Wednesday, 30 June 2010

A Small Fisherman is Born!

I have just returned from a few days fishing on the River Lochy near Fort William. It is one of my favourite rivers, even though I have never managed to arrive in the right week at the right time. In fact I have only caught one fish in four or five trips, however as I get older and definitely wiser there has come a realisation that catching a fish is not the only thing to enjoy on a fishing trip.

Anticipation of an event is a very enjoyable thing in its own right and here the Lochy comes into its own, as it has a run of seriously large spring and early summer fish. The feeling that any contact with a fish could be one of these salmon, keeps ones enthusiasm going and hope really does springs eternal. When this sense of excitement on the river is combined with lovely fly water, varying wildlife and differing views of the majesty of Ben Nevis from every pool, perhaps someone who has not fished there, can start to understand what makes it special. This is further enhanced by the privilege of fishing with our professional ghillie Willie Ritchie who has such enthusiasm and deep knowledge of the river and its environs.

On departing Appleby with Eddie Braithwaite on the Tuesday evening after the annual horse fair it was raining and continued to do so all the way to Fort William. My hopes rose as I was aware that the Lochy had had no water since very early May and that the fish were waiting in Loch Linhe ready to run. Sadly when we arrived it was apparent that the Lochy catchment which is north west of Fort William had missed the rain. Life though does have its compensations, I had booked a new lodge for the party, which had recently been refurbished and it was simply splendid right down to a master bedroom where Edward and Mrs Simpson had been guests. A first meal of local langoustines freshly caught that day and a roast rib of beef from Comrie soon made me forget the low state of the river.

Despite the low water we fished hard on Wednesday and Thursday and did see the occasional fish. On the Friday Willie kindly offered to take Father and I trout fishing on Loch Akraig. It was a 25 minute drive up to the loch which took in the Caledonian Canal and Loch Lochy itself as well as several splendid views and a succession of very nice properties. The loch itself was very impressive some 18 miles long, 500 ft deep in places with lovely mountain scenery. Willie was waiting when we drove up and we were soon in the boat motoring up the loch on an ideal overcast windy morning, with a decent swell on the water. I was really looking forward to this as I had never participated in proper highland loch fishing before.

After motoring 3 miles or so we stopped and started to fish the drift. Willie had set us up with fairly stiff 11ft single handed trout rods with a team of 3 flies on each and we were instructed to cast them as far as possible and strip them rapidly back in. If we felt a anything at all then an immediate positive strike was in order. After a while I managed to get into a reasonable rhythm and achieved an adequate distance on my casts but not as far as Willie when he took over Fathers rod. It was surprisingly hard work and requires concentration at all times or boy can you get into a mess! We tried hard for some 4 hours and apart from one take that did not hook up we caught nothing, apart from a tired cast of mine that caught Willie's hat and plucked it clean away into the water. Apparently the trout fishing in the loch normally goes off around early July and Willie speculated that perhaps it had happened earlier than usual. A shame, but it was still a great experience that I will have another go at in the most lovely of surroundings.

On Saturday morning we met up with Willie on Beat 1 and amazingly the water had got even lower and it just looked hopeless for salmon fishing. I therefore tackled up for wet fly trout fishing with my 8ft Merlin. Jerry and Teresa arrived and I suggested that as they had not really fished for trout before they get Willie to take them for the morning and teach them how to catch some trout. With my second rod and a borrowed rod from Willie we were soon organised and went our separate ways. I started of with my usual North Country spiders, a greenwells on the tip and a snipe and purple on the dropper even though I had been given some home tied local flies. It is great to see if what works at home is effective elsewhere. My first fish caught me totally by surprise, second cast in quite fast water, a nice beautifully marked half pounder. I continued to catch fish all morning of all sizes up to 2lb on both flies, truly great fun, one forgets how well they fight and what speed they can move at. I was late for the rendezvous as I forgot the time but so had everybody else! Jerry and Teresa had both caught fish and we had all kept one trout for lunch. Whilst comparing experiences it occurred to me what an opportunity it was to get my nephew William into his first fish so I asked Willie if he would take his young namesake out after lunch!

