Friday 23 November 2018

MCX's Christmas Stocking 2018

It's been 2 years since I last produced a Christmas Stocking post, which I regret as it's usually rather enjoyable, especially if you're stuck in a hotel room in Arabia on a religious holiday.  Of course the key point is whether you enjoy reading the output, but as you don't give me much feedback or abuse I generally assume it's satisfactory.  On the other hand reading this blog costs nothing and people tend to be undiscerning about things that are free, while feedback requires some effort. For me there's the pleasure of the research, scanning the catalogues and websites to spot bargains and good kit.  And second, it's fun to write for a happy time of year when thoughts of the new season are starting to emerge.  It lifts my morale and hopefully does something for yours.  Talking of morale, the less said about the 2018 salmon disaster the better.  I got that out of my system in my last post and was delighted by the feedback, thank you.

After 2 years away from writing this post my renewed research has prompted the following observations:

  • During that absence there have been no revolutionary developments in kit in the stocking price range.  As a result there are no 'wow' discoveries in this year's list.  Sadly I must report that yet another useful gem - the William Joseph Mitten Clamps - has gone out of production (but I've found an alternative).
  • In fact there's been a dearth of technical progress in salmon fishing tackle over the past year.  There have been no magic resins, miracle materials or quantum leaps of anything.  As usual Sage have put out a new rod and claimed revolutionary improvement from what is clearly incremental change.  If for the past 25 years you'd swallowed their annual verbiage without question, you should now be able to cast 50 yards with an 8' #4 single-hander.  In fact you've probably gained about 3 yards over the period and 90% of that is owed to improvements in lines.
  • Henrik Mortensen of SalmoLogic hasn't had any new ideas.
  • Loop has got through another year without a financial restructuring.
  • The overall market in salmon fishing tackle shows signs of being slack, indicating falling demand and excess manufacturing supply.  With the exception of the Glasgow Angling Centre, the major on-line retailers have pared back the range and number of salmon rods and other high-ticket items that they stock.  Despite these economic conditions, this year the retailers are offering few price reductions on useful items.  Unlike the early years of the recession after the 2008 crash, the retailers seem to be keeping their nerve in the run-up to Christmas.
  • There are some ludicrously priced gadgets in the market.  Who in all seriousness pays £155 for a pair of line nippers? Why pay £50 for a digital thermometer that you can buy directly from the manufacturer for £20?
  • The quality, comfort and effectiveness of thermal clothing is leaping ahead, especially the base layer.  If you're still using some from 10 years ago you should give serious thought to replacement.
  • It's jolly hard for me to be original, so I can only hope you've forgotten what I recommended in earlier years or are too idle to look up the old blog posts.  But the simple fact is that the perennials are just that for good reasons of utility and value for money.

1.  Basic Fly Box by Richard Wheatley

The clips have fallen off one of my old basic polythene fly boxes, so I have been scouring the market for some time in pursuit of a replacement.  All I want is something simple and cheap: last time it was 3 for a fiver from John Norris.  Most of what the market provides is too expensive, over-specified and fiddly for my taste.  Now I think I've found the answer.  If Richard Wheatley puts his name to a fly box then you know it will be good quality: he has a brand to protect.  In contrast to his normal aluminium products the Comp-Lite range is made from plastic composite and cheap.  Yes, you can have a Wheatley salmon fly box for £6.50.  The Easy Grip (without the leaf) suits smaller salmon flies; and the Easy Grip Streamer is for sizes #6 and larger.

Afternote: I ordered one of these boxes at the £12.99 price shown in my original post, with which I was content. Then I received an email from Wheatleys advising me of a cut in prices subsequent to my order, and that they would refund me £6.49.  As a result I got a quality Wheatley fly box for £6.50, which is unbeatable.  My trout fly boxes are original Wheatleys that no doubt cost my father a few bob, but if I needed to replace them I'd buy just the same.  On the other hand my preference for salmon fly boxes is simple, robust and cheap, and this new Wheatley Comp-Lite ticks all of those boxes.

2.  Digital Thermometer

Yes, on second appearance it's become a perennial.  There isn't anything better or more reasonably priced in any of the tackle retailers.  I bought a new one this summer after giving the original to Donnie the Helmsdale Ghillie as a gift - he was fascinated by its simplicity and neatness.  It's still under £20 inc VAT & P&P from LABFACILITY in Sheffield.  if you really wish you can buy the same thing for £50 from one of the on-line tackle retailers, but I recommend buying direct.

