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.