It was like treading upon a sweeping carpet of copper, such was the burnished tint of the beech leaves covering this track by the River North Esk near Edzell.
There had been a deluge the night before, and the river below foamed and churned, the spate a reminder of the power of nature and its capacity to inspire – and perhaps also to strike a little fear. I was on the look-out for salmon and shortly beforehand had ventured down to a rock shelf where the river narrowed into a small gorge, funnelling the rushing water into a spuming maelstrom.
The strength of the pummelling torrent was so strong that I couldn’t see how any salmon could overcome its sheer force and ascend the river to reach the spawning grounds up in Glenesk. But these incredible fish are tenacious enough to overcome such hazardous obstacles. It is one of nature’s miracles.
I watch for a while, the cascading water almost hypnotic in quality, but I glimpse no salmon this time around. Perhaps the power of the river is too strong today, or maybe I am too late in the season and the salmon have already moved further upstream.
On my return to the car, the hankering to see salmon was overpowering. Memories of witnessing salmon at the Water of Feugh near Banchory suddenly surged through my mind, so I drove northwards taking the Cairn o’ Mount road and then down into Glen Dye and towards Deeside.
Glen Dye is an old stomping ground of mine that holds strong in my heart. On these magical moors I have seen eagles and hen harriers, mountain hares and black grouse; it is a place that helped shape my love of nature. But I resisted the temptation to stop, for the salmon were calling.
The Water of Feugh, a tributary of the Dee, features a spectacular series of falls on its lower reaches that are easily observed from a footbridge above. Soon after my arrival, a salmon hurled out of the churn and straight into a water-frothed rockface. Then another one jumped, and several more too. But they didn’t even get close to ascending the falls, either leaping too soon or in totally the wrong trajectory.
Each time a tail-flapping salmon leapt into the air, I willed it to succeed, but the river was winning, always winning. It was like watching an unfolding tragedy. These fish have already been through so much, surviving in the river as young parr, then heading out to sea where countless other dangers lie, before returning to the river once more.
More fish jumped, but the rapids continued to beat them back. These salmon were the very epitome of grit and determination, their hormones driving them onwards to their upriver breeding grounds. Even those lucky ones that do manage to spawn will most likely succumb afterwards, every last vestige of energy having been sapped from their spent bodies.
Salmon spawn on gravel beds in the upper reaches of rivers where the water is fast-flowing and well-oxygenated. The eggs are laid in a furrow, or redd, which is dug by the female fish.