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.

1 comment:

  1. Not a salmon angler but a passionate fly fisher , the season has been challenging but like you the highlight has been fishing with others , at the weekend my Son. Special days.