Monday 27 April 2015

JW's Fly Box - Echoes of the Past

All my small items of tackle spend the off season in the Great Fishing Chest (GFC) at the top of the stairs.  I took out all my salmon gear in late March: once it's stowed in the car boxes and wading jacket it remains there until the end of the season.  Last week thoughts of spring prompted me to go into the GFC to out-load the trout gear into my tackle vest.  Even after these two exercises there's still all manner of stuff in there, which in turn conceals other stuff, which over time gets forgotten.

After I'd got all the trout kit from its appointed places, in an idle moment I poked around in the depths of the far left bottom corner.  Lurking there under a pile of spare salmon lines was one of my grandfather's salmon fly boxes.  To be precise, a Hardy 'Neroda' bakelite box in 'Oxblood' shade.  This first appeared in their catalogue in 1934, so this box is probably of pre-war vintage.  The wear suggests that this had been a favourite.  It had lain undisturbed in that corner of the GFC since I inherited it on my father's death in 1992.

The contents were an echo of times past.  The flies are all tied on single hooks, the largest of which are around 4/0 long shank.  Several have gut eyes, whipped onto the spade-ended shanks and concealed by the dressing.  These are clearly visible in the photos below.  Some have clearly been used.  JW fished in Scotland and Ireland; and on the Tees, Wear, Ure, Axe, Exe and Torridge in England.  I haven't seen flies hooked and dressed like this for over 50 years, and am unable to recognise the patterns.

If you recognise any of those patterns, please let me know via the Comment tab.

JW in the 1950s
Salmon from the Axe or Exe
Hardy glass rod, Alcock multiplier
My grandfather, perennially known as 'JW', but addressed as 'Sir', was a most remarkable man.  He was born at Askrigg beside the Ure (I can see it from High Thoresby); half of his siblings died in an influenza epidemic in the 1880s; at age 3 his father, the village policeman, was murdered on duty; at 12 he walked the 60 miles to Hartlepool to get a job as the boy clerk in a 2-man start-up business; and at 35 he was managing director of the large company it had become.  Although he spent his later years living in Devon, he remained a Yorkshireman to his core.  Salmon fishing remained his greatest joy until he suffered a stroke spring fishing on the Exe at the age of 82.  Sadly he fell backwards onto the bank to survive into a lingering death, rather than forwards into the water to be carried away as he would have wished.  I think he would be gratified by my preoccupation with his favoured sport.

A Blackthorn Winter

We are currently undergoing a phenomenon known locally as a Blackthorn Winter, in that the blackthorn is flowering beautifully, but it still feels like winter - cool, windy and very, very dry - and most plants are running late.  Last night we had 3 degrees of frost.  We are almost at the end of April, and we've had 2 showers amounting to 4mm of rain against an average of 55mm.  This follows March 18/50mm and February 14/70mm.  Despite my exceptional  efforts - washing the car, watering the vegetable patch - there's no sign of substantial rain.  The garden is as dry as a bone and the rivers are exceptionally low for the time of year.  The springers can't get up nor the kelts down.  There isn't even enough water to exercise the Vision MAG 13 footer I've got on trial.  As a result I'll have no salmon fishing to write about until all together you deliver a truly effective rain dance......please.

Blackthorn Winter
Very low, very clear, very bright, 10C
River Rye
27th April 2015

Sunday 19 April 2015

Bonny Dee - Hope Expectation and Reality

Bonny Dee
Upper Kirk Pool, Waterside & Ferrar Beat
Fresh snow on the Cairngorms

Despite last year's disappointment with a blank Spring on the Dee, we re-booked 3 days in early April on Waterside and Ferrar.  This was of course completely irrational: based on the 5 year average for this beat, the realistic expectation would be 1.2 fish between 4 rods in the 3 days.  Put another way, the chance of me catching a salmon might touch 10%, which are pretty poor odds, especially when set against 700 miles of driving and the costs.  But salmon fishing isn't wholly rational: you have to be a mite daft to take it up in the first place, and if you are one of a group of 4 equally daft anglers, the effect is collective and cumulative.  Of course we persistently override reality in our pursuit of this beautiful fish - and springers are the pinnacle - in wonderful surroundings with like-minded, if rather deranged friends.  Then there's the challenge: if catching salmon was as simple as mackerel, we wouldn't bother. When I was a small child my first few mackerel trips were exciting, but that soon waned, which led me to seek the greater challenge of bass.  It took me 3 summers of unremitting persistence from age 8 till 10 to succeed, with more than a few tears of disappointment and frustration along the way.  Forty years later it symmetrically took me 3 seasons of just one week's fishing to catch my first Scottish salmon on a fly.  I was equally frustrated but I'd learned how not to cry: more important things had entered my life in the intervening years to add perspective and balance.

