salmon fishing, trout fishing, wetfly

First fish

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.

Where the magic happens most Saturday afternoons

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.

the Don

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.

Bridge over the Don in Kintore. The run I am talking about is about half a mile below this bridge

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.

The road bridge which marks the lower limit of the Upper Parkhill beat

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.

My old A.D.A.A. permits

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!

The fish took my devon just off the end of the fence on the right of this photo

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.

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Fishing in Ireland, Pike, salmon fishing, trolling

Zoom

Wind the clock back many, many years to the 1970’s and you would find me on the banks of a Scottish salmon river clad in a worn Barbour coat and thigh waders. Depending on the conditions I’d either be wielding a 15 foot Hardy fly rod or my trusty ABU Atlantic 423 Zoom spinning rod. Sometimes I’d carried them both with me so I could switch between methods as required, my tackle bag bulging with boxes of flies and baits. I still have that old Hardy fly rod but the Atlantic went missing many moons ago.

The Aberdeenshire Don and the Cothal pool on Upper Parkhill. The old ABU subdued many fine salmon here

At the time I was living in a tiny flat in Aberdeen, so minute that there was no room for my rods and they were thus consigned to a cupboard under the communal stairs. I always fretted about their safety but the security system on the front door should have kept any thieves at bay. Alas it was not so! One day I noticed some of my rods were missing and among the haul the perpetrator had taken was my much-loved Atlantic 423. It was a disaster of immense proportions and  I mourned for that 9 feet of Swedish fibreglass for a long, long time. Soon after the theft I moved away and became very busy at work so by the time I got around to buying a replacement heavy spinning rod there were some new kids on the block and I went for something a bit longer. Over the years I amassed a range of rods but none of them really replaced that champagne coloured Atlantic. Until now.

Picked up in Glasgow for a small amount I am now, after a gap of 30 years, the very happy and proud owner of an original ABU Atlantic 423 Zoom. To some of you this may look like a dinosaur of a rod, with its thick fibre glass and metal ferrules but to me I now have possibly the finest spinning rod every produced. The balance, power and strength of this rod put it in a class all of its own for me.

This rod is ringed for use with a fixed spool reel (the ba….d who stole my original rod also got away with my trusty ABU Cardinal 77 as well). I have a nice 4000 sized Okuma fixed spool reel which will fit perfectly on the new rod for now. I am afraid that even I baulk at the cost of an old Cardinal 77. They were absolute tanks of reels and a pure joy to fish with, but a good example is changing hands for €200 – €300. That’s too rich for me I’m afraid!

Specification wise this beauty boasts a full cork handle, those lovely flexible stand-off rings, a keeper ring, shiny chromed metal male and female ferrules, a down locking reel seat and brown whippings over silver tipping. It is rated to cast 30 – 60 grams but trust me, it can hurl an 18 gram Toby clear across most rivers.

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Interestingly the rod bag states the casting range is 18 to 60 grams, different to what is on the rod itself

I’ll grant you that by modern standards the Atlantic is heavy. I personally don’t mind this in a spinning rod as I don’t have the patience to spin for hour after hour. Instead, I fish in short bursts and often stop to change baits (usually in an effort to keep close to the bottom). All that weight is nicely distributed and the rod is not top heavy, unlike so many beefy spinning rods. I willingly put up with increased weight for the security engendered by the thick fibreglass walls as opposed to a brittle, skinny wand made of cheap far eastern carbon.

I think that one of the big advantages this rod had over the competition was its ability to apply huge pressure when required. With such power in the butt section I always felt confident I could bully a fish out of difficult situations and only the biggest of salmon every got the better of it. My old one landed a good few 20 pounders back in the day.

Going ever so slightly overboard, around the same time that I bought the lovely Atlantic 423 I also acquired a somewhat less than pristine ABU Atlantic 443S Zoom. This rod was on offer at a very low price so I bought it to see how it compares to the Atlantic that I know so well. It will certainly handle differently as it is ringed for a multiplier reel and is equipped with one of those speedlock handles. I was confused when I saw this rod advertised as it was claimed to be 13 feet long and a beachcaster! I was sure these old 443’s were 9 feet long and cast 1-2 ounces and while they are grand for spinning in the sea you could not class them as beachcasters. Sure enough, when it landed in my sweaty paws it did indeed turn out to be a nine-footer.

