Seven years in the salmon desert

If you’ve had a tough sea­son, take heart from Dave Hitchins’ re­lent­less quest for a first fish

Trout & Salmon (UK) - - Contents - DAVE HITCHINS Hav­ing spent his twen­ties chas­ing trout in New Zealand, South Amer­ica and Africa, Dave Hitchins now lives a quiet life in Som­er­set, fish­ing the Bris­tol lakes and Welsh rivers when­ever he can.

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.

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: JU­LIAN PENDLEBURY

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?

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.