Avoid a blank
In trying times, Jim Coates contemplates his enjoyment of salmon fishing and how to tempt fish when a blank stares him in the face
Jim Coates suggests ways to tempt a salmon when a blank stares you in the face
I’M SAT BY THE BANKS of the Spey. In what might just be the worst season on record. I’m contemplating the nature of our sport. Is it simply getting too hard to catch a salmon these days? The scarcity of salmon has made me realise how close I’ve come to losing something I love. Beyond the critical struggle to bring back our salmon, the realisation that we risk losing the pleasure of (viable) fishing for them has hit me hard. So as wait to make my next cast when the evening sunshine softens, I thought I’d jot a few lines trying to make sense of my thoughts. If I enjoy hitting a tennis ball against a big wall, running around, working up a good sweat, that’s fine. But let’s not try to fool ourselves it’s tennis. It’s only tennis when I have an opponent. The former may have aspects in common with the latter, but it is very different. Assuming I have an opponent on the other side of the net, we could play in anything from a serious competitive spirit to an entirely friendly way. I could quite reasonably play against a friend, lose, care not a jot and have thoroughly enjoyed myself. Without quarry, we are not anglers. As salmon get harder and harder to find, never mind catch, the way we approach or think about our sport is being challenged like never before. Increasingly I find I’m thinking about protecting my enjoyment of the sport, limited as the catches may be. The deal, as I used to understand it, has changed. Take the Tweed in autumn as an example. She was always a fickle mistress, so easily flooded and coloured by heavy rain, but if you could just catch her falling and clearing on a frost-crisped morning, then a red-letter day was on the cards. That famous autumn run seems to have collapsed and with it the risk-and-reward aspect of “hitting it right” is very different. As the salmon-fishing deal changes, perhaps we are going to need to adapt if we are to find enjoyment and
not just a string of frustrating disappointments. Even before we lose our salmon completely we could lose the sporting pursuit we love. I don’t fully subscribe to the various “fish are a bonus” platitudes. For this angler at least, there needs to be a fish to angle for. A tennis opponent if you will. Who won the match is a different question. Indeed, winning every time might not add much in the long term. In this sense we can cope with scarcity so long as we believe that there is a live game to be played. This is a very different thing from saying that I couldn’t or don’t enjoy a blank day. I have and I most certainly can: for whatever reason, it just didn’t work out… I think that’s fine, this was always part of the deal with salmon fishing. So, as I think about the way I’ve tried to adapt and enjoy the fishing we now have and not just the fishing we have lost, I realise I follow something of a pattern (daft as it may be) which I find helps me keep my pecker up and enjoy my time on the river. The first thing I realise I’ve changed, is the fishing I book. In these times of scarcity I’m only booking fishing on beats that really suit my tastes. In times past I used to put up with much more. No longer. I’m thinking more broadly about the experience and the setting. Double bank and low rod pressure are now serious considerations. I’ve made a conscious choice to do less, if needs be, to protect what I see as the key ingredients. Keeping positive, optimistic and focused on trying to catch requires a much more robust frame of mind than it used to do. A good gut feeling about my choice of fly and the way I’m fishing it, is I think, at the heart of this. I’m adapting the way I fish. I just don’t catch the number of salmon I used to, even four or five years ago. So it’s now about really savouring the ones I do land. In near-perfect conditions this might mean opting for a preferred style, or in less favourable conditions, digging deep into the archives for a specific hack that might save the day. The pleasure in making plans and implementing them, adapting and re-trying is now most appealing. A one-dimensional approach just doesn’t cut it, I equate it with monotony and failure. When you make a plan for a fishing session, on what are you pinning your hopes? I’d say one of the first things to take a view on are the chances of fresh or running fish moving into your beat. Or will it be a false move from one of the fish you can see holding in your beat? The time of year, water height and temperature, as well as the distance from the tide, will all have an influence. Based on how I feel about these variables I’ll hatch a plan of attack and then focus on executing it as well as I can. What follows are four occasions when this approach has paid off.
Jim advises against changing flies without a sound tactical reason. LEFT
JIM COATES lives in Perthshire and fishes on the Dee, Spey, Tay and Tweed. He takes a keen interest in conservation and fund-raising. He has also fished in Alaska, Russia and Ireland.
RIGHT A handful of options, which, crucially, require different methods of presentation. FAR RIGHT Select fishing carefully. Three days on a sparsely rodded double-bank beat is more enjoyable than five on somewhere crowded.
RIGHT Looks like a perfect swing. Is your rod-hand twitching?