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Country diary: an epic upstream journey

Phil Gates
·2 min read

Two days of unremitting heavy rain, then, as the third dawned, patches of clear blue sky. In the valley below, conifers were still enveloped in mist; up here, the fellside was flooded with sunshine. And all around the sound of water trickled away.

Down among the trees, that trickle became a murmur, then a babbling torrent. Ditches, dry since early summer but now fed by countless smaller channels, carried water racing downhill, sweeping autumn’s fallen leaves aside on its journey to Spurleswood beck, hidden from view. But its voice, a tumult of fast-flowing flood water over a stony bed, was a hopeful sign that conditions might be just about perfect to witness the climax of a salmon run.

I saw the first fish leap as soon as I arrived at the waterfall at Blackling Hole. A sleek, gunmetal-grey shape rose from the foaming pool and hurled itself into the curtain of peat-stained water, threshing its tail as it fell back into the maelstrom. Over the next hour, about 20 more made unsuccessful attempts to scale the waterfall. Despite a push from upwelling water at the bottom of the fall, fizzing with oxygen, none made it more than halfway to the top.

It was difficult to be certain whether they were salmon, Salmo salar, or sea trout, S trutta. The differences are subtle, hard to distinguish in fish glimpsed for a few seconds, but the same display of blind instinct to breed, in this shallow tributary of the River Wear, is common to both.

It seemed that the waterfall would be the final, insurmountable, challenge in a journey that began here, about seven years ago, when they hatched from eggs laid in the beck’s gravelly bed. After two years of feeding downstream in the river, the smolts headed out to sea; now, after four more years, the survivors were back, to breed and then die, closing the circle of life. Perhaps one in 20 might make it back to the sea.

By mid-morning, leaps had become sporadic, and then stopped as the water flow slackened. The enthralling performance was over, leaving a sense of good fortune at having witnessed it again.