Friday 25 October 2019

Truly Unpredictable - Looking Back at 2019 & Lots of Lost Fish

The Glories of Autumn
October on the Ure

The weather - again!

In closing my last post of 2018 I raised a small prayer for a nice average year.  Like most salmon fishermen I was fed up with bizarre weather patterns and seemingly endless droughts.  In the 6-year period 2013-18 we had well below average rainfall during the salmon season in 5 of them.  You can't catch fish in the puddles between bare rocks.  The exception was 2017, when it poured.  Every time I so much as looked at a salmon river it rose by 6 feet.  But after so much abnormality all I wished for in 2019 was bland normality.

An outrageous but delightful fluke
Tweed at Rutherford
May 2019
It didn't work out that way.  Following an unusually dry winter - I drove an excavator across the lawn in February without the need for crawler boards - we looked set for another drought.  The arrival of Storm Gareth in March prompted both a surge in morale and a very strong spring run into the Ure.  But by the time I returned from work in the Gulf the water had dropped back to summer lows and I'd missed the chance, apart from the outrageous fluke of catching 2 spring salmon on the Tweed in impossible conditions.  It then stayed dry for the next 4 months until mid-August.  Sadly the summer was also cool and very windy, which gave us beautiful roses but rather spoilt the joys of the trout season.

Coul silver on the Conon
August 2019
The August spates reasserted some normality and prompted another surge of salmon into the Ure.  At the end of a day's fishing (my guest had caught, I'd blanked) I stood at the bottom of a pool watching a steady succession of fresh fish arriving into the tail with a mixture of joy and relief: we might actually have good autumn fishing.  At the end of August we spent a delightful week on the Conon with our friends, enjoying great company, excellent conditions and catching salmon.

It's called the Empty Quarter for a good reason
I was away for most of September working (I'm not fully retired)  and on holiday.  In the middle of the month it started to pour with rain.  In the last 2 weeks of September and the first week of October we received 3 months' rain, which was topped up by successive showers.  The land has been so wet and releasing so much water that the Kilgram gauge has been at or above good fishing height for the past 6 weeks.  It's most welcome, but you certainly can't call it average - they're forecasting 2 months' rainfall over this weekend!

The Autumn Fishing

I've reached the end of the season feeling content.  It's been an unusual year in that its most memorable moments haven't been the salmon I've caught, but rather the marvellous fish I lost on the Conon and Ure.  Indeed, it's been a season of missed takes and lost fish in unusual numbers.  If I'd landed all the losses my season's total catch would have been closer to 30 than the dozen, and I lost count of the missed takes.  But all this activity made me feel positive, engaged and optimistic: there were plenty of fish available for the next cast.

From top to bottom
Gallander's at + 2' 6"
August 2019
Two memories from 2019 will stay with me forever: the first is the excitement of a fresh 20+ running the full length of Gallander's Pool on the Conon in heavy water while I pursued it down the bank praying for it to turn; and the second is the magnificent sight of a yard or more of perfect silver Ure salmon in a vertical jump clear of the water, glistening in the autumn sun, kicking and turning in its successful attempt to throw my fly.  Of course I was disappointed to lose them, but the experiences, excitement and imagery were unforgettable and uplifting.

It may not be silver,
but a first salmon is always the most
beautiful fish in the world
Thoresby 10th October 2019
Another great memory is helping the Brigadier, one of my oldest friends of almost 50 years' standing, to catch his first ever salmon.  His excitement whilst playing it and the look on his face once it was safely in the net were worth a million.  It was as if all the years since his first childhood trout in Wales had been pulled back like a curtain to let the joy shine out.

The two salmon I caught later in the day in the space of 20 minutes were purely incidental.

When not working in London he lives up in Bishopdale overlooking the Ure, so there will be nothing holding him back now.  I'm looking forward to days with him during the coming years.  Two old codgers on the river bank chewing over half-remembered reminiscences of their military youth: "we were soldiers once and young".

As always I enjoyed the annual father and son bonding trip to the Ure with HMCX in early October.  We had rather too much water at close on +4 feet, but that didn't stop him from out-fishing his father 2:1.

Despite only a fishing a couple of days per year it only takes 20 minutes or so for the rhythm of his Spey casting to emerge from hibernation.  It's a great pleasure for a father to watch, and even greater when he gets a fish.

On the first day it was a 14 pounder, taken on a fast sink tip and big Cascade conehead tube fly in very heavy water close to the tail of Frodle Dub, which kept him fully occupied for close on 20 minutes.

Amidst all the demands of a City career, family and fatherhood, his 'salmon' smile never changes.

His second fish, taken on Day 2, was one of the August runners, still holding a nice light colour and with little body mass loss at around 9lbs.

Between Frodle and Flesh Dub
I finished my season with 2 days on the Ure with John and Patrick, arriving late in their week to fish the Thursday and Friday.  In very high water they'd been averaging something over a fish per day, including Patrick's 20 pound hen on the Wednesday.  By the time I arrived it was down to +3' and falling and clearing nicely.  Things certainly looked very positive.

Frodle Dub
Looking perfect on Day 2 at +18"
I fished Flesh Dub first without result or even a touch.  This came as a surprise because over many years this has always been my 'banker' pool.  Blanks have been very rare here, and on one occasion I  landed 4 and lost 3 in a morning.  However, on this occasion, over the 2 days I fished Flesh Dub 4 times without the least sign of a fish.  On reflection I put this down to the level of disturbance by the rods on the opposite bank, who in their desperate desire to reach our side (where there are no fish) wade too deep, through or very close to a succession of lies on the flow line.

