Tuesday 15 August 2023

D - 14 - Countdown Reprise

First exposure to fishing
Grandson on the Rye
August 2023

I haven't written anything in a long time, simply because I had nothing original to say.  Back in April I starting drafting a post titled "Delightfully Average", describing the wonderfully average spring we were experiencing in Yorkshire, a marked contrast to the predominantly very dry and cool seasons that have been a feature of the last decade.  After re-reading the draft I decided that it was awfully dull, not least because it contained nothing much about fishing, and deleted it. 

My spring was dull in salmon terms.  Our scheduled week at Orton on the Spey coincided with Easter, and as the whole team are grandparents, we collectively decided that families were more important than fish and chose to forego the week.  In the event we enjoyed a lovely family Easter, which confirmed the wisdom of the decision.  As a result of the 'delightfully average' weather the Ure rose nicely over the weekend, so I started to get a little excited by the prospect of popping out for an early excursion to Sleningford after the season opened on 6th April (why the season opens on that day in Yorkshire I haven't clue, and nor seemingly does anyone else).  However, by the time the last of the family had departed the water had gone, so reluctantly I stayed at home.  

Flesh Dub on the Ure at +24"
27th July 2023
The last time I fished this early was in 2012

While the Ure maintained a nice flow during April there just weren't the lifts to stimulate the salmon to run.  Then in May it started to dry up - just as it should - and the river remained firmly at MSL until a very wet July arrived, most of which we avoided by spending a couple of weeks in Italy, roasting gently at 35C.  However, on returning in late July, an 8' spate, followed by a succession of smaller lifts in the 3-5 foot range, created ideal conditions for a punt at Thoresby for a summer salmon.  Everything looked perfect, until burst of rain hit Wensleydale the night before, putting the river up a further 12" and filling it with mud.  But it was wonderful to be out with a rod, blow the cobwebs out of my casting and appreciate the lovely surroundings.

Stanley Fishings
View from Summerhill

So what has spurred me to write?  Following the loss of the Spey week, the team directed me to find a late summer alternative.  Ably assisted by the excellent Mungo Ingleby, I looked at all sorts of options, some with good fishing and inadequate lodges; others with good lodges and inadequate fishing; and one with a good lodge and acceptable fishing but an awful price gouging tendency (an incredible extra £90 per night to take your wife!), we finally found a solution.  At the end of August we're going to the Tay, which I've never fished before, which makes it a bit of an adventure.  As a result, the old anticipation of Just One Week has bubbled to the surface, inspiring me to put my fingers to the keyboard, while also intruding upon my sleep.

Coincidentally it's also the 10th anniversary of my post "D-14 The Countdown", which I wrote before our trip to Tomatin in 2013, which explains the title of this post.  How the years have flown!  I miss Tomatin and its wonderful atmosphere, but relish the fabulously happy memories that it gave me.  The team is largely the same old friends.  My enthusiasm remains undimmed and this year's Tay adventure has rekindled many of the feelings I expressed in that post in 2013.  Despite the passing of the years, the excitement is still there.

Yes, I've cleaned and conditioned my lines in accordance with the established discipline. I do it every year, which probably explains why my lines last so long.

I no longer have to wrestle with the challenges of the flying Koma circlip.  The Koma died and its Danielsson successor requires no maintenance whatsoever.  While on one hand I'm deprived of the satisfaction of keeping something going, on the other, I'm spared what was becoming an uphill struggle.  And my wife is delighted by the removal of the risk to her baking.

So what has changed over those past 10 years?  Of course I'm older and slower, now well into my 70s, less energetic and more reflective.  But beyond that, the big changes I observe have been:

Tomatin House Pool 2021
Wading in trainers

In retrospect the evidence suggests that 2013 was a climatic watershed that undoubtedly had an impact on salmon.  The previous decade from 2004 comprised 5 years that were wetter than average, 3 average and 2 drier (2005, 2009).  Those included the bumper fishing years of 2004, 2007, 2008, 2010 & 2011.  I well remember getting up before dawn at Tomatin on the first morning in 2011 and catching 3 salmon before breakfast.  Indeed, in 2011 I never had a blank day on any of the rivers I fished.  The decade since has been an entirely different story, almost like the Almighty had flicked a switch to stop the rain.  In the 10 seasons since 2013 we have had only one wet year (2017 when I caught plenty of salmon), one average,  5 dry and 3 droughts, including the two hottest and driest years on record in UK.  There may well be an overall decline in salmon numbers, but it's impossible to form a clear view if you have no viable fishing water.  Rod catches aren't a good analogue for population, especially in low water when salmon rapidly switch off, go into limbo and become uncatchable.

Spring on the Dee
a beautiful place to blank

addition to climate shift we are living through a period of flux.  On the big rivers I have fished over the past decade, things have become unpredictable: historic generalisations and ghillies' wisdom on salmon behaviour have become less certain.  The seasonality and timing of runs appear to be changing on several rivers.  The Dee appears to be moving from spring to summer; the Tweed may be going in the opposite direction from autumn to spring; and apart from the July grilse it's hard to discern what is happening on the Spey, apart from the observation that when the salmon do run they do so very quickly.  However, the sages and scientists on the Tweed Board note that historically - their records of net takes go back to the late 17th century - such flux causes a reduction in catches.  Unfortunately I'm unlikely to be around to see whether they are correct.

