Spey Trophy Trout

largeFeeling energized after the previous evenings fishing’s and even though I had only managed to squeeze in 6 hours kip I was raring to hit the water and start throwing out casts but thankfully I managed to stifle my enthusiasm and sit and watch the water for wee while.   Difficult at 8.30 in the morning with bright blue skies above and the sun beginning to crest above the high tree covered ridge line and hills to the south east, the gnawing realisation that very shortly the brightness would shut the morning fishing window and put the fish down until the evening and restbite from the sun. I sat with wader clad legs and torso feeling like a boil in bag Scotsman as the air temperature climbed past 20 degrees Celsius, my legs hanging in the cooling waters of the famous River Spey offered some relief. And I know many readers will laugh at the notion of 20 degrees being too hot but trust me when you are used to the average temperatures of the frozen North beyond the wall 20 degrees is tropical, add the person sized condom like waders, it’s too hot for this Scotsman!

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This middle River Spey beat was fast becoming one of my favourite beats on the river, I had spent a week fishing it with clients a year earlier and had got my first taste of its quality trout and fantastic surroundings. A group of experienced salmon fishers who were looking to augment the salmon fishing with a little trout action and a better beat you couldn’t find, so when the invite had land in my inbox to join again this time as a fisher I jumped on the offer and the opportunity to spend some time chasing the fantastic trophy trout that this beat can produce,  this time without clients. When you think of great Scottish trout fly fishing the main rivers that come to mind are rivers like the Don, the Annan, Clyde and Deveron but this famous salmon river that many salmon fishers have on their bucket lists, produce some of the finest trout fishing I have experienced and the dry fly sport make it a fly fishers nirvana.

River Spey

Sitting watching the faintly peaty waters of the Spey spilling from the salmon pool above through the fast rocky turbulent pocket water,  both banks cloaked in birch in the first fresh flush of spring green and behind me pine trees gently swaying in the light wind, it’s a picture perfect location.  And with conditions to match it had me almost salivating, sitting expectantly; waiting to see what fish would show themselves.

For the past 24hrs a caddis hatch of Granom and black sedge almost biblical in proportions had been streaming in brown mist like clouds, the volume of biomass streaming from the surface of the river was almost beyond comprehension.  A hatch of such profusion would be expected to produce a rise of trout to rival it but strangely hardly a fish stirred, clearly most of the feeding was going on sub surface with the trout targeting the ascending pupa rather than the struggling emergers of caddis on the surface. I can only assume the brightness of the conditions was inducing this feeding behaviour but with the evening cool and gloom once the sun had sunk below the tree line, the feeding actively switched to the surface. There were however, exceptions under the blue skies; the hatch had phases of less intensity where it wained and these periods seemed to induce a change to surface feeding of the emerged caddis and that was my cue and opportunity, with the waning hatch the larger trout were drawn to surface taking pupa just below the surface producing the distinctive dorsal and tail rises.

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As the Hatch easied I spied a couple of nice fish taking sedge from the surface, never in an easy spot are they!  Tight to the far side of a fast deep seam two thirds of the way across the river it was going to be a tricky wade across a very bouldered 3ft deep section of fast water to get in to a position to cast, to complicate there was also a freshening downstream wind.  But if it was easy it wouldn’t be fun!

fishing a barbless size 14 CDC Elk hair on a 16ft 5x tapered leader and a 4 weight 9ft Hardy demon rod.

I begin my slow wade across to the seam, the awkward lie of the trout meant I had a short window to present the fly before the current would induce drag and effect the flies movement. I position myself about 2 rod lengths below and on the opposite side of the seam to the rising trout. I make my first cast but the wind is playing havoc with the leader, no hope of the perfect presentation. I quickly retrieve and decide to shorten the leader removing 4-5ft of tippet and cast back out covering the steady rising trout but not a twitch…. I cover it once, twice, three times but not a hint of wanting it!

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Another quick retrieve, standing waist deep in the cold Spey water tugging at my waders and legs, I stare at the fly…… blankly; the fly is right! But why no interest? The size! I go down to a size 16 – quick change, floatant and I mud the leader.

