Archive for September, 2012

Thinking about the Lemno Burn

Monday, September 17th, 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 structure of a river catchment is one of the factors that determines the breakdown of the river’s stock of salmon – and maybe sea trout – into distinct populations. The shape of the catchment, altitude, gradient, topographical features (such as waterfalls), geology and chemical characteristics of its water, define a river’s migratory salmonids in terms of run timings and the predisposition of its salmon to return as grilse or multi sea-winter salmon, as well as variations in behaviour of sea trout. In big rivers, like the Tay or Dee, that may seem an obvious statement, but for a little river, such as the South Esk, we may overlook the importance of its smaller tributaries, and the role they play in the evolution of the characteristics of the stock of the whole river catchment.

The lowest stretch of the Lemno

The Lemno Burn just upstream of its confluence with the South Esk at Finavon. The photograph above was taken during a cleaning up operation by volunteers in April 2012, which involved moving tons of rubbish from the burn, whose gravel bed was covered by a thick blanket of gooey silt, up to 2′ 0″deep in places.

The Lemno Burn is a much abused drain for agricultural run-off and chemical enrichment from the intensively farmed Vale of Strathmore. There is anecdotal, but I think reliable, evidence that the Lemno was once an important spawning burn. Farmers upstream of Battledykes, through whose land the King’s Burn flows, tell of dead salmon kelts washed up on the banks of the burn after winter floods. As far as I am aware, there has not been any redd or official juvenile count in the King’s Burn in recent years. My guess is that it still supports a stock of salmon and trout, albeit a diminished one.

TA wading in the 'porridge' of silt in the Lemno Burn at Finavon

The photo above shows how the artificially wide channel and silting up of the burn has slowed the current and reduced scouring, even in a spate. By getting the water moving again we hope to reveal the good quality gravels beneath the silt and encourage fish to use the burn again.

Silt, sewage, pollution and utrification have severely damaged the habitat for spawning and juvenile salmon and sea trout once provided by this South Esk tributary. Despite the degraded condition of the habitat in some parts of the Lemno, electro fishing the middle and upper reaches by Marine Scotland scientists has revealed some very large parr, especially in the area of the confluence with the King’s Burn at Battledykes. There is no record of whether these fish were salmon or trout, or whether there is a mixture of the two. If we can restore the Lemno to a level that can support a diversity of aquatic life, it is likely that the burn will once again make a valuable contribution to the recruitment of salmon and sea trout.

An overgrown and overshaded Lemno Burn

Blocked by trees and accumulated rubbish, and full of the detritus of years of neglect and a thick ‘porridge’ of silt, the Lemno Burn is far from the ideal environment one would look for in an important tributary of the South Esk. But even in the photo above we can see the potential for restoration with the healthy flow and substrate of good quality gravel and cobble. If we can reduce the tree canopy to let the light in, we should have more phyto and zoo life in the burn, which should lead to providing the food necessary for healthy juvenile fish abundance.

Lemno Channel April 2012

Another photo (above) of the degraded channel of the Lemno Burn in its lower reaches. The accumulation of feet of glutinous silt at this point ensures no salmon or sea trout could spawn in this part of the burn.

If you walk up the Lemno Burn from its confluence with the South Esk at Finavon’s Red Brae Pool, the first thing that strikes you is the unnatural width of the channel downstream of the A90 dual carriageway. The channel is indeed an artificial one, because it was the lade of the roundstone dyke at Tannadice which was removed in 1946. Prior to that time the Lemno Burn joined up with the lade which provided water power for the mill on the Finavon Estate. When the water from the main river was diverted into the lade by a sluice on the south end of the dyke it combined with the water from the Lemno to make a sizeable stream. In low water the effect of the diversion was to discourage fish from running, with the result that they would gather in large shoals in the pools immediately above and below the Red Brae.

Lemno Burn after the tree canopy was reduced

The last mile of the Lemno Burn, between the A90 and where the burn joins the South Esk, is a heavily wooded section. Over the years the tree canopy has spread out and removed all direct light from the sun. The photo above shows how the burn now looks after a major tree thinning operation in the winter of 2011/12.

