The ideal spawning burn……

The ideal spawning burn has to have a few essential ingredients; first and foremost spawning gravel, without which no salmonids could exist. Secondly there must be juvenile habitat, shallow riffly water for the fry in their first summer is ideal along with deeper; cobbly or bouldery water, fast flowing, if possible, for the older parr. If there is the occasional deeper hole or shady undercut bank alongside a deep glide, to provide refuge for adults, you have the ideal mix. Someone went even further and published a paper on the ideal mix, concluding that what required was one unit spawning gravel, two units for the fry and three units parr habitat, That, it was stated was the formula for the perfect spawning burn. The perfect angling burn, or more likely river, requires something else, but that is not the subject of this blog.

We are blessed with many, many, burns in the Spey catchment that could be classed in the ideal category; the upper Fiddich, Livet, Allt a’ Gheallaidh, Tulchan Burn, Cromdale, Conglass and so on but not all…

I took the opportunity last week to spend the day getting to know an upper Spey burn that I had been meaning to get acquaint with since the summer of 2013, when I first met her. This burn, which shall remain nameless, posed a few questions after the initial date; why were there only parr at the upper site, that site should have supported more and what about the loch in the middle?

It was quite easy to answer the first question.

The burn above the loch, great parr habitat but barely any spawning gravel to be seen. With the weed growth it was very reminiscent of burns I used to know in the Hebrides.

 

I suspect there are spawning gravels below the weeds. If so I know the answer, the only thing is that it involves a great deal of hard labour! I would be worthwhile preping a couple areas before next autumn to see if they were used by fish.

Moving downstream the first gravels were seen a short distance above the loch.

The first spawning gravels seen and the first redd. This looked like a grilse sized redd under the left bank, just upstream of the two boulders on the right.

The loch is know locally as the Pike loch, although funnily enough the estate owner told me none are ever caught. The main characteristic lacking above the loch was spawning gravel; there was however an abundance of mixed juvenile habitat though, perfect for the few fry and parr present.

I skipped the lochside taking the vehicle downhill before approaching the burn at the outlet. The contrast with the upper burn was amazing, here there were an abundance of spawning gravels and the perfect gradient.

The source of this gravel was soon obvious, a tributary joined at the outlet, it was responsible for the transport of copious amounts of ideal spawning substrate.

The sediment highway; a nice, steepish, tributary burn full of spawning gravel.

The lower reaches of the tributary were lined with dense, even sized alders, the sure sign of a recent fencing enclosure. I walked up the tributary, curious to learn a little more of its character.

Above the fence the burn was more typical of the moorland fringe with a few old alders dotted about, a fertile seed source obviously.

 

The same burn from the same spot but looking down towards the fence. The trees have responded in the usual way to the removal of grazing pressure. I did wonder however which was the better scenario, the non regenerating moorland trees or the alder thicket below the fence? In the summer the young alders will cast a dense shade, for many years to come until a few start to blow, or fall over; then a bit more diversitywill appear in the tree age structure. Perhaps we should assist this process by planned thinning along the banks?

Back at the main burn the stretch below the loch was an almost continuous spawning bed for several hundred metres, there was however a distinct lack of parr habitat.

Looking downstream from the loch, perfect salmon spawning gravel and flow.

 

Ideal spawning habitat. although suspiciously straight, I suspect the hand of man.

Further downstream the sediment became finer,  the coarser material being deposited first.

Here I came across what looked like a remarkable fresh trout redd, it had that typical round and humpy profile. But, so fresh looking for late Feb? A late spawner or have flows really been that stable overwinter?

As the loch was left behind the sediment became almost sandy, with weed beds before the burn changed character again as the gradient picked up.

The burn a little further down, there was a lot of bedrock here and virtually no spawning gravel.

 

The rocky section extended for quite a distance. There were virtually no areas suitable for spawning until below this cascade where I am sure there were two salmon redds on the right bank where the burn widened allowing some gravel to remain.

Further down, closer to the confluence with the Spey, the habitat, for the first time, started to match the ideal spawning burn formula.

Great mixed habitat in the lower reaches, spawning gravel , fry and parr habitat all in the same photo. There were two salmon redds left foreground.

 

And more of the same.