It makes taking the water temperature delightfully easy.  There's no more waiting for analogue liquid to register - just point, press and read the nice big numbers.  It takes up very little room in your pocket and tips the scales at around an ounce.  There are 2 free spare batteries in the box, so it should keep you going for 5 seasons.  And for younger readers, it does a great job of taking children's temperatures: just point in the ear and presto!

3.  Mitten Clamps

Sadly, despite all my efforts on here promoting the product, William Joseph has ceased production of their brilliant rubber-handled mitten clamps.  The advantages of using a pair of locking pseudo-pliers while unhooking a lively salmon over conventional forceps are enormous.  It just becomes so quick and easy.  For me mitten clamps are one of those must-have bits of kit.

This Rapala alternative was on sale at GAC at £15.99 but they sold out within 24 hours of me publishing this post.  However, the same item is available on Amazon and a somewhat more expensive equivalent at Uttings which also has rubber grips.

4.  Neoprene Fingerless Gloves

The Snowbee gloves have featured in every stocking since I started this blog for the simple reasons of effectiveness, value and durability.  Why pay £55 for what you can get from Sportfish for £12.99.  They last me for 3-5 seasons, or about the price of a pint per year.  Cleaning up at the end of last season I threw out a 12 year old reserve pair that were still serviceable but not a pretty sight.

5.  Base Layer Thermals

I remarked above on the technical progress in this field of clothing.  Last year my very generous wife gave me a new set of Simms thermals to replace my 12 year old set.  The improvement is transformational, a quantum leap in comfort and effectiveness, which at my age is something I really welcome.  They're not cheap - £40 each for top at bottom from John Norris - but in my book worth every penny.  Note also that is £10 less per item than advertised at Sportfish and some other retailers.  And of course, they roll up so small that they fit in even a modest stocking.

If, however, you're looking for a bargain solution, try Go Outdoors.  I bought one of their own brand Hi-Gear zip polo neck base layer tops recently for £15.  It's not as good as the Simms in terms of material technology and finish, but the breathability and wicking is absolutely top-notch.  The arms are a mite long for me (being short and stout) but should be fine for anyone taller and slimmer.  And at £15 you can't expect Savile Row fitting.

And while Father Christmas is in the Go Outdoors store, ask him/her to have a look at these Craghopper Kiwi lined thermal trousers at £35.  Something similar from Rohan and other suppliers will be around £65-70.  In cooler weather I am wholly dependent on my superb Simms fleece lined trousers that I got on special offer from Angling Active for £60.  But in the absence of any such offer from any of the tackle retailers against an RRP of £90, I recommend that you Go Outdoors instead.  After you've worn them a couple of times wash and then rinse with the NikWax surface proofer.  This will stop any condensation caused by the contrast between cold water and newly super-warm legs penetrating your trousers.

6.  Stocking Fillers

Mrs Christmas is always grateful for helpful hints on smaller items to put in my stocking.  Here are some hardy perennials complete with the hyper links to assist ordering from John Norris.

Aquasure is an essential in your kit box at £6.99.  If you opened last year's tube it will be solid by now and you'll need another.

If you glue you knots like I do, you won't lose another fish to knot failure or premature breakage.  Loon Knot Sense forms a nice smooth streamlined blob before setting clear.

Airflo Polyleaders are the standard salmon angler's stocking filler, and you will always need more at the start of the next season.

I see little point in spending lots more money on the equivalent products by Rio and others when the Airflo leaders do the job perfectly well.  Moreover, I've never had a quality failure with one in all the years since they first appeared on the UK market.

Come the start of the new season you will wish to clean and lubricate all your heads and running lines.  I've used Loon Line Speed for years for the simple reason that having been given a bottle in my stocking, it lasts a decade.  You only need a small pea-sized blob to polish a shooting head or running line, which makes the £8.50 price tag easier to bear.

