Thursday 5 September 2019

Coul Fishing - Just One Week on the Conon

Coul Fishing
Upper Boat Pool

The River

At the end of last year, with no Findhorn week in prospect for 2019, Patrick started the search for an alternative location for Just One Week.  During his research he identified an opening on the Conon, a river about which we collectively knew absolutely nothing.  After a bit more work and some enquiries on various forums it became clear that the Conon was a very good option and well worth a try, so we went ahead and booked the last week in August.  This isn't usually available, but this year the owner - a Yorkshireman - was unable to take up his regular week, which created the opportunity.

River Conon (blue)
Coul Fishing (red)

The Conon isn't especially well known.  It's located about 20 minutes north of Inverness and flows into the head of the Cromarty Firth.  Like its neighbour the Beauly, the Conon is heavily exploited for hydro-electric power.  The main fishing section is below the final Achonachie dam, with the Coul fishing highlighted in red and amounting to approximately 2 miles/3 km of river.

Salmon that run up to the dam enter a fish lift that allows them to access the 10 miles of river between the Achonachie and Luichart dams.  However, there's no return route for kelts and smolts, other than taking their chances with the turbines.  Fortunately, significant numbers of fish spawn in the bottom section of the river.

It may not be well known, but it's certainly pretty and a classic fishing river about 50-60 yards across.

Robin's Run from the Gap
looking upstream and across to the north bank in low flow conditions

The Coul fishing is predominantly on the north bank on the opposite side to the road, a variety of lodges and the hut.  Access is by rowing boat from 3 points at the top, middle and bottom of the water.  There is no road access to the far side - the significance of that point will become apparent shortly.  We found that with 5 rods and a single ghillie, getting everyone over to the other side of the river each morning, back for lunch, the afternoon and at the end of the day involved all manner of time consuming faffing about.  However, by Wednesday the head ghillie was satisfied that my rowing skills justified independence, which made life easier all round.

SSE's Conon hydro operations are controlled by a computer in Perth, using all manner of clever algorithms to balance predicted demand, water availability and wind power inputs off the surrounding hills.  As a result there are 4 general water states:

  • Minimum sustainment, when they aren't generating and there isn't enough water in the reservoir (or rain in prospect) to allow greater release.  In this situation the gauge goes down to around 8-10" but the river never goes onto its bones.
  • Base flow, which obtains either when SSE are generating at a low level or are spilling some excess water, giving levels in the range 10-18", creation very pleasant fishing conditions.
  • Full generation, which lifts the level to anything between 18" and 2' 6", when you can have good fishing.
  • Full flow, which pertains when they are at full generating capacity and are spilling high levels of excess flow, taking the level to 3' and beyond and placing clear limits on fishing.
Changes of level are announced by the sounding of the 'Death Ray', a warbling siren at the dam, with a tone reminiscent of 1960s sci-fi films.  Whenever it sounds you half expect to meet Captain Scarlet in waders.  However, the changes in level - generally steps of 4" or so - are much less rapid and pronounced than those I have experienced on some spate rivers, most notably the Findhorn.  Nonetheless it does pay to keep a close eye on the gauges positioned near the 3 boat stations, because once it reaches 3' boating stops and you would be stuck on the far side without road access and have to walk 2 miles down the bank to the main road to get picked up.

It all sounds like a lot of bother but by the end of the week we'd all got used to the routine and the shortening of fishing time involved.  We also noted that the hydro operations had very little effect on water temperatures: at base flow the river generally ran at 16C, which only dropped a degree to 15C in full generation.  Nor did they seem to trouble the salmon much: we caught fish at every water level throughout the week, and they ran into the beat in all conditions except minimum flow.

The following pictures give some idea of the effects of different flows:

Upper Boat Pool
Low base, around 10"

Upper Boat Pool
Full generation, around 24"

Low flow on a gloomy morning

Full generation
2' 6"

In full spate 5' 6"
looking across to the north bank
Saturday lunchtime

The Fishing

Upper Boat Pool
Upstream view - Monday morning
My week began in Upper Boat pool with good water at around 16-18" in pleasant sunshine.  It was lovely to be back on the water with the prospect of a full week ahead.  On the MCX booze analogy scale the water was a light Amontillado shade but clear and running well at a delightful 15.5C, and the MCX score came in around 7.  The resulting solution was a slow sink tip, 13' of Seaguar leader and an MCX Dark #10.  With a swirling downstream wind you never knew what cast you would need next.  While that precluded establishing a steady rhythm it did at least keep me on my toes.  About 1/3 down as the line approached the dangle at the edge of the faster water I had a good grilse take, followed by some head shaking and surface splashing - never a good combination in my experience.  Fresh run grilse have very soft mouths and frequently take the fly end-on near the dangle.  The result is a weak hook hold near the front of the mouth and a consequently high loss rate, which is exactly what happened in this case.  I was mildly upset but for several reasons not unduly concerned: grilse are rarely singular; the presence of a fresh fish was a good sign; there were several showing; and my choice of tackled was vindicated.  

