A Summer on the Don

A retired banker ,soldier, singer, and diplomat, PAUL HYDE BONNER came to his writing career when he ivas in his late fifties with his first novel, SPQR (1952). His two collections of stories, THE GLORIOUS MORNINGS and AGED IN THE WOOD,display his characteristic zest for fishing, hunting, and the wonders of life outdoors.

THE day I returned to my home in South Carolina, I ran into a friend with whom I am apt to play poker on Thursday evenings. “Well!” he exclaimed, with a welcome grin. “Where have you been these last two months?” I started to tell him that my wife and I had taken a cottage on the Don, with three and one half miles of the river to fish, but he let me get no further. “So you were one of those who went to Russia, eh?” he interrupted, and the grin faded into a look of suspicious distrust, as if he had suddenly realized that I was one of those damyankees who might well have leanings that were too liberal for the good of the community. I had to explain to him carefully, and I hoped convincingly, that not all the Dons that gently How are Cossack. The Don on whose banks I had lived and fished during the month of July gets its start in the southern hills of Banffshire, near Glen Avon on the edge of the Cairngorm Mountains, and flows in a wandering easterly course through Aberdeenshire, emptying into the North Sea within the city of Aberdeen. But I did not go into these details with my poker pal. I merely told him that I had been in Scotland.

Although the Don has its beginnings in the peat of heather-covered moorland hills, nine tenths of its eighty-two miles of flow is through rich farmland. This fact undoubtedly accounts for the presence in its waters of a large and thriving population of wild brown trout. There is little larval fly life in peat-flavored water, nor are there other trout foods, such as fresh-water shrimp and crawfish; and in consequence, one finds few brown trout in such renowned salmon rivers as the Dee and the Spey, and those that are occasionally taken are apt to be lean and poor. The Don, however, has a fine run of salmon and grilse from the middle of February to the end of May, and from June until October it is probably the best brown trout stream in all of Scotland. What little peat there is in it at its source is soon dissipated by the volume of sweet water that drains into it from fields of oats and barley and lush pastures where feed some of the finest herds of pedigreed Aberdeen-Angus cattle in the world. The country through which it flows is hilly for the first thirty miles and rolling from then on to Old Aberdeen. It is broad country, big country, with wide fields, a great sweep of sky, and a horizon of high purple mountains to the west and south.

As the source of the Don is at an elevation of two thousand feet, simple arithmetic will tell us that its average decline is twenty-four and one half feet to the mile. But simple arithmetic does not always give an appropriate answer. It is a far faster stream for the first third of its length than it is for the final two thirds. In the beginning it is a rushing mountain torrent, but the moment it reaches the fertile farms it slows down, becoming a stately river that matches the dignity of the scenery. I do not wish to imply that it is in any sense a slow-flowing meadow stream like the Test of Hampshire. It has throughout its lowland journey long pools and shorter rapid stretches that are rocky and boulder-strewn. In other words, it is the classic salmon river, which happens also to be the perfect trout stream — one that can be waded most of the way and fished from the bank or a boat in the wide, deep pools.

I HAD met John Paton several years ago, while shooting at Findrack on Deeside, so when the Laird of Findrack wrote in answer to my inquiry concerning the name of some pub on the Don where my wife and I could spend the month of July fishing for trout, the name rang a bell. He suggested that we might prefer to rent one of John Paton’s two furnished cottages at Grandhome, which is the Paton estate on Donside, with three and one half miles of the north bank of the river. I wrote at once to the Laird of Grandhome, and after receiving his detailed description of both cottages, we opted for Invergara, which is the smaller of the two and the nearer to the river bank. It was a choice that we did not regret. Invergara, with its three bedrooms, large livingdining room, two bathrooms, kitchen, and pantry, was completely and attractively furnished.

