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.

Salmon Season, Tay Time

2016 entered with a real bang, weather providing the fireworks as we all know but thankfully after the storm’s, some settled proper winter weather arrived. The rivers began to drop as did the temperatures and by mid January the Scottish rivers started opening for the Salmon season, finally a tonic for my cabin fever and the chance to wet a fly, a quick visit to Fishpal (http:/fishpal.com) a couple of clicks and I was booked on the Meikleour and Islamouth beats; 2 miles of the mighty Tay, boat or bank fishing.

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Meikleour Bridge, Look upstream to ward the bridge from the Castle pool

At the start of every season I get that same child-like excitement, the same buzz and I can guarantee that the night before my first trip of every season will be a restless one. An alpine start, up at the back of 5am I was remarkable fresh and chomping at the bit! Quickly filling the car with the excess of gear that you always seem to need at this time of year, loaded as though I was away for an Artic adventure not a day on the Tay. I manage to squeeze in a quick bacon roll and I was out of the traps for the start of my 2016 season. I might be dramatic but any keen fisher will tell you that the start of the season is like rebirth; exciting prospects await, new adventures new sights beautiful locations and of course that adrenaline inducing, endorphin racing, rod bending moments as a fish takes your offered fly.

Heading South pale blue began to seep skywards across the eastern horizon and the day was dawning with almost perfect conditions, hardly a breath of wind and the temperature only just a couple of points below freezing, with these conditions were set to last the day, bliss! But what would I now blame my generally terrible Spey cast on if not the wind…..I am sure I would find an excuse.

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Misty Perthshire hills, looking North upstream from the Birch bank towards the Tunnel pool and Tunnel stream

The broad rolling farm laden glens of Cooper Angus were shrouded in a veil of mist, drifting between the towering trees and distant hill, at times obscuring the horizon and reducing the world to monochrome. nearing Meikleour the damage of the New Year storms became more evident, debris meters above the river suspended in leafless trees with high water marks in places beyond sight of any River, testament to the volume and power of the waters. but thankfully the river was now at a good height and I was eager to wet a fly and sample the Tay.

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Monochrome Misty world,looking upstream towards the Tunnel Stream and March pool hidden in the mists

Greeted by Dan Wright and Callum McRoberts the Head Ghillie with a warm wood burner and a cup of tea, at the inviting Ferry cottage boat house; its hard to tell that only 4 months earlier it had gone up in smoke now sporting its new roof and fire place. I can imagine is a struggle to leave the cozy fire side on days less inviting than this. but I was desperate to be out on the water, a quick chat and the application of several more layers a pair of waders and a life jacket, I was ready to have my first taste of the famous Tay and its world renowned fishing’s.

The Beat

Fishing Map Pool

Beat Map (Copyright Meikleour estate)

The Meikleour & Islamouth beat sits on the junction of the River Isla and the Tay and is famous for the Junction and Castle pools, 2 of the 14 named pools on the 2 mile beat, which sit 7 miles downstream of Dunkeld and 10 mile above Perth. Nestled in the rolling rich fertile farmland that lines the lower Tay, it is a consistent beat producing nearly 200 fish a year, Meikleour has been with the same family for over 300 years. The current owners have a real passion for fishing themselves, which is reflected in the effort, detail, expense and love that is clearly been put into maintaining and developing the beats facilities. The same passion for the beat is clear as soon as you talk to Callum and is reflected in enthusiasm with which past guests Tweet and speak about the beat. What I hadn’t been prepared for was the beauty of this stretch of the Tay even on a misty Scottish winters day.

The River Tay winds its 118 miles from source to coast through a stunning seasonally changing pallet of colour that takes in some of the most Shortbread box perfect scenery Scotland has to offer, from its mountain and moorland highland Perthshire sources. The Tay flows south through deep once glacial glens now cloaked in conifer and broadleaf, these glens and hills resonate with the past battles and history of Scotland. And Meikleour is a snap shot of Perthshires’ heritage and alluring scenic beauty, its towering tree lined banks draws you along the mighty peaty waters of the Tay.

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Callum McRoberts; Head Ghillie taking us upstream for the mornings fishing

Starting my exploration of this famous beat we motored upstream under the picturesque old red sandstone Meikleour Bridge, Callum on the outboard of the Tay boat a fantastically stable and wide boat with a good keel that cuts through the surging and boiling mass of the Tays’ peaty waters. These boats are reminiscent of the famous Leven style boats comfortable and a pleasure to fish from, this one in particular freshly painted and clearly well cared for. I’ve never river fished from a boat before, simply because most Scottish river are too small to require one, It provides a unique perspective letting you appreciate the shear width of the Tay and the mass of water flowing through it.

Behind us as we motor through the aptly named house pool, the striking red stone of the Meikleour bridge beamed against the monochrome mist filled world, framed on both sides by the towering broadleaf’s and conifers that line the banks of the peaty highway. The towering leafless trees parting to a grassy slope leading from river upwards to the beautiful Meikleour House partially hidden in the slowly drifting mists.