Anxiety building that the trout might stop rising, as I look up it sips again so it’s still mine for the catching.  A confident sip and with each rise it’s moving a bit of water,  suggesting it’s a good fish, hopefully about a couple of pounds. The fly lands 2ft upstream of the trout and just as the drag starts to act on the fly a brownie coloured nose pokes from the surface and my fly disappears……. I lift in to the fish, feel the weight and know in that moment as the rod tip bends over that its “fish on”! the trout realises its hooked and the next 15 minutes of give and take sport begins as this lump of a fish takes off like a run-away steam train straight downstream my 4wt Hardy’s tip bouncing as the trout fights and thrashes crossing from one side of the river to the other below me in the current. My wrist beginning to ache from the fight as I keep switching hands; this is a big fish, far bigger than expected, it dawns on me I won’t be able to net this one in the middle of the river I going to have to get it in the shallower slack water by the bank, which means I’ve got to wade back across this minefield like boulder strewn assault course of a river bed. The swearing begins, inching my way back to the bank fighting to stay upright against the current whilst playing this rather large and feisty trout that doesn’t seem to be tiring in the slightest! It’s not expending that much energy using the current to fight me – whose playing who?

 

 

 

 

Half way back to the bank and something makes me look down, just as my McLean’s weigh net sweeps past me? Somehow it’s come loose from my back and its lanyard? (more swearing) it lands a few feet in front of me wedged between two rocks.  You have to be kidding me! (more swearing) My wrists are killing me, I am struggling to stand up in the current and now my bloody £80.00 net has decided to swim with the fishes! “RIGHT that’s it!” (more swearing) I need the net to land this fish inching forward crouching, bending, stooping down I reach and stretch through the cold mountain water desperately trying to get my fingers to the sunken net whilst fighting and playing this trout (more swearing) my shirt is soaked and water begins pouring in to my waders very quickly solving my overheating problem and making me gasp as the cold water hits part of my body it shouldn’t! Just as I feel like all is lost I make fingertip contact with the net and somehow I get a hold of the frame “YES got it” I yell to myself and the blue sky above as I wrestle it from its watery grave and manage to clip it to my belt. Half drowned, sodden and aching I finally make it to the slacker water thankfully still playing my prize, the trout relinquishes its battle and slowly I work it to the net aware that I have this monster on a size 16 barbless hook.  It slips head first into the net and it’s a monster alright, a deep powerful Spey brownie 5.25lb in weight, a slab of Spey Gold. I breathe a sigh of relief and lean back against the bank just as Bill and Roddy the Ghillie arrive, right boys get a photo of this I am “****ing knackered.” Quick photos are taken for posterity  and the adrenaline begins to ease as I kneel in the water and slowly release this beautiful slab of Spey gold with a huge smile and total exhaustion (me, not the trout!).

 

 

 

 

Early season Trout

largeThe Early Trout season of 2018 can be best described as unique possible challenging and for the less eloquent bloody frustrating! March saw Scotland and the UK as a whole still gripped in winter with the “beast from the East” refusing to relinquish winters grip, repeatedly freezing temps and heavy snow pounded Scotland. As the trout season opened the  large snow accumulations in the head waters decided it was time melt and sent the river gauges rocketing, turning the rivers a chocolate brown and sending water temperatures plummeting to levels that made body parts shrink and seek shelter in ones throat accompanied by gasps of frozen shock.  It produced very short lived hatches if any at all and the trout went turgid, switching off from the feed and doing as little as possible to conserve energy.

I didn’t get my first proper days fishing in until 25 March, the hatch finally appearing late afternoon between 3.30 and 4.00pm.  A  short flurry of LDO’s and March Browns brought

img_1175-1a few fish to the dry fly but you had to be camped on the pools waiting otherwise blink and you would miss the days rise and so March and early April continued “frustrate and repeat” as the rivers went up and down with pulses of snow melt keeping the water temperature somewhere in the region of Baltic cold and the air temperature didn’t do much better.  The wind stubbornly coming from the east and north east the air temperature was never given the chance to climb, hatches where patchy as were the rises. To maximise fishing it was all about time on the water waiting and social media was alive with the howls of frustrated fishers, especially the go to Nymph fly fishers who seemed to be completely incapable of adapting to the different and changing conditions and unable to understand that due to the longer winter and colder water conditions trout wouldn’t be sitting in the same locations as 12 months earlier, but still they banged away with tungsten bemoaning the lack of fish!

The trout were to be found in the water that offered a more stable therma-cline, they weren’t needing to get in to the fast water yet as the cold water temps meant oxygen saturation was high enough in slower water that the trout could feed without expending unnecessary energy. The slower deeper river sections, for the dry fly fisher with patience, proved great fishing with some really nice fish falling to a well presented dry fly in early April.