Shortly after our arrival, I asked John Paton if the name of the cottage was an ancient one. He laughed and admitted that he had concocted it himself after remodeling the building which enclosed the garage. The prefix inver, he told me, is the Gaelic word for “mouth,” or “entrance” (hence, Inverness means the mouth of the river Ness), and as the cottage embraces the entrance to the garage, he merely dropped the last two letters of that word and attached it to inver — Invergara. One of the most attractive features of Invergara is its proximity to Grandhome House (about two hundred yards away), the tennis courts and swimming pool and the magnificent kitchen and cutting gardens. The charm of propinquity has its foundation in sympathy, one might even say empathy, for the ones who are near. The instant liking that we took to the Patons quickly developed into an intimate affection. They are, both of them, witty, wise, literate, and traveled, all of which made them joyous and stimulating neighbors and landlords.

Grandhome House was built by George Paton in 1680 and has been lived in by successive eldest sons of his line ever since. It is a handsome, dignified structure, with three wings mounted by stepped gables on the entrance side and a smooth face of many windows and curved doorsteps on the side which faces the River Don.

It was not more than three hundred yards from Invergara to the bank of the Don. A cinder path led past the kitchen wing of Grandhome House, then across the lawns and down the terraces to the little boathouse. At this point the river is wide and deep and almost as motionless as a pond because of a dam about half a mile downstream that supplies power for the paper mill below. Although Grandhome has the north bank for a good mile or more below the dam, we only fished that part of the river once or twice. It is the best salmon reach in the spring, having many fine, deep pools, where they hold for a day or two before starting the long run upstream to the spawning redds, which arc among the heather hills of the upper reaches and in the tributary mountain burns. It is rare indeed to see a red salmon on the Don as far downstream as Grandhome.

One day, Davidson, the Grand home keeper and gillie, reported seeing a bright salmon leap in the Haugh, the pool at the spill of the paper mill dam, about a mile and a half below Grandhome House. John Paton came hurrying to Invergara to tell us about it, arid I made quick work of assembling our salmon rods and attaching them to the roof of the car on a pair of magnetic rubber holders. We drove down the road to Aberdeen, parking the car on the edge of a spinney opposite the mill and walking down the path to the flat rock below the dam. Alternately we cast into the fast water, letting our flies float down over the spot where the salmon, according to Davidson, had shown a few hours before. We tried several patterns of lowwater flies, but nothing paid any attention to them, nor did any salmon show while we were there.

The drought that had started in April over the British Isles grew ever more pronounced on Scotland’s east coast. On each succeeding bright and sunny day we could mark .he shrinkage of the Don. New rocks would appear in the fast runs, and the large boulders that had always shown seemed to grow in size as the water receded. The waving beds of weed on the bottom, which had been too deep to be seen when first fished, became gradually visible until, by the time we left, they were undulating on the surface. The larger trout that had had their stands behind the rocks in the fast runs moved down into the deep pools, their places being taken by little fellows, too small to keep. During the first week of our stay we had had our best success in the run at the top of the broad water above the boathouse, but that soon became unfishable, so we took to wandering upstream through the pastures of the Home Farm; four of them in all, with each barbed-wire fence mounted by a sturdy stile and each pasture with a good bench by the bank. The distance from the boathouse to the top of Grandhome water is about two miles, but it seemed far less when we strolled along intently with a fly rod. As on most rivers, there was much to observe, and observation has a way of shortening time and distance.

A PAIR of swans with three cygnets were a daily source of delight. Each morning they could be found together near the boathouse, the cygnets trailing dutifully in single file behind mother; three fluffy gray miniatures peeping as they paddled. The ability to speak apparently disappears when they are full grown and their gray down has been replaced by sleek white feathers. This adult silence is the reason the species is known as the mute swan. The only sound I ever heard from father or mother was an angry hiss when I came too close to the children. Mother and her brood never ranged further than three or four hundred yards, but father, typically, left every afternoon to fly about a mile upstream, where he had a special rock in the middle of the river on which he preened himself and slept. Every evening about half past six he would take off from his rock and fly downstream to join the family. With his long neck stretched rigidly out front and his feet flat under his tail, he would sail along only a foot or two above the water, his wing tips almost hitting the surface on their slow and even downbeat.

