Tuesday 3 November 2020

Pocket Rocket - Sage Igniter 12' 6" #7


In the final days of this peculiar season, courtesy of Guide Fly Fishing, I managed to get my hands on a Sage Igniter 12' 6" #7 demonstrator, matched with a Spectrum C reel (described at the end of this report) and Rio Scandi VersiTip #7 line.  The intrusions of work - the first since February - weather and a fortnight's compulsory isolation as a result of contact with a Covid case left me only a single day on the Ure's Bolton Hall beat to gain my impressions of this rod.  I had made a special effort to get hold of it in the belief that its size and rating could put it close to the ideal for fishing most of the upper Ure, and as a result I was excited by the prospect of trying it, even if only for one day.

First Impressions

The Igniter's utilitarian appearance belies its £1249 price tag.  There's not a hint of bling: indeed, the presentation and finish verges on the austere.  I took the message that this is a rod designed for serious fishing in the hands of those who have no time for trivia.

That impression is reinforced by the minimalist reel seat, which provides rock-solid placement and locking.

And also the rings and whippings.  The upper rings are simple chrome snakes, rather than the variations on the titanium recoil designs that are common at this price point.

I was, however, unimpressed by the cork.  Clearly this rod had received some hard use in the hands of an array of testers, but beyond that consideration it didn't match my expectations.  I don't wish to sound carping, but at £1249 it's quite legitimate to have expectations, including some alignment marks, which were notable absentees.

On the River

The Lord's Pool
+18", brown but falling and clearing

I had no choice over the day and had to cope with whatever conditions prevailed.  In the event a small spate the day before had raised the river to a very good fishing height, although it was still carrying plenty of brown colour and particulate clay.  Given that the outfit came with just an intermediate tip the situation required a fast sinking poly leader and a conehead tube to achieve the right presentation.  

With a selection of left bank pools, the big issue was a blustery 20-25 mph wind straight down the beat, which blew all day and included occasional gusts towards 30 mph.  This severely restricted the opportunities for right-handed casts, especially Single Spey.  At full width the Lord's Pool provides a useful representation of average Ure fishing distances, albeit at this level I spent most of the day wading 4-5 paces out to waist deep to keep my Double Spey and Snake Roll D loops out of the Bankside weeds.  In sum, the combination of left handed casting, weighted front end and waist deep wading provided a stern test of the Igniter's user friendliness.  By any standards this was a less than ideal day for testing a rod and hopefully exploring the detail of its best features.

One of the Igniter's major advantages in these conditions arose from its combination of short length and slim blanks, which made it much easier to move and control the rod's movement through the wind.  The last time I'd fished this pool in similar conditions was with a 14 footer, which presented significant challenges in the upstream sweeps, and the difference here was really marked.

Despite the limitations imposed by deep wading, the little Igniter covered the Lord's Pool with ease, sending the fly exactly where I wanted it to go.  On the treed section I had to throttle right back to avoid the overhanging branches.  That economy of effort can be hard to achieve when all the components of the environment - wind, wading and distance - are triggering your subconscious to try harder: if it feels tough you tend to respond with toughness, when quite the reverse delivers the best results.  This was exactly the case with the Igniter: with minimum effort, a progressive acceleration and a very short delivery stroke, it delivered a delightful result over the water.  But if your subconscious escaped, and either the top hand intruded or the early stage of delivery was rushed, the result was messy.  Knowing that it is tip-biased, quick and unforgiving you need to combine relaxation and discipline to get the results from this exceptional casting weapon.

Ash Tree Pool

After an extended session of cold deep wading in the Lord's Pool I took a warming march upstream to Ash Tree to assess the Igniter's behaviour in close quarter fishing at shorter ranges, when the rod is rarely anywhere near fully loaded.

In the two seasons since I last fished Ash Tree a series of spates have changed its shape and bottom profile considerably.  It's now significantly deeper across its breadth and length, which has created more fishable extent upstream of the tree, and especially downstream of the beck.  As a result it feels even more fishy, which made the poor underwater visibility doubly disappointing.

To be frank neither the Igniter or I as its user enjoyed this section of the test.  It certainly needs the entire SVT head to load, so it would have taken at least a #8 and possibly as much as a #9 to get the required behaviour in short range roll and ad hoc casting.  As soon as we approached the beck and returned to full-length delivery, the Igniter reverted to what it does best, laying out. a long straight line.  After 40 minutes' experimentation I didn't need any persuading to return to Lord's Pool, despite the cold in prospect.


Salmon rod preferences are intensely personal.  There are lots of 'good' rods in the market, but only a very few are optimal for any individual.  Despite its evident capabilities and power to size ratio, the Igniter was not the rod for me.  The reason is simple: despite almost 6 hours in my hands it was utterly devoid of 'feel'.  It just didn't communicate.  Indeed, it was almost as if my hands had been anaesthetised.  As a result, unless I watched every element of the Igniter's cast like a hawk, I didn't have a clue what was going on.  With my other rods I don't have to look, they tell me.  Some of them shout, others speak and one or two sing beautifully with Yar stitched in every note.  But the igniter remained mute throughout and as a result we never formed a relationship, which was hugely disappointing in view of my expectations.

