Archive for October, 2011

Another 3′ spate, emaciated grilse & South Esk matters

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

These bulletin blogs represent news about Finavon and the South Esk, and my views as a riparian owner. They are not the views of any other organisation, nor are they designed to promote the interests of any individual or organisation other than Finavon Castle Water and factors affecting the fishery.  Tony Andrews

The weather has never relented. There was talk of an Indian Summer and that lasted for less than a week. Then came rain, gales, but no frosts. The leaves have been forcefully removed from the trees by the wind, as opposed to being nipped off by the frosts. Amongst all of this the autumn run of salmon has been poor with most of the fish seen being MSW ‘old stagers’, and some very big fish among them. The sea trout appear to have all moved upriver and in the last three days the occasional fresh grilse has arrived at FCW. My nephew Charlie caught a 1lb 4oz fresh grilse yesterday with the appearance more of a bootstrap than Salmo Salar. As I write this bulletin early in the morning on 27/10 I note that the season’s catch at FCW is 136 salmon and 101 sea trout. We may catch a few more fish in the last three days of the 2011 season, with the catches of both salmon and sea trout almost certainly slightly below average.

This is the Red Brae looking downstream through Kirkinn to Pheasantry. The Red Brae and Kirkinn are really one pool and offer the salmon fisherman at least an hour and a half of great fishing, especially when the water level is lipping the lowest point in the Red Brae Wall.

SOUTH ESK MEETING ON 27th OCTOBER. Tonight there will be a public meeting in Brechin to discuss the Minister’s response to the Esk Board’s request to compel the nets to refrain from fishing in May. I hope this event will be a measured debate with the benefits to the salmon of the South Esk in mind, rather than a polarised and unstructured rant against the government and the netsmen. I have reflected in a previous bulletin on the Minister’s decision, and concluded that there appears to be a commitment by Government to establishing the South Esk as a model of good management for all Scottish salmon rivers. With the South Esk’s proximity to the Montrose office of Marine Scotland Science, and the availability of scientists to work on the river whose estuary is yards away from where they work, we have an opportunity to progress the much needed research on the composition of the South Esk’s salmon stock.

That plan makes a lot of sense, especially with the initial project of establishing where S Esk early running salmon go, which involves a £150,000 radio tracking project (in Year one: to be repeated in Year two) to insert radio tags into salmon caught in the nets at Usan, which will be specially deployed for the purpose. These salmon will be tracked by radio receivers at strategic points on the river from the estuary to the glens. Once we know where these spring salmon go we can assess the quality of the spawning and juvenile habitat to see if we have problems in the catchment. If they are issues we can then take action. However it is important that everyone understands that there will be no killing of fish for commercial purposes between 16 February and 30 April. The possibility of a licence being issued for the Usan nets to fish in September is only to ensure that the Usan nets are open to MSS scientists throughout the whole season. The licence can be revoked at any time and is not a permanent feature of the season as it could be if there were a regulation in place.

I hope there may be some kindred spirits in the audience with similar views to mine – that we now need to get on with the job of understanding the South Esk’s migratory fish populations. The scientists of Marine Scotland have my full support.

LATER. Well, we had the meeting and the hawks had their say, as did the voices of reason. Fortunately, the prospect of confrontation with the government and netsmen seems to have receded with the option of a judicial review of the Minister’s decision kicked into the long grass and, despite the threat of “going to Brussels” being voiced, I had the feeling that good sense would ultimately prevail. “Going to Brussels” is an empty threat and serves only to irritate officials and politicians at a time when co-operation is desperately needed and in the best interests of the river. No government minister would make such a decision in today’s EU without doing his homework first.

In fact there was a good debate, well chaired by Hughie C-A, and the more extreme views became marginalised as David Laird, doyen of fifty years of board meetings, gave his measured view of the situation. If everybody can keep calm and the issue of the September netting licence revisited and serious offers made (ie cash) to remove that particular item from the Minister’s letter, we could be looking at a sensible way forward.There are some real positives from the meeting, and a big opportunity to get the South Esk onto a science-based management footing. These are a) No netting between 16 February and 30 April. b) South Esk established as a national “demonstration project” c) Radio tagging of spring salmon starting after 16 February 2012 d) Serious public money being invested in the South Esk project (£150,000 per year from 2012 for 3 years).