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Meikleour House; hidden in the mists with its view over the house pool, Image looking upstream towards the Pump house croy and Boxbush pool

Callum anchored the boat alittle further upstream in the Boxbush pool and I cast my first fly of 2016.

the Sharpes Gordon 2 15ft 10/11wt (http://www.sharpes.net/gordon-2—15-0-10-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)

and the classic early season fly a 1.5in copper tube Monkey (http://www.grahamsonline.co.uk/product/the-long-monkey-copper-tube-salmon-fly-with-jungle-cock).

I felt like I could have used a rod twice the length and still fallen short.

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TheUnemployableflyfisher fishing through the castle pool, Opposite the Junction pool and the mouth of the river Isla

The Tay is a river I have never really fished well certainly not the lower Tay, I have fished the head waters of the Tay; River and Loch Tummel as well as the River Garry for trout and grayling but never Salmon. So this trip was a whole new world of experiences, for several reasons; the shear scale of the Tay, it is several orders of scale larger than what I usually fish wider and deeper it presents you with a huge body of water that truthfully intimidates as you contemplate trying to cover the water with a fly. unless you have a champion class cast, which I most certainly do not have, but what I lack in distance and length I make up for with trying…or so I’ve been told.

This casting requirement relates nicely to the other reason this trip was a new world, the fishing techniques! As its says at the top of the page and in the very name I am a fly fisher so with the Tay at 3ft above summer levels the most productive methods are spinning and harling. I can hear the collective gasp and in truth the thought of using any technique other than the fly generally elicits derision at best and at worst a high pitched girlish scream of shock  from myself, but as the collective “they” say “When in Rome”. So after a hour of ham fistedly casting the fly and angrily muttering insults at myself, I relent to the wisdom of Callum and pick up a spinning rod, to fish through the remainder of the pool. Approaching the tail Callum cautioned; a take if we are to get one is most likely here. But not a touch, the activity of earlier with fish showing had vanished and the water was quiet and a distinct chill was now in the air. We move on downstream to experience a new technique, that is all together alien to me.

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Harling; Rod in the rest as we search of fish, at the Pump house croy

Harling; a method I believe originated on the Tay certainly the name did. Most loch fishers will know it as Trolling, 3 lines with lures and spoons set at different lengths to the side and rear of the boat, and slowly the boat is motored back and forth across the the pool occasionally holding position in the current and over known lies, it is apparently one of the most productive methods at certain river heights and time of year and a complete eye opener to me. As we explored pool after pool slowly dropping downstream the air was developing a real chill and with it we saw little movement on the surface and not a touch. The boat taking the load of the casting the chat flowed from fishing to farming and much more as the morning slipped away unnoticed enjoying the chat with Callum and the refreshing pleasure of being out on the river after a long closed season. Reaching the Castle pool and still not a touch, Callum called lunch and we went in search of the wood burner warmth.

A quick lunch of my homemade newly christened “lucky steak” pies, which I hoped would bring a fish come the afternoon session, opting to fly fish I waded the castle pool slowly moving downstream through the pool. With every step I relaxed and my cast improved but still not a touch. Callum was determined to find me fish, so we took to the boat once more crossing the river to the famous Junction which sits opposite the Castle pool. A cracking, fishy looking deep greasy watered pool where the waters of the Isla and Tay meet, boil and churn together. In higher water this pool produces fish consistently and within moments fish began to top and show, my spirits soared and hopes of a fish raced. I returned to the Spinning, casting to the greasy boils where the water meet a couple of quick jigs to sink the lure and then a slow retrieve to the boat, and with every cast comes anticipation of a Take. I send a cast out behind the boat and sink the lure with a couple of jerks of the reel a brief pause and I begin a slow retrieve, I can feel the the lure flutter and bite into the sur

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Kelt from the Junction Pool

ging water of the junction pool. My anticipation waning, when the faintest knock, and before I can acknowledge it I feel that familiar adrenaline inducing take, the whole reason we fish! “Fish On!” Waves of excitement and relief course through me as I play the fish back to the boat, but its quite evident I’ve got a Kelt on the end of the line, alas no springer. But you couldn’t tell from the smile on my face, it just very enjoyable putting a bend in the rod and seeing a fish coming to the boat, regardless of it being a springer or not. Three casts later and I am shouting “fish on” as we approach the tail of the pool, another kelt more coloured than the first has take my lure, but it sheds the hook within feet of the boat and is gone with a splash into the peat darkness. Moments later Callum too is into a fish and as quickly as its on its off. Its the last fish or touch we see for the day but At least we have had a fish and put a couple of bends in our rod.

Returning to the Boat house and its warmth at the end of the day I was already planning my next Visit to this Beat, No springer but thats Salmon fishing it is a privilage just to see fish and to fish on a beautiful, well kept beat like Meikleour I really can’t praise it high enough; brilliant setting, quality facilities, with a real passion for the sport and its future. I can truthfully say i have not enjoyed my time more in a boat on a cold day; Callum is great Company and an invaluble source of Knowledge about the beat, the lies and fishing in general. if you intend to experience the mighty Tay I have to say try a day or more on the Meikleour and Islamouth Beat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brown trout-Assynt Adventures

Assynt panaroma

Looking West over Coigach, on a blue sky day, Ben More Coigach on right, Stac Pollaidh visible behind Loch Lurgainn and Cul beag on the right.