My understanding of this burn increased no end, on this, the second date. Virtually no spawning above the loch, too much below, morphing into trout spawning habitat, a bedrock section – again virtually devoid of habitat, before the great mixed habitat in the lower reaches. I’m not sure if it was beginner that designed this burn, or not. However not every burn can be perfect, it has however got a fair bit of biodiversity interest this particular one to make up for the design shortcomings.

Proof that fish do spawn here, salmonid (a large one at that) bones found beside the burn below the loch. If I’d had the dog I’d would have no doubt found more but this estate is a bit game rich for Rogie!

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Dulnain spawning walk

It was a bit dull and dreich today after so many beautiful days but with river levels still low we took the opportunity to walk a section in the middle reaches of the River Dulnain to assess the spawning activity. Joining us for the day were the Delfur ghillies and a film crew filming a documentary on the River Spey for japanese television.

We split into two groups so that we could cover more ground and hopefully locate spawning fish for the film crew.  It is always good when you come across a redd immediately on arrival at the river but that was the case in the lower section, and it set the tone for the rest of the morning. This particular area of the Dulnain has superb habitat, see here for an earlier blog, with a great variety of spawning, fry, parr and holding water. Nearly every area of good spawning habitat had been used with many easy to identify complete redds visible in the low and clear water.

We saw a lot of fish; large and small, with some great spawning activity.

A cock guarding the redd

A cock guarding the redd

Most of the fish were very clean with little or no fungus just the odd exception. Despite the high numbers of fish on the redds, and the number of complete redds, we found no otter kills. The few dead fish found were intact but covered in fungus.

Our Gopro video was deployed on one redd where five fish were present. However 2 hours of footage only produced a few short scenes with a number of different cock fish approaching the camera – this wildlife filming is harder than it looks!

A snapshot from the underwater video, one of several cock fish in the area.

A snapshot from the underwater video, one of several cock fish in that spot.

The river was low, and has been so for a number of weeks with just the occasional small rise in water levels. Consequently most of the redds were in low water sites – fast runs or in tails of pools with faster flows, although not all, some fish must have taken advantage of the short rises to spawn in what were now slower flows.

Thsi particular run contained 27 or 28 redds with a number of fish actively cutting redds.

This particular run contained 27 or 28 redds with a number of fish actively cutting redds. I have been involved in redd counts or watching spawning fish for over 15 years and this was one of the highest densities of salmon redds I have seen – very impressed. This was a classic low water spawning run; the tail of the big pool above contained no redds, the flow being too slow in the low water.

Salmon redds in the low water run.

Classic profile complete salmon redds at the top end of the low water run.

Well used spawning gravel

Well used spawning gravel

At lunchtime it was clear that we had seen more activity than Steve and the film crew so after lunch I took them back downstream where they deployed their underwater cameras in some areas of good activity; hopefully they were more successful than I was in filming spawning activity.

The Delfur guys headed further upstream after lunch but we met on the way home. Their report from the upper section was good with about 40 redds recorded and many fish seen. Amazingly they also reported seeing a farmed fish on the redds! The farmers tail, which was showing above the surface, attracted their attention and they were able to confirm it as a farmer on closer inspection.

Farmed fish tail fin closest to the camera with the wild male behind - not much gets past the Delfur ghillies!

Farmed fish tail fin closest to the camera with the wild male behind – not much gets past the Delfur ghillies, an incredible spot in those conditions! The farmer was 12lb+ and an unwelcome sight on the redds although it genes will be well diluted by the big stock of wild fish.

As always it was another great day out redd counting. I had walked this bit of the Dulnain before so the quality of the habitat was no surprise but I was impressed by the stock of spawning fish. It was good to be able to share such a day with the Delfur ghillies who I am pretty sure were equally impressed.

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Avon spawning recce

Steve and myself, accompanied by a local photographer interested in salmon, headed for the upper Avon (A’an) today to check on the spawning activity.  This was the same trip as we had made three years ago although on the 24th Oct, a week earlier.

The first port of call was the Burn of Loin a productive high altitude tributary of the A’an.

Typical habitat in the upper Loin

Typical habitat in the upper Loin. It is quite a mobile burn, a trait accentuated by the big spate last year although it didn’t look too dissimilar to what we had seen in 2012.

