Salmon fishers are renowned for watching weather patterns before an upcoming trip. To the point of obsession. I am no different as weather can make or break the fishing, particularly rainfall and/or snowmelt. We sometimes pray for rain, our prayers are answered and then find ourselves flooded off or fishing in less than ideal conditions. Not always helpful in a 3 day trip but if you are fishing for a week and the rise comes on the Sunday or the Monday with a settling river thereafter then it can be the making of good sport later in the week. The other end of the spectrum, low water and icy conditions can be the death knell of sport in all but the lowest beats nearer the sea.
This Spring has been unusually cold and prolonged into March (by recent standards) and the Aberdeenshire Dee in particular has been adversely affected by cold temperatures, low water and the dreaded grue. My own 3 day trip to Ballogie in early February yielded nothing but kelts in the first 2 days and we were grued off completely on the Wednesday. The lack of catches reported into March told the story. Early spring salmon fishers are a hardy breed but mettles were tested to the extreme as “the beast from the East” wrought havoc on our roads and rivers.
With the Dee running only a degree or two above freezing and a good 10 degrees colder than the North sea who could blame the salmon for their reluctance to nose upriver. Meanwhile a pattern of catches was emerging in the mighty Tay. Not many fish reported but some lunkers amongst them with one week in early March showing 20+ specimens in the daily catch report. A fish of 35lb was landed at Glendelvine in early February and the picture of it shows the most perfect specimen any angler could wish for. All of this, to my mind, gives weight to the evidence that we are in the middle of a swing from grilse to multi sea winter dominated runs.
My own season got underway with a nice 14 pounder in the third week of February on the Monday morning at lower Crathes on the Dee. We started that Monday at 1’7” on our gauge but a rise in temperature meant we were facing 4’ 3” on the Tuesday from snowmelt and this effectively killed the sport for the rest of our three days. We had been hoping for a top up in water levels but as the saying goes “be careful what you wish for!”.
Early March brought another red weather warning for heavy snow in Scotland. All kinds of sporting fixtures were cancelled including my curling on ice! My next trip was scheduled to the Dee in the middle of March and I prayed for a softening in the weather. Miraculously it came at the end of the week before we were due to fish. On a falling water, Lower Crathes reported 5 springers on the Friday and two on the Saturday. Some rain and snowmelt was forecast over the weekend but there was hope for us.
Monday 12th March 2018 Height on Lower Crathes gauge 2’7” water temp 38F
A dreich, drizzly day with an air temp in the morning of 38F. The river has a strange cloudy opaque look which may have been caused by a mixture of salt road washings and snow melt. Lower Crathes has an excellent arrangement whereby two anglers fish above the Durris Bridge and two below, alternating at lunchtime. We were teamed with that most knowledgeable ghillie Robert Harper and due to fish above the Bridge in the morning. I won the toss of the coin and chose the long cold wade down the south bank of the Mill Pool while my partner could enjoy dry feet on the bank or boat in Birkenbaud. Robert reckoned that Balbridie could be worth a cast so I started there. I sensed that the water was a bit on the high side for this fairly shallow fast pool and therefore fished it down taking more steps between casts than normal. Nada. A foot lower and this pool can be excellent. But not today.
The Mill Pool on the other hand has a mixture of depth and boulder structure and I sensed that my chance would come there. Two croys push out from the North bank creating a most attractive central current. Using an S1/S2 sinking shooting head and a 1” copper tube, I felt that I was covering the water well but by the time I had fished the top two thirds of the pool I hadn’t had a touch, not even a kelt. As you near the tail of the pool, the pace of the current slackens a bit and it starts to shallow up. I had the distinct feeling that the copper tube was now fishing too deep and waded ashore to restore feeling to my feet and consider my options. I opened my box and began to search for a suitable aluminium tube. Before leaving home on the Sunday I had hurriedly tied up a couple of Willie Gunns with a holographic orange body, a black wire rib and some rusty olive angel hair tied in the wing. The inspiration came from an article that Iain Wilson of Borders Gun Room wrote in T&S some years ago. The 1.25” aluminium version looked as if it might be right for these conditions so on it went. Perhaps 3 casts later it was grabbed by something heavy which hugged the far side of the pool and took some hard runs upstream. Fortunately I was able to phone Robert Harper who was nearby and he kindly came down and netted and measured my fish. We both agreed 20 as it was one of the broadest backs of any salmon I’ve ever seen. Marvellous condition. Happy angler and happy Ghillie!
