Archive for July, 2012

Another two spates and new fish arrive

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

The continuous wet weather has yet again played havoc with the plans of our night sea trout fishers. Most fish running the river have just kept going, but fortunately this year there have been plenty of sea trout, and we have been able to catch them after each spate. Yesterday, Wednesday 11 July, was no exception, and 4 rods capitalised on a decent run of salmon and sea trout, with six salmon to 11lbs and twelve sea trout to 3lbs caught in Finavon’s pools. The total catch for the season up to 19 July is 49 salmon and 104 sea trout. While the numbers of salmon are about average, it is encouraging to see an extended run of sea trout, with fish of good quality denoting good feeding at sea.

The bigger picture. Reports from the Scottish west coast are of an abundance of sand eels which, were it not for the damaging impacts of sea lice epizootics from salmon farms, one could expect to produce good sea trout runs in local rivers. However, I do hear encouraging signs of improvements from rivers close to where more responsible salmon farming companies are trying to reduce sea lice infestations. My personal yardstick will be the return of the River Ailort and Loch Eilt to its former reputation as one of Scotland’s top sea trout fisheries. I am in no doubt that such a transformation could occur, but that will require a different regime of salmon farming than exists at present in the quiet tidal enclave and sheltered waters of Loch Ailort itself. The removal of open cages in Loch Eilt, where salmon are reared to smolts, should also help return the loch and river to their natural state, with the result that migration of trout to sea can resume.

Milton Beat outperforms the other FCW beats. As has been the norm this season, most of the fish last week were caught on Milton Beat and, extraordinarily, on Wednesday every fish from that beat was caught in Willows. I will write a bulletin blog soon on the subject of Willows and why I think it is such a productive pool. Elsewhere, yet another 20lbs plus salmon was hooked and lost in Indies Pool after a 30 minute struggle. On other rivers, I note that there have been some tremendous catches on the Spey, with, for example, Upper Arndilly accounting for 50 salmon last week, and 35 in the first four days of this week. Another fish of 25lbs came from the Teith at Blair Drummond, and reports of big MSW salmon from other rivers, just as Jens Christian Holst, the Norwegian marine ecologist at IMR Bergen, predicted. Some grilse have also started to appear at Finavon, the condition of which is nothing to write home about.

The last three months of 2012. As we move towards the end of July, and with the last three months of the season to come, the quality of fishing at Finavon will depend on whether or not there are sufficient maturing MSW salmon and grilse returning to the coast. Of course it will also depend on whether there is enough water to bring fish into the river and avoid the coastal nets. It will be interesting to see whether the marked trend for bigger salmon continues, and whether the South Esk produces one of its occasional monsters (anything over 30lbs qualifies!). Certainly there are a good number of fish of 20lbs plus already in the river, but it is a step-up to catch a really big salmon of over 30lbs. As far as grilse are concerned, I do not expect a great abundance, and would love to be proved wrong. One or two of the grilse already caught at Finavon have been pitifully thin, probably because they have been feeding in the NE Atlantic which, in terms of prey species abundance, is patchy at best, and in some places offers only a starvation diet.

MSW fish, the Greenland ‘cornucopia’, and declining numbers of European returners. Irish research scientists studying historical records of salmon caught in the Greenland ‘distant’ fishery have discovered that the number of MSW salmon of European origin feeding in the West Greenland fjords has dropped by 75% in the last thirty years. That is worrying news, and there is now real urgency to find out why that has happened. If, as seems to be the case, European post-smolts and non-maturing 1SW fish are simply not getting to the Greenland feeding areas, there could be a range of causes, including a high level of attrition of smolts soon after they leave fresh water. The simple truth is that smaller fish are more likely to be predated than bigger ones, although there could be causes for reduced numbers, other than predation. Our outgoing smolts are of course vulnerable to the usual suspects (pisciverous birds, seals et alia) but also to invasions of climate change species such as bass and gilt head sea bream, both accomplished predators. You can imagine phalanxes of these predators ringing the estuaries in April and May just as smolts migrate. What chance would our S2 and S3 smolts have of getting to sea past such a cordon? Then there is the unknown impact of pelagic trawlers’ by-catch, where little post smolts may be mangled in the wide-mesh nets and spat out in pieces, just like putting them into a tumble dryer. We urgently need to understand what is happening to our post smolts in estuaries and along the coast.

