Saturday 8 May 2021

At Long Last

Sleningford Falls

Finally, after many months of drear lockdown, I've got something to write about and the inspiration to do so.  After one of the driest and coldest early springs on record - February, March and April yielded less than 20mm of rainfall in total - I'm now happily looking at a window streaked with raindrops and listening to the water running through the downpipes off the roof. 

 The North Atlantic Oscillation, for so long locked the wrong way round has finally turned normal.  We may even have the ingredients for a late spring run in the Ure.  Amazingly, a small number of beautiful fresh salmon were caught in April, but their progress up to Masham probably involved clambering over bare dry rocks by virtue of the river being at MSL for 9 weeks.  Nature's determination is extraordinary.

I must confess that in most part lockdown has been far easier for me than for my children and grandchildren.  We live in a village with a Post Office and shop, a pub that does take-aways and even an off licence.  We're surrounded by lovely countryside laced with innumerable walks, and have a substantial garden to keep us occupied.  In contrast CCX and her husband live in a flat in London with two small boys, fortunately with a small garden.  It's been a very challenging year for them, so it was a huge delight that with the ending of restrictions they could take an Air BnB nearby to give themselves unrestricted fresh air and exercise for a long weekend, and an equal delight for us to see them again.

The biggest drag of the final stage of lockdown has been injury.  On Christmas Day my wife slipped on ice and broke her wrist - a complex 3 bone fracture that took 3 attempts to set and required 12 weeks in a cast.  I followed her example 10 days later on black ice, went flying and came down very hard on my left shoulder.  Fortunately I didn't break my arm, but the recovery from what I thought would be just a matter of severe bruising proved much longer and more challenging.  It's a salutary warning of the effects of age: 4 months on and I still don't have full mobility and have lost plenty of muscle, which demands twice weekly visits to a gym for rehabilitation training.  

The combination of injury, the lockdown loss of a week on the Helmsdale as a guest of Tony the Master Netsman (I'd been looking forward to that for a whole year) and Yorkshire drought restrained my usual spring enthusiasm, but at the first sniff of rain I launched into my outloading routine of transferring all my gear from the Great Fishing Chest into the car boxes ready for use.  It's amazing what a morale-boosting transformation a little water can achieve.  My habit of ordered organisation continues unchanged: indeed with the advancing of the years it's becoming ever more important as a means of avoiding forgetfulness.  I haven't forgotten anything yet - it's only a matter of time - but for now it's the gnawing uncertainty that occasionally causes me to stop the car, get out and check that I really did put everything in.  Of course I had, but my confidence in such matters is not as cast-iron as before.

Kilgram Gauge
(Data (c) EA)

In the event the rain at the beginning of the week was not as heavy or sustained as I had hoped, but the 1-metre lift was enough to trigger the desire to fish.  I should have preferred to get out on the Wednesday or Thursday, but work commitments forced a postponement to Friday.  However, MSL +8" wasn't impossibly low and still created a chance of success, even if it increased the risk of losing flies to the rocks.

I opted to go to Sleningford for three reasons.  First, it's astride the limit of exploitation for fresh fishing coming up off the tide at Naburn, a distance of about 50 miles or about 2-3 nights' running in good conditions before the level drops off.  Given more water the pathfinders, and especially the big springers, will go further over the following days, with some reaching Thoresby before dropping anchor.  The second reason was that Sleningford is right bank, left handed casting, and therefore offered an opportunity for pleasurable rehabilitation exercise of my shoulder.  I knew that with the double handicap of close-season rust and injury my casting would be horrid, but it was a worthwhile sacrifice to tolerate for longer-term benefit.  And third, the people who run the Mill and caravan site are so irrepressibly cheerful, charming and helpful that it lifts your spirits before you've even put a fly in the water.  You check availability by phone or email, turn up, pay your £20 at the reception desk and start fishing.  I knew that at only MSL +8" there wouldn't be a full day's ration of fishable water, but the prospect of getting out was so cheering that it didn't bother me.

Tail of Falls Pool

With low clear water, albeit at barely 9C, and a bright sky I started with a slow sinking polyleader and a #8 MCX double.  Having parked in the middle of the beat I clambered up to just below the falls before working my way downstream over the rocks.  After about 10 minutes I'd reached this point.  As my fly came round towards the dangle a couple of feet out from the rocks and just above the lip of the pool, I had a really good take, turn away and strong kicks from a powerful fish.  Unfortunately after three kicks it was gone, unseen, a typical running fish experience.  Inevitably with a head-on contact the odds are stacked against you, especially with a soft-mouthed fresh fish.

