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