When most anglers think about salmon fishing in Scotland, the first name that comes to mind is undoubtedly “Spey” – and for good reason. I can’t think of another place or region on this planet that uses its name to describe so many of its wonderful attributes.
A genuine global brand, Spey is lent not only to the wonderful river, but to the water of life itself. Speyside is home to the world’s favourite whisky brands and single malts. The quality of its water and air have inspired song, dance (the strathspey), rhyme and amazing food. It should come as no surprise that two of Scotland’s most famous food brands, Baxters and Walkers Shortbread, are also based on Speyside.
Quality also describes the fishing. From February 11 to September 30, the Spey and its salmon, sea-trout and brown trout, along with gillies, caterers, hotels, restaurants and tackle-shops provide anglers from all over the globe with a unique experience. From spey rods to spey casting and spey lines to spey claves, you cannot escape the name at the heart of the sport.
Know the river
The river has a catchment of 1,158 miles². The length of all its streams is about 22,680 miles, of which the main river is 107 miles, flowing in a north-easterly direction from Loch Spey in the Monadhliath Mountains to the Moray Firth at Spey Bay. Most major tributaries join on the eastern side, draining the Cairngorms.
About 40 private beats are staffed by around 50 full-time gillies, each of whom, typically, will look after four guests over around one mile of double-bank fishing. Details of the beats can be found on my Google map (type in the website address http://bit.ly/2me196C).
In addition, there are eight angling associations with fishing on the Spey and four on the River Avon.
The largest tributary is the Avon (pronounced A’an). With an area of 210 miles², it forms 18 per cent of the entire Spey catchment and because of its limestone origins it’s one of the clearest rivers in the region. This makes the A’an sought-after by the hunting salmon angler who likes to search for fish in wild, beautiful scenery. Rods can be 9 ft 6 in-11 ft single-handers or 11 ft 6 in-12 ft 6 in double-handers. Although fish enter the river as early as March, the river fishes best from May to September. It also boasts terrific sea-trout fishing in the summer months, with fish averaging 3 lb but some are landed up to 10 lb.
The other main tributaries are the Dulnain, Feshie, Tromie, Truim, Fiddich, Nethy, Calder and Druie.
What makes the Spey special?
Spey water is pristine, with clarity provided by rivers such as the A’an and Livet, and peat by rivers such as the Dulnain. Add the perfect flow and you have a dream river for swinging a fly, from above Grantown all the way to the mouth at Speybay.
The river rises, falls and clears fairly quickly, so unless you are extremely unlucky and the weather comes from the east, you will seldom lose more than one day’s fishing a week.
Another endearing feature is the depth of most pools. Salmon are known to prefer lies in water between 3 ft and 7 ft deep, feeling most comfortable in pools with a dark, mature bottom. Apart from the last couple of miles before the sea, this perfectly describes most pools on the Spey. Even in summer conditions you have a fly-fishing river made in Heaven.
Another significant part of the river’s appeal are its gillies. The Spey’s big private estates have a tradition of employing full-time gillies, a blend of young and old. In times of great change, this provides continuity, something that I know is liked by visiting anglers.
Gillies are not only ambassadors for their estates but importantly, given the change in the salmon-fishing business brought about by modern communication, through their stories and general chat they provide visiting anglers with an insight into the wonderful cultural heritage that is salmon fishing. In this sense, they are not only ambassadors for the Spey, but for the whole of Scotland.
The provision of long-term employment by private estates on Speyside has not only helped shape our salmon-fishing heritage, but also ensures its future through good times and bad.
What’s the water like?
By reputation the Spey is the fastest-flowing river in Scotland although this only applies to the river downstream of Grantown. From Grantown to the river mouth at Tugnet, the gradient is high and uniform with a 650 ft drop in altitude over a river distance of 47 miles. From Grantown upstream to Spey Dam the gradient is much flatter with an altitude change of 190 ft over a river distance of 46 miles. Upstream of Spey Dam the gradient increases again to the source of the Spey at Loch Spey, which lies at an altitude of 1,148 ft.