In the next pool I was making my way down the side of the head run against the willows, fishing a very short line -  no more than a couple of feet outside the top ring - until I could work the whole width below the white water.  As the line came round to the dangle, bang, wallop and 18" of bright silver headed skywards.  Unhindered by any weight of line in the water and a fast current in support, a 2lbs sea trout did a full repertoire of its aerobatic tricks before being swallowed by my net.  Unfortunately it had taken the fly right down, so the sensible choice was a quick rap with the priest and a fresh solution to our supper menu.

The pool below the white water is challenging to fish at low levels.  There's a ridge down the centre-line, largely comprised of rectangular rocks.  The rounded egg-shaped stones we have further upstream usually allow the smooth passage of a line or leader with the flow, but these chunky blocks are rapacious fly-catchers.  By the end of the day I'd lost 3 MCXs and bent the hooks of a fourth into uselessness.  At this level it's better to resist the temptations of the very fishy-looking water in the other half and concentrate on the narrow channel of deep water just in front of your feet, bounded by a limestone ledge on the near side.  Unfortunately there's also a sunken branch in the channel (it's been there at least 2 years) which restricts your fishing angles at this low water height.  Indeed, with another 6-8" the good water would extend all the way down to the point on the right and even beyond.  As I got down to the beach I had another good take, turn away and kicks, but yet again it didn't stick.  This was, however, a much smaller fish than the first.  While I was naturally very disappointed to have missed two salmon, in balance I'd been fishing for 90 minutes and was two takes and a sea trout to the good.

Bottom run
lowering sky and cold showers
 I fished on down to the bottom, changing to a conehead tube for the very fast water.  The tail of both the long pool above and of this run (down under the big tree) both raised my expectations, but without fulfilment.  Again, both of these would fish much better with another 8-10" of water.  Having reached the bottom boundary I cut back through the trees into the empty lower section of the caravan park and walked back to the car for lunch.

Enjoying my lunch in the comfort of a folding chair overlooking the water, I pondered the effect of the sun angle as the day progressed.  When I'd started around 10am the sun had been coming straight up the beat, but by 2pm it was coming round towards right angled on the salmon's left side.  Moreover, the light level was changing abruptly from bright sunlight between the showers to deep grey dullness in the rain and hail.  Salmon generally don't much like abrupt changes in light level because they lack a quick-acting iris within their eyes, although one some occasions it can stimulate movement in ways that are positive for fishing.  On that basis I reasoned that the afternoon session would be less productive, and so it proved.

There was, however, one unusual highlight.  Having started again at the falls and fished down to the large pool, as I came to the point marking the end of the better water I had a solid take and a couple of kicks.  The fish then moved off across the pool but not at any great speed.  My first reaction was 'kelt', but there was none of the usual head shaking and surface thrashing associated with emigrating kelts.  There was also the odd flash of silver in the water.  Although the fish was clearly quite weighty it wasn't at all energetic, and pretty soon its head came up, which presented me with a view of a mouth like a two-gallon bucket.  It was a humble chub, but a truly enormous member of the breed, by far the largest I've ever seen, so I did it the honour of using the net.  From nose to fork it measured a shade under 25", and the weigh net scale said 3kg/61/2 lbs.  Bearing in mind that the British record chub is 9lbs 5oz, for any coarse fisherman this would be the chub of a lifetime.  So, if in addition to salmon you also are interested in chub, you know where to find this trophy hefalump.

With that achievement I decided to call it a day.  It had been wonderful to be back out on a river with a rod, and even though my left-handed casting had been pretty rubbish, it hadn't got me down.  The shoulder had benefited enormously from the movement and exercise, although the upwards and backwards movement of my left hand into a good launch position was still constrained.  I had re-learned some old lessons - primarily not chasing the attractions of the far bank because there's probably better water right in front. of you - and revised my knowledge of the beat.  Sleningford is a very useful spring-fish venue, but you do need at least 12-15" above MSL (70-80cm on the Kilgram gauge) for it to fish well.  You're also well advised to start early to get at least 4 hours' fishing before the sun comes round.  In any event at £20 for a day with a realistic prospect of a springer, it's outstanding value.

Next on the agenda is a trip to Bolton Hall for a brush-up casting lesson with Brian Towers, which will be followed by a day on the beautiful Rutherford beat on the Tweed at the end of May.  By then the best of the trout season on the Rye will be in full swing, unless of course we have another summer like 2007 or 2012, which might keep the focus on salmon.  I also need to obtain and test the two new Vision salmon rods - the up-market Custom and the entry level Hero - from my local friendly dealer before the season is too far gone.  With all that and the next step out of lockdown only a week away there's plenty of morale boosting activity in prospect.  Tight lines.

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