September 2006 –
Ringing the changes in Scotland
Most people look forward to Christmas day
and their birthdays, but what about the other days in the
calendar? Is there one day every year that you treasure
above all the others? The reason I ask is that mine is the
first Monday of my regular August trip to the River Dee
I would narrow it down further to the
first hour or so by the river bank, always in the same spot,
sharing the company of a few familiar stones and a flow
of water that may be higher or lower than usual, depending
on the weather. If the flow looks good, and it usually does,
I can hardly wait to get my fly in to the water.
There is something magical about that
first morning I would share with you now, only this year
it didn’t happen. This year I was sleeping off the
trauma of a sailing race, then working at my desk before
racing to make a flight from London while reading the text
message from a friend about all the fish he had caught.
This year the Monday had been exceptional.
Heavy rain at the weekend had triggered
one of the strongest runs of the season with a good head
of sea trout among the salmon. Having lost the Monday I
was almost falling over myself to make the most of the Tuesday
morning – when nothing happened. Not so much as a
The afternoon was dedicated to ghillieing
for my wife who had decided to try her hand for the first
time in years. While she rested in mid-afternoon I waded
out to have a few flicks over the run with a single-handed
rod and the river seemed to spring in to life. A strong
pull on the second cast was followed by a sea trout on the
next, then a salmon hooked and lost a couple of casts later.
I love salmon rivers when things start
to happen; when you see a swirl near the end of your line,
when a fish plucks at the fly and when, finally, you hook
one and bring it to the net. A salmon hooked just above
some falls, came to the net without too much fuss only to
fall through a big hole that had not been there in the morning.
I managed to get it to the side all the same, more by luck
The presence of a good run this year enabled
a few more experiments than usual. In last month’s
column I had promised to try out a dry fly called the bomber
– a torpedo-shaped fly made from deer hair and caribou
fur that Newfoundlanders use on the Humber River.
Now I know that it works in Scotland too.
A few casts, floating over the same spot brought a rise
and on the next cast the fish took the fly. The salmon had
been lying maybe two feet below the surface. Later I managed
to raise another fish using the same system after a long
series of casts but it didn’t attack the fly. I still
wouldn’t use the bomber in Scotland as a first choice
in most circumstances, but it has earned its place in the
Another fly which brought a fish was the
Icelandic “red frances”, a prawn pattern that,
for some reason, the fish would only pluck the first time
I used it. The second occasion led fish to leap out in panic
when they saw the fly – not an uncommon reaction to
a prawn. But the third attempt secured a strong take and
a healthy fish. Most of the rest fell to the cascade fly
while the sea trout were favouring a single hook stoat’s
tale with yellow deer hair and a silver body.
Unlike other years when a head of fish
might create a morning of takes and fish on the bank, I
felt that this year I needed to work for every fish. Trying
different spots and varying fishing methods seemed to produce
fish when conventional approaches were proving less productive.
Persistence also made a difference. Moving to one more spot
or changing a fly instead of breaking for lunch led to a
fish on more than one occasion.
There was another experimental method I
tried. It is perfectly legal for fly-only water and it works
a dream when all other methods have failed, but I am bound
by an anglers’ Omerta to keep silent. As a writer
and a journalist it is counter intuitive to keep a secret
but so many effective fishing methods are being removed
these days I suspect that this one would be proscribed if
its use became widespread.
Suffice to say that the fishing in Scotland
is never easy but my summer trip was more productive compared
with recent visits to Iceland and Canada. The difference
here is that I know the water and how it fishes in different
But credit should go also to those who
have fought to restore the Dee by introducing a catch-and-release
code, ensuring that breeding fish are returned to the water.
The river was teeming with healthy parr this summer.
So at what stage, if ever, should the
catch-and-release policy be reviewed? I would never campaign
for a return to the days when almost all the catch was killed.
But will the time come again when a fish for the week –
a fresh-run grilse perhaps - is deemed acceptable? The question
needs to be asked.