7.  Father Christmas Goes Bonkers

In search of originality and good deals in this 'Bonkers' category I have scoured the websites and catalogues of all the major retailers.  As I noted at the start of this post, really good deals are very thin on the ground this year.  There is absolutely nothing out there that gave me pause to think "at that price I could really fancy one of those!"  Reels are the litmus test item: 3-4 years ago you could find highly tempting offers on premium reels in the run up to Christmas.  In 2015 Angling Active's deal on the Loop Multi at £120 really was unmissable: today's best price at GAC is over £200 for a die cast product.  This year Angling Active is offering 10% off Hardy reels, but that sort of reduction is unlikely to nudge anyone over the threshold of buying a £300 item.  Norris and Sportfish are holding firm on RRP, but no doubt if you speak directly to James Norris you can cut any number of deals.  On GAC's website it's hard to tell where the deals are without ploughing through item by item (I viewed 5-6 'marker' products), but there's nothing much on obvious offer.  Accordingly, I must hang my head and confess that I've failed to find you anything.

I instituted this category in the 2016 edition with the Danielsson L5W #8/12 reel owing to its stunning value for money.  You may find it hard to believe, but this reel is cheaper now at £216 than when I recommended it.  The larger siblings, the H5D and Control, have similarly declined in price.  Since the BREXIT vote the US Dollar and Korean Won - the currencies that account for about 90% of salmon reel manufacture - have strengthened considerably against the Pound, whereas the Swedish Kroner has marched in step downhill with us.  As a result the L5W is now £80 cheaper than the equivalent US-made Lamson Guru HD4 - the nearest equivalent in design quality - and over £120 cheaper than the Loop Evotec.  On that basis Loop must be kicking themselves for parting company with Danielsson who designed and made their early reels, and outsourcing production to Korea.  Indeed the die cast Loop Multi and the fully machined Danielsson are now similarly priced, despite being a mile apart in design, engineering and material quality.  Put another way, they now make a world class reel at a significantly lower Sterling price in Sweden than others can in South Korea or the USA.  So there's never been a better time to succumb to the temptation of a beautiful Swede.

Happy Christmas and tight lines for 2019.  After 7 years' climatic aberration a nice average season would make a lovely gift, wouldn't it?

Sunday 18 November 2018

Water, Water, Nowhere - 2018 in Retrospect

In truth we had a great summer, right up there with 1961, 1972, 1976, 1995 and 2003. Sitting outside for a drink and dinner is a rare pleasure in North Yorkshire, but this year was a real boon in that department: we drank a lot of cold rose on warm evenings.  Even if it didn't feel as downright hot as 2003 or the best of 1995, my wife was delighted, as despite her Yorkshire genes she feels the cold awfully.

It was, however, extraordinarily dry: indeed, even drier for longer than both 1976 and 2003. The saving grace was the effect of the preceding wettest winter in decades - we had double average rainfall in February and March - which filled the aquifers to bursting and thus prevented many streams from drying out completely with otherwise fatal consequences for their fish populations and juvenile salmon.  Unlike 2003 I didn't have to put water on the lawns and only lost 10-15 square metres of grass.  Nevertheless the two graphs below speak for themselves (note that 6th April is the opening day for salmon in Yorkshire).

Vale of York Rainfall in millimetres 6th April - 31st October 2018

Vale of York Cumulative Rainfall in mm, 6th April - 31st October 2018

During the salmon season we received just under 14% of normal rainfall.  This pattern was broadly replicated over most of the UK, although parts of Scotland did get more rain from late August onwards.  Inevitably this impacted my salmon fishing on the Ure.  A season that started with such promise became unbelievably dire. With insufficient water to trigger a run in from the North Sea, and so little that they couldn't get upstream over the obstacles, the only fish present were those that had arrived before April, probably less than 20% of the expected annual number.  Even when it did rain and the river rose it never stayed up for long enough to move the fish far.  It was deeply frustrating, but as I couldn't do anything about it, there was no point fretting or worrying. 2018 will just go down in the annals of salmon fishing as one of those years.  And if it helps, at the centenary of the end of the Great War the records show that 1914 was even worse.

Spring - A Journey to the Edge of the Known World

A very kind friend invited me for a week's fishing on the Helmsdale in the far north of Scotland in April this year, which I accepted with alacrity verging on indecent haste.  I'll not repeat the post I wrote, just reprise some of the highlights and photos.  Even in late April the north of Scotland was already so dry that the farmers were having problems with grazing and the Helmsdale was running at a sparse 4" above mean summer low, 2" of which was supplied from the Badanloch at the top of the river.  As a result the Helmsdale was short of both water and fish, but it was a fascinating experience.  In its short length the Helmsdale offers everything from highland burn to full size salmon river, all in beautiful settings.

