Close season Saturday afternoons are sacrosanct for me. I endeavour to get all my tasks and odd jobs out of the way by 2pm so that I can disappear into the fishing room for the remainder of the afternoon. I am just too old school for the blandishments of SKY TV sports channels and I actually prefer to listen to radio commentary of the soccer, so I hunker down with steaming mugs of coffee and potter about making flies or repairing tackle listening to the premiership commentary. Cocooned in the wee room like this spares the rest of humanity the pain of listening to me cursing when my beloved Burnley lose a goal or the girlishly high screeches of a pure joy when we hit the back of the net.
Saturday afternoons are also a time for both looking forward and back, planning for the next season and reminiscing about times past. Being an angler, this inevitably means recalling the capture of fish so I thought I would share some of these cherished memories with you.
A solitary half pound brownie may not seem like a very memorable fish but when it was the first trout I caught on the fly I think you will agree it stays in my memory for a very good reason. I had just turned thirteen when I caught this fish which seems to be quite old to try fly fishing but there were no anglers in my family so I had to find the inspiration and drive from within. The venue was the river Don at Kintore, Aberdeenshire. Those of you who know the Don will be aware the river is mainly a series of slow, deep loops on that beat. It is not classic fly water. Funnily enough, I can only recall fishing Kintore on a few occasions in total as I quickly found that the Inverurie club waters just upstream offered much better fly water. Anyway, on this particular late spring day I was wandering the high banks searching for trout, my solitary fly box poorly stocked with only a handful of wet flies.
I recall the conditions were good with a damp, dull day and no wind to speak of to hamper my inept casting. These days I would have tried the deeply sunk nymph as there were no fish rising during the morning. But back them I knew nothing of nymphs and certainly did not possess any weighted patterns. Fishing industriously all morning brought no success and by lunchtime I was fishless. A spot in the grass beside some trees on the edge of the river was the ideal place to eat my lunch. The couple of sandwiches, wrapped in tin foil and coffee from a small thermos flask tasted wonderful in the fresh air, as they always do. It was while I was munching on the slightly soggy tomato and white bread combination that I saw it. A trout rose in the middle of the river. Non-anglers will never understand the thrill of seeing a fish showing. Only we anglers, and especially fly fishers, know that tingle of excitement when you see a fish break the surface. The day is instantly transformed into one of opportunity. Excitement rose and the flask was packed away in the old brown fishing bag with undue haste.
The next 3 hours was an education for me. The books I was avidly reading at home had explained the life cycle of flies and here, right in front of me, a hatch was taking place ( years later and I can reflect the trout were almost certainly feeding on Large Dark Olives despite the sprinkling of March Browns which were also hatching that day). It was not a big hatch, more of a steady trickle of duns but the trout rose steadily along a short section of shallower water below the trees. Although the water was shallower than the pool above it was still too deep for me in my wellingtons. Stuck on the bank I found it hard to cast and control the fly (mending a line was completely unknown to me). So the trout rose and I cast again and again without so much as a pull from the fish. I stuck doggedly to my task, flicking out the line across the current and letting the fly swing across and below me. Different flies were tried, each one as useless as the last.
The take when it came was electrifying. A sharp tug, a splash, the line in my hand pulled out a few feet then that dreaded slackness as the fish threw the hook. I couldn’t believe it! After all my efforts the trout had simply fallen off. Now I know that the ratio of fish hooked to landed when swinging flies down and across is not good and I expect to lose a good percentage of trout when fishing like this but back then to lose my hard earned prize in that way was nothing short of a disaster. I wound in, not sure what to do next. OK, check the hook in case it is damaged. No, nothing wrong with the hook of the size 14 Coch-y-Bondhu. I tugged the leader to make sure my knots were OK. Looking around there seemed to be fewer trout rising now, maybe my only chance had come and gone? I started casting again, my mind racing still about what I had done wrong. I was still deep in this maze of self-examination when the line tightened again. This fish was well below me in fast water so it felt much bigger than it actually was but after a spirited fight I scooped it up in my cheap folding net. I had caught my first trout on a fly! Today that small trout would be admired and safely returned to the stream but back then there were no thoughts of C&R. My previously unused priest lost its virginity and the fish was wrapped in a plastic bag. By the time I had attended to all these details the rise had all but petered out and I stopped fishing after another blank half hour.
