Stock Dynamics & Assessment

August 1st, 2014


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”.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


Mid Summer Freshets

July 20th, 2014


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.


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.



July 11th, 2014


Iain MacMaster comes from a well-known family of west coast gamekeepers. Introduced to the all-round delights of rivers and fishing by a fisherman father, Iain has told me that he is keen to learn the skills and gain the experience to become an a salmon and sea trout fishery guide & manager. As our readers will see from his blog that follows this introduction, Iain is already getting involved with all aspects of FCW – from greeting and advising visiting fishers to dealing with our horrendous outbreaks of giant hogweed. His description below, likening the task of achieving our zero-tolerance objective with GHW and other invasive species to WW11 knapsack spraying napalm in the humid jungle of Guadacanal, is very visual. The blog that follows is Iain’s first as an FCW team member. Wish him well, as we all do here at Finavon, and thank you Iain for infecting us with your enthusiasm – not to mention your hard work. TA

Red Brae Wall

Red Brae & Kirkinn from the right bank – the heart of FCW


The first thing that struck me when Tony led me down the Milton beat track last November, was the enchanting little wooden hut perched nobly above Craigo Stream. Stepping inside, I felt keenly that I was entering a sanctuary of memories and experiences. Over the mesmeric rush of the pool below, I could almost hear the whispered remnants of the conversations left by anglers past. Immediately, I sensed that here was a place which was loved and appreciated, not just by Tony, Alison and their family, but by many anglers from many places. The second thing that struck me was an almost overwhelming desire to be wading down the gravel shelf at Red Brae with my Bruce and Walker.

Since that day and the months following it, when I spent most of my days off-shift travelling to and working at Finavon, Tony and I have come a long way. I knew that I wanted to be involved with Finavon in a big way, and that desire grew just a little bit more every time that I came and went. So it didn’t take very long for Heather and me to start thinking about moving our life slightly North East…and here we are.

One of the first tasks which I undertook at FCW, back in those cold winter days was to harvest, trim and gather sheaves of willow canes. Anyone who fished at Finavon in the first month of the season, may remember seeing buckets full of them sitting outside every hut. I planted these in many of the soft edges up and down all four of the beats with the intention that the roots would take hold and help shore the banks up. Willow is fantastic stuff to plant, as you simply need to stick a cane into the ground where it will remain moist, and usually it will just grow. We seem to have had quite a successful take from the little wands, and once they grow bigger it will become necessary to keep them trimmed back so that they do their job without encroaching on casting space; which is always an issue with willow because it grows so quickly.

Beeches in very low water 9.13

Beeches on Castle Beat, where Iain has done much of his work.

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time planting other things too, Oak trees next to the Boat Pool, Honeysuckle around three of the huts, bird cherry scattered widely and Birches in a forest clearing adjacent to Harry’s Bar on Bogardo beat.

There have been many days spent chopping and trimming my way down the edges of various pools to open them up for easier fishing. It’s particularly satisfying to get to the bottom of a pool, look back upstream and see the difference that you’ve made. Beeches had this treatment at the beginning of the week and will now be much easier to fish effectively as the foliage on the North bank was really starting to impede when trying to form the loop of your roll cast. It is also possible to fish down the pool much more quietly now as you can wade it at ankle depth rather than knee depth, and stealth of course is of crucial importance when fishing for night time sea trout.

For the past couple of months the most important job has been dealing with the infestation of Giant Hogweed at FCW. This nasty plant from Asia was another ill-conceived introduction by the Victorians, who have a lot to answer for considering the proliferation of species such as Himalayan Balsam and Rhododendron as well. The attack on the Hogweed has been simple and brutal, carried out mostly by spraying the leaves directly with our new specially sanctioned herbicide which is completely non-toxic to mammalian or piscine life. One of the problems however has been that some of the seed heads were 10-12 feet high and probably 10 inches in diameter, so spraying the leaves wasn’t really an option. These sinister looking monsters have been hacked down with saws and billhooks and the herbicide has been sprayed directly down the hollow stems and into the root system. We’re hoping that this will utterly destroy the rhizomes.

I’ve been ending the day looking like a cross between a Pictish warrior of Finavon Hill and an Astronaut, thanks to the mixture of the blue dye from the spray, and the waders, overalls, gauntlets and safety goggles that I’ve been wearing! It has been a very hard and tiring task, but a very necessary one. It crossed my mind when stumbling and crawling with the heavy spray pack through the thickest of the dense cover that here was just a tiny flavour of what carrying a flame-thrower through the jungles of the Solomon Islands might have felt like! The spraying is still ongoing, but I’m confident that the worst of it is done. So if you happen to see any healthy looking thickets of Hogweed at Finavon, please do let Tony or myself know!

The late Peter Ward fishing the head of IndiesPool from the South side.

The late Peter Ward fishing the head of Indies Pool from the South side.

I’ve enjoyed meeting a lot of new and interesting people over the past eight months, and hopefully sown the seeds of some friendships too. I’ve been touched by the number of people asking for my input and advice, and I’ve been delighted to help out to the best of my ability. It has been a source of immense joy to me that some of this advice has even paid off with a fish for the odd angler. I’m always delighted to come and meet you when you’re fishing and try my best to help with any questions or needs you might have, so don’t hesitate to give me a shout when you come to FCW.

DTH on 27 April 2013

David’s Treehouse (DTH) at daffodil time.

Finavon is a magical and evocative place. You can’t help but think about the ancient Picts who must surely have fished those very same pools for the Salmon they so revered. And what history has been trodden upon those riverbanks? Did Pictish war bands follow the river on their way to the great battle of Dunnichen? Did Roman legionaries stop by the river to wash, drink and even fish on their way North? Finavon is more than just a place to come and fish for Salmon, it is utterly enchanting and I, like many others have fallen in love with it.