Undeterred I went down to Willow Bush, confident in the knowledge that it's rarely fished properly from either bank.  The secret is that the most catchable fish lie near the tail, not the head.  There are fish just below the head of the run, but you need 10 feet of T14 and a tungsten tube to get at them effectively.

This one of around 7lbs came from the tail and fell to a 1/2" MCX conehead on a slow sink tip.  The weight of water flattered his mass and made for a good fight.

The water level brought into play the Hut Pool into which Bishopdale Beck flows at the top of the Thoresby beat.  There are lies across its entire width - at +3' there are 2 good ones within a couple of yards of the near bank, and another under the trees on the far left of the photo.  Although it looks bland, the wading is awful, with lots of egg-shaped boulders.  Fishing after lunch on Thursday I missed a grilse on the way down.  On Friday morning I'd lost one fish before  even taking my first pace, followed a few casts later by hooking and landing a 10lbs cock from under the ash tree on the right.

However, the real excitement was down towards the tail, where the flow from Bishopdale Beck comes in on the far side.  The best approach is to stay close to the near bank to fish the lie on the near left side of the photo; then the lies in front of and each side of the obvious rock in the centre; and finally the channel beyond it and onwards down to the break into Frodle Dub. I followed this formula on Thursday afternoon.  After a brief handshake with a fish on the near side of the rock I extended my line to reach the 30+ yards needed to get the fly into the channel with an oblique cast to avoid the drag around the rock.  The water level was almost a foot higher than in the photo taken on the Friday (into the morning sun), which meant near waist-deep wading very close to the bank, seriously limiting the size of D-loop I could deploy.

On about the fifth cast there was the most almighty thump as a very strong fish turned away and kicked violently.  Meanwhile my line was entering the drag zone behind the rock putting further unwelcome downstream pressure on the fish.  With 30' of running line outside the top ring there was nothing I could do to solve the problem.  At first it held its position against the force - I could feel each kick of its tail - before accelerating upstream and then jumping vertically clear out of the water, showing its full length.  It was silver, fresh and beautiful, a yard and more long and probably around 15-16 lbs: the image is printed on my mind. With the line bowed in the heavy water below the rock I was unable to give the slack needed for its landing back on the water, so when the hook hold failed it was no surprise.  Some you win, some you lose.  The established trend continued right to the end on Friday, when I lost another good fish from behind the rock with my penultimate cast of the season.

I was surprised that I hadn't caught more in perfect water that screamed salmon.  Nevertheless I wasn't greatly disappointed.  There were plenty of salmon in the river of every shape and size from solid grilse to a 4 foot submarine that showed briefly in the evening light, and lots had paid attention to my MCX Dark.  On the other hand, if all the losses had stayed on and half the takes had converted I would have wound up with about 10 fish in the 2 days, which I haven't equalled since 2011.  Certainly the potential was there and events underlined the Ure aphorism - "Give them water and you'll catch them".

While the season was far from average, it suited me very nicely, thank you.

Lessons from 2019

I always to try to derive some learning from every moment of my fishing, so here are some thoughts from 2019:
  • Unless a fish is heading somewhere truly disastrous or getting too far away for comfort, take it easy in the opening minute or two of the fight.  In the salmon's initial panic there's lots of random force and some odd angles that may combine to lever the hook out, especially with the softer mouths of fresh fish and grilse.  I lost several fish this year by being too firm too early.
  • If there's space and no hazards, let them run, because that wears them out most quickly.
  • This year I've watched plenty of people wading much too deep when there was no need to do so.  In most cases it was driven by a pointless desire to reach further.  There are plenty of lies on your side of the river, and most fish will be on or near the flow-line.  Salmon will hold in short halt lies in about 30" of water, so once you reach mid-thigh depth you are amongst them.
  • Clear the water under your feet before extending your line to full casting length.  There may be fish lying close to you.  This year I hooked (and lost) 3 fish before I'd even taken my first pace downstream.
  • While you may be casting a consistent 25 yards to cover the pool, you should be ready to shorten your line and change the angle of delivery to fish closer lies more effectively by adapting to the flow or offering the salmon a more rectangular view of your fly.  Make a plan for each lie you identify, don't just rely on mechanical progression down the water to do the job.
  • Sometimes, like the Bishopdale case, there's no perfect way to get the fly to the fish.  Manage the risks you can, live with the rest: it's fishing not nuclear physics.
  • The MCX Dark works very well.  Yet again I fished the same pattern for the whole year, only changing the size and depth to match the conditions.  By the end of the season it had bettered the totals of any other fly used by my peers.  No doubt the confidence it engenders helps.
  • Wading the Hut Pool at +3' taught me that after 3 seasons it's time to put some new studs in my wading boots.
  • Never despair: at 1st August this season looked totally dire, but lo, it worked out well in the end.

Looking Ahead

Now I'm old time seems to go faster than ever.  In the blink of an eye the salmon fishing has finished for another year and we're into the shooting.  Christmas will be upon us in no time, so I must now turn my mind to that hardy perennial, MCX's Christmas Stocking.

1 comment:

  1. The highlight of my season has been catching my first Yorkshire salmon; something I never really expected to do. It was achieved by reading and taking notice of your advice. Thanks for that !