No doubt others will love it.  Perhaps they're more attuned to Sage and their more youthful and expert hands can interpret its language.  But my experience once again underscores the great truism - Try Before You Buy.

Sage Spectrum C

The Spectrum C is Sage's entry level salmon reel.  it is a solidly built die cast product with minimal machining, retailing at an RRP around £175.  This puts it in head-on competition with the Loop Multi and the Lamson Remix, both of which have higher specifications.

There are no frills or embellishments, just pure functionality. This demonstrator displayed a lot of gravel rash, which raises questions over the durability of the black finish.

In addition to the Rio SVT #7 and running line, the demonstrator was loaded with a heroic volume of backing, which suggested that it would cope with a #9 head with ease.

 Its greatest feature is the drag that it shares with its more expensive siblings in the Sage range.  This is a serious bit of braking power, adjusted by a chunky easily grasped knob requiring only a single rotation to cover the full range of settings.  However, I found that most of the useful range was 4-6: figures above 6 possibly represented braking force in tons.

The drag is sealed, but the volume of grease present seemed to imply a certain lack of confidence in that department.

In use the Spectrum was competently utilitarian.  Unfortunately I missed all 3 salmon that took during the morning, so I failed to secure and opportunity to test its fish fighting capabilities.  In the absence of empirical testing I was confident that it would do the business.

In sum this is another competent badge-engineered die cast reel with an excellent brake.  It's nothing special at £175 and doesn't stand out against the competition.  The Multi is better finished and presented; the slightly more expensive Lamson Remix is more elegant and aesthetically pleasing; and the Lamson Liquid does the same job for much less money.  And for £45 more you can have a Danielsson L5W to endow your children and grandchildren.

Thursday 24 September 2020

Whatever next?

 I've now become inured to uncertainty.  Nearly 7 months of isolation and lockdown have converged my life's boundaries and underlined the validity of Parkinson's Law that 'commitments expand to fill the available time".  In parallel those commitments have become ever more trivial: I love gardening, but it's not intellectually stimulating.  Those 7 months have so blunted my expectations that I seem to have lost my capacities for amazement and originality.  As each pleasant but plodding day succeeds the last I can feel the light but inexorable weight of a duvet of dullness upon me.  Focusing serious thought - including writing this post - requires an extraordinary effort.  It would be easy not to write.  In 1637 the philosopher Descartes (yes, he's been mentioned here before) defined the reality of his existence through his capacity for thought - "cogito ergo sum", loosely translated as "I think therefore I am".  So this post is a visceral self-indulgent act of defiance and resistance to the anaesthetic of lockdown.  The fact that I started writing this while on a business trip to the ghost town called London underlines my rebellion.  My only fear is that in the absence of salmon this post may be as dull as the times through which we are living.

In my last post 'Frustration' I recorded the emotional impact of dashed hopes on an otherwise perfect day for which I had yearned for 4 long months.  The upper Ure was full of fresh fish, but they couldn't see a fly owing to the intrusion of tiny particles of grey clay.  Being defeated by the might of the weather is one thing, but being frustrated by inanimate particles of soil released by vandalistic forestry practices is far, far worse.

Fortunately good conditions recurred in late August, which allowed me to invite a guest down from Northumberland.  He caught this lovely plump 13 pounder, still with the sheen of summer on its flanks, his first Yorkshire salmon.  This one had entered the river in July and you will note that its kype development has barely started.  The other notable feature was its build: it had clearly had a couple of wonderful years at sea gorging on prawn and capelin pies.  In poor feeding years some 2SW salmon may be as small as 7-8 lbs, whereas in good years they might attain as much as 14 lbs.

For my part, despite a number of takes, I just could get a fish to stick.  However, I was so delighted for Roger that I felt none of the frustration that had soured the day in July.

The Coquet

My guest returned the favour by inviting me up to his beat on the Coquet the following week.  I'd never fished this river before but had been keen to do so for some years ever since he first raised the possibility.  It also has a historic familial connection, a sense of place for me, because my distant forebears had farmed beside the Coquet for 5 centuries before moving to Yorkshire.

The bright sunlight was less than ideal for salmon fishing, but did allow me to appreciate fully the beauty of this little green gem of a river.  The beat we fished was enclosed in steep sided valley - almost a gorge - just west of the A1.  Its peaceful tranquility and visual pleasures provided me with a magical day.  The birds and their songs were wonderful: I saw 3 kingfishers at close quarters, something that always lifts my spirits. Going down to the river and into the water was like entering a different world from the one through which I had just driven, with the urgency and pressure of the great North Road.

My reverie was disturbed only twice: first by sporadic shots from the nearby Bywell shooting ground (it's nowhere near the Bywell beat on the Tyne); and second, by a group of young wild swimmers downstream of the lower limit of the beat. With a water temperature of 12.5C they emerged frequently to warm in the sunshine, except for the blonde girl most sensibly clad in a wetsuit.  I took this photo after their departure when I had just missed a pretty violent sea trout take on the edge of the fast water.

