February 23rd 2008 - River Ty, Burnbane
All through the day and most of the night of the 22nd there had been high winds and rain. Looking at the met office forecast I found it was supposed to die off during the night and prayed that it would. How many times do anglers and hunters look at the weather forecast and say “Please…”
In fact, the wind had been howling since the 21st…the day after the duck season finished. Typical.
Fortunately the wind did abate a little during the night, for with the new day I was going to try once more to catch a Grayling.
Grayling have always fascinated me, their purple tinted flanks of silver armour, high arched backs and great red-tipped sails for dorsal fins. They seem to me more mysterious than trout, I suppose in the same way that trout fascinated me as a child but having never really had the chance to fish for grayling much they still hold that peculiar spellbinding charm. Not that trout still don’t of course! But this fish that looked so majestic in photographs, a fish that is designed by nature to root around on the riverbed for nymphs and larvae, yet is apparently also so willing to rise to a well presented dry-fly. A fish that can be caught right under the rod tip, yet is so easily spooked from feeding into a quite ghostly dis appearing act.
Now the Tay, as rivers go, is a big, powerful river by anyone’s standard. And on the occasions I have tried for Grayling there before I have only caught trout. It seemed somewhat dis-spiriting not being able to find any grayling because of the sheer size of the river, Grayling are shoal fish and trying to find a shoal of fish in a river that size whilst not really knowing how prominent they are seems a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Maybe this time it would be different though.
So, by 8 o clock on the morning of the 23rd, I found myself at the fishing hut on the Burnbane beat of the River Tay. Dad is part of a syndicate on Burnbane for the salmon fishing, but during poor spells has been known to take his trout kit up and try for trout and Grayling also. But today he went off to try and find sport with kelts, whilst I went in search of “the lady of the stream” I had thought it best to bring an intermediate line, because of the water’s height and temperature. The only problem being that I don’t own an intermediate line under an AFTM# 7; I only ever use intermediates for Stillwater work. However I debated with myself a while and decided that my little #4/5 Orvis Trident, which incidentally is a stunning piece of equipment, could probably handle it since I would only be using short roll casts anyway.
The biggest pool on the beat is the “Burnbane Pool”, which is where Miss Ballantyne landed her record 64lb salmon after a supposed 10-hour fight on Saturday October 7th 1922. The main body of the Burnbane Pool is huge, slow moving and almost circular in shape. Though there is a beautiful, tumbling and oxygenated run above this, and from what I had read about Grayling this seemed the obvious place to start. So I waded out to knee depth and began to search the shallower water with my two tungsten beaded nymphs, which sank too quickly for the current and kept getting caught on stones. So I waded a little further out and searched the deeper water. Roll the nymphs out a little upstream, hold the rod high and take a step down to let them sink, keep the rod held high and follow the nymphs round in the current with the rod-tip before lowering the rod as the flies dangle below you thus lifting them in the water and then in a sort of mini Spey-cast, repeating the process all over again. That’s one of the things I appreciate when I’m fishing, the rhythm. After a while it’s almost as if the rhythm of your casts and steps blend into the natural world around you. Time ceases to be and truly you become part of nature. It is one of the most comforting feelings I know, it’s more than an appreciation of the place you are in and the wildlife around you. It is deeper than that, more spiritual in a way that I can’t quite explain though I’m sure many other true outdoors and countrymen will know what I talk of.
After having worked my way down the run and to the end of the pool with still not an offer I decided to walk down stream, where Dad was headed anyway. On the way there is a huge rough, unplanted field that looks more like the setting for an American duck hunt than the Tay. Over on your left as you walk downstream, at the other side of the field is a pond where a flock of Canada Geese permanently reside. As you walk you can hear them honking away, an exciting noise to a wildfowler! There is another pond a little further down which, when the river is high, becomes a part of it. It really is a haven for wildfowl and a wildfowler’s dream. As we passed this pond a flock of teal and a flock of widgeon lifted, clattering over our heads. And the mallards spend all day flitting between the river and this pond. As I have mentioned there had been a lot of rain, and the river was running quite high, it had been higher though. Far above the river on the high banks and well back into the fields there were huge piles of debris deposited in a savage, no nonsense way by natures frightening force. The next run I tried sits right next to the last mentioned pond; it runs between the bank and a small island. It is usually swift and streamy in nature too but today it was simply running too fast and my flies were being rag-dolled around in the current without being given a chance to sink. The top of the island was only just protruding from the water surface.
