Monster Salmon

 Mrs Flashbang has a bash

Mrs Flashbang has a bash

I am intrigued by a snippet in the editorial of the June edition of Trout & Salmon which alludes to a monster fish caught on the North Esk earlier this spring. The writer suggests the fish was 51 1/2in long and weighed between 50 and 60lbs. That is an enormous salmon. He then writes that the fisherman wanted no fuss or publicity and therefore there are no pictures. 

Salmon3.jpg

We would all respect his right to privacy but that wouldn't be my path. If I was lucky enough to catch the fish of a generation I'd be doing cartwheels naked up and down the High Street singing Painting The Clouds With Sunshine as I flip flopped over the cobblestones.

So why might the fisherman have kept his head down? Perhaps because he caught it spinning with a Devon minnow rather than on the fly? Or just the satisfaction of quietly catching, landing and releasing is enough for him, or her.

It deserves some fuss though. For therein lies inspiration for every rod who has stood in a cold river without a sniff of a fish all day, or even all week. We all like to think the 'big one,' could be on the end of the next cast. It never is so a deep reservoir of optimism is a prerequisite for salmon fisherman, even at the best of times. 

So good luck to the fellow. Inspiration for the rest of us, especially as that fish is still out there.

Eat Bloody Mackerel!

 What's happening?

What's happening?

The principle characteristic of salmon fishermen is one of optimism supported by patience and sanguine humour. Those qualities though are under duress after the worst start to the fishing season on many rivers in the UK since..... well forever, (although it must be mentioned that many more fishing days than average have been lost to bad weather conditions this year so far). The years preceding 2013 were bountiful but the salmon catch since has collapsed and salmon beats are now recording their worst five year averages since records began. Most of us have clung to the belief that the downtrend is cyclical in nature and will pick up again, as it did after very poor years in 1904 and 1915 for example.

The precipitous and accelerating catch decline though is now causing deep anxiety rather than a concerned raise of the eyebrows. On most rivers, fisheries management is first class and despite grumpy complaints from fishermen about predatory birds such as cormorants and goosanders they alone cannot justify the decline in returning salmon. Nor can coastal and estuary netting, poaching or obstructions in the rivers, almost all of which have been eliminated. Seals remain a problem, having doubled in numbers around our coastline since 2000 but even they are not sufficient to explain what has happened.

 Mackerel spawning areas (purple shading) along the European shelf and the post-spawning and summer feeding migrations (purple arrows). The pre-2006 mackerel summer feeding areas are shown as dark green with the post-2006 expansion in light green - right where our young salmon head.

Mackerel spawning areas (purple shading) along the European shelf and the post-spawning and summer feeding migrations (purple arrows). The pre-2006 mackerel summer feeding areas are shown as dark green with the post-2006 expansion in light green - right where our young salmon head.

The problem lies out at sea and debate rages whenever salmon fisherman get together about what the problem or problems could be. The answer is unlikely to be a simple one. More likely  newly commissioned research will conclude that poor salmon survival rates at sea are the result of many complex and contributory factors. One scientist believes he has identified one factor and it is a whopper. Professor Jens Christian Holst suggests that the massive growth of the mackerel population, (and herring and blue whiting), in the North Atlantic, between the Faroes, Iceland and Norway has created unequal competition for food with young salmon losing out to vast millions of mackerel. The mackerel in turn have been pushed into these areas by an absence of plankton further south.

There is some robust research available on the poleward migration of mackerel stock, most of it rather too academic for this post but if you wish to learn more it may be read here, here and here . A very good talk given by Professor Holst last year may be found here.

So, with salmon fisherman in a melancholic if not glum mood what is to be done? Contrarians of course will look to purchase fishing at depressed prices waiting for them to rally but who know's when that might be. One thing is certain, the way to deplete mackerel stocks is to eat them so please, eat some bloody mackerel!

Recent research has shown that almost all fish will survive if they are treated properly, according to a simple set of rules. Useful video should you be lucky enough to catch one, (and here’s another from Canada).

 wanna no do that?

wanna no do that?

