Archive for July, 2013

Sea Trout River?

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

These bulletin blogs represent news about Finavon and the South Esk, and my views as a riparian owner. While I may digress at times to write about other places, these 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 South Esk

A sea trout river first, and salmon river second; Is that a fair description of the river in 2013?

Willows in June

Perfect sea trout water on the South Esk. The pool is Willows

The South Esk has a long and deserved reputation as one of Scotland’s great sea trout rivers. In the 1960s it was not unusual for the total catch of sea trout and finnock in the S. Esk District to exceed 20,000. In 1967 the catch was 37,000. Only the Ythan, Deveron and Spey came anywhere close to matching these catches. As far as we know, the South Esk continues to produce good numbers of sea trout smolts, although recent years have seen a decline – possibly from competition for redds and juvenile habitat with salmon. Whether it is this, or marine mortality, which seems more likely, the last five years have seen a severe, but not unprecedented decline in numbers of returning adult fish. Nevertheless, the South Esk remains a top sea trout river.

Seatrout shoal in Boat Pool

A shoal of sea trout in the Boat Pool on Milton Beat of FCW. July 2013

I have often been asked why the South Esk is so much more productive as a sea trout river than its close neighbour the North Esk. As always with sea trout, there is no easy answer. The river has all the habitat requirements of the sea-going version of Salmo trutta L. – the brown trout, from gravelly upper tributaries to the deep pools and dubs with their quiet, alder-overhung tails. I have seen shoals of 200 – 300 sea trout averaging two and a half pounds in the Dam Pool at Kintrockat, and similar numbers in the Boat Pool at Finavon. But the most impressive show of sea trout that I have seen anywhere is in the Garden Pool at Inshewan. Less than a decade ago this single pool produced over 350 sea trout to night-fishing rods.

Unlike the great sea trout systems of the Western Highlands – Stack, Maree, Shiel, Eilt and Na Shealagh (all now ruined by reckless expansion of salmon farms), there are few big sea trout caught on the South Esk. The century average is just over two and a quarter pounds and the biggest I have ever heard of was a twelve pound fish caught at Inshewan. Sea trout of 5lbs and heavier have never been common.

Until recently the coastal nets South of Montrose continued to take a heavy toll of the South Esk’s sea trout stocks, in May June and July each year killing 2,000 to 3,000 fish, in addition to 6,000 salmon and grilse. But now the netsmen have agreed to return their catch of sea trout alive to the sea and they say that none will be sold. You would have thought that we should see more fish in the river as a result.

For anglers visiting the South Esk in June or July to fish for its sea trout, there is a culture of night fishing. There is a group of 30 to 40 anglers who home-in on this little river to fish for sea trout through the short summer nights, and witness the heavy splashes and spreading ripples made by these mysterious fish against a sliver of light in the night sky. The South Esk is (or was) defined by its sea trout. The essence of this little river is the experience of waiting beside a tree-lined pool at dusk for the colour to drain from the landscape and for the bats to start their incessant search above the water for flying insects. The lines of alders against the sky with the dark pools at their roots, and the slow, sometimes imperceptible, draw as a sea trout takes the fly, represent aspects of an angling culture that very few rivers can sustain, and the South Esk is one of these.

My view as a manager, not as a scientist, is that in the long term there is no reason why sea trout numbers should not improve. I say this on the evidence of an increase in terms of prey species biomass around Scotland’s coast, possibly as a result of recent colder winters. This increase has been recorded by SNH and marine biologists.  It appears that there is a similar trend in Ireland, the Celtic Sea and Northern England. We cannot be certain why there should be a sudden and unexpected increase in zoo plankton, phytoplankton, sand-eels etc.

What we can say however, is that further afield in the South Norwegian Sea, things are not looking so good with a collapse in herring, blue whiting and mackerel stocks. Interactions between salmon and other species tell us a lot about population dynamics, and gives us insights for explaining the condition of individual fish. To summarise; close to Scotland’s shores there seems just now to be plenty of food, but elsewhere the situation is at best patchy. Conclusion? OK for sea trout, not so good for grilse, and OK for 2 sea-winter salmon and the odd 3 sea-winter salmon that survives.

TA 21/7/2013



Temperature rises still further, & river level falls

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

These bulletin blogs represent news about Finavon and the South Esk, and my views as a riparian owner. While I may digress at times to write about other places, these 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 my last blog I mentioned the shoal of sea trout in Boat Pool. I have been away for a few days and, on my return, paid a visit to the Boat Pool again in bright sunshine. This time, in much more helpful light than on my last visit, I was able to make a rough assessment of the numbers of salmon and sea trout in the section of Milton Beat between Tyndals and Volcano.

Colin Gibb at Boat Pool

Colin Gibb and I surveyed the sea trout and salmon in Boat Pool on 21/7/2013.