Evidently this pair of swans considered the Grandhome reach of the Don theirs by squatters’ right, or eminent domain, or whatever law prevails da côté de chez swan, for one day when I was fishing the Brown Cow Pool, which is directly below father swan’s resting rock, I saw him jump to his feet, flap his great wings, stretch out his neck, jump into the water, and swim swiftly upstream against the current, with his wings arched over his back in the attitude of attack. For a time I could not see what it was that had aroused his anger. Finally I made them out — a pair of whooping swans drifting downstream around the bend that marks the top of Grandhome water. The moment they saw him, they beat a hasty retreat, but he remained in the top pool for a long time, swimming about with his wings arched, making certain that they had no intention of returning to invade his territory.

There was a large flock of lapwings that could always be found in one of the pastures, or, after the grain was cut and stooked, on the hillside of the farm on the opposite bank. They are dainty birds, with their gray-green backs and white undersides and little crests of feathers pointed backward from their heads.

A far flashier, noisier, and more assertive bird on the Don is the oyster catcher. He is an exhibitionist, forever attracting attention to himself by flaunting his costume, which is strikingly loud, being black and white in an arrangement that makes him appear to be wearing a dinner jacket without sleeves and set off by a prominent and gaudy red beak. Not content with this visual display, he is constantly letting forth a shrill call that sounds like a little boy whistling with two fingers in his mouth. But I am unfair in blaming it all on the male. His wife, who, as if it were a music hall act, wears the same costume, is equally after the spotlight. They are vulgar, flashy vaudevillians who travel the circuit together. Whatever it is they catch in the Don, it certainly is not oysters. It may be fish and chips, for all I know.

WHETHER one is fishing for salmon or trout, a river takes knowing before one can be sure of success. Places that look as if they were perfect spots for a trout to pre-empt for his dining room, or a salmon for his resting place, may be scorned by fish for reasons of undersurface currents not visible from above. With a good gillie who knows every inch of his water, all you have to do is put the fly where he tells you to, and if salmon is your game and your visit to a strange river a brief one, he will certainly save you a lot of disappointments.

The true trout fisherman, on the other hand, would much prefer to come home with an empty creel than to listen to the advice of a gillie. The trout man is one who likes to solve the streams’ secrets in his own fashion. Because trout, unlike salmon and sea trout, spend their entire lives in the river, their habits follow a fairly well-defined pattern; a pattern with which the practiced angler is familiar. He knows, for example, that when dorsal fins and tails silently cut the surface of a pool, ti jut are feeding on nymphs (“nymphing,” he will call it), and it would be quite useless to float a dry fly over them, as their eyes and attention are directed beneath the surface. He also knows that a long ripple on the otherwise smooth surface of a pool means that there is a submerged rock and that both above and below this rock are current vacuums where trout can feed without having to swim hard to maintain their positions.

On his initial tour of strange water, a trout fisherman looks first for the dimples and bubbles of feeding fish and second for likely places where, as experience has taught him, a big trout is apt to command the spot and attack all smaller fish who try to invade his kingdom. Often this private territory of a large trout will be a deep hole by the bank where the current revolves in a circle, gathering froth and flotsam. It is practically impossible to float a fly on a place like that without getting a drag. The trout commanding such spots are large, because plenty of feed floats in to them and remains to be taken at leisure, and because — the main reason — no angler has been able to dcecive them with an artificial insect. That fat old trout has become accustomed to the fact that there is no cause to rush at any food entering his precinct. The revolving current will keep it there long enough for him to examine it slowly and carefully before sucking it in. Many a time I have had the maddeningly frustrating experience of watching a monster trout take flies from the surface of such a whirlpool, yet never touch mine because I could only let it remain on the water for a few seconds before it began to drag. He saw no reason to rush at mine, as he might have on the open stream.

