Waiting in vain for a glimpse of salmon

Years ago if someone had told me that one day two grown men, one woman and a child would have to drag me away from pressing my nose up against thick glass and staring obsessively at the murky water beyond - in the hope of seeing a fish streak pass - I would have snorted.

Years ago if someone had told me that one day two grown men, one woman and a child would have to drag me away from pressing my nose up against thick glass and staring obsessively at the murky water beyond - in the hope of seeing a fish streak pass - I would have snorted.

But fish ladders have a way of doing that to you. At the Pitlochry fish ladder (or fish pass) I was particularly transfixed because the salmon had just started running through and the day before we had seen on the fish counter (which clocks them as they swim pass) that four salmon had started to make their way up river. That next day it was six. So although I wanted to spend all day misting up the glass of the observation window, my friends convinced me it would be more fun to go and look round the dam. As if! But I agreed, only to come back to the obs. window ten minutes later to see that two more wily salmon had gone through and I had missed them.

So for the next half an hour my nose was glued to that window as I willed another one to go through so I could see this magical sight happen right in front of me. But no. On returning home I logged onto the web to see if there was a live video link up to the observation window but there isn't. I have lodged a formal request.

Fish ladders are built where there is a dam, to enable fish to swim past the dam and get upstream. You know how in fancy buildings you get great wide, shallow steps that make walking up or down really easy? Well a fish ladder is a bit like that except imagine the steps are very much bigger, hollow, filled with water and at the bottom of each 'pool' there is a great big pipe (an 'orifice') leading to the next pool higher up so that the fish can swim up up and, eventually, away over the other side. (These pools by the way are about 10 feet deep.)

The fish, specifically the salmon who are trying to make their way back upstream to spawn, are attracted to the first step by the flow of water. It takes them a very short amount of time to find the way in and it then takes an average of 12 hours for them to get through the 34 pools that make up the Pitlochry fish pass. Because the water hurtling through the orifices is travelling at 8 feet per second, in betwixt these 34 pools are three chill out rooms. Here the salmon can take a breather.

The funny, endearing thing is that about half an hour before sundown, the salmon stop climbing up the ladder, bless them, because they get a bit spooked by it all. They either get to one of the chill out rooms and spend the night there or they hurtle back down the ladder to the river where they obviously feel safer and start again the next day.

Had I gone now instead of at the end of March, I would have had much more chance of seeing a salmon torpedo past. One hundred and thirty did just that four days ago. As soon as the water warms up a bit, their metabolism gets going and they start moving. The bigger, older fish, the multi sea-winter fish, start motoring when the water reaches six degrees. The littler returning salmon, the grilse (salmon that have only spent one winter at sea) need the water to be a shade warmer. You can also see the smolts - young salmon going to sea for the first time; and kelts - salmon that have spawned are heading for sea again, going the other way. To see all three generations of salmon would probably give me a heart attack.

Talking of salmon I have a dreadful confession to make. Last week, quite inadvertedly, I ate a piece of salmon. Regular readers will know I do not eat salmon as the wild ones are facing extinction and that eating farmed salmon is not okay either (see back catalogue). Even more so after the horrific news this week of all the new diseases farmed fish are getting (cardiomyopathy which gives them heart failure, but not before making their eyes almost bulge out of their heads and their stomachs haemorrhage) and the rumoured use of highly toxic chemicals - Deosect - on a fish farm. But the counter good news is that I went on a trip last weekend and I had listed not eating salmon as one of the things I do. So, for the whole two days no salmon was served to any of the other 25 people either.

a.barbieri@independent.co.uk

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