I eventually made it back to Aberdeen to visit my family last week. It had been a full year since I was last in Scotland so I was long overdue in the land of my birth. It was great to see everyone again and to catch up on all the news, including meeting my grand-nephew for the first time. Vague plans had floated around my grey matter concerning a possible day fishing the Dee and a couple of salmon rods nestled in the back of the car as a result. However the weather deteriorated and I had no inclination to cast a line. Instead, last Friday I decided to take a jaunt around some of the old places I used to fish. Temperatures were struggling to get above freezing and snow was blowing in the strong easterly wind. Maybe long ago in the first flush of youth I might have ventured out in these awful conditions, but these days the thought of a long day on the water in Siberian conditions fails to attract me. So I settled for a drive around some of my old haunts, knowing full well they had completely changed since the 70’s.
Driving alongside the River Don it was obvious how the expansion of the city had encroached on what used to be agricultural land. Oil service companies, fast food outlets and new housing dominated the scene around Mugiemoss and Stoneywood. The papermill where I started work has gone, the only reminder is a disused chimney amid the new builds with their smart 4 wheel drive cars sitting smugly on driveways where giant machines used to rumble 24/7. Progress.
I crossed Persley bridge and turned left on to the minor road which winds along the north bank of the Don. Pulling over, I walked down the overgrown path which leads to the Grandholm House stretch of the river and the Saugh pool. I used to fish from the other side, but from the north bank I get a better view of the pool and surrounding environs.
The Don was in spate after all the recent snow and rain, the heavy flow charging over the two weirs immediately above the Saugh. The south bank is still a construction site and it looks ugly and scarred for now. The old fishing hut has long gone and both banks look damaged by floods. For all of this I am willing to bet some salmon are running the river now, the high water tempting them in to lie in the lower reaches until the spring turns milder. The two weirs seemed to be a temperature barrier for the salmon and in cold weather the Saugh could fill with fish. We used to catch big springers in this height of water from the back eddy which formed over the sandbank on the south bank of the Saugh pool. Nobody was fishing there on Friday though.
I took some snaps, blowing my hands to keep them warm between each photograph. The path to the river was overgrown, its lack of use indicating little serious angling has taken place recently.
Back in the car I headed further away from the city, the twisting road partially flooded in places. Gaining the Newmacher road I entered a world that looked more like Mordor than the gently rolling fields I knew in my youth. The long awaited Aberdeen bypass has sliced across the land here, meaning huge disruption and the inevitable environmental damage.
Taking the back road out to Blackburn gave me a better view of the new Don crossing which is under construction. The actual bridge crosses over the river at a stretch we used to know as the trout streams. Where soaring concrete now spans the water I learned to fish dry fly in my teens. The shallows had a gravelly bottom with thick flowing beds of weed, home to countless nymphs and shrimp. I still recall watching trout in that spot shaking the weeks, presumably to loosen the grip of the invertebrates which could then be grabbed. I found that by carefully wading in from the bottom of the fast water I could sneak up on the fish and flick small dry flies over any rising trout. Many happy hours were spent honing my casting and fly selection as I waded the clear water rushing between those weed beds.
It was there that I landed a two-and-half pound sea trout late one May evening. My father had planned to pick me up and of course, as always I was late. The great fish had taken a size 0 gold Mepp, spun fast across the flow as the sun dipped below the horizon. The power and speed which that fish displayed still lives on in my memory even though I was only a school boy at the time. When I finally landed him it turned out to be a fin perfect, sea liced sea trout, at the time the largest fish I had ever caught. The wrath of my dad who waited, fretting in the dark for his errant son was worth it just for that one fish. I can’t help wondering if the new concrete and steel structure overhead will adversely affect the fishing in the trout streams.
Back in the car I nosed along the pot-holed tarmac, over the railway bridge and past an old pill box before turning on to the cul-de-sac which leads to the top end of the Upper Parkhill beat.
The ADAA have a couple of car parks up there, spots where my motor bike or beat up Ford Cortina were left while I fished these waters when flared trousers were all the rage. The streamy water between the top of the beat and the Cothal Pool were known as the Top Streams and I loved fishing this short stretch on summer evenings. I knew the bottom of the river intimately, where I could wade and where it was just too deep for me in my thigh waders. The trout lies were numerous and each one required a stealthy approach and delicate casting – one poorly timed cast was enough to put your target fish down. I don’t recall ever catching a huge number of trout here, one or two was considered a good evening’s fishing. The skill required to hook even one of these wild fish made ever success a triumph, another lesson learned.
The wee road dips and turns and final ends at the tiny ruined church of old Dyce. The cold was biting as I walked around the graveyard, taking in the rows of headstones of those departed. Four ancient Pictish stones are on display inside the roofless building, artefacts from a lost civilisation who once ruled this part of Scotland.
A small commonwealth graveyard is attached to the church yard, a solemn reminder of the young people who gave everything in two world wars. Looking at those cold grey stones marking lost lives it is hard to believe we have moved on from the hatred and carnage of those desperate times. The appalling images currently coming from Syria suggest humankind has learned nothing in the intervening years.
Too cold to stay outside any longer I hopped back into the car and drove out the road. I stopped only briefly to look out over the Fintry and Caskiben beats from the road. More water with memories of happy days trying to tempt big, wily Don trout. The rivers I fish in Ireland these days are easier to fish but the size of trout can’t compare with the monsters which swim in the Aberdeenshire Don.
Flurries of snow filled the sky by now so I pushed as far as Blackburn where I re-joined the busy A96 and from there back into Aberdeen. I left north east Scotland 30 years ago and it has changed almost beyond recognition since then. Oil, money, downturns, progress, the list of reasons goes on and on. Places change, sometimes for the better and often for the worse, but nothing stays the same. The mills where I worked have all gone and it is easy to look back with nostalgia on those days but in truth the paper mills were dangerous and tough places to earn a living. Like every other UK city Aberdeen is ringed by new retail parks, industrial estates and commuter housing. The river where I learned to fish has been irreparably scarred by the new infrastructure and it will never again be the place I so vividly recall. All we can do is work towards educating the upcoming generations about the natural world and hope they find the joy my fellow anglers and I gain from our pastime.