Roger was the most assiduous host, always placing me in the best pools and entirely forgoing his own chances.  This was a case in point in the afternoon: this stretch positively screamed 'salmon', whereas Roger took short commons upstream.  I was surprised not to take a fish from here, but I fished it with the most eager anticipation.

When the salmon did come about 20 minutes before the end of the day, it almost took me by surprise in the bland water under the far bank beyond the small croy.  The fight, however, was anything but bland, with the ring bounded by the Croy above, rocks below, overhanging bushes and trees on the far side and a gravel ridge nearest me. Trying to control a feisty 8 pounder in a channel barely 15 feet wide with an 11' 6" switch rod was an interesting challenge, reminiscent of my Devonian youth.  On the other hand the little Tool takes prisoners gladly!

This is a close up of the ring.  The fish took under the large angled tree on the opposite bank. The  gravel ridge in the foreground is clearly visible: at least it precluded the fish getting between my legs in the closing stages.

My first Coquet fish was in perfect condition with a lovely silver sheen.  Naturally I was delighted, which overcame all the earlier disappointments on the Ure.  Although Roger had recommended a local pattern, this one fell for the trusty MCX Dark #10.  Light heartedly one might speculate that its novelty to Coquet fish did the trick.  It crowned an absolutely beautiful day in a parallel universe far removed from thoughts of disease, lockdowns and the pressures of life.  And if you are fishing on a bright sunny day, persistence is a virtue: just keep going.

Back to Tomatin

We'd been alerted in February to the possibility of a week being available in September at Tomatin.  Needless to say I was excited.  As I've said many times before, it's not the fishing but the delights of a week in a beautiful place in the company of our closest friends, with the highly variable fishing as an extra.  Once the lockdown came into force I looked forward to the week with a mixture of anxiety - would it be allowed? - and anticipation.  Indeed, it became an overpowering focus that offered the prospect of an escape from confinement, a change from the boundary walls of home and garden, and an expression of freedom.  With the shortage of more substantial things to occupy my mind I've never thought so much about a week's fishing for so long.  At first it was the ebb and flow of alternating optimism and pessimism of likelihood.  Then as summer approached and fishing became my primary form of escape from the boredom of lockdown, so the intensity of my hopes for Tomatin grew.  I was acutely aware of the risks of 'anticipointment' - the more desperately I wanted the week to be a success the more likely it was to fail through any of many factors - weather, water, fish and of course legal prohibition.  

The Findhorn had been without a spate since June and was bouncing on its bones for the whole summer.  Come late August it desperately needed a full 6 footer to flush out all the gunge and pull through the fish locked in the middle river.  The approach of Storm FRANCES offered great hope, which was cruelly dashed when it stalled over Perth, inflicting 24 hours of thunderstorms, torrential rain and flooding on the surrounding district.  Meanwhile the normally gloomy Monadliath mountains experienced cheerful sunshine and the Findhorn dropped lower still.

Rocky Bank at MSL
Upstream nymphing

We drove north in beautiful weather: my wife, being charming and ever-tactful, passed no remark.  Fully aware of the effects of excessive expectation I was already resigned, but the euphoria of escape trumped any possible feeling of disappointment.  We arrived to find a river that was more rock than water.  There was no point using conventional tactics: those had yielded just 2 fish to the preceding party.  Freed from any pressure to perform I experimented with every option in the book, some that weren't, as well as all the methods that had caught Tomatin fish in low water.  This photo was taken during  bit of upstream nymphing with an MCX Snaelda.  For good measure I also tried Finnish indicator, Czech dibbing with a tungsten bomb and even a sideways French with an ultra-short leader.  After that I scraped the bottom of the deeper pools with weighted tubes on T11 tips.  I don't know what the salmon thought of all this, if anything, as they remained steadfastly asleep.

Garden at first light

In accordance with Tomatin tradition I rose before dawn to strip an MCX Sunray across the heads of the pools  in the hope of irritating an over-sexed cock fish, but clearly their testosterone level was as low as the water.

Looking downstream from Garden at dawn
The sunrises were as unfailingly beautiful as the fish were disobliging.  This photo was taken in ankle deep water from the point where in 2017 I had caught belt-fed grilse every morning.  I had no doubt that there were fish in Garden pool - big, strong spring runners - but the lack of any surface show didn't prove their absence.

This forecast gave grounds for optimism - the Findhorn's catchment is under 'Augustus' - but this was severely tempered by my long experience of the 'Vanishing Rain of Inverness'.  Like a mirage it always stays out of reach, never materialising.  Theoretically that volume and duration of rain would normally put the river up by 4 feet.  What we got was 8 inches, with the certainty that it would run off quickly.  At least it was better than nothing and even if it wouldn't suffice to pull any fish up the river it might wake up the dozing residents.

A senior Tomatin resident
And so it proved.  This was one of two senior residents who woke up enough to get caught on the Wednesday.  This one, 37" from fork to natural jaw line, probably came up to Tomatin in June at close to 20 lbs in weight, but was now around 16 lbs.  The other, almost identical and also caught in Garden pool but not the same fish, was caught after lunch.