The downside is the Minister’s irrational decision to allow a licenced commercial net fishery in the first fifteen days of September. That is illogical and, to the objective observer, might even be seen as vindictive. At the very least, the Minister should explain why he made the decision to allow this licenced fishery to take place, and what its purpose and desired outputs  are. On the Board’s side, an offer of a sum of money to buy out the licence might be a useful next step. During the meeting I asked the Chairman what the estimated value of the fish caught in the September nets might be. His reply indicated that he didn’t understand that the question was based on declared September rod catch averages, from which an estimate of net catches of salmon  for the September period could be estimated on the basis of a reciprocal of (eg) August net/rod returns. I didn’t pursue the point in the meeting, but, in the cold light of day the board might choose to do that simple calculation.

My last point is that there appears to have been virtually no discussion with the board or Trust before the Minister’s decision was announced. Damage was undoubtedly done by the Government failing to consult beforehand. Let’s hope we don’t suffer any more such poor processes of consultation, and that we can now start working together cooperatively for the benefit of the S Esk and its migratory fish.


Gales, leaves and autumn salmon

Monday, October 24th, 2011

These bulletin blogs represent news about Finavon and the South Esk, and my views as a riparian owner. They are not the views of any other organisation, nor are they designed to promote the interests of any individual or organisation other than Finavon Castle Water and factors affecting the fishery.  Tony Andrews

This October has been hard going for our intrepid salmon fishing visitors to FCW. Water levels have been erratic giving the fish little respite between freshets. While there have been no really big spates, there have been times when the water has been turgid and coloured, which in the South Esk often makes salmon reluctant to respond to any fly, however delicately presented. One of the features of this autumn has been the number of really big fish. In Melgund, Red Brae and Willows we have seen a number of salmon in the 20lbs category, and one of our visitors played and lost a very large salmon in the Beeches. Over the weekend there was some rain and the water levels held up.  During the week ending on Saturday 22 October we caught and released 11 salmon, the biggest of which was in the order of 17lbs from Volcano as dusk was falling on Saturday. Simon Walter had two salmon (see photos) including a beautiful hen fish of about 9lbs and a bruiser of a cock salmon from Indies of about 16lbs. My brother John had three salmon from Tyndals and Willows, and no-one went away entirely without a sporting opportunity, because many other fish, including the big one in Beeches, were hooked and lost.

Simon Walter 9lbs RB

This beautiful October hen salmon of about 9lbs was caught and returned by Simon Walter (who designed this website) in Melgund Pool on a bright autumn fly of his own design and tying on Saturday 22 October 2011. Fish of this quality have been much in evidence during the 2011 season.

Simon's 16lbs salmon from Indies

This cock salmon of about 16lbs was caught and released by Simon Walter in Indies Pool on Thursday 20 October. There have been many fish of this size seen at Finavon this season.

Monday morning came in like a lion with big gales and flurries of leaves filling the air with biomass. My nephew Charlie Palmer started the week with a lovely 4.5 lbs cock grilse fresh from the sea. But then things got difficult again with the river full of leaves and the upstream wind making casting very tricky. Nevertheless it is impossible to get bored in these conditions, because salmon are showing in all the pools, the river is at a great height and the water clear.

More later…..

Comatose salmon & South Esk politics

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

These bulletin blogs represent news about Finavon and the South Esk, and my views as a riparian owner. They are not the views of any other organisation, nor are they designed to promote the interests of any individual or organisation other than Finavon Castle Water and factors affecting the fishery.  Tony Andrews

October hasn’t come up to its usual billing, with only 4 salmon and a couple of sea trout for the month so far. It is worth remembering that October is normally Finavon’s most productive month for salmon, but this year, after an unusually wet summer, the river is low, the temperatures are still high and few fresh salmon are entering the River. If we get some water (there were a few inches overnight) and some colder nights (the forecast is that they are on the way) the fishing should improve for the last two weeks of this season. Adam Carr and his party took all four beats for the week just gone. They saw plenty of fish, some very big ones amongst them and they lost a few, but generally the fishing was slow. Simon Cordukes, one of Adam’s party, caught and returned a red cock fish of about 16lbs from the head of Indies Pool on Saturday 15/10 (See photo below).