Salmon fishermen are doing their bit within the limits of what is under their control. Virtually no fish are killed on the bank these days and in a complete reversal of historical habits well over 90% are returned and virtually 100% of the spring stock is returned on most if not all UK rivers. Catch and release is treated with near reverend religious devotion these days rather than as a 'good habit.' Many though incorrectly take the fish out of the water for a quick photograph before releasing. It is understandable that folk want a picture given catching the things is both an expensive and rare event but more and more people are frowning on it and many ghillies are encouraging catch and release from the net only without lifting the fish. 

 

There Goes The Neighbourhood

Three locals coming home accompanied by two sea trout in the River Ness; filmed by the Ness Fisheries Board

The occasional observer on the river bank may be unaware that migratory Atlantic Salmon native to these islands, who have never had it easy as they flog over to their Icelandic feeding grounds and back again to their home rivers, face increasing threats to their well-being which are becoming beyond worrisome. 

 Using a drone on the Ness to locate spawning 'redds,' of the Pink Salmon

Using a drone on the Ness to locate spawning 'redds,' of the Pink Salmon

The last few years have seen numbers returning to their home rivers in decline from Canada all the way over to Norway. Salmon fishermen and those who study migratory salmon have so far been unable to identify any single reason for the decline. Similarly, the pattern of behaviour which we have seen in salmon since the early sixties appears, in some rivers at least, to be changing with returning fish coming back in large pods at different times of year than has been the way for at least a generation. It is likely that a combination of factors are responsible and probably include their feeding grounds being pushed some 250 miles further north because of sea warming, unrestricted growth in predation in native coastal waters because no one wants to kill seals and many local factors such as agricultural pollution and sea lice from salmon farms on the West Coast. Not forgetting of course the invasive American Signal Crayfish which has decimated some rivers in South West Scotland and the demented introduction of beavers in some areas. 

Part of the fishing community, having consulted the dusty records of the past, believe we are simply going through one of natures down-cycles and a natural reversal of the trend will come in good time. At best though, only 5% of smolts survive the sea journey, (it was 30% in the 1960's), and now, after that long trip, a new threat awaits.

 Pink or Humpback Salmon. Normal catch & release rules do not apply; catch, kill & report.

Pink or Humpback Salmon. Normal catch & release rules do not apply; catch, kill & report.

Some new folk are moving in. Pink, or Humpback salmon as they are also known, are ugly brutes and are not native to our waters. About a month ago a couple were caught on the Ness and since then they've been appearing in rivers up and down the Scottish East Coast from the Helmsdale to the Tweed. They have occasionally appeared in the past, just not in the numbers being seen this year. Although native to waters off Canada and Alaska the travellers we are seeing have probably come from the Barents Sea where they were introduced in 1956. I wish they would bloody stay there.

Pink Salmon spawning on the Ness filmed by the Ness Fishery Board

Broadly speaking, no-one in the fishing world is getting too animated about it. We're a stoic lot and lord knows there's enough to worry about without sweating over a few illegal immigrants. The clip released today though by the Ness Fisheries Board of two Pink's spawning won't help. The last thing we need is for these buggers to take hold and potentially squeeze out our native salmon for its not exactly something that the poor fish get a vote on.

An update posted on 15th August from Fisheries Management Scotland may be found here.

Craigellachie Hotel

 Craigellachie Hotel

Craigellachie Hotel

I recently stayed at the newly refurbished Craigellachie Hotel on Speyside. Under the new ownership of London based private club owner Piers Adams the hotel, which had reached the sad and forlorn stage with an indifferent reputation, is enjoying a fresh rush of investment and enthusiasm. That manifests itself throughout the operation, for it is a drilled operation, in a designer-evident interior rebuild, menu’s and service. All though, is not yet perfect.

Without wanting to be trite or sour one or two pretty fundamental issues quickly came to light on arrival. No television in the room, (“awaiting delivery” although a small one was later found),  only one bathrobe in the bedroom, sketchy and intermittent WiFi, ("persistent BT problem, we’re using a dongle,”) nowhere for guests to relax before dinner, (“the refurbished whisky bar will be opening soon), a fine 2 metre view of a skip from the “garden bedroom,” and a radio with Chris bloody Evans blaring away every morning at breakfast, (although the staff did kindly turn it off when I objected to listening to the traffic report from Uxbridge while enjoying my bangers & bacon.