As I have said, we concentrated our attention on the two miles of river that are above Grandhome House. Had we been spinners, we might have spent more time on the deep lower pools, in one of which Davidson, the year before, had hauled out a ten-pound brown trout while spinning with a Devon and had it mounted and hung over the mantel in his cottage for all to admire. I will not deny, however, that scenery played a strong role in our choice. Pastures, dairy cows, grain fields, and cozy gray stone farmhouses, surrounded by trees and garden walls, are pleasanter sights for a contemplative and camera-toting angler than dams and factory walls. Furthermore, the pastures were carpeted with yellow clumps of tansy, which cows, for some reason best known to them, will not touch.

GRADUALLY, as the days passed and we learned more and more about the river, we began to center our attention on those pools and runs where we had had the best luck. There was one exception to this. I became stubborn about a particular spot facing the bench in the second pasture. It was one of those minor riffles on the smooth surface of a long pool which, as I have already pointed out, indicates the presence of a submerged rock. Because of the convenience of the bench, I took the habit of stopping there each day for five or ten minutes to watch for a rise, and seeing none, would cast a fly down the riffle to make sure before moving on. Then one afternoon toward the end of the second week, I thought I detected a slight dimple on the rippling water. I waited. The dimple appeared a second time, though I had not seen a fly. Putting on the smallest fly in my box, I set it down above the riffle. The moment it reached the first of the curving wavelets, it disappeared. I tightened the line, thinking I had [looked the rock itself. Then the leader moved slowly away from me, toward the far bank. No rush or angry jerking, just a slow determined pull that took line off the reel with a steady, rhythmic clicking. A farmer in the field across the river, who had been stooking sheaves of barley, stopped when he saw my arching rod and stood watching with a sheaf in each hand. When I saw that the fish was headed for a patch of reeds, I put more pressure on the rod tip. That slightly extra deterrent apparently infuriated him, for he suddenly sprang into action, dashing back to the middle of the river and taking a mighty leap. The size of him quickened my heartheat. I was determined to have him in my creel if it took all afternoon and evening. It did not take that long, but it was a good half hour of racing up and down the pool before he was exhausted enough for me to slip the net under him. As I raised him on the hook of my pocket scales, the farmer called. “What’ll he weigh?" he asked. “Four and a quarter pounds,” I answered truthfully, reading the figure. “A bonny trout!” he called back, grinning.

But he was not the biggest fish I caught that month in the Don. The larger one was a surprise that brought me triumph and very nearly disaster. It happened one afternoon when I was alone on the river. It was another of the succession of warm, sunny days that we had experienced since we arrived in the British Isles, and the Don had shrunk to the point where it was useless to fish except in a very few places. I had reached the top of the beat with nothing to show for my work, although I had floated a dry fly over every spot where I had learned that trout were apt to lie and had been changing flies in the desperate hope that I would chance on one that might be tempting. There was no use; the water was too warm and the trout were hiding from the bright sun. This discouraging thought gave me an idea. Instead of packing up and walking home, I would rig up a couple of wet flies and fish them down to the boathouse. I tied a fancy little blue and yellow fly on the tail and an insignificant March Brown on the dropper. Having small hope, I did not fish very carefully, merely flinging them across the stream and letting them float down as I walked along.

At the top of the Brown Cow Pool — so named because of a large sprawling rock that resembles a reclining cow — there is a lip where the water glides over a ridge of small rocks before descending the rapids and on into the deep water. On the cast, which took my flies in an arc to the edge ot this lip, I saw the leader stop, which made me give the line an irritable jerk, thinking one of the hooks had caught on a rock. To my astonishment, the leader swung rapidly upstream, and I realized with satisfaction that I had at last hooked a fish. As the pull was neither strong nor violent, I assumed it was a smallish trout. When I started to reel in, he came docilely enough, and I reached to disengage my collapsible net from the ring of my creel. At that moment, the fish changed his mind about the situation, having either seen me or become annoyed with the hook in his jaw, for he made a sudden dash downstream through the rapids and into the pool below, while the reel screeched as all the line went out and the black silk backing appeared.

