Thursday 21 September 2017

Sins & Virtues - 4 Lessons from Tomatin 2017

I always try to learn something from every day and every week spent fishing.  In that respect I'm guilty of over-analyzing things, but insofar as fishing is concerned, I find reflection a very pleasant activity.  Whilst plainly guilty as charged (not least in teasing by my wife and children), my plea in mitigation of sentence is that however detailed the analysis, I do try to keep the lessons simple.  Here are a four from the week at Tomatin.

1.  In high water, if in doubt, think about energy saving

Not all pools at every water height are amenable to analysis.  The running lines, defiles, holding areas and short-halt lies won't always stand out from the seemingly bland expanse of bumpy brown water before you.  And when the river's high, the area of water is often much larger, making the problem even more difficult.  Furthermore, the running lines you've previously identified at lower water levels may not apply when there's another 18 - 30" on the gauge.  If you fish to those alone you may be sadly disappointed.

If there's nothing else to guide you, go back to first principles.  The foremost evolutionary imperative on the salmon is to breed, and to do that it must survive.  When its reserves of cellular energy are expended, it dies.  Consequently the salmon's survival strategy is rooted in energy conservation, and this becomes an imperative in heavy water.  If there's an easier way up the pool they will take it, even if it means compromising security by passing through and briefly holding in shallower water than they would normally accept in daylight.  Grilse, which are the least efficient swimmers and thus must conserve energy by any means, will take greater risks with water depth than their MSW relatives.  The shallowest water in which I've ever taken a grilse was less than 12", on the Deveron in 2015, although I must stress that wasn't deliberate, just a fluke whilst putting my line out.  Nonetheless the point is valid.

The deductions from this are:
  • Dump your preconceptions based on lower water levels
  • Look at all the water deeper than 12-18"
  • Identify the easiest ways through the pool

Here's a practical example based on the very productive Churan pool.  The normal lower-water running line is shown in blue. The high water option for large fish is in red: John hooked his 18 pounder beside that line.  The grilse line in orange shows that the angler downstream is wading too deep!  Yet all the temptation is to cast to the normal line: the next lesson will explain why that's not a great idea.

2.  Oblique fly presentation adds value so shorten your cast

Views of a Cascade Conehead
Replicated conditions
This is a salmon's eye view of a Cascade conehead from my archive, adjusted to exactly the water and light conditions in which we were fishing for most of the week.  I've not adjusted the size of the image for real range (-4.5X), otherwise you would scarcely see it.  You will note that even at 90 degrees it's not easily detected; at 30 it's still visible; but at 60, representing the approach to the dangle, it's a very small target.  A fly presented at a broad angle has 4-5 times the probability of detection of one at the dangle.

under the A9 looking towards the tail

I confess: this photo proves I've broken one of my own golden rules.  Unable to resist defying my age and the temptations of the Vision MAG, I cast to 'O' under the far bank, in order to cover the maximum area of water.  However, if you look at N1, drawn down my line in the water, you will see that it's already straightening with the fly at a narrow angle.  By N2 it's to all intents at the dangle in the slower flow.  But as the blue arrow shows, this means I will present the fly end on for 40% of the area, thereby reducing my chance of catching a running fish.

Now repeat the exercise with a shorter cast to A, then throw a downstream mend to B.  With only 60-70% of the casting distance you increase your amount of oblique presentation by half, whilst reducing the end on fraction to about 10-15%. The effects on the odds of you getting a running salmon's attention and possibly securing a take have increased considerably. Presentation always trumps distance, so play the percentages.

3.  Play the percentages

Garden Pool at +3' 6"
early on Saturday morning
showing the percentage lanes

Here is another example of how the percentages should influence your thinking.  There will be some big fish in holding lies under the heavy water beyond the centreline (I caught several 9-11 lbs there in 2011 at +2' 6"), but at this height you need a very heavy front end to get down into their taking envelopes.  That rig is right for 20% of the water (but the fly will only work properly for half of that), although not for the rest.  In the slower water the fly will be below the salmon's sight line, harder to detect and less likely to be taken.  By virtue of simple odds (confirmed by experience), the lighter option with a shorter cast to the near edge of the fast water will catch more fish.

4.  When the evidence changes, change your mind

Bertha's Channel
Garden Pool tail
This is another lesson drawn from an error of judgement. However, the photo shows me about to catch a nice grilse, so I did obey the dictum above. At the beginning of the week, when the height allowed I fished down to the bottom of Garden, working the 'banker' lies by the copse on the far side that have previously yielded me a good crop of fish in the 8-14 lbs range in medium to higher water.  Coming in having caught none, I passed through a channel running up the near bank that was much deeper than the water in which I had been wading.  Bertha or Frank has opened up a new line of approach that was now deep enough for both grilse and MSW salmon.  Better still, it would require fish to make a turn that would lead them to see a fly at the dangle at a very broad angle.  The evidence suggested that this would be more productive than the copse lies, so every visit thereafter I disregarded my previous experience; dispensed with wading altogether; and focused my efforts on the 'Pocket' and 'Bertha's Channel'.  The strategy worked: over half the fish I caught that week came from those two areas; and our host's wife hooked her first salmon in Bertha's Channel, an aggressive cock fish that took her 350 yards downstream during the fight.

The trick is to identify and reflect on your mistakes in order to profit from them.  My biggest sin all week was casting too far, because I could: the MAG 13 is a serpent of temptation in that regard.  On the other hand, total virtue is boring whereas casting 30 yards off the bank on Dalnahoyn puts a smile on my face, even if it doesn't catch me extra fish.

Thinking of smiles, my next post will be a review of the Vision Tool 11' 6" #8, which I bought for low water but was christened this week with an 11 pounder with +2' 6" on the gauge.


  1. After this prolonged dry spell do you have a view as to how long it would take salmon to get to Tomatin once we get a spate?

    1. Provided the spate is big enough - say 3-4 feet - and lasts at least 24 hours, then the experience of 2004, 2006, 2011 and 2013 would suggest that after a prolonged dry spell the first fish take 4-5 days to arrive at Tomatin. In 2012 the very low water temperatures increased that figure to 7+ days.
      First the grilse arrive; then all the spring and summer fish from lower down the river; and finally the late runners from the estuary. However, what you don't want is for them to run straight through as many did in 2012. In the perfect years, 2004 and 2011, the rain started about 10 days before we arrived and was followed by a succession of smaller spates each bringing waves of new fish.
      When are you due to be there?
      Tight lines.

    2. Many thanks. Due in the first week of Sep. I'm sure we'll enjoy ourselves whatever the conditions!

    3. Peter,
      the rain forecast for next week, although not heavy might stimulate some movement and bring some grilse into the water. It remains to be seen what the weather brings in the last week of August.
      I assume you're staying at Tomatin House: if you've not been before, you'll love it. You walk straight out of the door onto the fishing. There are loads of other things to do and see. And if it's pouring with rain there's so much room in the house that you don't fall over each other and you can always find a quiet corner to read or whatever. Tight lines and have a great week.