Wednesday 2 November 2022

MCX's Christmas Stocking 2022

It's that time of year again when I try to give readers of this blog some ideas to plant with Father/Mrs/Mr Christmas.  When I started this near-annual post a decade ago it was easy to find good things very cheaply, but time, inflation and compound interest have taken their toll and pushed the upper boundary further up the scale.  Nevertheless, you will still find the perennial stocking fillers as well as some really good useful items that I have personally tested.
What I found interesting while compiling this year's Stocking was that despite an accelerating economic downturn and the impact of the energy-induced cost of living crisis, there is no significant discounting visible on the tackle trade's major web outlets beyond the disposal of surplus and slow-moving stock (and it's usually one or the other for a good reason - no one wants it).  I searched all of the main dealers' sites for a big bargain for the "Father Christmas Goes Bonkers" item without success, so there isn't one this year.  It may well be that come the New Year, if you visit their shop or phone you might be able to negotiate a good deal on a big ticket item: good luck.  As a result this year's stocking is smaller than in previous editions, which is a sad reflection of these dull and uncertain times.

Guideline Firskin Gloves

These are my champion "must have" item of 2022.  I bought a pair at Bruar on my way up to the Spey in early April, which proved to be the amongst best £37.99 I've ever spent.  Nothing before has kept my hands so warm.  The first day at Orton was sub-zero with snow, wind and line freezing in the rings (see Chasing Unicorns for evidence), yet even at my advanced age I fished the whole day in comfort.  Make sure you get the lined GX version and not the thinner, cheaper unlined model.  They're currently available from Sportfish at £39.99 but you'll probably save a couple of pounds elsewhere.

HJ Socks

Socks for Christmas may be a hardy perennial joke, but there's no substitute for good socks when spring fishing, and 20 years' experience have convinced me that this British-made products are the best and most durable available.

HJ make socks for every occasion and will have something to suit everybody.  I use the HJ7 work model, which you can buy direct from the factory at £7.50 per pair.

Being a mixture of wool and wicking synthetic they will keep your feet warm even if your waders leak!

Brasher Lined Trousers

I found these in the sale at Go Outdoors last year when looking for a back-up pair to my expensive Simms insulated trousers.  After using them on the Spey and Helmsdale in April and the Ure in October, I can report that they're excellent: extremely well designed and cut; comfortable in fit and temperature; and fitted with ample pockets (albeit it takes a while to remember and differentiate between the zipped and unzipped apertures).  They're excellent value at £44 (and you currently get an extra 15% off if you're spend exceeds £100) at Go Outdoors.

Digital IR Thermometer

The IR sensor water thermometer I've previously recommended isn't currently available from LabFacility, which is a great shame as it's by far the best I've ever found.  I suspect that this is connected to the supply chain problems caused by the Chinese policy of managing Covid by total lockdown of entire provinces and cities.  This is a cheap alternative, which is available from your local branch of Screwfix for £23.99.

I've not tried it but the user reviews are favourable.  At that price it's still cheaper than the analogue thermometers sold by the tackle dealers (and way cheaper than their digital offerings) and far more convenient as you don't have to hold it in the water: just point and read.

Small Tube Fly Box

There seems to be an unfortunate trend towards bigger, more complicated and even more expensive fly boxes.  You just don't need that many tube flies in your pocket.  I loved the tiny Snowbee pocket box, but its peg springs expired and it's no longer in production.  To replace it about 6 or 7 years ago I bought this C&F model (at 3 times the price), which was about the only one that was suitably compact and works well.  The clear flap over the tubes is held down with a little magnetic catch, which stops them falling out when you're selecting your hook from the lid.  It's a good piece of all-round design.  However, it's becoming quite difficult to find, but it's available from Angling Active in Stirling at £29.99.

In the same vein, the inexpensive Richard Wheatley CompLite fly boxes appear to have been withdrawn.  I regret that I haven't found an acceptable alternative at a sensible price.