From the Thursday the weather fragmented into sunny spells interspersed with sharp cold showers, with strong gusty winds most of the time.  Fed from the catchment at much higher altitudes the water temperature plunged from 13C on the Monday to 7.8C on Friday.  Depending on the weight of the showers we received a series of very small lifts in the range 3-5".

Head of Churan looking upstream in a squall

Colonel's looking downstream into the teeth of the wind

Fishing Down Churan, next squall coming in

Casting into this sort of weather was tough but satisfying in a rather masochistic way: you could take pride in delivering a sensible line, even if there weren't many fish to take any notice of your virtuosity.  However, by Friday afternoon pods of grilse started to run through the beat, occasionally announcing their passing with some joyful splashing or a sharp knock on the fly.  Wading calf-deep down Churan with the sun over my shoulder between the squalls I observed a series of bright flashes around my legs as grilse turned abruptly away while running hard in less than 12" of water.  Further into the stream was the odd larger fish, head down and firmly intent on running, unwilling to take the least notice of a fly.  If there had been more of them I would have gone directly to one of my favourite ambush spots and fished it hard, but the odds looked so poor that I didn't bother.

By Saturday morning the prospects of catching a fish and my motivation coincided at zero.  Despite being allocated the delightful Garden pool, I spent a very happy hour making sandcastles beside it with my 2 year old granddaughter.  Dropping stones into the water and splashing about - seriously forbidden in more promising times - became her and my entire delight.  There are some things - a very few perhaps - that are more valuable than salmon.  We enjoyed biscuits and juice together on the bank while HMCX's Jack Russell and Cocker ran themselves ragged, before I eventually sallied forth with a rod to catch a fish on cue for her enjoyment.

MCX with a resident of Garden pool

I'm not impressed
My dog summed the week up neatly one early morning.  This was my first blank at Tomatin since the disaster of 2009, when there was even less water and fewer fish in the river.  I tried every innovative technique known to man, but without a proper spate we were always on a hiding to nothing.  All three of the 'experts' - John, Patrick and I - blanked.  The three fish, 2 lumps and a stale grilse, were all caught by novices, underlining the random nature of fishing in such conditions.

Unusually, I have not a single useful lesson to offer from the experience, other than just keep doing something sensible and don't get downhearted: it's much better than being locked down.

For my own part I loved the escape, the freedom, the air, the wind, the surroundings, being in one of my favourite places in all the world with close friends and family, and making lovely memories.

Next week I start my autumn assault on the Ure, which has also been a bit short of water, although I know there are salmon.  When it's over I'll write again.  But in the interim I have an apple harvest to complete.

Saturday 25 July 2020


We truly are living in extraordinary times.  When I wrote my last post on 4th March from a hotel room in Abu Dhabi, we still had freedom of movement and association.  We could go where we wanted, when we wanted, and associate with whomsoever we wanted.  It was normal and we took it for granted.  Then the world changed and our perceptions of normality evaporated within days.  I flew back into Manchester in mid-March through a succession of deserted airports that echoed the slamming of doors all over the world.  With no idea of how long the pandemic might persist, the situation brought to mind Lord Grey's comment as Foreign Secretary August 1914 that "the lamps are going out all over Europe and we shall not see them re-lit in our lifetime".  Let us hope the second clause is as incorrect now as it was then.

The joys of the garden
Rose Felicite Perpetue
Since then we've lived through lockdown and its partial relaxation.  I must confess that lockdown was much easier for me than most others.  The wags might say that social distancing comes easy to a Yorkshireman: perhaps they're right on that score.  Living in a village with a shop and Post Office surrounded by beautiful countryside laced with delightful walks and deserted lanes for cycling is a rare privilege and advantage.  So is having a large garden, which is now repaying the 3 months' effort expended in lockdown.  And at my advanced age I'm not in a tearing hurry to get out to do things, except insofar that I'm increasingly aware of the diminishing number of fishing seasons that may be left to me.  Like everyone else I've missed my family and friends most of all.  Now I'm finding reunions with our children and grandchildren very emotional, especially when they have to go home.

Rye Trout

The reopening came too late to save a friend's invitation to the Tweed and the better part of the Mayfly period on the Rye.  I did, nevertheless enjoy some success, albeit without ever coinciding with either a Mayfly hatch or an evening spinner fall.

5lbs 3oz - Pheasant Tail Nymph
3lbs 9oz - BWO Spinner

The larger fish presented real challenges with fighting under an overhanging tree, which precluded having the rod upright, and keeping it out of the bushes on the opposite bank only 12-14 feet away.  It gave me some really nervous moments, culminating in its inability to fit into my little landing net, which is why you see it some way up the bank!  The smaller fish - itself no dwarf - actually gave me much more satisfaction.  First, I love the thrill of the one-to-one combat of close quarter dry fly fishing for wary wild trout: nymphing doesn't compare unless you can see a fish taking rising nymphs near the surface.  And second, for my birthday my wife gave me an utterly wonderful little Vision Sisu 8' #3 brook rod, a tiny delicate little wand weighing less than 2 ounces, and this was its baptism as darkness fell on an evening rise.  This fish was tucked under the bank of one of the few open pools on the Rye in an awkward current seam, which required a slow and careful stalk to get into the best position for ideal fly presentation.  The size of the pool gave the trout ample opportunity to show off its strength and aerobatic urges.  Fighting a wild trout of this size on a tiny rod is one of the greatest rushes that fishing can give.  It was a truly perfect evening.