For those reasons and perhaps others unknown to me, I am no longer catching the same numbers of fish in Scotland or on the Ure, and my 'catch per unit effort' or salmon per day has halved between the two decades.  It's now very difficult to calibrate what is 'good'.  Is there a new normal, or should I continue to gauge  catches against what I knew to be 'good' in historic terms?  Those are difficult questions to answer with certainty, and no amount of speculation generates solid evidence.  Nevertheless it's been true that whenever there has been water, I've caught salmon.  In the bigger picture, just when I'm forming a view, something happens - like 2017 - to contradict it.  Perhaps it's confirmation bias, because as an optimist I don't want the truth to be really bad news: every glimmer of light perhaps stops me from seeing the dark clouds.  But just like the ghillies, I'm much less certain about things than I was 10 years ago, and that's a very big change.

Vision XO 13' 6" #8 - Yar in Excelsis
Danielsson L5W #8/12

While my catch rate has halved, perversely and contrary to my Yorkshire roots, my collection of salmon tackle has more than doubled.  Moreover, its value has increased dramatically: the Koma has been replaced with several Danielssons;  I have a couple of fabulous
Vision XOs; and a switch rod, a concept that didn't even exist when I started out in 2001 (but it makes me smile).  I can't explain when, why and where my previous parsimony went absent.  However, it's evident that the trend accelerated as I approached retirement.  It's not logical, in that I can't cast twice as far, and in any event, judging by the distances at which I caught salmon last year, that would be unnecessary.  Perhaps its an emotional thing: after more than 50 years' work my inner self said, "why not treat yourself to a few things that give real aesthetic pleasure, work well and feel great in the hand?"  So I did.  I love what I now have in my armoury and know that it will see me out while providing great satisfaction along the way.  If you don't know the length of the journey, strive to enjoy it through all means possible.

Fishing the Tay

Let's turn away from gloom to the present and my mounting excitement about fishing the Tay a fortnight hence.  We've secured two pairs of two beats that alternate daily.  

Stanley Fishing
Benchil & Pitlochrie

Benchil and Pitlochrie are on the lower section of the river adjacent to Stanley.  The lodge we have taken looks down Benchil from the top of the bluff on the west side the big bend.

This is big wide water, bigger than anything I've fished before, including the Gaula.  A friend, who is a former Tay ghillie who returned to his native Yorkshire, gave me some sound advice on how to approach this challenge:
      • Don't be daunted and strive to fish the whole of the water in front of you, because you can't.
      • Focus on what's under the surface, not the scale of what's on top.
      • Search for the rivers within the large river, and identify the channels, runs and lies.
      • Fish to the lies that are within range and forget the rest.
      • Good presentation of the fly will always trump distance, even on a river this big

Murthly Fishings
Top Water & Stenton
(Map (c) Ordnance Survey 2023)

The Murthly Fishings comprise Murthly 2 Top Water and Stenton, which are about 6 miles north of Stanley 
by road on the far side of the big loop of the Tay marked by Meiklour and Islamouth.  The are in the middle section of the river.  Perversely, the Stenton beat is on the opposite side to its parent, as is Top Water.

This is still big water but superb for fly fishing in all but the highest levels.  Murthly 2 was one of Hugh Falkus' favourite beats, and it also features in the old Michael Evans Spey casting instructional video.  The links above open YouTube videos of the beats.

I'm excited by the prospect of a week with old and close friends, fishing new water and the challenges involved.  We may catch some salmon: the Tay has been quite slow this year, but who knows?  At least it's not as water critical as the Findhorn.  The Tay is so big that any salmon that wishes to run can do so even in quite low water, so fresh fish are a possibility.  The size of the river will require the big Hero and a fully Spey line, and consequently a brush-up session with Brian Towers at Bolton Hall before I depart.

One thing that hasn't changed in the past decade is my approach to organisation.  The check of my kit tells me that all I need to purchase is a new spool of Maxima 15 lbs.  I normally use Seaguar fluorocarbon, but will compromise if a ghillie is especially insistent (like Donnie was on the Helmsdale until I brought him round) or if I need to present the fly on the surface by riffling.  The Maxima is therefore a contingency item.  I doubt that I use more than 20 yards of it in a whole season, but as a matter of habit I always replace the spool every year.  Nevertheless, I'll still stop at John Norris on the way in order to avoid offending the fishing gods, who undoubtedly are Norris shareholders.  However, my unvarying use of the MCX fly spares me all the bother and expenditure of buying other patterns, much to Norris' chagrin.

Let's hope for some more water, but not too much.  As I write the Ure is rising nicely into a 2 metre spate.  The pattern of rise and fall almost exactly mirrors 2011, which raises my expectations for September and boosts my morale.  If you're fishing this month, tight lines.