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NATURE A salmon’s last run

Outdoor Living
To a lovers’ tryst, or a hag’s clutches


Country sights and sounds

John Shelley


A full night of rain had me thinking of the salmon in the river. Although most have likely found their destination, there would surely be a few stragglers tackling the falls. I went to see, and there, sure enough, were dark shapes forming in the tumult of water as fish readied themselves for what lay ahead.
One small, dark-coloured cock fish made a hopeless jump into thin air before finding himself swept away downstream by the sheer weight of water. He was three pounds or so; a summer fish, foodless since he left the sea in June or July, living off his back from then ’til now. What does he make of himself at this time, with his silver coat fallen away and his sleek snout contorted, his lower jaw a monstrous kype that no longer allows his mouth to close? He is ugly indeed, but in a magnificent way.
I watched him circle in quieter water and followed the tip of his dorsal fin as it cut through the surface, leaving a slight V in its wake. I saw him progress slowly through the sluice as a miraculous shadow going against the sun. He hovered briefly and appeared to shake himself. This was it. This was his moment. His flesh must surely be weakening after so many hungry weeks; he had come to this point when, now, it was to be either glory or death in trying to scale the heights before him.
He disappeared from view, seeking the depths from where he might power himself. I watched the fall, knowing he would come. Then there he was, impossibly holding his own against a mighty current for two, three seconds, before he summoned strength from deep within and launched once more as a living torpedo to climb and slip into the shallow pool above, where he might rest awhile before continuing along his way.
I gave him silent applause and made a mental note to visit the gravel redds some five or more miles upstream, where I might meet with this brave character once more. I might give him a week to get there, find a mate and settle into a suitable pool. One cooler night he will escort his bride to a suitable spot and together they will spend their lives for the sake of their kind. So he might find his glory, but it will almost certainly lead to his death. He shall taste both in short order. I leaned on the parapet of the bridge to see if I might watch his progress a little more. A hundred yards upstream sat a cormorant on a mid-river rock. She is a hag of a bird, with a crooked beak of a nose, a cold, blue eye and a wild, black, tatter of a dress. She sat close by the course my salmon must take with her neck craned and head a little to one side, as if in anticipation of an easy meal.
I waved my arms and shouted to drive the hag off. She turned her head toward me and issued a curse; ‘Haa!’ she cried, and flung feathers in my direction while taking clumsily, heavily, to the air and departing for a more secluded fishing spot, dragging her rags in the water as she went.
The cormorant is the bane of the fisherman. She will swallow a big trout or small salmon every day, and more if she is able to catch them. Once she finds where the fish are the hag informs her friends, so that they too may join in the feasting that is to be done.
In England so many of these birds have moved from their coastal haunts onto inland fisheries that they are considered to be vermin, and so may be eradicated by various means, principally by shooting. I find myself torn. If it came to the simple decision as to who would get the last fish, me or the hag, there is no competition. Yet I feel a sense of community responsibility, in that she has an equal right to be there, or even a greater one.
The plastic waste draped along the bank came from members of my race, not hers. Before my kind arrived to fix the river it flowed clean and free, full of wild things. We know it will come right one day. For now we will watch and learn.