Ure Salmon

Amidst all this I wasn't too concerned on the salmon front because after 3 months of near-drought with barely 8% of average rainfall between March and May there certainly wasn't any kind of spring run in the Ure.  I hadn't missed anything and could look forward to when the rain arrived, which it did in excess in June, triggering a summer surge of salmon from the North Sea into the Ure.  My hopes of intercepting them at Sleningford came to naught owing to Covid precautions at the caravan site, so I had to wait a little longer for the best possible conditions up at Thoresby.

Everything aligned perfectly in early July, with the river falling from +1.3m at Kilgram and clearing nicely.  I was doubly excited because this was the first July opportunity on the Ure since the (non) summer of 2012.  Arriving on the water at 9.30 it looked absolutely perfect and my anticipation and morale were both sky high: who wouldn't be inspired by a view like this, especially after 4 months' lockdown?

The Perfect Summer View
Frodle Dub tail 10th July 2020

I put the Brigadier on Frodle Dub and went upstream to fish the Hut pool and the junction with Bishopdale Beck.  It needs plenty of water to fish well and the height couldn't be bettered even if it was running slightly brown.  Applying the 'Walking to the Water' formula a 1" MCX Conehead tube and a slow sinking polyleader would give the right presentation.

Hut Pool
Bishopdale Beck joins on the right

It's essential in this pool not to wade too far out from the bank - 3-4 yards is plenty.  It doesn't give you any advantage and certainly isn't necessary for casting distance as you can cover the water with only a partial D-loop.  More importantly, some of the best lies are on the near side, including one within 6-8 yards downstream of where you enter the water, so the old adages apply: clear the water nearest you before extending to casting distance; and fish the dangle positively.

After a couple of minutes removing some cobwebs from my casting I set off down the pool.  About 10 yards below the point at which I took the photo I had a good strong take - probably a grilse - close in to the bank.  It didn't stay on; nor did the one 3 casts later.  Missing fish is sad, but getting a couple of good takes within 10 minutes of starting is definitely good for morale.  As my fly was fishing about level with the end of the fallen tree on the left, between there and the well known lie in the middle, I had another much more forceful take and turn, which took my rod right over.  Without being too firm I leaned back to set the hook - and failed.  I was frustrated but unworried: there were clearly plenty of fish present and active.

Flesh Dub
After finishing off in Hut I progressed through Frodle and on to Flesh Dub, which was looking lovely and very fishy in the sporadic sunshine.  In the circumstances I was 
surprised not to get a take in the large lie at the head of the pool, usually one of the most reliable spots in the whole river.  However, as I progressed I became aware that the river was rising quite quickly and changing colour.  This was unexpected as the main rain front had passed through the previous night, and up until then the river had been falling quickly and clearing.

I wasn't too worried about the lift as there was no reason for it to be large or sustained, but the discolouration was a greater cause for concern owing to the effects of back-scatter of the sunlight underwater, which becomes much more pronounced in bright conditions and when the sun is high in the sky.  There's a fuller description of back-scatter (and other phenomena of light behaviour underwater) in 'Sparkling Water'.  There was a serious risk that my fly would shortly become invisible to the salmon, no matter where or how it was presented.

The effects of clay and
bright sunlight in water

If you're uncertain what is really happening under the water in terms of visibility and light level, the simple solution is to put your waterproof fishing camera to use and have a look.  This was the result.  In the space of 10 minutes the river had gone from falling and clearing nicely to total obscuration.  Even a salmon would be unable to detect a fly in the murk, even if you fished it closer to the surface.  The colour is the give-away: this was particulate grey clay, which because it is so fine would hang in the water for as long as this flush persisted, probably at least 12 hours, possibly longer.  At a stroke my perfect day (and my ambition to put the Brigadier into a fresh silver salmon) had come to naught.

My frustration was exacerbated by knowing whence the clay had come.  This was not a new occurrence.  Some years ago a large block of forestry on the flank of the hills beyond Hawes had been clear-felled.  The ridge ploughing to prepare the ground for new trees had breached the surface layer, exposing and disrupting an extensive layer of pale grey clay, which runs off into the adjacent beck.  If the rain is heavy enough it will displace sufficient clay to affect the main river, and the effects can persist for days.  In this case it brought the streak of July catches on the Ure to a shuddering halt, disappointing and frustrating many others with equally high hopes.

I fished on to the end of the day in hope but without expectation.  Lunch with the Brigadier was as pleasant as ever - we've been friends for 50 years and are totally relaxed in each other's company.  The disappointment would have been far, far worse if I'd been fishing alone.

Learning Points

So amidst my frustration, what learning points did I gather from the day?