There were redds visible from the start on our walk with fish present on some. James deployed his Gopro underwater cameras at the first two locations where we found actively spawning fish; hopefully he will have got some good footage. In total we walked 2.8km counting 67 salmon redds and 21 which we thought we more likely made by sea trout; although we didn’t see any live sea trout today, almost all the fish which we could identify were grilse with the occasional larger salmon. In the middle reaches every bit of spawning gravel had been turned over.

Well used spawning gravels in the Loin.

In the middle reaches of the Loin almost every inch of suitable spawning gravels had been turned over, including this well ploughed patch.

A grilse on a Loin redd.

A grilse on a Loin redd.

This was the only positive sighting of a sea trout today; a dead one on the bank. Presumed to be an otter kill although each end appears to have been sucked rather than chewed?

This was the only positive sighting of a sea trout today; a dead one on the bank. Presumed to be an otter kill although each end appears to have been sucked rather than chewed?

Last year we noted that whilst the nearby Builg Burn held mainly spawning two sea winter salmon the Loin fish were mainly small grilse. It was the same this year. Still they were present in good numbers and we were more than satisfied that the egg deposition target would have been more than met in the Loin.

In addition to the redds count the bird count included one eagle, several dippers  and of all things a goosander!

Satisfied with the Loin we headed upstream to the upper A’an. I blogged about the 2012 trip to the same area see here so it was going to be interesting to see what was about this year. We got to the end of the road at 1220, grabbed a quick sandwich then headed upstream to take advantage of the good light. As in 2012 we found redds immediately next to the bothy, although if anything there seemed to be more fish and redds in that area this year.

There were four identifiable redds in this area with five fish in attendance, a good level of activity for such high altitude.

There were four identifiable redds in this area with five fish in attendance, a good level of activity for such high altitude.

In 2012 we found a "mega redd" where large rocks had bene dislodged. Well we found the same this year. These two excavations midstream involved moving rocks up to 8" diameter. It is almost unbelievable that salmon could move such material but what else would dig holes in the river bed at 2000ft?

In 2012 we found a “mega redd” where large rocks had been dislodged. Well we found the same this year. These two excavations midstream (white patches above centre) involved moving rocks up to 8″ diameter. It is almost unbelievable that salmon could move such material but what else would dig holes in the river bed at 2000ft?

This photo was taken in a side channel just below where the Allt Coire Ruairidh joins the Avon. There were two redds in this fine patch of spawning gravel with a cock grilse on guard; it was exactly the same in 2012, check out the link provided above.

This photo was taken in a side channel just below where the Allt Coire Ruairidh joins the A’an. There were two redds in this fine patch of spawning gravel with a cock grilse on guard; it was exactly the same in 2012, check out the link provided above.

The Allt Coire Ruairidh confluence. There were four redds in this frame, a nice wee cluster at over 2000ft altitude.

The Allt Coire Ruairidh confluence. There were four redds in this frame, two in the foreground and two behind the grassy island, a nice wee cluster at over 2000ft altitude.

30 salmon redds were recorded in 2.7km of river, a much lower density than in the Loin but the upper A’an is considerably higher and considerably less productive. In 2012 we counted 25 redds but saw less fish than today, albeit a week earlier. This part of the upper A’an is maybe on the very limit of salmon survival in terms of altitude and lack of productivity. Again we were happy with what we saw.

terrain blog 2

Contrary to the forecast the weather improved during the day with the clouds clearing to reveal a beautiful autumn afternoon light. The low sun really highlighting the fantastic glacial features of the terrain.

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River Fiddich spawning

A walk up the lower River Fiddich in good conditions revealed quite a lot of redds with the occasional fish still spawning. The average size of the fish was high, most were double figure fish with only a few grilse to be seen.

A big redd on the Fiddich. Probably more than one pair of fish involved to make a redd of this size. A single cock fish can be seen just upstream (to the left)

A very big redd on the Fiddich. Probably more than one pair of fish involved to make a redd of this size. A single cock fish can be made out to the left. No shortage of top quality spawning gravel in the lower Fiddich.

On the right bank of the Fiddich there are the remains of what looks like infrastructure associated with an old water power system.

This structure looks like a sluice to control water levels in a lade. Perphaps there was more than one water powered machine in the system.