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April felt more like February and as the month dragged by I had to spend hour after hour waiting for the hit and miss almost random hatches that the rivers produced through much of the month.  As a glamour of warm began to creep in to our chilled world the hatches were beginning to come earlier in the day but lacked “set your watch by them” frequency and regularity,  but with patience there were rewards to be had, but it meant knowing were decent fish like to lie given the conditions and waiting till they decided to show themselves, picking at the odd hatching upwings and even midges.

The first week of April saw one such lunchtime a cold wind from the North West, grey laden cloud with the occasional blue window above was producing a less than motivating atmosphere as I sat huddled against the bank on one of the River Deveron’s tributaries that I love to fish in early spring, the first green shoots beginning to struggle through the brown and dead looking banks of last year’s growth. I had been hunkered down watching a stretch of water  where I had spotted a decent looking trout a week earlier but had failed to entice to the fly, suddenly from tight to the opposite bank in relatively slow water in about 5 ft of depth a confident sip and a push of water gave away the location of the trout I was in search of, signalling the start of slow intermittent hatch of march browns and the occasional LDO.

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I creep to the banks edge attempting to keep my bulk out of sight above the bank, not an easy feat as its not so much ignoring the elephant in the room, more of a case of trying to hide it! I lay the cast about 6 feet upstream of where the fish had been rising in a foam line, 3 feet above the fishs’ last rise my size 14 CDC shuttle cock disappears in the softest of sips and I quickly lift into the fish………the water explodes and the joyous whoops quickly turns to mild panic as the trout runs straight for the bottom and upstream peeling line from the reel.  Talking to myself aloud “keep it on”, the pleasure of hooking a good fish soon disappears as desperation and panic to get what is clearly a good fish to the net sets in. Having run up stream in to fast thick water the trout turns and using the fast water races back towards me down the pool, the rod held up over my head as I franticly strip line trying to stay in contact with the fish and keep a semblance of pressure on the barbless hook, the fish still hadn’t showed itself yet other than a flash of gold in the peated waters as it raced past me towards the tail of the pool and the fast water that it was using to great effect.  Sitting in the fast thick water at the tail, this whiley bar of Aberdeenshire gold sat moving from seam to seam attempting to cast the hook in a 5 minute battle of wills to see whether the leader would give out before I had managed to tire the fish enough to get it to the net, but slowly I regained line and I worked it from its fast water bastion to the net. Adrenaline trembles and gasps of relief as the net enveloped and cradled this beautiful 2.6lb wild Deveron brownie.

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Smiling and recovering my composure I stroll up stream to see what else I can find, still a few March browns continue to float down on the current, but nothing seems to be showing any interest. From the pool above I hear the enticingly familiar sound of a feeding trout taking upwings from the surface and sure enough the familiar sight of a rolling trout confidently moving from side to side taking the march browns, I crawl and edge my way slowly along the water’s edge below the high bank trying to get into a position so I can make a presentation above the fish.  But it’s not an easy prospect given the position which is being compounded by the downstream wind but I get myself almost level with the rising trout, my back almost flat against the bank and I manage to make a cast which deposits the fly about 4 feet above the trout and almost immediately I begin to mutter and curse as the fly is being drawn in to an eddy and off the line of the rising trout.  You would be amazed at the swears I can string together as I mutter to myself recumbent against the bank, the fly drifts 2 feet wide of the trout but I daren’t lift off and cast again until it’s well past it for fear of spooking it but as this thought flashes through my mind I watch the trout rise, turn and sucks in my offered fly.  I lift as quick as I can and there at the end of the line is that joyous feeling a good sized trout on the line the rod tip bends over and it realises its hooked the battle to the net begins ‘FISH ON” I call to myself!  Two cracking bars of gold in 15mins with in 100ft of each other…… counting my chickens before they’ve hatched, as my hooked slab of gold proceeds to give me a very educational lesson in physics, acrobatics and hubris, going vertical like a Polaris missile and smashing back on to the rivers’ peaty surface in an explosion of white water more fitting of a tarpon, the barbless hook is dislodged and sent pinging back in my direction and as the river surface settles, the air turned blue as an expletive filled rant erupted from the bank as I berate myself……… my brief lesson in over confidence concludes is my day and make for the comfort of home a cupa and the wood burner.