My compass pointed farther North, so with a fantastic days fishing behind me in Torridon I headed for Assynt; it’s plentiful Lochs and hill lochs, its rugged landscape and wild brownies. Taking the winding coast road North through Gairloch, past Gruinard Bay; where so many WWII Atlantic and artic convoys sailed. Past Little Loch Broom and round and along Loch Broom meeting the main road from Inverness to Ullapool and the ferry to Lewis, but no ferry journey for me. My target is 40miles further North on a road that leads you through a breath taking scenery of rolling moorland and loch, with stepped near vertical mountains of Torridonian sandstone, that pierce the horizon like the fins and backs bones of prehistoric monsters, swimming through a rolling sea of heather and Lewisian gneiss. A scenic wonderland and a geologist’s wet dream!

The road hugs escarpments of Durness limestone and weaves along the shore of Loch Assynt till eventually closely following the River Inver you arrive at the fishing village of LochInver looking Westover the very North of the Isle of Lewis.

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looking South, over Loch Assent with Beinn Gharbh behind, Ardvreck castle on the left bank of the loch.

In the far distance and beyond the Atlantic, behind the village a panorama of epic quality sits waiting to be explored, this was to be my base camp for the next 3 days to reacquaint myself with the lochs, hills and brownies I have neglected somewhat over the last 5 years with the constraints of work and building a house.

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LochInver and East the hills of Assynt, from left to right Quinag, Canisp, Suilven, Cul More, Cul Beag and stac Pollaidh.

Quick stop to sort out boats and permits for the stay (http://www.assyntangling.co.uk) the prices are unbelievably reasonably well priced at about £10 day for a roving ticket that gives you access to a wonderland of over 400 lochs, my mouth salivates at the thought of it. i skipped back to the car giddy with excitement and with in moments I was winding my way up the narrow single track road from the village to Loch Druim Suaralain locally known as the Glen Loch. Parking with permission at Glencanisp lodge (http://www.glencanisp-lodge.co.uk) we made out on the Loch on its only boat a really nice Lomond, stable with a good keel and a total joy to row, that stopping me from pulling what little hair I have left out and swearing like a sailor. A crap unwieldy boat can truly frustrate beyond word and spoil an enjoyable day. The Glen Loch is situated in Glen Canisp, which runs between the ironically beautiful Corbett’s (A mountain of over 2500ft but below the magic 3000ft that defines them as the famous Munros) of Suliven and the sloping ramp of Canisp.

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thick cloud decending over Loch Druim Suardalain

The Glen Loch is fed by the small river of Abhainn Bad na h-Achlaise at the East end and from West end below a small wooden bridge the waters continue Westwards to Loch Culag, better know as the School Loch before a short river section empty’s the peaty waters in to the Loch Inver. A stunning location to fish; surrounded by the rolling Lewisian hills covered in heather and small areas of native woodland comprising Scots Pines and Silver Birch. The heather dotted with white bog cotton swaying in the strengthening Westerly wind. Cold thick cloud descended hiding the surrounding hills and tops producing an oppressive feel as the low cloud hung over us, light drizzle carried on the gusty wind. At times through the day the gusts blew 25mph, but undaunted I rowed in to the wind, and made for the small forested Islands that group around the North shore about half way down this half mile long Loch. Glen Loch offers large numbers of Brown Trout, and with its connection to the sea only a mile odd away, both Salmon and Sea Trout were to be found here and are known to take a well presented small trout fly on occasion, so I hoped to see a mixed bag of fish.

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looking West up glen Canisp, on one of the many drifts of the day.

Fishing these hill Lochs can be quite a challenge to the uninitiated as even though these Lochs are small, fish do not lurk everywhere! They hug the margins and the lochs edge, where they have access to shallower water, cover and an easier supply of feed; aquatics and terrestrials, fallen and blown from the surrounding land. In the deeper areas and middles of these Lochs they can be almost barren of fish or apparent life of any sort. to the uninitiated these challenges can often only produce only disappointment and it really can be advantageous to the new come to seek out all the advice they can to boost their chances of making a day amazing and i highly recommend local guide Stewart Yates (http://assyntflyfishing.com)