The River is in fine fettle with clean gravels and a good flow of clear water, if a bit on the low side for the time of year. A few recently spawned sea trout kelts are in evidence, but very few diseased salmon and every indication that this year will have a productive spawning season. Much will depend on river and weather conditions after eggs have been deposited and fertilised.

Head of Pheasantry

This is the head of Pheasantry close to the Castle Beat Treehouse fishing hut. During the 2011 season there have been salmon, sea trout and grilse regularly seen, and some caught, in this pool.

Simon Cordukes' 16lbs salmon from Indies

Simon Cordukes' salmon from Indies



The Government decides on the level of netting.

In the last week we have heard that the Fisheries Minister, Stewart Stevenson, has decided to allow the coastal nets in the Esk District to continue fishing in the month of May and that they will also be permitted to fish during the first fifteen days of September on a trial basis for three years. Access by scientists to the catches in the Usan mixed stocks nets has been granted by George Pullar in return for the two September weeks. Under the current voluntary arrangement we can assume that the nets will not fish during the period 16 February to 30 April and that, provided reasonable compensation is offered, the nets will continue to release all sea trout alive, and any that are killed accidentally will not be sold.

Looking at the Minister’s decision objectively, bearing in mind that Usan nets have the same heritable right to catch salmon and sea trout as anglers do, it seems to me that he has taken a logical and progressive step forward in modernising the management of the South Esk fishery. Let me explain what I mean:

1. How many salmon do we have?

My main concern for some time has been that no-one has any idea of what South Esk stocks of salmon and sea trout comprise. We may assume that the river has a number of distinct genetic groups (‘populations’ in scientific parlance), but at present we don’t know what these groups are, nor how many spawners there are in each population to meet conservation levels, and of course we have absolutely no idea how many of each population are exploited by the mixed stocks nets, which take salmon from neighbouring rivers, as well as from the South Esk. While I have tried recently to estimate (see the bulletin of 14 June) what the overall stock number is, and made an attempt to break these figures down into groups of fish distinguished from each other by run timing, my calculations are based on amateur observation, a bit of mathematics and a huge amount of guessing. We need facts, and only science can provide us with the measurements and methodology needed to determine the size and breakdown of the South Esk stock . That is why we need the full engagement of government scientists who, with our help, can put in place the process for assessing the South Esk Stocks.

2. How can we help?

Counting them in and counting them out. I think we need to persuade the Esk District Fishery Board to investigate how inward and outward migrations of the South Esk can best be measured. New technologies for counting fish are being developed all the time, costs are coming down, and the days of having to build a huge concrete structure spanning the full width of the main stem of the river (as at Logie on the North Esk) are of the past. We need to talk to our friends in Norway, Canada, Ireland and Iceland, as well as with our own fisheries experts, to identify the method that offers the best value for money. The Board has substantial reserves, some of which could be allocated to a fund to purchase, maintain and manage a fish counting system for the South Esk. We should be working with the Montrose scientists, taking their advice on the location of measuring sites, and feeding the data to them for analysis and integrating with the genetic data coming from sampling the net catches. With cooperation and by working together (netsmen, riparian owners, fishery managers, government scientists and the Esk Fisheries and Rivers Trust) we should be able to build a picture of the South Esk stocks quite quickly. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the picture could quite soon become very much clearer than it is today.

Tail of Pheasantry

The lower section of this smallish pool is where running salmon and sea trout sometimes stop in a spate. The whole of Pheasantry is a very nice stream running over a boulder and gravel bottom with a maximum depth of 5′.

3. So how do I feel about the Minister’s decision, as a South Esk riparian owner?

Well, first of all I think it must have been extremely difficult for the Minister to adjudicate in a situation where the rights of the coastal netting community are enshrined in law, just as the rights of riparian owners and anglers to catch salmon and sea trout are. His advisors may have told him that in overall terms the stock of salmon on the South Esk is healthy (and would meet its Conservation Level, if we had one). Where I think their advice would have counselled caution is with the early running salmon and (to some extent) with sea trout. Because understanding the composition of the S Esk salmon stock is so fundamental to good management, their advice was almost certainly that it would be very useful to obtain access to the data contained in salmon and sea trout caught by the coastal nets, and then to implement a proper stock assessment initiative for the South Esk catchment.

