Seven years in the salmon desert
If you’ve had a tough season, take heart from Dave Hitchins’ relentless quest for a first fish
Had a tough season? Dave Hitchins knows the feeling well
IHAD BEEN A TROUT FISHERMAN FOR 30 years when I first tried my hand at salmon fishing. I hadn’t wanted to, but a friend pestered me to join him and I finally ran out of excuses. He sweetened the deal by booking a splendid lodge on the banks of the Scottish Dee, with space for both our families, lots of food, good wine and country walks. I was sure I could placate him with a couple of hours’ wielding the long rod. borrowed an old 14-footer and gear from a troutfishing friend, who winked knowingly and said, “And so you start on the road to penury”. I smiled politely, but knew he was wrong. I was a trout fisherman, happiest stalking little upland streams with a wand of a rod and a pinch of tiny flies. Matching the hatch was my game, fooling a wily speckled quarry in its own realm. Salmon fishing was just lure fishing for posh people, wasn’t it? I think it took about 15 minutes to get utterly hooked. The gillie was as sardonic and droll as I secretly hoped he would be. Keeping up a steady stream of abuse, he got me doing a double spey of sorts and then left me to it. Amazingly, I hooked a salmon shortly afterwards. A bad cast landed the line in a heap at the head of a pool. As it straightened out the rod was almost ripped out of my hand. It was only on for a moment, throwing the hook as it thrashed on the surface, a great slab of angry silver. The sheer power was alien to me, in a different league to even the biggest trout I had caught. I stood there bewildered for a moment as something took hold deep inside. I booked to return to the Dee the following year and joined a club near my home in Bristol that had beats on the Wye and Usk. I bought my own tackle and had proper casting lessons in the spring. I fished my club water at every opportunity but didn’t even see a fish until June. My Dee trip was plagued by very low water, but at least I saw fish and even moved one to a Sunray Shadow fished across the tail of a pool late in the evening. And so the trend continued. I tried other rivers in Scotland and further west in Wales, and carried on fishing my club beats, working out when it was worth a trip and when it was better to keep my powder dry. Even with my growing skills it took three more years to register another mini-success. It was a gorgeous still evening in May. I was on the Wye, fishing on autopilot, with no hint there was a single fish in the beat. I was just going through the motions, pulling a long-winged Monkey through the best run on the beat for the third time. Desperation tactics. Suddenly a big silver salmon porpoised out of the water next to me, and then another further behind. I started stripping in my fly feverishly to recast when it stopped dead. “No!” I exclaimed. “A snag!” But then the line started going thud, thud, thud. Perplexed, it took me a moment to realise that there was a fish on the end and it was shaking its head. I lifted the rod, the fish surged off and the line went slack. With my heart pounding I immediately cast again, but the run was quiet once more, the pod had already moved through. A moment of sublime exhilaration in a desert of barren tedium. Sometimes the blanks were cruel. The following year I fished the Nith in October. The beat had been doing well, and I forked out for a guide for three days to give myself the best chance. No drought this time as rain fell steadily all day, the river slowly rising and discolouring. At 4pm, wet through and shivering, I finally gave up and left the guide to have a cast or two. He rewarded me by promptly hooking a 20lb hook-jawed beast – his biggest ever from the river. The next day was a washout; I learnt a different sort of lesson that day. My daughter turned nine the following summer and I remembered that she had been two on that first Dee trip. Seven blank years: where did the time go? Time for a change of track. My favourite band was headlining the Live at the Marquee music festival in Cork in July and I wasn’t going to miss it. Assuming the famous Cork Blackwater was somewhere near Cork, I made enquiries and received several recommendations for Glenda Powell and her fishery. I had been reading the Blackwater reports in T&S for years. Something about the name was beguiling, as were the impressive annual catch statistics. I was joined by an old friend who was more interested in trout but who had caught a couple of salmon by mistake on Scottish streams. I say “friend”, but if he did that again on this trip he would be sleeping in the car. For once the river was in perfect
“I think it took about 15 minutes to get utterly hooked”
condition, the grilse run was in full swing and we had three long days to fish. Glenda was going to accompany us for the first day to show us the lies and hopefully help me to sharpen my casting. In the end, she had to unteach all the bad habits I had learned over seven years and soon I was casting better than I ever had. Jules was persuaded to put the trout rod down and have a go with the double-hander. He turned out to be a natural – another strain on the friendship. We started up river on the pretty Woodstream beat, but to be honest the first session was mainly a casting lesson. We saw fish move, but none took pity on a couple of tyros. After lunch we moved down to Lower Kilmurry and the beautiful Lug pool. Of all the stretches I had fished over the last seven years, this instantly became my favourite. Atmospheric, flattering, and on this occasion, full of fish. They head-and-tailed in the current and crashed out of the water in the deep water against the opposite bank. There was no wind, I had found my casting mojo, and we had our secret weapon advising us from