I moved back upstream and tried a slow moving, gravel bottomed drift but there wasn’t even enough flow to bring the flies around, even when I changed to lighter nymphs. So with that, I decided to go lure hunting. Sometimes after a spate, if you search through the piles of waste deposited by the river you can find lures that people have lost, dad’s lure box has a lot of money’s worth of rapalas inside it, yet he has never paid for one. The rapala I found today looked more like it was meant for comedy value. It may be the kind of thing that would come in useful when Barracuda fishing, but what it was doing in the River Tay is quite beyond me. It measures ten and a half inches in length! The rather weighty metal diving vane included. I suppose it’s possible that someone had been using it for pike in the loch, but that is a long way for a lost lure to drift. I have it sitting on my fly-tying desk, unsure of what purpose it may ever now fulfil.
After lunch I headed back to Burnbane with that sense of readiness that affects you after you have eaten. Spirits are revived and it feels like starting the day again. Once more I trundled my tungsten bead nymphs down the pool in the traditional “Czech” manner. I had gotten about halfway down the pool when to my great surprise the line jabbed out and I felt the kick of a connected fish. My heart leapt, as it never fails to do when I hook a fish and I lifted the rod to see it hoop over into that most wonderful curve. Dad was casting his spoon for kelts downstream of me
“I’ve…I’ve hooked one!” I stammered
“Is it a Grayling or an early trout though?”
“I’m not sure I haven’t seen it yet”
And I will never know, with a ping the line went slack again and my heart also went slack. It could well have been a trout but I told myself it was a Grayling so that I knew it could be done. I fished the rest of the pool out without a touch and went over to the bank where Dad had found a message in a bottle. I opened it and found a note written in striking handwriting. The paper smelled of whisky and the ink had run in places leading me to think that the authors were probably drunk when they wrote it. There were also some soaked jelly sweets in the bottle. The note reads:
1st of all apologies for littering the Tay!
Ancoc is amazing! This will be Jim and ours last night in Dunkeld (& first) & has been lovely. Hopefully we can return. Whoever finds this should definitely drink Ancoc & come to Dunkeld, it’s a very special place. Have sour gums!
Jim & Sarah
I turned the bottle round and saw the remains of the label. I was just able to pick out the words “Ancnoc fine single malt” In a way I found the note to be quite touching, and it is pinned on my wall above my desk. But I didn’t eat the sweets.
By now, Dad decided he had had enough, there were simply no salmon there, we never even saw a kelt splash all day. So he went back up to the hut to kit down while I decided to have one more go down the run where I had lost the fish.
Again I waded out and rolled out my nymphs, again watched them come round and lowered the rod as I let them dangle. As I got to the same place where I had lost my fish, the line again drew out and as I lifted the rod, there was a lunge and then nothing again. On the next cast I felt a nip as I let my flies dangle below me. And on the third cast, just as the flies must have been moving up in the water as I lowered my rod tip there was an astonishingly powerful THUMP! My Martin started screaming and I thought I had hooked a very large trout or a Kelt. It rocketed off across the pool, all the while my reel still screaming. As I got the fish and my heart rate back under control I was back in the fight. The fish kicked and dived like something much larger than it actually was and I was speechless when as I drew the fish towards me I spotted the unmistakably large, red tipped dorsal fin, which told me I had caught a Grayling.
I had heard that Grayling make excellent eating and I am not ashamed to say that on occasion I will take a fish for the pot. I killed the Grayling and I thanked it also, it’s a sort of a ritual I have when I land a fish, no matter whether I intend to kill it or not, I always thank it for the sport it has provided me and the food which it is about to provide. My first Grayling turned out to weigh just over a pound, which I knew was a respectable size. I had always imagined that grayling would gently suck up a fly and lazily drift off with it before realising they were hooked. And I’m not sure whether the behaviour displayed by that particular Grayling was typical but I certainly hope it was. Heather and I ate grilled Grayling for supper that night, and a fine meal it was too, delicious. If ever there was a fish worthy of being called a game fish it is the grayling. Another thing, it’s true, they do smell like cucumber.
(by Iain McMaster 2008/ Country Diary/Fly Fishing Nation Picture Press)