But the greatest challenge of all is the early springer, for the simple reason that they are relatively few in number.  It's not that they're difficult to catch per se: if a spring salmon is in taking mode and you put the fly in the right place, it's as undiscerning as any mackerel.  If it's not, then you're hunting a unicorn: myth says it exists but no one has seen one.  It's the beauty, muscularity, arm-numbing stamina and difficulty that tempts us to pick up the gauntlet.  The springer is almost a different animal, possessed of far greater power and speed than its muscle-depleted autumn siblings.  For those reasons my father and grandfather focused their efforts on spring fishing rather than the easier balmy autumn. But in their days the spring runs were a greater proportion of the whole (75% on the Dee); the odds correspondingly better; and they used spinners whenever the water was up more than 12 inches.  Equipped with their genes and Yorkshire grit, I'm just a little bit more daft than both of them, and a lot more hardened by today's lesser spring opportunities.

Morning sunlight sparkling on the Dee

Walking to the Water (a conundrum of contrasts)

Day 1 - crystal clear
The first morning presented an immediate challenge to the MCX Scoring System.  The water was at a good height (+12")(2) and flowing briskly (2) but crystal clear in bright sunlight (1).  It was also as cold as you might expect in a river fed by mountain snow melt (7C)(3).    The aggregate score of 8 would normally suggest very good fishing conditions and the use of a medium to large fly fished on a sink tip.  However, the combination of cold and extreme clarity introduced a conundrum and so prompted more thought.

Window 1 at depth 1 metre
Stick in centre field at 2 metres range
Nor were the conditions as clear-cut as they seemed on first inspection.  As a result of the very bright mid-morning sunlight, the visibility near the bottom - usually a murky place - was exceptional.  The visual range in the left of the photo is almost 3 metres.  If you could get the fly down there, then the salmon could detect it easily.  However, the green vegetable tint in the water, not visible from above, and the brightness of the rocks give a hint of the big problem.

Windows 2 & 3 at 45 degrees elevation
Sun glare and chronic light back-scatter

The intensity of the light in the upper quadrant and the high levels of back-scatter would trigger the salmon's de-sensitising retinal pigmentation.  In the absence of an iris to control the light entering the eye, the salmon uses a slow-changing pigment to protect the retina and especially its delicate low-light capability. It's like putting on sunglasses.  The effect is across the whole field of view and determined by the brightest segment.  This would reduce the salmon's detection range in the darker windows, and thus diminish the time available to react to the fly.  Moreover, the cold water could reduce the taking distance  (explained in Deep Thinking).  This logical process explains why fishing the fly too fast in cold water can be a serious error.  The requirement here was for a smaller fly than the 8 score implied; fished deep and below the normal optimum 45 degree elevation; and as slowly as possible in the prevailing flow.

This led me into a debate with Davie the Waterside ghillie.  I was inclined towards a medium speed sinking head (Guideline Scandi I/S2/S3) and a dark fly.  Davie cautioned against that solution on the grounds of the shallowness of the margins at the dangle, where I'd fight a lot of rocks, lose flies and waste time.  His advice was an intermediate or slow sinker, or a faster sinking polyleader, to present a medium sized orange fly.  You don't argue with that level of experience, and in any event someone had hooked a very big fish the previous week on precisely that set-up, which clinched the debate (even though they'd eventually lost it).

Guideline Scandi F/H/S1
Joseph's technicolour dream-line
In response I set up 2 rigs.  The first, for the main body and tails of the pools, was the Guideline slow sinking head - a wondrously glamorous iridescent blue - with a 5' slow sinking polyleader and 8' of fluorocarbon tippet.  If there's a prettier fly line on the market I've not seen it.  The second for faster water comprised a floating Rio Scandi head, a 10' fast sinking polyleader and 5' of fluorocarbon with a larger fly.  You will note that in each case there was an adequate length and mass of anchor to limit the effect of the short shooting heads.  Without that provision your anchor will persistently pull out and reduce the power of your cast, especially if you do things too quickly.  Both rigs cast well and turned over nicely, despite a demanding wind that strengthened over the 3 days, exceeding 20 mph on the Saturday.  But throughout I was nagged by the feeling that I just wasn't deep enough in the centre of the pools.  On the other hand, I didn't catch many rocks and only lost one fly.

