Monday 14 September 2015

Deveron 2015 - Delightful but Dirty

Netherdale Beat 2
Looking upstream, water at + 20"
A rare photo taken in sunshine!

This year Just One Week migrated to the Deveron from its long term residence on the Findhorn. I'd never fished the Deveron, but its reputation, John's report from last year's reconnaissance and the enthusiastic following on the Salmon Fishing Forum combined to lift my anticipation to its usual August - September level.  This year, however, a wonderful family holiday in Italy in mid August diverted me from ranting about the weather or being completely obsessive.  My wife thought my covert looks at the SEPA water levels amidst the glories of Tuscany were acceptable, especially when judged against the standard of the past 15 years' seasonal daftness as evidenced in The Countdown and  Divine Madness.

As always my big worry was whether we would have any water.  The Deveron had a small rise in mid August but the forecast wasn't promising.  It was time for all good folk to come to the aid of the party, so I issued an appeal to friends and contacts for prayers, rain dances and magic.  The effects were variable: Steve, working in Italy, achieved only local effect, putting Pisa Airport under a foot of water on the morning we flew back to England, delaying the flight by 4 hours.  History subsequently showed that the range of his powers increased with practice and the incentive of fishing the same beats the week after me.  The locals, already in a state of grave concern at the lack of fishing, donned full regalia and took to the mountain tops.  No matter who was most effective, it worked!  Indeed, as you will see shortly, in some respects it worked rather too well.

Line cleaning
Warm, not hot, soapy water
Followed by drying and polishing
Once I got home the well practiced routine got underway: checking and stowing kit; servicing reels; cleaning and polishing lines; and finally loading the car.  For once there was no excuse or reason to stop at John Norris: I'd done so little fishing since my last visit in April on the way up to the Dee that nothing was needed.  This year stowing the car presented a greater challenge than normal: the change from a medium sized estate to a compact 4x4 reduced the available volume by 30%, while the dog's box hasn't changed in size and the number of rods seems to have crept upwards.  The smaller car did, however, prompt an unexpected degree of wifely space economy without any prompting on my part.

Following the established meteorological tradition, the rain forecast for the Cairngorms drifted inexorably to the north whilst the Deveron's level drifted southwards.  We just don't seem to get the traditional solid 200 mile wide frontal systems at the moment - just random large scattered showers.  If one hits the catchment area of the river you're going to fish then you may be in luck for a short period, but if not, it just passes by leaving you with ankle deep water.  This phenomenon affects the Deveron more than its neighbours, the Spey and Findhorn, because its catchment is on the north eastern shoulder of the mountains, rather than others on the west side facing the prevailing direction of weather arrival.  For that reason the Spey and Findhorn fished very well throughout August, whereas the Deveron, a mere 15 miles east, was devoid of water.  As I explained in The Vital (Missing) Ingredient, in most salmon rivers, no rain equals no water equals no fish.

Upper Carnousie
We arrived to find the river as expected, very low and clear, with only short stretches of fishable flow.  At normal fishing height the water on the Carnousie beat is up in the grass on the left side.  With only one small lift since the spring there were very few fish in the river, and they would be virtually uncatchable.

On a more positive note, the river was stuffed with trout of all sizes,feisty sea trout and legions of salmon parr.  It's always heartening to see a river full of life with a good supply of invertebrates.

Netherdale 2
The Loggs
The Carnousie and Netherdale beats are very attractive water.  The Deveron is, however, very different from both the popular image and my previous experience of Scottish salmon rivers, in that it isn't set in a glen surrounded by purple mountains.   For much of its length the Deveron runs through prime agricultural land that is intensively farmed with barley and seed potatoes on a good friable loam soil.  The consequences of this geography became apparent as soon as the rain came.

Netherdale 2 starting to rise
Tuesday 10 am
We'd been praying for this to happen and the rain arrived on cue.  It wasn't especially hard but it was persistent and falling throughout the catchment area. After about 6-8 hours the river started to rise slowly but steadily.

The first 4" of the rise
At first it rose whilst running clear, but before long the character of the water changed completely, from this to.....

The product of the next 4"

Aberdeenshire drinking chocolate!  Even without hard rain and rapid run off, enough of the 'friable loam' made its way into the river to make it unfishable.

Early stage of the rise
Depth 20cm horizontal view in shallow water
Windows 1, 2 & 3 visible
Actually, underwater it wasn't quite as bad as it appeared, but still bad enough to reduce one's chances to near zero.  The pink tinge is characteristic of the soil type (the Devonshire Exe is similar).  On the occasions the sun emerged through the clouds the back-scatter of light from the suspended particles was dazzling, and would have been extremely trying for the fish.  The green component at the bottom arises from the tremendous growth of vegetable matter during the long months of low water during the summer, which then detaches as the river rises.

Putting on a brave face
MCX in the rain
The rain kept coming and the river continued to rise.  To be brutally frank the conditions were pretty unpleasant for both salmon and people.  They couldn't see the flies that we were having great difficulty in casting off the raised banks in the gusty 20 knot downstream wind.  Undeterred I kept on trying - what else would you expect - whilst consoling myself that it would be ungracious to complain about the success of our prayers for rain, except that it was never enough to bring the sustained 4 foot spate the river so desperately needed.