We should count our blessings. Those of us who are involved in research and management of our wild migratory salmonids are good at giving doom-ridden prognoses on their future abundance. We read the ICES reports showing declining abundance and quality. We read the conclusions of the SALSEA project telling us that European stocks are under threat from the impacts of climate change. We listen to the wise words of the ecologists and ocean specialists who tell us that temperatures, currents, and weather patterns of our oceans are changing.

Mid Atlantic

Mid Atlantic surface feeding by dolphins (picture taken by JMHA from his yacht in May 2012)

Yet, on our own ‘wee patches’, in my case Finavon Castle Water on the South Esk, we live in hope that all these depressing statements and predictions may be wrong. If you are a tenant at Upper Arndilly on Spey in the second week in July for example, with 50 salmon for your week, you could be forgiven for thinking that the scientists are giving us a lot of twaddle. At Finavon, to catch three 15lbs April salmon in spectacular, Platonic-form, condition you might think “well, we don’t have to worry, do we?. But, make no mistake, these facts will not go away: they are with us here and now as the effects of ocean warming march northwards by 23 kms each year. We all need to ‘think globally and act locally’. Never have Sir Patrick Geddes’s words been more relevant.

TA on 12/7/2012



A visit to the Rottal Burn

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

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 Rottal Burn drains the north side of Glen Clova through the Kennet Burn, two burns off Finbracks (2,478′) and another two burns from the northwest. These 5 burns join together above some waterfalls to form the Rottal Burn, which flows from just upstream of Rottal Lodge for about one mile before joining the South Esk between Drums and Kilburn. The Rottal is a sizeable burn with excellent substrata of gravels and cobbles, ideal for spawning salmonids. Like many of the South Esk’s tributaries the Rottal Burn has been abused to allow drainage of adjacent farming land. In the case of the Rottal Burn the damage caused by derdging was the removal of virtually all juvenile salmonids habitat.

The Rottal Restoration Project is supported by the South Esk Catchment Management Partnership, which includes the Esk Rivers and Fisheries Trust, SEPA, Angus Council, SNH, the Forestry Commission, the Cairngorm National Park Authority and others. But the accolade must go to Marshall Halliday, Director of the Esk Rivers and Fisheries Trust, who has driven the restoration from Day One. It is an innovative and pioneering project, and a wonderful boost for everyone who loves the River.

Rottal Ditch

The Rottal ‘Ditch’. Great flow, clean water, terrific spawning cobbles and gravels, but nowhere for little fish to grow up in safety.

There was a nice report in The Courier on the 16th of June describing the Esks Fisheries Trust’s project to restore the Rottal Burn. This important upper catchment tributary was severely damaged by a dredging operation in 2003, preceded by alterations to its course over two centuries. Fortunately, the original course of the burn is recorded in eighteenth century maps, and they have provided the inspiration for the restoration project. In an alluvial plain, as Glen Clova is, tributaries move about, so any naturally formed river or stream course is likely to have changed many times over the centuries. Nevertheless, the 18th century map gives us the most recent of these natural morphological changes, and there is merit in that as a starting point.

The purpose of the project is habitat enhancement, but not only for wild salmon and sea trout. In the South Esk catchment the freshwater pearl mussel Margaritifera margaritifera is a target for conservation, supported by its EU protected status. The parasitic relationship between the larva of the mussel (Glochidia) and upstream migrating salmon and sea trout, where the larva resides in the gills of the fish, before dropping off into upstream gravel locations to establish new mussel colonies, or strengthen existing ones, is a major justification for the Rottal project. A real success measure would be to find a new colony of MM in the burn following completion of the project.

Rottal ditch

This photograph shows the existing Rottal Burn downstream of the bridge on the north road of Glen Clova. Although the Rottal Burn is an ‘alt’ (i.e. with waterfalls impassable to migratory fish) the available spawning and juvenile potential habitat, quality of gravels and cobbles, and flow in the burn, make it a very important upper catchment tributary for all of its length downstream of the waterfalls. If the outcome of the Rottal restoration project is good quality habitats for both spawning and juvenile growth, the project will have been worthwhile, and that is before taking into account other benefits from the enhanced local environment.

Rottal confluenceThe existing confluence of the Rottal Burn with the South Esk in Glen Clova. This photograph shows the depth to which the Rottal Burn was dredged in 2003, the effect of which was to lower the water table in the vicinity of the burn in its lower reaches. The immediate riparian habitat was damaged by loss of the ‘sponge effect’, as well as in-stream habitats for juvenile salmon and sea trout. One big advantage of the restoration project is that salmon and sea trout are already using the gravels and cobbles of the Rottal Burn to spawn. With improved juvenile habitats after completion of the project the survival of fry to parr to smolts should improve. We might expect S2 and S3 smolts from the restored burn.