The river has a distinct upper, middle and bottom. The two biggest fisheries lie at opposite ends and are very different. Beats near Grantown are tricky to wade over mature black rocks that are perfect for hiding fish still in their sea camouflage. At Gordon Castle, an eight-mile beat that is among the most celebrated in the country, the gravel banks are constantly moving, the pools changing after each large flood.
When are the best times?
Castle Grant, the famous beat near Grantown, fishes best from April to August, with peak times for large, fresh, multi-sea-winter (MSW) fish in late May and June. The whole river performs well then and I’ve said to many people over a long period of time that if picking a month to fish the Spey, with the exception of Gordon Castle and the Brae Water, I’d pick the period between mid-May and mid-June, undoubtedly the best period for catching fresh MSW fish.
However, if you’re looking for grilse and sea-trout and the most amazing evening fishing, then mid-June until the end of July would be best and, weather-wise, certainly the most pleasant.
Peak fishing at Gordon Castle is from July to September, however last year was the beat’s best June since the 1950s. I’ve often said that when the river is in its “autumn cycle” then Gordon Castle produces some of the best fly-fishing for salmon in the world. One week in 2003 saw a team of six rods land almost 200 silver salmon in six days’ fishing. The 40 rods fishing Gordon Castle and the Brae Water will catch between 15 and 20 per cent of the river’s annual catch with a gillie-rod ratio of 1:5, which is close to the average for the river.
Between those two beats lie around 40 miles of exceptional fly-fishing. Tulchan, a mid/upper beat, is in my opinion the only true five-star beat; perfectly kept and with facilities second to none. Its eight miles are fished by up to 24 rods and will catch around ten per cent of the river’s annual catch with a gillie-guest ratio of 1:6 in the spring and 1:3 during peak times.
Rothes, Delfur and Arndilly fish 17 rods over the “golden six miles” and, incredibly, account for around 25 per cent of the river’s annual catch. The gillie-guest ratio of 1:2 is the highest on the river, something that I know helps the catch statistics. Demand for fishing on these three beats is high, known locally as “dead man’s shoes”. However, recently, rods have become available on Rothes via the booking website FishPal.
The benefits of boat fishing
Guests fishing on the golden six miles can enjoy the luxury of being looked after on an almost individual basis from bank or boat, should this be needed. With the exceptions of Delagyle, Aberlour Association, some weeks on Upper Arndilly and Castle Grant (which permits spinning at the head gillie’s discretion in high water), fishing on the Spey is fly only. Spinning is not illegal, but during the 1990s it became unfashionable to fish with any method other than fly. Some would say “good”, others would disagree; the jury’s out. However, what can be said is that more than 98 per cent of Spey salmon are caught on fly.
Beats such as Knockando have a positive attitude towards fishing from a boat. As most Spey beats offer double-bank fishing, a boat provides those new to the sport, or those with minor health issues, with a safe platform on which to enjoy their fishing. Boats are powered by muscle because engines are not permitted. The boat is anchored in position and the angler is dropped down the pool on a long rope, a yard each cast. During my more than 20 years at Knockando, the boat accounted for at least one third of all the fish caught. But they were often more than just a number: many were a guest’s first fish and they wouldn’t have been caught without the boat.
During these changing times, when competition for business is growing, I see this as an area where the appeal of most beats could be enhanced.
Because I could see the potential benefits for my guests, I liked working the boat, chatting and having a laugh, keeping morale high. However, on beats where the gillie-guest ratio is high, it could be unfair on other guests if the gillie’s time is taken up on the boat. It places undue pressure on the gillie, particularly on days where they must look after mixed-ability groups and larger parties. The top beats take on part-time staff during peak times to deal with this.
How much should I pay?
It is a myth that salmon fishing is only for rich people. Many days on the Spey are available for £30-£50 during March and April, rising to £350 on the top beats in peak season. However, I think the fishing that costs between £120 and £180 offers the best value for money – if the measure of your day is counting fish caught per pound spent. Personally, as a Scotsman, I like to feel that I’ve had value and those days in March and April spent fishing the best salmon beats in the country, when the first of the salmon are arriving, and the trout and birds are waking up, really do it for me. To fish such places, with a gillie, for less than the price of a day on the golf course or half the price of a good meal is certainly not for the “rich man only”. That’s total nonsense, a story fabricated by those with an agenda.
