As a newcomer to fly fishing for Salmon this past year, it has been a year of firsts.
First rods, reels, waders, first time I've hooked a fly into my head...first time I've removed a fly from my head actually, and of course, your first season is always full of personal best moments.
It's also a journey which is full of questions and you need to have a desire to learn. Which if you’re anything like me and you find it hard to admit you don’t know something...then you need to get over that and make sure you have an open mind.
Starting out in Salmon fishing is a confusing business with terms to wrap your head around like Skagits, Scandi lines, long belly lines, interchangeable tips, anchor points, D-Loops, Snap T, Double Spey, Single Spey, plenty of Snake Rolls and even more Sausage Rolls.
You also have to be willing to learn from your mistakes, and again, if you’re anything like me and like to think you don’t make any then Salmon Fishing will certainly help sort that out for you and bring you down to earth!
Fortunately for me I had a good friend who was experienced and knowledgable about the sport which is why I ended up picking up the double handed rod in the first instance which was a great help in getting started. If you know someone who already has experience on the river, then my recommendation would be to spend as much time on the water with them initially.
If you don’t, then get out there anyway as by fishing on our Scottish Salmon beats then you will be met with a friendly and extremely knowledgeable Ghillie who in my experience, have all been willing to spend time with you to help you improve your casting and learn to read the water properly all to help get you into your first fish.
I would also highly recommend that you invest in casting lessons with a qualified casting instructor.
There are some great people out there and this will be money well spent as it will only increase your enjoyment of the sport and increase your chances of catching a fish.
What I have experienced though in taking up fly fishing is that it has been the best past time to get away from it all and just relax and de-stress. Sounds a bit naff but it's absolutely true.
As someone who thinks a lot and struggles to switch off and take some time out, fly fishing provides me with a level of serenity that nothing else has ever come close to. I think that the majority of us who share this passion feel this when we're standing in a river, following the swing of our fly hoping upon hope that any moment now our line will go tight, we'll get that pull and a fish is on...in those moments, all other thoughts disappear.
My first season Fishing the fly has taken me to some of the most beautiful places in Scotland where you can still sense what the Scottish wilderness really looked like before modern day life.
It has allowed me to meet some great characters, make new friends and get up close and personal with beautiful wild Atlantic Salmon before seeing them swim away again into their world. Glad to see the back of you with no understanding of the lasting memory that they made possible by gracing you with their presence.
Why did I all of a sudden feel the need to start fishing for Salmon though at the age of 35?
Well you see I grew up coarse fishing on canals and commercial coarse fisheries as a youngster so fishing has always been a part of my life but as I grew up and life got busier and my responsibilities grew, I fell away from fishing and it had been years since I had wet a line.
Then a chance meeting with my old friend Terry Mallin, ultimately led to a day on the Inverie beat of the Aberdeenshire Dee in September 2016 which ignited a passion that has both consumed and enriched my life since.
But it can be quite daunting and frustrating when you're just getting started of that there is no doubt. Casting with a double handed rod 15ft in length is no mean feat for a newbie.
Take that first day on the Dee for example, Terry handed me this huge 15ft rod and I'm thinking what the hell are you supposed to do with this?
Fortunately for me though, I was in good hands as Terry was a former guide and very experienced salmon angler who had managed camps in Russia on rivers like the middle Varzuga so after an initial lesson from Terry at the edge of the water on how to execute the double Spey cast, I was just about getting out a decent enough line.
Well, decent enough that the fly was "fishing"...I was already picking up on the lingo. But there were lots of terrible casts and “tailing loops” and all round struggles to cast a line out which is to be expected. However, I also found a sense of satisfaction of feeling that "Tug" on the reel when a well formed loop had sent the line soaring over the river to it's target taking all the line with it yet was still asking for more.
I think that all of us who participate in this sport can understand what that feels like and even from that first day, it left me with a desire to improve my technique and become more consistent with my casting.
Now, it would be poetic to say I caught my first ever Salmon that day on the Dee but I quickly figured out that Salmon fishing isn't as obvious as that! It might be for some don't get me wrong but it wasn't for me that's for sure!