Sunset view from Upper Suisgill Lodge
Helmsdale April 2018

From Burn to River

Despite the shortage of salmon I had quite a lot of takes, lost several fish and finally managed to land one on the Saturday morning in freezing conditions.  I took away all manner of learning points from Donnie the Ghillie for the experience bank.  Best of all, the house party was convivial, varied, interesting and fun, so we enjoyed an excellent week.

Summer - The Long Drought

After the Helmsdale we departed for a holiday in Puglia, the heel of Italy, returning as the trout season got fully into its stride.  In the absence of water there was no point even thinking about salmon, and every year I like to focus on the Rye and its trout in May to July.  It is a stunningly beautiful little river that flows off the moors, past the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, on through Duncombe Park, by the picturesque market town of Helmsley, through the farmland around the gastro-village of Harome and onwards to Nunnington.  Although we get the occasional wanderer from elsewhere the stock is 100% wild, wily and challenging.  I really enjoy the patient stalking of solitary large brownies, and often will spend an hour or more just watching and waiting for one to make the mistake that allows me to identify the fish and its lie.  For one it was the merest hint of the sound of a soft rise and a few ripples emerging from under a dock leaf beside the far bank that gave it away.  In June this fine but ugly chap of 3 3/4 lbs was rising in a back eddy between 2 willow roots under an overhanging branch, which required a curved left-handed cast across the breeze, followed by some brutal fighting to get him out into the open.

There's a certain extra enjoyment and satisfaction when you catch an especially difficult trout.  As you rarely get to see your quarry in salmon fishing you don't get the same contest of observation, intellect and imagination. Moreover, the salmon is not as fearful and careful.  With a fresh salmon your fly is probably the first it's ever seen and it's pretty cavalier about things like the leader.  Indeed, if they're minded to take they can be as easy to catch as mackerel, and provided that your cast is in roughly the right place you'll be fine.

Migration - 80+ miles from the sea
We also get the occasional sea trout, but as our club doesn't have rights for migratory fish we not allowed to fish to them specifically.  However, one rise looks much like another!  They're catchable on a dry fly in bright conditions, but the large ones are even more shy than their brown siblings.

Amidst the trout I happily accepted an invitation to fish the Chipchase Castle beats on the North Tyne for salmon in early July.  Given the 28 degree temperatures and the blazing sunshine my expectations were low, but the release of ample cool water from Kielder gave just enough hope to justify the 120 mile drive.

In the event the river was at a perfect fishing height and this lovely shiny 8 lbs fish had been in the river less than a week.  I missed 5-6 other takes, which was frustrating but certainly exciting.

I should have loved to have stayed on and fished after dinner, but duty and age called for responsibility with a work appointment the next morning. 

Moving into autumn and still dry

Uphill past Preston under Scar with 6 miles to go
August began with me riding the 114 mile Great Ure Salmon Run, raising money for the conservation work of the Ure Salmon Group within the Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust.  I reported it in my Costa del Chipchase post so will spare you the details. Nevertheless I was delighted to have completed the challenge, especially after the frustrations of 2017 and to have beaten my fundraising target.  I fancy doing another one, but I shall have to come up with something special if my donors and supporters are to repeat their generosity.

We had a a few hours' rain in mid-August that briefly lifted the Ure.  As I had a free day and there was no one on Thoresby I booked a rod via FishPal and headed off to the Dales after an early breakfast.  I knew there would be very few if any fish in the beat because the spring run had only got as far as Ripon by early April and since then they hadn't moved.  Accordingly I concentrated my efforts on the tails of the pools in the hope of encountering an alert recent arrival, which offered a better chance than a torpid resident.

The strategy worked, although it was a close run thing.  Right on cue, just before 11 am, this former spring runner took an MCX #10 exactly where I'd hoped in a highly productive lie in the tail of Frodle Dub.  It's a notch in the bottom about 4-5 feet wide and about 10 feet long, ideally placed for a breather after the run up through the shallows and fast water from Flesh Dub.  Having frustrated his original idea of heading back whence he'd come I brought him 20 yards up to the middle of Frodle towards the point where I'd left the net.  Then things went awry.

Tail of Frodle Dub shown in low water conditions for
clarity of explanation.  On the day the water was about
18" higher
This fish had other ideas.  Having come up from the lie it then turned about and dashed downstream with considerable force straight to the rock about 35 yards away and went round it.  I could feel the leader rubbing on the rock.  Everything went slack and I assumed that he'd broken me.  Cursing volubly I reeled in the slack line, angry at my incompetence.  Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw the orange section at the end of the Rio head passing me going upstream into the main body of the pool.  The fish was still attached!  The slack had been created by the sudden release of the line slipping over the top of the rock.  After another 3-4 minutes of energetic resistance he eventually came to the net.