The photographs above show how the existing dredged channel of the burn has reduced it to little more than a high energy ditch, albeit with some very good quality cobble, suitable for spawning salmon. The problem as far as migratory salmonids are concerned has been the lack of habitat for fry and parr. With bankside foliage removed and the burn reduced to a shallow high energy riffle over gravels and cobble, there are no pools or refuges for little fish as they grow bigger.

Glen Clova is, or should be, rich in wildlife. The restoration of the Rottal Burn will provide additional wetland habitat for, amongst others, various species of wading birds such as curlews, snipe, oyster catchers and green plovers (lapwings). Amphibians such as frogs and newts and a wide range of species of invertebrate, including many species of lepidoptera, will also be encouraged to return to levels of natural abundance. After completion of the restoration project, the existing deep drainage channel of the burn will no longer exist, resulting in a raised water table, encouraging wild flowers, grasses and reeds, and thereby improving the adjacent riparian habitat.

The photographs below show how the Rottal Restoration Project has approached the problem of ‘kick-starting’ the morphological processes that will, over time, lead to a natural sequence of riffles and pools through a series of bends and changes in gradient. It is important to recognise that an artificial stream bed, as will be the situation in the Rottal Burn on completion of the project, will not be the final product, because the forces of natural flow variations, especially in times of spates, will have the ultimate say in sculpting the bed of the stream, eroding banks and depositing gravel bars. But the imaginative, sensitive and at times, subtle, work done by McIntosh contractors of Echt is giving natural morphology a great start. I am in no doubt that, when trees and shrubs grow up along the banks of the burn, and pools on corners develop deeper pockets where small fish can escape from predators or shelter in times of spate, the burn will have significant holding capacity for juveniles.

Rottal Burn Project

These photographs show phase 1 of the Rottal Project completed. It involved sculpting the course of the burn, derived from old maps that showed the course of the burn in the 18th century. The contractor has not been tempted to make dramatic changes, and instead has chosen to make a fairly shallow channel which meanders along and around old contours to the east of the canalised section of the burn downstream of the road.

Of course Phase 2 of the restoration will require the filling in of the canalised or ‘ditch’ section so that the flow of the whole burn can be added to the limited flow that is currently piped into the new course of the restored burn. That will take time, and will probably be quite messy, especially in wet weather. But in this part of the world one year makes a terrific difference; with another’s summer’s growth and more tree planting done, the new burn course will settle in quickly and, from my own experience I would guesss that inside five years it will look as if it was never any different! Trees, bankside foliage and natural morphology will soon make the Rottal Burn what it once was.

The new confluence with the South Esk is about 300 yards downstream of the current confluence. Phase 2 of the project will probably take place in early September. Between now and the beginning of Phase 2 a gentle flow of water runs through a pipe from the canalised section which has had the effect of cleaning the gravels and cobbles in the top 300 yards or so of the restored section. It is deeply reassuring to see the clean gravel there, although further down the restored section, nearer to the confluence, there is still a predominance of gritty silt. If the September date is met, and Phase 2 completed during that month, it will lead to gravels and cobbles being cleaned down the whole length of the burn by the end of October, providing every chance of salmon spawning there in November and December 2012.

Rottal ChannelThe photo above shows how the contractor has started the morphological process ‘by suggestion rather than statement’. The point is that he has created a situation where natural morphology can take over and form the new burn. It is a clever and subtle piece of landscape engineering, and deserves recognition for not taking the engineering part of the project too far.


Another view of the sculpted channel waiting for a full flow of water.

Bends & contours

Bends in the lower section of the burn, just upstream of the confluence with the South Esk, use natural contours (in this photo glacial deposits) taking the Rottal Burn back to its original meandering course.


Rottal bends

Looking towards the confluence with the South Esk down the freshly sculpted channel of the original course of the Rottal Burn

New confluence

 This is the newly made confluence of the South Esk with the restored channel of the Rottal Burn. The total length of the new channel, following the flood plain contours and meandering towards the river with bends and gradients, is about 1000 yards; One thousand yards of spawning and juvenile fish habitat, perhaps for our spring salmon. If the burn were to produce 1000 smolts every year, which is certainly possible, there could be another 50 spring salmon into the South Esk!

