William B Currie: Game fishing, the icy quest for Spring Salmon

The fly-rod is a key to scenes unsurpassed in any other sport. As the hardy spring salmon exponents return to the rivers, marvel again at the hope, the expectation, and, most of all, the fish. Across more than 40 years, Dr William B Currie enriched the game fishing world with his writings on salmon, salmon fishing and salmon rivers, which, by their breadth of vision and depth of perception, have captivated a wider audience. An English don, author of many books, he wrote this article for Country Illustrated in the spring of 2003:


Spring fishers on the eastern-flowing salmon rivers of Scotland and Northumbria, pausing to rub warmth back into their fingers, are sometimes given to remarking that there is something not quite canny about early spring salmon fishing. Fishing then certainly defies comfort. It may even seem to defy reason. It is not usually greatly productive in the sense of numbers—though many fishers, reading this, might find their eyes misting over as they recall a few precious, unusual days in early spring when fish appeared as if from nowhere and tore the fly to shreds.

Most early salmon fishing is a dogged quest, enriched by hope. From the first cold casts in February, through March and into April as numbers grow, the fishing usually establishes not only a slow rhythm but a special frame of mind, a deep concentration, even detachment, and at times a loneliness. An effect of this slow rhythm, far from being a drawback, is to heighten the extraordinary joy of a spring encounter when it comes—the much sought after, much longed for, and hugely satisfying pull at the fly. An entry from an account of one day on the Helmsdale in the last week of February catches the essence of the early season:

‘Very little snow, but a parched, frozen landscape greeted us. We began on beat three with a good wave on the Lower Torrish. Clapping his hands for warmth, the ghillie, Johnnie Sutherland, encouraged us, “He’s there. You’ll have him.” But all morning nothing splashed or stirred anywhere.

‘Mike, the other rod, fished the head of the long pool and I “backed up” the tail. This pool has been good to me in early spring in the past. I fish expectantly, but after a while I begin to have low thoughts. Where are the fish? Are there even any kelts? If only someone could invent a simple fish detector, just to confirm that in the sweeping brown water a salmon was lurking.

‘Lunch passed. Lower Torrish produced nothing. Upper Torrish and the Tail o’ the Bay were blank, but there was at last some action. Mike hooked one large kelt in the slow glide we call the Lone Tree. In the slightly warmer air in the afternoon, a few kelts had begun to splash. I brought one small, beautifully silver fish to the net in Upper Torrish, which had us all guessing, before it too turned out to be a kelt.

‘By this time, the day was virtually over. I covered the Upper Torrish again and was suddenly aware of Mike appearing below me, excitedly holding up a beautiful springer. The story was bizarre. Mike, perhaps a little weary, had decided to sit in the heather at the end of this fairly unproductive, rather tiring day and he had handed his rod to Johnnie to have a cast. In two casts, he had a take and landed the only fresh fish of the day. Joy unbounded! That small springer to the ghillie’s rod turned out to be the only fresh fish off the entire Helmsdale that day.’

Often the quest for an early springer is high on hope and low on achievement. You may have fished the same beats of the same river for decades, one year receiving a bounty of fish, the next barren. We are also given to nagging fears that our chosen week or weeks are too early or too late. I relish the old account given by Lord Grey of Fallodon when he was Foreign Secretary, fishing the same beats of Helmsdale at roughly the same time of the spring as I have described above.

One year, in his March week, he caught 15 springers, despite having to share his rod with a friend. The following year he had a fortnight at the beginning of April, enjoyed the very best fortnight of the spring for weather, but toiled for two weeks and caught nothing except a solitary sea trout kelt. I wonder if that poor year coincided with stresses from his Ministry. A legendary story about Grey on the Helms- dale was that he had a telephone box set up in the Strath of Kildonan so that, while fishing, he could keep in touch with British foreign interests.

How disruptive of the atmosphere of good fishing it must be to come off a good pool to check a ministerial in-tray, but Grey was under huge pressure from affairs of state. I remember behaving rather differently. As a young lecturer I fished a week on Spey in my Easter break. It was a lovely week, full of fish. I returned to discover that I was a week late for the term, having mis-read the dates.