I aim for  small bays and the outlets and inlets of Rivers and Burns, making drifts along the edges of the islands and main loch-shore. I head for a small bay on the East side of the islands, it just looks fishy and I have learned to listen to my little internal monologue, when it tells me “fish there” and occasionally what fly to use. I listen and do as it tells me, the sub-conscience accessing the deep recesses of my long forgotten knowledge and dropping hints. Rowing in to the narrow mouth of the bay I send out my first cast on Assynt waters in two years, I opted for a similar 2 rod set up than I had in Torridon but decided on a Hardy/Greys streamflex 4WT teamed with the Hardy flyweight reel and Cortland Platinum floating WF floating line instead of the Hardy DT, mainly to allow me to deal better with the wind and allow me to punch casts in to a head wind should I need to. The 4WT was for dry flies. The second rod was old reliable, my 5WT streamflex plus, with the Hardy L.R.H lightweight (http://www.hardyfishing.com/en-gb/home/) with a Cortland camo 5ft ghost tip (http://www.cortlandline.com) just to allow me to put the flies down quicker and on retrieve to maintain a depth rather than pulling the cast to the surface with each strip of line. On this rod I had a team of wets and nymphs similar to Torridon. Gold head Nymph, a personal favorite, is flash back Hares ear I tie myself and has never let me down in the North on point. The 1st and 2nd droppers are a mix of flies usually highland traditional’s, the likes of a Kate McLaren, blue Zulu and Claret Bumble. I do love to use North Country spiders even though most people associate them with river fishing I have found them quite successful on the lochs.

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First cast of the day

My first cast kissed the surface of the water and presented my single dry fly a size 16 pale Olive Para Dun, and it immediately soliciting a take from a hard fighting 9inch wee brownie, small but beautifully formed. The wind was frustrating but could be over come and I continued on the dry, even though there was little surface action from the fish and there was little if any in the way of a noticeable hatch going on. I persevered as it seemed to be drawing fish to the surface with splashy miss takes and the occasional bomber take that confirmed another Assynt brownie was on the end of my line. image I fish a single dry more often than not simply because I believe it presents better, and when you have several dries on I find they can generate unnatural drag and movement, that I feel is a turn off for often weary fish. To be honest having more dries on I’ve found doesn’t generate more takes, often the opposite. The fishing slowed so I changed position and established a drift between two islands fishing the dry fly close to the bank and slowly retrieving it, this seemed to generate fish with in a few feet of the bank, the fish darting out from cover or depth to hammer the fly. Missing as many as hooked which was really quite frustrating. image The wind was driving me crazy! Some folk would argue that I already am, but the wind was trying its best to make sure I was! I had a drogue set mid boat and could have done with another in an attempt to maintain a slower steady drift but the wind kept gusting and I was luck to get 2 or 3 casts before I was having to row the boat back in to position and start a drift over. I spent the next couple of hours exploring the loch in search of shelter and fish, only finding a few. With my patience and my arms falling, I returned to the bay and the islands of the morning producing a few more fish.

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Bring a beautiful Assent Brownie to the Boat the Minnkin para dun visible hooked in its scissors

Thankfully there was a benefit to the wind we occasionally were offered a view down the Loch at Suliven and Canisp. However the summits never escaped their shroud of cloud.

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Suilven on an earlier visit taken from the banks of Cam loch looking West, snow patches still visible

Fishing in Scotland you have to be prepared and able to fish in windy conditions because wind and rain is something we get in bucket load particularly on the West coast but I really could have done with a 2nd fisher to share the rowing or maybe a bloody big anchor. I bemoan the weather! The weather is part of the challenge of the sport but 2015 is a unseasonably crap year, cold to the point where for the first time every we have had the wood burner on in mid June completely unheard of. Maybe its the fact that it is a particularly strong el Niño year in the pacific playing havoc with the jet stream meaning it is sitting South of its seasonal norm, resulting in low pressure after low pressure piling in from the Atlantic and pulling cool air in from the artic North. I saw 20 fish for the day, not a fish over 12inches, but all beautifully marked full fined and hard fighting. less and smaller fish than I had expected, I was also surprised that I did not see much fly life, terrestrial or aquatic life something that has always been quite a abundant and previous visits.   Maybe it was the cold summer or was I out of habit when it came to fishing these Assynt Lochs but I had a couple of more days to reverse my fortune.

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Loch Inver from the mouth of the River Inver looking West

I did however redeem the day when I decided to eat at the Caberfeidh (http://www.thecaberfeidh.co.uk) with great view of the mouth of the River Inver I had expect standard pub grub and was delighted with the exquisite local food we were presented with. What am awesome gem of an eatery recently bought over by the Michelin stared Alabannach Hotel (http://www.thealbannach.co.uk) the food was sublime local seafood and game. It made the miserable weather just vanish and as we sat there eating the sky cleared and the wind dropped. The West coast with blue sky’s and fine food is probably my favorite place on Earth.

Bucket list on the Spey.

It is an impossibility for me not to answer a ringing phone the whole reason why I am still wearing my waders and dripping all over the kitchen floor, having just got back from the Deveron and as the phone began to ring as I reached the back door, my compulsive nature gave little option! now standing in a growing puddle with a less than impressed looking Jennifer standing in front of me, a sheepish smile does little to recover the situation! It was Jay our neighbour; Drumdelgie B&B and Holiday Cottages from just up the hill , “Ah just the man! You know about all things fishing” flattery will get you everywhere Jay! “could you organize a days Salmon Fishing for my boss?” Jay and his wife Claire own the huge former farmhouse and cottages at Drumdelgie, with even better views of the Deveron Valley than mine, and the soon to open boutique holiday lets, (http://facebook.com/Glambunking) When not being hospitable Jay works in IT and his boss Mark it turns out was desperate to Fly-fish in Scotland and land his first Scottish Springer.

