Wednesday 13 December 2017

Water, Water Everywhere - 2017

Last day on the Ure
20th October 2017

So good they named it twice
The view of downtown Manhattan from dinner
If you've wondered where I've been since Tomatin, despite semi-retirement I have been unusually busy.  My friends, most of whom are long retired, tell me that they are busier now than when they were working.  The phenomenon didn't surprise me as I spent much of November on holiday in celebration of my wife's birthday.  It was so wonderful that missing 3 days' shooting didn't even register.  And I thought about salmon only once - really.  Who would be thinking of salmon when dining with a view like that?

The view from our window
180 miles off Canada
a beautiful winter's day
When crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary your course isn't a straight line to New York. Once past Ireland you follow a curved course that takes you well north before sailing south west parallel to the coast of North America.  Along the way you skirt the Labrador Basin, pass Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, sail over the Grand Banks and cut through the Gulf Stream.  As those are all significant features in the world of salmon it's possible that some detected our vibrations.

This view prompted my only salmon thought.  The horizon is 20 miles away, so there's 100 square miles of Atlantic in that view.  There's nothing in it.  If you went up to  the top deck you could scan 1,500 square miles: still nothing.  In fact we saw only one ship in a week.  The North Atlantic is an enormous empty expanse of ocean, just like the rest of the 70% of our planet's surface.  Salmon in migratory transit are a microscopic needle in the watery haystack.

North Yorkshire rainfall January - April 2017
The red cumulative line is within the official definition of drought

After years of writing blog posts bemoaning the lack of water and the reasons for it, in May I wearily prepared the graphic to the right.  Before my back collapsed I'd started writing an article about the appallingly dry winter and spring months - the driest since 1995.  On this occasion I was especially concerned by the potential impact of the conditions on the smolt exodus.  Without April showers and good spates to deliver them swiftly to the sea they are extremely vulnerable to in river predation by birds, pike and large trout.  To make matters still worse they arrive in the estuary in dribs and drabs, which invalidates their survival strategy of "they can't eat us all". 

We'll see how this affected the number of emigrants in 2 years' time when hopefully they return as 8-10 pounders.

Lying face down on the floor precluded writing so that post never appeared.  In any event it would have been overtaken by events because in late June the weather did a complete back flip.  It started to rain; and rain; and rain.  Perhaps it was El Nino abating and heading back from Peru towards the Philippines, or perhaps not.  No one really knows.  What's more, we didn't get any warning of the change from from the abnormality of the past 5 seasons to the real normality of Atlantic cyclonic patterns. From Midsummer's Day to the end of the season on 31st October we had above average rainfall every month, peaking at +80% in July.  As a man who had uttered umpteen prayers, performed rain dances out of sight in the orchard, and written endlessly on the subject, how could I complain when all my wishes came true - at once.  But every time I looked at a river or even thought of fishing, the water level rose.  It didn't matter where - England, Scotland or Norway - the effect was the same.  I've never had a season in which such a high proportion of my planned days were washed out with spates.  As a result the apple crop was enormous but the roses suffered terribly with every form of fungal disease in the book.  I have lovingly tended, pruned and shaped my collection of roses for a decade and more, so it was heartbreaking to have to hack so many back to ground level and douse the stumps with chemicals to prevent recurrence.

The closest parallels were 2007 and 2012, which were both very wet summers and autumns.  The neat 5 year interval is probably coincidental rather than indicative of a cycle.  The 2007 floods in Yorkshire were the stuff of legend and tragedy.  During our Tomatin week that year the Findhorn came over its banks twice, but we still caught plenty of fish including a high proportion of grilse, just as we did in 2017.  In contrast 2012 was very wet in Yorkshire: with the demands of 2 family weddings I did very little fishing and caught few Ure salmon.  Tomatin was comparatively dry: the main fishing constraint was the Arctic  temperature of the water rather than its level.  Overall, high water seems to benefit the Upper Findhorn, but seriously degrades the Ure.

Curve Pool
River Gaula
July 2017
In Norway it rained incessantly and the Gaula went up and down like a yo yo.  When it was big it was enormous.  Fishing the 50 yard span of water in the picture was a forlorn hope.  The salmon could have been anywhere as at this level the rubble-strewn bottom provides innumerable lies.  Of course it would have helped if there had been fish present, but they couldn't get up the Gaulfossen owing to the weight of water.

