A DRY SPELL
Michael Wigan reflects on the hot summer and the resulting challenges for both fish and anglers
Michael Wigan reflects on the long hot summer's impact on fishing
Anglers are stir-crazy. They were peering through heat hazes at receding water-edges all summer. Scotland had no significant rain since May. Fisherfolk gloomily surveyed shrinking pools, turning to view the cloud of dust proclaiming the arrival of another despondent fisher rehearsing familiar woes. Was it 1976 when it was last so low? Or was it 1967? One man bravely said it was interesting to see the pools divested, the boulders beside which fish lie, the riverbed normally occluded by rippling dark water. Another wiseacre surmounted the lethargy of marooned salmon by sinking flies marginally deeper then fast-stripping. There is sport in seeing fishless fellow anglers writhe. But who wants to? A lady in a local shop exulted about swimming in the River Thurso’s sea pool with salmon all around her. Outside the shop a listless angler dolefully observed she could easier have tailed one manually than he could extract one on string with a stick. Anglers relearnt old pastimes. Many had forgotten the overlooked joys of the trout lochs. Others took to the briny: there was still some water there. One fellow on the north coast hauled aboard cod, gurnard, pollack and mackerel in an afternoon. What’s wrong with that – you can even eat them. In fishing lodges midnight oil sputtered through elongated poker-playing sessions. Wine merchants ran as dry as rivers. Partners and non-anglers made it worse by vaunting their suntans lying in heat too strong for midges. Walking the hill was like trampling through cornflakes. Whilst anglers exhibited their famed patience, what were salmon doing? I spoke to a creel fisherman a mile outside the Berriedale River in Caithness. Salmon were airborne all around him. Why? My guess, as goofy as any, is that they held far offshore to avoid predation. Seals, porpoises and dolphins can outrun salmon, but capture is harder in open water; the ideal salmon hunting tactic for sea mammals is by cornering. Elsewhere salmon massed in deep pools near the mouth. This way they avoid – mostly – attention from seals, while the salty intertidal water keeps parasites and fungus at bay. Their receptors tickle, sensing natal water chemistry and every day pulls spawning yet closer. The urge to reach spawning redds equals any in nature. On the Pacific north-west beached salmon are pushed from pools choked with their own kind rather than dropping back and foregoing reproduction. Scottish salmon will swim far up tributaries to reach original nurseries despite the risks of getting marooned or attacked by otters, ospreys and eagles. Their behaviour inspires awe as much as their silver bodies do. This fish can excite paranormal fascination. Angler dedication can be seen as a biological instinct too. One man performed an odyssey deserving study by behavioural science. I rang him departing for Rio de Janeiro. A three-day salmon slot had materialised. He flew back after two days, slugging through congested airports to Scotland. Appearing groggily on the riverbank after crossing half the world he and his friend fished doggedly, soothed by the magic fly in the magic water. God is just – they caught one. He then missed his Inverness flight and drove home to Wales in a hire car. His mission saluted the king of fish. Equality-fixated politicians need to take note. They have just produced a pike consultation. This proposes protecting pike, even in rivers where salmon are internationally protected, and even though pike eat young salmon. Salmon eat nothing in freshwater, and host other protected species like freshwater mussels. Equating pike with salmon ignores 988 years of legal history through which salmon held pole position. Okay, so this pleases virtuous pike anglers. But how many will fly from Rio for a few hours on pike water? European rivers which once had salmon are now stuffed with pike. Will pike anglers fund care-taking of freshwaters as game anglers do? Or will block-headed gesture politics prevail?
“Their behaviour inspires awe as much as their silver bodies do