Mark a very experience all round fly-fisher having fished all over Ireland, the UK and further afield for Salmon, Sea-trout and like myself Mark is a huge Brown Trout bum. It didn’t take much thinking about, with the famous Spey only 20 minutes away, it was an easy choice for a Scottish salmon virgin! A quick call to Dougie on the Craigellachie Beat and we were booked on for the 19th of March. No doubt a shiver went down Dougies back at the thought of my Spey Cast! The 19th still a couple of weeks away as due to work commitments it was as soon as Mark could cancel his meetings and head North. Our fate and our fishing was now in the hands of Mother Nature and the March weather, which can sometimes be a lot like Russian roulette. Bad weather is a certainty but its all about whether it will be on your turn with the gun that it decides to fire? And as sure as the proverbial brown stuff, wind and torrential rain, in places over 100mm of rain moved in from the West. Temperatures rose to a sultry 14 degrees around Huntly, stripping the snows on the hills across Scotland and combining with the deluge of rain, the Spey at Craigellichie rose over 8ft in 24 hours. The Tay like-wise went up 12ft in 12 hours, typical March weather! I sat nervously watching the SEPA river level data as the week of the 9th wore on. I was having a squeaky bum moment, I don’t specilise in Salmon Fishing, it’s just a bit of fun for me, Brown Trout is my trade so I was starting to feel like I was out of my depth, combined with finding out that fishing the Spey for Springers had been on Mark’s bucket list for some time, dread of the 19th becoming a wash out and Mark having travelled 600 miles for nothing felt tangibly close. But as the week of the 9th slipped in to the 16th, river levels began to drop and fairly rapidly the 19th was looking like a perfect day, light wind from the West, cloudy with bright spells, light rain later in the day and 10 degrees it looked pretty close to perfect.

Looking West upstream of Mark and Myself on the Slabs pool, Ben Rhinnes behind and the MacCallan fishings hut.

The week of the 16th became a busy week for me with the Trout season open I headed for some brownies.  I always forget how disappointing and hard work the brownie fishing can be this far North this early in the season with cold water and lack of insect life, which seems all the more frustrating as you read the tweets of the like of Paul Proctor who already seems to raking the Lunkers from the waters of Cumbria. March is a fickle month and to stem my frustrations I bashed….some rainbows on the Wednesday morning and then, a fantastic afternoon Clay shooting with Mark and Jay. Jay thought a bit of an ice breaker and friendly competition would warm us up for Thursdays adventures on the Spey.

Arriving on the Spey at the back of 8.30am the weather man seemed to have got it spot on, the boys Mark and Jay however were looking a little bleery eyed, no doubt a restless night due to excitement……..alas No, they had been sampling a different liquid from Speyside, one of its many malts!

However Marks excitement was still quite obvious and it is quite contagious when a client is that excited about a day fishing you have organized, it gives a real lift and personally its a major part of my enjoyment for the day.

Mark casting on the Slabs pool drinking in the scenery and the smell of Whiskey and Shortbread

 

Mark loving the fishing, the smile says it all.

Fingers crossed he would see a springer, the river had been producing a few, so now we just had to present our flies in the right place and hope the Salmon were for taking them.

There were 5 rods including mself and Mark booked on the Beat, Jay had volunteered to drive, coming a long as a voyeur of  our fluff chucking, more like an excuse for a day off work. You can’t get a much better skieving spot to whyle away a day than beside the beautiful Spey. And as before on my last visit, the intoxicating aroma of Whiskey mash and shortbread filled the air.

Dougie smiled looking out over the River “ it is at perfect height, good chance of seeing a fish” the River was lower than my last visit and was between 6/8 inches above summer levels. Myself and Mark were put down to fish the Upper and Lower Slabs pool which runs from above the MacCallan fishing hut on the North bank in a large sweeping arc past main Cragellachie hut on the South bank about a half mile above the old cast iron bridge.

I fished on a Sharpes (http://www.sharpes.net)15ft 9/10wt Gordon 2 rod, a large arbor Able game reel, Rio 9/10wt outbound floating shooting head, spey line with an 11ft fast sink tip and the old favorite 1.5in brass tube Monkey. A combination that wanted to shoot out long accurate line, well, once Dougie had corrected my lingering affliction of a Trout fisherman’s bad habits, that seems to hinder my Spey casting more than help.

Mark slipped in to his Bucket list River 50m below me, and from the outset there seemed to be a problem, the rod just wasn’t loading, the line seemed to collapse on the water.  I tried to help to little success. But once more Dougie spotted the problem, a quick change of rod and line and Marks experience shown, as cast after cast effortlessly rolled out long beautiful casts arced out delivering one of his new Ian Gordan flies in to the deep glassy water that looked certain to hold his much desired Springer.

Dougie giving Advice, on the Slabs

 

Change of Rod for Mark and Dougie showing where to put the fly  

New Rod, New focus, Mark fulfilling His bucket list sending casts out over the beautiful pool

We both fished through the pool with little luck, we only had to contend with the Gorrila photography of Jay, who often went un-noticed until you heard the click of the shutter, and a shout of “got you” with Jay appearing from behind a broom bush. He captured good and bad shots alike, and as many bad and goods casts against the beautiful back drops of Speyside. By the end of the day he had filled my camera’s memory card with over 200 snaps.