  • Grilse are less tied to specific lies than larger fish.  They range all over the width of the river and can take anywhere, including the most unlikely places and in shallow water.  Don't be surprised when it happens.
  • Grilse are much less powerful and efficient swimmers than larger salmon, and when the river is up will usually run in the easier water close to the banks.  Don't wade unnecessarily deep.  Expect takes at the dangle and fish it positively.  Most of the hookings will be near the front of their soft mouths, so resign yourself to losing lots of them, but don't despair.
  • There are as many fish on your side of the river as the other.
  • Don't rush.  Always clear the water closest to you with a short line before extending to full casting distance and heading off down the pool.
  • Buy a waterproof camera and put it to good use to help you understand the conditions.  They're not unduly expensive and spare you all the worries of dropping your phone or smart camera in the water.

Looking Ahead

Given the clear evidence of plenty of salmon in the Ure we can only hope for a bit of rain and water in August (but not too much - no more clay please).  In 2011 and 2012 I caught some wonderful fish in August, large and in prime condition, so it would be lovely to repeat the achievement.  In September, lockdown permitting, we're back to Tomatin for Just One Week, somewhat earlier than in the past, but it will be a wonderful week with friends to savour.  HMCX is also coming up for a couple of days with his family to share my rod, which will be an added treat.  Let's hope for some water there too!

Unless I get some fishing on the Ure in August I won't have anything useful to write about until October.  For those of you lucky enough to be fishing, tight lines.

Wednesday 4 March 2020

Estimating the Weight of Salmon

How heavy?
Dalnahoyn Pool
Tomatin House
River Findhorn 2017

Yes, Rory's fish was big, but just how heavy?  Please make your estimate now and then review it at the end of this article.

In this era of near 100% catch and release the whole question of weight has become a vexed issue.  In the old days you knocked it on the head and put it on the kitchen scales (or bathroom if it was truly huge).  It's simple if you've invested £100 in a Maclean weigh net, but that's not an economic proposition for those who only fish one week each year.  I'm fortunate: one of the advantages of having grown up children is that they can afford to be generous and give you a weight net as a birthday present.  Most salmon anglers face the challenge of coming up with a good estimate of the weight of a large fish.  Length alone doesn't cut it: there's no real substitute for pounds and ounces, as AA Milne might have put it, because "Tigger always seemed bigger on account of his bounces". Estimating the weight of salmon is difficult for the inexperienced, especially when they're tiggerly excited and bouncing about on the river bank with post-landing euphoria.

Teviot Silver 2008
Of course ghillies have an experienced and sceptical eye.  Most tend to be very accurate with early season fresh fish. Eoin Faigrieve was within 4 ounces with this chap who'd only been in the river a couple of weeks in early May 2008.  However, from June onwards it starts to become more difficult, especially for the less experienced angler.  

Length to weight estimating scales

The usual recourse is to use one of the scales that you can find either via Google or in various publications.  However, this is where the more vigorous (and sometimes vicious) debates on salmon weight begin in earnest.


Edward Sturdy, who gave his name to the scale, fished in Norway on the Vosso system, where large salmon are commonplace.  His scale is based on a formula, with the input in inches and the output in pounds.

(Length x 1.33) x Girth x Girth

The drawback with Sturdy's scale is that on the Vosso he was dealing with fish built like South Devon bullocks - big and massively broad and deep.  Those Norwegian characteristics are what made the genetic strain so popular with the salmon farmers when choosing their brood stock.  Traditionally Dee fish were viewed as being heavily built.  The squaring of the girth places more emphasis on that feature than the length.  That is appropriate for very big fish, when every extra inch of length sees a disproportionate increase in girth and weight.

Sparkling fresh
Helmsdale in April
The Sturdy Scale seems to work quite well for hefty fresh-run spring fish up until early June.

You can see the high girth to length proportion of this lovely example of an average 2SW spring fish from the Helmsdale.

Same river, same week, different shape
But even on the same river you get variations in shape and hence weight to length ratios.

Sturdy does allow for this in spring fish at least.  However, I suggest that his scale starts to run into problems later in the season and thus must be allied to judgement.

River Ure
Early October 2015

If you apply Sturdy to the dimensions of the Beast of Wensleydale - 42" long, 24" girth - you arrive at a highly improbable weight of 40 lbs.  Clearly something's wrong: I shall explain why shortly.

It was the biggest salmon of my life, but I'd be the first to say it was nowhere near that heavy.

General Scale

What I call the 'General' scale on account of its very wide circulation is probably probably based on blending Sturdy's formula with empirical experience of British fish.  I've seen it reproduced in T&S, on blogs and in fishery board leaflets.  You will find a nice clear reproduction on Richard Donkin's website.  The copy on the desk beside me as I type is printed on water-resistant paper and appears to have been cut out of a fishery board pamphlet.

Like Sturdy it's pretty good on normally shaped fresh run fish until early June.  From that point onwards things start to go awry.  Look at the changing profile of fresh fish as the months advance.  The August fish is much the biggest of the sample, but it may have been hanging around in the North Sea for a few months before running the river, and it came 130 miles to the point of capture, which might explain its reduced profile.

 Scale about right

Scale overestimates by 1 lb


Scale overestimates by 2.5 lbs

So what's the problem with length to weight scales?