In this summer’s blogs I have commented on the importance of one of these smaller tributaries – the Rottal Burn – and the rather surprising lack of our knowledge about its role in contributing to recruitment of juvenile salmon and sea trout prior to the start of the restoration project. It would I think have been useful to have had a baseline from which we could measure the effects of the project on populations of migratory fish using the burn. The lack of that baseline means that we may have to resort to guessing, which, for those of us who take an interest in the South Esk, is all too familiar a situation!

While the Rottal Burn is an upper catchment tributary and, as such, a natural destination for early running salmon – producing mainly S3 smolts (but maybe some S4s amongst them), the Lemno Burn is a middle catchment tributary. The Lemno Burn’s confluence with the main river at the Red Brae Pool on Milton Beat of Finavon Castle Water is about 15Kms from the tide at Bridge of Dun. The ‘plateau’, which I described in the previous blog, where there is about 500 metres of gentle gradient between two much steeper gradients, seems to be at about the right distance from the tide for migrating fish to rest. Spawning fish arriving at the mouth of the Lemno in the late summer and autumn may have used the burn to gain access to the King’s Burn at Battledykes. One of the radio receivers used in the tracking project is currently sited on the Lemno Burn. It will be interesting to see if any spring salmon use this burn.

The Lemno Burn may be more like the Pow Burn, which is the lowest of the South Esk’s tributaries and provides habitat mainly for sea trout, or like the tributaries of the upper catchment catering for the needs of salmon, or both species. It will be interesting to find out; and the best place to start is to clean up the lower reaches and improve conditions for spawning and juveniles further upstream. Work in progress.

TA 20 September 2012

The Willows. Finavon’s top pool.

Thursday, September 6th, 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

In the 36 years I have lived on the South Esk near or at Finavon many people have commented on the reliable performance of Willows for catching both salmon and sea trout at all times of the season and in all conditions. I became aware of the capacity of this pool to produce fish in all water levels in 2000, when I discovered that a lightly tied and weighted nymph cast upstream to fish lying beneath the willows that billow out from the north bank – and from which the pool gets its name – can occasionally persuade salmon, grilse and sea trout to take in bright sunlight. Over the first ten days of August of that year I caught 15 salmon and grilse and three sea trout using that method in drought conditions.

Willows in June

Willows in June

Willows is a ‘pool’ only in the salmon fishers’ definition of a pool as a place where you catch fish. Actually Willows is the head of the Boat Pool. If you want to be really picky you could argue that Tyndals, Willows, Upper Boat Pool, Volcano and Lower Boat Pool are all one pool – a pool 500 yards long in a small river. This highly productive stretch of river is defined by its plateau topography, ideally situated at a distance from the sea where, in most conditions, running fish are ready to pause in their upstream migration. The ‘Plateau’ is therefore an extended resting or holding area for South Esk migratory fish.

Alasdair Petrie covering Willows lies in low water

Alasdair Petrie covering Willows lies in low water

Alasdair was ghillie and river keeper at Finavon for nearly twenty years (1989 – 2008). In the photo above he is casting a weighted nymph to the main lie at the Willows in low water in 2000. During that month Willows produced salmon, grilse and sea trout, all caught on the nymph in broad daylight, sometimes sunshine.

Tyndals Pool at dusk

Looking downstream from the head of Tyndals towards The Willows. The photo above shows how this is really just one long pool. The pool names are only our convenient way of identifying the likely places to catch fish!

Above the plateau is the steep gradient down from Bridge Pool into Tyndals Pool, and below it is the fast water through the Flats, Castle Stream and the cataract downstream into Craigo Stream. Between those two high energy and turbulent streams the ‘plateau’ provides welcome respite and a place for salmon to pause or lie up. For a salmon or sea trout hellbent on getting up into the glens this plateau is the first natural resting area after the long haul of 12 swimming miles from the tide at the House of Dun railway viaduct. In the right conditions salmon and sea trout can be at Finavon within 12 hours, carrying female sea lice with their ‘ropes’ of eggs (long tails) still evident.

My first experiences of fishing Willows were in those short and fruitful sea trout fishing nights of the 1980s when sea trout were in great abundance and Finavon was regularly catching 300+ in a season. Willows and Indies were our top pools with each pool  recording upwards of 85 sea trout in a season.

