The opening day of the 2018 salmon season can be memorable for all sorts of reasons, but for Jonny Muir this year’s start was for all the wrong reasons…
I’ve been a salmon fisherman almost my entire life - they are, and will always be, my favourite fish to catch. So much of salmon fishing is shrouded in mystery and steeped in tradition and ritual – opening day is no exception.
I wouldn’t refer to myself as a ‘fair-weather’ fisherman, not at all. I’ve fished for Atlantic salmon all over the British Isles and on Canada’s eastern seaboard, but I suppose I have always thought of my personal salmon fishing season as April to September. The earliest in the year I can remember catching a salmon was in early April on the Helmsdale several seasons ago. It’s a memorable fish for me, not only because it was the only fish I caught that week, but I hooked, fought and landed it in -4 degrees, driving snow, a howling wind, and with no feeling in my hands. Those who are familiar visitors to the northern parts of our island will tell you that blizzards in April are not uncommon. As I cradled my prize, a 12-pound sea-licer, I ticked a box I’d been meaning to tick for a while – to catch a salmon in the snow. This, I thought, was serious salmon fishing.
When the opportunity arose to fish my favourite river, the Tay, on the opening day of the 2018 season, I jumped at the chance. The possibility of hooking a fresh fish was low, and always is low that early in the season, but an opening day springer – what an achievement that would be!
I recruited my usual fishing companion Tom, Assistant Manager at Farlows, and we began our preparation. ‘It’ll be cold’, I warned Tom, ‘bring gloves.’ ‘Oh, and tubes, heavy tubes.’ Fishing in shirt sleeves in August with a 12-foot rod and a hitch fly is a wonderful way to catch salmon, but there’s something about the elemental battle of early season fishing that makes it seem like another sport altogether. Longer rods, heavy lines, sinking shooting heads, short leaders and 2” tubes make early spring (or should I say winter) salmon fishing an experience not for the faint-hearted. We relished the challenge.
Our journey up north on Saturday 13th January went without a hitch, and we spent the Sunday setting up our rods, organising our tackle and selecting which salmon flies would make it from the mothership into our fly boxes. It was decided that we would take Willie Gunns in every single incarnation yet devised, with a few Tosh, Cascade, Monkey and Snaelda tubes thrown in for good measure. It was all looking promising. That evening I phoned Bob White, head ghillie at Benchill - a good friend and an extremely good ghillie, for some last-minute tackle talk. ‘The river looks great’, I said to him. ‘Aye, but there’s a lot of rain forecast for tonight’, he replied.
On the night of Sunday January 14th, it rained. A lot.
It’s worth pointing out that those who fish with me regularly are familiar with the nickname so kindly bestowed upon me by a number of Tay ghillies. That name is ‘Noah’. True to form, I brought with me the rains, and we awoke on January the 15th to a much larger river than had been there the night before. Considering my track record of biblical floods, the rise in water could have been much worse - at least it was clear. The river level had risen by about three feet overnight, and was flowing at a considerably faster pace. ‘Oh well’, said Tom, ‘It is what it is.’
We headed down to the river with modest expectations – ‘It’ll be nice to cast a line again’, we said to ourselves, but as is always the case with salmon fishing, you never can predict what is going to happen.
On arrival at the main fishing hut we met the other ten rods in our party, making up the dozen. Once split up into three groups of four - one group for each beat - we eagerly awaited the commencement of the opening ceremony that would usher in another year, and another opportunity to catch the king of fish. I have always liked the sound of bagpipes starting up - that low drone which lingers for a moment of anticipation before the tune kicks in. If I was feeling poetic, I’d say it was an apt metaphor for the way we feel before each salmon fishing excursion.
As the piper began to play Highland Laddie, and he did so fantastically well I must add, we marched down to the riverbank, rods in hand, for the big moment. When everyone had assembled themselves neatly along the bank, a speech was made. Anecdotes and stories of salmon won and lost filled us with anticipation and reminded us just why salmon fishing is so special, and how important it is for us to be responsible stewards of this wonderful animal. However, the point I’ll take away most from those opening words was this – ‘If you do one thing, take someone new fly fishing this year.’ If we are to ensure that our sport lives on for future generations, and our waterways and wildlife are properly protected, it is our duty as fly fishers to encourage new people to take up this wonderful sport. It was a perfect final thought for all of us to think on, as a dram was tossed into the river to toast the salmon. With a final rousing tune from the bagpipes, the 2018 season began.
Tom and I, and indeed the rest of the party, fished hard for two days with barely a touch – not uncommon for the time of year. A kelt and a handful of sea trout were landed by our group, but fresh-run salmon eluded us. Fortunately, the river dropped by over a foot between Monday and Tuesday, and one could feel that the fly was fishing round properly, at the perfect depth and speed. If only there had been a fish behind it! We were pleased to hear that a fish had been caught way up in Loch Tay on opening day, and that two were caught in the river on Tuesday. By mid-morning on Tuesday however, the weather had changed again. Dramatically so. A sudden snowstorm swept through Tayside and as we were blasting our lines out into the eerie whiteness, my thoughts turned to our exit strategy…
A yellow weather warning was in place for much of central Scotland – snow and ice expected. Like sensible adults, we decided to cut our second day short, and so after saying our goodbyes and having several dozen last casts, we set off at 2pm for what should have been an 8-hour drive home. In theory we would arrive home at the not-so-late time of 10pm to make it to our monthly marketing meeting the following morning.
All did not go according to plan…
A couple of hours into our drive, the weather started looking seriously bad. Things quickly went from bad to worse when we were caught in an apocalyptic snowstorm somewhere south of Hamilton. I don’t use the term apocalyptic lightly. Side-on winds nearly pushed us off the road, while a cloud of snow rolled in on top of us, making it impossible even to see to the end of the bonnet. Then the lightning started. I’ve never experienced lightning strikes in a white-out snowstorm before, but apparently this weather event is known as ‘Thundersnow’.
After enduring several minutes of impassable thundersnow, we pressed on and joined the M74. By 5:30pm a considerable amount of snow was building up on the carriageway and the motorway was completely gridlocked. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would not move from this spot again for nine hours.
What followed next was truly the journey from hell. When we finally started moving again at 2:45am, the remains of jack-knifed lorries were revealed to us almost every few hundred yards. Conditions had been so poor that tractors and other farm machinery was called in during the night to plough snow and tow abandoned vehicles to the side of the road.
What should have been an 8-hour drive turned into a 19-hour endurance challenge during which I believe we experienced all the stages of grief. Shock, denial and anger were eventually overcome with acceptance.
With no time to go home, we set course for London, filled our bodies with caffeine and somehow miraculously rolled straight into the office, ten minutes early for the 10am meeting. There was only one thing that betrayed us – we were still in our pyjamas.
LAYERING GUIDE FOR COLD WEATHER FISHING
‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.’
Modern hi-tech materials and innovative clothing design allow us to fish comfortably in the very worst conditions and knowing how to layer properly can keep us warm, dry and fishing effectively no matter what.
Farlows Assistant Retail Manager, Tom Clinton, has a background in extreme mountain sports, as well as in fishing, and has produced a superb video guide on ‘suitable’ clothing for cold weather fishing and recommends those pieces he would not be without when the going gets tough.