David Profumo returns to the Alness for a day's heavenly fishing.
At 5am, the July sun was already glowering down our glen and things didn’t look auspicious for catching a salmon. The drive north sure was pretty, however the verges of the A9 lit with lupin and dog rose and the Cairngorms still collared in heat mist but the rivers I crossed (Truim, Dulnain, Nairn) were dispiritingly lacking in water.
I was heading for the Alness, as a guest of Novar Estates; as I waited at the Crag Pool for their manager, the congenial Roger Dowsett, I enjoyed that deep frisson of one’s first look at a new river. An overnight downpour had given the current a welcome uplift and it ran rich and reddish over the illuminated gravel. A sprightly spate river sometimes described as a mini-Findhorn, the Alness makes a rocky, rapid descent into the Cromarty Firth and can produce about 300 fish a year.
Many of the runs and pots Roger showed me are pockets that require careful picking, with dibbled casts a technique that fascinates me and although we tried the Valve pool and Landslide, Aggie’s Bridge and the splendidly appointed Raven’s Rock, even the crags and birchscapes afforded insufficient shade and not a fin twirled at my glimmering Cascade tube. Intimate yet challenging, this is a river that enjoys a good autumn run and Roger has promised to invite me back later in the season. I have unfinished business with the beguiling Alness.
I had to floor the loud pedal on the Landy to make it up to Dornoch for dinner, where Mrs Reel Life and I were staying at the resplendent Links House (www.linkshousedornoch.com). A former Victorian manse overlooking the fabled maritime golf course, this has recently been transformed into a place of five-star comfort by passionate Caledonophile Todd Warnock, an enterprising Chicagoan financier. The bedroom was rather larger than our London pied à terre and, from the sporran tie-backs on the curtains to the carefully sourced antiques, this is a place tastefully embellished for luxury with a panache most rare for rural Scotland.
There’s a pronounced piscatorial theme, too: seeing me ogle the bespoke door handles that resemble fly reels, Mrs RL read the warning signs and dragged me away for cocktails. Todd and his wife, Liz, treated us to as delicious a dinner as I have ever eaten in Scotland. Fellow guests included several other Country Life writers and the conversation ranged from vernacular architecture to the lyrics of Glaswegian rockers Del Amitri (luckily, Joe Gibbs of the Tartan Heart music festival was on hand to help me out there (My Week, August 5)). We all agreed that Links would make a stylish new base for any Highland adventure.
It was almost 40 years since I’d fished the nearby Shin and, somehow, my friend Andrew Graham Stewart (author and all-round salmonid expert) had wangled a day for us on the Falls beat. As a teenager, I used to follow my uncle down the gorgey pools here, being shown the intricate casts by his gillie, my mentor George Murray, who, one distant summer, cleeked for me in Paradise pool a cock fish weighing 21lb. Here, in 1970, I was initiated to the mysteries of the Collie Dog fly and learned the Spey throw with a limber rod of greenheart. To me, therefore, it is one of the most numinous glens in all of Scotland.
As I teetered down the steps to the Falls, I wished I still had my teenaged knees. It was pelting rain and the midges had not forgotten me, but the water was a good height slightly above Hydro compensation level and, as I snaked out a few casts over the tail of the run, a deep-bodied salmon rolled languidly at my Collie tube. Since I last stood on that boulder, I have perhaps fished in two dozen countries abroad, but whatever clocks the river gods operate had been turned back, and I was as thrilled again as any pimpled lad.
However, nothing took hold. I worked down Culag, and began to ascend the cliff path over Cromarty, hanging off the wire handrail. A fish then flared up off its lie and turned obligingly with my lure in its scissors. After much stumbling and cursing and clambering downstream into Angus, I hand-tailed an ocean-blue-bright eight-pounder, with sea lice still upon her head. My mouth was dry as I nursed her back into the peaty current.
I had experienced Paradise again, only this time in Angus. Nothing else mattered all that day. In the words of Del Amitri, I was ‘satisfied with just a hatful of rain’.
For further information about the River Alness, visit http://novar.alnessfishing.com
or telephone Roger Dowsett on 01349 830606