The essence of good fishing is that it exists in an atmosphere of concentration and involvement. Is it going too far to say that salmon fishing, especially in spring when rivers are quiet, invites the fisher to enter another world? There are many times when the concentration generated by salmon fishing seems almost to offer those with the privilege of wading solitary waters in spring glimpses of another dimension.

In Scotland this spring the season started in some of the coldest air and water temperatures ever. Tweed had mornings with air temperatures as low as minus 10°C. On Tayside it was worse, and on the Spey at Aviemore for several days in February the air temperature broke low records. Received wisdom has it that salmon will not run in very cold water, and there is good scientific reason for this. Yet, on one of the coldest mornings on Tweed in February this year two clean spring fish were seen trying to run up over Selkirk Cauld on the Ettrick.

This point in the Tweed system is 50 miles from the sea. Were these intrepid salmon the legendary new year runners? Regular stories are heard from Kelso that a run of ultra-early spring fish occasionally appear. The biologist who reported the very early springers in Ettrick said that the fish, having reached the cauld, could not run further over the low obstruction because of water temperature. They tried several times, but failed to run the fish pass in the extreme cold.

To see far-travelled salmon on their midwinter-spring journey, waiting below a freezing fall for conditions to allow them to go further upstream on their extraordinary and hazardous migration makes a fisher marvel. What stalwart tribe of salmon brave the winter ocean to return to the river in this way?

Those who fish for salmon in March know that, sometimes, ice can come on to the water as an unwelcome visitor. On some spring waters, ice in sheets can be broken at the edges and floated off down the stream. I have seen Helmsdale fish running small rapids when the pools were under a light sheet of ice. We used to float the ice off when we reached a pool and an hour later we would fish the lies. More than once I have caught salmon in these places as soon as the cold roof of ice was off. Once, forced off a stream in the morning, I returned in late-afternoon after it had been cleared in this way and had the great delight of taking a 17-pounder in the cold, last light of day.

In spring pools, a fisher is often aware of fresh salmon and kelts occupying what seems to be the same water together. Do kelts freely associate with fresh fish in the spring river? I have no doubt that they lie in the same pools, but whether there is an apart-heid or not among the fish, separating fresh incomers from the old run of salmon, I cannot tell. Some keepers believe that kelts have an important function and that fresh salmon prefer to stop in a pool if kelts are there to give them some kind of community.

Once, testing a bait to see if it was fishing correctly, I hooked and landed a springer from a stream on Teviot under a footbridge where kelts were lying. Nobody had noticed the springer until it took the bait. On another, spectacular, occasion three of us on Tay caught more than 50 kelts from one long stream before one hooked the only springer of the day, a tremendous, shining 18-pounder.

When we talk about the salmon in a spring river, we often think of kelts as second-class. They become last year’s story. Nevertheless, the kelts which survive are very important. They are the overlap between one generation of fish and the next—the salmon which would carry on the race if disaster wiped out a whole spawning year.

In North America, where Pacific salmon run in vast numbers—to the extent that you have to nudge them aside as you wade—there is total natural loss of a year’s stock at spawning. A landslide can virtually kill off a river. Our Atlantic salmon have a healthy overlap. We have one-sea-winter grilse, most of our older fish—the two sea-winter salmon, including the springers—and a small number of larger salmon which choose to run only in their third sea year. This overlap acts as an insurance policy for the species. We trust the spring to mature into better, longer days. There are encouraging progress markers in this.

As the spring river warms up, late March and April salmon begin to look for smaller flies fished much higher in the water. These are the intermediate days of spring, when conditions are full of promise but can still revert to a malevolent blast of winter. We all know what rough winds do to the darling buds of May, and every fishing diary has notes of outrage when the gean trees on the banks of Dee—the Scottish wild cherry—are covered not with metaphorical, but with real snow. But the warm spring comes at last and neighbouring ghillies report that fish are now coming to small flies fished on a floating line.

At about this time, just after the clock changes, fishers return to the river after dinner and salmon take memorably in the warm dusk. This fullness marks the end of spring and the beginning of summer fishing. Some lesser signs are there to confirm the change. Early sea trout suddenly seize the small salmon fly. The first grilse, 3lb striplings, appear. The cycle of the year has turned.

Click here for Salmon Fishing Seasons in Scotland.

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