You can also fish excellent association water. Aberlour Angling Association sells day-tickets for £35 up to April 1 and £40 thereafter. Strathspey Angling Improvement Association provides day-tickets for £20 up to March 31 and £55 thereafter, providing access to 6½ miles of the Spey and 12 miles of the Dulnain. Fochabers Angling Association provides day-tickets for visiting anglers from February 11 to August 10 on the lower part of the river, which is not only beautiful fly water, but also extremely productive, especially when the last of the snow melts and the river begins to drop to summer level.
For details of Spey beats and their prices, visit my website or visit Fishpal.
Are the catches improving?
Whenever there’s talk of the “good old days” everyone instantly thinks there were once massive catches. This is wrong. Weather patterns and the availability of food for fish in freshwater (juvenile stage) and saltwater have obviously changed through history, and thereby affected the numbers of fish migrating to and from the river. This is clearly demonstrated by the long-term records.
The ten-year average catch for salmon and grilse is now just over 8,100; with 2,000 sea-trout.
The highest recorded catch was in 1978 when 14,633 salmon and grilse were caught. Other notable years included 1977 (13,482), 1979 (14,034), 1985 (12,246), 1986 (12,898) and 1994 (13,071). More recently, 2006 (11,378) and 2008 (11,545) were good years for salmon and grilse catches on the Spey.
Catches in the last five years are: 2012 (7,490), 2013 (5,780), 2014 (4,563), 2015 (7,728) and 2016 (7,632). This trend, seen throughout Scotland, is below the long-term average catch of just under 10,000 fish. Most anglers on the Spey, though, are encouraged by the upturn in catches over the past two years. I’m sure that this will continue in 2017 and over the next few years.
What tackle should I take?
There are five questions to ask when fishing any river. How big is it and how much of it do I need to cover (from a boat or by wading)? What time of the year am I fishing: spring, summer or autumn? Which part of the river am I fishing: upper, middle or lower? And what are the water conditions: high, medium or low?
I can’t answer every permutation here but I can say that, generally, the Spey is recognised as a “big” river – in its upper and middle parts (Grantown to Craigellachie) in spring and autumn it is around 50 yards wide and in summer 35 yards. If fishing in these areas during these times, a 15 ft rod will do a good job. However, modern shooting-heads and multi-tip lines can be shot a long way with a shorter rod and therefore 13 ft 6 in up to 15 ft rods will also be fine.
If fishing for grilse in low-water summer conditions, 11 ft 6 in-13 ft 6 in rods will be long enough.
Because the Spey is fairly shallow, floating lines with sinking tips are adequate. However, during high- or cold-water conditions, intermediate or even sinking lines will be needed.
If I could take only one line it would be a short-head multi-tip.
Should I pack my trout rods?
The Spey is one of the best sea-trout rivers in Scotland and one of the top three sea-trout rivers in Britain. The best time is the six weeks from the beginning of June, on the middle and upper beats, such as Knockando, Tulchan and Castle Grant, as well as tributaries such as the Aa’n and Dulnain.
Little is known about its amazing trout fishing. Anglers looking for a first outing on the Spey will be happy – even amazed – to learn that some of the best trout fishing in the UK can also be found here. During March and April, trout fishing for specimen wild fish up to 8 lb can be accessed by buying a day on a private beat. The best area is the upper river from Aberlour to Aviemore. Although there’s no provision for trout-only permits, access to a private beat at this time will cost around £30-£50 per day with a guide for salmon and, from March 15, trout.
Almost everything about the Tay is on a scale that dwarfs other Scottish rivers. It is bigger and more powerful. It is longer and has more beats. Finally, and famously, from its unrelenting flow was once caught the country’s biggest salmon.
The main river is just over 50 miles long from where it emerges from Loch Tay at Kenmore to the tidal Perth Town Water. Adding another 14 miles for Loch Tay and over 25 miles up the River Dochart to its source on Ben Lui gives a total length of 90 miles. On the lower Tay below the junction of the River Isla there are 18 beats. There are another 16 beats between there and the junction with the Tummel and numerous more on the upper Tay, Loch Tay and the many tributaries.