Reaching the tail of the Slab pools around 1pm we retired to the Mashton Bar and restaurant in Aberlour for a tasty lunch and to re-energize.

Looking West upstream, Mark fishing through Ringorm pool

Looking East and downstream, from Ringorm to the Garden pool

Casting out over the Ringworm pool

Dougie Ross our Ghillie for the Day on the Craigellachie Beat, the Garden pool behind.

With the afternoon Dougie got us on the Garden and Ringorm pools, the wind beginning to strengthen with a decided chill on it.  We fish down through our respective pools, I was fishing the Garden pool, I faced the challenge of casting from the bank due to the depth garden pool. But I seemed still to be managing to reach out and land my fly were I wanted it, landing it between two prominent large rocks generating nice eddies of bubbling, oily water, that looked bound to hold a fish. From behind I hear Dougie “remember your Snap-T cast” a better cast from the bank but knowing my caic handed casting, I decide to err with caution and stick with what I am doing “Baby Steps” I shout to Dougie, ‘I only just got my double spey firing right! lets not tempt it to fall apart”. Dougie smiles knowingly and heads off to deal with other fishers. The pool is soon fished through and still not a touch for either of us. With the wind picking up and the temperature dropping we decide to call it a day.  Mark had ticked the Spey off his bucket list, but unfortunately not his Scottish Springer. As we head for the hut Mark admitted although he’d not seen a Springer he felt truly rejuvenated after his day on the Spey and now with Dougie’s contact details, he would be back on the Spey for his Springer as soon as he could. next time Mark ventures North I’ve promised him some worthwhile Brown Trout adventures.

Shambles on the Spey

I had hoped to regale you with a great story of this weeks Salmon fishing trip to the Craigellachie Beat, on the famous river Spey a beautiful section of the river, and better still it is only 20min from my front Door. The Craigellachie beat constitutes one of the lower middle sections of the river, with the beat stretching for over 4 Km/2.8miles and lies about 17miles from the Moray coast, Were the Spey empties its peaty waters in to the Moray firth at the aptly named spey bay.

Fishing once more with Mark a regular fishing buddy, we arrived at the main hut about 8.45am, nestled among some trees on the well groomed and maintained right hand bank of the river. Over looked from behind by the craigellichie hotel and sitting about a half mile above the old cast iron telford bridge that majestily arcs across the deep tea coloured pools of this world famous river. Above on the opposite bank beyond the trees sits the Macallan Distillary, hidden, but making it presents known with the familiar smell of sweet roasted barley mash. The whiskey ladened sent was being carried on a light wind, which thankfully was expected to stay light for the day. To the west above Ben Rhines,  wearing its bright white coat of snow much of which and fallen the previous day glowed under the glorious blue sky which wasn’t expected to last the day, as cloud was to roll in Bringing heavy rain and sleet. Ah the joys of spring fishing.

image

Greeted by Dougie Ross our ghillie for the day,  we quickly tackle up slipping into something less comfortable; 3 layers of thermals, woollen jumper, fleece body suit and topped off with a pair of Waders, warm is the aim! With air temperature about 4 degrees and the water not that much better layers is a must. Clad head to toe in goretex and neoprene,  you can’t help feeling that you look like some kind of  PVC clad fetishist, auditioning for the next 50 Shades film. on top of this you throw on a goretex wading jacket, buff, neoprene gloves, a wooly hat and of course  life jacket. Thankfully then the Fishing can commence.Craigellachie

As the only Rods on the Beat to have arrived, we had the choice of pools and on the grilles advice we headed for the top of the beat and the first pools of the day. I elected to fish the Brown Isle the second pool on the beat. Slipping in to the chilled water at the neck of the pool, I wade out through the glassy water that stretches the length of the pools right/south bank wading to thigh depth and start sending lines out in to mid stream using a right hand double spey fishing a brass tube monkey, on a Rio scandi line with Hover sink 1 shooting head. and to be honest I never really enjoy fishing a sinking line be it for Salmon or Trout, but i wanted to get down to the fish. My fly was landing in the boiling water that extended from the mid stream across to the left/north bank and runs the length of the pool till it reaches the riffels and then transitions in to the Garden pool below. Occasional  large boulders litter Brown isle generating nice, eddies and greasy water, These I would pay more attention to as I reached them. Then on only my third cast my fly is greeted with a Knoock knock as it drifts across and down. My senses ping the knowledge fish are there wetting my appetite, almost as much as the lung fulls of warm homely shortbread are wetting my appetite, the warm sugary smell drifting on the breeze from the nearby walkers factory. I loose myself in my fishing cast after cast and slowly fish down through the pool with out another touch.