On the water - The Kirks

Duguid's Run viewed from the Kirk mound
Yes, it really was this bright and the blue water is not a filter or Photoshop enhancement: it's just an exact reflection of the colour of the sky.  It was so striking that I stopped the car to get out and spend some time admiring the view.

 During the course of the morning the air temperature shot up from a chilly 6C into the teens.  Actually that was rather welcome as my bottom half, immersed in water at 7C, needed all the warmth it could get.

Upper Kirk
looking upstream from the right bank
Upper Kirk fishes well from both banks, although you can only wade safely on the left.  There you can employ your full casting repertoire.  With the prevailing wind coming downstream it helps to be good off your left shoulder. The running line is easy to reach at the head, but shifts further away and narrows as you progress down the pool, whilst the shallows on the left expand.  This means that you are casting an ever-increasing distance to fish a diminishing arc, which requires a completely straight leader deployment to make the fly effective on arrival.  That's a very demanding brief.  The edge of the photo represented a sensible limit beyond which there was no benefit in fishing.

Heading into Lower Kirk
Right bank
In contrast you fish the right side entirely from the bank.  This isn't a problem as even at the top of the Upper pool the running line is within easy reach of a good jump roll cast, as long as you don't try too hard (and blow the anchor) or cast too square.  Both mistakes catch grass.  The bugbear is the profusion of shallow stretches filled with magnetic rocks to trap your fly if you're not alert at the dangle.  It's best to walk around these and concentrate on the high-value lies.  There are 5 or 6 lies visible in this photo, starting with the one immediately to the right of the red tape on the rod (there's another directly below the first ring only 4 yards out).  But it's essential to stop and think before you start.  The most common mistake - no surprise - is the 1st Deadly Sin of Dumb Distance.  Don't always cast to maximum range: tailor the line length to achieve optimum presentation to the lie, which in the red tape case is on the near side of the swirl.  If you cast beyond it your leader will get caught up in the swirl and your fly will pass the fish at high speed at an odd angle and be disregarded.  The better solution is a more oblique cast from further back, which will achieve the slower presentation you need in cold water.  The key point is don't stick to a fixed angle and distance: vary both to suit the lies and the flow.  That requires looking ahead for the lies and making a plan for covering them effectively.  Dumb distance (and angle) is indeed a sin when dealing with water as good and varied as this pool.  On the other hand, I didn't catch anything, but at least I felt I had given myself the best possible chance.


Looking upstream
Like the Kirks, Waterside requires the full range of casts from the left bank, and deft roll casting from the right.  The running line  is towards the right side throughout its length, so again you don't have to over-cook your rolling efforts.  However, the bigger problem here is the wind.  Whereas the right bank of Kirk is sheltered by trees, anything westerly swirls straight down Waterside.  On the Saturday we had a gusty 20 mph wind coming downstream and inwards at about 30 degrees.  In such conditions you must think carefully about how you will overcome the challenge: but don't panic!

Right bank looking downstream
Note the wind 'cat's paws' on the surface
These are the conditions where the relatively short Scandi (or the ultra-short Skagit) lines come into their own, on account of their minimal requirement for back space for a usable D-loop.  With a 20 mph downstream wind a Single Spey would be downright dangerous.  But you might doubt your ability to pull off a Double Spey on your right side owing to the confined space in the acute angle between you and the bank.  If you take it slowly and easily to ensure good anchor placement and retention, you will be surprised by what you can achieve. The alternative is a half Snake Roll to reposition the line onto your casting direction, followed by a straight Roll off the water.  Of course you're not going to achieve long range, but here both options were more than enough to cover the running line at 60 degrees: 18-20 yards was ample.  Faced with the horrid casting conditions the other rods had given up trying from this bank, which gave me a clear run down the full length of Waterside in beautiful sunshine to end my 3 days' fishing.  If you've got the right kit; a sound grasp of the basics (I'm not a good caster); and think clearly, you can generally extemporise a solution to the challenge.  Sadly the fish were unimpressed by both my virtuosity and my dedication.