Mitten Clamps (i.e. unhooking pliers)

I find mitten clamps a much better and quicker solution to unhooking salmon than forceps: with a good grip on the tool, the fly locked in the jaws, and once good movement it's job done.  There are lots of very tough places in and around a salmon's mouth that can require considerable force to extract a fly, and in those cases I like to work as quickly as possible.

Sadly it appears that William Joseph has ceased making my old favourites.  In the last Stocking I recommended the Loon (which are very good).  This year the Vision mitten clamp, which is an identical design, is on offer £2 cheaper at GAC at £21.99.  It also offer a scissor blade adjacent to the pivot, a useful feature.

McNett Quick GoreTex Repair

I've previously recommended this neat little kit, which contains two adhesive-backed GoreTex patches.  It provides a quick (adhesion is instant) and very convenient repair capability for surface damage to the outer skin of your waders that's too big to fix with UV curing glue solutions like Snowbee Suncure or Loon UV Wader Repair, which are the best answers to simple hook holes.  You just cut a patch to size, peel off the back, press it into place, and the job's done.

In September at Arndilly I was able to confirm its utility.  One of the rods in the party has stored her waders unprotected from mouse attack, leaving three substantial holes of around 20mm diameter.  The patches provided an immediate solution, which I later backed up with Aquasure repairs on the inner surface.

Of course there's no substitute for Aquasure for the proper repair of a large hole or tear so it's a hardy perennial in my Xmas stocking list.  However, how much solid Aquasure do you throw away?  Lots over the past 20 years. If you put it in the freezer to keep it after opening, do you remember to take it out before you go away?  I didn't before going to Arndilly and wound up having to punch a hole into the mostly solid (unopened) tube in my toolkit.  In any event, how much do you use each year?  Not a lot.

So perhaps a better option is buying smaller tubes.  Of course it's more expensive per gram, but it is more convenient and less wasteful.  The Simms branded pack of two baby 7 gram tubes is available from Sportfish at £8.99.

Budget Nippers

My ranting about the price of nippers marketed by the like of Abel and Simms is as perennial as the Christmas Stocking.  After a further two years of surveying the market I still haven't found anything to beat the Sportfish De Luxe model at £6.99, and they're still nice and sharp.  When I was making up a grass leader back in August they happily cut 44 and 50 lbs Seaguar without a moment's hesitation.  Why pay more?

Leader Rings

I'm now an enthusiastic convert to using leader rings for making the join between a poly leader and the tippet, and in some cases for the last 2-3' of the leader.  In the latter it certainly speeds up replacing the end section if it's been abraded by the salmon's teeth or on rocks.  Having to tie a surgeon's knot in that scenario on the last day of the season reminded me of the convenience of leader rings: now £2.39 for 10 from John Norris.

One quick tip: don't keep them in the packet.  Thread them onto a safety pin, where you can tie the first knot easily without fumbling with a little ring with cold wet fingers.  Once it's attached to the leader, the second knot's easy.

Airflo Polyleaders

A fisherman's stocking isn't a stocking without polyleaders.  My wife agrees!  her Christmas purchases carry me through each season.

Although they have gone up in price (now £7.99 reduced to £6.39 at John Norris) the quality and finish has improved markedly.  I still think they're the best around at the money and you don't gain much by paying double or more for a premium brand.

Rio Cranky Kit

It says "Quick & Convenient" on the packet and for once Rio are absolutely precise in their use of words describing the virtues of this device.  Three seasons' use has confirmed that view.  The normal 'electricians coil' method is fine for quick changes of shooting heads on the riverbank, but it does induce a curl.  When you have a moment, straightening the head, winding it onto the split spool and then removing it for stowage ensures that your shooting heads remain curl-free.  Mine lives in the car box and is used almost daily when I'm fishing: strongly recommended at £9.99 from John Norris.

Line Lubricant

Get one of these in your stocking and give your lines an Easter present before the start of the season.  Some people baulk at the price of good line lubricants, but this small bottle will clean a full stock of shooting heads and lines many times over.  My last bottle lasted 6 seasons, so on that basis it represented 0.015% of the value of my lines each year, while improving their performance and extending their life.  Both the lubricant and the process of cleaning and polishing your lines (my spring ritual described here) deliver really high value.