Some Tay tributaries are also big. The longest, the Tummel, is 58 miles from its source to where it joins the Tay south of Pitlochry. The River Lyon is fishable for salmon for 23 miles. The Isla is also a significant tributary. Nine miles above where it meets the Tay it is joined by the productive River Ericht, which offers 11 miles of good salmon water before splitting into the Blackwater and Ardle and even more opportunity. Phew! Add other tributaries, such as the Almond, Garry and Tilt, and the choice can seem daunting.
For many years the Tay was Scotland’s top river in terms of catches, only dropping to second place recently. But what the Tay was also famous for, was not only quantity of fish, but quality. It was for many years known as a big-fish river. The British record salmon, a 64-pounder, was caught on the Glendelvine beat by Miss Georgina Ballantine, earning her fame in the annals of salmon-fishing history. That was 1922 but the record has never been beaten.
Anglers who have never fished the Tay before will have to come to terms with its power. The river’s average flow is more than the Tweed, Spey and Dee combined. This has to be respected when you wade and when you plan your fishing tactics.
The big scale is also reflected in the Tay’s diverse salmon population. There are runs of fresh fish all year round (usually) and this is reflected in the long season that often starts in grand style on snow-covered banks when whisky is poured into the river on January 15 at ceremonies on beats such as Dalmarnock, Meikleour and Kenmore and ends nine months later on October 15.
The Tay’s size also dictates the use of methods that will be unfamiliar to fishers from smaller rivers. As you approach some beats from afar you might think you can cast a line to the far bank. But by the time you have tackled up you will realise that a line one third of the way across is more realistic. For this reason, many beats use motor boats and boatmen to position rods over hard-to-cover parts of the river, especially when the water is high. But while it is a big river, anglers should not be put off.
There is fishing somewhere to suit all types, from the less able angler who can still enjoy fishing from a boat, to the most skilful fly-caster who seeks the ultimate challenge, and everything in between.
The Tay’s enormous highland catchment means it is less hampered by droughts than some rivers and can be more reliable in summer and autumn. While it is true that the best autumn fishing has traditionally been hard to find (but less so now), there is plenty of fishing available in the spring at relatively low cost. As recent springs have been improving, this represents good value. The Tay is also very accessible from the A9, which puts most beats within one-and-a-half-hours’ drive from the majority of the Scottish population.
There is a lot of good “craic” to be had on the Tay with its well-known gillies, many of whom have worked on several beats and together form a hugely knowledgeable network. There is also plenty of good accommodation and places to entertain non-fishing family members.
The odds on a fish
The Tay has always been one of Scotland’s prime spring rivers and was famed for its large three-sea-winter (3SW) fish. However, during the 1990s and 2000s, spring catches fell away, especially in the very early months and the big early fish became scarce. Over the last few years, spring catches have been on the up and though they remain slow at the start of the season, the 3SW salmon have been more evident. Between 2011 and 2015 the average catch to the end of April was 1,242 compared to 959 for the 10 years before that. The corresponding figures to the end of May are 2,022 and 1,504. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, the Tay produced more fish by the end of April than any other river in Scotland. While final figures are not yet available, 2016 seems to have continued the trend.
While known for its spring fishing, in recent decades the Tay has become more famous for its summer and especially autumn catches. When these catches peaked in the late 1980s, the Tay produced more than 18,000 fish in some years. Recent autumn catches have been down on those peak years, but they still represent the best part of the season. For example, during the period 2011 to 2015, catches averaged 756 for July, 1,351 for August, 1,977 for September and 2,012 for October.
What are the pools like?
Most of the lower river runs through a shallow gorge and sits below the level of surrounding open farmland from which it is cut off by wooded slopes, so it appears to exist in a secluded world. Much of this part of the river consists of fast, rocky runs and powerful pools, although there are placid spots. Above the Isla junction, the floodplain widens, as it does on the meandering Isla. The middle Tay is generally, but not wholly, characterised by short runs and long pools and glides with a gravelly or stony bed. Wading is easier, but although much of the water looks placid, there can be a surprising draw on a fly even in low water. The upper river has a mixture of all these types, from deep, slow-flowing pools running through loamy banks to turbulent rocky torrents.
