Sunday 19 December 2021

2021 - Goodbye, I'm glad to see you go

I'm not someone given to complaining, being a life-long optimist who travels (and fishes) hopefully.  But I trust that you will forgive the title of this chapter, because by any standard,  it's been a bad year, for which the Covid-induced dullness of 2020 was a very poor preparation, and it got off to a very nasty start.  On Christmas Day, returning from church - virtue is apparently no insurance -  my wife slipped on ice and broke her wrist very badly.  We spent the rest of the day in A&E while three muscular registrars and a specialist heaved and pulled to achieve a decent setting.  Deprived of our children and grandchildren it wasn't a good Christmas.

A week later, I was caught out by black ice, went a purler, landed very heavily on my left shoulder and had to drive myself to A&E, where I was the 49th fall injury to arrive.  A very robust physiotherapist jerked my arm around, and presumably based on the volume of my screams, determined that I hadn't broken my arm.  I took that as a blessing and blithely assumed that a couple of weeks stiffness while the bruising came out, interspersed with nice hot baths, would see me back to full strength.  My optimism was completely unfounded and the pain most unpleasant: 6 weeks later my left arm still wasn't working.  I referred myself to the GP who instructed me to stop being brave and take Cocodamol, and referred me to the Practice Physio Team.  After 6 weeks' experience in 2017 (see Raring to Go) I hate Cocodamol's side effects, but at least it allowed me to sleep.  A physio called Kev called, a former corporal of the Yorkshire Light Infantry, with a wonderfully direct manner of telling people what to do.  He was explicit: "I'll send you a raft of YouTube links of enthusiastic and muscular ladies showing you the exercises  you must do at home.  As soon as you can move the arm, join a gym, get a trainer and start rebuilding your shoulders.  And, because you're old, build up your overall strength to help you through your older age, just. in case you reach it."  With the advice administered, Kev signed me off.  The ladies were scary but the exercises worked.  I joined a gym and hired a pleasant young man called Stuart with a master's degree in Physiology to sort me out, and  by July all was well again.  With Kev's words ringing in my ears I have, nevertheless, retained my gym membership.

Helmsdale 2018

The next injury was inflicted on me by wee Nicola Sturgeon, who decided to maintain an iron grip on Covid well after England had started to relax.  As a result, a week's fishing on the Helmsdale in May as the guest of Tony the Master Netsman went down the drain.  Helpful friends and acquaintances suggested all manner of wizard wheezes for bypassing the regulations, but based on my previous experience of the Helmsdale's climate I didn't much fancy wild camping in the snow at my age.  Needless to say, I was massively disappointed: such generous offers don't arrive frequently.

While Nicola was being hard in Scotland, the weather in Yorkshire was harder still.  April was the coldest I can ever remember, with many more mornings below 0C than January, bitter winds and almost no rain.  Everything in the garden stopped in its tracks for 3 weeks and the Ure dropped to MSL.  May remained cold,  but it just poured with rain: by its end we'd received more than double the average rainfall.  I couldn't get near a salmon or trout river for cold air and brown water, apart from one day early in the month on the Ure at Sleningford Mill, when I missed two salmon and caught a nice supper-sized sea trout and an (inedible) giant chub.  My one attempt at trout yielded hypothermia within 30 minutes and an early retreat.

By the time we got into June, the Rye and Ure and my garden were running about 3 weeks behind schedule.  The torrential rain of May stopped abruptly and we moved straight into drought.  For want of anything else to do I completed a long-overdue reconnaissance and review of the Jervaulx Abbey beat, but had no real expectation of catching.  With the Mayfly almost non-existent my morale followed the Ure down to MSL.  A year of Covid-induced dullness was really getting to me before two brief flashes of light pierced the gloom.