I’ve learned this year that whether a newcomer or experienced Angler, Salmon fishing is tough going and it takes a certain level of resilience to be successful.The fact that it is so tough just adds to the magic for me.
I’m a naturally competitive and positive person so I embrace the challenge and when you’re chasing Salmon with every swing of the fly, you have this hope and expectation that this will be the one, this will be the time, this will be your moment...and that is what keeps me coming back.
The eternal optimism.
That plus the fact that there are other riches to be enjoyed such as being so close to nature and experiencing the beautiful locations the rivers run through. There will always be plenty of wildlife that exists there for you to take in and it is also a brilliant social event with the Ghillies the key protagonists in any lunchtime story, whilst you sit amongst new acquaintances who are sharing the river with you.
Following on from my first trip to the Dee in September, I then fished the Coupar Grange beat of the River Isla in Perthshire which is a tributary of the mighty river Tay. The River Tummel at Pitlochry Dam in April on a roasting hot Scottish spring day where I lost count of the amount of fish I had seen. A further visit to the Dee in May when the temperatures were even warmer and sunnier and with water levels already running low, the water that was left was being used as a swimming pool for the locals!
Throw in numerous visits to my local river Clyde in between and I had not even experienced as much as a pull on my Fly. Despite seeing so many fish running through the rivers.
I had began to develop my own theory by this point that the reason Salmon leap is to get out of the way of my fly!
Lunchtime on the Dee where the water should have been back in May! (BBQ was responsibly packaged up and disposed of).
By this stage though I must admit I was starting to doubt whether or not it would ever happen.
Those first reels, rods, waders I mentioned earlier were all costing a bit of money and I was finding the outlay hard to justify to my wife. Take into account the cost of the days fishing and the tackle and clothing that I was also shelling out for and it was hard to argue when there was no Salmon to show for it.
However, I had an ace up my sleeve that I felt everything was building towards.
Terry and I had a fishing trip booked for the end of July on the river Ewe in the far North East of Scotland, a trip that would last for 3 days and would give us the chance to do nothing but fish everyday…well that and drink loads of beer.
I was sure that this would be the opportunity that would allow me to achieve what was now becoming a driving ambition with mounting pressure to achieve it.
We had been monitoring the river in the weeks leading up to our arrival and it was fishing well, really well, and Terry and I arrived early enough on the Wednesday night to get out onto the river for a couple of hours.
We started working our way through the Sea Pool on the Ewe, so named because of it’s close proximity to Loch Ewe and the sea. This pool is the most perfect Salmon pool you could wish to fish. It is affected by the tides which determines how well it fishes and as good timing would have it, the tide was on it’s way in so we would have a short window to work our way through it.
My expectations were as high as they have ever been, it was a beautiful sunny evening and we were fishing in the perfect location, this had to be it…surely.
As we started to work our way through the pool after a few casts I felt a pull on my Fly…my adrenaline started pumping as it was a new experience for me, did a Salmon just have a go at my fly?? As quickly as it happened, the fly just continued to swing on through the current and the moment was gone.
The adrenaline was flowing through my veins now like the tide through the Sea Pool itself in pure anticipation of what may yet happen on this night when I had a pretty solid take on the fly as I reached the halfway point of the pool. I immediately thought I was in but after the impact of that initial take, I could feel that although this was a welcome fish, it wasn’t a Salmon. It was however my first ever Sea Trout around the 1lb mark so I was delighted and grateful to catch this fresh fish which was one of those new Personal Best moments.
It was quickly followed by two more like it before we reached the end of the pool. We headed back to the House where our friends Callum and Robert had just arrived.
We set about planning the days ahead over a few beers and agreed that we would split up into two teams and go head to head in an East Coast vs. West Coast battle to add some competitiveness to the trip.
Needless to say the two West coasters Terry and I took the beer drinking side of things too seriously on the first night and by the time we had surfaced in the morning, Robert had already landed the first fish of the trip.
A perfect and gorgeous looking 9lb bar of silver as fresh as you could wish to see. This was also Robert’s first ever Salmon and he had caught it in the Sea pool! As soon as I heard this I was desperate to get out there and land my own maiden fish and I was 100% confident that it would happen.