Happy Christmas

I close by wishing everyone a very happy and enjoyable Christmas, in the hope that it will be truly free of Covid and lockdowns.  I also take this opportunity to thank all my readers for their continuing support and encouragement.  Just One Week passed the major milestone of 250,000 page reads in October, shortly after its 10th birthday.  When I started I never had any thought or ambition for such scale and worldwide breadth of readership, so I'm most grateful to you all, thank you.

Sunday 23 October 2022

2022 - An Extraordinary Year

The 2022 record drought
River Rye at Helmsley
August 2022
Surface temperature 30C

2022 was the driest and hottest spring and summer in my lifetime, worse even than 1976 and 2003.  The rain stopped in February and didn't restart until September.  This is a stretch of the the River Rye, normally well populated with brown trout, grayling and crayfish, on which I fish for trout in truly beautiful surroundings: you can see it in more normal conditions on this website.  The extended drought caused the level of the subterranean aquifers to fall so low that there was no longer any back-pressure to prevent the river disappearing into the cracks in the rock.  In late May the flow started to dwindle alarmingly, and by August a mile of the river had disappeared entirely.  I stopped fishing in mid-June.

The worst feature of the situation pictured above wasn't the loss of water - we've seen that with increasing frequency in the past decade - but the temperature.  In previous events there has been enough cool moisture under the stones for the invertebrates to survive.  But in 2022 the surface temperature was intolerable and everything dried to dust.  The mature trout, grayling and crayfish will have been able to migrate, but the invertebrates, fry and small species were less fortunate.  Provided that these conditions don't repeat, we may see a full recovery in about five years.  The Rye is an extremely resilient river: in the 45 years I've fished there, we've had a enormous flash flood that caused the release of over a million rainbow trout, droughts and pollution events.  On every occasion the recovery was quicker than we ever imagined, so that underlying optimism underpins my 5 year estimate above.  Of course, at my age, I can only hope that I'm right because it doesn't leave much slack!

Needless to say, the conditions on the Ure were equally bad and wholly prohibitive of salmon fishing.  Aysgarth Falls stopped flowing and the water temperatures reached alarming figures.  The EA's gauge at Bainbridge, now reprogrammed to cope with negative numbers, remained below MSL for more than 200 days.  With no water to prompt or sustain spring or summer run, it was unlikely that any salmon got further than West Tanfield (Mickley Weir is impassable in low water).  The very high temperatures of the mid-summer would have caused oxygen levels in the sluggish lower Ouse between York and Goole to decline to the point at which the water became impassable to salmon, in an echo of the extinction of the 1960s and 70s.  But somehow, possibly by remaining in the Humber, the salmon survived.  The rain brought the first proper spate on 1st October, and two weeks later I witnessed hundreds of salmon running into the pools at Thoresby.  A species that has survived a couple of ice ages and everything nature and man have thrown at it in the intervening millennia isn't that easily stopped.

Despite the climatic horrors of 2022 and catching very few fish, I'm in a far better and happier place than I was at the end of 2021.  I approach the task of writing a round-up of the year with a smile and many happy memories: with any luck I'll also publish a Christmas Stocking post this year.

Early April at Orton

Orton - Willows run peering upstream into the snow
Lots of water - +2' 6"

As I reported on our first week at our new home at Orton at some length I won't rehearse the details here.  We didn't catch any salmon: what we needed was low, cold water but what we got was very cold very high water (peaking at +5 feet).  While that was very disappointing, we had a lovely week with old friends in an outstandingly comfortable lodge, and the beat is beautiful fishing water.  Despite failing to catch I really enjoyed the week and finished feeling rejuvenated: after the problems of 2021 it was wonderful to be back on a salmon river.  We look forward to returning.