William was impressed with our fish for lunch and soon excited about having ago himself in the afternoon. After an excellent lunch of pan fried trout in butter and olive oil, for once we were on time and hoping that the trout were still taking. Willie took William under his wing, teaching him how to wade properly in the river and to cast. Soon William was getting knocks but was not quick enough to convert them into hooked fish. The two Willies moved downstream with official photographer Teresa ready for the big moment. I stayed with Jerry and he soon got into a good trout in a spot where I had some success in the morning. We then moved down to join the others and say goodbye to Willie and there was one beaming nephew who had caught 4 fish, including 2 at once. I wish that I had caught my first fish at seven and a half instead of 27 ½! Willie then left to go and teach fly tying to the youngsters of Fort William. Whilst our William was keen to keep fishing. We got my spare rod from the car and he was soon into his first fish totally on his own. It was his biggest fish of the afternoon and was proudly taken home, a true hunter gatherer in the making and a lucky one to have had such a special start to his fishing adventures. Touchingly, I think he realised, as walking up from the river he asked if I had Willie's number. He then rang him and told him about the fish he had caught on his own, and thanked him for teaching him.

I guess I have really come back in a full circle to where I started. What a brilliant fishing trip we had, even on low water and no salmon. The whole party from Eddie who came with me just for the craic and to do some walking to Richard and Sally Clark who fished a little but toured the area and retreated to the royal bedroom each night, we all had a ball.
trout fishing at The Tufton Arms

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Early Season Salmon Fishing on The River Dee

On an early season trip to Lower Crathes near Banchory on The River Dee for the first time in my life I encountered “grue”. I was aware that suspended ice in the water could prevent fishing as my Father had encountered grue many years earlier on the Tweed and I could clearly remember his frustration of not being able to fish Hendersyde at the time.

We stayed overnight at Comrie on the Sunday night and set of early in the morning to miss the rush hour traffic through Dundee and made good progress. The route through Fetticairn was blocked with snow so we carried on to Stonehaven and cut across to Banchory. Although very cold it was now a lovely sunny morning and as we turned inland the scenery in the snowy landscape was lovely. Our spirits were high and as we got to within a few miles of the river we noticed several fields where the snow was sparkling as if there were a million diamonds embedded in it. We stopped and tried to take photographs but unfortunately they could not do this natural phenomenon justice. Doubtless it was caused by the temperatures of -10c creating ice crystals that were refracting the sun, but it was fantastic.

We carried on and rapidly reached the bridge downstream of our beat and were horrified by all the ice floating down the river and Father became a prophet of doom with gruesome tales of grue. On arriving at Crathes we met up with Cleeve and started learning more about grue. How many days it could last for, what was required for it to stop. Apparently a rise in water could stop it which would be associated with a rise in temperature, however as the prospects for Monday were non existent, we went and took possession of our two holiday cottages on the Inchmarlo Golf Course. Strange to be on a golf course under 5ft of snow and I still have no idea where the fairways and greens are, and will have to go back and have a look another time.

After a good first night and a bit of session to put the worlds to rights we did not rush to the river, as Cleeve reported that there was still grue everywhere but he hoped it might clear by the afternoon. Sadly it did not, but being of a inquisitive nature we did try and fish for the hell of it. There were now big rafts of ice coming down where the the grue had been compressed together by ice narrowing the channels from each bank. The only choice was a wet cell 2 and a big tube. It was quite fun in that there were small areas of clear water between the rafts of ice that were moving quite quickly and to hit them was a bit like dry fly fishing with a 15ft rod! We got better at it, Cleeve thought I am sure that we were mad and there was definitely very little chance of a fish, but at least we tried. I felt very sorry for Paul a friend who was on his first fishing trip after having some casting lessons on the Eden a few weeks earlier. I had thought that it would be a great introduction to Scotland and Salmon fishing and that he would at the very least get hold of a few kelts. I have fished for 20 years for salmon in February and March and never lost a day to grue and he had already lost his first 2 days.

After an excellent evening where Paul revealed well hidden culinary talents to produce a quite awesome curry, that will make him even more welcome on future trips. Rose and I decided to drive up the valley to Balmoral and see if the grue coming down was getting any less further upstream. Driving past Potarch Bridge we saw a ghillie breaking ice in readiness for his rods and were encouraged a little by this. The temperature was still – 10 and the gritters were out in force going along in tandom which I had not seen before as we arrived at Balmoral. The castle was shut up, but we stopped on the charming bridge built by Brunel and looked at the water and there was not very much grue present. After a stop in Ballater always a lovely little town I think, we returned to Crathes full of optimism. When we got there the river was still grued over. Robert the ghillie from West Durriss paid us a visit and we found out more about the vagaries of grue. It forms in the large pools on plant matter or on shingle where small portions of ice form in the water which is at freezing point. As these get bigger they start to float and rise to the surface a bit like the crushed ice you get from supermarkets. The bridge over the Dee at Balmoral had little grue because it is in a long rocky part of the river where the water cannot get a fixing to freeze the same. Apparently there can be grue above Banchory and some beats below Banchory can still fish. Fascinating but still no good to us!

