Salmon fishing can be both rewarding and seriously frustrating – a sport filled with theory and counter theory, none of which, thankfully, can ever be properly quantified. Each season brings with it some new ideas from a group of strangely obsessive people pitting their wits against a fish whose declining number itself impacts on their behaviour whilst in fresh water! When I say declining numbers I am of course talking about the total number of Salmon in the North Atlantic and not seasonal populations, the numbers of which, for a multitude of interesting and complex reasons, fluctuate from season to season.
Like so many things connected to mother nature, a good Salmon fishing season is highly dependent on the weather and its influence on everything on which the Salmon is reliant, be it plankton bloom in the North Atlantic feeding grounds, to food in the river at the time of hatching, to name but two of many hundreds, something which in itself makes the mind boggle regarding this amazing creature.
With this in mind, the sight of the Cairngorm Mountains with no covering of snow during early February, for me, had alarm bells ringing for the season ahead. My reason being – no one alive had ever seen this before, nor had I ever read of such an occurrence; essentially we were in totally uncharted water with no idea of the effect this would have on our fish as they entered the river. My thought at this time was, this will be the catalyst for a strange season, something which, with hindsight, was to prove to be totally warranted!
The month of February proving extremely cold, with many days lost to ‘grue’, ice particles rather like candy floss which, during extended periods of hard frosts, not unlike stalagmites, grow from the bed of the river, eventually breaking away to emerge on the surface making fishing with fly nigh on impossible. Every cloud however, as they say, has a silver lining, and, as we entered March, so the temperature rose slightly and with no snow to melt, fishing, particularly on the Dee, became better with a much improved run of 3 sea winter [3SW] specimens weighing anything between 15 and 30lbs being the prize for some lucky anglers. It’s often said, what we see in the Dee in March is mirrored during May on the Spey, but back to that later.
March had one further surprise in store, this time not ice and snow, but quite the opposite! Record breaking temperatures of 24 degrees during the final week of the month, this coupled with the lack of snow and rain earlier in the year was to have a profound effect on those Salmon already in the river, particularly the Dee where the river shrunk to something we would term low even in the height of summer. However, as is often the case in our part of Scotland; within one week of the arrival of those record temperatures, we were to have the first covering of serious snow to sea level.
With the exception of another nice warm week at the end of May, the theme of snow, rain and generally cloudy weather were to prevail right into, wait for it, July; making this one of the most unpredictable seasons ever!
Mind you, it’s not all bad! What we must remember is, fish are cold blooded and tend to like water temperatures ranging from 46 – 58oF and cloudy, overcast skies, which is pretty much what we had during the period between April and the end of the fishing season. Many fishing seasons are all too often spoiled by overly warm water during summer, with angler failing to adapt their fishing, either the hours they fish and tackle they use during periods of prolonged sunshine and warm water, not however, a problem during 2012!
May on the Spey proved to be mixed to say the least, a pattern of the lower river fishing very well and the middle and upper-river, normally so good at this time, struggling, something which for most beats, was a trend that would not change until the season’s end. As hinted at earlier however, what happens in March on the lower Dee is often mirrored during May on the Spey. Again this proved to be the case, not with huge runs of Salmon, but fish of fantastic quality and those lucky enough to be on either river at this time were served with a real treat, Salmon of between 20 and 30lbs in much greater number than normal. But what is normal? Is this something we can actually quantify?
Each year we hear all sorts of reasons as to why, this year our fish are bigger, or, there are more, or sometimes less. I have to say, experience, along with a real passion for all facets of Salmon fishing, has led me to forget all those guessing games and just get on with the fishing, enjoy what nature gives us, whether it be, big, small, plenty or fewer fish. The ebb and flow of Salmon runs in our rivers is something totally natural, controlled by weather and its affect on food in the ocean, and, if we want to get really serious, the 23.4o tilt of the earth, which gives us our wonderfully diverse and ever changing environment, one which over the past 10,000 years or so, the Salmon has adapted perfectly to. Protecting what we have, at this time, seems much more prudent than pondering over the infinite reasons why! But if we want to pick only one reason for the decline, I can say with 100% certainty – at the turn of the last century there were no Goosanders [fish eating ducks] in the UK, None what so ever! Now, this non indigenous bird inhabits almost every river in the UK containing Salmonoids. We know this to be fact, we also know they eat at least one third of their body weight each day, yet, what can we do? The short answer is – nothing; which is why I now say, forget all that and just enjoy the bounty our rivers provide that particular season. We have known for years what the main problems are, but are totally powerless to do anything or certainly anything constructive which would make a difference to the overall population. So, as I say above, I encourage my guests to take the good with the bad and enjoy whatever we are fortunate to be given on any given year.