Apart from the fright he had given me quite the best fight I'd ever had from a 9 1/2 pounder that wasn't silver fresh.  The leader had been badly abraded, but 24 lbs Seaguar does give you plenty of protection against such abuse.  In accordance with Norwegian advice I always use the strongest leader that the water conditions allow that is consistent with the size of the fly.  At this breaking strain Seaguar is the same diameter as 15 lbs Maxima and less visible in water, and therefore an entirely logical choice.  I might not have been so lucky with 15 lbs Seaguar, which is much thinner than the equivalent Maxima and therefore less resistant to abrasion.  Sometimes fortune smiles and makes your day.


Another very generous friend (I seem to be fortunate in that department) invited me to spend a couple of days on the Tillmouth beat of the Tweed in early September.  I arrived on the Sunday evening, unpacked my kit and walked part of the water before dinner.  The water was very low indeed, but there were plenty of fresh fish in the pools.  They could run easily up to that point, but showed no interest in going beyond Coldstream Bridge.  As a result the previous week's rods had caught about 40, which was pretty good for my optimism.

This was a far cry from the spring Tweed of memory, so diminished that I could cover the water with the 13 MAG.  In contrast to the previous evening there were very few fish showing or being caught elsewhere.  I made my way steadily downstream fishing an MCX #12 in the clear water.

Around midday when passing a rock I'd marked on my way up to my start point I noticed that the water had been rising almost imperceptibly for some time.

As I approached the hut and lunch a pod of grilse splashily announced their arrival lower down this pool.  About 3 minutes later I connected and after an energetic fight landed a beautiful little 3 pounder, bright as a silver button and full of beans.  Indeed, so full that after I'd unhooked him while kneeling in 6" of water, he shot off between my knees and disappeared before I could take a photo.  As is often the case I hooked another about 5 minutes later that only stayed on for 30 seconds or so.  Not only do grilse have soft mouths their itinerant nature means you don't get the degree of turn after the take that you experience with a mature fish coming up out of a lie.  As a result most grilse takes are head on with correspondingly poorer hook-holds and thus you lose more of them.

After lunch I was allocated a boatman and boat to fish the stretch up towards the bridge, in water that seemed almost stationary.  It's not a form of fishing that I enjoy much.  The boatman exercises all the admirable skill and work, while you have a rather passive role, periodically casting to reposition the fly relative to the boat's movement and stripping in when so instructed.  I missed one take in an otherwise very quiet afternoon.  At the least the young boatman was good company and I learned much from his perspectives of the business and the way of life, and his fears for its prospects.

Over our evening drinks it was apparent that everyone else in the party had similar experiences: a quiet morning, a flurry around lunch and a very quiet afternoon.  The consensus was that this was connected to the small rise in the water level, and fish might now be moving up beyond Coldstream out of Tillmouth.  The forecast was of more water coming.  Although this would probably do for my second day it would at least set the other rods up for the rest of the week.  And so it proved: lots of fish showed for the first 10-15 minutes of the rise without taking any notice of my fly; and then nothing.  Towards lunch the rise grew into a spate with lots of mud in the water, so the sensible thing was to pack up and drive home.  I'd caught a fish, but the result fell far short of what I'd hoped for on a premium beat of a great river at prime time.  There are a lot of very worried people on the Tweed at the end of the incredibly poor 2018 season, with plenty of questions and no answers in prospect beyond declining hope.

Closing Days on the Ure

As we moved through September into October there was still no sign of significant frontal rain.  Yet again I cancelled one guest day and on the other went ahead with the picnic as he was keen to see the water (what little there was) for the first time.  Resignation was probably the best description of my attitude.

Every year I look forward to the two days at the beginning of October with my younger son HMCX.  We appreciate each other's company, fish enthusiastically and enjoy our stay at the Bolton Arms in Redmire, an outstandingly good unpretentious Dales pub.  HMCX is 6' 2", 15 1/2 stone and well muscled, which allows him to handle a 14 foot fly rod with the ease of a pencil.  He's also blessed with natural timing, so once he's got the rust and cobwebs out of his system his casting is a pleasure to watch.  I was desperately keen for him to catch a salmon: we'd caught 4 in a day last year, and with some water that should fall and start to clear our chances seemed reasonable, albeit within the limits of the small number of fish present.

