A search for salmon and how to remember them…

Loch More, at the head of the Thurso beats. Always worth a cast when the river is slow.

I am standing on the banks of the River Thurso, wondering why I never seem to find a salmon river flowing at a perfect height. It looks low. But then the Thurso always looks low. This part of far north Scotland has its own weather patterns and sits firmly under a rain shadow. I know from experience that those rain clouds blowing in from the Atlantic become utterly denuded of moisture by the time they arrive in the Thurso’s catchment. Rain arrives here from the east, the south, or the north, or not at all.

It’s Sunday. We’ve just arrived. Rods have been set up and stashed in the rod room and we’ve wandered down to the water to get a feel for what’s in store for the week ahead: a bit of piscatorial soothsaying before we head back to the Ulbster Arms Hotel for the introduction of beer to palate.

Fishing the Thurso’s dark waters is not unlike casting a line in Iceland. The landscape – treeless and vast – has a similar feel and, as in Iceland, the fishing generally entails nicking about in small pools, keeping out of sight, chopping and changing one’s method of attack. 

But What? And Where??
As the river’s dark waters ease past beneath my feet I cast my mind back to the previous vintage and the successes of my last visit. I had a fish right where I am currently standing. And there had been two others. Hmm. Had one been from Beat 9? And another: oh yes, from Loch More, of course. I’d been stripping a large muddler on a dropper with a small, dark, boar bristle double on the point and a fish had nailed that point fly. It had been the first from the loch that season. I felt the echo of that slight smugness one feels when one bags a first, or a biggest, or a most spectacular.

I sat down and pulled out my ‘phone. I wonder whether everyone is as profligate as me when it comes to taking photographs with one’s mobile ‘phone. Dog walking near home in Wiltshire I take a great many snaps of the landscape: as wide and vast and treeless as Caithness, albeit much more rolling. I scroll through, looking for evidence of my catches of the year before. Then I scroll some more. Finally, some images of salmon. But no; those were, I’m pretty sure, North Tyne fish landed much later in the season.

At last, I roll through some photographs of a landscape that is clearly Scotland’s far north and alight on the image of a salmon. It’s the one from Loch More, lightly bronzed, the large expanse of the loch framing the background.

Two pictures further on, there’s another fish. Now where had I caught that? It’s clearly a grilse…but from where? And what fly had it taken?

I have a ‘phone full of photographs. And on my PC at home, a great many more, punctuated by fishing images. But I have long since lost track of successful flies, the conditions under which I met with success, the sizes of fish landed.

Some Research…

This is nuts. It is the information age, after all. It surely cannot be out with the ken of man to make this stuff easier. There must be some sort of app for this kind of thing, must there not?

My hunt for such took place that evening in the warmth of the hotel wi-fi. Apps I most certainly found, mostly American, but none of them did quite what I was after. Virtually all were overly complicated and social-media heavy.

Now, I am sure that I am not alone when I tell you that I have a hardback angling log book. It was a kind gift for a birthday very many years ago. In fact, I have two: one utterly blank, the other with perhaps a dozen pages of script describing my early angling efforts. I am sorry to say, I know where neither is currently residing.

You see, I stopped recording my fishing trips years ago. Memories are best recorded in situ, or as soon thereafter as is possible. Wait a few days and the recollections start to become fuzzy, accuracy increasingly tenuous. And then one’s motivation leaches away.

Thurso like Iceland
River Thurso, not unlike an Icelandic stream

…and Travels to Tech Central

Wind forward a year-and-a-half and I am sitting by another river, the waters of which are dark like those of the Thurso. I am on the North Tyne.

Between these two fishing sessions I have been spending time in Leicester; not, you will realise, much of an angling destination, rather one of the tech centres of the UK. I hunted down the finest app developers in the UK and have spent months travelling to-and-from the Midlands, on seemingly endless Teams meetings, in a flurry of back-and-forth emails, the end result of which has been finScribe, a new logbook app for recreational anglers.

I have just reeled in from my final cast of the year, the culmination of a three-day trip in October. I’ve spent two-and-a-half days thrashing the Tyne in increasing frustration at its reluctance to give me any evidence of the scaly denizens that I know are hidden in its blackness.

The Tyne is among the most maddening waterways I’ve ever fished. Over the many years I have fished it, I have seen it high and unfishable and so low that the edges of the river bed are dry. I’ve arrived to find it running at the most perfect height, only to then discover all that lovely-looking water was, in fact, a release from the mighty Kielder Water: cold and bitter and in which the fish become super-dour and untakeable.

And this morning’s fishing had something Groundhog Day about it. Cast and step; cast and step: hours when even a pull seemed out of the question.

Then, after a bite for lunch, I had to drive my host to Newcastle airport, there to drop both his wife for a return trip to Norway, and his hire car.

We arrived back at the river just as dusk was falling. “Well,” I thought. “That’s another season over and done with”. And I attempted to cheer myself with thoughts of some of the season’s high points as I strapped on the last of my flies to be given a swim that year.

Into one on the North Tyne, spectator not looking all that impressed

Satisfactory Seasonal Swansong

It turned out to be a red zelda, a fly I’d never fished before. And I fixed it in place with a large single iron: an item certainly never designed for the purpose, found rattling around an old box of mixed hooks somewhere in my waders. Confident I was not.  

To cut down a longer story, that red zelda was snaffled in short order by not one, but two salmon…and two salmon in consecutive casts, at that. The first must have followed the fly for some distance, since it took it just as I was thinking of raising the rod to recast: a solid pull just off the bank of gravel on which I was standing. Running back into mid-stream, it had its head down and hanging heavily mid-current and I could feel it was a decent fish. So it turned out to be: a hen of some 14lb, thick set and deep-bodied, finally emerging from the depths and sliding on her side onto the gravel at my feet. Keeping her submerged, I saw that my concerns about the hold of my non-standard single iron had been unfounded as it was lodged firmly in the corner of her mouth.

She swam away strongly and, tempted as I was to sit back and bathe in the warmth of my success, from experience I know that a hook-up is the surest proof that fish are in a taking mood, so I extended line and threw another long cast towards the far bank…whereupon that red zelda was immediately snaffled by another salmon.

This one felt smaller, but was livelier, jumping several times and surging about the pool. Had they been a pair? Had they been lying together as that red zelda swung past their noses the first time? I’ll never know, but in he came, on his side over the gravel like the first fish, a little fresher, but still bronzed in his autumn colours and in the region of 9lb.

And that was it. Season done. I sat on the bank in one of those rare moods where one feels as though everything is utterly and completely right with the world. Smug? Maybe. But not nearly as smug as I was when I found out that they were the only fish caught on the river that day.

Tyne fish, finScribe
The first of the two North Tyne salmon, recorded in perpetuity on finScribe

As I sat, I loaded up both catches onto finScribe: pictures of the fish, the fly, the pool, noting the sex of each, their weight and a few comments on their capture.

My smugness slowly abated, but I still feel an echo of it every time I open finScribe and view those two fish. They will stay with me forever.

If you too would like to record your catches in a no nonsene manner then have a look at finScribe or download it on the Apple app store or Google Play and see what you think. If you would like more information then please email Caspar Bowes.