The power of today’s media is evident in all our lives and Salmon fishing is no different. The month of May saw the Spey hit by an outbreak of – Ulcerative Dermal Necrosis (UDN); fear and a sense of doom engulfed the valley after ‘one’ fish was identified to have the disease. Fear of the unknown is something which we humans don’t cope well with; add the viral nature of the internet and this single fish had the power to create panic on a grand scale. Fortunately in this case, and probability due to the river temperature remaining cold throughout the summer months, the disease failed to manifest in the horrible way last seen in 1967, when almost all Scottish Rivers were badly affected. The Fishery Board found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t; their decision to go public at an early stage sparking all sorts of absurd reaction throughout the country; two of my clients actually asking “when is the river to re-open!”
As the season progressed all talk of the above soon vanished, replaced with optimism as those clients waited for the beginning of Grilse [one sea winter fish] run. However, as I have noted over the past 40 years, seldom do we find a good run of Spring, particularly 3SW fish, and Grilse in the same year! I remember only two: 1978 and 1986, both could also be described as being ‘Big fish’ years with lots of 3SW fish, not only in most large east coast river systems, but also Iceland and Norway. Alas, 2012 was not to be remembered for bucking this trend, ending with a poor run of summer Grilse, the value of which to the local economy is far greater than that of their spring cousins!
Having had a fantastic spring on the lower half of the Spey, expectations of those visiting in the autumn was high (always a recipe for disaster when Salmon fishing), and again, I was not overly surprising to find those anglers wondering what all of the early fuss was about, such was the lack of fish around during August and September; which reminds us – although fortunate to have separate, unique and distinct runs of salmon entering the river throughout the entire season, history teaches us it is very rare for all those to be strong in any given year.
Interestingly, on the Dee those fishing Lower and middle beats, pro rata, did better than those fishing the Spey, suggesting slightly more fish around at this time, although I find the use of ‘rod catch’ as a tool to monitor numbers of fish in the river as primitive and extremely dangerous, especially when managing the river in the long term! Add variables such as – High quality anglers using the best of modern tackle and tactics, fishing longer hours and good river conditions. The above will see a much higher percentage of fish falling to rods than if the opposite were the case, and those are only two different variables! I have long since thought a system of counting fish properly on our rivers would provide the best management tool ever, doing away with at least ‘some’ of the guesswork rife at the moment. Such a system would also provide 100% data, something which politicians could not duck and hide from!
An extension to the season on the Dee meant another two weeks fishing for those beats below the bridge at Aboyne (Mid way up the river), and for those lucky enough to fish there, an extremely valuable six weeks those proved to be with some fantastic fresh fish caught in right until the last day on the 15th.
All in all, 2012 will not be remembered as being a classic, however, as the saying goes, “There’s a lot more to Salmon fishing than catching fish!” For some anglers, this will have been the best of their life. The irregular and unpredictable nature of Salmon, both in salt as and fresh water is what keeps us all interested. The fact we don’t know keeps us guessing and coming back for more – The sport ‘without’ the magic bullet! Will 2013 be one of those that ‘buck the trend?’ I just don’t know, but already for me February cannot come quick enough.
Ian Gordon is a Hardy & Greys Consultant, world champion speycaster and holds qualifications in STANIC and AAPGAI. Ian runs speyonline, a company selling exclusive Salmon fishing holidays and instructional courses.
Click to watch the trailer of Ian’s latest movie – bluecharm-themovie. This 94 minute production focuses on fishing a small, medium and large river and was filmed on the Rivers Findhorn, Dee and Spey here in Scotland during August 2011 and is now available to purchase online and in retail outlets. A great Christmas present.
FishPal would like to thank Ian for his 2012 season review. If you would like to read more 2012 river reviews please click the following link