Spring salmon leap out of view

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The Independent Online
FOUR days, and still no salmon. Flailing away on an unsympathetic River Tay, I have had Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner running through my head. Both waited a long time before anything happened. And both were old men.

Thoughts like that come easily when all you have to show for a million casts is aching arms and a creaky back. Some way to celebrate a 50th birthday! It's times like this (sweep rod to left, right, back to one o'clock, pause, cast) that the half-century becomes an inexorable milestone towards sensible cars, choosing food by what you can digest and thinking about becoming a golfer. No, scrap the last one. I'll never be that old.

The only consolation is that I am not alone. Nobody at our delightful hotel has tempted a fish. The man in the tackle shop at Aberfeldy told me: "Just five fish until last week between Kenmore and the Tummel mouth." Wherever you go, there are men up to their waists in water, catching nothing.

So we drove to Pitlochry, where there is a fish ladder on the Tummel, to watch salmon running through. The automatic counter goes up to 999,999, and last year registered 5,400 salmon, though locals stress that the counter was broken for three weeks during prime time.

We were all very excited about seeing our quarry, at least, but the counter registered 000001. And what was I was stupid enough to say? "Perhaps we'll catch that one." You must be an optimist to catch spring salmon.

Springers are prized fish. You can see why. This is even more so if you can catch one on a fly. It's generally more productive with a worm or a spinner or a prawn, but fishermen rarely go for the easy life. Somewhere, I'm sure, there is an angler who is fishing with only a loop on the end of his line, in the hope of lassooing a salmon.

Still, I've had the pick of more than 10 miles of the upper Tay leased by Country Pursuits Scotland. The very best Scottish rivers can cost more than pounds 600 a day, but I'm catching nothing for pounds 50. It's a bargain. Yesterday a red squirrel gambolled on the opposite bank, with its backdrop of snow- covered hills. The previous day, a young roebuck bolted through the heather. Buzzards and oyster-catchers are a common sight. We haven't seen ospreys or otters yet, but they're here.

I don't want to make excuses, but the water is still very cold. It's been down to 34 degrees, and it doesn't feel much warmer yet. I know. I soon discovered that my waders have a small leak in each boot. (It was appropriate that A River Runs Through lt should be showing on television that night.)

One small consolation has been the performance of my brother-in-law Brian. He had never fished before, but mastered the tricky Spey casts in minutes. He has all the makings of an angler. When he climbed out of the water with a strange gleam in his eye, he said: "Do you know? I've only just realised that it's been raining." He has been quizzing me about whether what he has learnt would be applicable to his local waters in Devon, and has started displaying a refreshingly unhealthy interest in rod prices.

In this, he has been abetted by our fishing guide, Tom Heeps, who rather spoils the tradition that ghillies are a breed of misogynistic axe murderers. Next week I'll tell you about his extraordinary dog, why he quit as the boss of a pounds 5m company to look after idiots like me, and the story of the man who was killed by a salmon.

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