Because I think all that has now been put in place, I feel I should support the Minister’s decision and do everything I can to see that the required data are delivered to the Montrose scientists as soon as possible. Only when that information has been processed, and  a better understanding of South Esk stocks reached, will we be in a position to take effective management actions in real time (as opposed to a year late, as we do now!).

4. What next for the South Esk?

As I see it, we now have the following situation either in place or developing over the next few months:

  • No killing of any migratory fish in the district from 16 February to 30th April each year should ensure that a good number of early-running MSW salmon enter the river system (voluntary).
  • A South Esk salmon radio tracking project will start in February 2012 (6 fish) up to May 2012 (a total of 150 salmon) to find out where these early running salmon go. This is the first step in an effort to understand the breakdown and origin of South Esk populations of salmon, starting with the spring fish.
  • Negotitated release of all sea trout by the nets should help the sea trout stock recover
  • Sampling the contents of the coastal nets will determine which other rivers are affected (Dee? North Esk? Tay?) and may help the argument to reduce exploitation.
  • All information from the nets and the river should be shared with both the scientific and management communities. Transparency must be the order of the day!
  • When stock and population statistics are finalised there should be an open discussion among all stakeholders on how to achieve a regime of exploitation that is genuinely sustainable. All measures should be considered, including the imposition of quotas (as they do in Ireland).
  • Sharing of information should involve all stakeholders, including SNH, SEPA, the Catchment Management Partnership, owners, Clubs, managers, scientists, netsmen and anglers.
  • If we do all this, we will have a modern system of management in place, which is long overdue, but I am confident is not too late.

Human issues and management:

  • There is an urgent need to rebuild relationships within the District, which has an unfortunate reputation for aggressive posturing and non cooperation. We need team building and leadership, with an emphasis on bringing all stakeholders together for the benefit of the South Esk. Models from other rivers, where volunteers contribute their time and skills to improving habitat, could be looked at and used where appropriate.
  • Because it is now apparent that the two rivers, the North Esk and the South Esk, must be treated separately, it is important that each river is represented in ways that allow their unique aspects and characters to be dealt with sensitively and effectively. I suggest that the outdated ‘top down’ approach we currently have should be consigned to history and that serious consideration is given to setting up simple, flexible and unbureaucratic methods of ensuring that all voices are guaranteed to be heard during the discussions leading up to decisions being made.
  • We should give serious consideration to training everyone involved in managing the river, especially board members, trust staff, owners, managers and ghillies. With the right sort of training we should be able to modernise the way the river is run.
  • Communications from the board could become more consultative, more regular and invite responses. Where major issues arise it is important that open discussion ensues.

5. Don’t run down the South Esk, because it continues to punch well above its weight.

I was reminded of how fertile and productive the South Esk is when I recently visited salmon rivers in the Bay of Fundy in Canada. The fact is that the South Esk has three or four times the number of wild Atlantic salmon returning to the River than all the east coast salmon rivers of the USA added together. In Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia there are many much bigger river catchments than the South Esk that count their total annual runs of wild Atlantic salmon and grilse in the hundreds. If we allow doom and gloom messages about the river to be spread in the media we will misrepresent the true situation concerning stocks of salmon and sea trout. Until we know what the average annual return is (not just the rod catch which is a notoriously crude and inaccurate method of measurement) we should refrain from making negative comments. Much more seriously, bad news will discourage visiting anglers from coming to fish the South Esk. The effect of a declining customer base will lead to less investment in monitoring and habitat improvements, and the result of that will ultimately be a reduction in the number of smolts produced naturally by the River. The fact is that the South Esk is well inside the top twenty rivers in the UK for salmon, and much higher up the scale for sea trout.

This is not to suggest that we put our heads in the sand and claim that everything is hunky-dory. We know that is not the case, because of the continuing decline in numbers of returning salmon throughout the North Atlantic basin. But we do need to be careful not to run down the South Esk, which consistently produces  an annual rod catch of 1,200 fish+. If we love the South Esk we must speak well of her and do everything in our power to ensure that her stocks of salmon and sea trout achieve generous levels of abundance, well beyond the requirements of conservation.

I would welcome comments from my readers. Please e-mail me at