Wednesday 20 September 2017

Welcome back - a return to Tomatin House

It's often said "don't go back to the places of happiest memory, for you shall surely be disappointed".  Despite having this in mind, when invited to Tomatin House, the base of so many very happy memories, for a one-off week in September, I leapt at the chance.  It wasn't wholly for the fishing - it's not a premium beat and is completely water dependent - but rather for the breadth and balance of the whole package.  We would be there with old and comfortable friends to enjoy each other's company; eat and drink together; and undertake all manner of activities from golf to walking via bridge and reading as the weather dictated.  This year's trip to the Gaula had given me a salutary lesson on the value of balance, and the return to Tomatin, the birthplace of Just One Week, would be balance exemplified.  On the other hand, this is a fishing blog, so you'll understand if I do focus on the fishing.

The build up to the week was completely out of character.  Normally I busy about doing all manner of things in a well established order whilst fretting incessantly about the weather and water levels.  Posts like 'D-14 - The Countdown' and 'D-7 - Divine Madness' describe this in detail: my wife considers the title of D-7 especially apt.  However, this year was different: the family complete with grandchildren, bumps (joy, two more on the way) and dogs occupied the second half of August.  Laying out a fly line for cleaning and polishing would have been seriously high risk: the two toddlers would have tied wonderful knots; the Jack Russell would have buried one end whilst the Puggle chewed the other (he got the rain gauge again) and the Ridgeback got tangled up and ran off with the middle section. Pedantic preparation was off the agenda: my primary responsibility was to be the avuncular grandfather, so it was just a quick check of the car boxes and lock the garage.  After the family departed my wife and I headed off to Provence to spend a week with friends, enjoy the food and sunshine, and soak up the relaxation.  It was the perfect cure for salmon neurosis and weather anxiety.  It was so sybaritic that I was disinclined to view the Fort Augustus weather forecast more than once per day.  We left the beautiful Luberon warmth and returned home around 11pm on an autumnal Saturday night. We had barely unpacked before we were stuffing the car for Scotland and on the road before 9am.  Amazingly, only one item was left behind, my wife's waterproof trousers (outdoor kit therefore my fault).  The significance of that omission would become apparent all too soon.

France had worked its magic and I was remarkably relaxed, despite the annual phenomenon of the 'Vanishing Rain of Inverness'.  It started in earnest as we crossed the border into Scotland.  I suppressed any elation, because so often in the past, rain in the Lowlands has been succeeded by camels on the A9 in the desert north of Perth.  However, on this occasion it was chucking it down on Tayside and all the way to Bruar.  We perversely crossed the highest point in brilliant sunshine, but my morale was lifted by the ramparts of cloud out to the west and the strengthening wind.  Viewed from the viaduct the Findhorn was low, but no matter, I was being balanced (or rather, even my amateur meteorological skills told me what was coming).

Dalnahoyn @ + 5'
2pm Monday

It rained all Sunday night and into Monday.  The river rose 6' and there was no point even thinking about fishing that morning.  I went out after lunch to have a look and placate the fishing gods, starting at the top pool and working my way back to the house.  Unfortunately at this height you couldn't form a picture of the effects of storms Frank and Bertha on the river. The overall picture was familiar and largely unchanged, but there was no possibility of identifying individual lies.  The greatest joy was knowing that this was enough water to bring fresh fish up from the estuary, probably by Thursday.

First grilse
Garden Pool
7.15 am Tuesday

During Monday night the water fell steadily, so in accordance with tradition I got up early to fish before breakfast.  Garden was at a high but fishable + 3' 6".  With the water a frigid 9C but clearing nicely, it rated a full 10 on the MCX scale.  As Garden isn't deep I opted for a fast polyleader and a conehead MCX plastic tube rather than a sinking shooting head. Within 10 minutes I had this feisty little grilse, and shortly after, another larger one. Sadly I forgot the photograph the second, which was admirably plump and much prettier.  I duly went to breakfast feeling fully justified in my early rising.

Churan @ +4'
3 pm Tuesday
The river held steady at around +4' all day, which with a strong wind and the need for heavy flies and leaders made fishing hard work.  On the lower section the upstream wind made casting easier because you could form a good D-loop from the bank or shallow wading.  In contrast up on Dalnahoyn and Wade's it was 180 degrees opposite downstream and too deep to wade safely to create space for the D-loop.

11 lbs cock fish
Churan 10.15 am
MCX Dark #8 double
Over Tuesday night the river fell steadily so by Wednesday morning we had near perfect high fishing water at + 2' 6".  Members of the party caught fish  throughout the length of the beat.  I took this 11 lbs cock mid-morning before losing two more fish in the next 15 minutes, and another slightly later.  There were fish showing all over the place as those running up from the middle river started to crowd the residents.  Churan fished brilliantly until it suddenly went quiet around midday.

Rory took the best fish of the day up on Dalnahoyn, a very senior resident stirred up by new arrivals, and estimated at 16-18 lbs.  Long term followers of this blog may recognize him from 'Morning Glory' hefting another coloured lump.  Six years later he was even more delighted after a serious battle in a pool that gives ample opportunities to a strong fish.  It was a great day's fishing all round with everyone getting a share of the action, including Charlie's wife Camilla catching her first salmon, which took her 400 yards downstream.

Our morale was sky-high: despite losing a day to high water the book was already in the teens, and the river seemed set to fall a mite more, further improving the fishing.  Generally, as the density of salmon grows as the water falls and running slows, the friction between cohorts builds up, and the likelihood of takes increases.  Put another way, active, alert and agitated fish are much easier to catch than calm residents.  Furthermore, amongst the melee in Churan we had spotted the first fresh fish arriving.