Late April on the Helmsdale

Tony the Master Netsman (TTMN) kindly invited me to join his party on the Helmsdale for four days in the week spanning the end of April.  The arrangements on the Helmsdale are unusual and certainly confusing to the uninitiated.  The estates that own the length
 of the river share the fishing equally, which is subdivided into 12 beats, rotating at lunchtime and evening.  You share a rod and fish half time.  Altogether there's about 14 miles of water, divided by the falls above Kildonan.  This offers a huge variety, from the open stretches like that shown here,

to the close, rocky defiles either side of the falls (fighting a fresh fish in here is a real challenge as I discovered during my last visit),

to the open moorland burn character of the upper reaches.

In addition, the character within each stretch can change remarkably in a very short distance.  The Helmsdale really does keep you on your mental toes, and you have to be able to change your tactics and presentation minute by minute. Meanwhile the relentless wind boxes the compass and sets you infinite challenges.  There's no cast and step here: I know of no other river that demands so much active thinking, which is one of its greatest rewards.

Super-fresh 9lbs Helmsdale salmon
So fresh it looks white
At this time of year the fish are sparkling fresh, with their readiness to take a fly partially offsetting the paucity of their numbers.  They're also perverse: in very cold water this one took a sparsely dressed deer hair dressed on a light aluminium tube, which was probably no more than 2" below the surface in fast water, within 3 feet of where Donnie the Ghillie said it would be.  All my instincts screamed sink tip and weighted fly, but they were wholly wrong because the salmon was in a short halt lie beside the main flow in water less than 2' deep.

It was huge fun on a light rod (12' 8" #7 XO), laying on a spectacular aerial performance cartwheeling down the pool.  Donnie was convinced that I had the drag too firm, and I can understand that opinion given the very soft mouths of such fresh fish, but on the other hand, once you've got over the initial seconds of the turn and have confidence in the hook hold, I'm a believer in letting a salmon run within the available space against decent resistance with the rod no higher than 45 degrees as the quickest route to a conclusion.  In this case it was a classic turn 'opposite jaw' hooking (left bank, right side of the jaw - see Crash! Bang! Pluck! for an explanation) with a dynamite proof hold.  Catching a fish early in my stay spared me the Saturday pressures of my last visit, so I could fish on happy and relaxed.  But Helmsdale salmon are nemesis personified and perverse:  having caught one in clear bright conditions I was confident of my prospects for more when the cloud, wind and rain arrived, at which point they completely switched off and we never touched another!  There are no certainties with salmon.

The other captivating feature of the Helmsdale is the wild, bleak majesty of the surroundings, far removed from the more densely populated valleys of the Spey, Dee and Tay.

Wild and sparse
There are only 2 houses in the 15 square miles of this shot

And best of all, we enjoyed a fun, happy and very diverse party - including a chemical engineer, a specialist eyelid surgeon and retired chief constable - all bonded by a love of salmon fishing and the beauty of the place.

Evening view from Suisgill Lodge

We returned from the Helmsdale into an accelerating and deepening drought with escalating temperatures.  Apart from few days on trout fishing faded into the background as the lawn browned, trees wilted and the main crop potatoes failed completely.  There was no choice but to sit it out and wait for the weather to turn, and certainly no merit in railing against it.

Early September at Arndilly

The relief from the tedium of drought-locked Yorkshire came with a surprise invitation from a friend to join a party on the Spey at Arndilly, which is between Rothes and Craigellachie, just two beats above Orton on the lower river.   A chance to fish this wonderful piece of water for 3 days was a huge and unexpected bonus that did wonders for my morale.

Despite the great promise there was, alas, no pot of gold or salmon at the end of the rainbow, as
I reported in the previous post.  Despite fishing flat out in a river more stuffed with salmon than any other I've ever witnessed in the UK, I didn't even get a single take.  it was the absolute converse of the Helmsdale: few but ready to take versus loads but wholly uninterested.  The salmon had been hanging around since April and June and were just mentally boggled.  The grilles called it "an acute dose of Septemberitis".  Once again, there are no certainties with salmon.

