The magic of spring salmon
Marcus Janssen considers what it is that makes a spring salmon the ultimate prize in fly fishing.
It is difficult to put your finger on what it is it that makes spring fishing in Scotland so magical, so incomparably addictive. Perhaps it is the knowledge that the rivers of Norway, Iceland, Russia and Canada, the ones that will hog the limelight later in the year, are still in the firm grip of a ferocious winter. But while these glamorous northern fisheries are, in all likelihood, buried beneath thick sheets of ice and a blanket of snow, their first sunrise months away, on many of Scotland's rivers there is already the chance of landing one of nature's true miracles: an early season spring salmon.
Perhaps that is where the magic lies – in the fact that Scotland offers you the very first crack of the whip, the earliest possible chance to get onto a river with salmon in your sights. It's the breaking of a new dawn, the promise of a new season filled with uncertainty and hope – the long dark nights of winter are finally over.
But perhaps it's more than that, perhaps it is the incomparable quarry? For surely there isn't another creature in the piscine world more beautiful than a fresh-run, early season salmon? Bright, chrome-plated with an iridescent purple sheen, thick shoulders, streamlined, deep-bodied, fin perfect and packed with cold, hard muscle. Anyone who has ever cradled such a fish amongst the grue in February or March will know that such a moment stays with you forever.
Or, maybe it is the challenge. There is no such thing as an easy springer. Each and every one requires dedication, perseverance and hard work. In fact, spring fishing in Scotland might aptly be described as the piscatorial equivalent to self flagellation. Choosing to stand up to your nipples in water that is only in its liquid form because of the speed at which it tumbles out of the Cairngorms, whilst your face, neck and hands are lashed by sleet and an icy wind fresh out of Siberia, may seem, to ordinary people, an odd way of enjoying yourself.
The combination of swollen rivers, hefty double-handed rods, heavy sinking lines, big, weighted tube flies and extra layers of clothing makes casting more of an effort than it ought to be. And it's slow and tedious work, requiring intense concentration as you methodically scour the depths, pools, pockets, known holding lies, carefully controlling the speed and depth of your fly with big upstream mends. Although springers tend to be keen takers, the cold means their metabolisms are slow and they won't move a long way for your fly. So you've got to fish slower and deeper than you would later in the year.
Ice forms around the line and the guides must be lubricated with Vaseline to prevent them from freezing up completely. By mid-morning, controlling your appendages – never mind your fly line – has become a real challenge. You have lost all sensation in your hands, your legs tingle from a lack of circulation, your feet ache and throb mercilessly and, inadvertently, tears and snot run down your cheeks and drip off the end of your nose.
Mrs J. tells me that she genuinely had second thoughts about our future together when she realised that I was actually about to wade out into the icy riffles of the Spey while there was still a smattering of snow on the ground. “You're not right,” she said. “You need to have your head checked.” With that she wound the car windows up and headed into Aberlour for a coffee. But it really is worth it, I promise you.
Believe me, when, after your 1,000th cast in God knows how many days, your line suddenly tightens up and your frozen reel splutters to life as you feel the unmistakable head-shake of a salmon, you will instantly know that the hours of discomfort you have endured have been worth it. And some. As that hit of the purest drug in all of fishing surges through your veins, the cold, the aches, the pain and the second thoughts all become distant memories as you mentally scream at the top of your lungs “Yes, yes, YES!”
But as as the fish surges across the stream, and more fly line and then backing is ripped from your protesting reel, it suddenly occurs to you that this could be the one, the fish you've dreamt of a thousand times, the one you've begged the piscatorial gods for ever since you caught your first salmon all those years ago. Jubilation soon makes way for nervous tension, the adrenaline come-down leaving you jittery and paranoid that it may be lightly hooked or your knot too hastily tied. Am I playing it too gingerly? Am I putting on too much pressure? Your mind races. Of course, there's no way of knowing whether this will end in triumph or heartbreak, but that is precisely why we do this. I wish I had gone for the 23lb Seaguar rather then the 19lb, you think to yourself as the bow-taut flyline sings in the icy February wind.
As the fish heads upstream against the swift current, you can do little more than hold the rod high above any potential snags and hope for the best. But eventually, to your relief, you start to gain some line as the fish, still deep and unseen, turns to head downstream. For the first time, you feel the odds shift in your favour and, with a new flutter of excitement, the first few turns of fly line are wound back onto the reel.
But of course the defining moment comes right at the end, in those nerve-wracking seconds when, upon realising that the battle is all but won, you pile on as much pressure as you dare while a trusted friend or ghillie nervously gets into position with the net. “Dinnae rush it laddie,” says the ghillie. So many fish are lost at this stage, the finest sinew between hook and fish finally giving way as you steer the fish towards the net with a little too much gusto. The disappointment of losing a good fish at this stage, particularly a spring fish, can be almost heartbreaking. And it always seems to happen in slow motion: slowly, slowly, almost theatrically, the fish rolls into the current and slips out of sight. If your nerves were not so shot, you might have the presence of mind to jump in and grab it so that you might have a few minutes to admire it before letting it continue its incredible journey. But instead, you are left standing there, helpless, forlorn, pathetic and utterly devastated. “Sorry lad,” says the ghillie in an attempt to console you. “It wud be boring if we landed them aw.”
PHOTOGRAPH: MATT HARRIS
Luckily, my first ever spring salmon, hooked one snowy March morning on the Upper Arndilly beat on the Spey, didn't get away. Thanks in part to legendary ghillie George Michie's calm demeanour and skill with a net, I did in fact end up cradling that fish in a back eddy in the Heathery Isle pool, before reluctantly letting it go.
For a while, we just stood there, George inspecting my fly and nodding his approval at my choice of pattern, an orange and gold Temple dog tied on a brass bottle tube, me grinning like an idiot. I knew that I had reached a landmark in my fishing career, a feat that I would never repeat – I had landed my first ever springer, the ultimate prize in the salmon fishing world. And by god was it beautiful – more beautiful than any fish I had ever seen before. “Aye, a braw fush,” agreed George who appeared to be as pleased as I was, although that can't have been possible.
“Time for a coffee,” he suggested, after a while. He knew what my answer would be. “If you don't mind George, I think I'll just fish through the rest of this pool and be down after that.” I had had my first taste of spring salmon and I knew there was no turning back.