Tweed silver
27th May 2021
First, TTMN, feeling sorry for me, took me to Rutherford on the Tweed for a day as his guest.  I love Rutherford, and all the more since I broke my duck and started catching fish there.  The day was almost perfect, a mite bright but the water was an attractive +12".  Fishing Lovers' Leap just before lunch I hooked this sparkling 7lbs fish from the lie off the point on the near side.  Michael, who is always on hand 10 minutes before lunch, opined that it had reached Rutherford from Berwick, 37 miles as Tweed flows, in little more than 24 hours.  Having landed the fish, I took 3 paces upstream and covered the lie again: BANG! a similar fish came out of the water at 45 degrees with the small MCX Conehead in its mouth.  Sadly it came off shortly thereafter. Undeterred, I went back up 3 paces, and covered the lie for a third time.  A swirl 3 feet inshore from the lie told me that a fish had followed the fly and duly took.  Sadly that one too came off.  But three takes in three casts was a real lift.  The losses underlined the point that very fresh fish have soft mouths, so early in the season your loss rate may be higher.  The three takes reinforced the fact that salmon are schooling fish that run in company.  If you get one, cover the lie again straight away.  And the MCX was the only fly to catch that day!

Brae Water 4
looking down towards the hut
9th July 2021

Second, in late June a friend called to ask whether I would like to take his slot for 3 days on the Spey at Gordon Castle in prime time in early July.  There was only one question: "Do I have to walk barefoot or can I take the car?"  And so it was that I found myself fishing in the Premier League on the Brae Water.  Needless to say, with me, the man who blanked on the Gaula - twice - being on top class water at the peak time doesn't guarantee salmon.  And so it proved.  The water was low, but not so low as to preclude running, and a steady 10.5C.  Indeed, the bottom of Brae is within line of sight of the sea.  

The problem was that the fish were running too quickly.  It was a lottery: if you were lucky enough to be on a pool where a pod of salmon paused, you were in luck.  One member of our party had exactly that experience, arriving at a pool to find it boiling with fish, and directly caught a 14 pounder.  When the next rod turned up 15 minutes later, they were gone.  I don't recall covering so much superbly attractive 'fishy' water with such expectation and not getting a touch.

Piling at the top of Brae 3
When the touch came I blew the chance with a stupid careless error.  Iain the Head Ghillie instructed me to cast at a shallow angle and allow the line to come right in close to the rocks in the centre of the photo, and then with each cast extend the line to wrap around the corner.  The most likely take would be straight off or slightly behind the point, and so it proved.  After covering the first part of the rocks from where I took the photo, I advanced down to the bend in the piling for the next part.  Instead of tidying up the excess running line onto the reel I kept it loose.  On cue a good fish took at the exact spot.  Following the Spey dictum I gave it the two feet of slack under my hand, after which everything stopped.  To my horror I found that a loop of running line was fast around the handle of the reel, and in accordance with Murphy's Laws, the loose end was on the inside.  What followed was a couple of seconds of agony and cursing as I frantically tried to regain the slack needed to free the line, followed by more cursing when the salmon failed to cooperate and departed. I was mortified that I, the paragon of organisation and discipline, had been so careless.  There you have it, a full confession of crass incompetence.

Flesh Dub on the Ure
October 2021
beautiful but devoid of fish

Apart from a couple of grilse nibbles that was it, but the trip had been a wonderful elixir, an uplift from the pervasive gloom.  The downside was that it made me more keenly aware that we didn't have a Tomatin week this year, and as the summer progressed I became increasingly and irrationally low, totally contrary to my nature.  I was pining for salmon fishing and good company.  The state of the Ure didn't help.  The drought was just like 2014, except that the gauges went even lower.  The one at Bainbridge went off line because it hadn't been programmed to produced negative numbers.  All I could do was wait and pray for the weather to break, and hope for some decent fishing in October.  Meanwhile, all the fish that had run in March and May were hunkered down in whatever deep water they could find between York and Tanfield.  A barbel-fishing acquaintance remarked that the deep gravelly runs around Boroughbridge were full of comatose salmon.  I was aware that presented a serious problem, because once salmon hunker down, switch their systems to almost zero and go comatose, only the most serious and sustained spate will wake them from their slumber.  If we didn't get 6-8 feet of water for the better part of a week, the disaster of 2014 would truly repeat itself.  Despite my prayers, the serious rain never came, probably because in Yorkshire there are far more farmers than salmon fishermen.  It closed as one of my worst seasons ever.