Despite the disappointment (again) of failing to catch, it was a huge privilege to fish such lovely water.  Certainly the plentitude of fish provided a continuous incentive to keep trying.  In parallel I used the opportunity presented by immaculately manicured banks and wide open water to experiment with big rods and long-bellied full Spey lines, a technique I'd forsaken in 2007 for the ease and convenience of shooting heads on shorter rods, better suited to the Findhorn and Ure.  But it's horses for courses, and on the wide open spaces of Arndilly the long lines were exactly the right answer.

The exercise allowed me to try two very different rods: the Sage X 15'  - the 'Emperor' - which was indeed imperial in both performance and price; and the Vision 14' 7" Hero, which was delightful and far better value at level than half the price.  Indeed, I liked the Hero so much I bought the brand new demonstrator.  The full reviews are in the Arndilly post.

The Hero is an excellent example of how the steady trickle down of technology from the premier league rods of 5-7 years before benefits to normal angler at an affordable price.

Autumn on the Ure

HMCX wading in chocolate
The weather didn't break until the end of September.  By then I'd had to cancel two days on Thoresby, including one with the Brigadier, to which I'd been looking forward all year.  My annual father and son bonding expedition with HMCX was timed for 30th September and 1st October.  We cancelled the 30th for want of any water and the inability of the Bolton Arms to accommodate us, but fished Thoresby on the 1st in hopeless conditions, with the river falling from a 7' spate.  In fact it had nothing whatsoever to do with fishing but everything important to do with relationships, sitting on the riverbank drinking Theakston's.  It was a truly lovely interlude, and I was privileged to be able to borrow him from the demands of his delightful family and his successful career in the City.

Perhaps in 2023 it will come together again, with water, fish and a functioning pub!

Looking up Flesh Dub
13th October 2022
Finally, on 13th October, after months of frustration, the stars aligned and we enjoyed one of those perfect day's fishing.  I'd invited TTMN as my guest in pursuit of connecting him with a Yorkshire salmon.  Over the past 5 years we've had cancellations for lack of water, blank days and others lost to Covid.  When we arrived on Thoresby in the morning I felt it was going to be good: the river was tailing off the back of a small 2-3' rise 48 hours previously; the height allowed easy passage of Redmire Force (a key regulating factor in the Thoresby fishing); and after two weeks of frequent spates even the most torpid salmon could have reached the beat from the Humber.

Frodle Dub in the autumn sunshine
To begin with it was very quiet, but around 11.30 things came alive.  I was just finishing on Flesh Dub when I saw Tony was into a fish on Frodle, strode upstream to assist, and arrived spot on time to net a lovely shiny 13 pound hen in perfect condition with a light tan complexion.

A yard of very fit Ure hen on her way back

Tony suggested that I fish on while he sorted himself out.  Three casts later I was into a very good fish that stayed deep throughout the ten minute fight, during which it managed to wrap me around a couple of rocks.  The 23lbs Seaguar leader withstood the challenge, albeit the abrasion subsequently required its replacement.  It was another very fit hen, which in the Maclean weighed 8kg or 171/2lbs to the nearest whole number.

We took a break for lunch after which Tony went to Hut and I started on the fast water at the head of Frodle.  After 5 or 6 paces, with a #12 MCX double on an unweighted leader fishing right on the surface on a short line, I had the unique experience of watching a good cock fish come up from below in the clear water to take my fly (and yes, it did come up at 45 degrees!).  It felt like slow motion in that I could see every detail of its ascent, mouth opening, taking the fly and turning away, all seriously exciting.  I was able to restrain myself from striking on the take and let the salmon hook itself as it turned away and downwards.  The next stage of the operation was to move downstream to fight it out of the fast water (which it preferred) into the calmer area below.  Like many autumn 2SW cock fish he didn't come easy and provided ample entertainment.  As this 12 pounder was extremely securely hooked toward the top rear of the mouth the most humane solution was to cut the leader and send him on his way without attempting intrusive extraction (experience with catching fish for the hatchery shows that in most such cases the hook drops out after a fortnight or so without ill-effect, and in any event as it isn't feeding it's not an interference).

