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Donkin on Fishing - Scotland


September 2006 – Ringing the changes in Scotland

River Dee  

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 in Aberdeenshire.

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 bite.

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 than management.

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.

Richard Donkin fishiing on the River Dee  

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 box.

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 conditions.

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.

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