Bob Wyatt says Scotland's River Don ranks on a par with the English chalkstreams and New Zealand's rivers
I don’t go in much for kiss and tell magazine articles. On the face of it they seem to be a good thing – what could be wrong with finding out about good fishing? But as we all know, it’s a different matter when the place being featured as the next big thing in a national magazine is your favourite fishin’ hole.
I saw it happen to the rivers I fished as a kid in Canada. They became overnight sensations and international ‘destinations’ for thousands of anglers following their fly-fishing dream. It wasn’t altogether a bad thing in that it brought a high degree of protection along with the new high profile. Everyone out there now thinks of rivers with trout in them as something other than a source of crop irrigation or industrial sewers, if they thought about them at all.
In Britain, we don’t have much to compare with those wild freestone streams of western North America and New Zealand. For one thing, we don’t have the culture of catch-and-release that has become pretty much absolute over there. New Zealand is waking up to the realities of the 21st Century and following suit. Most Kiwis I know don’t kill many trout these days. This makes a difference, believe me. Forty years ago, some of those famous rivers western Canada were nothing like what they are now, and it’s entirely due to C&R. In my opinion, there would be a lot better fishing on some Scottish rivers if C&R were observed to a greater degree than it is.
The wild lochs are a different story, of course, but not entirely. In most cases, a reasonable kill is necessary to sustain good stocks and a decent size average, but some hard fished Scottish lochs I know would improve significantly if fewer of the good sized trout were killed. There is one Scottish river that, on its day, compares with any stream I know in Canada and New Zealand. It’s had some heavy publicity in the UK angling press lately, so I’m not exactly letting the cat out of the bag here. I just want to make the argument for some special consideration and care. It’s one case where private ownership has protected a bit of fly-fishing that ranks up there with the best, anywhere.
I’m not too worried about hordes of wide-eyed anglers descending on the Don because the best stretches are pretty hard to get access to, and not cheap. The prime water is still good because its angling pressure is carefully controlled. It’s that simple. The rest of the river has water potentially as good, but most of it is association water open to fairly cheap day tickets that gets hammered pretty hard. You hear a lot of griping about how hard that public water is, but I think its difficulty can be put down to fewer fish and greater angling pressure. Many concerned local anglers are killing very few, if any, trout, but the steady culling of ‘keepable’ fish over the season has a direct effect on the quality of the fishing. The idea that natural wild replacement will sustain a heavily fished stream is a tad optimistic.
Like a few other top trout streams in Britain, the Aberdeenshire Don runs through high quality farmland, so it’s got a degree of richness unlike most of the highland bog and granite streams. It has very good hatches in the spring, and the trout appear to have a high condition factor even early in the season. Because most of the fish on the prime beats are released, some of these trout are pretty big – with a much higher average than you will find on just about any stream in the country.
The conventional methods pick up a fish or two, but the best fish usually come to specialist tactics – much like those employed on American spring creeks (and the English chalkstreams of yore) and on the back country streams of New Zealand. The large fish are spotted, watched and stalked as if they were roe deer. The cream of the season is the few weeks of the March Brown hatch. These big meaty insects get the big trout out into the riffles and looking up, and for a few weeks they live high on the hog.
You don’t want to get the idea that it’s easy fishing. Like any water with exceptional trout in it you have to tackle it carefully. The usual down-and-across Scottish wet fly techniques will take some fish, certainly the smaller ones, but the better fish will respond to an upstream approach. An upstream nymph or wet spider is good medicine, and during a hatch it makes sense to fish a surface emerger pattern. The important thing is to resist the temptation to ‘fish the water’ as you would on the Tay or Tweed. Striding up to the river and just firing away will convince you pretty quickly that there are no fish in the river. Slowly working your way upstream and stopping to watch the water for long periods will pay off.
Whichever method you choose will be effective when the fish are feeding. Fishing the water when nothing is feeding will only spook the water. You might scratch up a fish or two by searching all the good looking spots, but you will also certainly reduce your chances of seeing what the river will really do.
The first thing to get right is to be there during a hatch of fly. The olives will begin to appear in numbers by the beginning of April. The March brown shows up later on and the hatch lasts several weeks, but its intensity will vary from day to day. The emergence will start as a trickle and peak over a couple of weeks then trail off to nothing. One day the water will be covered in fly with trout rising all over the place, and the next will see a smattering of insects and no fish moving at all. The olive hatch will overlap with March brown emergence, and both flies will begin to show up around noon. The weather might be a factor, but sometimes the fly hatch in crap conditions. A warm, sunny afternoon is perfect – the fly come off on schedule, the trout rise, and it feels like the good old days.
Serious fly fishing
I stick to the surface fly in the spring, but it’s not because I have some idea of being a ‘purist’. It’s just that I know that when the hatch begins, the dry, or semi-dry fly will outfish any other method. When the emergence gets the fish going I really don’t think there is much to choose between an upstream wet or surface emerger, but the surface fly will result in more hook-ups. For one thing you are concentrating all your attention on the fly, so when a fish moves to it you seldom miss the take. You know exactly where your fly is in relation to the spot you expect to get a fish. And by casting to visible feeding fish you also know exactly where that spot is. You may worry that you are missing potential fish, but those two factors more than make up for any fish you may get by the ‘prospecting’ method – especially with a wet fly or nymph where many takes are missed. When the fish concerned might be ‘trophy’ size, you don’t want to be missing the take. So, this is serious fly-fishing. Timing, tactics and skill all come into play. The reward for all this patience and effort can be very satisfying – the big Don trout run to 3-4lb, with a few going even better. It goes without saying that you don’t get fish like this if you keep whacking them on the head, so make sure you take a camera.
This is usually where the discussion turns to fly patterns, but, I’m afraid that ,for me, it’s the same old same old. My go-to flies are all based on the GISS principle – General Impression Shape and Size. I can’t think of a better pattern for the March Brown than the good old no-hackle Deer Hair Sedge, in a size ten with a hare’s ear body. I just use a smaller, skinner version for the olive hatch. Up in the riffles at the head of the pools, where the hatch begins and the trout are working hard on the emerging nymph, I’ll use a good sized DHE. The Klinkhamer style sunk abdomen makes for good visibility to the trout and the upright wing gives me a good sighter in the rough water. You get the attraction of the upstream wet spider with the added visibility of a dry fly for more hook-ups. As far as colour goes, you just can’t beat a rough hare’s ear body on these spring flies. I know that’s just too boring for you real fly tyers, but hey, if you want to use your favourite Upside Down CdC Parachute Dun with the exquisitely dyed goose biot body and trailing shuck, knock yourself out. Those little additions and creative tweaks just might make a difference and maybe keep a trout ‘coming on’, but I like to keep the impression purposefully vague.
The easiest fishing is in the riffles and edges of fast water, but I’ve seen as many as six good trout lined up along a bank, feeding hard on the emerging and crippled March browns. The fish held on the soft side of the ‘seam’ between the fast water and the eddy along the bank, and it made for interesting line control problems.
Drag was the big issue in that situation. I had to cast across the fast water to reach the fish and drag was instantaneous. Some fancy mending and one good, short drift got a solid take and one superb wild brownie to show for it before the hatch played out.
What I should have done was run downstream a hundred yards, crossed over and approached that pod of trout from below to get a decent drift – but, as usual, I was in too much of a haste to catch fish. Like the old bull spying the heifers from the hill top, I should have walked down the hill and caught them all.
Aberdeen (Dyce) airport is served by all the main carriers and is situated on the outskirts (five miles) of Aberdeen city centre. Tel. +44 (0)870 040 0006.Reaching the middle of the Don would take approximately 30 minutes by car.