Walked through the woods, over the footbridge and along the far bank of the river to the weir yesterday, to see if I could see the salmon leap on their autumn run upstream. 'Run', I thought as I walked along, is a strange word to use of a fish - why not 'swim'? As I got to the bottom of the steps down to the bridge I caught sight of four goosanders huddled on the opposite bank in an eddy of the river, and out of the churning flow. The river sits in a deep, rocky cleft here, and when, as now, we have heavy rains it swells to cover the red, sandy beach that normally edges the river below the bridge. The slim, elegant ducks I saw looked like females, with cinnamon heads, grey backs and pale bellies. I checked when I got home and found that they could have been males in eclipse, the casual, 'not-on-the-pull-at-the-moment' plumage they adopt outside the breeding season. Had I been a better bird watcher I would have known to look for the large, white patch on the wing which would tell me they were males. Too late now. As soon as they caught sight of me they shimmied into the flow and bobbed away downstream like plastic ducks in a race.
Once over the bridge the path doubles back along the top of the opposite bank, some twenty feet above the river. I walked through a narrow corridor of woodland and crossed a stile that led me down the steep slope, slippery with beech mast, to the edge of the weir.
It's a strange place to be. The weir is almost like a door between one world and another. Above it the river is a broad, tranquil sheet of water, glossy and black, except where the breeze shivers its surface to a nap. The only intimation that it's moving comes from the light scattering of foam across its surface, which heads towards you at surprising speed when the river is in spate. But as the water breasts the weir it changes completely - as does the landscape through which it flows. Soft, gentle wooded banks give way to hard, rocky outcrops and cliffs. The water crashes over the concrete, creating metre-high waves that seem to be trying to get back up the weir. The river becomes a narrow, stormy, mud-brown sea lurching between the rocks.
It's through this maelsrom that the salmon have to battle to crest the weir and get to their spawning grounds in the calm, gravelly pools further upstream. I didn't really expect to see a fish with the river so high. I was ready to move away when I spotted a dark shape that lifted from the water for an instant. I thought it was a salmon. Anyway it made me wait a little longer. As I watched a dipper zipped across my vision heading downstream on a mission. Then another shape in the water. No doubt this time. Caught it hovering horizontally in an arc of spume in front of the face of the weir. Then another, even better sighting. A salmon launched itself out of the water and crashed sideways into the concrete of the weir before being swept back down.
I was suddenly conscious of another presence and looked round to see an angler studying the water. 'Seen any?', he asked. 'Three', I said. He seemed surprised, despite carrying a rod ready for action. 'Thought the river would be too high, though it is dropping. 1.6 metres yesterday, down to 1.3metres today, according to SEPA's website. Tomorrow will be better. Still, worth a try.' And he headed off to a spot above the weir. I didn't know what the figures meant, but resolved to check out the SEPA website and find out, if it helps me choose good days for my own fishing expeditions - strictly without a rod.