Actually there are 5 problems:
  • From the moment they convert to fresh water salmon start to lose weight because they are living on stored energy.  The rate of loss accelerates as the months pass.
  • Grilse and smaller salmon are less efficient swimmers than big fish and so burn off a higher percentage of their stored energy during migration.  They are also more mobile and erratic while running.
  • Hen fish are better at energy conservation than their testosterone-laden brothers, especially in the later summer and autumn.  They do, however, convert a great deal of flesh protein into eggs and the process is not a straight exchange of mass.
  • Very large fish are the most efficient swimmers and once in the river display extreme levels of energy conservation.  In a secure lie they seem able to go into a state of limbo, with all their body systems just ticking over.
  • And cock fish grow their kypes, which serve to exaggerate their length.  This is a major source of error in estimating their weight unless the extra length is discounted.

How much weight do they lose?

Ure Kelt 2011

The simple answer is an awful lot.  The mended kelt in the picture died during the fight and I couldn't revive it.  It was just over 36 inches in length, so it's reasonable to suggest that when it had entered the Humber a year earlier it was some 20 lbs in weight.  At death it weighed less than 12 lbs.

About 70% of a salmon's weight is flesh.  The other 30% comprises head, bones, skin and internal organs.  So during the last year of its life, this specimen lost more than 50% of its flesh mass and 40% of its original overall weight.  Those figures provide an objective anchor for the bottom of any weight loss graph.

Mr Angry
a colourful shadow of a former 14-15 pounder

As I said earlier, most cock fish lose weight faster.  This chap is a good example of the effects of the testosterone-driven territorial behaviour that is prevalent in the autumn.  He was the 'Pool Boss' of the tail of Flesh Dub: every time another male fish ran through his patch he would launch into an energy-sapping aggressive display.  Indeed, he was so punchy that he came after a small Ally Shrimp being stripped quickly from a range of 15 or more feet: the visual spectacle and tension was like something out of Jaws.  He was 35" long including his kype, but you can see how much body mass has already gone.  By spawning time he would have been knackered and down to a weight of 9-10 lbs.  That's why many fewer cocks than hens survive the spawning process.  it's quite possible that Mr Angry didn't make it to the spawning start-line.

Compare his body profile and mass with a hen fish caught a fortnight earlier 400 yards upstream.

Compare him also to this much bigger chap caught at exactly the same point of the season and place.  It's not a good photo, but make no mistake this was a very good fish.

He's a 37" 3SW who clearly hasn't wasted his energy on pointless behaviour.  But he most certainly isn't the 22 lbs that the scale might suggest on first inspection.  Not only has he lost 2-3 lbs in mass wastage, but also he's grown by 1.5" with the development of his kype.  He's actually somewhere around 15 lbs.

Definitely not a pretty fish
Tomatin 2005
Smaller fish also lose a larger proportion of their flesh mass.  Most grilse are male, so they are caught by the double trap of inefficiency and hyper-activity.  This especially ugly exemplar was my second-ever Findhorn fish on the fly, taken in very low warm water.

I was very much a novice then and delighted to have caught the fish after blank years in 2002 and 2003.  The sharp-eyed tackle geeks will spot an Aircel double-taper line and the Fibatube 13 footer I inherited from my father.  Those were indeed the early days.

This graph, based on an estimate for two identical 15 pound fish that entered the Ure in May, attempts to show with the blue line how the cocks' weight loss accelerates as the testosterone rises.  The main weight loss for the hen in Nov/Dec is the loss of egg mass at spawning: the milt mass in cock fish is significantly less.

Large Ure hen
3rd week of October

The visible effects of flesh mass loss in hen fish is often concealed by the 'plumping' effect of egg development.  You can see the well-stuffed appeared of this very large early October hen fish.  The sharp-eyed readers will spot the figure on the tape measure - 38" - which suggests that in May she was around 24 lbs.  Unfortunately, with flesh loss she was probably nearer 19 lbs by this time.

Note also the very short distance from the from the front edge of her eyeball to her nose - just 2.5" - which is germane to the next heading.

I got into a complete mess landing this fish, which explains why she's covered in sand.  Someone else had my landing net; just as I got hold of her tail in shallow water she went berserk; I fell over; and in the melee between us we broke the top section of my rod.  What a shambles!

How much does the kype extend?

Kype growth is one of the most important factors that lead to the overestimation of the weight of late summer and autumn cock salmon.  It is essential to grasp that the kype is not an integral part of the salmon's skeleton.  The hormone-driven growth of the cartilaginous extension is a temporary addition to the fish's body.  And of course, both estimating scales are based on skeletal length, not overall length.

The easy answer to this question is that it all depends.  Not all kypes are equal, nor do they grow at the same rate.  The first variable is whether the fish has run a river before (note the 'a river' - it could be a strayer).  If the fish survives spawning, its hormones subside and the kype shrinks as the kelt mends, but the nose doesn't return to its start state.  There's always an extra bit of bone and cartilaginous material that remains.  That gives it a head start on the next occasion.  Thus you can have 2 fish of the same birth age, one a 3SW first-timer and the other a former grilse, similar in most respects apart from the rate and extent of kype growth.  You can of course then play all the various permutations, but it won't necessarily give you a consistent explanation.  Then the equation is further complicated by latitude and when the salmon start spawning: as a general rule Findhorn and other northern Scottish cock fish are 4-5 weeks ahead of their Yorkshire cousins in testosterone levels and kype growth.