Another Blank

And so ended another blank session on this beautiful river.  The facts were simple: there weren't many fish there (one hooked and lost the week before us and none landed since) and the blinding light was an exceptional handicap.  Nevertheless, I wasn't downhearted and had fished every cast in the belief that a fish was possible.  I'd revelled in the fresh air, surroundings and convivial company of my friends, feeling that I'd had a proper holiday.  That said, I don't think I'll bother re-booking for this time, and save my efforts and cash in an endeavour to get onto Waterside and Ferrar in May.  It won't be easy and may take some years to achieve.

Apparently this is Davie's last season as ghillie on Waterside - his third retirement.  He's been great company and tolerant of my hopeless jokes, for which I am most grateful.  I wish him a long and happy retirement.

Speaking of which, after almost 50 years' full time work, I've decided that the time has come to throttle back slightly.  To that end I went onto a part-time basis from April Fools' Day: time alone will show whether it was wise or foolish, but I'll certainly get more fishing and time to write about it.  That said, some water would be a good start - we're having a drought spring in Yorkshire.

But for those of you who do have water to fish, tight lines.

Saturday 4 April 2015

Chilled Tweed Pearl - A Return to Rutherford

As I noted in my last post, my very kind friend Tony invited me once again to join him for a day at Rutherford at the end of March.  Sadly his mother in law's death and funeral prevented Tony from fishing, but most generously he gave me the opportunity to take a guest to fill his place.  John  enthusiastically accepted my offer, so we set off on the Sunday evening to drive from Yorkshire to Kelso, an easy 150 miles with no traffic whatsoever beyond Newcastle.

We stayed at the Ednam House Hotel in Kelso, the archetypal Edwardian salmon fisher's resting place, which faces directly onto the Junction pool.  It's the sort of place where my grandfather would have stayed: indeed, I half expected to meet his tweed clad ghost during my stay.  There have been some changes since my last visit: the stone flagged hall in which triumphant anglers would lay out their broad shouldered Tweed salmon for all to admire, is now neatly carpeted.  Perhaps it's a sign of more modest times.  The Edwardians were great ones for shooting a line, to an even greater extent than the City yuppies of the eighties and oughties.  They loved flaunting their achievements and revelled in records and statistics in ways we'd find distasteful.   However, in a time of austerity, modesty and fewer rods on the river, the Ednam has to appeal to a wider client base.  Its recent purchase by a company that operates a chain of boutique hotels across Scotland and Northumberland suggests that even greater changes may be on the way (and probably higher prices too - this stay was good value at a B&B price for a room with a view over the river).  The morning temperature made a big breakfast essential.  I don't think breakfast gets better than a full English (or Scottish as we were on the north bank) whilst surveying the Junction Pool.

The conditions on the river reinforced the wisdom of our breakfast choice.  Air and water were evenly matched at 5C, whilst a raw westerly blew straight downstream at around 20 knots.  The river stood at a perfect +1' 4" and was clearing nicely.  Michael Farr recommended a sinking line and a medium sized fly before despatching us to the bottom quarter of the beat at Lover's Leap to fish until lunch.

Lover's Leap
looking downstream from the head
If the photograph looks a little hazy it's the shake caused by wind and cold.  The rest of me was comfortably warm with 3 layers of Simms 'ninja pyjamas' (as my friends call them), Vision Ikon Goretex waders and my ancient Snowbee jacket.  But as soon as I removed my gloves to rig up the wind cut in and my fingers developed the shaky fumbles.  That condition and the wind didn't make for a steady hand on the camera, so I've failed to do a very pretty stretch of water justice here.  It's also very 'fishy': it looks right, feels right and gives you confidence that something might just happen, all the more so as there were fish present.

Although we were more sheltered from the wind than the upper water, keeping the casting neat and tidy was still quite a challenge.  The Guideline Scandi S2/3 head cut through the turbulence without difficulty - no problem there.  The issue was with forming and preserving the D-loop in the Double Spey whilst keeping the running line under control.  Not only was there wind pressure on the rod in the 'round and up' phase, but also, as you came 'up', the D-loop staged a bid for downstream freedom despite the sustained anchor.  Achieving the perfect 180 degrees was out of the question, especially during the gusts.  In such conditions you have to fish within your limits and above all, don't try to fight the wind with physical force, because you'll just wear yourself out and cover less water.  That said, it's not easy to relax and calm down when everything seems on the edge of disarray.  But every time I did, the line flew far further and far better: if you stop worrying about perfection, then fishing in challenging conditions becomes much more enjoyable.  