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As I said, the 443 has some damage and the handle needs attention before it can be used in anger. Cosmetically, the deep mustardy-yellow of the blank is not attractive to my eye but that is just my taste. What is more important is the strength of the blank and this is another powerful rod. Once I have repaired it I plan to use it with my Ambassadeur 5500C for salmon spinning or possibly pair it with a bigger 6500C3 or even a 7000C for fishing off the rocks for Pollock.

Length is the only area where I think ABU could have improved on these rods. Nine feet is a wee bit short for my liking and an extra 12 or even 18 inches would have made a commanding weapon. I guess it would also have upset that perfect balance I was talking about so I will settle for just the 9 feet.

The 443 rod actually came with a reel attached to it when I bought it – an ABU Abumatic 350 closed faced spincaster. This seems to be an odd pairing of rod and reel to me, I would have thought a heavy spinning rod like the 443 would require a multiplier reel to get the best from it. Having never owned a spincasting reel like this before I am unsure about its capabilities. I always figured the Abumatics were grand for coarse fishing but would not be strong enough for salmon angling.

The 350’s were made from 1976 – 1982 and this particular one is dated June 1977, making it over 41 years old. Try as I might I can’t find out much more about the 350. There is lots of info online about the smaller and more popular ABU spincasting reels like the 120 or the 170 but this 350 remains a mystery. I’m guessing it will hold a descent shot of 10 pound line so I’ll try that for a start. First things first though, I will strip the Abumatic down, fix a dodgy return spring, the loose free spool toggle and the brake which is not functioning at all. It will then need a good clean and lubrication. Any other defects need to be found and repairs effected before I try to fish with it  (as long as I can source spare parts). All of this is an ideal job for a wet Saturday afternoon with the radio on, listening to the football and drinking copious mugs of steaming hot coffee.

As a rule I purchase this kind of old gear to fish with and not just to collect dust in a display. To some people it may appear sacrilege subjecting such fine pieces of angling memorabilia to the muck and water of a day’s fishing. I do understand that point of view and accept that for some collectors my wanton disregard for varnished whippings and lacquered finishes borders on criminality. But my view is that some of these old rods and reels are arguably among the finest tackle every made by human hand and I get my joy from their use. The smooth retrieve of a well serviced reel or the powerful curve in a fibreglass rod are only accessible on the water. I still regularly use an old ABU Atlantic 410 for lighter spinning duties and harbour a sneaking suspicion that fibreglass may just be a better material for spinning rods than carbon.

After the unmitigated disaster that was the 2018 season I am now actually looking forward to Spring 2019 and the chance to use my latest purchases. Let’s hope there are a few more fish around to put a bend in the fibreglass ABU’s!

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Fishing in Ireland, trolling, trout fishing

Sutherland Specials

Rummaging through the gear which I took back from my recent trip to Aberdeen I came across a wee box which rattled enticingly. Hard as I tried, I could not for the life of me remember what this small black box contained. It was in with a jumble of fly boxes but whatever was inside weighed considerably more than some salmon flies, even weighted tubes or Waddies. Like a small child on Christmas morning I excitedly prised the lid off…

Inside, in varying states of repair, I found not one but six Sutherland Specials. These are well known and loved baits in Scotland but many readers may not be familiar with them. Most plug type lures sport one vane or lip under the head to make the bait wobble and/or dive. The Sutherland sports no fewer than 4 vanes, one curved one under the head , a small one mounted vertically on the back and two semi-circular vanes, one on each side of the lure. Made of cast lead, it came in three colours – all gold, brown / gold and blue / silver. My little treasure trove contained examples of all three.

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A blue and silver Sutherland Special

To mount the bait simply thread the line through the hole which passes through the middle. Protection from chaffing is provided by a thin rubber tube inside the hole. Now tie the line to the split ring which is attached to a size 4 treble hook. Like a devon minnow, the Sutherland slips up the line when a fish takes, leaving just the hook in the fish.

The Sutherland was a proficient taker of both salmon and sea trout as well as brownies in the river. Some sea trout enthusiasts added a feather (such as a cock hackle) lashed to the treble hook to increase movement. I presume they are still available to buy. The originals were hand made by the Sutherland family who were great fishers on the river Don in Aberdeenshire.

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Cocker’s pool on the ADAA’s Upper Parkhill beat of the Don

I will buy some new hooks (the ones in the black box being rusty after so long) and take them with me next season to try on my local waters. I can see no reason why they won’t work as the action is very lifelike. As one or two of these ones are looking a bit shabby I might re-paint them in new colours. I am thinking that copper might be useful.

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The Cothal Pool on the same beat. Salmon lie just out from that beautifully trimmed hedge on the far bank.

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Specials

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