years since I started with a double-handed rod.  Think about it: if you fish rivers that flow generally east into the North Sea (Findhorn, Ure, Tyne etc) and the prevailing wind is westerly, then upstream winds are abnormal.  More often than not you've got a downstream wind, which makes you a dab hand at the Double Spey and the Snake Roll (in my case usually left handed because most of my fishing is left bank).  Finally, although its 'Single' title implies a certain simplicity, the Single Spey is undoubtedly the hardest cast to do well.  To make matters worse, it has the smallest margin of error in terms of anchor placement: joy and gloom are separated by a razor blade.  You can get away with all manner of sins with a waterborne anchor, but the airborne anchor of the Single can drive you to distraction.  Thus, with the aim of getting a decade's worth of embedded bad habits out and a sound technique in, I spent several hours in the wintry Tyne focused on getting the anchor placement right.  Persistence is a virtue, and I'll go back shortly for another session to polish the delivery.  That said, for 3 days on the Dee we had strong downstream winds, culminating in a near gale on the Saturday, so the new Single only featured for about 5% of my casting effort.

Fully prepared, armed, trained and reassured I set off on the Wednesday morning, via a brief stop at John Norris to buy a new lifejacket to replace the faithful item seized and destroyed by Royal Mail when I sent it off for servicing.  I'd failed to note the change in their postal policy last autumn - CO2 cylinders, however small are now totally forbidden.  Mine showed up on scanning and was then sent under guard to Barnsley to be blown up.  They rejected all entreaties for mercy and offers to collect - boom!  Be warned: no doubt MCX is now in MI5's files as a potential postal bomber.

As it was mid-week, far too early for tourists and caravans and there was little snow on the Cairngorms, I took the route from Perth to Braemar over the Glenshee Pass.  It's amazing what the Scots will grade as an A-road, but that does give you more time to admire the stunning scenery.  And as you descend from Glenshee you observe an ever-expanding snow melt stream sparkling beside the road, hurling itself exuberantly off the mountains, liberally accumulating the oxygen essential to all life and the Dee's quality as a salmon river.  By the time I reached Dinnet and the Loch Kinnord Hotel I fully understood what had so inspired the Victorians.

Waterside Pool - sparkling in the spring sunshine
Day 1 - +18"
We were on the Waterside and Ferrar beat of the Upper Dee on the Glen Tanar Estate.  It comprises some 4 miles of double bank fishing with 14 named pools.  It is an exceptionally attractive beat owing to the variety of water and setting that every pool offers, with each posing the angler a different challenge.  It's the epitome of classic salmon fishing - the idealised vision of the tackle catalogue and the box of shortbread - with well tended banks, nice benches indicating the best lies, and huts with pot-bellied stoves.  I loved it.

Upper Kirk viewed from the wading line
The running line is up the right side
On Day 1 we had perfect water at +18", a real morale booster.  It was a frigid 6.5C, but with no obvious temperature barriers between us and Aberdeen this wouldn't stop the fish coming (if they so wished!).

Using the MCX Scoring System Upper Kirk pool where I began Day 1 scored 2 for level, 3 for speed, 3 for temperature, but only 1 for clarity.  Indeed on the gin scale the clarity scored about 70 Proof (or 37% ABV for the younger reader).  With a point knocked off for the brilliant sunshine I arrived at an aggregate of 8 points, which suggested a lightly weighted 1" black and yellow Dee tube and a 10' sink tip.  The system isn't designed to be precise, but rather to lead you to a logical and sensible choice that isn't likely to be far wrong. Indeed, about an hour later Davie the ghillie appeared and endorsed my judgement.  Over the 3 days the air temperature remained above the water's throughout, from a morning low of 7C to a tropical 16C on the afternoon of Day 1.

Upper Kirk - knee depth, mid-morning light
After years wading the burgundy shades of the Findhorn I was amazed by the clarity of the water.  Standing on the bank you could see the bottom across nearly one third of the width.  The sunlight penetration was accelerating the growth of the green weed and algae on the rocks in the shallows.

This extreme clarity caused a wobble of confidence in my choice of fly.  Having never been to Iceland or Norway to fish snow-melt fed rivers, this was beyond my experience. So too was the counter-intuitive paradox of rising air temperatures raising the river level. Nevertheless I stuck with the Dee tube for most of the first day: I'm not much convinced by frequent changes of fly, which seems to do more for the fisherman than the fish.

Waterside Pool - thigh depth
This shot gives another view of the clarity: there's at least 15'/5m of unusually good horizontal visibility in the normally opaque Window 1.  The sunlight penetration is striking.  The green/yellow tinge is caused by 2 factors.  First, water absorbs more of the red part of the spectrum, thus emphasizing the remainder.  Second, the strong green tone near the bottom is owed to the vegetable growth stimulated by the sunlight, which is not evident when viewed from above the surface.  It was this evidence that caused me to change to a smaller fly - initially a 3/4" Monkey and then to a conventional #8 double.  Lesson learned: if in doubt take the underwater photo to confirm the real sub-surface light level and visibility.