No 3
With apologies for the lack of focus

Buoyed by this excitement I headed off down to Willow Bush while Tony made his way down through Hut and Frodle.  On returning I saw Tony was into another fish and yet again arrived spot on time to do the honours with the net for a good cock fish that interestingly had almost negligible kype development.  By now we were heading towards the end of the day and Tony wished to take a short break.  At his invitation I stepped into Frodle where he had finished, and behold, a few casts later I hooked and landed an energetic 8 pounder.  Although there was still fishing light, and we could see lots more fish entering the pool, we agreed that this was the right time to stop and enjoy the glow of a marvellous day.

I haven't equalled or better 5 salmon in a day on the Ure since 2011 (my best effort that year was 6 to my own rod with another 4 lost).  While the day promised much I had no expectation of it being this good.  It seemed that as each pod of salmon entered the pools - and you could see them arriving - they were eminently catchable.  Unlike Arndilly where the salmon had spent a static summer having come only 6-8 miles from the sea, these Yorkshire fish were long-haul travellers: it's 130 miles as the river flows from where they leave the North Sea at Spurn Point to Aysgarth (I know, I've cycled 114 of them).  As a result they were active, alert and thus available.  No doubt they'd bed down and switch off as soon as they were settled, but by good fortune our timing was perfect.

Indeed, it was so perfect that I decided I wouldn't tempt fate and disappointment by going out again, and packed up my kit for the season.  It's best to finish on a high note.

Learning points from 2022

I always try to derive some learning from every fishing experience, so here are a few points gleaned in 2022, none of which are original or new:
  • The fish are always nearer than you expect.  In ascending order the ranges at which I hooked fish this season were 7, 9, 18 & 20 yards.  Of course many Helmsdale fish will be close to you, but the closest was on the Ure at a point where many people strive to cast 25+ yards.  In two sessions on the Spey, in only two pools did I need to cast over 30 yards, and in most 15-25 sufficed.  Even on Cairnty, the biggest pool on the whole river, the running line was well within 25 yards.  The moral of the story is to work out the underwater profile of the river and tailor your casting to it, not the width you see on the surface.
  • Faced with a big pool and a difficult wind we always try too hard because the elements prompt our instincts to do so.  Yet exactly the reverse yields the best results.  In bad conditions, relax, slow down and concentrate on achieving a good stop.
  • In high water running fish will often hug the banks, especially smaller grilse, so be extra alert towards the dangle.  I wasn't and missed a catchable fish on Cairnty in April.
  • Later in the season seeing a lot of fish splashing about isn't a reliable indicator of the prospects of catching.  However, those that briefly expose their backs while swimming slowly forward may be another matter entirely.
  • Always check you leader for abrasion after you have fought a fish: you may not have felt the interaction with underwater rocks.
  • Sometimes it all comes together in a perfect day: treasure the moment and the memories.
  • The happiest bit is the people with whom you fish: your family and friends are your greatest source of happiness.  The salmon are the extras.

Wednesday 28 September 2022

The Hero and the Emperor on Arndilly


Dawn view over the Spey from Tominachty

First morning - Piles Right

Through the kindness of a friend I spent three days in mid-September on the beautiful Arndilly beat on the Spey.  It is one of the most perfect stretches of water that I've ever fished, ticking all the boxes and set in the stunning countryside of the Lower Spey just downstream of Craigellachie.  The icing on this superb cake was sharing Tominachty House with a diverse, social and fun party, spanning all ages from 28 to 91.

Pot of gold perhaps
75 yards wide
W-profile pool with shallow bar in the middle
The fish here are within 15-20 yards
The wide river and its clear banks provided the ideal opportunity to try a big rod and a full Spey line.  Although confident that I could cover all the water required with the 13' 6" XO and a Scandi head, I was keen to try the classic method.  The experiment was not, however, without trepidation and fear of embarrassment as I hadn't used a full line since 2007.  Fortunately, with the ghillies' efforts focused on the youngest and oldest members of the party, and the handy bends in the beat, I had plenty of opportunities for unobserved re-learning of the technique.  That said, when in public view or on the right bank, I tended to funk the challenge and reach for the XO!

