I sat on the bank and surveyed the pool where I was going to commence fishing shortly and sucked in a large mouthful of cold crisp February air. This is a time of the year where I enjoy anticipating the year progressing into longer and warmer days where nature comes alive and everything in the countryside seems busy going about its business. At this time however I enjoyed noticing what little there was going on around me, a couple of Kelts splashing erratically and a golden eye duck flying at pace overhead. The close season for salmon fishing seemed to take an age to pass and I was eager to get fishing and establish a nice fluent casting rhythm again and hunt for that elusive, but prized River Dee spring salmon.
The famous Durris Stream at Park
I proceeded to wade in to the river at the head of the pool and enjoyed feeling the strong push of water at the back of my legs which reminded me that I was in the fish’s element and needed to proceed with care and diligence. I anticipated that I would need to use my sunk line as the river was 24 inches above summer level on the gauge and the water temperature was holding steady at 2 degrees Celsius. This meant I needed to get my large tube fly down to a depth where the salmon would be holding station, probably 12 inches off the bottom would be desirable, and if I felt the odd little knock of my fly against submerged rocks then I wouldn’t be concerned, as I know my fly will be fishing at the depth I wanted it to be at. The fly itself was a cone head tube fly, and the pattern chosen was the Park Shrimp named after the famous beat that I found myself fortunate to be fishing this day. I found myself gradually lengthening line as I stripped line from my reel and flicked the fly out to get it covering the nearside water where the fish may be lying just off the stream.
Newly arrived from the sea-a pair of spring salmon
The line had been stripped of the reel yesterday, and cleaned and conditioned prior to my first session of the season, so I knew there were no overlapping loose line gripping the line, which could prevent it from coming off the reel should I hook a large fish and find it wants to run hard from me when it takes the fly. I looked up at the sky and took in the steel grey clouds scudding by on a brisk north wind, and shivered slightly, was it excitement, the cold air conditions, or a combination of both? The sensation quickly passed and I said a brief prayer asking the almighty to grant me a good productive season’s sport, something of a ritual I have done for over 20 years on the first day out, whether it works who knows? But I have no complaints at the end of the season.
I had got into a nice steady rhythm and was throwing a good length of line at an angle of 75 degrees and was pleased to see the cone head park shrimp dive into the water and sink fast and pulse and jig as the fly traversed the flow of the stream, yes this was it, fly fishing for Spring salmon–one of life’s great passions for me. I thought of the salmon greats that have departed, never to cast again, and I felt a tinge of sadness that the combined knowledge from the greats was getting lost slowly in the mists of time. But I was pleased to be fishing again, pitting my wits against the secretive and hard fighting Spring Salmon that would be in the river in their certain favoured spots. The salmon greats now departed of course knew where to look, as many years of fishing effort gradually allowed them to discover the Salmons secrets.
The Original Park Shrimp Conehead tied by Ross Macdonald
There it was, a taking fish, and I had only gone forty feet down the pool from where I commenced, a knock knock sensation coming up the line which was putting a slight bend in the rod. I relished the take from this fish, which was confident, unhurried, and showed that the salmon wanted to attack the fly and return with it to its lie, where it had departed from just moments ago to intercept my fly. I lifted the rod with a steady unhurried action that in the process drove my Loop size 8 double firmly into the fish’s mouth. Now providing the fish was well hooked I was hopeful that I would be landing my first fish of the season within a given period of time. I now had to land the fish as quickly as I could. All being well I would ensure that I return the fish to the river to continue its slow progress up river to its natal spawning area. This precise moment of excitement, tension & anxiety was one that I was very familiar with, and I slowly moved in towards the bank in order that I could gain the high ground to fight the fish. The fish seemed quite content to meander slowly upstream as I took my customary diagonal upstream steps towards the bank. This was a good sign and I thought briefly about the strong and dogged fight from the Springer and compared it to the mad hustle and bustle that a fresh run Grilse is wont to do when it’s hooked. The Springer for me is a super adversary which is both beautiful and tough, they just never seem to want to give up, and this one was no different.