Bank Pool - Day 2 - +15"
At the top of the beat is Bank Pool, which swings to the right in a long arc of 90 degrees. The running line is near the far bank (left) and the conventional wisdom is that it is best fished from that side.  While that may be easier, it does deprive you of half the pool's length once you reach the visible cliff of its name.  Moreover, as the right side is very shallow, an easy wade to knee depth puts you within 25-30 yard casting range of the far bank, even in a blustery down and across wind.  Anyway, it's much more fun doing a full cast than a series of modified rolls off the bank into a narrow angle.  It was a different matter by Saturday, when it was blowing a full Force 5, but both right-handed Double Spey and Snake Roll kept the fly safely downwind whilst meeting 90% of the range requirement.

Duguid's Pool looking down towards Upper Kirk
Day 3 - +12"
Next down is Duguid's, where again the running line is on the left, easily approach via shallow wading from the right when allocated that side.  Located directly above the fast water leading down to Upper Kirk, Duguid's looked like a classic 'tail' pool.  Armed with appropriate optimism I fished it thoroughly - sadly without result.  Even on the running line it's not very deep, so I was using 10' of slow sink polyleader and a #8 double Cascade (also endorsed by Davie).

Upper Rhunavella looking down towards Waterside
Day 3 - +12"
You then make your way down through the three Kirks pictured above to Upper and Lower Rhunavella.  As Jones' sawmill occupies the right bank here,the Rhunavellas are fished from the left.  The photo doesn't do justice to either the speed and weight of the water, or the wind - by late morning on Day 3 standing up was becoming a more pressing challenge than the casting.  That said, the running line here converges from left of centre down into a narrow neck at the base of the large tree at the mouth of the small burn down on the left, which made it easy to cover.  Indeed, the neck is an ideal 'ambush' site for later in the season.  It's much less good for that purpose in April as you have to wait rather a long time for a fish to turn up!  None did on the Saturday.

Waterside Pool
End of fishing Day 3 - +10"
Finally you reach Waterside, which is fished from both banks and very long.  From the left it takes well over an hour to do it justice.  The running line is just to the right of the main flow in the foreground.  It's eminently reachable from the left bank provided the water is below +18".  Above that mark the wading becomes too demanding - it's much steeper and deeper on the far side than it looks.  The higher level also makes a good case for a sinking head, something with which I experimented on this trip for the first time.

Thus my Dee trip ended without a fish, which puts me in good company with lots of other people this year.  With the unusual warmth the salmon appear to have run straight through the Lower Dee (which normally fishes very well) but then came to a halt just above Banchory, to the delight of those fishing at Ballogie.  In the Upper river pickings have been very thin.  The beat above us caught one fish (a nice 20 pounder) whilst we were there, and a Swedish rod took a single fish on our beat in the previous period.  Otherwise the ghillies have been in a general state of gloom, lightened only by my dreadful jokes (thanks Davie, your laughter was good for my morale!).


So what did I learn from the experience?

  • Wading in cold water and casting in strong winds on a bigger river is tiring work.  Take regular breaks to warm up (important at my age) and rest your casting.  If you fish on relentlessly your casting will get progressively worse, deprive you of much pleasure and ultimately depress your morale.
  • Unless you're a seal, don't even think of wading the right side of Kirk - it's lethal.
  • Use the MCX Scoring System as a guide, but a waterproof camera provides a very useful cross-bearing on sub-surface visibility.
  • Bright spring sunshine makes the green slippery stuff grow very quickly, so never go into the water without a wading stick (I never do).  It's most slippery in the shallows.
  • As I noted in last year's spring post after fishing on the Ure, putting out a good line in strong winds depends on sound basic techniques, which you can only acquire through proper instruction, so take a pre-season lesson.  I'm not a good caster, but I could cover all the water required on all 3 days.
  • Be realistic about your chances.  With a 5 year average around 16 fish in April between 4 rods over 20 days' fishing, in a good year your catch probability is about 25-30%, and in a bad one as low as 3-5% (i.e. like 2013 and where 2014 is headed).  So don't fuss and fiddle, forever changing flies: just keep on doing the right thing and wait for the dice to roll your way.
  • There's more to fishing than just catching fish!  We had a thoroughly good week and we're already looking forward to next year, provided my wife discharges me from the secure psychiatric unit.

And Next

My next post, which will follow shortly, reports on the new kit that I tried on this expedition.  This included:

  • A comparative test of Guideline Scandi and Loop GDC sinking shooting heads
  • An evaluation of the new Rio Connect Core running line, with its thickened grip section