Of the tributaries, the lower Tummel is a succession of fast stony runs and swirly pools, a dream for fly-fishing in the right water. The meandering lowland Isla might be overlooked at first glance for its pools are not clearly defined like those of a typical salmon river (neck, belly, tail), but parts can be surprisingly productive. The Ericht and its tributaries, the Garry and Lyon, are typical tumbling highland rivers offering good fly-fishing opportunities from spring onwards when conditions allow.
When are the best times?
From January to March the best catches often occur in beats around Stanley on the lower river where the first really rough water is encountered, but fish may be caught almost anywhere within the main river. Surprisingly, a good shout very early in the season is Loch Tay, where fish can quickly swim if there is any water. Things tend to change around April. Warming water means springers run faster and the best catches occur on beats such as Islamouth, the middle Tay (Murthly and Newtyle) and in tributaries such as the lower Isla (Keithick Mains, Meikleour Lower Isla) and lower Tummel (Portnacraig). With a bit of water, even the lower Ericht can do well. This trend continues through May and into June, when good runs can still occur, with salmon pushing further and further upriver. Given water, good catches might even be made in tributaries such as the Ericht, but a dry year might still see fine sport in the main river.
The summer months of July and August are when the main run of grilse is expected. At first these grilse tend to run hard, if they can, heading for high tributaries, but low water will hold them back, providing opportunities, particularly in the middle-river beats and the lower-river beats upstream of Stanley. The true autumn fish, arriving from late-August onwards, tend to spawn in the main river or in lower tributaries, such as the Isla and Almond, and are not conditioned to race through the lower beats. These fish tend to stack up in the main river at beats such as Taymount, Stobhall, Ballathie, Cargill and Almondmouth, providing the biggest catches of the year, though precisely where is down to water levels and weather.
Meet the gillies
Practically all the beats up to the junction with the Tummel have one full-time gillie, if not two, with some part time. Comfortable fishing huts are standard and the banks in popular areas tend to be well maintained. Almost all beats have at least one boat and where the wading is not easy and the banks are less accessible, there will be two.
Many tributary beats also have part-time gillies or keepers to give guidance when needed and some have well-appointed facilities. While you might not be able to fish in slippers, these beats are rarely challenging to access, although a few areas demand respect.
The art of boat fishing
Fishing from boats has a long history on the lower and middle Tay. In the past, boats had to be used because old-fashioned fly and spinning tackle was of little use off the banks. The traditional method was “harling” where lures or flies trailing below the boat were allowed to sweep back and forth across the lies by two gillies who rowed across the current and back. This differed from “trolling”, which is still practised on Loch Tay. On the loch it is the action of the boat moving that provides motion to the lures. In harling it is the current that creates the illusion of life.
Harling is widely practised on the Tay, particularly when the river is high in early spring or autumn. Outboard motors have replaced the arduous chore of rowing and an ever-growing array of plugs have replaced the favourites of old. The wedge-shaped Kynoch Killers and Tomics are still popular after several decades but are being challenged by the newer Vision and Payo lures. Not everyone admits to being a harling fan. But, when other methods are out of the question, it can be effective. Nor does it discriminate on the basis of your physical ability.
Of course, there is more to the boat than harling. In fact, for most of the time, boats are anchored and used to allow fishermen to access far parts of the river that are hard to fish from the shore.
How much does it cost?
While a September or October day on the classic lower Tay beats may set you back several hundred pounds (although rates have decreased on some beats in recent years), the spring is the complete opposite. Even on the classic beats, a day in the early spring might cost you no more than £50. Bear in mind that you will have the services of a gillie and, if the beat isn’t fully let, you might get on a boat all day for this price. Some beats now give the option of paying a bit more to guarantee the boat all day or pay less for bank fishing only. Many tributary beats will be under £50 a day all season.