Standing on fish & ruining a pool

I only drew one lesson from the Ure this year, which is clearly shown in this photo, of the gentleman - a charming chap - fishing below me.  For whatever reason he was desperate to cast to my bank, without looking at the water in front of him.  You can see quite clearly the lie through which he has just waded, one of the most productive on the whole of the river, and in this pool the running line comes up the right side.  If there are very few fish about, it helps not to stand on them.  On average there are as many fish on your side of the river as the other, and most salmon are hooked within 15 yards range.

Amber & Purdy
Then, to. complete my happiness, Murphy's 2nd law struck again: when you think it can't get worse, it will.  After my last day's fishing I went to stay with my friend the Brigadier who had invited me to shoot partridges the next day.  After arrival and a cup of tea I needed to switch fishing and shooting kit between my wife's car and my own.  As I was going about it, there was a multi-dog riot with my new Pup Amber getting hugely over-excited.  In the darkness and confusion as I was lifting the dog box out of my wife's car, bent at the waist, a dog hit me at full speed, knocking me sideways.  My back immediately told me this was not good news.  Over the next 3 weeks the pain caused by the trapping of the femoral nerve between two degraded vertebrae - which is in the right leg, not the back itself - got progressively worse,  until by the end of the month it was 2017 all over again, unable to walk properly, lying face down on the floor with a bag of frozen peas for company, in an opiate haze of Cocodamol.  Only shooting was capable of persuading me into an upright position, although narcotics and marksmanship don't coincide.   Fortunately, by early December the pain had eased, so I set about weaning myself off the painkillers with all the joys of withdrawal symptoms of nausea, giddiness and a few unmentionable side effects.  One that I didn't anticipate was a runny nose, which I dismissed as a light cold.  My wife, who is unfailingly right in such things, said: "You never, ever get a cold.  Take a lateral flow test."  It was positive, so. was the PCR.  Murphy had struck again, and somewhere, somehow, I had caught Covid.  Now I am serving the penitence of domestic self-isolation at the top of the house, due to emerge the night before Christmas Eve and hoping fervently that after a dreadful year Murphy will give me a break.  The trouble is, he doesn't, and there's no sunset clause in his 2nd Law.

As you might imagine, I'm not feeling especially cheerful.  The whole family is due for Christmas, which would be wonderful after 2 years, but with all the talk of 'circuit breakers' and 'mini-lockdowns' I'm fearful that it won't happen.  Moreover, it's challenging to write cheerfully about salmon fishing if at the end of a season you have only one salmon to show for your efforts.  It's not exactly the hallmark of an expert, and the impact on my self-esteem and the credibility of this blog as  a source of information defies description.  In fact there is a good case for abandoning this blog altogether, because since I started writing at the end of the 2012 season only one year has offered halfway decent fishing.  Over the past decade we've had one wet season (2017), one about average (2013) and eight droughts with rivers on their bones for months on end.  Indeed, when I embarked on this literary journey I pondered whether such hubris risked creating an inevitable nemesis.  Perhaps I was even more correct than I feared.  However, if I turned the tables on Murphy and surprised him by stopping writing, might the weather and my catches of salmon return to some kind of normality?

It would be very easy to give up.  I did much of my best writing while filling the spare time on business trips to the Gulf, but as a result of Covid there haven't been any of those for almost 2 years, and there's no prospect of any before late 2022.  It's much harder to find the time and focus when you're at home.  There's always something else that needs doing, endless distractions and a wifely disbelief that writing is anything other than a frivolous pleasure.  And it's doubly difficult if you've had a rubbish season, you've got nothing useful or original to say and it's been ages since you last wrote.  I apologise to everyone who may have missed the end of season round-up and MCX's Christmas Stocking, which failed to appear for those reasons.  To be honest, I've written this not as a result of any inspiration but rather as an act of defiance in the face of the urge not to bother amidst the dullness, gloom and darkness of the Covid suppressed world.

I'm still here, and a quarter of a million page views of Just One Week tell me to keep going.  Thank you for your support and encouragement, and have the best possible Christmas in the circumstances.  Let us hope and pray for a return to normality of life and salmon fishing.  I don't wish to be importunate, but at my age it's getting a bit urgent, so Happy New Year.

Having got all that misery and self-pity off my chest I feel much better.  Rest assured I will be back, fishing and writing in 2022!