Chasing Spring Silver; on the Helmsdale and Thurso

Part 2 of 2 (Every Adventure has to start somewhere)

The journey north had been stunning in the gathering gloom and was a taste of the vistas and scenery that we were to experience over the next 2 days; it’s wild, remote sunning landscapes inspire, and in winter weather it is something to experience. Spending the night in Brora a wee town 10 miles south of the village of Helmsdale it was a quick jaunt North and on to this famous river. Having elected to fish the Association water which runs from the harbour 1.5mile upstream, in Spring this can be most likely to produce of all the beats on this 20mile river, famed for its once prolific Spring run like every river it has dropped off in recent years that is as much to do with the pressures on the species and the endless other factors threatening wild Atlantic Salmon than anything else, yet the Helmsdale still manages to consistently produce good numbers of fish.

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Tentative wading on the Helmsdale, sheets of sleet, rain and high wind, river high water and difficult wading, looking upstream east/north eastwards

Its location in stunning scenery, it’s history and influence on salmon fishing makes it all so worthy of a pilgrimage, just scanning a beat map or OS map of Strath Kildonan also known as Strath Ullie you can’t help but notice the origin of several famous flies alone that this river has contributed to the sport; the Kildonan Killer , yellow Torransh and of course the legendary Willie Gunn which some credit with having taken more fish than any other fly. There is also a sadder Scottish history associated with Helmsdale, the Strath and Sutherland as a whole but that is another story and I had ventured north to fish. The Helmsdale primary source is Loch Badanloch, 1 of 3 interconnected lochs Badanloch, Loch nan Clar and Rimsdale.  These lochs help to maintain water levels in drier times thanks to a Dam, so fishing is an option season long. Picking the day ticket up for  a very reasonable £25, generally it’s a first come first served basis but it always worth while to phone a head of time. The Helmsdale is unique in some respect as the waters above the Associations water are a collective of owners that work together in regards to the fishings, allowing their guests to to experience all the Helmsdale has to offer fishing different beat on different days. Similarly the opening week; 11th of January is free, all you have to do is register in advance and on each day of opening week you are alotted a beat for the day, personally I think this is a fantastic idea and allows anglers a taste of a river that might otherwise be out of reach. it also helps to get plenty of rods out in the hope of seeing the first salmon of the season, never a bad thing for a rivers’ reputation. Currently Association day tickets can be bought at the Helmsdale Tackle company shop in the centre of the village but sadly they are in the process of closing their retail shop to concentrate on online sales so where to get the tickets following the shops closure, I am unsure.

The Helmsdale tackle company does produce some of the finest flies on the market; beautifully hand tied, so with the permit I bought a few of their classic Willie Gunn copper tube that only 4 days earlier had scored Helmsdales first 2016 springer.

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Looking Downstream, East/south Eastwards across the Flat and Style pools

A mile by road up Strath Ullie brings you to the top of the Association beat, well sign posted next to a parking place a path leads down a flight of steps to the rivers left/north bank and the 2 most productive pools on the beat; the Flat and Style pools. The clear blue skies of earlier where now a distant pleasent memory, Mother Nature must have seen me tackling up and decided……well you can guess! Howling wind bringing with it sheets of heavy sleet and snow that looked like it was never going to stop, it was blowing 40mph from the Southeast/East straight in my face upstream. Hang it, I hadn’t travel 150miles not to fish! As I threw on my waders above the river Jen took pity on me and asked if I would like some company, someone to hold my net.  I was so grateful, as much as I love to flyfish there are times were I question my own sanity and just having someone there with you on the river bank when your fingers are blue numb and you are starting to believe your feet are lumps of ice can make the difference between fishing and sacking to off for the pub.

the Sharpes Gordon 2 13ft 9/10wt (http://www.sharpes.net/gordon-2 15ft 10WT salmon-rod-195-p.asp),

with an Orvis Large Arbor IV (http://www.orvis.co.uk/p/access-mid-arbor-fly-reels/3r44)

teamed with the Rio AFS Shooting head with hover1 sink tip (http://www.garryevans.co.uk)

I fished virtually this same set up on all 3 river how ever I did change the fly used, on the Ness the cone head monkey was the go to fly, but I was on new water on the Helmsdale and Thurso so opted for the tried and test Willie Gunn since only days earlier it had produced.


