March 2005 - Climate
The arrival of an unseasonable
warm spell before the end of winter used to be a cause for
celebration. In the past we might have experienced a sense
of unease now and then when a headline-grabbing scientist
predicted something like a mini-ice age. But we knew better
than to take those warnings too seriously. Such was the
innocence of life before climate modelling.
Now we cannot escape the global-warming debate even on a
Scottish riverbank where the starkest weather fluctuations
are a way of life. Preparing for a visit to the river Tay
in a week’s time, I know to expect the best and the
worst of weather. One day there may be hail or snow and
the next, warm sunshine.
But the water conditions
reflect subtler changes. This year the winter flow has been
reduced because of a prolonged cold spell and a relatively
dry start to the fishing season. But two weeks ago the water
became muddy and barely fishable for a while after a sudden
rise in temperatures swelled the upper reaches with melt
water from the mountains.
Water temperature is important
because it influences fish behaviour. When the temperature
is below about 5 deg C salmon tend to move more slowly up
river from the estuary. As the water temperature rises,
so does the pace and progress of the fish.
This is bad news for the
lower Tay beat just north of Perth where I have fished on
and off for nearly 20 years. What few fish there are will
be running fast if the experience of recent warmer springs
As most Scottish salmon
fishers know, the spring catches have dwindled alarmingly
since the 1970s although numbers have recovered on some
rivers such as the Dee that has instigated a vigorous restocking
On the Tay it took an initiative
among the river-keepers or ghillies - the formation of the
Tay Ghillies Association six years ago – to initiate
some serious restocking. It would be reasonable to question
why such a move did not come from the riparian owners of
the fishing beats, many of whose names can be found gracing
the pages of Burke’s Peerage. But their relationship
with the river is coloured by a history of one-way exploitation
that for too long regarded “sustainability”
as something of an alien concept.
The result is that this
year, at the time of writing, there had been nine fish caught
on my section of river since the start of the season. That
is an average of about one fish per week for the six-rod
beat. It means that each angler would have to fish for six
weeks to stand a realistic chance of a salmon.
This spring fishing lottery
is not much fun for those who like to hunt their fish, picking
the best lies and changing their approach to suit the conditions.
The river is too broad and the runs too sparse to get many
results from casting a fly. But I will give it a go anyway
as practice for later on. There are, after all, few places
in the world that can match the sharp smell of spring on
a clear-flowing peat-tinged river like the Tay.
I will spend a little time
also in the boat with no expectation of catching anything.
For years the lower beats have been fished by harling, where
a lure is dangled on a length of line from the back of a
boat that covers a pool by crossing and re-crossing the
This is undemanding conversational
fishing, interspersed too infrequently these days by a sharp
bend in the rod from a taking salmon. The fish-finding skill
belongs to the ghillie and the salmon hooks itself.
In this way I once foul
hooked a salmon (or it foul hooked itself) in the back just
below the dorsal fin when harling. A rudimentary understanding
of physics would have told me that no amount of winding
was going to get it to the bank. It was like trying to retrieve
a plank of wood from mid stream. The ghillie, whose choice
of language owed little to the sciences, suggested I ran
down the bank but as the fish fell back downstream my line
became entangled around a partially submerged tree and the
fish was lost. The ghillie blamed me for my tardiness. I
blamed him for the tree. Many years on we still remember
Such incidents are rare.
A fish is rare. For the most part the anglers are engaging
in a gloriously expensive waste of time. Yet most return
year after year. Why? I cannot answer that any more than
I can unravel the threats posed by climate change from all
the other causes of declining catches.
The enigma of the relentlessly
hopeful fisherman is as difficult to explain as the senses
that govern the life-cycle of the salmon.
Samuel Johnson had his
own theory. Describing a fishing rod as “a stick with
a worm at one end and a fool at the other,” it is
hard to deny that he just might have had a point.