Further good news came at lunchtime as both Chris and Phil had a fish each from Kelpie Pool. The mood in the camp was cheery & everyone was keen to get back to it after 2pm.
I drew the Lower Bridge Pool after lunch and chose to commence operations from the North Bank. Here a deep wade and a long cast are required to reach the best lies. I changed to a Rio AFS Hover plus a 12’ Type 8 tip with, of course, the alu Willie Gunn. The set-up seemed to be on the money as I had a steady stream of grabbers, mainly kelts but two shining springers amongst them at 8 & 7lbs. Robert was on hand with the net which made the whole process of handling the fish easier.
Fortunately my killer fly was still intact and working well (I had super glued the tinsel body) when I crossed to Lower Bridge Durris side at 4pm. I had only reached the old stanchion when I was locked onto springer no 4. Robert was with the other rod at that point so I was in the act of beaching a fresh fish in the 10/12lb category when it took umbrage on a short line and to my eternal shame, broke me and went away with my fly. At that point I was as devastated at losing the fly as I was about the fish (had no tying kit with me). Schoolboy error. I had landed several kelts & springers without changing the cast. I broke my own rules and suffered the consequences.
More good news at 5pm back at the hut. Chris & Phil had another fish each in the afternoon making a total of 7 springers for the day.
Tuesday 13th March Height 2’8” Water temp 37F
In the bar on Monday night I was bemoaning the loss of my killer fly. That doyen of salmon fishers, Chris Tunmore was quick to reprimand me. “Put on a Park Shrimp…you’ve caught plenty on that”.
He was right of course and I do have lots of confidence in that pattern tied as a conehead for heavy spring flows.
Commencing operations in that marvellous pool Kelpie I kept on the 12ft type 8 tip and the copper version of the Willie Gunn. I fished through the pool with only a kelt to show for it and again, the feeling came to me that I was fishing too deep. I therefore changed to a 15ft type 3 tip on the hover with a Park Shrimp conehead. Normally I would have moved to another pool but I felt sure that Kelpie should produce so I fished it again with the lighter set up, more confidently this time. Near the tail of the pool I did find a grabber which turned out to be another chunky hard fighting springer of 18lb. Could it get any better? Yes it could. My friend Jim Carson fishing opposite me on the Durris side of Kelpie opened his account with a lovely fresh 8 pdr. It’s always special when every member of the party has caught.
After lunch it was my turn to fish Birkenbaud, the long excellent holding pool at the top of the beat. Again my luck seemed to be in as apart from kelts I found two more beautiful springers the better of which was 17lb. The smaller fish about 9lbs put up a memorable fight with several tarpon like leaps before coming to the net. Both on the S1/S2 set- up.
Wednesday 14th March Height 2’10” Water temp 38F
An unwelcome rise in water. The weather has turned colder with a biting south easterly blowing. I start in the Mill pool again and am rewarded with a sealiced 8 pdr. Phil Burnham also finds silver in the afternoon from Riddells Pool.
13 springers for 3 days to the party of 4 anglers. Good going by recent March standards and the stamp & condition of the fish excellent. Two March back to back hat tricks to my own rod especially memorable.
On the Thursday a howling easterly and rising water face the anglers for the rest of the week. The latter 3 days produce another 3 springers. Timing in this sport is everything. This time my prayers had been answered and I found myself fishing the right half of the week. How different it could have been.