Thursday 21 April 2022

One Week on the Spey - Chasing Unicorns


The Joys of Spring Fishing

Farewell Tomatin

Last spring we decided that the time had come to leave Tomatin House, the home of Just One Week for the past 20 years and the source of so many happy memories.  A host of reasons contributed to the decision, but the simple fact is that the core members of the team - John, Patrick and I - aren't getting any younger so postponement wasn't a sensible option.  That consideration led us to increase our budget: as we can't take the money with us, let's go fishing! It also meant that we needed to get on with the search without delay.

We agreed some basic criteria:
  • Not critically water and rain dependent
  • Medium to large river size
  • 6 rod beat
  • Respectable catch record
  • A good proportion of fresh fish
  • Fly, not spinning
  • Comfortable lodge sleeping 12+
  • Access to extramural activities
  • August/September preferred but not essential
  • No midges!
Armed with those I set to work.  Along the way I was helped by some wonderfully obliging people who freely gave their advice based on wisdom and experience.  I won't name them for fear of embarrassing them, but suffice it to say that without their assistance my task would have been 10 times more difficult.  Very quickly I learnt that those were the criteria that everyone else wanted!  On one hand that intensified the competition, but on the other, it did help the supply side. They directly reduced the number of rivers we needed to consider, and after ascertaining that there was no early prospect of getting onto the Conon, Ness or Beauty,  the list narrowed to the Dee, Tay and Spey.  Our view of the Dee was jaundiced by our experience of spring fishing at Waterside and Ferrar; and of the Tay by its size and the common use of boats and spinners.  The Spey emerged as the favourite, and the challenge became finding fishing in the right section of the river.  Again, expert advice was invaluable.  It was clear that if fishing was available, there was a good reason for it, which wasn't necessarily favourable.  Put simply, you could have lovely water, a beautiful lodge, great surroundings, but few if any fish at the time of the year on offer.  Undeterred, I laid siege to the offices of all of the estates from Gordon Castle up to Castle Grant.  Most were extremely helpful, positive and realistic.  A couple declined to answer either the telephone or emails.

Then we got a lucky break.  I'd been told that there was a reorganisation underway between Gordon Castle and Orton, in which Brae 1 would be returning to the Orton Estate.  This would expand Orton from 4 rods to 6, and require a reallocation of lets.  Here was an opportunity, which after a series of calls to Orton's outstandingly efficient estate office, became a firm prospect.  They advised that we were most unlikely to get an autumn slot, but spring was a distinct possibility.  I concluded that if we were to get an offer at the end of the 2021 season, it was essential that we could move quickly and commit immediately, so over the summer I briefed and confirmed the team of 6 enthusiastic rods.  The estate put out its availability email at 0948 hrs on 15th November: I had been watching my email screen like a hawk, replied instantly and within 2 minutes the estate had accepted our bid for the latest week available, 3rd - 10th April.  I was delighted and relieved in equal measure.

We knew full well that fishing at that time of the year was unlikely to yield many fish, and if the conditions were adverse - high or warm water - none whatsoever.  Buying an early season week is always a lottery: our eyes were wide open and  our expectations realistically calibrated.  We were working to a longer-term plan.  Anyway, if you don't hunt for unicorns, you will never catch one.

This post comprises a mixture of beat guide and report on our most enjoyable week.

Welcome to Orton

Orton fishings
(C) Ordnance Survey 2022

At this point the Spey flows almost due northwards, from the bottom of the map to the top. The Orton fishing is located below Rothes, with Gordon Castle downstream and Delfur above.  It comprises about 2 miles of left bank, with one very short 150 yard section of right bank adjacent to the Delfur driveway (the House Pool) at the southern boundary.  In the middle section is Cairnty, the biggest pool on the Spey, some 650 yards in length.

Orton is classic Spey water - broad, fast-flowing and a delight to behold.  It just looks right in every respect.  Almost all of it is 'fishy' with minimal 'empty' water, which is wonderful for morale and motivation.

The estate is investing heavily in the reorganised fishing, including the construction of a new access track for the lower section, new huts and boats.  The lodge at Garbity has been modernised to the highest standards and is extremely comfortable.