HMCX fishing the head of Frodle Dub

On the Friday the water was high at +3' 6" and more so we had a leisurely journey up, taking in a tour of Theakston's Brewery at Masham along the way.   This was a most pleasant interlude, and very interesting for HMCX who'd not previously seen brewing in detail.  The tour ended with tasting the product, for which you could order 3 glasses of 1/3rd pint, an ideal solution.  We reached the river towards lunchtime to find it high and brown but very fishable.  With the score up around 10 this was a time for a big tube and a fast sinking polyleader.  After midday a few fish started to show, including one specimen in the 15-16 lbs range in the back eddy under the far bank.

I was fishing the tail ahead of HMCX and just before 2 o'clock I had a strong take on a 1" MCX Conehead at the margin of the fast water very close to the near bank.  Having won the struggle to stop him going back down the rapids I kept a very firm grip on the fight to avoid repeating the rock experience.

He was a good strong fish of around 10 lbs, brown but in good physical condition.  HMCX's early intervention with the net meant this one got away energetically as soon as the hook was out.  Of course I was pleased, but like any father I should far preferred my son to have got the salmon.

We fished on doggedly for the rest of the afternoon with only one take between us before repairing to the Bolton for restorative ale.  There just weren't enough fish in the pools to tip the odds in our favour.

Flesh Dub at + 2' 6"
Although there was a little rain up the dale during the night the river continued to fall slowly.  It cleared much less readily as a result of the sheer volume of bio-mass accumulated over the summer.  The big problem was back-scatter in the strong sunlight coming straight down the pool, which made the sub-surface conditions extremely difficult for the salmon.  They wouldn't see a fly unless it was right on their nose, and of course there were precious few noses about.  In more normal circumstances this would be an October view to lift the heart, but in this drought ridden season I couldn't even buy a salmon in my favourite pool.

HMCX consoled by Theakston's XB
With little prospect of a fish we took a break for lunch at the Bolton and returned to fish until the light went off the water.  Naturally we were disappointed but in the absence of fish we could expect little better.  We'd enjoyed a great couple of days together and I was extremely grateful to have had HMCX to myself amidst the many demands of fatherhood and a high-pressure City career.  Some things are far more important than fishing.

So What?

At the end of every year, no matter how unsuccessful, I try to draw together what I've learnt during the season, so here goes:
  • Fish the water in front of you before wading in and extending your line to full casting length.  If your approach has been suitably quiet there may be fish lying at point blank range, so don't be in a hurry to get into the water or cast a full line.  This is especially important on small rivers.
  • If in doubt, strip and work the fly.  It's more likely to be seen and excite interest, particularly from fresh fish with lots of energy that haven't gone into full conservation mode.  Covering all the lies may require stripping in beyond the optimum casting point of your line, but it's better to cover the good lies near you than achieve the perfect maximum range cast.
  • Assume that you're going to hook a fish and be prepared.  Through inattention and idleness my drag was too loose in August, which allowed an energetic fish to get a long way away from me.  Simple geometry says that the more line you have out the less control you have over the fish's lateral movement.  That's how it got around the rock.  Obviously there's moderation in all things and you don't want your drag too tight.
  • And it may take where you least expect.  The October fish took in fast water beside a substantial rock less than 3 feet from the bank as I was stripping in to re-cast.  It was unexpected but this time I was ready.
  • More wind, less effort.  Nothing spoils a cast like trying too hard, and a rising wind drives us to use more force.  Don't succumb to the urge because an open loop is useless in the wind.  Throttle back, keep it tight and you'll cast further and straighter.
  • Match rod to river.  To avoid fatigue and increase enjoyment, use the shortest rod you can consistent with the size of the river, the prevailing water conditions and your fly choice, while leaving a little margin for changing conditions.
  • Use the strongest leader consistent with the size of fly and the water conditions.
  • Smile, be happy, you're fishing.

Here's hoping that 2019 will be much, much better.

