I have to confess that I’m not a big fan of fishing small waters for salmon, not least because I am singularly unequal to the task. So those of you seeking enlightenment, best think again and perhaps move on now if time is precious.
Then again, my first real experience of salmon fishing was on small waters: the River Alness and in later years I tried the little River Endrick, which spills into Loch Lomond from the Fintry hills. At that time, small waters were all I knew of salmon fly-fishing and since you could basically fish them with a trout fly rod, they seemed to me to be perfect for my purposes. Apart from the fact I caught nothing that is.
It was some twenty years or more ago, grant you, but I used to go up to the Endrick regularly after (and sometimes instead of) my college classes. The Endrick in those days was absolutely heaving with fish during the main runs, starting from September and lasting through October. Nowadays you hear old-timers tell stories on every river of runs of fish coming through the pools with their backs out of the water. You shouldn’t dismiss these as old buffer’s tales of yore; I witnessed this myself on the Endrick and it was a sight to behold, I guarantee. Then again, maybe I’m on my way to becoming a bona fide old buffer myself.
But it was an amazing spectacle nevertheless; you could be standing at the head of a small pool, no longer than 25 yards end to end, one minute lifeless, the next literally swarming with salmon and sea trout. Incredibly exciting stuff.
And that was the downfall of the Endrick I think. These huge runs brought out a real fishmongering streak amongst a lot of the anglers, particularly in the lower reaches nearer to the city of Glasgow it has to be said. I used to watch them standing there with their lead cored lines at the junction of the River Blane (no more than a small burn) and the Endrick, flicking the line out over the backs of the running fish in the shallow water and then sniggering them out. Criminal – literally. There were guys there who would fill their car boots with foul-hooked fish and brag about it in the car park.
All the more criminal was the insidious way I became sucked into it myself. I couldn’t seem to catch a salmon by legal means on that wee river, so eventually I adopted a “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude and “caught” my first salmon by snagging it with the fly across its back. It was an 8lb hen fish and I was so appalled that I had stooped so low I let her go immediately. I still remember the guilt and shame it as if it were yesterday though; fishing teaches you all kind of life skills and a bit of moral turpitude does no one any harm.
Later in that same season and further upriver, I was genuinely trying to fish properly yet also wondering, idly, if I could get another one foul if necessary by casting a floating line over a likely looking fast run and whipping the fly past the running fish quickly. Suddenly a fish was on. Did I foul it or did it grab the small, speeding fly as it passed? When it was landed I saw that it was indeed hooked in the mouth, but the fly had been tearing through the stream as though fitted with an outboard motor. Still, I was sufficiently convinced of my mandate that I harvested it as a present for my uncle Jim – a father like figure to me and now, sadly, deceased.
I guess that fish should qualify as my first ever salmon taken on a fly, but I’ve always had a nagging doubt that the unfortunate creature just happened to be swimming past with its mouth wide open as my fly shot past it. Stranger things happen in fishing after all.
Anyway, that season was basically enough for me on the Endrick – I couldn’t stomach the failure to catch fish properly whilst all around were succeeding illegally. In case I do get any indignant correspondence though, I did meet lots of very pleasant, efficient and legal fishers on the Endrick too; especially further up near the headwaters. Up there, though, it was really crowded and the river was even smaller – I could actually jump over it in one or two places. And I still caught nothing.
So I pretty much gave up on small rivers for a while. The next time I did fish one, actually, was well after I had learned my craft on the Spey. I had booked a family holiday away up in Wester Ross – a remote, beautiful and ruggedly wild part of the world - when my son Jamie was not even 2 years old. The cottage was called Badagyle and the attraction for me was that I had two lochs and the right bank of a small river to fish for the week. All to myself.
The cottage, though, was a dump, like so much of the Highland Scottish accommodation available to anglers and holidaymakers alike. You have to wonder what on earth people are thinking of when they advertise these places as “comfortable bases to fish the beautiful lochs of this wild land…” The lochs are beautiful alright and the land is certainly wild, but the accommodation often resembles something out of the third world and what passes for service still amazes me in this day and age. To be honest, every third-world destination I have visited has been blessed with excellent accommodation. They seem to realise that if the fisherman/tourist is treated right, they will come back. And they’ll tell their friends too. I have to say that having travelled all over the world, some of the worst fishing accommodation is here in my native Scotland. There are exceptions, of course, but allow me a generality here and there.
Still, the loch was there and the scenery out over Stac Polly and Suilven mountains was truly awe-inspiring. The wee river wasn’t half-bad either. The first night I went out, I tied on a small size 16 Peter Ross and, after scrambling down a mile or so of steep, heather-clad gully, I came to the junction of the burn and the small, brackish lochan that joined it to the sea.
I unhooked the fly from the keeper ring, flicked it into the neck of the stream at the head of the lochan and it was immediately grabbed solidly by a fish. I thought that it was a sea trout, but when it tried to dive into the reeds and I held it hard, praying the leader would hold, I saw the unmistakable tail of a small salmon break the surface. I eventually beached the fish with the small double hook almost bent straight. It was a bit black, but it was a fish and I took it anyway. The family called me First Cast Charlie after that. Wish they hadn’t – it was ultimately too much to live up to.
I fished the burn again throughout the week but caught nothing else. The lochan was more productive though and in there I took a few small sea trout, lost a few more and also lost a nice salmon. It was packed with coloured grilse waiting to run the burn on the first flood, although the terrain that it flowed through was very daunting with substantial waterfalls and a very steep climb. It made me marvel yet again at the lengths these creatures will go to ensure the survival of the species. Well, maybe it’s just for the sex, as they don’t hang around to contribute to family life in any meaningful way.