the bank. I went down first, a little self-tied Cascade on the business end. After a few casts I found myself right in front of Glenda, who casually mentioned that I had reached the hotspot. Nothing on the first cast, but then she suggested a squarer one that would bring the fly across the lie with more pace. Sure enough, after a few seconds the line moved away and a bright silver salmon leapt from the water with a flash of orange fly in its scissors. I would like to say that I kept calm, followed Glenda’s advice, and it was just bad luck when it spat the hook after a minute. In reality I panicked, held on for dear life and probably wrenched the fly from the poor fish’s mouth. I wasn’t distraught, quite the opposite. It was more success than I’d ever had; I was concentrating hard and had been expecting a fish to take for the first time in my life. I can remember every detail. Day two and Jules decided to fish for trout. We were upstream at Ballyhooly Bridge and had the beat to ourselves. We tackled up leisurely and then went our separate ways – Jules to the top end where we had seen trout rising, and me down to the long run ending in a deep pool overhung with trees. No other anglers opposite, in fact no humans in sight at all. After a long private battle, a private victory would probably be fitting, and so it was. I worked my way down the run until I found myself opposite a ladder on the opposite bank. I don’t know if it was my intuition, or if I subconsciously remembered something I had read on a forum once, but this felt like the prime place. Again I tried a square cast and again it worked. The fish took the same little Cascade and this time it stayed on. Only about 4lb, but silver as a newly minted coin and most importantly, in my net. My first salmon. I held it in the current for longer than necessary and then it slipped off into the dark water. What did I feel?
“Again I tried a square cast and again it worked”
Relief? Excitement? No, just a deep satisfaction and a feeling that I had reached another milestone on a lifelong salmon journey. Day three and we were back on Kilmurry, but this time we were alone and could have our choice of pools. I headed straight for Island Stream and within 20 minutes two more grilse had taken a liking to the little Cascade. What do they say about buses? Meantime, Jules had lost a good one in Lug pool, and after commiserations and a tea break, I followed him down Island Stream for a second time. With the downstream wind, he was throwing a lovely straight line with a left-hand-up double spey, a cast I have never mastered. You would never guess it was only his second day with a long rod, but he was about 4ft short of the slack water on the other side of the current where the fish seemed to be taking. With a slightly reckless single spey, I was hitting the spot every third cast or so, and soon something bigger took hold. My rod bucked and bent like I had seen in all those Youtube videos, and my wrist was throbbing by the time it eventually slipped into the net. We didn’t weigh it, but it had broad shoulders and a deep belly and I’m sure it would have tasted salty had I kissed it. A big grilse or a small summer salmon? Who knows? I was over the moon. I was genuinely shaky now, I lay in the grass at the top of the bank and watched Jules, willing a fish to take his fly. I didn’t lend him my magic Cascade though – I’m obviously not that generous. Then I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, near the net that we had left where my fish was landed. A little flurry of black in the grass and then in the net. A mink, and then another one, scurrying all over, looking for the fishy meal that they could smell but not find. What a day this was turning out to be. I would have been happy to stop there, but of course I carried on. We hadn’t even fished Upper Kilmurry so I headed past the fishing hut to prospect in the stream on our side of the island. Overgrown and beyond my skills to fish from the bank, I slithered down into the water and waded precariously down the edge of what the old beat map told me was The Gillie’s pool. Well, that gillie must have known something because the fly was snatched on the first cast by a grilse that shot out from behind the rock at the head of the pool. Number four for the day. Further down, drunk with confidence, I flicked the fly under the overhanging branches on the island. A bigger fish took it this time, charging up and down the narrow pool, but never out of it, where I would have surely lost it. A seven-year stockpile of luck was being released. I finally netted it with my too-small folding net. Long and lean and showing the colour of a fish that had been in a while. I fished all the way down to the hut and by now I was truly spent. Glenda and guests arrived for the evening session, beaming smiles and congratulations when they heard of my success. Mock modesty from me: I was thrilled with myself. Another cast and a pluck on the line. Surely not? But this fish fought strangely and came in easily, and I soon saw why – it was a flounder! A miracle? Or perhaps an hallucination bought on by sensory overload? No, as Google told me later, it’s quite normal for flounder to head up rivers, though it didn’t mention a predilection for well-chewed Cascades. Well, there you have it – seven years summarised in a few paragraphs. Is there a moral to this story? Did those seven barren years teach me anything about life and myself? Of course not, I loved every minute and failure made the eventual success even sweeter.
The beautiful Blackwater at Lower Kilmurry.
The magic fly: Dave's little self-tied Cascade.
RIGHT Now drunk with confidence, Dave battles a bigger fish in Island Stream.
ABOVE Broad and deep, but is it a big grilse or a small summer salmon?
BELOW The mink family: where did lunch go?