Looking east down stream on Brown isle pool

Looking east down stream on Brown isle pool

Not another touch was had through the pool, and as the pool draws to its end, the cloud began to roll in. And with the cloud, my day began to descend into a shambles! To be honest by the time the day drew to an end, shambles is as polite a word as I could use! No longer being able to feel my toes, I waddled from the pool feeling really quite frozen! In the fast obscuring sun I gained some warmth, and quickly I began trying to warm my ice like toes. The warm starts to return, the growing warmth brings  with it a surging throbbing pain, the Hot aches! An excruciating throbbing pain coursing from toes to shin. Agony! so Dressed like some sort of PVC clad fetishist I begin waddling as though on hot coals, stretching and swearing on the river bank like a deranged mad man, that has soiled himself! I frantically try to get warmth in to feet, whilst fighting the throbbing pain. I must have looked a site, I dearly hope no-one saw me!

Trying to regain my composure I waddle to the garden pool Where Mark is fishing, with Dougie watching. Having now returned empty-handed from attempting to find the missing guests. Mark is quickly shown a different cast to help deal with the high bank that you have to fish from on the Garden pool, and I return to the top of the pool and begin to start fishing again, employing the new learned technique. With the first cast begins the total collapse of my casting, I appear to have become a ham-fisted idiot, with every worsening cast my rage boils at myself. Now cursing and berating myself under my breath, streaming combinations of insults and swears that only real rage brings. Dougie spots my decent into chaos and comes to my aid, his patience and resolve to get me back on track was amazing but it seemed to be a lost cause, as we sort one part of my cast another part dissolved and with it embarrassment and rage fizzled away within me I think we spent an hour beat our heads against the brick…crumbling wall that my cast had descended in to. My right shoulder screamed in pain as did my back, and I am almost sure I could hear my pride in there aswell! I should have walked away and taken a break but I didn’t and really can’t thank Dougie enough for is endless help. Eventually broken dougie calls lunch! And my weary body and patience could get a rest.

The Upper slab pool looking down Stream to the lower slab pool and Mark with Dougie

The Upper slab pool looking down Stream to the lower slab pool and Mark with Doug

Following lunch we began fishing through the pool in front of the main hut, and alas the cast was still a shambles it creaked and fell apart with every second cast and Dougie battled on trying to help even trying me on a larger heavier rod in an attempt to slow me down. But the damage was done to body, confidence and focus, I trough in my hat and called it a day dragged myself from the river dejected by failure, rage and the kicking my pride had taken.

Pana Boat 'o' Fiddich Pool

Marks first casts on the final pool of the day Boat “o” Fiddich I chose to spectate for this Pool.

So from the Shambles what can I take? Casting should never be painful! clearly I was using my right shoulder to try to impart power into the cast, a trout habit that is utterly redundant in the spey cast, the over use of my shoulder inflamed old rugby injuries which now inflamed stopped me from moving and turning as I should have, and stiffened up. To compensate for this I seemed to speed up the whole cast which didn’t allow time for a D loop to form and I was in variably on almost every cast pulling my anchor point, these combined and stopped me loading the rod, which in turn ment I had to work harder and apply more power. A vicious circle! Listen to the ghillie! he is truly an invaluable source of knowledge and skills, A good ghillie like Dougie Ross is worth their weight in gold to the fly-fisher and don’t let your pride get the better of you listen to everything and learn! also listen to Ur body if your sore. stop, breath, slow it down and walk away for a minute the river will still be there in 10 minutes time and remember it’s not just about catching a fish drink in where you are Scotland is gorgeous and breath-taking so breath in the location as much as the fishing. Again thank you Dougie for your patience and resolve. I spent saturday on the River Deveron, 300 meters from my front door. No fly on my line but I went through the motions like a novice. Cast after cast sorting out the shamble, hearing and heeding Dougies advice, rebuilding my cast and confidence ready for my next adventure. Knowing that every time every time I go fishing I learn and importantly being open to learning is part of the fun for me.

Salmon on the River Ness

Wednesday 11th February 2015

Early start; up at 6am never a problem when it’s for early season Spring Salmon fishing. Even with the recent cold weather making my body think its anything but Spring, the sky Nearly cloudless slowly turning a pale blue with the rising sun, milder than its been a beautiful day lay ahead. Throwing on Plenty of thin layers and thermals to keep the cold out. Warm soup in the thermos. I headed for Huntly Train station, loaded down with kit to get the first train to Inverness. The hopes and expectations for what the day ahead would give took hold. bubbling away in me, It happens every time I go fishing, I revert to being an excited kid.

Mark a regular fishing sidekick, when he is onshore met me from the train.  We chatted excitedly about the day ahead, realising that it is 20 years to the month since I caught my first salmon. On the very River we were about to fish, caught on the association town water. The beat that comprises the lower section of the river before it meets the Moray Firth, and it was in conditions not dissimilar to today.  We negotiated the traffic and the roadworks that seem to clog Inverness, and before long we were heading South down the northside of the River Ness on the Drumnadrochact Road.  Heading for Dochdarroch and the locks at the head of the Caledonian canal, we were to meet Grant Sutherland our ghillie for the day at the wee hut nestled behind the old lock-keepers cottages.

