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.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting - and witty - as ever. Have you written anything on helping rookies read the river? Can you direct me to it if you have?