‘Dawn breaks spilling light onto a sleepy landscape as creatures of the night retreat into secret lairs and others awake to face the foraging for food.Mist rises eerily from the water and the air is still.The silence broken only by a wayward trout splashing in the shallows somewhere distant.Morning’s chill takes a grip and for a few hours the river sleeps too.Last night’s run of salmon and sea trout came to an abrupt halt as night melted into day.
Trapped by the dfawning fish are well distributed throughout the river patiently lying up awaiting the cover of darkness before moving on.Those that ran early on the flood tide have already slipped into the loch’.
Having made the transition from brine to freshwater there is no turning back and both salmon and sea trout run on regardless of the dangers and obstacles that lye ahead.
False dawn breaks between 3.00am and 3.30am as the first rays of summer’s sun christens a new day.
Stragglers from last night’s run scraping their way over gravel shallows desperate to escape daylight and attention from predators,otters,mink,black back gulls and other such birds.Must seek refuge and relative safety in deeper water offering cover in which to lye up throughout the long daylight hours.Undercut banks,deep holes,behind boulders,in gravel depressions and below overhanging vegetation are favoured lyes.
Anywhere that offers shade,cover and oxygenated water is favourable,often so shallow that the fish are barely covered.Sea trout can be found in the most unlikely places at first light !
Most West Highland rivers are relatively short in length,some are free flowing with few obstructions.Others are treacherous cascading torrents,waterfalls,fast run shallows and heavy rapids.
Steep falls present the most dangerous and ardous challenge throwing countless fish back downstream back into the river below.Their determination is such that all but the weakest will conquer bouts of wild water overcoming the dangers of migration to their spawning grounds.
A loch or chain of lochs feed the river system which in turn is fed by many much smaller feeder streams.It is in these shallow runs and headwaters that sea trout and salmon will spawn of redds of smooth pea gravel.
Their story is one of epic proportions,courage and sheer determination with an extraordinary will to survive as a species.
Commited to freshwater there is no turning back and many small shoals forge onward throughout the night.Resting occassionaly in small pools of relatively slack water where they can lye up withouit expending too much energy for betwen five and twenty minutes.There will be several such pools visited by salmon and sea trout at strategic locations along the river’s length.
On a good night with favourable conditions progress is swift covering two kilometres an hour between resting pools.
Early season fish tend to run the system without resting up for long periods but as the season progresses the river is host to resident salmon and sea trout too.Those passing through and those awaiting spate conditions before moving on.
Within the animal kingdom a hierarchy exists,fish are no exeption having their own ‘pecking order’ and dominant ‘elders’ within the pool.
The best deep water lyes mid stream that offer shade or cover are normally taken by these obstinate residents.Moving out and away from their bolt holes only to escape heavy spate waters.Returning to their original lyes once the flooding begins to recede.These ‘stale’ fish are dark coloured and stand out from their silver fresh run counterparts.
Resting fish share these lyes too,sometimes only for minutes during the darkness or between tides shouldthey be unfortunate,caught out by the dawning.During the dark hours resting fish normally hang on the edge of the current where water flows out of the pool.Moving into deeper lyes as dawn breaks.
Nervous and easily spooked many of these trout explore the pool before settling into a vacant lye or moving on.
Fresh fish such as these are noticeable displaying spontaneous bouts of intense activity leaping clear of the water,scraping sea lice from their flanks by rubbing up against rough gravel or simply racing around the pool without any apparent motive.
As dusk aproaches the shoal quickly exit the pool anxious to make time and as much headway as possible before daylight.
For some obscure reason known only to Mother Nature West Highland fish run through the summer months when water conditions are at a natural low.One of nature’s mysterious and inexplicable contradictions !
Travelling fish intent on reaching their goal pass through the system at speed only resting for short periods as and when their energy levels are depleted.
Bigger fish dominate the pool as a whole residing in the best lyes from the head of the pool across deeper mid stream depressions.Smaller trout are relegated to shallow tail-end lyes.
At the height of the season there is a steady movement of fish through the pol.Fresh run fish accessing the pool for the first time do not normally intigrate with those fish already present.Due to the nature of spate rivers space is a premium and some fish simply move on through rather than challenge resident stocks for suitable lyes.
Holding water within the river system can be seperated into two distinct types of pool.