Prepare your tackle
Bob White, the well-known gillie at Stanley, says that, “Given the river’s size, a 15 ft fly-rod with a ten-weight line is a minimum requirement for much of the season. Do not come undergunned. In some parts of the Tay, where it is especially wide, even longer rods (16 ft and 17 ft) are used.”
When the water is cold, Bob recommends a fly-line that can handle larger flies and get them deeper in the water, where they can be fished slowly. Any type of skagit line that can easily cast a 15 ft sinking leader in different densities is a good choice, especially for the less experienced. Bob says, “I’d recommend a Rio Skagit iFlight with a tip, which will enable you to cast a longer line than normal with ease.”
For more experienced anglers, shooting-heads of different sinking abilities should be considered. These tactics can also be used in late season when the water starts to cool down.
Once the water temperature starts to climb by April, tactics change to mainly floating lines combined with sink-tips and much smaller conventional flies. Again, the choice of line ranges from longer-bellied spey lines to shooting-heads. If you go for shooting-heads, it is important to choose a good running line. A tactile coated line is easier to manage but a thinner mono line will shoot further. It will help if you know how to manage and shoot the coils.
If spinning, your rod should be a minimum of 10 ft long to cast baits of 20g-60g. The main line should be 20 lb breaking strain in nylon or 30 lb in braid. You should use a lesser poundage, say 15 lb, for the cast (leader), so that if your spinner gets caught on a snag you won’t lose a large part of the main line. As for baits, consider Tobies from 18g upwards. Toby Salmos are popular in 30g. Conventional weighted Devons are good, especially in the spring. Rapalas and Vision 110s are effective and, of course, Kynochs are popular for harling.
In many ways, there has never been a better time to fish the Dee. Beats have held or dropped their early-season prices for 2017, offering good value to visitors, and there is a mood of optimism on the river as gillies and proprietors look forward to the coming season.
Those anglers who have never wet a line on the river are in for a treat. It is one of the most attractive rivers in Scotland – in the words of Crawford Little, author of The Great Salmon Beats, the Dee is “a scenic treat”.
The river rises in the Cairngorm Mountains and flows east for more than 80 miles through rural Aberdeenshire before entering the North Sea at Aberdeen. Ideal for fly-fishing, its fast-flowing, clear waters are home to a succession of classic salmon pools with narrow necks, broken streams, swift glides and tantalising tails where many running fish are taken. Today, the river welcomes anglers from all over the world, who come in search of that ultimate prize: a fly-caught Dee springer.
But, and there’s no shirking this, recent seasons have been challenging. 2015 was an annus horribilis for the river with only 2,500 fish caught and culminating with the destruction wrought by Storm Frank in December. But the river has bounced back. The 2016 season was an improvement with 3,646 fish recorded on the FishDee website, which represents a 42 per cent improvement on the previous year. This figure is below the river’s potential, but it is a step in the right direction and a similar increase in 2017 would be more than welcome. As recently as 2010 and 2011 the river enjoyed superb catches of 9,289 and 8,686 fish, respectively. The best season on record was 1957 when 13,883 fish were landed – the bulk of which were caught before the end of May. There is some speculation across Scotland that salmon are returning to a spring cycle. Let’s hope so, because there is no finer place to be than the Dee in spring.
The biggest-ever Dee fish is believed to be 57 lb (it was rumoured to be even bigger), caught in 1884 by Mr C Gordon, the gillie at Ardoe and Murtle, which is mentioned in Fred Buller’s Domesday Book of Giant Salmon. Fish of that size are remarkable and today the Dee can produce trophies in the 30 lb class. In 2014, a 37-pounder was landed at Birse by Gordon Smith. Each year the river produces salmon in the 20 lb-25 lb class and in 2016 a fish of 28 lb was reported. A typical Dee springer will be 8 lb, with three-sea-winter fish typically 14½ lb. Grilse average 4¾ lb while summer and autumn salmon average 10 lb-12 lb. Sea-trout average 2 lb.
