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Get your skates on!

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Standing on a small rocky outcrop, I watched the fish lift slowly and break the water surface as it entered into the pool.   I cast my shadow cascade out across the stream and placed a small upstream mend to straighten the fly line and slow down the fly.  The fly swept gracefully through the stream, but was completely untouched.  A dozen times I re-cast, offering an additional yard of line from my position at the tail of the rocks.  I had a fair idea where the fish was holding but clearly there was a need to re-think fly presentation.

I was fishing the Red Stone on the Makerstoun beat of the River Tweed.  Although water levels were low, the tail of the pool enjoys a healthy flow of water and as I reached for my fly box, I had already decided on my fly selection.  Having been fortunate to ghillie this lovely stretch of water for many years, I decided to try a fly that had worked for me many times in the past in low water conditions.  Without hesitation, I quickly attached a surface skating Muddler Minnow.  If there's ever a stretch of water perfectly suited to skating this little terrier of a fly, then I was about to cast over it.  I quickly changed the leader for a fresh 10ft length of 12lb fluorocarbon and attached the fly.  To complement the natural buoyancy of the Muddler, I also saturated it with a liberal dose of silicon floatant.

I had purposely allowed the pool to rest during the day and began fishing just as the evening sun filtered through the riverside trees.  In such low water conditions, the heads and tails of the pools often offer the best chance of salmon, and to flog them to death during the day can be counter-productive.  Skating flies across the tail of a pool in such conditions at this time of day can be deadly and as I allowed the dressing to dry for a brief moment, I pondered the best way to cover the fish.    

As soon as the fly landed on the water surface it began pushing some serious waves as it began to navigate the nervous water of the tail

I wanted to show the fly to the salmon from a reasonable distance and gradually enter the fish's 'air-space'.  This, I hoped, would aggravate its predatory instincts and as the fly loomed closer, send it crashing toward the Muddler.  I carefully navigated the challenging wading and moved a few yards higher up the draw of the pool.  The lie where I hoped the fish would still be holding was located right at the very lip of the draw.  I knew from experience that if I connected with the fish, its survival instinct would guide it straight over the lip of the Red Stone into the faster more turbulent water of the next pool.  I stripped ten yards of line from the reel and false cast until I felt the spring of my fly rod respond to the lengthening cast.  I released the remaining slack line into my final delivery.  As soon as the fly landed on the water surface it began pushing some serious waves as it began to navigate the nervous water of the tail.  Lifting an upstream mend in the line not only slowed the rate the fly was traversing the stream, but more importantly kept an absolute tension between the fly and myself.  If the fish lifted for the fly, the last thing I wanted was to strike into fresh air as the salmon quickly realised that all was not well and spat the fly back at me.

I gradually increased my casting length until I was confident I was within the 'taking' range of the lie.  As the fly swung on its arc, I knew if lady-luck was going to shine, it would be within the next few casts.  The fly sat proud on the surface as it bobbed across the tail like a cork, while at the same time leaving a serious wake in its path.  I re-cast, but this time threw a slight downstream mend in the line to increase the speed of presentation.  The fly passed over the lie. I was so totally transfixed on the path of the fly that I almost jumped out my skin as the water suddenly erupted around my unsuspecting Muddler.  I lifted instantaneously.  In normal hooking situations, I would tighten into the fish by its own actions, but when hooking fish on surface flies, I have to confess I set the hook as quickly as I possible. 

I had hooked the fish on the very extremity of the pool.  Below into the next pool was nothing but crashing white water as the river dropped six feet in a matter of a dozen yards.  The salmon strained hard against my single-handed rod.  I was not only fighting the weight and power of the fish, but also the strength of the powerful current. It was a battle I was beginning to lose.  I knew if I applied any additional leverage against the fish, I would run the great risk of pulling the fly from its mouth, or worse, breaking the tippet.  Reluctantly, I eased back on the gas and allowed the salmon to drop into the rapids.

I suddenly found myself running down the rocks like a mountain goat.  All the time trying to keep the rod tip as high possible to reduce the risk of the fly line being caught around one of the multitude of rocks. I was beginning to struggle - I simply couldn't hold this fish.  The distance between us was increasing at a serious rate as the rushing water and the power of the salmon tore line from my reel.

I was by now well into the next pool, a good sixty yards from my initial hooking position and having the time of my life.  The Strake is a fast flowing, but quite narrow pool with three channels exiting into the much wider Doors.  As I waded onto a small rocky outcrop, I knew I had no choice but to stop this fish or it would be 'Hasta la vista, Baby!' The fish resisted with lunge after lunge, desperately trying to sever the connection, but to allow it any more line would prove fatal.  It was crunch time, I held onto the reel and conceded no more line.  Finally, I saw the first sign of weakness.

Although this action was certainly a mini victory, I was by no means out of trouble just yet

The fish lifted in the water and I saw the bend in the rod straighten slightly and the pressure ease on my aching arm - I had managed to turn it.  Having never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I took the opportunity to reclaim some line back on my reel.  Although this action was certainly a mini victory, I was by no means out of trouble just yet.  The fish was definitely tiring, but was completely surrounded by a maze of rocky snags, which I still had to convince it to negotiate.  I could, however, sense the balance of power swinging more in my favour.  The salmon was now broadside in the water and offering little resistance to my rod pressure.

The mass of exposed rocks between the riverbank and my position meant there was no way that I'd be able to beach the salmon.  I had no choice but to tail the fish in mid-stream.  I turned slightly towards my home bank with the exhausted fish downstream of my position and applied increased side strain.   I worked hard against the spring of the rod and at last I had the fish within arms length.  Tailing a fish knee-deep in the river would certainly offer a challenge, but they say fortune favours the brave, so I extended my right hand and grasped the knuckle of it's tail with a solid grip. 

Out of breath, and increasingly aware of a dull aching in both shins from my rapid decent, I arrived back on dry land. I had dropped down some hundred yards in total from where I hooked up with the fish, through some serious white water and treacherous wading.  The fish was about 8lbs in weight and although I found no tide lice, was fresh into the system.

As much as any enjoyable aspect of the fight, it was the salmon lifting from the depths and watching it intercept the skating fly from the water's surface.  During the low water conditions we seem to suffer at this time of year, it's worth carrying a selection skating flies to try when the more conventional patterns have drawn a blank.  As I mentioned earlier, the heads and tails offer a good chance of fish, but if the pool has enough flow, try skating the entire stretch, paying particular attention on known lies.  Try experimenting with presentation speed by using up or downstream mending techniques to slow or speed up the rate the fly travels across the pool.  Also try combining a skating fly on a dropper and a fly like a stoat's tail or Cascade on the point for the best of both worlds.  Whatever you do, get your skates on!   

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