Fishing Willows requires stealth and a readiness to await the end of dusk and the start of the night proper, albeit a light one in late June or early July. The shoal of sea trout will probably be lying in calm water in and around the overhanging willow bushes, and usually the shoal extends, like a pale shadow on the bed of the river, well down into Upper Boat Pool, and is very easily disturbed. Tactics must involve good fieldcraft, minimal noise from crunching gravel, no torchlight shining on the water, and of course accurate casting. It is also important to minimise false casting because in the clear water of the low South Esk, on a crepuscular as opposed to dark summer’s night, fish will react to the flash of a line or leader. It is also important that the fly is presented with some delicacy, especially in the earlier part of the night.

Often you can hear sea trout splashing about under the trees, and on more than one occasion I have heard (and felt!) sea trout crashing through their branches after taking the fly and diving under or leaping into the foliage. These hooked  fish are nearly always lost after a short tussel, sometimes with a sea trout momentarily suspended from a willow branch! If you want a really good night’s fishing, after your reconnaissance has revealed a shoal of 50+ sea trout in the pool, it is important that you avoid wading through the shoal, which means not wading too far out from the south bank. If you do hook a fish you should  try to bring it away from the shoal by coaxing it upstream to land it where you have already waded. Sometimes, if you get a big sea trout (4lbs and above), you won’t be able to control it, and the likelihood is that, after landing your big fish, you will need to give the pool a half hour rest to allow the shoal to re-form. On four or five occasions I have hooked a salmon in the spot where you expect a sea trout. Playing a fresh-run salmon of more than 10lbs in the restricted confines of Willows at night is a great experience, but perhaps not the best preparation for a productive night’s sea trout fishing!

Playing a 15lbs salmon in The Willows

Playing a 15lbs salmon in The Willows

This 15lbs salmon was hooked and landed in The Willows in April 2008. The end of the line of willows (seen in the photo above) is a great holding lie for a salmon any time after the beginning of March. It is also the best place at Finavon to catch sea trout at night in low water.

Willows in low water is radically different from the same pool in a spate. I think of Bill Currie’s book, ‘The River Within’, when I reflect on the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Willows. The two aspects of the pool are so different that I have toyed with the idea of giving them different names, perhps ‘The Willows Glide’ for low water and ‘Boat Stream’ for high water. Bill, who often fished at Finavon and caught a number of sea trout in The Willows, described the Tay in low water as a different river from the famous river of spring and autumn flows. He talked about new streams, pots, ‘scallops’ and lies that are revealed as the river drops to summer low levels and how, even in  low flow conditions, fresh grilse and multi sea-winter fish become available to the skillfull fly fisherman in places that the usual visitor to the Tay never knew existed! That is how Willows is. In a spate it becomes a smooth, fast flowing stream of 4′ 0″ of water over gravel as it enters the much deeper holding pool of Upper Boat. 

The Willows can be electrifyingly exciting to fish because in those conditions it can hold large numbers of taking salmon. For example, my brother John, who only had a couple of hours before leaving for the South, caught three beautiful autumn salmon on a sunny October morning in 2010. Over the years there have been first salmon, big fish, minor disasters and sheer joy provided by the Willows, a pool that is only 40 yards long and no deeper than 4′ 6″. It is also the pool which in 1936 produced the biggest salmon ever caught at Finavon – a 36lbs August fish.

Harbour sea in Willows

Finally, The Willows is where in October 2008 Derek Strachan took the remarkable photo above of a harbour seal. When I consider the obstacles which this legless marine mammal had to surmount to reach Finavon – a feat that surely would qualify it for a paralympic steeplechase – I am lost in admiration for its determination and agility, despite the mayhem it undoubtedly caused among our pre-spawning salmon!

TA 7/9/2012


August brings big spates and skinny grilse

Sunday, September 2nd, 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 last week of August 2012 will be remembered for the big spate that overflowed the banks of the South Esk and ensured that the river stayed at a good fishing height into September. Big MSW salmon continue to arrive, with fish up to 20lbs caught on all 4 beats. In contrast to these big, healthy MSW fish we have caught a few skinny grilse, at least half of which had RVS (Red Vent Syndrome). The sharp difference in wellbeing of the MSW and One Sea Winter (grilse) fish demonstrates the effects on our returning salmon of prey species rich, as opposed to poor, areas of the ocean.