Upper Boat Pool
Low flow - Monday midday
As I fished down the pool the water level was falling steadily: by the time I went back up to the top to repeat it had gone down by 8-10", which called for a change of fly to a #12.  Apart from a half-hearted effort in the fast water things remained quiet until  lunchtime.

Gallander's Pool
looking upstream towards the dam
Low flow - Tuesday

In the afternoon I went upstream to Gallander's, directly below the dam.  The best holding lies are towards the head of the pool - a large boulder field in the mid-stream - and in the tail.  However, in the low flow conditions on Monday and Tuesday the tail lies were very difficult to fish without snagging.  Indeed, I hooked and lost a 2 ton rock salmon at the end of the afternoon.  My session was lightened by another grilse hooked and lost on the near edge of the flow.

At the end of the day I was in good spirits: there were fresh fish in the river and what I was doing was working, even if for the moment they weren't staying on the hook.  It was one of those "Keep calm and carry on" times.

New Pool
Rising water - lunchtime
On the Tuesday morning the water was still low.  I returned to Gallander's for the first session.  By the time I had fished down to New Pool the water had risen by 8-10" and was looking very nice indeed.  After clearing the water immediately around me at the head, I progressively lengthened the line before starting to move down.  After the third step and about 2 minutes after this photo, a nice fish took on the edge of the fast water in the centre of the view.  Again it was close to the dangle and came up to the surface, from which I judged it to be around 8lbs and nicely fresh.  As it turned to run downstream the hook came out, my third straight loss, which earned me a fair amount of good humoured ribbing over lunch.

Low flow - Tuesday afternoon
Unfortunately the water dropped again in the afternoon when I went down to Oystercatcher and Junction.  It was low enough to allow Philip and me to wade across from the boat station on the bend barely wetting our knees.  The whole way down this long sweep to Junction the lies are beyond the centre line and commonly close to the far bank.  Nevertheless throughout the week we saw grilse moving across most of the width.  To be frank it was rather dull work in low water.  True to form I hooked and lost yet another grilse near the head of the pool.

Overnight the water rose slightly to a nice fishing height.  This gave me a thoroughly pleasant morning in New Pool, where, as you might guess, I lost yet another grilse near the dangle.  While disappointed with the number of fish I'd lost (5) I wasn't at all despondent.  What I was doing was hooking fish, so if I kept on doing the same thing, eventually one would stick.  And in any event I was enjoying the company of my wife and close friends (despite their teasing) in delightful surroundings: apart from a fish, what more could you reasonably ask?

Robin's Run
from the Gap on the south bank
Low flow

By now the head ghillie Ian Menzies was taking pity on me and was utterly determined that I should catch.  In fact I reckon he was even more determined than me, a condition that it not often encountered.  He directed me to Robin's Run, where under his direction I worked the obvious lies in the centre of the picture to death, to no effect whatsoever.  There were probably fish in residence but they just weren't interested.  Ian was so determined that he rowed me over to the other side to attack the lies from the north, again to no effect.  Ironically, at the end of the session, as he was rowing me back to the hut and I was casting idly from the boat, I had a light grilse take that failed even to achieve a hooking.

Junction Flats looking down into Junction
Moderate flow - Thursday afternoon

By Thursday morning the river had risen back to a decent fishing height and continued to rise steadily after lunch.  Following a quiet morning I went down to the bottom.  After positioning David on Oystercatcher I started on Junction Flats before following an angler on the opposite bank (Lower Fairburn) down into Junction. At 3pm, as I approached the grassy point in the left of the picture fishing a 1" MCX Dark conehead, I had a strong take on the centre of the flow about 3/4 of the way across.  At last I had grounds for optimism that this one might stay on.

And it did!  It was a lovely fresh solid 8 pounder, a picture-perfect salmon fit to put me on Cloud 9 of elation.  Its inclination to run upstream repeatedly made my job easy. Provided a fish doesn't get too far away, let it go upstream and tire itself out against the current and the drag of the line.  The challenge in this case was the netting because the foreground was very shallow.  Once I got out far enough to bring the fish to the net I was dealing with quite a strong flow, against which it was hard work holding the net left handed.  Despite the flow the fish could not be persuaded to head downstream into the net: for it the only way was up.  Anyway, on the third attempt it came good and I took it into shallower water for unhooking and a quick photo.  It never left the water.  Once unhooked it was so full of beans that it tried to swim off with the net until I lifted its head over the rim to allow it to stage one of those splashy departures you see on YouTube videos.

Dinner that night was a happy affair: I'd broken my jinx and by now everyone else had caught fish.  John topped the leaderboard with a shining 15 pounder, closely followed by David's 14 pound tartan warrior resident.