I tentatively waded into the style pool the very top pool on the Association water where the water was high with the snow, sleet melt and the colour of an over brewed cup of builders tea. I couldn’t see the bottom, just a peaty abyss it’s because these type of conditions, I always wear a life jacket and carry a wading staff. An unfamiliar river, its bottom and its nature is the quickest way to kill yourself, you go for a days fishing and end up fighting for your life, it may be cumbersome but it could save your life. It soon became apparent that wading just wasn’t going to be an option so I heaved myself from the water and got to laying my first cast and even with the 13ft rod it was easy to cover the whole water, but I have to say that I truly hate Spey casting from a bank and I recently discovered that when the cast was developed it was never supposed to be preformed with in 2 yards of the bank and I can understand why! at the back of my mind there is always a niggling worry that you catching the bank. I could have thrown in an upstream C cast but with the wind it was just easier to limit the time the line was in the air, casting at about 45 degrees across the river the line would land several feet upstream of me but I was determined to fish through the pools and at least give it ago.  The river was 18in plus up as I fished through the flat and style pools without a touch and in the two odd hours I had seen several cars with rods on them heading down the Glen and calling it a day.  A rather wet and cold Jen doing star jumps by the river sealed for me, we beat a retreat to a great wee café in the village to thaw out. The Helmsdale is such a truly iconic river it was great just to wet a fly on it, a cold and wet day on the river beats a day in the office. I made a promise to myself as we drew out of Helmsdale on to the A9 that I would be back. May is proving a productive month, so come warmer days in the months to come I will be back chasing silver on the Helmsdale.

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Snow storm coming in over the Beattrice oil platform, looking eastwards over the Moray Firth from Upper Latheron

Back on the A9 we had 50 miles left to Thurso and the final river on my northern adventure. It has been almost 10  years since I had ventured this far North on the East coast of Scotland, the West is a different story and is like a second home. I had forgotten how unique and stunning the landscapes of eastern Sutherland and Caithness are! As a recovering geologist the landscape is underlayen by some awesome mouth watering geology, a geology that paved many of the great cities of the world; London, Sydney and many more.  You can take the boy out of geology but not the geology out of the boy.

But I was here to fish and had left the rock hammer at home, I aimed to fish the lower section of the Thurso Beat 1 the Association water, but the first challenge was finding the shop to buy the permit. A small book shop little more than a broom cupboard the ticket was £40 for the day, which I felt was steep for a river that was not firing on cylinders of late and not a ghillie for help, from the outset I did not feel welcome. I was informed as a guest day ticket I could not fish below the graveyard in essence removing the lowest pools only.

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The Tail of the Salmon pool on the river Thurso

The river was beautiful nestled in channel below the rolling plateau like landscape that optimises the this stark beautiful part of Scotland. The river was running a couple of feet above normal, running fast and coloured much like the Helmsdale the previous day however the weather was more favourable, light wind and blue skies only occasionally broken by light snow showers as they drifted through. I chose to fish the well known Salmon pool above the weir, a long deep pool with lovely greasy water and boils which just looked as though it should hold fish, fishing from the West Bank wading was once again out of the question so I stuck to cast of 45-60ft aiming the copper tube Willie Gunn on the edge of the fast water that lay along the opposite bank and fished the fly round through the seam and the greasy water I fished slowly through the pool twice without a touch.

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Looking upStream south on the Thurso, Snow storm on the Horizon

I had enjoyed the 4.5 hours on this classic river but no success so with my frustration building, the sky darkening and heavier snow looming I opted to beat the retreat to the hotel and the Scotland vs Wales rugby, so from one passion to another. I alluded earlier to a less than welcoming reception to the day angler on this beat and I have to say it was only this beat that I fished so I cannot comment on the other higher beatsimage. Now I hate to be negative about the locations I fish or the sport in general but I was so disappointed to learn that I could have fished these tidal pools at the very mouth of the river, I was told otherwise and it sadly reflects how some Association waters are managed almost like private thiefdoms who would rather not see a visiting angler.  But I do have to say having spoken to the Chairman before we travelled he could not have been further from this, welcoming and very helpful but sadly this appears lacking in the other points of contact for the visiting angler who often pays more for a day than the members pay for a year. It is quickly forgotten that these visiting anglers are a valuable revenue stream for any Association water that allows the members to enjoy reasonably priced season tickets and river upkeep, is it so terrible a thing that a visiting angler catch the first fish or even just sample this beautiful river? because apart from the revenue, these fishers leave with a real appreciation of how lucky the locals are, a tinge of jealously that as a visitor it may only be that once a year that we get to sample the peaty waters.

 

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Looking down stream across the Salmon pool towards Thurso, beautiful conditions and a vast improvement on the previous day

The rugby concluded much like my previous two days fishings, without victory but I had loved every minute exploring a tiny bit of these fantastic classic Highland salmon Rivers. We headed South homewards on the homeward leg, a much needed rest and a chance on my local rivers, now that they were once again open for salmon; the Deveron, the Spey, the Dee and the Don.