But the biggest problem with Badagyle was, inevitably, the midges. These vicious little beasts were present constantly and in unbelievable densities. Every bare piece of flesh was bitten and repellent had no effect whatsoever on their appetite. It was sheer torture and my diary recalls one night when I headed down to what passed for the sea-pool to see if the high tide would bring in any fresh fish. It was a flat calm in that little gulley and I had to run, almost screaming, after only a few minutes in order to find a breezy headland so that the little devils couldn’t get to me.
After that experience, I decided that small waters were not my thing once again and I pretty much stuck to the Spey for my salmon fishing; the fish were fresher and bigger and the midges, although potent, were manageable with the normal repellents available to anglers.
But a few years back a friend of mine told me that he had started fishing a small local water called the River Allan. He told me, by the way, that they had taken 468 fish out of it in 1998. 468 fish – that was more than my regular beat on the Spey took in the same season. So I applied right away and got a ticket for the following year.
When I say local, I mean literally local. I live on the banks of the River Forth, a respectable salmon river in its own right although where I live it is slow and canal like and so is practically useless for salmon fishers. The Allan drains into the Forth and the best piece of fly water is only a ten-minute drive from my house. A lot of the river is, like the Forth, canal like in nature, but this one stretch near the village of Kinbuck has about a mile of very streamy water with some good looking holding pools.
On my first exploratory evening out, I timed it right after a spate. Small rivers are invariably spate rivers in that they simply don't fish unless there is a flood, and even then, the really sweet spot is just when the river is falling and clearing. At least, that's how the theory goes. The water was falling off this evening and I made my way down through some pools, flicking a fly here and there as I went, until I came upon a guy who was into a small salmon. He expertly tailed the fish and equally expertly released it. His name was Jim and he proved to be a very affable guy, as indeed have all the local anglers that I have met, with the odd exception of course. Jim proceeded, unbidden and after the usual initial pleasantries, to tell me which pools were good and which were not. The indispensable local lore; you’ll know the form by now.
Anyway, he then got out of the pool and told me to have a cast through. So I started at the head and worked my way down. About halfway, I felt a take and lifted solidly into a fish. Then, just as quickly, it was off. Grinning at my stupidity for striking too fast, I took a pace forward and cast again. Another cast later and I had another fish take the fly. This time I paused and the line went solid. Then it went slack. Hmmm…
A couple of casts later and I had another fish on – same result. Then another. Then another. By this time, I was cursing volubly.
Five fish in quick succession – all of them lost. What on earth was going on?
So I came back again the next day, but this time I brought my small 12ft 6in salmon double hander having reasoned that it must be because I was fishing with a single-handed trout rod and that maybe I was striking the fish too fast. Something like that anyway.
Half way down the same pool I got a take. The line went slack without me doing a thing. I re-cast and this time the fish hit the fly a lot harder and we were on. It was only a wee 4lb grilse and after a short fight I unhooked it and put it back. Vengeance was mine though.
But only for a while. I have fished that river now for a few years and I continually miss or lose fish. On one spectacular occasion I got the gentlest of takes and immediately dropped the loop I was holding. With the amount of slack line that I fed that fish, it must have swallowed the fly so far down that it was trailing out of its asshole. It still came off after five minutes.
The regulars all do better than I do, but then, I think it’s because they put in the hours and, more importantly, they put in the hours at the right time. I am starting to appreciate that those 468 fish in a year only came about after an awful lot of sustained angling pressure from a dedicated bunch of very expert fishers. I tend to come down for a few hours as the spate is falling - they are there for 12-hour stints and work the river through thundering flood to tea-coloured torrent.
What strikes me about these guys though is their general attitude to the sport. They are completely different from the guys I meet on the Spey. No worse and no better – just different and responding to different circumstances.
The fish they fish for behave more like big trout than salmon in the small river environment, so they fish for them like that, with trout rods, big trout flies and droppers. They don’t strike them but tend to do nothing on the take and the fish more or less hook themselves as far as I can see. Often as not, they come off just like my experiences, but since they put in more hours, they get more opportunities and therefore get more fish.
They also frequently carry a spinning rod and alternate between the two, normally incompatible, methods. The rules of the Association state clearly that no angler should fish in front of another without asking permission; so you can be half way down a pool when a spinning rod will poke itself through the vegetation ahead and a voice will yell “I’ll just hae a wee cast in here, is that ok?” before a Toby lure or a plug sails out over the water to land in front of your fly.
The Allan isn’t big so if they are unlucky enough to hook the far bank, they usually set the rod down, find a shallow run and wade across to retrieve the fly or spinner – irrespective of who else is around and where they are fishing. It’s that sort of thing and that sort of water. It’s classic blue-collar fishing - friendly and familiar – as much a social occasion as a serious pursuit.
But they do take an awful lot of fish and, by and large, release an awful lot of fish. That’s as it should be – no better and no worse than the Spey.
As often happens, what started as a hobby website grew arms and
legs until it eventually became a full-blown book. In February 2004
it was published under the slightly enhanced title Game Fishing Diaries: Details from Fishing in Life and is now available from most outlets from as little a $2.99
on Amazon Kindle. In November 2011 Volume 2 made an appearance also
available on Kindle
Game Fishing Diaries - Volume 1
Game Fishing Diaries - Volume 2