Full generation flow - Friday morning

Friday morning saw me back on Junction after a long walk through the fields (the level was too high for Ian to let me use the boat at the lower station).  The river was in perfect shape at an ideal height of 2' and running clear at 15.5C.  I was feeling optimistic and as positive as ever on a lovely bit of water that screamed salmon.  The wind was onto my right shoulder, so I settled into a steady rhythm of the left handed double Spey - 2 loops in the right hand, lift, cross, sweep, lift, shoot - to put the MCX conehead as close to the far wall as possible.

3 lbs 12 oz

I'd progressed about 30 yards down from the photo when this nice fresh grilse took on the flow line.  After a brief and uneventful scrap it came cleanly to the net in a small area of slack water.  The Conon is a Category 1 river so C&R isn't compulsory.  However, the local agreement is that each rod may keep a fresh grilse, so I had no hesitation in banging this one on the head.  It will feed at least 6 people well, and be utterly delicious with Hollandaise sauce and a good Chilean chardonnay or white Burgundy.  My wife, who doesn't understand C&R at all, was utterly delighted.  As a Cordon Bleu trained cook she'd much prefer that I always fished Cat 1 rivers.

Gallander's (middle)
Full flow and rising from 2' 6"
Friday afternoon

Over lunch the river continued to rise, with the 'Death Ray' sounding at regular intervals.  I rowed 3 other rods across from the upper station in 2 trips in heavy water in a boat that is about as responsive to oars as a carnival raft before making my way up to the top of the fishing.  With no one on Upper Fairburn I could start at the very top and get the best possible angle on the premium lie in the mid-stream.  Its back edge is at the right margin of the photo.  With the steeply shelving bank it was only possible to wade safely out 4-5 feet to give just enough water for a minimal anchor (well trimmed banks are such a blessing).  With a 13' 6" rod I could only cover about 2/3 of the width, but that was enough to reach the best lies.

Gallander's (lower)

Spot on cue, as the MCX conehead passed over the premium lie, it was taken by what was unmistakably a very large fish.  The sheer weight of the first kick said it all.  I leant back to set the hook with the line at about 45 degrees to the current. To my surprise the fish responded by coming to the surface about 5-7 yards upstream of where I expected it to be, such was the drag of the increasingly heavy water on the line.  This allowed me to see the tail and rear half of a very big fresh salmon.  I've caught enough 20+ fish to know what they look like, and this was a fully paid up member of the heavyweight fighters' club.

Its first run was upstream, about 30-40 yards, to the far end of the running line and beyond, where it held briefly at an angle to the current.  This gave me the time to sort myself out, get out of the water onto the grass and prepare for a long struggle and no doubt some running.  The plan was simple: at all costs stop it going out of the bottom of Gallander's into the fast water above New Pool because I couldn't go past the trees in pursuit; try to keep as much of the line out of the water as possible; and pray for a good hook hold by the Loop #8 double.

The fish turned, came briefly towards me and then set off downstream at speed to the tree in the right of the photo, a distance of about 80 yards.  Palming a reel and running at the same time is not a good option, so I relied on tightening the Danielsson's formidable drag.  Warning David and Rachel with a bellow of "coming down" I lumbered along the bank in pursuit.  For whatever reason and by the grace of the Almighty the salmon decided against going further downstream, crashed about on the surface ("don't roll over the leader, please!), turned and went rapidly back up to its lie, where it showed again.  I duly followed.  The next run was back down to the tree with me following; then back up to the bench in the middle of the pool; and next down again for about 20 yards.  I reckoned that in the heavy water this was going to take an hour to finish.  Would the #8 double last the distance?  Would I?  At the end of 40 minutes with the Beast of Wensleydale I was seriously worn, and that was in easy water.  Here I was fighting 50% salmon and 50% a big and rapidly rising river.

Its next run was straight at me at about 30 degrees to the flow at high speed.  Reeling frantically and reversing up the bank I struggled to keep the line tight while watching an ominous bow developing in the line.  It came into the rocks under the near bank, paused, turned and headed for the middle.  At some point in the turn, for reasons unknown, the hook came out: I saw no point in speculating.  I was simultaneously sad and elated.  I'd lost a magnificent fish, but landing it in the conditions would have required a miracle.  It was gone, but I'd enjoyed 5-6 minutes of the most incredible fight I've ever had with a salmon.  My adrenaline and endorphin count was off the scale; my pulse rate was around 170 ( a zone I know well from cycling); and I felt tremendous.  I was incapable of feeling disappointed: the fish deserved to win.  It was an utterly magnificent note on which to end the week.

With the river in full spate we couldn't fish on Saturday.  In a comprehensive display of balance, in the morning I joined my wife and our friends for a walk up to Rogie Falls, getting well soaked in the downpour, and in the afternoon played bridge.  That evening we enjoyed a very cheerful final dinner and toasted our thanks to Patrick and Tricia for all their work in organising such a successful week, and each other for the great pleasure of the joys of friendship.

You can't measure the success of a week in fish alone.  We only caught 9 between 5 rods - about half our long-term average - but we had a tremendous week that left me happy and relaxed.  In refreshment nothing else comes close to a week on a good river in the company of our friends.

1 comment:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading that Michael, thank you.