That unfortunate trout was a turning point I guess. It proved to me I could catch trout on the fly and the feelings of that day have stayed with me over a long life. Today, an afternoon surrounded by rising trout and only a solitary half pounder to show for my efforts would be a poor return for me. I would have nymphed in the morning and been pretty confident I would catch a few before the rise got going. Then a switch, probably to the dry fly, should yield some more action. I would be working on leader set up, methods and pattern selection and, most importantly of all, watching what was happening around me in terms of the hatch, where individual fish were lying and how to best attack each lie. In other words I have learned so much over the years since that 10 incher grabbed my fly a lifetime ago. But for all of that I will never again experience the utter thrill of my first trout on the fly.
Everyone remembers their first salmon. The capture of his/her first Atlantic salmon is perhaps the ultimate experience for any angler. Here is how mine came about.
I was not even supposed to be there that day. April 5th, 1974 was a day when 3 of us regular fishing buddies were going to fish a small dam. We used to set out rods with worms ledgered on the bottom while we fly fished. There was a small feeder burn too which held some impressive trout but these were hard tempt. Trout, Perch and eels were the targets. Plans had be laid during the week at school and I was all set for an enjoyable day with the lads. Then on Friday two other fishing mates suggested we head for the Upper Parkhill beat of the river Don instead. This was (and indeed still is) Aberdeen & District Angling Association water and I was a proud member. Alan and Micky suggested we try for the large trout in the river there and I was swayed by their argument that we would catch bigger trout in the Don than in the wee loch. I switched my plans, little knowing how dramatic this would turn out to be.
Rendezvous was early the next morning and we three fairly bristled with rods and gear when we met up at my house on the council estate. At that time I was reading a lot about salmon fishing, especially those written by Ogilsby and Faulkus. I didn’t own a salmon fly rod but I had a spinning rod which looked like it could handle a salmon if it came to a push. So I set off that day with my head full of images of wooden devon minnows spinning over the heads of springers and some heavier than normal line on my reel.
It was one of those lovely spring days that seem to have been so common in my youth. The country bus had dropped us off in Dyce and we three proceeded to tramp out to the river where it flowed strongly under Parkhill bridge. The ‘Lawson’s of Dyce’ bacon factory was still in full operation in those days and the stink of blood and guts hung over the lower pools which we quickly passed by. I recall there used to be an open drain which flowed from the factory into the river and it regularly ran red with blood. Changed days! Once we were past that abomination the countryside opened up in front of us. Springtime in Aberdeenshire is lovely. That day was warm and cloudy with the air full of the scents of the wild flowers along the banks and hedgerows. We fished our way up the river, the three of us spread out trying different methods and covering the well known trout lies without any particular success. A couple of very small trout fell to the fly but of their larger brethren there was no sign.
Late morning found the three amigos at the neck of Coquers pool. A wonderful place, this long, deep pool gave me many memorable experiences over the years. Some years later it would give up my then largest brown trout one June evening, a whopper of 2pound 10 ounces. On another pitch black night I hooked something which although light seemed to fight in a very odd way after taking the fly just as it was hitting the water. I wound ‘it’ in and reaching down the leader in the stygian blackness I encountered something with skin and fur! I dropped it and stood, shaking in my boots trying to figure out what the hell was going on. Whatever it was it had taken to the air above my head so I reasoned it was a bat. Sure enough, when I had raised the courage to pull it in again there was a tiny bat which had been hooked though the skin on its wing. He was quickly released without further harm but I had had enough and packed up there and then. It was a mercifully short walk through the blackness back to where my bike was parked.
But back to the 5th of April……………. I set up my spinning rod and tied on a two-inch brown and gold wooden minnow, sure that Ogilsby and co. would be in full approval of my choice. I started casting, throwing the minnow squarely across the river and allowing it to swing back towards my bank before winding it back in again. One step downstream then cast again. The other lads were above me and I could hear some high-jinks going on up there. The quiet morning had sapped their enthusiasm but I was concentrating hard now. Cast, hold the rod high, follow the bait round in an arc, feel for the bottom, wind in quickly at the end of the cast. Repeat. The blackbirds were in full voice, the burnished yellow of the gorse flowers on the far bank shone in a lemon blaze. Cast again, and again. Then it happened.