As a result of that informal survey, where we could count numbers of fish lying on the bed of the river in about two thirds of the river width from the south bank, I estimate that there are about 200+ seatrout in that pool and about 20-30 salmon, all lying in the main dub of the pool immediately upstream of Volcano.

Seatrout shoal in Boat Pool

I tried to take some photos (see photo above) from which you can just pick out the grey shadows of little clusters of sea trout lying doggo on the bed of the Boat Pool. The salmon were more elusive, but you can just see one or two of them too – well, perhaps not quite!

Sanctuary for heat stressed fish

This photo shows the holding section of the Boat Pool in very low water. On 20 July 2013 there were more than 200 sea trout and between 20 & 30 salmon lying quietly in the deeper, shaded water of Boat Pool.

Conditions for catching sea trout at night have been good at times, but more recently, with the high daytime temperatures and rising water temperature, fish have been reluctant to take the fly. Sea trout have been seen in good numbers ion both Red Brae and Boat Pool, but the other pools on all four beats have shown only occasional fish. Some people will argue that the low catches reveal a disastrously small sea trout run.

While I agree sea trout numbers may be less than the abundance traditionally associated with the South Esk, I also acknowledge the capricious behaviour of sea trout in fresh water, and the lack of evidence of numbers, that are so vital to accurate stock assessment. I will continue to argue that fishery management based on guess-work is generally inaccurate and ineffective.

Willows in June

Photo above. Willows (Milton Beat) in the low water of July 2013.

Until management of the South Esk salmon and sea trout fishery is based on sound stock assessment, we will continue to receive knee-jerk calls for hatcheries to be reintroduced to the river (as is happening as I write this blog). While there is certainly a place for hatcheries and stocking in the fishery manager’s toolkit, it should not be the first remedy to which we turn on the basis of one or two seasons poor rod catches. Perhaps the first step should be to have a management plan based on the best available assessment of numbers of salmon and sea trout? We can then identify which groups of fish are in a fragile state – close to or below conservation levels – and then take remedial actions in an organised, prioritised and realistic way to target those identified groups.

It is undoubtedly a poor year for sea trout rod fishing, but, as yet there is little evidence of a collapse in sea trout stocks: just an impression that numbers are low. So let’s get on with managing our little river on the basis of common sense & good husbandry, supported by science.

Sea trout arrive in numbers

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

These bulletin blogs represent news about Finavon and the South Esk, and my views as a riparian owner. While I may digress at times to write about other places, these 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

At last there are some good shoals of sea trout in Finavon’s pools. It is not much of a surprise to me that the main run arrived about two weeks late. A discussion with an eminent salmonids scientist at the Scone Game Fair, when he reminded me that the North Sea has taken an unusually long time to warm up after the very cold spring, convinced me that there is no need to be unduly pessimistic about South Esk sea trout – or at least no more than last year or the year before.

Copy of Flow into Craigo

The flow into Craigo Stream at the head of the Red Brae Pool. A great place for a big sea trout in the hour before dawn.

My observations of three or four of FCW’s best pools in the unhelpful light of late evening confirmed that there are two or three hundred sea trout spread among these pools, and doubtless others in pools I didn’t visit. I did notice however that the average size of the fish is smaller than normal, although there are a few fish of 3lbs + in evidence too. In general I think the level of abundance at Finavon is healthy, but nothing to shout home about, and certainly nowhere near the levels of the early 1990s.

There are also some MSW salmon in the deeper pools. By now these fish, remnants of the spring run, will be well settled into their freshwater role and probably very hard to catch. A rise in the water level might persuade an occasional fish to take a fly, but in my view they are best left alone to get on up river to spawn.

Those of us who live on the banks of rivers, observing migrations of salmon and sea trout day by day and season by season, sometimes find it difficult to separate the wood from the trees. I try to avoid too much pessimism by keeping the big picture in mind. A small blip in one annual migration, such as with our sea trout this year, is just that – a small blip. If I look at FCW catches on their own I will inevitably have a distorted picture of what is happening within the South Esk catchment and, perhaps more importantly, what is happening regionally (I like the term ‘bio-region’ which describes the coastal and marine habitats of the Scottish east coast where our sea trout feed). The health of the Atlantic Ocean, and its surrounding seas, such as the North Sea or the Celtic Sea, is the much bigger context, the importance of which we are only just starting to grasp. Avoiding pessimism and doomy prognostications of future dearths of both species is a favourite passtime of the angling community. Perhaps we need to take a wider and longer view?

Our fishing effort at FCW is extremely low at present because syndicate members and our visitors have been discouraged by the low water and absence of fish. I hope that will now change because we now have good numbers of fresh sea trout to encourage more late night stints on the water.

TA 10/7