Sunday 12 August 2018

Costa del Chipchase

Chipchase Castle on the North Tyne
July 2018

My intention was to write this post some time ago, but like all good intentions it was obstructed by a host of other things.  Despite it being the holiday season I have been exceptionally busy for the past 6 weeks.  A week's work in Africa provided welcome relief from the tropical heat of Yorkshire: it was 18 degrees cooler on the equator than in Easingwold and I was glad to have a jumper handy.  Now that England is cooling down I'm in Arabia for a week, warming back up to 40C, with clammy humidity added.  Outside it's a bit like standing in the efflux of a tumble dryer, whilst inside it's arctic because no one's interested in conserving energy.  In between the work commitments there have been a christening, a funeral, two memorial services and various other duties to complete.  The whole cycle of human life featured in July.

The Ure Salmon Run

Cycle was a major feature of July and August, because I finally managed to complete the Ure Salmon Run challenge, riding from the Humber Bridge to Aysgarth Falls following the line of migration of salmon up the rivers, which I described in 'Not Gone Yet' last year.  The next post 'Raring to Go' explained how my efforts came to a sad end and why I was unable to complete the ride in 2017.  Over the winter I worked hard but steadily on the turbo trainer to rebuild my strength and fitness - about 4-5 hours per week on average - and as soon as the weather allowed I headed out onto the roads.  Having a delightful cross country route to work through the Howardian Hills is a great help and the 10 miles was easily extended to 18 for training purposes.  From the highest point on the route on a clear day you can see the hill above the High Thoresby beat on the Ure, 50 miles away. The return home was variously 20-40 miles depending on the training plan.  By late July I was ready and the weather forecast for 1st August was promising.

With lots of support and encouragement from friends positioned along the way, after 114 miles and 7 hours and 57 minutes of pedalling, I arrived at Aysgarth Falls to enjoy the pint of Theakston's XB I had promised myself.  It tasted marvelous and certainly a great deal better than the pink protein recovery drink in the bottle to my left.

The first 50 miles to York was completely flat, but the serious climbing started after Ripon with 2,000 feet of ascents and 3 substantial hills, two of them in the last 8 miles.  Wensley Bank up to Preston under Scar was made even more unpleasant by a stiff westerly headwind.  However, by the time I hit Thoresby Bank climbing up from Redmire to Carperby I had the smell of XB in my nose and extra power in my legs.  In total the ride raised £4210 for the Ure Salmon Group's work and I'm hugely grateful to the many generous donors and sponsors who contributed.

Back to the Fishing

This is of course a fishing not a cycling blog, and fishing is what you wish to read about.  At the beginning of July a friend kindly invited me to spend a day on the North Tyne at Chipchase Castle.  Despite the drought, blazing sunshine and tropical heat I leapt at the chance because it's a beautiful stretch of water (see photo at top).  Furthermore, after a succession of releases from Kielder Reservoir there was a reasonable water level and temperature, so the day wouldn't be complete folly.  Drought notwithstanding the Northumberland countryside looked absolutely stunning on a perfect summer's day, which made the later stages of the drive a real pleasure.  After a solid breakfast at the cottage we deployed to the hut facing towards the Castle to meet up with Steve the ghillie.

Catherine's Pool
Looking upstream at 11am
I started at the lower end of Catherine's Pool, a broad stretch with lots of lies visible by virtue of their standing waves and surface turbulence (see 'Spot the Lie' for an explanation).  The photo was taken about 20 minutes after I started: the prominent lie at the left side was my first mark.

The river was running at about +10" and a perfect 16C.  I selected the 13' 8" Cult to cover the width, and with a score around 7 set up a floating head, plain fluorocarbon leader and a #8 MCX Dark.

Catherine's Pool
Looking downstream at 11am
Location of takes marked in order of occurrence
The next cast after taking these photos the action started in earnest.  Fish 1 took firmly, shook its head vigorously for 4-5 seconds and came off.  Three casts later Fish 2 initially took quite gently but as I set the hook came up onto the surface - which I always mistrust - and amidst all manner of splashing came off after about 10 seconds.  Fish 3 took near the dangle: as I was starting to strip the fly in the line went slowly the other way for about 3-4 feet.  As I raised the rod into the fish the fly came out.  I was beginning to think I was fated this morning.  Fish 4 took quite firmly and after I set the hook turned away downstream at some speed.

Tyne Silver
Thankfully it didn't come off.  After 6-8 minutes of energetic action this lovely silver fish came to Steve with the net.  It tipped the Maclean weigh net at 8 1/2 lbs.  In Steve's opinion it had been in the river less than a week: certainly it was in perfect condition.