In my experience salmon taking a devon minnow seem to just ‘appear’ on the end of the line, there is no definable take as such. That is exactly what happened on that day. The line went tight and a heavy, slow pull drew some line from the reel. FISH!!!!! I screamed and the other two came rushing down to me. A stream of advice was now directed at me. ‘Don’t give him line’. ‘Get downstream of him’. ‘That’s jist a big troot’ said Alan but I knew better. ‘Nope, this a salmon but it will probably be a kelt’. In my heart I was praying it would be a fresh fish but I was trying not to get my hopes up. The fish was moving up and down for a few minutes, keeping his distance from the bank. Thinking I had to do something positive I applied a bit more pressure. This had two distinct effects. Firstly the salmon surfaced and rolled in full view of three awestruck teenagers. ‘Wow’ (or unprintable works to that effect). Secondly, my cheap fixed spool reel made a very unpleasant grinding / screeching sort of a noise. It quickly became obvious that the drag was no longer functioning. There is a fine line between excitement and panic and I was now astride that line!
I am guessing the fight lasted around 15 minutes but it felt like a lifetime to me. The fish made a strong charge up river at one point and I had to franticly wind the reel backwards to give him line. He didn’t jump but there were some rolls on the surface. I gradually gained line and got the fish within a few feet of the bank, at which point another problem came to mind – none of us had a net big enough to accommodate a salmon. Micky flourished a triangular trout net but it was obvious to us all there was no way the mighty salmon was going to fit in those meshes. The fish caught sight of us and turned away, swimming hard for the deep water further out. This put an alarming bend in the rod and I was slow to react before winding backwards once again. I knew I was lucky to get away with that but my slow reactions would have dire consequences soon enough.
There were floating weeds for about 4 or 5 feet out from the bank, meaning I would have to drag the salmon upon to the top of the weeds before I could grab it, hopefully by the tail. More minutes of too-and-fro pulling passed until I judged the fish was tired and I could risk the tricky manouver of sliding high on to the top of the weeds. More advice from the audience – ‘get his head up’, ‘dinae gee him slack’ and other solid suggestions delivered in broad Doric filled the moist air. As he circled once more I applied additional pressure and up came the salmons head and he slid gracefully on to the green weeds. I kept the pressure on until…………….the hooks pulled clean out. What followed can only be described as a moment of madness. In one fluid motion I hurled the rod over my shoulder and leapt into the river. I has no idea how deep the water was under the floating weedbed, it could have been 10 feet for all I knew. I threw my arms around the fish, clasping it to me as tight as I could. Meanwhile, the lads grabbed at me, catching hold of my arms/shoulders and dragging me and my prize back to the bank. I had come to close to disaster to take any more risks so, regaining my feet I stumbled to the top of the steep bank and into the edge of the field. The fish was indeed a fresh springer. No lice, but looking back it was a fish that had been in the river for maybe a couple of weeks. He was dispatched and endlessly admired by the three of us. I was soaked to the skin and had to remove my waders along with most of my clothes so they could dry off in the gentle breeze. It was then, and remains to this day, one of my happiest memories of a long angling life.
Interestingly, not long after I landed that fish an elderly angler came down the river and stopped to talk to us when he saw we had been successful. He questioned me closely as to where exactly I had hooked the fish. He explained that salmon sometimes travel in pairs or in small schools and there was a very good chance another fish could be caught from the same lie. He then proceeded to demonstrate this in the most emphatic way by landing an eight pounder from exactly the same spot!
I did not put a line in the water for the rest of that day. Anything else would have been an anti-climax. The journey home on the country bus must have been a sight to see, three excited teenagers, me only half dressed as most of my clothes were still wet and in my bag, and a fat silver salmon on my lap. There were pats on the back from my parents when I came through the door with that fine fish. These were pre-mobile phone days and only one photograph was taken with a very sheepish looking me holding the fish very badly so you can’t make it out very clearly. My spring balance showed it was a ten pounder despite me being convinced it weighed much more. Looking at the photo now it looks more like eight than ten pounder but I will just have to accept what those dodgy cheap scales told me. A ten pounder it will always remain!
Some anglers are lucky enough to catch their first salmon on a wisp of a fly on some classic beat but mine fell for a lowly devon on association water. I don’t mind and in fact I take a certain pride in landing a fish in that way. The cheap spinning reel never did see action again and as soon as I could afford to I bought a lovely ABU Cardinal 77 which went on to serve me well for many years. I can’t recall where the spinning rod went; probably loaned to somebody and never returned. Nowadays, on Saturday afternoons when I am listening to the football my mind often drifts back to those halcyon days of my youth. First fish are special to all of us anglers.