This structure looks like a sluice to control water levels in a lade. Perhaps there was more than one water powered machine in the system. Warning: don’t go walking in the woods in this area at night, the place is littered with traps like this!

The remains of the water lade along the right bank

The remains of the water lade along the right bank

There must have been a weir where the water was taken from the river and sure enough a short distance upstream there were the remains of what could have been such a thing.

The remains of an old weir?

The remains of an old weir?

Due to the steep terrain I returned to the Craigellachie to Dufftown path from where I spotted a pair of salmon spawning.

I arrived just as they mated but too late to get the money shot! This photo shows the hen burying the recently laid eggs with gravel.

I arrived just as they mated but too late to get the money shot! This photo shows the hen burying the recently laid eggs with gravel.

Click here to see a short video clip of this pair of salmon.

Redds were present throughout the lower few miles of the Fiddich, salmon and sea trout, never in abundance but there was the odd cluster of three redds or more but mostly single redds.

A single salmon redd in good fry/parr habitat in the Fiddich.

A single salmon redd in good fry/parr habitat in the Fiddich.

There was a more than adequate number of redds to be seen in the lower Fiddich but it will be one of the last places in the catchment for a dip in juvenile densities to occur. Other more peripheral areas in the margins of the catchment will be the first to respond if the low numbers of adults seen over the last couple years continues.

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Grantown caravan park burn spawning

Today I took the opportunity to follow up on reports of sea trout spawning in the upper Kylintra Burn in Grantown today. One of the bailiffs had relayed a report and mention of sea trout spawning in burn next to his accommodation by one of the members of a salmon fishing forum prompted a quick visit whilst in the area. The interest was mainly because the Kylintra Burn was on our database as being impassable; or at the very least troublesome for fish to reach.

Trout redd by the road opposite the Grantown Caravan Park. This was one of about 10 redds in less than 100m downstream of the park entrance.

Trout redd by the road opposite the Grantown Caravan Park. This was one of about 10 redds in less than 100m downstream from the park entrance.

Trout redd in the Kylintra Burn near the caravan park in Grantown

Trout redd in the Kylintra Burn near the caravan park in Grantown

There are several culverts between the Spey and this point in the Kylintra Burn as well as a weir but the fish obviously made it past them all this year. The weir is on the outlet of an inline pond but I was able to have a look at it today through the fence and it certainly didn’t look impassable.

This summer we electrofished a new site upstream of the main road at the Craiglynne Hotel. There were a few salmon fry and parr but it was stuffed with trout; the parr density was the highest recorded this year.

Trout size distribution in the Kylintra Burn opposite the Craiglynne Hotel in Aug 2014

Trout size distribution in the Kylintra Burn opposite the Craiglynne Hotel in Aug 2014

It is good to see that the trout are able to utilise the full length of the naturally accessible part of the Kylintra Burn. A short distance upstream of the caravan park there is an impassable waterfall. This is another burn we can remove from our obstacles database.

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Mackalea Burn spawning

I have kept a regular eye on the Mackalea Burn since the installation of the fish pass. Yesterday afternoon to water was rising and colouring although it wasn’t really a major spate. This afternoon the water had dropped and cleared providing a chance to see what was what upstream.

Rising and dirty water yesterday afternoon

Rising and dirty water yesterday afternoon

There were a couple new sea trout redds about 50m upstream of the fish pass and immediately in front of the B&B. A short distance upstream a fence crosses the burn; a likely looking spot where I had expected to see a redd appear. No sign of any redds there today but just above there were the remains of a cock salmon.

Rogie eyeing up the salmon remains.

Rogie eyeing up the salmon remains.

A short distance upstream there was what looked like a salmon redd.

What looks like a salmon redd opposite an old bale. It can be difficult to tell the difference between a small salmon and a sea trout redd but this one extended over the full width of the flow nd looked more salmon sixed in comparison to the smaller, and rounder sea trout redds.

What looks like a salmon redd opposite an old bale. It can be difficult to tell the difference between a small salmon and a sea trout redd but this one extended over the full width of the flow and looked more salmon sized in comparison to the smaller, and generally rounder, sea trout redds.

There were about 12 redds in total (mainly sea trout) above the fish pass. The salmon redd was upstream of both our electrofishing sites in the Mackalea. It would be nice to find salmon fry there next summer.

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