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Donkin on Fishing - Salmon

 

March 2005 - Climate change

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 is repeated.

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 programme.

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 stream.

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 that fish.

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.

   
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