How I love March 15th. When I lived in the North, regardless of snow, ice, gale or whatever, I would venture out for the first cast of the new brown trout season. It was like a first meal to a starving man and I could, at last, put the winter behind me.
Nowadays, with the availability of year-round trout fishing (if only for trans-Atlantic aliens) many don’t get the full relief effect of that wonderful spring day Because the boats wouldn’t come out from hibernation until April, I would stand in freezing water, clumsily tie some favourite patterns with chilled fingers, and make that first cast with more hope than expectation. It would always be hard work, but it was a poor opening day when I wouldn’t enjoy a meal of wild trout at the end of it.
Many think that opening day fish must, of necessity, be poor, thin, kelt-like things not worthy of the table. I never found this to be the truth. Feeding, for trout, doesn’t start on March the 15th, and what you will probably find is that anything caught in March is more likely to be fish that were not only fighting fit, but hadn’t spawned in the previous winter. These ‘maiden’ fish would make up the bulk of the catch, if not all of it, and had probably been feeding, off and on, throughout the better weather of the winter.
Of course, some lochs were better than others for producing prime trout in March. In my Orkney days, Stenness and Harray were my favourite lochs for a first of the season fish, which was handy as at their nearest point they were only a matter of a few yards apart. The tactics for Harray were to stand, with the wind at your back, well back from the edge and search through inches of water for fish feeding on shrimp. Great patterns were long-shank Worm Fly, Invicta, Jersey Heard and Green Peter. On Stenness, there was little change from standard tactics, fishing through the bladder-wrack with hideously bright patterns with lots of tinsel and materials of red, orange and pink. The only nod towards the spring weather would be to fish areas where a reasonably gentle breeze was following the sheltered shoreline.
I would always try Stenness first because if I was going to keep a trout for dinner, this loch produced the best eaters. Harray fish were good enough but not a patch on those from her sister loch for table-worthiness. Once a fish was caught and consigned to the bag, I could travel where the fancy and expectations of sport took me.
It was amazing how close-in those early spring grazers would feed. There are those who think that deep water is where you should hunt for spring fish, but that is not the case. Food production in the form of weed and algal growth upon which the small invertebrates feed is triggered off by weak, early season sunshine, and the less water this light has to penetrate the greater its effect. Once the growth is underway and the aquatic bugs have started to feed, trout will enter ridiculously shallow water to take advantage of this cold buffet.
So, that’s what happens in the Far North. How does that extrapolate across the nation? Several rules for early season trout fishing are suggested by these revelations:
1. It is misguided to think that during the spawning period that all trout, even all mature trout, will spawn. Nature doesn’t put all her eggs (no pun intended) in one basket. At any given time only a proportion of trout stock will hazard the spawning burns. Should a disaster occur then there will only be a proportion of the stock endangered.
The fish remaining safe and secure during the spawning season, commonly referred to as ‘maidens’, are the fish which can be expected to be most active in the very early months of the year. Recent spawners will tend to be dormant until plenteous food is available, a period somewhat later in the year, coinciding with May or June.
2. Always explore regions where a good level of fish food can be expected. In Harray these are the very margins where water temperatures and accessibility to good levels of sunlight ensure that invertebrate activity is assured; in Stenness, the weedy shallows are full of life; Loch Leven aficionados tend to head for the Hole o’ the Inch.
The ‘Hole’ contains all the factors already mentioned plus one vital feature. Because it is sheltered from most quarters, water temperatures in the early months can be a degree or so higher than that in the main body of the loch. This slightly elevated temperature will almost always prompt early insect activity. Last year, in late March, there were significant buzzer hatches in the Hole, and above average sport was to be found there through April and into May.
3. Another lesson learnt is avoid deep water in the early months, unless of course, that is where the food is. Always explore shallow water before the deeps. Although the name ‘Hole o’ the Inch’ gives an impression of great depth, it is on the whole generally quite shallow, and on the slopes into what depth there is generally prove to be the best locations.
I expect to break my fast in late March, and it will probably be on Leven, but if I was back in Orkney I’d be out on the 15th casting into 6” of Harray water, or crunching mussel shells on Stenness.
P.S. Check out our latest Hooked UK episode from the North Esk opening. Click the link below to watch the full 30 mins