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?

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