Between a rod and a hard place
Our correspondent motors to the Highlands to bag a salmon from the fabled Oykel
IT was -3˚C at dawn as I headed up the A9 on a fine May morning with sunrise striking smoke from the roadside lochans and the verges glowing with gorse. I was heading north, to the glorious Oykel, in search of a late springer, but it didn’t look as if we were going to get much cloud cover.
I seldom include tackle appraisals in this column, however, I must tell you about the new rod I was toting—a 14ft four-piece model from the FX1 Graphene series designed by Spey-casting champion and all-round good egg Scott Mackenzie. This superb weapon incorporates microscopically small nano-tubes of graphene, the thinnest material known to Man, discovered at the University of Manchester in 2004, which— being harder than diamond and 200 times stronger than steel— is now being used in the manufacture of everything from condoms to a sieve that can remove salt from seawater.
The positive properties this innovation offers to a fishing rod include flexibility, lightness, hoop strength and excellent powers of recovery. Now, I’m as sceptical as anyone about gee-whizz angling innovations (über-additives to baits, lines that suddenly let you cast into the next parish), but this is no gimmick. I test-drove two of Scott’s other models last season, catching fish on them in Iceland and Russia, and was so impressed I decided to buy one. Despite costing just short of £1,000, they’ve been selling like hot cakes baked by Mary Berry.
My host was Todd Warnock, the entrepreneurial American proprietor of Dornoch’s super de luxe Links House Hotel (01862 810279; www.linkshousedornoch. com). As we drove up the Kyle of Sutherland, I recalled the magisterial W. L. Calderwood’s sentence ‘the district has ever been famous for its salmon’. I’ve taken fish off the Carron, Cassley and Shin, but am still an Oykel virgin. This historic river (Eccialbakki in Norse sagas) was once the Sutherland county boundary and crofters used to ford it on stilts. In Early Celtic, the name means ‘high rising river’, but, today, it was registering around zero on the gauge.
I was in the hands of Billy Murdoch, a wonderfully knowledgeable and congenial young ghillie, who is a friend of the Mackenzie clan, and thus approved of my choice of weapon. He began me at the fabled Oykel Falls and told me the spring run had been productive, with more than 50 fish taken off the four beats of the Lower River just the previous week, after a welcome rise in water.
However, now, there was a heatwave—‘challenging conditions,’ said Billy the ghillie—as next
‘Honestly, this was the salmon rod that I’ve been waiting for
we tried the falls pool on the Einig (a tributary), where Todd had moved a prodigious fish earlier in the week. We swam the Collie Dog—a fly invented here and first shown to me in the 1970s by Neil Graesser of Rosehall— but it was on a small Pot-bellied Pig that I moved my only fish of the morning, down in the Bends, although he would not come again.
At luncheon, however, we learned that Jon Gibb (swami of the west coast Lochy) had very skilfully winkled out—and returned —a glistering 14-pounder, from the celebrated Washerwoman’s Pool. Needless to say, I bombarded it much of the afternoon and was rewarded with a flash of flank from deep within the pot, but could not manage a touch, knock or tunk.
Backing up the long Junction Pool below, I did turn a small fish at the neck and the new Mackenzie behaved impeccably, even in my hands, being forgiving if I mistimed a casting stroke and seemingly requiring less effort. Honestly, this was the salmon rod I’ve been waiting for.
Our party enjoyed a splendid dinner back at Links and, after a couple of life-sized cocktails, I was even able to speak civilly to Jon once more, who made his achievement even more enviable by being modest about it (I would have been pontificating like Mister Toad).
Alas, the second day proved even less propitious, with a chilly upstream wind added to the glare. Still, from a vantage point above the Rock Pool, we enjoyed watching several fish react to various flies and there was even a hefty lamprey scrawling its way upstream.
Below the bridge over the Long, we teased a couple of lowlying springers, but they ignored our antics. And so I remain an Oykel virgin, but, one day, Todd willing, I hope to be back on the Eccialbakki and perhaps the high-rising river will live up to its name. For more information about Mackenzie rods, visit www.mackenzieflyfishing.com
David Profumo caught his first fish at the age of five, and, off the water, he’s a novelist and biographer. He lives up a glen in Perthshire.
You never forget your first time, except, that is, if you don’t manage to catch any fish