Here's a pair of fairly typical late season 2SW cock fish taken on the Ure in early October.  The were probably around 8-9 lbs on entry and by then were down to 7 lbs or so.  I apologise for the poor focus on the top one caused by haste to get a good profile of the kype.  They've both got just over an inch of kype growth.  The one to the right is more interesting, especially if you examine his upper jaw in close-up.

What a fine manly jaw
River Ure
October 2019
Here you can see the mark on the upper jaw showing the underlying bone profile from which it has extended by about 1.25".  It looks more, especially if you focus on the lower jaw, but that's fairly typical.  It will, however, extend further towards 2" before spawning in late November - early December.

But it does suggest that with a 2SW cock fish at this point in the season, or in September at the Findhorn's latitude, you need to knock about 1.5" off the length as well as applying mass depreciation in arriving at an adjusted weight.  But to be frank, we're not much concerned with exact weights at this size.

Let's now look at some bigger fish where the estimates of weight take on a whole new meaning.  We'll start with the 37 inch 3SW you saw above.  He probably turned Spurn Point at a spanking 18-19 lbs, but then he was only 35.5" long, not 37".  He hasn't been in fresh water as long as Mr Angry, so I reckon he's lost about 2-3 lbs of body mass.  So looking at the General Scale at 35" (18.5 lbs) and knocking off 3 lbs leads to my estimate of 15 lbs.

No, he's not one of my sons
Here's Rory's first large salmon, taken at Tomatin in early September 2011 and he's rightly proud of this warrior who was led astray by testosterone and chasing a rapidly stripped fly in the early morning.  See the post 'Morning Glory - Sex and Flies" for an explanation.  The latitude effect is evident.  The kype is much more developed than the bigger fish above.  There's close to 3" of upper jaw extension beyond the growth line.  Leaving aside the effect of the well-advised pose, once you deduct 3" of kype and apply appropriate mass depreciation its much-reduced real weight is exposed.  By such means does a 36" fish shrink from 20 to 12 lbs (it was killed and weighed).

And then you get the exceptions.  This brute was caught on the Deveron the week after I caught the Beast by an acquaintance who has a well-established reputation for catching very big late season fish and the prize rods to prove it.  It measured 41.5" in length and had a girth of 21.5".  This fish was therefore slightly shorter and 2.5" slimmer than the Beast and had a similar upper jaw extension of around 2.5 - 3".  With a net length of 38.5" and adjusted at the rate of mass depreciation you see in mid-teen fish, you'd be thinking of 24 lbs.

In fact it was weighed in front of a reliable witness at 31 lbs 4oz, earning the captor the prize for the biggest Deveron fish of the year.  Incidentally, as his prize he chose a Vision MAG 13', which goes to prove that I'm a better judge of rods than I am of the weight of very large cock salmon.  In any event there's little doubt that very big fish are different: they're highly efficient swimmers; they don't waste energy being stupid; and they're a very different shape.  This means that hypotheses that work for fish in the 14- 20 lbs zone aren't reliable for 30 pounders.

So what?

To get a better estimate of the weight of your salmon apply the following adjustments:

  • Until June use the General scale and apply only minor adjustments for mass loss, based on what you see.  Moderate or increase the mass loss to allow for size above or below 15 lbs/33".
  • After June continue to use the General scale but apply the following adjustments
    • Hen Fish  Measure from the nose to the fork in the tail and correct for mass loss using the orange line in the graph above and a degree of judgement.  Don't be fooled or flattered by the 'plumping' effect.
    • Cock Fish  Measure from the bone line in the upper jaw to tail fork.  Correct for mass loss using the blue line and common sense.  To guide that judgement remember that the girth may still be roughly the same as it was in the spring, but by by September the stomach cavity walls have already lost much of their mass.  And invisibly, most of the heavy high-energy fats interleaved in its flesh have gone.
    • Very big fish are where you can go badly wrong: I certainly did in my early years and even now in the post-fight euphoria my judgement gets seriously frayed.  Measure the length and girth; take a good photo side on; and pick it up with both hands to feel the weight (30 lbs is your wife's checked-in bag for holidays).  Please don't commit to an estimate until you've calmed down.  But do embrace the adrenalin, euphoria and accolades; enjoy the moment and the years of pleasurable glow to come; congratulations!  No matter what the exact weight it was very big and you caught it.

What was your estimate of the weight of Rory's fish at the top of the post?

The correct answer, courtesy of Mr Maclean, is 16.5 lbs.

Looking Ahead

After the wettest February on record - albeit strangely in Swaledale but not Wensleydale - at the end of a wet autumn and winter, there's water everywhere.  Let's hope the river levels are still good on 6th April when the Yorkshire season opens, because this year I really hope to catch Yorkshire silver.  On the other hand I say that every year, don't I?

Come March it will be time to launch into my spring routine.  The anticipation is already climbing.  For you lucky folk who have started the new season, tight lines.