Fresh Salmon into the South Esk

August 13th, 2014
HURRICANE BERTHA BRINGS IN SOME BIG SALMON
Yesterday afternoon I walked down Milton Beat and was stopped on the way by a gesticulating Mark Holden, our tenant this week. He told me (somewhat breathlessly!) that he had just lost two big salmon in quick succession in Willows. The River was still purling down, well above 2’0″ on the Gella Bridge level marker, but had cleared substantially during the day to enable Mark to fish the fly. I had seen him earlier in the day, after Monday’s washout, when he had shown me a 3″ Waddington he proposed using in the heavy water. I made no comment because I thought it rather unlikely in the heavy flow that any fish would take a fly, no matter how big.
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This photo was taken from the Red Brae Suspension Bridge during the run-off of the Hurrican Bertha spoate on 12/8/2014. We saw salmon and grilse using the spate to migrate upstream. Among these fish were some large salmon.
The fly he was fishing in the late afterenoon, after the water had subsided significantly, was a 2″ tube (Willie Gunn I think). The first fish took very quietly in the lower section of Willows. For a few minutes it cooperated without much drama, until he applied side strain, at which point the fish took off like a banshee, stripping all the line and most of the backing off the reel before the leader snapped under the strain. The salmon was somewhere near Volcano – a distance of more than 100 metres – when it disconnected. Mark was in no doubt that this was a big salmon, well into the teens of pounds, if not bigger.
Soon afterwards he hooked another salmon a few yards further down the pool which, after 3 or 4 minutes, reclaimed its freedom by throwing the hook. In Mark’s opinion this was also a big fish. He also commented that he had seen many other fish, mainly MSW salmon but also the occasional grilse. As far as he was able to see, all these fish were fresh run.
It is not surprising therefore, that when I met Mark on the riverbank after his two encounters with big salmon fresh in from the sea, he was a bit shaken and emotional. Such are the excitements encountered by salmon fly fishermen, not perhaps as often as we would like, but in my reckoning worth the wait…
TA

Stock Dynamics & Assessment

August 1st, 2014

STOCK DYNAMICS & ASSESSMENT. WHO REALLY KNOWS HOW MANY SRING FISH ARE IN THE SOUTH ESK?

One of AST’s five strategic projects is to develop a methodology for managers and anglers to understand salmon reproduction dynamics. In the course of time this improved understanding should lead to better stock assessment. Part of understanding stock dynamics will be recognising different populations within  the stock of a river catchment. The following post is a comment on how this might apply to the Angus South Esk.

As I watched Rick Rosenthal, Sir David Attenborough’s photographer for parts of his Blue planet films, slide into a deep holding pool on the South Esk last week, I thought, “this has to be an accurate way of recording numbers of spring fish already in the river” – “or, at least it has to be better than anything we are using at present”.

We read the river reports in Trout and Salmon which try to provide readers with some idea of numbers of fish in the salmon rivers of each home country. Some of those reports are laden with doom. After a Sunday afternoon walk along the banks the reporter might state (and too often does!) “I visited the river and saw no sign of a salmon or sea trout. This must surely be a very bad year for the river”.

LAZY ASSESSMENTS ARE MISLEADING

In fact such a visit to the river is unlikely to tell you much about abundance of fish in the river, whether or not you see fish. Let me give you an example; last week on a well known beat of the South Esk I met a group of five mustard-keen and experienced fly fishermen who told me that they had hardly seen a fish all week. They arrived on the bank of that holding pool into which Rick Rosenthal, in his wet suit, flippers with camera and snorkel, had just entered.

SUMMER SUNSHINE & HEAT ON A QUIET RIVER

A few fresh sea trout, newly arrived from the sea, were lying in the tail of the pool flashing their silvery flanks in the bright sunshine. But the deep dub and channel into the pool were quiet, except for the rises of foraging parr. As Rick floated silently down the upper part of the pool, occasionally diving deep into the rocky mini-caves of the carved out depths, he saw good numbers of multi-sea-winter salmon, mostly coloured and clearly early running fish. Some of these fish were skittish and swam away from him to find more secure parts of the pool, but mostly these salmon were unmoved by Rick’s presence. That enabled him to take good underwater pictures of salmon, some of which were over 20lbs, and amongst which were some fresher, more recently arrived, fish.

SNORKEL COUNTING DEMONSTRATED

Rick counted between 20 and 25 salmon in that holding pool, which, before his underwater survey, everyone thought was devoid of salmon. It would be reasonable to ask the question, “what is the value of the river reports when they are based on casual observation by an untrained person?” While catches are evidence that some fish were present, they give little information on what else was in the river.

AN EFFECTIVE WAY TO COUNT SPRING SALMON

In the absence of counters, or any reliable form of counting of our spring salmon, we could take a leaf out of the Canadian fishery managers’ example of practical ways of counting fish. There really is no substitute for an eyeball to eyeball meeting of human snorkel-counter with a fish. On the South Esk we might for example take six known holding pools in the upper and middle river.

SUMMER COUNTING EYEBALL TO EYEBALL

Every late June or July, when summer low level is reached, the same pools could be visited and the fish in them counted in exactly the same way every year. The sizes of the fish and their condition could be assessed and recorded by a companion on the bank, who could double-up as safety, as well as recorder and monitor of adherence to year-on-year measuring protocols. Such measures are used routinely on the smaller tributaries of big rivers such as the Mirimachi. There is no reason why we cannot do the same here.

HOW GOOD WAS THE SOUTH ESK 2014 SPRING RUN?

Probably,”not bad” is an educated guess based on Rick’s report, supported by the visual evidence provided by his film footage. At least, by counting salmon physically, and assessing their maturation towards spawning, we can have some idea of the spring run’s abundance & spawning potential. We have very little idea of that at present, despite the efforts of Marine Scotland to tell us where our spring salmon spawn, but that has nothing to do with numbers.

WILL WE DO IT, OR REMAIN IN THE DARK?

Such a methodology for assessing the spring component of the River’s stock of Atlantic salmon would require some organisation and risk assessment, but it is not exactly rocket science, is it? Incidentally, the five ‘mustard-keen fishermen’ I mentioned at the beginning of this post were amazed and reassured by the ability of the South Esk to conceal its riches!

TA

Mid Summer Freshets

July 20th, 2014

STEADY CATCHES OF SALMON & SEA TROUT IN AN AWKWARD SEASON FOR THE ANGLER

I have been away on the West Coast in Argyll while the 2014 catches at FCW have moved up to 43 salmon and 64 sea trout.

Compared with catches at this time of year in the 1980s and 1990s, these catch numbers do not amount to much, but they are still reasonable and compare quite well with most other beats on the Esks.

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There have continued to be fresh-run MSW salmon – the most recent a 15lbs salmon from Willows – and the condition of our sea trout continues to be excellent.

TA