(Originally published in print in Fieldsports Magazine)
There's nothing quite like returning to your favourite river.
There's an undeniable allure to casting a fly over new waters. But stronger than this is the allure to return to your favourite river or beat - every fisherman has one. A stretch of water with which you have built a rapport after regular visits and on which you know every groove, mossy boulder and ripple intricately.
For me, this place is the Awe, a four-mile ribbon which tumbles through Argyll's ridged Pass of Brander into Loch Etive. It was on this once hallowed river that I cast my first fly: a barbless, blunted Peter Ross tied onto two metres of cast dangling from a branch, fastened together by my mother, in the hope of tempting parr in the shallows. It was here that I caught my first red-speckled brownie, my first sea trout, my first rainbow, my own eyelid and, aged 13, where I banked my first Atlantic salmon - a 5lb grilse from the Stone pool on an Ally's Shrimp. Over the years, every pool has created a memory; the bank now a hotchpotch of blissful childhood nostalgia.
The Awe was once renowned as the big fish river of Scotland, with a handful of ?lusty fellows' immortalised in Fred Buller's Domesday Book. Its fast, heavy flows were regularly compared to those of the large Norwegian rivers, until the construction of a 60ft hydroelectric barrage in 1961 put paid to that. The project tamed the river and the spontaneity of its 270sq-mile catchment area, as well as wiping out the top six good pools - also vital spawning grounds. This triggered the river's fall from fame, but it was the UDN outbreak in 1977 that devastated stocks. After a few years, the seriously big fish just never returned. And currently, like most of the West Coast rivers, toxic aquaculture is wrecking havoc on wild populations.
Despite these afflictions, decent numbers are recorded through the dam's fish lift every year, with July to late September hosting the best of the action - including the odd 30lb specimen.
I've visited the Awe for 24 years, every year of my life without fail, amassing just shy of a year on her banks. But there is always more to learn. Rocks move, currents contort and lies shift. Some years are kind, some are futile. Either way, come boom or bust every rendezvous is special, and last June's was no exception.
As has always been the tradition on the home straight of the 10-hour journey from Sussex, dad and I pulled over in the barrage lay-by to watch salmon leaping in the long, smooth pool below. The Big Verrie is a joy to fish, not necessarily for success, but the sight of fresh salmon porpoising and jumping only yards away always keeps optimism levels at fever pitch.
With a few hours of light remaining, we dashed to the Inverawe cottage, launched our bags from the car boot with the delicacy of an airport luggage handler and flung ourselves into waders. My 13ft Hardy Demon was up and on the rod clips in a matter of seconds. The same cannot be said for my old man, who still insists on fishing with a three-piece split cane trunk. Sorry, rod.
Half a roll of electrical tape and a lecture on why cane is best later, we were on the river, whereupon I marched straight into the Stone pool: a rhythmic glide with a deep channel that has yielded me more fish than any other on the river. I had barely oiled a rusty casting technique before my 1" ?Red Francis conehead was snatched and I was locked in a chaotic set of Strip the Willow - my partner trying her upmost to rip my shoulder from its socket. Ten minutes later, I was cradling an 8lb hen with the shimmer of a tarpon. It was great to be back.
With fish clearly in the river, the next morning dad was up well before the dawn chorus, practically funnelling Weetabix and coffee down my gullet in eagerness to get back onto the water. He opted to fish Beat A, the top section of the river, boasting a variety of beautiful pools for the fly. I went in below him onto B where the banks are wilder, the water choppier and the pools more segmented.
It seemed our luck was running as strong as the fish, as after an hour or so, dad rang to say he'd released a tide-fresh 10lb cock, caught on a silver-bodied Collie. The sun gradually broke up the thin cloud cover and the morning disappeared into a Caribbean summer's day.
The next four days followed a similar pattern, with the mornings and evenings proving the most productive times to be on the river while we left the water to rest during the hottest hours. A frantic 15-minute period on the third evening saw two salmon simultaneously spit my hook after having smashed a hitched Sunray in the Mheal pool, before I glanced 200 yards downstream towards Fannans - just seconds away from snapping the rod over my knee - to see dad's caber bent into a fin perfect sea-liced hen of 9lb.
All too quickly the final day was upon us. With the weather still refusing to bow to Scottish stereotypes, an evening on Beat A was selected as our best plan of attack. We fished hard, both connecting with berserk fish that had absolutely no intention of being landed. Neither were. Pinching the last few moments of daylight, I walked back up the river to have a last flog of the Barrage pool - the deep, rough water immediately below the dam. It felt very fishy. I tied on a Monkey with a 3" wing, kissing the rocks on the far bank and stripping the fly as fast as I physically could. Every retrieve was bringing a salmon to the boil. The take was inevitable.
A huge tail thrashed the surface and in a split second I was back at the ceilidh - only this time I was dancing with the bouncer rather than the laird's daughter. This was a good fish; a dead cert teenager. I bade goodbye to dry trousers and charged after it. It was an epic tussle, and as I sit writing this 10 months later I can remember it as if it was this morning. Truly awesome.
At 16lb it was no Doomsday leviathan of yesteryear, but it was yet another memory to take away from this incredibly special place.
By Patrick Tillard