I took two 15 footers from Guide Fly Fishing spanning the price spectrum to try at Arndilly.  A Sage X #10/11 (RRP £1300) and a Vision Hero 14' 7" #9 (RRP £480).  The test lines comprised a mixture of Rio and Century Speys of 55' and 65'.  I'd already done some practice in Yorkshire with grass leaders, but water would provide the acid test from which I could draw valid conclusions once I'd got my technique properly sorted.

This report concentrates on the Hero for two main reasons: first, unlike the Sage, the Hero is an unknown quantity in the marketplace; and second, its price is more consistent with the ethos of this blog.  My impressions of the Sage can be found at the end of this article: at this point it suffices to note that it's a very fine rod, which suited my casting and physique very nicely.  Before reading further, you may find it helpful to have a quick scan of my report on the 13' 7" Hero to pick up the general points.

Vision Salmon Hero 14' 7" #9 - Overview

The big Hero shares the same tube colour and compartmented stowage design as the rest of the range.

It's pleasantly light in the hand, tipping the scales at under 10 oz, and well balanced without any hint of tip preponderance.  I used a 230 gm Rulla as the test reel, which was slightly light: something around 260-280 gm would be perfect.

The colour scheme is uniformly black and understated in all respects, which I like as I've never been a fan of bling.  The quality of finish is excellent.  The cork is very good for this price point, without excess use of filler, and nicely finished.

The fit and spining of the blanks is excellent.  With a light application of candle wax on the joints no taping was required, and the alignment of the sections remained perfect throughout the 3 days of the test.

The star of the show is the reel seat.  It's a value engineered version of the XO, with a lovely chunky clamp and slim lock nut running on a coated thread.  The locking is absolutely bomb-proof and remained tight throughout 3 days' fishing.  In my view it's the best in class at this price by a comfortable margin.

On the water

Cobble Pot
Quiet, secluded and very fishy

Cobble Pot became my favoured test range, with the added benefit of being sheltered from the swirling and sometimes gusty upstream wind.  At the head it's 35 yards wide, expanding to 60 in the middle and beyond.

The first step was to relearn the technique and especially the paramount requirement for keeping the D-loop clear of the water in the single Spey (thank you Robert Gillespie for the image of the 'rising plane').  This demanded a much more energetic back cast than is necessary with a Scandi head, and to increase the challenge, a more precise placement of the anchor.  After about 15-20 minutes I'd reached a level of competence sufficient for basic testing.

In the process I encountered some interesting paradoxes that arise from differing line profiles at common weights.  For example, the 65' Rio with a nominal head weight of 39 gm loaded the Hero more comprehensively than either the 55' Century at 46 gm or the old model 55' Rio at the same weight.  Nevertheless, both the 65' Rio and the 55' Century were very satisfactory matches with the rod.

The second point I rediscovered was from historic discussions during coaching with Alan Maughan, was that the back cast can be as searching a test of a rod as the forward.  Success requires certain features that in turn demand design compromises.  First, for the rod to be most efficient in the back cast it needs to employ the flex in all four sections progressively.  That needs some firmness in the tip to drive the flex down through the length (a too-soft tip may do all the bending), but not so much as to reduce sensitivity, as you really do need to know what's going on.  Second, it needs to recover quickly for the transition from back to forward cast, while retaining the flexibility to load deeply for the delivery, which is especially important with a full Spey line as the delivery phase is significantly longer than with a shooting head.  And third, it must have the innate power, a balance between flexibility and rigidity, to move a very substantial mass of  line with a lot of 'water stick' with enough velocity to form a full airborne D-loop, and then deliver it over a long distance.  It's a complicated design brief.

Back in my early days I used some truly horrid 15 footers - Greys, Shakespeare Oracles and a Daiwa - and the occasional nicer (and much more expensive) examples, notably by Loop.  The common deficiency at the budget end of the market was excess rigidity with a consequent lack of feel.  There are very few rods like that around any more, although the Maxcatch SkyTouch 15' I tried in March was truly ghastly.  In stark contrast, the Hero was wonderful.  Once I'd grown accustomed to the length and the extra demands of full lines, it was absolutely delightful, bringing the line off the water consistently into a good D-loop, placing the anchor regularly, and delivering the fly entirely satisfactorily.  The Hero certainly made my life easier, a real confidence builder, that helped me break through the trepidation barrier into enjoyable fishing. 

