Wednesday 14 October 2015

The Beast of Wensleydale

Last Friday I fished the Thoresby beat of the Bolton Hall water on the Ure up in Wensleydale.  I was respectably optimistic: the river had risen sharply on Wednesday after heavy rain and had fallen steadily to a slightly low but eminently fishable level of +18".  The duration of the spate didn't promise a wholesale run up from the estuary, but it would certainly concentrate the significant numbers of fish that have been resident over the summer in the 40 miles of river above York.

Flesh Dub at +18"

I put my guest onto Frodle Dub before going downstream to fish Flesh Dub, which was looking lovely on a glorious bright autumn day.  In the absence of rain and wind most of the leaves are still on the trees to show their colourful glory.  Despite the passage of 2 days there was still plenty of visible colour in the water.  There were two reasons for this: first, the spate had churned up all of the decaying vegetable matter that had grown on the rocks over the summer, which being lighter than normal sediment, was still hanging in the water.  And second, the very bright autumn sunshine made it look worse through the effects of back-scatter and dazzle.  Every time the sun went behind a cloud you could see quite clearly into the water.

The MCX Score came out at 7.  I deducted a point for the brightness and light effects to arrive at 6, which meant a plain fluorocarbon leader and a fly at #8 or 10.  With the back-scatter problem it would be essential to present the fly above the fish in its Window 3. Anything there will appear as a dark silhouette, so colour was not a big issue.  Accordingly I put an MCX Dark Shrimp on a 13 foot leader and got to work with the MAG 13.

Within a few minutes I missed an energetic grilse take in the fast water in the mid-stream at the head of the pool.  A quick double knock, a shake of its head and it was gone.  In little more than 18-24 inches of water, this fish was clearly intent on running, and was certainly fully alert.  I might have missed the opportunity, but the overall morale impact was positive, because grilse are rarely singular.

Fully focused on the task I fished steadily down the pool.  Just past the little point on the left I cast to a well known and productive lie about 2/3 rds of the way across.  The take was solid and positive as a good fish turned away.  I fingered the line and leaned back to set the hook.  The strength of the fish was obvious from the outset: it was akin to being attached to a very powerful and athletic tractor.  Whenever it decided to go somewhere, it went.  Even with the rod at 45 degrees for maximum effect and at full bend, all I could do was influence.  I made my way up onto the bank, discarded the wading stick and net, and made an outline plan.  There's plenty of room in Flesh Dub to fight a big fish - it's over 250 yards long - but there are 3 rocks to avoid (I've lost good fish round 2 of them) because a leader just won't take that sort of punishment.  Two are in the middle and the third down by the willow tree on the far side.  So the key choice is whether to conduct the fight above or below the middle rocks.  In the event the fish decided that above was its preferred option - most of the time!

After 10 minutes I had still not seen the fish.  It was clearly very big: I guessed something over 20 lbs.  Every time it ran obliquely to the current it generated massive force: it was a bit like fighting a door.  This meant going up or down the bank, depending on which way I hoped to make it turn.  When it went downstream it was unstoppable: all I could do was follow to stay square.  After 20 minutes I hadn't got it any closer to my side of the river.  Shortly thereafter it came in my direction and we saw each other for the first time at a range of 10 yards.  We reacted in different ways: I was mutely shocked by the sheer size of the beast; he was seriously angry, and headed off down the pool towards the willow tree.  Along the way he made 3 great leaps clear of the water with lots of head shaking and tail crashing.  The splashes on re-entry were on a par with my efforts in a Tuscan swimming pool this summer.  Each time as he came up I dropped the rod tip to the water to slacken the line to limit the risk of him striking the leader with his tail, or worse, rolling over it.  Once he had turned and completed the inspection and testing of my backing, I headed off in pursuit.  After a little while he took against the lower part of the pool and headed back up, whilst I piled on the side strain to guide him past the middle rock and followed up the bank to stay square or slightly below him.

I clearly had a problem: there's nowhere to beach a fish on Flesh Dub, and trying to net the beast on my own would be horribly risky.  Accordingly, I filled my lungs and let rip with the loudest "Help!" I could manage, whilst frantically waving to my guest 250 yards upstream.  Pride has its limits, and I was quite ready to accept assistance.  Eventually, to my intense relief, he got the message and advanced down the bank with his very large net.

It then took a further 20 minutes to get the fish into an area where I could watch its movement and start manoeuvering it towards netting.  Even so, its head hadn't come up, nor had there been any sign of its flanks, the key indicators of readiness to land.  Tony took up station on a small promontory by an inlet clear of large rocks, whilst I endeavoured to steer the fish for a head first entry.  The primary means to this end was moving about on the bank (up/down, forward/back) in order to keep the rod at 45 degrees.  Once you raise the rod above 60 degrees your ability to exert side force evaporates.  After 5 minutes and two passes, Tony executed the perfect head first netting, and held the fish in the water.  The fish and I were probably equally tired, but I was on cloud nine of exultation.  He was seriously fed up and showed it.

I've caught several salmon in the range 23-29 lbs, interestingly all of them hens, but this cock was a totally different experience.  Every bit of him was on a grand scale - tail, fins, flanks and head.  He had displayed extraordinary stamina: even my largest hen came easy after about 20-25 minutes, allowing me to do solo landings.  The MAG had been bent at 90 degrees on full power for most of 45 minutes.  By the end I was holding the upper cork with both hands and my fingers were starting to stiffen.  One thing that would never have given way was the hook hold: both sides of the double were right through the toughest part of the upper jaw grisle about an inch forward of the scissors.  One quick wrench with the locking pliers and it was out.

Tony ran the tape measure over him: 42 inches from nose to fork.  A quick consultation of the tables offered 32, 34 and 35 pounds.  Allowing for time in the river - although his mass depletion was negligible - I opted for a best estimate of 32 pounds.  In any event I have finely calibrated arms at precisely that weight - the 15 Kg budget airline baggage allowance for my wife's suitcase!

Then it was one quick lift for the photos and away he went, hopefully to do his duty at spawning time.  As Tony was stood several feet above me in the water, the photograph doesn't do justice to the beast's impressive depth of 12".  It's not pretty, but it is magnificent.

Happy Day - 9th October 2015
32 lbs cock fish

All salmon fishing involves luck.  There is no clever or expert explanation for my catching this wonderful fish.  If you put the right sort of fly in roughly the right place with a nice straight leader, then perhaps the fates may smile upon you.  And when it happens, don't be surprised.


  1. Great feat Michael!! Wonderful fish who's so tired he's yawning! Bet you were equally tired once the euphoria had worn off....or has it yet??

    All the best and I hear the Ure beckoning for next season!!


  2. Fantastic fish...very well done