Miracle of birth
The winter months aren’t known for fruitful fishing, but there is still pleasure to be found in watching Mother Nature move with the seasons, says Michael Wigan
We exult in the silver salmon jumping, our heart-strings like a parallel marionette
November is not the best fishing month but everything is happening. The dog-days of drowsy summer are past, in a stormy backend there is dynamic commotion and drama. Waters long comatose erupt into life.
The spectacle of salmon spawning was a case of here today gone tomorrow. In a rain-splattered month water levels rose and fell and salmon reacted each time, moving up or moving out. They drove up-river, swarmed onto gravels, discharged their eggs and sperm then vacated spawning redds overnight.
D Day on my familiar tributary was 10 November. Light had fallen early and the water was dark and splashy, not yet really cold. Each year I walk a particular stretch. The stream is some seven feet across, less where it bumps rock and funnels. In 2022 pairs of salmon were everywhere. Walking from below they saw me late and reacted late. Keeping the bank close, my shadow looming over the water, everything present stirred and squirted off.
The breeding impulse was well set-in. Pairs moved sideways and ten minutes later were back, side to side, undulating in the current of bubbly gravelstrewn stretches of shallow water. Cocks chased each other off the hens, vying to be primary suitor. The splashing was a racket. The hen waggled back to the marital bed and the cock dashed over urgently.
There was a bigger salmon pair in a deep corner half-hidden by over-hanging gorse. A tail waved, acting out sperm whale flukes sounding. Then from deep water the hen emerged and dropped back to bubblier water. A cock materialised beside her. The actual release of eggs into the groove dug with her tail is invisible, hidden by their bodies; male milt anyway a mere trail of white. She pumps her eggs out with shudders and convulsions, deflating as she does so, losing all the fattened condition of the replete breeding female, a pregnant balloon pricked.
Above these fish at that water-height is an impassable falls. In heavier water two days later spawning salmon were above the falls. Below the falls was empty. Fish had used the water-gushing escalator, ratcheting their tails like high-velocity corkscrews to propel them higher. The salmon had waited for their opportunity and charged the torrent. With shrinking water they would drift listlessly back towards saltwater.
It is one of Scotland’s nature events, akin to strutting capercaillie in the Cairngorms, parading blackcock or rutting stags. Being in faraway places at a dreich time of year, few see it. We exult in the silver salmon jumping, our heartstrings like a parallel marionette, but we do not see where its life commenced.
A new location for spawning sea trout owes to violent weather three years ago. A small squelchy burn meandering downhill into the trout loch from head-water springs was churned out overnight by a June deluge. Rocks tumbled through the peat blanket scouring and ripping out the bedrock and creating a new Highland burn, arrestingly pretty, now a series of cataracts and deep pools, and gravelly out-washes. As the land flattens, water fans out and slides through rushes and wavy grass.
Migrating trout, or sea trout, had not had the luxury of gravel bars under waterfalls before. They spawned where the burn widened into the loch-edge, not higher up. Now having ascended waterfalls they were a mile higher, silver trout spawning in new trysting-places to their heart’s content.
Burns drop even faster than rivers. Next day thousands of eggs but no fish were left. It happened in a twinkling.
Scenes of natural cycles and abrupted migrations abound. By the boats turned over beside the loch for winter lay a silver eel. Somehow it had been yanked from the loch, maybe by an osprey. Claws or talons had tried to rip the egg-sac. That was one trans-atlantic traveller that would never reach its boudoir in the Sargasso, doomed to leave no heritage.
November nature is in-your-face.
Autumn is the season for upsetting summer assumptions.