Stable level +20"/50cm, Thursday 5pm
Depth 3' 6"/ 1.1m
Horizontal view Window 1 & 2

On the fourth day the rain abated somewhat and the river level stabilised at around +20-24". The mud dropped out and the Deveron re-assumed its more normal high water colour, which had been described to me as "inky".  This picture taken at fish depth suggests that 'Madeira' might be more accurate.  In this zone even a salmon would be hard pressed to detect and react to anything much except at point blank range.  However, the shot below was taken 60 seconds later in the same place but at a different angle.

Stable level +20"/50cm, Thursday 5 pm
Depth 3' 6"/ 1.1m
45 degree upward view of Windows 2 & 3
Elevating the sight line to the salmon's optimum detection angle of 45 degrees changes the tint and contrast, and provides a detection range of about 1-1.5 metres for dark flies. This underlines the key point that the correct depth for presenting your fly is at 45 degrees elevation above and ahead of the salmon, and not at its eye level.  So, while the natural impulse in dirty water may be to reach for the sinking line and go deep, this will be the wrong response because you could be concealing your fly in the gloom of Window 1.  Plus 20" isn't very deep, so a slow sink tip and a Conehead tube will put the fly where it can be seen and reached.

Netherdale 2
Looking down to Burn End
We now started to fish with more purpose and optimism.  There weren't yet many fish in the beats but more were coming off each high tide, especially some lovely pods of silver grilse.  The strong downstream wind was still awkward, especially as the great majority of casts had to be made from the bank.  However, as most of the grilse takes were occurring close to the dangle in the bank margins, there were no extra prizes for forcing long square casts.  You just had to be content with 45 degrees and covering 2/3 rds of the water.  It was nonetheless slow dour work, especially during the squalls.

Netherdale 1
The Doctor's Run
Dour work in a squall

Some of the pools and lies were unfishable with a fly owing to the wind and uncleared bankside vegetation, most notably the otherwise productive Burn End.  Once you got onto the promontory in the shot above, a machete was more useful than a fly rod.

I wasn't even trying to cast square!
A most unusual snag of the D loop
Dead sheep on the croy at the bottom of Netherdale 1 Upper

I don't think that my sticking with the fly made much difference, not least because the spinners weren't catching anything either

Heavy water, raised bank and downstream wind

This shot underlines the point about not striving to cast too far.  You can't fish the lie in the foreground effectively by casting out beyond it.  At this level the running line splits either side of the obstacle, which also provides some good short-halt 'breather' lies.  You have to come at it from a narrower angle with a shorter line. Casting like an automaton to a fixed angle and your maximum achievable distance will win the effort prize and little else besides.

Deveron Silver
Sea-fresh grilse ca 5.5 lbs
1" Cascade conehead on slow sink polyleader
Finally the effort prize turned up before breakfast on the Saturday morning. However, I cannot claim that skill or theory had anything to do with its capture.  This was an outrageous fluke in accordance the finest traditions of salmon fishing.  I had just entered the water on a shallow wading line that gave me room for a left handed Double Spey in the downstream wind, and rolled the shooting head downstream at a shallow angle.  Whilst I was stripping the running line off the reel in preparation for my first full length cast of the day, bang! and there it was, perfect in its silver livery.

Naturally I went into breakfast in high spirits and with optimism that was rising inversely with the river's fall.  Sadly our hopes for a great day were dashed by a further rising and colouring of the water - up 4" during breakfast.  Patrick managed to land a fine 14 pounder mid-morning, but that was all.  I got a nice solid 2 lbs sea trout at lunchtime as a minor consolation at the end of a long hard week's fishing with precious little reward - one salmon and 2 grilse between 5 rods is thin pickings for the first week of September - but that's salmon fishing.

So what did I take away from the week?

  • The Deveron's a lovely river, and given respectable water levels over a fortnight or more would undoubtedly hold a lot of good fish.  But you can't expect much dividend from the first 20 inch rise since the spring.
  • In low clear water the weapon of choice is a small double hander (mine's a 12 footer) or strong single (10' #7), fished with very small flies (#14 & 16) on a fine leader at longer range.  With the raised banks good fieldcraft is essential because the fish can see you over long distances.
  • With the water at +20" a 13 footer is the weapon of choice.  I was using the new Vision MAG for most of the week: my impressions will comprise the next post.
  • You have to put the fly where the fish can reach it, but always present it above the sight line to increase the chance of detection, especially in dirty water.
  • If you've prayed for rain, don't complain when it happens!  Nature isn't fair, it's just natural.
  • When the conditions are marginal you have 2 choices: retire to the lodge; or stick at it and wait for the outrageous fluke.
  • The generosity of advice and kindness from my SFF colleagues was outstanding: thank you Craig and Steve.
  • Gilly and John remain champion hosts and organisers: thank you.

Forlorn hope 2015

A more optimistic view
Netherdale 2
Looking back to the hut

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