The commentary that follows is based entirely on the advice given to me by the Orton ghillie team, Andy and Phil, who supported our party wonderfully throughout the week.  They were especially helpful to our two novices whose fishing advanced in leaps and bounds under their tuition and encouragement.

Starting from the top of the water, the major pools are:


House Pool
Right Bank
at + 2' 6"
This photo of House was taken from the point where the burn joins the river.  There is a distinct gravel ridge down the centreline, which in higher water conditions pushes the fish to the near side.  As a result you don't need to cast far (a relief in view of the stiff north westerly blowing straight into my face), but you must remain alert at the dangle for fish creeping up the margin.

The view extends to the head of Willow below.


Head of Willow
peering upstream towards House in the snow
at +2' 6"
 This rather indistinct snow-blurred photo shows an interesting feature of Willow that is evident in higher water.  The main stream runs obliquely from the point on the right over to the left of the frame.  The foreground is a pocket of slack water in which salmon hold briefly before moving on up through the faster shallower water at the exit.  As a result you start by standing still with a short line and gradually extending before you move off.

Willow downstream view

Once you go below the pocket the shallow water in the foreground pushes the running line away towards the far bank.  However, the shallows offer easy wading, removing any need for heroic casting.  I could cover all the water necessary without reaching knee depth.  On the Friday I had a light salmon 'bump' from a running fish in the mid-stream: one of life's outrageous mathematical flukes.


Upper Cairnty
with the Island in the far distance
from 200 yards below the top
at +3'

Cairnty is indeed hugely long and without good ghillie advice it would be daunting and bewildering to fish.  The far bank is about 80 yards distant.

In the upper part the pool is divided by a gravel bar running down the near side of the centreline.  If you look closely at the photo you may see some of the surface boils about 15 yards out, extending for a further 10-15 yards.  
In high water the salmon run up the near side.  Apparently, only in the lowest condition do they retire to the channel under the far bank

Lower Cairnty
with the split of the stream at the Island
visible at the bottom

You can see where the gravel bar in the mid-stream starts to tail off.

At this water height the salmon cling to the near bank, where there is a depth of 5 feet or so.  The take I had on the Monday was about 80 yards beyond the  tree to the left, and no more that 10-12 feet offshore.

20 Pounder

20 Pounder
The left stream around the island
at +3'
At this water height 20 Pounder runs quite wide compared to its normal form, but the foreground is very shallow.  The running line is between the centre and the far side, but is easily reached.  In my enthusiasm to cover the maximum water I caught two gorse bushes!

If you wish you can fish down beyond the point into the reeds, but I felt that the best water was at the top and middle and restricted my efforts to those areas.


Junction looking upstream to the bottom of the island
20 Pounder to the right
at +3'

Junction has a wonderfully 'fishy' feel that certainly inflates your optimism, however misplaced it may be in the conditions.  You start at the small point visible on the right, fishing a very short line into the holding pocket inside the fast water, before extending your line to reach the near side of the flow.  There's no benefit in casting further as you are most productively engaged in targeting the fish taking the right fork into the 20 Pounder run.

Junction looking downstream
towards the croy at the head of Turn
Again, at this water height, once they've rounded the croy, the fish are inclined to follow the easy route on the near side of the flow.  The centre-line is within reach of an easy 28-30 yard oblique cast.  There's no merit in going further and sacrificing presentation for dumb distance.

Looking upstream to the croy, Junction and the island

The salmon pause near the end of the croy, either downstream or tucked into the quieter water.


with the familiar Brae red cliff
at +2' 6"
Turn, at the bottom of the water is another very long pool, running from the croy down to the point in the distance, which marks the boundary with Gordon Castle.

it is extremely challenging to fish at this height because the salmon are distributed across its substantial width and the wading is restricted by the depth.  In lower water the lies are clearly defined and more likely to be occupied.