Nemesis follows hubris as night follows day: it rained and the river went back up to + 4' while the water temperature went down to 8C, leading to another tough and largely unproductive day's fishing for those who braved the rain and near gale force wind.  Indeed, from this point on the rain hardly stopped, and on Thursday night the river shot up to +6'.  An improving forecast gave grounds for optimism, but the river was unfishable on Friday morning: the young departed to the golf course and I joined the wives' bridge crew (that's real balance in action).

Garden Pool tail
Fishing the 'turning point'
Friday afternoon

The water fell and cleared during Friday morning, so I took an early lunch and as it was still too high to wade Dalnahoyn I departed to Garden.  At this height running fish entering at the tail hug the left bank before crossing over towards the middle exactly where my fly is swimming in this picture.  At that point they have a much better near rectangular view of the fly rather than the usual end-on that characterises the dangle.  Identifying such running lines and turn points and fishing them carefully can greatly increase you chance of hooking a running fish, whereas in plain water the odds are stacked against you.

Airborne grilse
Garden Pool
Friday afternoon
Cunning works.  This feisty performer taken from that point spent most of the preceding 4 minutes doing an impressive sea trout tribute act in the air above Garden before launching himself some way up the beach. Once I'd recovered him and got the hook out he was away like a rocket.  I can only hope that with this attitude he survives to come back as a big 3SW to pull my arm out of its socket.  I hooked and lost 2 more, which is frustrating but often the way with grilse. Certainly they have softer mouths than adult fish, but they also seem to take the fly more 'end on' as they're not returning to a lie like most adults who thus get hooked in the scissors.

River Findhorn Shenachie gauge
Image and data courtesy of SEPA

The pattern was now clearly established.  Every time the water started to fall and our hopes rose, so did the river.  Just when we thought we were heading for a perfect Saturday, the next 6 foot spate came down on Friday night.

Garden Pool @ +3' 6"
Fishing the 'Pocket'
7.45 am Saturday
Note the 'turn point' is down at the little promotory
in the distant left of the picture
As it was the last morning I surrendered my virtuous balance and defied the conditions of high water and rain to fish before breakfast.  Given an upper section allocation the water was too deep to fish the top pools and my favourite Dalnahoyn effectively, so I opted to return to Garden. The shocking quality of this photos is owed to the conditions: 7.5C in the water, 5.5C in the air and raining. However, what it tries to show is me fishing a short line along the boundary between the fast and slow water.  In such conditions there's not much point casting a long way into the fast water: just concentrate on where the fish will run and hold before exiting the pool.

Strong grilse
Garden Pool 7.50 am
MCX Dark #8 double
Yes, this also works.  Because the water was shallow and not very fast, a medium polyleader and double fly sufficed.  I took another grilse out of the same pocket within 10 minutes, before losing a third hooked at the turn point discussed above. To fish the fast water effectively I would have needed a very fast sinking polyleader and a weighted tube fly to cut down through the turbulence.  But that combination would have been right for only 20% of the width of the pool and mostly wrong for the other 80% and especially for fish in the 'pocket' and 'turning point', as the fly would have been out of their sight line and potentially snagging the bottom.

The conclusions are simple: don't be seduced by the far bank; and play the percentages.

Friday afternoon
Contrary to our high hopes the river stopped falling around breakfast time and held steady for the rest of our last day.  In the afternoon I went down to Churan, which was flowing hard and heavy.  In these conditions the grilse come up the shallow water along the left bank (I hooked and lost one about 10-15 feet out).  The larger fish, which are much more efficient swimmers, can use the full width.  This of course makes catching them at this height a much more hit and miss affair than when lower water confines them to well defined and easily identified running lines and lies.

John with 16 pound hen fish
Churan Pool
Saturday afternoon
But sometimes fate smiles on the virtuous.  John hooked this fish on the near edge of the fast water on a small tungsten conehead tube and slow sink tip. Having the light behind him in the photo makes it look darker: this was a beautiful grey hen fish up from the estuary and weighed at 18 lbs.  In the heavy water it took 26 minutes to bring to the net whilst giving him some worrying moments.  It was the perfect end to the week and a fitting gift to someone who has given so much in leading our team's fishing over many years.

Despite the challenges posed by the weather and water levels, which reduced us to around 4 full days' fishing time, we had a tremendous week with 26 salmon and grilse in the book, our second best ever result at Tomatin.  Everyone caught some fish and a lot more were hooked and lost.  And throughout we had a lot of fun in good company.  I respected my age; didn't fish too hard or too long; caught 7 fish and lost 5 without any regrets; played some bridge; read half a book; and came away happy and thoroughly rested: that's a well balanced result.

The next sessions are on the Ure, so we'll see how Yorkshire compares to Scotland this year.  I'll pick up the novice learning points from the Tomatin week in a separate post.  Meanwhile, have a great autumn's fishing and tight lines.


  1. Great read. Good advice about how to fish in high water conditions. Thanks

  2. Thank you for your kind words. In high water some pools are more amenable to analysis than others. However, I always start from the premise that for salmon the primary factor is energy conservation: they won't take the hard way if there's a readily available easier option. This is especially the case with grilse, which are less efficient swimmers than the big 2 & 3 SW fish and have significantly less energy in reserve. As a result, all but one of my grilse were hooked within 15-20 feet of the near bank; and the only fish I took from near the main flow-line was the 11 pounder. Those results were consistent with previous experience.