I scrambled along the bank, which is high at this point and riddled with cow paths and high hummocks, trying, as I stumbled along, to regain line as fast as possible. When I reached the big pool, he made another dash, this time toward the opposite bank (the Don is about fifty yards wide at Grandhome), ending in a magnificent leap. Only then did I realize that I was attached to a salmon. Now, mark you, I was fishing with an eight-and-a-half-foot trout rod that: weighed a mere five and a half ounces, and the lip of my leader was three-pound test nylon. 1 have a hunch that even Lee Wulff, who likes to fish with light gear, would scarcely recommend my equipment for salmon fishing. There was nothing for me to do but let him carry the fight in his own fashion. And this 1 proceeded to do, scrambling upstream when that was his direction, racing downstream when he headed that way, and trying my frantic best to keep the leader away from rocks and the fish away from weed beds. Had he lain on the bottom and sulked, thus conserving his strength, I might still be there on the bank of the Don, but he fought so hard, raced about so much, that he finally defeated himself.

Now that he was tired, gasping for oxygen and rolling helplessly from side to side, the problem was how to land him. My trout net was patently useless. Only half of his length could enter it, and any attempt to scoop that hall would undoubtedly dislodge the hook and lose me that fish. I had no gaff, and 1 looked upstream and downstream in vain for a sign of someone who could help me. I had the north bank to myself. My only hope was to beach him, but where? There were no beaches; nothing but the steep pasture bank made uneven by x^yrshirc cows.

I recalled having passed a muddy break in the bank where the cattle had descended to drink, but it was upstream, which meant dragging the fish against the current on a 3X leader that had already been overstrained. However, as it was the only hope, I marched him along slowly, foot by foot, around rocks, around weeds, until 1 could ease his head onto the mud of the shallow. Holding the line taut by lifting the rod as high as my left hand could reach, 1 reached down and stuck two fingers of my right hand under his gill cover and ran up the almost perpendicular bank. My plan had been to place Inin on the cow path halfway up the bank, where I could give him the coup de grace. But when he felt himself being hauled through the air by the gills, he gave a violent Hop and shot off my fingers. I tossed my rod aside and fell on him almost at the moment he hit the grass. There we wrestled for a good five minutes, 1 on top of his squirming body, as I searched frantically for the priest in my jacket pocket.

By the time I found it, he was beyond grace — a splendid, shining, fresh-run grilse lying beside me. I was so happy, so thrilled, so replete with a sense of triumph that 1 lay there for quite a while just gaping at him. It was only when I rose to weigh him that I felt the first sharp stab of pain in my left knee. In my falling on the fish, that knee must have hit a stone, for it was virtually out of commission. But the analgesic of victory was enough to help me to limp the mile and a half to Invergara, lugging my seven-pound trophy.

The quiet Don, as it flews across the rich farmlands of Aberdeenshire, holding fine salmon in the spring and plenty of fat brown trout at all seasons, has many excellent reaches available to the touring fisherman. There are fishing inns at Glenkindie and Alford, and rods are let by the day at Kenmay, Kintore, and from the Bridge of Balgownie to the sea, which is within the city of Old Aberdeen. The first step that I would suggest to an itinerant angler is to write to the Scottish Tourist Board at 2 Rutland Place, West End, Edinburgh !, enclosing the equivalent of three shillings (make it fifty cents to cover the postage) for a copy of the latest edition of “Scotland for Fishing,” a most complete and comprehensive compendium of rivers, hotels, and fishing availability, including costs, open seasons, and species of fish to be found. As a second step, it might be well to acquire a glossary of Scottish words in order to ease communication. It will be useful to know, for example, that “burn” means “brook” and “brae” means “hill” when a farmer points out that “There be a guid pool where the burn comes in by yon brae.”