NE Atlantic

Northeast Atlantic. Great sunset, but is there anything there for our grilse to eat?

A marine biologist friend from Norway put it in very simple terms; if you draw a line North/South through the middle of Iceland it is fair to say that west of that line in the Atlantic Ocean (e.g. Irminger & Labrador Seas and the Greenland coast) salmon are likely to find an abundance of prey species, and subsequently return to their rivers of origin in good condition. Those females should ultimately deposit big healthy ova to give the next generation of salmon a good start in life.

Ilulissat ice field West Greenland

Where some of our MSW salmon feed. 200 miles inside the arctic circle the Jacobshavn Glacier enters the sea, close to the town of Ilulisat. These prey rich coastal waters provide high quality nutrition for fish from Canada and USA, and for some European MSW salmon. It’s a long way for the fish to swim (more than 5000 miles return journey) and many mishaps can happen en route. By the time salmon from the west coast of Greenland reach Scottish rivers they are well muscled and fit, ready for the strenuous migration up its river of origin to the spawning redds, but sadly they are relatively few in numbers.

But east of that line through Iceland, salmon are likely to find a shortage of food. Many will die of starvation in the NE Atlantic and Norwegian Sea. Some will make it back to their native rivers in poor condition, with the result of producing poor quality ova. It is mainly to the northeast Atlantic Ocean where our grilse go to feed. Greenland is too far for them to go, feed and return over one sea-winter year. Hence our one sea-winter salmon return as skinny grilse. Inevitably, as with all natural things, it isn’t quite as simple as that because there are occasional patches of abundant food in the NE Atlantic. Some of our grilse are returning in reasonable condition, showing that they have found such sources of food, while others may access areas of prey abundance, for example within the Iceland shelf, but still within range of returning after one winter at sea.

5lbs cock grilse from Volcano

A nice plump 5lbs grilse from Volcano (above). Healthy grilse like this one have been in short supply this season.

These painfully thin grilse average about 3lbs, and are unlikely to be carrying ova of good quality. Despite their poor condition, they are OK to eat, although distinctly less oily than their more fortunate fatter cousins. It is important to freeze or properly cook grilse with RVS to kill the worm that attacks the anal area of the affected fish. Using such fish for Suschi or gravadlax is not a good idea because the worms can survive these processes and attack the human body with quite serious effects. I use them well cooked to make Risotto, salmon Lasagne, or a kedgeree. Take care.

13lbs salmon from Volcano

13lbs salmon from Volcano

This coloured hen salmon of about 13lbs was caught on a size 12 Cascade by Andrew Robertson, and which I netted for him, in slightly amber but very clear water in the glide into Volcano. This strong and healthy fish was of course returned carefully to the river to continue her upstream journey, perhaps to spawn in one of the burns joining the main stem in Glen Clova. Such multi-sea-winter fish represent the future of salmon stocks in the South Esk, and we need to ensure that as many of them as possible reach the spawning redds in the upper catchment.

I am writing this bulletin on the 1st of September after a week of high water. The FCW catch stands at 95 salmon and grilse and 141 sea trout for the 2012 season to date. I note that beats on the North Esk are starting to catch lots of fish. The only surprise this year has been the very slow start on that river, but things should change from now to the end of the season. The seatrout runs for 2012 are now over, despite Lower Kinnaird’s 38 sea trout recorded on the Fishpal website on Thursday. If they were finnock perhaps they should be recorded as such.

The Usan netting extension. Meanwhile the Usan nets have a 14 day licence to continue fishing into September, and to catch up to 1000 salmon and grilse, but no sea trout. Setting aside the issue of politics and angry anglers, this extension to the netting season means a continuation of what we have had during August, when it appears from observation, catch returns and reports from upstream beats that there have been reasonable runs of both salmon and grilse into the river throughout the month. Let us hope that these runs of fish continue into September. The netting season will finish on 14/9/2012.

TA 1/9/2012