With the 46' foot Century I was able to shoot 25-30 feet of line and deliver a respectably straight result, and with the 65' Rio about 20-25.  This meant that I was presenting the fly at something over 30 yards, which was ample for the upper section of Cobble Pot.  The more I practised, the greater the enjoyment.  And of course the bonus was not having to strip in large amounts of running line before recasting.  Once I'd worked the fly round to the dangle there was usual one full 3' strip remaining and I was ready to go.

The greatest delight came in the combination of the Hero with the 65' Rio line.  With the momentum of a big dynamic D-loop going backwards, the transition into the forward cast loaded the Hero fully, and created a feeling akin to that of overhead casting, with the 'push me - pull you' of both hands working in concert absolutely to the fore.  The sensation was marvellous and the result extremely satisfying as the line flew out parallel to the water, the perfect casting experience.

Bottom line

If you are going to fish big wide rivers like the Spey with nicer clear banks, then a 15 footer with a full line is a highly efficient option and a worthwhile investment.  For those starting out and unwilling to splash over £1,000 on the Sage X, I see little point in looking at anything else other than the Hero.  You're unlikely to find anything better for less than twice the money, and for an entry level rod, the big Hero is an exceptional performer.  Indeed, I liked it so much, I bought the demonstrator.

The Emperor - Sage X 15' #10/11 - Overview

At £1300 I reckon that one is entitled to be picky and if justified, a little critical, when compared to an assessment of an entry level rod like the Hero.  Sage don't do bling - a positive in my book - but their utilitarianism does verge on the austere.  Everything is beautifully made and neatly finished, although in my opinion the cork isn't as fine as the XO.  My first gripe, common to all Sage two-handers, is the absence of alignment marks, which would only require about £1 worth of additional work.

The combination of aluminium tube and bag is standard, but at 15' the dimensions off the sections demand an eccentric stowage regime in order to get the bagged rod into the tube.  The sections don't go into the bag in a simple left to right progression, but rather  offset and alternating upwards and downwards to match the bag dividers.  If you don't get it right, it won't fit into the tube.

My next niggle is the reel seat.  It's simple and functional, but it feels too light and skeletal in relation to a big rod.  The thread on this demonstrator is already showing quite a lot of wear and required some silicone to achieve satisfactory operation.  The locking nuts are adequate, but fall short of the ease of use of the Alps or even the Hero.  It is below the quality of everything else on the rod and in my book rather lets it down.

In its defence, it did keep the reel secure for the three days, albeit it took me a couple of wiggles to get a satisfactory initial seating of the Lamson Guru.

On the water

Soux - 75 yards wide and all the room in the world
but most fish are within 25 yards

On the first day I christened the big X 'The Emperor' on account of its absolute power and dominance of the line.  From the first cast I took an immediate liking to this rod, in a way that I never did with the shorter Igniters I'd tried over the previous two years.  Where those felt tippy and stiff, the X delivered a lovely through action and hand feel: it's a much more forgiving proposition.  Even when underloaded with the 46 gm Century it provided great feel and a really enjoyable casting experience, shooting 25-30 feet of running line.  With longer and heavier Rio lines it was in its element.

From my personal perspective this is an outstandingly good rod that suited my technique and physique admirably.  I loved its ideal blend of through action, feel and power.  It stood out head and shoulders above the various Sage double handers I've tested in the past decade.

Bottom Line

It's a great rod and I really enjoyed using it over the three days at Arndilly.  But at £1300 I wouldn't buy one.  It's too expensive to justify against the limited amount of big-river fishing that I am likely to do in the seasons remaining to me.  Other wealthier and younger anglers with more seasons ahead of them may well reach a different and entirely understandable verdict.

Below the Bog
In two hours more than a hundred fish showed in this pool
Not one showed the least interest in a fly!