Finally on Friday morning we could fish, the grue was largely gone, but there were large chunks of ice coming down, some of which were 10 metres across and several inches thick making wading very dangerous. But at least we were all fishing, sadly the two Pauls and Father had to go home at lunchtime and John Young and big Gavin from the River Earn had arrived to take their place. Conditions were improving in the afternoon and the ice rafts had passed through, however the river was starting to rise a little and colour up, I therefore decided to put a brighter fly on and chose a Dee fly that Paul Zissler had copied the year before on a brass tube that had some orange in it. Third cast once I had lengthened I had a take, quite gentle, my first thoughts were a kelt and I did not disturb John Young fishing downstream of me. The fish went on a little run and I started to hope that it was a springer as there was none of the head shaking movement that kelts often give. I put some pressure on and moved the fish back towards me, it came for a bit and then it was off downstream a solid 120 yard run. No chance now of not disturbing John, and he went for the net. The fish came back steadily and I got the backing back on the reel and we had a good tussle until it went on another long downstream run, this time I had to get out the river and chase it down the bank, trying to not let it get too far away. I had got to within about 75 yds of it when to my horror I saw a large chunk of ice about the size of A2 paper moving down my fly line. Helplessly I watched the ice move along the line and force the salmon to the surface, so that I saw the ice with the salmon's head above it. There was then a jolt and a lurch and the ice had gone, amazingly I still had the fish on the end of the line but something was wrong with it. The fish was wallowing in the side of the stream and drowning and appeared foul hooked in some way. I carried on down the bank retrieving line and managed to get some sideways pressure on the fish which could not fight at all and rapidly I was able to sweep the fish over John's net. A relief as it was a lovely hen fish of some size and I was in danger of killing her. The hook was stuck in her anal passage and this explained her inability to swim. We rapidly got the hook out and resuscitated her in the 32 degrees water, thankfully she was soon away with no harm done. John pronounced that it was a good “wee fish of some 15lbs” I argued that it was heavier having held it and felt its weight and put it in the records at 16lb.

As a sequel on looking at the photograph of myself and the fish and attempting to gauge the length I think that it may have been more than the 16lb. On discussing this with John Young he told me that actually he had had in his land rover a proper net for weighing fish but had forgotten it in all the excitement. I commented that this was a pity as it would have been nice to have settled the discussion to the fish's weight. John answered “It does not matter, the net would not have made any difference at all, the fish would still have weighed 15lb!” Which I guess proves it is impossible to have the last word with a scotsman! John did manage to catch a fish the next day which suggested that we could have had a decent week with out the grue.

Salmon Fishing at The Tufton Arms

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Political Wail

Every now and again it is good to get things of your chest and this can prove very therapeutic or so I am told. I hope so, as I am currently stuck on a Virgin train returning from London that was going to get me me to Carlisle at shortly after 9.00am. However, overhead power cable failure has kept us sat in Hemel Hempstead station for some 3 hours. I then asked the guard whether I could have free internet access so that I could put the time to good use and he answered that it was broken and even first class had not got it! However they did keep us informed at all times and the guard signed my ticket for a full refund.

I then took solace in the newspaper I borrowed, the Telegraph and though I appreciate that its viewpoint is conservative, what a depressing experience it proved. In random order I read about a bogus ethnic police commander, upwards of 200,000 young people who will not get university places this year with far better grades than I got, the MPs trying to evade justice by claiming parliamentary privilege, poor retail sales in January sparking a second recession, why we are nearly in the same parlous state as Greece (with Gordon Brown prescribing them austere measures!), an all party group of MPs slating the treasuries handling of the financial rescue (no controls and the banks are still not lending), the number of soldiers who have died in Afghanistan has passed the losses sustained in the Falklands, cold weather has stalled the housing market again.

Sadly this is just one day, one snapshot of life at the moment. It is very difficult at present to keep the sense of perspective and optimism that one needs to be an entrepreneur. The last 2 months have been the worst trading months I have experienced in 20 years running hotels. We had the floods in November followed by the snow of December and January and this coupled with the recession has been a bitter pill to swallow.