Holding pools offer oxygen,cover,shade,depth and features such as boulders.To the human eye they can appear to be ’empty and lifeless’.Close examination with a pair of polaroid sunglasses unearths the pool’s secrets !
The advent of dawn denotes where many fish will lye not outy of choice but necessity.When the best lyes are taken other fish spread throughout the water searching for any features that can accomodate them.In those places no matter how obscure,that cvan provide oxygen,a gentle flow in which to hang lazily without the need to call upon their energy reserves.Building stamina for the night ahead.
These are typical of pools that hold fish indefinately.
Resting pools are temporary stop overs whether it be for a few minutes or several hours .
As morning’s sun rises high flooding the river with harsh light both salmon and sea trout are forced to re-locate into areas of bankside shade,below overhanging vegetation,undercut banks and in extreme cases drop downstream into the pool below.Few creatures can happily tolerate summer’s sun boring into their eyes .As late afternoon approaches and the cooling sun moves towards the horizon throwing dark shadows across the river..fish return to their original lyes.
All fish are sensitive to light temperature and barometric pressure sensing rain long before the skies cloud over and empty !
On occassion salmon and sea trout gather in holding pools that were ’empty’ only hours before.Grouped together in organised if not regimental fashion,tight into the bankside in deep water.A sure sign that barometric pressure is falling and rain is imminent.Running hard and fast the moment dusk falls.
During prolonged bouts of dry weather both salmon and sea trout struggle to access freshwater.
Some river systems have sluices built across the mouths of feeder streams and the outlets of lochs where they spill into the river systems,holding precious water in reserve.
Artificial spates arte induced by releasing several or all of the sluice boards.
Timing this operation is crucial.Preferably sluices should be released to increase water levels to coincide with the hours of darkness on a high tide during a fall of barometric pressure.Rain may not be forecast but as long as the pressure is falling and the river rising ..fish will run.
Releasing valueable reserves of water during periods of high pressure has little if any effect at all.
A gentle rise in water level is all that can be expected not a full blown spate ! The advantages are two fold,rising water floods the sea pool inducing fish to run the system and those within the system to forge upstream with relative ease and safety.
Salmon and sea trout rarely run during the daylight hours unles the river is in full spate.Low water levels ‘trap’ fish in the sea pools for long periods denying access into freshwater.Without any obvious motivation it has been known for fresh fishto run en-masse off the morning and afternoon tides in the lowest conditions.
Quietly one after another sea trout and salmon slip over the overflow where the loch spills into the river and rest for a while before taking full advantage of the darkness.Shoals seperate exploring the loch margins for safe lyes.
Early season fish are to be found lying in residence at the head of the loch.Salmon in the shallows in depths ranging from three feet down to twelve feet.Sea trout favour depths down to twenty five feet.
As the weeks pass and more fish run into the loch the best available lyes are taken as shoals of newly run fish back up resident fish residing at the head of the loch and the freshest fish are obliged to take lyes toward the lower regions.
A percentage of fresh fish are always to be found with the residents.The pecking order remains stronfg and adherted to even in the confines of the loch.Salmon and sea trout do not intigrate and the bigger fish continue to occupy the best lyes .
Sea trout prefer sheltered bays,rocky reefs and weedbeds of varying depth in which to rest.
Salmon are to be found in these places too but tend to congregate over shallow reefs,behind sheltered points and headlands,in the mouth of feeder streams and marginal water.
Only heavy rains and spate water tumbling into the loch entice fish to move out of their lyes and are found ‘hanging’ on the edges of feeder streamsand main inflowing rivers where they empty into the loch.No fish other than a few small sea trout are tempted to explore and run.
In general sea trout run the headwaters during November and salmon a month later in December.There are local variations governed by many factors dependant upon location water catchment and the general nature of the system.
Early run fish can lye up for six months in the loch before spawning conserving energy and stamina necessary to survive the final push upstream onto the redds.Many die with exhaustion and only two percent of salmon that originaly ran the system will survive to return another year.Sea trout suffer less mortalities but also suffer many deaths.
Every living thing has it’s place and role to play in the chain of life.Salmon and sea trout spawn to procreate the species and their demise is not without purpose.Decomposing fish carcasses break down distributing life giving nutrients back into the river.Which in turn is not only beneficial to the river but their offspring too.