Greeted by Grant and his furry companion Duke, we chatted about the season now a week old and the tactics for the day. The Rver running at 10in/250mm, we quickly changed in to our waders and life vests as Grant kindly set up our rods and reels. I opted to use my Sharpes Gordon4 13ft 9WT (www.sharpes.net) matched with the Rio Scandi AFS shooting head with a floating tip, 6ft leader with a copper tube; long tail monkey fly.

Packed lunches on our backs we crossed the canal lock gates and headed for the riverside hut, nestled in the trees on the top pool below the weir. We had the beat to our selfs, the only rods booked so we had Grants undivided attention. I headed out along the weir to the top of the first pool, quite an interesting wade.  On one side the black depths of the canal, the other the cobbled weir. The canals water flowing over the 200 year old weir at ankle depth, In some spots knee-deep where the water is channelled into streams. These streams meet the main River generating nice eddies and greasy water, with deeper pockets and gravel bars along the north bank below the weir.

Looking west back towards the Weir that divides the confluence of the River Ness and the Caledonian canal were the waters of the Loch Ness now enters the River Ness on its way to the sea

Looking West upstream towards the Weir that divides the confluence of the River Ness and the Caledonian canal were the waters of Loch Ness enters the River Ness on its way to the sea


looking down stream from the weir, were contact was made with the first fish

looking down stream from the weir, were contact was made with the first fish

I start fishing down the pool under Grants watchfull eye and guidance, fishing a fairly short line as the fish tend to run close to this North bank.   The long winter off season was showing its effects, as my casting can be best described as rusty. I’m sure the ghillie would have privately called it something far worse.  Making steady progress down the pool with little sign of any action, apart from from the occasional enticing splash from elsewhere on the pool as fish moved and jumped.   Approaching the confluence of one of the larger streams that surge over the weir in to the River, I notice a nice greasy section of water behind the chop of the surging in water. A perfect spot to target a waiting fish…. I cast out across the river careful to control the length of my line.  The fly fished down and across nicely. Insuring I get the fly were I want it I drew in a little line. But a few feet from where I want it the fly and line gets slowed up in a the competing currents, and is just not fishing as I’d wanted. Quickly I mend the line downstream which helped to fish the fly across my target but nothing.  Briefly My attention is lifted from my line to further downsteam and Mark fishing. Leaving the fly on the dangle, I quickly regain my focus and retrieve some line before I start lifting my rod tip; Knock, knock, bang! The line begins stripping through my fingers, fish on! Then stupidity kicked in and the trout fisherman in me came to the fore, I struck! like it was a brownie supping at a dry fly.  The Salmon now starting to run across the river and in my haste I wrenche the fly from the Salmon’s mouth! sending the fly whistling past my ear. Damn! Pulse racing and colourful language subsiding, a smile spreads across my face. The day is still young, there will be another chance….hopefully

Time for a coffee and a move, on to the next pool. In the hour spent fishing the first pool the river had risen 4.5in/110mm, a combination probably snow melt in the surrounding hills and input from the hydro.  We fished through the next pool with out much action, having to adopt a double Spey cast to cope with the growing down stream wind, which at times was bitingly cold, persueded us it was time for lunch.  Grant suggests we move to the lowest pool after lunch as it hasn’t been fished yet this season. He didn’t have to suggest it twice! The Tantalising over lunch show supplied by the Kelts jumping and splashed all through the pool in front of the hut spurred us on.

looking downstream  on the bottom pool of the Dochfour beat

looking downstream on the bottom pool of the Dochfour beat

The river seemed to be holding its height between 14-15in/250-275mm. I slipped in mid pool, and began putting out mid range casts. Fishing the fly round nicely producing better casts than earlier in the day, I felt quite confident in myself. Slowly fishing down the pool getting a couple of good knocks but not much else, I manage to suppress the urge to change my fly And continue fishing. A nice well presented cast, a quick mend up stream and the fly is fishing down and round nicely. It just felt right! And with that a sold take! The line runs though my fingers and I slowly lift into it. The rod doubles over, a quick run from a kelt too lacklustre to be a springer. I slowly bring a well coloured spawned cock fish to the net.  And with that its quickly released, A quick chat with Grant and I get back to flinging casts out. Within 2 casts I was back in to a fish, smaller this time but more of a fight,  the fish shows itself on the surface with a brief flash of silver in the afternoon sunshine, and my hopes surge for a springer. Gently playing the fish to the net, I am soon dashed on the springer. But it’s still a nice Hen Kelt.

Grant Sutherland the Ghillie removing the hook from the 8lb Hen Kelt

Grant Sutherland the Ghillie removing the hook from the 8lb Hen Kelt

With the day drawing to a close and the sun now low dropping behind the hills above loch Ness. A couple of more takers but nothing sticks, so we call it a day and head for the hut. The hut that we had started out from 7 hours earlier. A great day, in a beautiful location had been had. A lot of that enjoyment was Thanks to the excellent Ghillie Grant Sutherland.

If you get the opportunity to fish the Dochfour beats on the River Ness take it!  though the beat tends to fish better in the back half of the season its a beautiful venue and stretch of water year round.

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