Terry and I covered the length and breadth of the River Ewe on the Thursday which is only just over 2 miles in length but has more features and runs than most of the bigger rivers have over a much longer stretch of water including a section which resembles a loch and is at least 40 feet deep.
We went through every pool explored every part of those features and Terry had hooked and lost a decent fish but we didn’t make any other connections. Meanwhile, Callum had landed a nice fish of his own to take the East Coast tally for the first day to two fresh run fish both in absolutely stunning condition.
I must be honest though and say that was a tough day, by the far the toughest of the year for me and my confidence had hit rock bottom. I knew I was casting well enough and felt that I was putting my fly in the right places so where the hell was the fish!?
With the Friday morning though came the start of a new day and a chance to go again…however tough it was to stay motivated by that point. I just kept telling myself though that my fish was out there. There was a fish that would share some sort of spiritual bond with me and we would be destined to meet.
Terry and I had the first shot at the Sea Pool on this morning. Terry graciously let me work my way through first as I started at the head of the pool and I was working my way towards the tail, cast and step, cast and step just trying to hit the far bank with my fly and let it swing round through the current with no mending as per the Ghillie's instructions.
Cast and step and cast and step. Ray the Ghillie on the Ewe turned up as I was nearing the tail of the pool and he had a landing net with him…would this be a good omen I thought?
Cast and step and a few words with Ray, cast and step, Cast and bang…Fish on!
I couldn’t believe that this moment had come, to feel the power of this Wild fish put a bend in a 15 foot 10 weight rod and go on powerful runs pulling line off the reel was a sensational experience. Terry jumped onto mobile phone camera duties and Ray tried to keep me calm and talk me through how to play this Salmon properly and ensure I landed it.
The fight lasted what felt like to me as 2 hours but was probably more like 5 minutes as I was desperately nervous about losing this fish. I managed to keep calm and every time it made a run, I let it go and when it stopped, I took the line back and we did this until the fish was tired enough to let Ray get close enough to slip that landing net underneath my first ever Salmon.
“Welcome to the Club Stevie boy”
That is what Ray said to me as he congratulated me on my first ever Salmon and it was a gorgeous specimen. 6lb in weight so not a huge fish but that meant nothing to me as it was as fresh as you like, with just a natural amount of sea lice. It took a size 8 Ally's Shrimp fly which was immediately cut from the line and packed away safely as a memento that will be kept forever.
Based on where the location of the Sea pool was, we thought this fish had only been in the river for a matter of minutes and it had swam in ahead of the incoming tide. Thousands of casts and definitely into the thousands of pounds later…this moment made the wait and the expense entirely worth it.
A natural amount of sea lice, this fish had a few so was in great condition
To think what this fish had gone through and the dangers it navigated on it’s journey from the river to sea and back again, avoiding fishing nets and a multitude of predators to then decide to grab my fly and end up in my hands…it’s a humbling thought and one which will be a lasting memory for the rest of my life.
The rest of the trip would see Terry pick up a cracker of a resident fish around the 14lb mark and we actually lost count of the amount of sea trout we caught but they were never greater than 1lb in size but were great sport on the single handed rods.
Terry with the biggest fish of the week, a 14lb resident hen fish.
We also both hooked and lost another fish each before the few days were done whilst Callum and Robert went on to land 6 fish in total. Strangely though I have since spent more time thinking about that fish I lost which was obviously much bigger than the one I landed! All in though, we were grateful to have seen so many fish over a few days and we were all looking forward to returning in 2018.
The majority of my first season was spent learning how to cast and read the water and making the mistakes that beginners make. It was just an all round education into what has become my life’s passion and it's just the start for me.
I now have this desire to do more, visit more rivers in 2018 than I did this year, take more pictures of the places I visit and to write about my experiences along the way but most importantly, my ambition now is to continue to learn and ultimately catch more fish.
As a husband and father of two it used to be easy to answer that question of what was the happiest day in my life. Now that I have caught a Salmon though...