The Leaping Salmon

What a show!
What a show!

The past few days have been spent avidly watching a waterfall a few miles south of the Chayne. I went down on Thursday to look at the dippers as they dealt with the first proper water of the year, and sure enough found several bobbing birds shrieking cheerily on the black rocks, apparently undaunted by the churning foam all around them. As I watched, I noticed something appear to fling itself up out of the raging splash-pool, and only after closer examination found that it was a salmon of not inconsiderable size.

Over half an hour of patient observation, I saw a dozen different fish try their luck at leaping the falls, feeling a tremendous rush of excitement with each determined attempt.  This dogged fixation seemed at times to forgo self preservation, and the madness of holding a position in the fizzing, roaring swirl of water must have been like trying to swim in a washing machine. Some of the great muscular shapes bruised themselves horribly on the stone cliffs when their wriggling vaults went awry, and several fish had scars and rips in their velveteen suits, revealing grey or white wounds as the blood was whisked away by the passage of the water.

Poised on an oak tree above the bellowing cataract, a red squirrel tested a fistful of acorns, then discarded them thoughtlessly into the maelstrom like a disinterested human. The greatest natural spectacle on earth was taking place just a few inches beneath him, yet he simply turned and trotted on bandy legs further up into the cracked boughs above. The water’s deafening rush created a kind of sensory white noise, so that the sight and sound of the falls themselves became almost hypnotic.

The nature of this waterfall is such that there is a low canopy of oak and hazel branches which fan over the precipitous drop, and the effect of turning yellow leaves between the water and the sun transform the satanic cauldron into a stained-glass spectacle. Dull and threatening, the steep rock faces are terrifyingly bare and remorseless. Their upper reaches are adorned with drooping ferns and the roots of ivies and rowans which have been undercut and now hang like jungle creepers. But close to where the water boils, there is a bare hostility to the dull, dripping stone. It is the kind of dense, vindictive surface that delights in shattering bones and cracking skulls.

At its widest, the channel is only twelve feet from bank to bank, but torrent has somehow carved this live rock into a terrifying, awesome crucible. Every now and again, sprigs of ash or rowan would come slipping past noiselessly in the amber water, their symmetrical leaves reminding me of fish skeletons along a twig spine.

The pervasive smell of leaf mould and fresh, moist air seemed to swirl around the narrow chasm. I watched each fish as it leapt, fell and then regrouped again. Sometimes minutes would pass without seeing a fish, then one would try once, twice and even three times with a sudden burst of frustration and madness. It is impossible that these fish could have any idea of communication or co-ordination, but it seemed to me that they preferred to jump together, so that after three or four minutes of breathless anticipation, there would be thirty seconds of intense, agonising labour.

As my feet dangled down over the sopping moss, a single fish came within three feet, staring unblinkingly into my eye as it reached the zenith and then falling back to bounce on the stone and vanish into a creamy mousse of foam. Its only memento was a scab of silverish scales on the rock face, which vanished a second later into the rush. Dippers buzzed past me periodically as I watched; their shrill whistle scarcely audible against the passage of racing water. Little white bibs bobbed through the spray.

This river has its primary source on the Chayne, where it is possible to appreciably cross a watershed with just ten or fifteen paces. Although it bulks considerably over the seven miles of tributaries and catchments between the hill and this waterfall, it felt humbling to consider the small part that the hill plays in this extraordinary natural spectacle. I have passed the falls since I was born and swam there several times during hot summers, but somehow never imagined that the limpid, cooling pools of July could ever play host to such drama and chaos. Leaping salmon have their place in the highlands, where tartan trewed fishermen agonise over their flies, or in Canada, where bears claw them out of the sky. There was something unexpected in finding these fish in a leafy mountain stream in the heart of the Southern Uplands.

Watching closely, I saw fish of different sizes and colours, falling mainly into three categories: little tiddlers of perhaps three quarters of a pound; dark, narrow fish with a purple sheen between five and eight pounds (as above) and a single huge brown fish which looked to weigh well over ten pounds with a red underbelly and a savage looking, pointed beak (as below, although rather a poor picture). Hopefully, somebody will read this and be able to identify these fish, either by sex, age or breeding potential?

The word “epic” is thrown around a great deal at the moment, and while it is usually quite inapplicable to most human feats, the migration of salmon is a process truly deserving of the term. That said, I know very little about salmon and have never even tried to fish for one. If anyone can recommend a good introductory book on the subject, I’d be very keen to learn more. I daresay you’d have to be very unimaginative to see salmon running and not want to learn more.

A different creature altogether
A different creature altogether

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