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Donkin on Fishing - Scotland


April 2007 – A trip to the Dee

River Dee, Scotland  

What makes a great place to fish? For some it might be the exhilarating prospect of saltwater flats off Cuba, for others, the quiet contemplation of nature on a sparkling Hampshire chalk stream or the solitude of some small hill loch.

There is no doubting the drama of a shoal of bonefish, their tails glinting in the sunlight, heading your way as you prepare to cast. Once the hook is set, that first powerful, zinging run never fails to impress.

Equally, it’s hard to beat the surface take of a hungry trout on a water humming with insect life. The intimacy of the contest, the stalking of the fish, has an ageless quality.

I love them all in their separate ways. But if I could choose one venue above all others, it would be the banks of a Scottish salmon river in spring. If I could be extra choosy it would be the Aberdeenshire Dee.

Where better to spend the morning of my 50th birthday, as I did last week, than on a prime pool in the middle Dee? All it needed was a fish and, like the ubiquitous London bus, two came along in quick succession, both within the hour. That was my lot for six days of fishing. But the timing was perfect.

Had I failed to catch I would have been disappointed but not downhearted. It’s a privilege to fish a river like the Dee. There’s a wonderful sense of history about the place. Every hut seems to have been chosen for its perfect setting and you feel you are sharing in some timeless ritual.

Richard Donkin fishing  on the River Dee

The river is one of those rare places in our modern world where it’s possible to stand almost unobtrusively among every other living thing – the oyster catches and sandpipers, the dipper and the heron; the banks coated with wood anemone and violets and the trees bursting their buds in a variety of vivid greens.

If nature is saying anything it has to be: “Relax, take it easy, go with the flow, just cast your fly and let it happen.” But that’s hard when you have driven 500 miles from the south of England.

On the way we stopped in Penrith to visit the John Norris tackle shop and Fifteen, the café opposite that does a fine Bri and bacon sandwich. I am in the market for a new salmon rod so the staff at John Norris lent me a 15ft Loop Opti. Sportfish of Reading had also loaned the Sage Z-Axis and the Hardy Angel rods so we were spoilt for choice.

I should point out that I am not a tackle snob although I know some who are. The rod is a tool – a spring for getting out line, a lever for getting fish back. But there are rods you like and those you don’t. The Loop Opti, at just under £600, is a rod you will like. Trust me. It has a forgiving action that can make a journeyman caster look better than average.

The Sage is very similar but more expensive Hardy was a big disappointment. It shoots line but it’s heavy and stiff and, at £1,100, it’s nearly £400 more than the Sage with, as far as I can see, no added value.

The river was deceptive this year since low rainfall had created summer conditions. One fisherman on the beat below caught five fish in his week, fishing the same pattern - a size 10 stoat’s tail and silver fly.

I just couldn’t do that. I’m constantly chopping and changing. Yet the fish I caught went to the same fly – a large black Frances, popular in Iceland, that had caught a fish for me on the Tay two weeks earlier.

It shouldn’t have worked since I was heading down the best holding pool on the beat that had been heavily fished all week. Sometimes it pays to flash something big through the water, drawn fast over the lie. I’m sure it irritates the fish and if there is one skill I do possess, it is an ability to irritate.

The other fish was notable since it fell to the only first time salmon fisherman in our party, Bryan Kruse, who was casting like a natural and thoroughly deserved the catch. I had forgotten what that first salmon feels like until I saw Bryan pumping the air with his fist.

Another attraction of the spring river is the mystery, the sense of not knowing whether the fish that will take your fly will be a 6 lb grilse or something in the 20lb class, or - we can dream - something bigger still.

The river was teeming with life, providing great sport for trout with the odd hatch. Salmon parr were everywhere. Credit for that must go to sensible fishery management and to the prodigious efforts made by the North Atlantic Salmon Fund in buying off netting interests.

The work of its chairman, Orri Vigfusson, was recognised this week when he was given the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco. Since the late 1980s Orri has raised $35m and negotiated a series of deals to buy out salmon netting operations from commercial fishermen, while helping to establish sustainable alternatives.

Who knows how much we owe our catches today to these efforts? All I do know is that the 80s and 90s were dark days on the Atlantic salmon rivers as indiscriminate fishing at sea reduced stocks to dangerously low levels. Orri’s intervention cut the Gordian knot of political and environmental debate. So I toasted him on my birthday. He couldn’t have sent a better present.

See also: God dog, bad dog and Flies for Scotland - spring salmon fishing from my blog Donkin life

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