Home- revisiting the Esk

With some things they say you shouldn’t go back, that things are rarely as you remember them and you will only be disappointed. I have always viewed my home town Musselburgh, and in particular the area called Fisherrow through rose tinted spectacles. I grew up there, moving there when I was one year old, from Edinburgh, to the hometown of my mother, and lived there until I was about 20, and socialised there for many years more. I always figured I would move back there one day but when I visit occasionally on personal business, it’s not the place I recall, and I really don’t like it now as a place, though it holds a lot of happy memories for me. What used to be a bustling high street populated with Green Grocers, Newsagents, Fishmongers, Butchers, and a Mini Market, seems now to be all Nail bars, Hairdressers and Fast-food outlets.

In my youth, from when I learned to fly fish around the age of 12 until I was about 16 or 17 my nearest river fishing was the River Esk, that divides Fisherrow from the Musselburgh side of the town.

It was a river which seemed to attract an unusual amount of Sea Trout, judging by some big fish I know were caught by a friend who used to lay out nets in the tidal estuary area beyond the mouth of the river. Access was made for them ( and the odd alleged Salmon) to pass up a weir just around the mill lade of Bruntons wiremill. Above this, an area called “The Grove” was mainly Brown Trout fishing, and the river was meant to be stocked by the local Angling Association, though who the mysterious association was always eluded me, never having met anyone that represented them. I used to buy an annual permit and fished there and but for one encounter with a very lively Sea Trout, and a few missed fish on my early attempts at dry fly fishing. I never caught and rarely saw a fish, but I enjoyed it. The river though was a sad state of affairs. While I am pretty sure the recovery had sort of started, the paper-mill that used to pump effluent into the river was closed a few years earlier as I recall, and the wire mill was on its last legs, there were always areas which had a sort of toxic foam scum in the eddies not disturbed by currents, it rarely was anything other than coloured up at best, and wading in thigh waders was treacherous with soft silty gunge able to lock you to the bottom like some man eating giant clam from a 1950’s B movie. Just accessing the water was sometime hazardous due to the  huge swathes of what we called poisonous giant rhubarb – but I think was Giant Hogweed, some sort of invasive weed anyway, that the council was always being forced to go try remove.

So I never took it too badly that I never caught anything and still remembered summers evenings quite fondly, through the same rose tinted spectacles that I see Fisherrow through.

Recently though in the last few years I have heard of Grayling being caught in the Esk. How they came to be there I have no idea, but I can be pretty certain it wasn’t a natural occurrence. Grayling though are notoriously sensitive to low oxygen levels and pollution. and their apparent ability to actually stay alive means good things must be happening. I have often thought I need to try go for a wee cast on the old river and see what its like but usually its winter or crap weather when I get across there.

On Thursday I had a call asking if I could make it across for some personal business, sometime soon, and having a day off today and the weather forecast being a bit rubbish, I decided to conclude affairs and arranged to be over there in the Friday morning. It occurred to me to throw my fishing gear in the car “just in case” if the forecast wind and cold weather didn’t arrive AND my poor swollen feet joints were up to it, maybe, I could manage an hour or two. Also the Musselburgh and District Angling Association seems to be having a bit of a renaissance and has a website, it even tells you where to get a permit!

Today turned out to be really pretty nice over there and after concluding affairs around 12:30, I sought out a £10 day ticket at the Monktonhall Newsagents ( what a pain to get to !) and headed out to the back way in to the Grove at Cowpitts Road. This area was always thinner water and looked nicer in my younger days ( its 35 years since I last fished it- I thought it was 40 years initially but was thinking how I started fishing there when I was around 12 rather when I last did around 16 or 17.)

The Dukes Dykes area

The water was sparkling clean and there was a hatch of LDO’s as I arrived

I set up two rods, one with bugs the other set up to try with dries or wets. As I approached the river at the Dukes Dykes, the sun was shining, the water was sparkling clean and right then there was an amazing hatch of upwing flies, looking like LDO’s, rising and flying off the surface. I thought I had hit it right on the button time wise and sat and watched for some signs of fish making their presence known. Nothing. The sheer volume of “fish snacks” coming down the river right in front of me was amazing but I never seen anything move to intercept. I stuck a wee nymph on under a Klinkhammer and cast through the pool entering carefully, so as not to disturb anything that might be sitting in the relatively shallow and very, very clear water.

GolfCourse

Another beautifully clean section near the golf course

Having drawn a blank, here I continued to the next wee glide. This was much deeper on one side and shaded from the sun, which was quite warm. A fish ( probably just a wee one) definitely rose in front of me as I sat and enjoyed a cup of tea in the sunshine. I decided to fish the run from the riffles at the bottom and work my way up with the Klink and dink once again. I was all ready for a fish when I approached where I seen a fish move for a second time) but nothing stirred as I fished through covering it thoroughly.

While it was a little sandy on the near side it was firm under foot, and the water didn’t cloud up as you moved through it, I changed to the bugging rod and fished top to bottom with this, as the water was a nice pace but again nothing. The fly life had noticeably ebbed and a pretty strong but mostly not too cold wind had got up and made holding the bugs on a straight line difficult. Still nothing. But the river I have to say was in pristine condition. The wading was pretty easy even for my daft knees and feet.

On the river Esk

Fishing wets through a deeper run below the rail bridge

I lifted a few rocks and though they weren’t full of stone clinging nymphs like I find on the Carron there were the biggest caseless caddis nymphs I have ever seen. Big and very dark but the size of fat caterpillars.

The rail bridge

The East Coast main line sits above the river on the old rail bridge. The water below looked interesting but there were a load of kids playing by the water so it wasn’t without disturbance.

I carried on down and fished lots of nice wee glides and riffles but never caught any signs of fish. An old chap walking his Dachshund, stopped to blether. he was very knowledgeable on the river and fishing and was telling me he had rarely ever seen a fish rise in all the years he lived there. He thought it was maybe still too cold for the trout yet. I decided to try more tactics and put on a couple of wee north country style wet spiders and fished these through the deeper holes under some trees, then came back and gave the bugs a run through. As I was making ready to maybe move down one more section before calling it a day, I noticed a nice wee run below me behind trees so decided to simply cross the water and fish from the other side through this section. I fished the spiders through the faster water then returned to swap rods for the bugs once again. The water was perfect pace and depth for Grayling bugging and I felt it was now or never. As I neared the foot of the run where I thought the water was getting maybe a bit too shallow now, I sensed a take on the top dropper then felt my point fly snag on the bottom as I lifted. The snag was only momentary but I didn’t have a proper hook set and I seen the fish as it barrel rolled on the surface then got free. it was a decent sized fish too, probably a good 12-14″ fish. Gutted!? You have no idea!

Bugging a run

Fishing a run through on bugs, managed to get a Grayling but the hook set was poor and it was off

There was only maybe a yard or two of thin water to fish through, but I fished through with renewed hope. I decided to change the point bug and fish back through upstream, maybe the fish would come again for something in pink. Alas it wasn’t to be. Another chap, also an angler stopped to talk. We talked Grayling and the river condition and he too said he never seen fish rise these days but said he felt it wasn’t fishing as well as ten years ago though he also remarked what great condition it was all in these days.

On the Esk

Happy as Larry on the river of my youth

As I packed up in the warm evening sunshine I reflected that maybe you can go back and things can be better than you remember them, much better,  even if the outcome turns out the same!