Floods, fish & a big fish lost.

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

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

I have never seen the South Esk hold high levels of water so consistently and for such a long period in mid summer, as has happened in June and early July this year.

As I write this bulletin in the morning of Sunday 8/7, the river is fining down to a good height for night sea trout fishing, but it is likely that most of the sea trout have already taken the opportunity of good flows to migrate into the upper river and the high ground tributaries. As evidence for that bit of speculation, I note that Cortachy and Downie Park have started to catch more sea trout. Nevertheless, so far this season we have already caught 74 sea trout in FCW pools, with three over 5lbs. My impression of the 2012 sea trout numbers is that they are similar to recent years. However, the quality of individual sea trout is excellent, which tells us something about the nutritious value of prey they are finding along the coast.

I mentioned in a previous blog that my ecologist friend, Jens Christian Holst, who works at the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, Norway, predicted that in 2012 there would be some very large MSW salmon returning to the rivers of southern Norway and the east coast of Scotland and England. There is ample evidence that his prediction is correct, with examples of an estimated 48lbs salmon from the Balmoral water, and good fish of up to 25lbs from both Esks. In fact there have been reports of big salmon from many rivers, from the Tyne to the Naver and all rivers between. Unfortunately Jens Christian also predicted yet another poor grilse run. Like all matters concerning wild creatures nothing is ever black and white, so there will be some grilse that have found good feeding in the NE Atlantic, but on the whole we can expect undernourished ‘thin’ grilse, and not that many of them. I would be pleased if his prediction concerning grilse was wrong! In the coming years, as the implications of the SALSEA project work through the system, there is likely to be better predicting of returning migrations of wild Atlantic salmon, in terms of both numbers and quality. The implications of these predictions should enable fishery managers to take informed decisions to conserve fragile populations, instead of the guesswork and delayed actions they depend on at present.

 Marcus House Pool

The photo above was taken looking downstream from the head of Marcus House Pool. The left bank is owned by Marcus Estate but is not fished by Marcus rods because of an agreement whereby FCW anglers do not fish the pool below, Breadalbane, in return for exclusive use of House Pool by Finavon rods. Marcus Estate is now on the market and the new owner may decide to retain the current agreement, or revert to the previous free-for-all, where Marcus rods virtually stood on top of the fish while fishing from the rocky north bank of House Pool, and Finavon rods waded through the best lies at the head of Breadalbane Pool.

At Finavon we have caught and released a good number of MSW salmon up to 19lbs. On Friday Alec Towns, who knows Finavon well and is an experienced and skilled fisherman, hooked a very large salmon in Beeches Pool (just above the Aqueduct on Castle Beat). When this great fish took his fly it nearly wrenched the rod out of his hands. He played the fish for half an hour or so, with strong runs down into Haughs Pool below the aqueduct, and, after coaxing it back into the quiet glide immediately upstream of the aqueduct, started to feel that the fish was tiring. By this time he had seen the fish many times at close range. It was fresh from the sea and, judging by the size of its tail and its breadth & length, was almost certainly more than 25lbs. The last moments of contact with this beautiful salmon were spent applying side strain to inch the fish back across the river (no more than 20 yards wide at that point) towards where he was standing about ten yards upstream of the aqueduct. Suddenly there was a loud “crack” as his brand new top brand rod shattered with its second section above the butt broken into two pieces. The shock of the sudden break put huge strain on the 12lbs cast and broke it at the fly. When I saw Alec afterwards he was sad and disappointed because, as he said “it was the fish of a lifetime” lost as a result of an unreliable rod. I sometimes (increasingly often!) toy with the notion of returning to the past to fish with my Sharpes impregnated, spliced cane rods!

Other large salmon have been seen. One, described by Moray as “a dolphin” showed tantalisingly in the smooth glide immediately upstream of Volcano on Milton Beat, was a very large salmon (estimated at well over 20lbs), and other fish of a similar size have been reported from Frank’s Stream and Indies Pool on Indies Beat. As I have fished in the last few days I have been aware of the possibility of catching a really big salmon. They are there, but not in big numbers. Our regular visitor and designer of the FCW website, Simon Walter, who only started salmon fishing three years ago, caught three salmon to 15lbs at Finavon, and a very pretty 8lbs fish at Stracathro on the North Esk, plus two sea trout for his week. He drove South last night, a contented and relaxed man!

In my next blog I shall report on an inspiring visit to the Rottal Burn.

TA on 8/7/2012