I also had a pleasant surprise: last year on the Dee I had a real problem digging the Guideline head out at the end of the swing (as recorded in Sinking Feeling) and ended the day frustrated and rather angry  All is now forgiven: I retract my previous criticism because the Guideline head behaved perfectly all day, extracting smoothly and consistently.  Of course it takes effort, but this year it certainly didn't feel immovable.  The only change was the rod: last year I was using the Loop Cross S1 14 footer; and this year the much softer Vision Cult 13' 8".  I haven't a clue whether that made any difference.

On that note, this was my first outing with the Cult since the replacement of the horrid reel seat with an ALPS down-locker, and of the old Koma with the new Rulla.  The combination provides perfect balance, which makes for a very easy fishing experience.  In this circumstances you just don't have to think about the rod or change the position of your right hand between fishing and casting.  My only complaint is that the Rulla is so shiny it's massively over-exposed in the photo.  The Cult remains a most satisfying rod.  Despite its 'slow' action and 13' 8" length it covered all the water I needed all day, without fatigue.  In contrast John, fishing a 15 footer, was still stiff 3 days later.

Wading gingerly past the spot where I took a swim in February 2013 (just short of the small point on the right), I fished on down.  Everything looked and felt so right that I remained focused throughout.  This really is beautiful fishing water, with a realistically reachable running line.  The odds are never as good in the spring as they are later in the year, but to date Rutherford has been having a very good spring run, with catches significantly above the 5 year average for March.

As always lunch came too quickly and we repaired to the hut with its warming stove.  In Tony's absence there were no haggis crisps this year, although 'Anglesey Sea Salt' flavour maintained the international tendency.  One of the rods fishing the upper water had caught a couple of kelts and several fresh fish had shown during the morning, so optimism remained the order of the day, even if the forecast warned of rain in the afternoon.

looking down towards Anne's Bank
With lunch complete and the river properly rested, I headed upstream to the Island, which comprises a long straight run influenced by croys  on both sides.  It's yet another Rutherford stretch that reeks of fish.  That said, optimism was the best available defence against the worsening weather as the Island is wide open.  Putting up the hood on my jacket helped, but for all its extra warmth I dislike the loss of situational awareness it brings.  I prefer to be in touch with everything around me, and so tend to put up the hood only when forced by the conditions.  In contrast, under the water things had improved by a couple of points on the MCX scale, so I put on a smaller fly - a No 6 Cascade double -  in place of the morning's 1" tube.

I fished steadily down the Island, very happy in the otherwise dour conditions.  There's an old Army saying - "any fool can be uncomfortable".  Nowadays, with all the superb bad weather clothing on the market, misery is an entirely avoidable condition.  As ever, it's worth spending a little more to get quality and durability; and don't skimp on the base layers.

After 90 minutes Michael Farr reappeared to take me up to the top of the beat to fish from the boat, whilst John carried on down from where I'd finished.  I can't say that I much enjoy casting from a boat, but on the other hand Michael's company more than compensated.  That said, he's a man with economy of language.  About half way through the session, as he hadn't said anything about it, I asked whether I was placing the fly correctly in relation to the current and boat, to which he responded "if you weren't I'd tell you soon enough".  Well, it's nice to know you're doing it right, even if indirectly.  But however well I did it, the salmon remained unstimulated.

So it was another blank day, but I'd thoroughly enjoyed myself despite the lack of a fish and the weather.  It was glorious to be out at Rutherford again; to have a fly in the water after a long dreary winter; and to make a start to the new season.  

Next week I'm back on the Dee on the Waterside and Ferrar beat of Glen Tanar.  Judging by the Fish Pal reports there are fish up there this year, whereas last year they seemed to stop at Ballogie, about 4 miles downstream from us.  But even with that hopeful news the odds remain very firmly against us, so my expectations are very low.  On the other hand its a very pretty piece of water in lovely surroundings and it's great to get away with friends for a couple of days.  It's not just about catching fish - a phrase that became all too familiar in 2014 - although in truth I'd love to catch a beautiful silver springer to get the year off to a great start.

Here's to a new season and tight lines to you all.