The staff seem to have been almost entirely recruited from Glasgow. No doubt some hospitality consultant has stuck his oar in about the highlander and the highlander’s approach to service. They may or may not have a fair point but it’s a bit of a central belt cliché and it would be good to have more local staff to inculcate a local feel. Nonetheless, the well rehearsed staff are trained, hard working and anxious to please if somewhat uncertain when hit with something non standard but issues are dealt with very quickly and efficiently so. In fact, the guest ends up hoping for them that quick resolutions are found to small problems and that’s good because it creates a “can do, will please,” atmosphere from both sides.

There was no fine dining room when I stayed and I understand that options for that remain under consideration. Eating then was in the ground floor “Copper Dog,” which is best described as “gastro pub,” dining. Nothing wrong with that when done well and its done very well here. The menu is simple, fair value and in their words, (locally sourced, sustainable etc etc). The wine list mirrors the food and is perfectly acceptable. The average table is goiing to do far more damage to their credit card with over effusive ordering of obscure whiskies than they will with the wine. Dining there is very casual and very busy, (160 covers one night we were there which is pretty extraordinary locally). Indeed, the Copper Dog is so popular with locals that guests would be advised to book before arrival. Inviting the ghillies from the river can’t have harmed the cause and echo’s the inviting London cabbies to new clubs and restaurants thing to jack up referrals. On one evening a live country singer started belting out some songs of the seventies and initially I contemplated stabbing myself with my fork or applying for an emergency ASBO. Actually, a couple of hours later I’d made some new best friends with some bearded Austrians and was well on the way to drinking too much Aberlour and starting a new chapter of the Dead Country & Western Singers Appreciation Society.

Despite a few odds and ends of fishing paraphernalia on the walls, the hotel isn’t really a fisherman’s hotel in the style of Burt’s and the Townhouse in Melrose or the Ednam House in Kelso; at least not yet. Its somewhat understandable given many, if not the majority, of rods on the Spey rent houses or lodges, (many having done so in the same spot for generations), although they frequently eat out. The hotel’s real economic market is the Whisky Trail market. That is the earnest American, Japanese and European tourists tramping up and down Speyside visiting the distilleries, which are quite flash these days and fully geared up for the sector, and tasting. I could tell them that many of those distilleries add caramel colouring to the whisky to make it more appealing to what their eyes think a good whisky should look like but why spoil their fun.

Fiddichside Inn

Rods looking for a fisherman’s rest to repair to for a blether and dram really need go no further than the  Fiddichside Inn at the other end of the village. Run by Joe, an ex ghillie on the river, the place has been in his family for about 100 years. It’s small, with no music, no machines well actually, not much at all apart from the booze, Joe and a wealth of dubious tales of fish, fishing and fisherman. The Fiddich is easily, one of the top ten pubs in Britain and if you happen to have caught a salmon that day, probably the best pub in the world. Unfortunately, some dullard has added the Fiddich to a Whisky Trail app so you are actually just as likely to see the bearded Austrians there as you are at the Craig.

Back to the hotel and all in all, there is little significant criticism  and one can see they have the will and drive to iron out teething problems, “it’s not the problem, it’s how you react to it.” There is a lingering thought though that by booking over the web without knowing these niggly things one is somewhat oversold the value proposition. Mr Adams is no Mrs Carmichael (previous legendary proprietor of old), and they haven’t got it quite spot on but they will do and I expect in twelve months’ time, if not before, it’s going to be pretty difficult to get rooms there. It’s professionally managed and run, the Craigellachie now just needs to discover it’s own charm and soul and that only comes with time. There you go, who needs TripAdvisor?

Fishing In Gods Early Morning Sunshine

The other week I hurtled up to the Spey for a few days fishing with one of the Crumble Kids, having dropped the other off to go bimbling over the Cairngorm. The fishing was challenging, (when is it not?), given the low water. Still, if it's not low water it's humidity, air temperature, water temperature, no cloud cover or simply just fishing like a muppet. Anyway, young CK and I with unrestrained enthusiasm hit the water very early one morning. A modest grilse was all we had to show for our effort but dawn over the Spey was simply beautiful. Meanwhile, our famine was anothers feast. A beat downstream was pulling them out in scores. That will be the salmon for you. The Fishing Omerta precludes mention of the beat name, or indeed numbers, but salmon rods will anyway know where.