On returning to Yorkshire, spates washed out all 3 of my planned days in August and September.  When we arrived at Thoresby for the August day the river was up but falling and clearing nicely.  I said to my guest "it should be perfect by lunchtime".  Fine chance: that statement triggered an immediate rise and  by 1 pm it had gone up 6 feet.  The lesson is simple: don't express optimism within earshot of a Yorkshire river.

Dalnahoyn Pool
River Findhorn
September 2017
It rained incessantly in Scotland too.  For 5 days out of 6 the water was above +3 feet, with a maximum around +5', compared to the accepted 'good' level of + 12 - 18 inches. I offered 4 lessons on fishing in high water in 'Sins and Virtues',
written on return.  Despite losing 2 full days' fishing to spates we caught 27 salmon and grilse, including two 18 pounders, our second best  result for the week in almost 20 years.

I was really looking forward to October on the Ure; 2 days' father and son bonding with HMCX; 2 double rod days with guests; and 2 more with John and Patrick towards the end of the month.

HMCX into a fish
Frodle Dub, Thoresby Beat
River Ure
The first day with HMCX was great fun - we landed 2 each and lost a couple - until the river started to rise.  We enjoyed our picnic lunch on the river bank with wine, beer and banter, and the high quality time it provided.

An extra 2' 6" of unwanted water
While we were enjoying our steaks and Theakstons at the Bolton Arms the rain started and persisted all night.  In the early hours the river rose to +4' 6".  We did a little tourism, visiting my grandfather's birthplace in Askrigg up the dale, in the hope of the river falling.  It didn't so we counted the blessings of the day before and finished early.

Ure grilse in perfect condition
139 miles from the North Sea
My other guest days were paradoxical.  The first was blighted by high water, but there were plenty of fish about and I caught a beautiful grilse of close to 6 pounds.  But the second, on the same beat a week later, in perfect water and contrary to all reasonable expectations was as dead as the grave.  Not a take, not a touch and scarcely a fish seen.  I've got no concrete explanation for this disappointment.

3 spates in 6 days
from left to right
1st + 7'; 2nd +6'; 3rd +4' 6" and rising
For our final team outing the river started high and just fishable but yet again started to rise into the third spate in under a week.  We didn't touch a thing, our first ever blank on the Ure in 6 years.

So beyond the problems with excess water, why did we fail on the Ure this year, when there was clear evidence of fish in the river?  There's no clear answer beyond "I don't know".  My theory is that after the drought conditions of January - May which precluded a spring run, the fish came en masse in July with more following in August and early September.  By October there were few fresh fish left to run (and unusually few were caught this autumn) and stir up the residents with their arrival.  The relative earliness of the main run gave the salmon ample time to settle; the water temperatures remained below average for the time of year; and at no time after June did the water fall low enough to create friction through concentration.  Those factors would combine to make fish torpid, relaxed and much less likely to respond to a fly.  Active and alert salmon are easier to catch, and late season cock fish stimulated by testosterone and friction are the easiest of all.  Those conditions just didn't exist.  So be it, that's fishing and nature.  If it was easy there would be no magic and no enthusiasm.

Do I really care about the poor fishing this autumn?  No: nor do I believe it is a harbinger of worse years to come; salmon runs have always varied widely.  I don't care for a whole raft of reasons.  First, after the collapse of my back in May I am overjoyed to have beaten the medical predictions by being able to walk, fish and shoot.  When you emerge from darkness the light is so much brighter.  Second, the exhaustion of the Gaula taught me an invaluable lesson: balance is essential and especially between enthusiasm and the limitations of age.  It's time for the little fishing boy inside me to grow up - just a bit.  Third, we had a great fun week at Tomatin despite fishing about half the days.  The company of good friends is beyond price.  Fourth, and superimposed on everything are the joys of family, which are beyond description.  Another grandchild is due to arrive very soon, the ultimate Christmas present, which will make it 4 on the riverbank in the 2022 season.

So on that wave of happiness I wish you all a very Happy Christmas, a wonderful New Year and a delightfully average 2018 fishing season.

PS  I apologise for the lack of a Christmas Stocking post this year as a result of absence on holiday.  If you're desperate for Christmas ideas please consult last year's post, noting that Sportfish no longer stock the William Joseph mitten clamps.  They are available from the Glasgow Angling Centre and other suppliers.

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