I had moved initially upstream to try and remove some of the fishes strength, as the fish when above you, is fighting both your tackle and the flow of the current pushing against it; I much prefer to play the fish than have the fish well below playing me, the odds then tend to be in favour of the fish coming off. This fish had come upstream, reminiscent of a dog being taken for a walk, where it seems to be content to be led initially for a period until it becomes distracted and starts to protest and pull against the lead. I had walked upriver for about 10 yards when I decided I was in a great position to fight the fish. I proceeded to increase the pressure and angle of leverage on the fish and I was duly rewarded by the fish showing protest at the sudden change of its upstream movement and pressure, turned and made a strong diagonal downstream run away from me. It had taken about 30 yards of line and a bit of backing when it stopped and I proceeded to wind this line back on the reel steadily and the smooth progress indicated the fish was quite happy to come upstream under a steady pressure where there were no erratic movements on my part to alarm the fish. The fish had gone about 5 yards above me and was pulling strongly into the draw of the current when I again lifted the rod and turned the angle downstream thus changing the direction of pressure on the fish. Away it went again across and downstream with real purpose and suddenly jumped from the water.
The fight underway where patience and determination are qualities required
This was what I wanted, a split fresh fish in the high teens of pounds at least, and just the perfect specimen that the large multi sea winter Springer invariably is. You suddenly have a longing to get a hold of the fish and admire its blue grey back and silver sides and white under belly. This is crunch time as the fish comes in for the third time and turns on its side, slightly betraying to you its sudden loss of resolve and power. This is the time the novice can become over eager and try to rush proceedings and this is when we find out if there are any dangers in the contest, whether the hook hold on the fish is weak or the terminal strength of our leader has been degraded. If the line is shortened too much too quickly, and the fish makes a sudden lunge then any weaknesses will cause the fish to depart and end the contest as suddenly as it had commenced.
I quietly unshipped my landing net from my sling and got a foothold on the rim enabling me to draw the handle of the net upwards and extended the length of handle by about two feet giving me a reasonable opportunity to draw the fish in towards the submerged rim, which I had just lowered into the water in front of me. I steadily drew the fish in toward me and hoped that it would stay on its side enabling me to lift my submerged net and ensnare the fish within the large cavernous body of the net. It was like so many fish that I had taken early in the season, the last 10 feet seemed to take the longest and I patiently waited until the time was right to draw the fish into the trap, lifting the net and ensured the fish could not escape without my assistance. I gasped with admiration at the fish and smiled broadly as I realised this was a fish that was close to 20 lbs give or take an ounce, and would in all probability be one of my finest captures of the season. I took the fish from the net in the water and carefully extracted the double hook with my artery forceps and carefully held the fish in the water with its head pointing upstream. This was to facilitate the passage of water through the fish’s mouth and over the gill raker’s enabling the fish to absorb a supply of oxygen and revive itself after the rigours of battle.
The elusive Springer in all its glory
I noticed immediately how cold the water was on my fingers but knew that this was a fair price to pay for fishing in February and wanting to catch and release my fish. After a few minutes when I had lost feeling from my finger tips I noticed the steady flow of bubbles rising to the surface from the fish’s gills and could feel the steady insistent pressure of the fish and knew it was ready to be released. Sure enough the fish quietly swam up and across from me and with a swirl on the surface dived strongly away downstream and was no doubt heading back to its lie. I wished it all the best and removed my hipflask and took in a gulp of the warming, slightly sweet, rusty nail mix I prefer early in the season to toast my catch. This was worthy of a celebratory toast.
This was the perfect moment, that I knew would never be repeated throughout the season, as this was the first, and the first for me is always the best. I looked forward to the rest of the day’s sport, irrespective of what may happen, but was more than happy to ponder the previous twenty minutes of sheer pleasure that I had been fortunate to have. Whether I caught another salmon today or not was not something that would not concern me, I had hit the jackpot and had caught and released a magnificent Springer. This is what early season sport on the River Dee can produce, and I had been favoured that morning and was allowed to admire the rivers magnificent treasure, truly a privilege reserved for a few lucky people, I was one of them today. I looked forward to lunch in the bothy with a broad smile from the knowledgeable Ghillie Keith Cromar who had given me sound counsel about where to fish. I always heed the sound advice from the Ghillie as they know best where you may encounter the elusive silver salmon, fresh in from the tide; you should too.
Park Estate Head Ghillie Keith Cromar with an angler enjoying his first of the season-a super springer