It appeared that I had fortunately intercepted a group of moving fish holding in short halt lies at the bottom of the run.  Sometimes I do get lucky.

Looking downstream at 1230pm
After fishing down towards the end of Catherine's I went round the corner to the Tail Pool.  The photo shows the brilliant sunlight and mirror smooth water.  Steve's advice was to work the lies along the edge of the rumpled water where fish would pause after running up the rapids below; but not to put the fly into the rough for fear of snagging.  In view of the very clear conditions I moved up to the start along the edge of the trees keeping a dark background behind me and well away from the water's edge.  Given the bright conditions and shallow water I also reduced the fly size to #10.

Fish 5 took where expected just above the fast  water before moving off to my right - presumably back to where it had started to follow the fly - but unfortunately shed the hook as I tightened by raising the rod.  Fish 6 was a complete surprise at the dangle of the next cast after I took the photo.  On approach I'd noticed that the water off the steeply shelving small gravel point was quite deep, so when it came in range I allowed the fly to come right round to where I thought a fish might take the easy route up the edge.  Sadly my execution wasn't as good as my thinking.  The take came in the transition between ending stripping and preparing to cast and thus caught me ill-prepared to react.  In any event I find that more of these dangle-take fish get off than any other type: it's very hard to get a good hook-hold right at the front of the jaw.  Despite missing these two I repaired to the hut for lunch with very high morale after an excellent and exciting morning.  As neither of the other rods had a single take the MCX fly was a subject of close interest.

After lunch I departed upstream to fish down through the sequence of Comogan, Crow and Causeway.  By now the sky was completely clear, the sun fierce and the air temperature heading into the mid-20s.  Although the water was holding steady around 16C the conditions were much more difficult than in the morning.

Bottom of Comogan, looking into Crow, on to Causeway
As I approached the lower section of Crow I had a savage take at 7 near the dangle close to the bank.  It was so violent that I could still feel some pain in my wrist 24 hours later.  This was so untypically salmon that it was almost certainly a large sea trout.  In most cases salmon approach the fly relatively slowly - certainly nowhere near the speed at which they strike prey in the sea - and what we feel is the turn away and kick when they are restrained by the hook and tension in the line.  In contrast sea trout can and do come at a fly very fast indeed.  Moreover, I'd seen a good sea trout show about 15-20 yards downstream a few minutes before, so this seems a reasonable assumption.

Causeway at 6pm
The last look at a lovely beat
Nursing my wrist I fished on down to Causeway, paying special attention to potential short-halt lies between the many rocks.  Sadly nothing was interested.

At about 630pm I made my way back to the hut and then to the cottage where the resident rods were preparing for supper.  I should have loved to have stayed on to fish into the evening when the chances would have risen markedly.  Sadly the responsibility of work prevailed: I no longer have the youth and energy to fish until 1030, spend 2 hours driving home and be up with the lark to prepare for a business trip to Africa.

Nevertheless I'd had a brilliant day on a lovely beat in stunning countryside in the middle of a season that has elsewhere been rendered disastrous by the extreme weather.  I drove home down the A19 a happy man; delighted my wife with a fish in the freezer; and enjoyed a generous reflective Glenfarclas before bedtime in celebration.

What did that Glenfarclas tell me?

  • Salmon are gregarious: they go to sea together; hunt and grow together; and return together.  If there's one, there's usually more.  So if you miss a take, stay at it and work the immediate area thoroughly.
  • Fresh fish are easier to hook but often harder to retain.  Don't let it get you down, because sooner or later one will stay on.
  • In clear still conditions apply good field and water-craft.  Always be aware of your background and at all costs avoid being sky-lined.  If there's deep water directly to your front, if possible stay out of the water and well back from the edge, because the fish may be closer than you expect.
  • In difficult conditions there's no perfect solution.  Do something sensible and keep on doing it.  The 'Walking to the Water' calculator is as good a route to sensible as any.
  • We are privileged to pursue a beautiful fish surrounded by the full panoply of nature's glories: savour every moment, they're too good to waste.

It looks like the weather's starting to break after a summer that's been brilliant for the whole population apart from salmon anglers.  So be it.  Sadly there's no Tomatin week this year, but I've got a couple of days on the Tweed in early September (another generous friend) followed by a sequence of days on the Ure with friends as guests and the annual bonding with HMCX.  Hopefully I shall have something to write about.  

I wish you good water, nice average conditions and tight lines.