I understand the reluctance of everybody to spend money, we all feel uneasy about the future and want the reassurance of something put by for a rainy day. Many people though have never been better off, low interest rates have shrunk mortgages to a fraction of their former levels but most people have opted to leave payments the same and pay their debt off. We are depressed are from the top down. Has there ever been a more sad, less inspiring, leader than Gordon Brown. Tony Blair's virtuoso performance at the Iraq Inquiry just served to highlight the paucity of Gordon Brown's era. What will it take to restore confidence?

At the present we have no leadership, the country is drifting along with a Prime Minister who has been indecisive from the very start and seems to be motivated mostly by the need to be prime minister. He then becomes paralysed by the prospects of taking decisions that might jeopardise his position as prime minister. I have always felt that it is better to fail having tried to do something in life rather than fail for not taking a decision. We all feel that the country is rudderless and we fear for the future as the government hangs on like ostriches with their heads in the sand neither admitting its errors or acknowledging the gravity of the situation. It is not possible to predict the result of a general election, but what is apparent is how desperately we need one whatever the result !

Grouse Survival in Extreme Weather

During the recent bout of extreme weather which in Cambric totally covered the fells and high ground for nearly a month I was interested in how the grouse reacted. I have always been told that they will come down from the high ground to lower areas. Unfortunately on the North Pennines in the Eden Valley there is very little low ground heather. It has nearly all disappeared due to a mixture of severe grazing by sheep and the drive after the second world war for more food which resulted in the drainage and cultivation of much land.

I well remember driving along the road above the fishing's at Lazonby with Hugh Egglestone who informed me that he had shot grouse there as a young lad, this was difficult to believe as I looked at all the fields and sheep. Indeed numerous areas are still called moors with no heather present in the valley. Appleby Golf course has a few bank sides of heather that have survived but in reality the only sizable bit of lowland heather is below Dufton Fell above Bow Hall on the way to High Cup Nick. This is part of our sporting rights and indeed it had good grouse populations going back some 10 years ago. Sadly now though due to continual grazing by sheep, including overwintering and no burning, as we are not allowed the heather is very tall and stemmy and getting patchy. However on a stunning, very cold day of minus 10 in early January as Rose and I wanted a good walk I decided to go and see if we could see any grouse.

The landscape was totally spectacular as we drove up past Bow Hall and large snow drifts prevented us going any further by landrover shortly after the hall. We continued by foot on the Pennine way and got our much needed exercise. Several skiers were visible ahead coming down the slope as we climbed, with groups of walkers intermingled. The snow had drifted and frozen over level with the stone walls that enclose the drovers track and was strong enough to take our weight even though it was some 5ft thick. Which gave some idea of the severity of the conditions for the grouse. As we approached the lowland moor I kept Tia our labrador in, and we soon saw grouse everywhere. They looked massive, as they had no cover and doubtless had their feathers puffed out with air to keep warm. The grouse moved constantly, foraging over the frozen landscape, and it was only when I walked across the moor to the next rise to see how many grouse I could count that I could see what food they were finding.

Odd tips of heather were just poking through the snow which was not as deep due to the wind blowing it. It was also very difficult walking as the snow would not support our weight and we crunched through down onto and into the heather. Breasting the rise so that I could perhaps see towards 40 % of the lowland moor we counted some 140 grouse. We retreated back to the track as the light was going and slid back downhill to warmth and civilisation with a healthy respect for grouse and nature.

The walk was so enjoyable we returned the following lunchtime. On arriving at the moor we were disappointed that there were only a few grouse visible and I had come armed with Mother's new digital camera to give it a test run for her. We were chatting and wondering whether to go higher up to see if we could see where the grouse were when suddenly a covey of some 200 came over the hill and landed in front of us. I had a few teething problems with the camera, not my forte and I was struggling with instructions and zoom buttons when the whole covey took off and flew straight at us. Miraculously I managed to catch a few in flight by sheer good fortune as they streamed over us. I was fascinated by where they were heading as they turned right and headed downhill towards the farms. Unfortunately we could not see where they went and we never picked them up again.

Resourceful though grouse definitely are, I am still worried about our high worm counts and likely mortality in the harsh weather. Several friends and keepers informed me that in the old days when weather like this was much more common, oats used to be fed to the grouse and I wondered if whether anybody out there had tried this? I have also heard rumours of grouse eating hawthorn berries and dying.

Grouse Shooting at The Tufton Arms