The Week

+5' and chocolate brown
A good day for visiting Glenfarclas Distillery

After 20 years' praying for rain, lots of water and warmth at Tomatin, Orton required an abrupt full 180 degree U-turn.  What we needed was low cold water to slow down the running salmon and persuade them to hold, however briefly, in the pools.  In the event our prayers were 50% answered: the water was uniformly cold at around 4.5C but there was far too much of it.  We started on the Monday at +2' 4", but the combination of snow, sleet and rain pushed this up to an unfishable chocolate +5' on Wednesday.  Thereafter it fined and fell slowly, holding at +3' on Friday.  Inevitably the fish ran straight through, untroubled by our attentions.  Altogether we saw 10-15 running fish.

I had one good take near the dangle on Lower Cairnty on the Monday while working a 1" MCX Conehead on a fast polyleader.  The salmon's tail showed briefly out of the water as it turned sharply and dived with the fly, but sadly it didn't stick, as is often the way near the dangle.  It was disappointing, but it did confirm the presence of running fish and that I was doing something sensible.  In contrast the bump I had on Willow on the Friday afternoon was most likely a moving fish just taking a passing swipe at the fly rapidly crossing its line of sight and not a serious take.

Despite the low probability and lack of fish I never felt that we were engaged in a fool's errand.  This was new and exciting water to learn and understand.  Moreover, almost all of it felt strongly 'fishy', so I remained focused and concentrated.  There were fish passing through the beat, and some of them would have been pausing at intervals.  The mathematical challenge was to have a fly in the right place when they did so, which was purely a matter of luck and coincidence.  After the disappointments and confinements of the abysmal 2021 season it was wonderful to be back on a river and enjoying a wonderful house party with some of our oldest and closest friends.  There was so much that was good in the week that I wasn't in the least downhearted as a result of failing to catch.  As a result we've already bid to go back next year.

Learning Points

As always I have no blinding or original observations, more a repetition of well-established truths and principles:
  • Even, indeed especially, on a river as big as this, thinking is much more important than distance.  There were places where I was fishing with little more than 10-15 feet of line outside the top ring.  Look for and focus on the areas where running fish may pause and hold, some of which may be right in front of you.  Only the Turn pool defeated me for distance to the running line: everywhere else I could cover the right places with a 13' 6" rod.
  • The combination of a big river, awkward winds and nasty weather all combine to make you try harder while casting, which the exact opposite of what you should be doing, and I'm as guilty as the next man.  More force opens up your loop and makes the cast less effective in the wind.  Don't fight the conditions: it's more sensible to cast square across the wind than obliquely into it.  Relax, slow up, take it easy and concentrate on achieving a nice crisp stop to tighten the loop and improve its penetration through the wind.
  • Be cautious: although I did very little wading, and none above knee depth, you still need to be careful fishing from steep grass banks, especially in snowy conditions.  One slip and you could be in 5 feet of freezing water.  I wore my life preserver throughout as a precaution: after the first 5 minutes I didn't notice it.  
  • Out of respect to my age I tend to take a break from fishing every 30 minutes: it helps with fatigue management, concentration and focus on big pools.  Covering Lower Cairnty took 1 hour 25 minutes, even with two good strides between casts.
  • Be prepared: if you're fishing with the air at 0C and the water at 4C, you need to have the right kit, especially if you aren't in the first flush of youth and circulation.  I was warm and comfortable all week, although I did stop fishing and huddle in the worst of the hailstorms.
  • Enjoy the balance provided by friends and the social aspect of the week.

Good Kit

Guideline Fir-Skin GX gloves
My one pre-trip investment, prompted by the weather forecast of freezing temperatures, was a pair of the new Guideline FIR-SKIN GX lined fingerless gloves.  The materials used in the outer and lining are claimed to have all manner of magic properties that stimulate circulation and keep you warm.

For once the product lives up to the advertising hyperbole.  These gloves are outstandingly good.  I used them at temperatures down to 0C with significant 15-20mph wind chill and remained warm throughout without any loss of finger sensation or function for up to 30 minutes at a time.  They were so good that I was never tempted to change into my full neoprene Sealskins.  As a comparison, my fingerless neoprene Snowbees are only good down to about 4-5C.

The Fir-Skins aren't cheap at £37, but by the end of the week I reckoned they were worth every penny.  For early spring fishing make sure you get the lined GX version.

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