After the storm
Storm Frank has had a lasting effect on the Dee. While some beats still have work to do, the gillies have been getting to know new pool configurations. Where the main road was washed away at Abergeldie on the upper river, in its place a new pool has produced fish – it has been christened, fittingly, the A93. The pool below Balmoral bridge has also been renamed – it is now known as Paparazzi due to the volume of tourists taking photographs of anglers. The river will continue to change as it has done for thousands of years and subsequent spates will bring further movement.
The fishing infrastructure on the Dee suffered and a lot of hard work and money will be needed to get it back into shape. Much has been done already and many beats have invested heavily to repair the damage. Salmon fishing on the Dee is an important part of the Deeside economy and everyone has been focused on getting the fishery back on its feet.
Much of the money has been spent restoring access to the river where tracks were washed away, and replacing fishing huts. The most notable example has been Glen Tanar’s new mobile huts (T&S November, page 48), which can be moved before future flooding. They are unique and may be adopted by other beats. A new hut at Crathes is also close to completion.
This summer’s electrofishing revealed a significant drop in fry numbers. This was to be expected because the missing fry would have been eggs in redds at the time of the flood. The fry would have contributed to different year classes of returning adults so their absence will be spread out over a number of seasons. Parr densities have remained steady and even improved in some areas. Nature has a way of compensating for natural disasters and provided Storm Frank-type flood events remain freak occurrences, it is unlikely that a one-off flood, even one of that magnitude, will have a long-term effect. The 2016 spawning season has been very encouraging.
Why choose the Dee ahead of other rivers?
The Dee is renowned for the quality of its fly-fishing. John Ashley Cooper, renowned author of The Great Salmon Rivers of Scotland, once wrote of the Dee, “It is hard to know what better type of water a keen fly fisherman could ask for.”
Every year many of the most experienced and discerning salmon anglers in the country make an annual trip to the Dee, to meet and share a dram with old friends, and hope for the pull of a springer.
The river was also home to the development of the greased-line style of fishing, which later gave birth to the fully floating line. It was pioneered on the Dee by the great AHE Wood, who caught thousands of fish at Cairnton in the early 20th century. Wood’s methods were chronicled in the classic Greased Line Fishing for Salmon by “Jock Scott”. His rod room at Cairnton has been preserved and the owners have added items belonging to Wood. There is even footage of him landing a fish in 1926.
Where should you fish?
The river is split into three reaches – upper, middle and lower – which fish best at different times of year, dependent on water conditions. For a full list of beats and prices and to make bookings, visit fishdee.co.uk
Upper river: In its size and character, the upper river resembles a fast and rocky highland river, although there are larger holding pools. Famous beats include Dinnet, Headinch and Cambus O May and Monaltrie and Lower Invercauld. There is a fantastic variety of pools, flowing over bedrock and gravel, each presenting a different challenge. The river is more intimate and pools such as McLaren’s at Crathie, Coynach at Abergeldie, Polslake at Lower Invercauld, Tassachd at Cambus O May and the Bobbies at Dinnet and Deecastle all require a degree of stealth.
Ian Murray, gillie at Monaltrie and Lower Invercauld, says a careful approach is crucial if an angler is to be successful and is convinced that many fish are lost before the first cast is made.
The river runs crystal clear and therefore being quiet and keeping off the skyline are as important as a perfectly presented fly. In the clear waters of the upper Dee your first few casts in the neck of a pool need to land delicately if the chance of a take is not to be lost.
The upper beats begin fishing in March and will produce springers if conditions are favourable for running fish. The best months are April to June when there can be few greater pleasures than fishing the floating line, a tapered leader and a small fly for multi-sea-winter fish. In May and June fly sizes decrease, the smallest tyings of patterns such as the Crathie, Stoat’s Tail and Dee Sheep – indeed, anything with a touch of blue, dressed with a wisp of wing and hackle in size 14 or 16 or on a micro tube – are very effective.
Sea-trout and grilse arrive from May and with good water levels the salmon and grilse landed will still bear long-tailed lice. Good water flows will continue to provide excellent sport until the end of the season, which closes on September 30.
Middle river: These beats begin with Aboyne Water on the left bank and Birse on the right. The river widens at this point and reveals more and more excellent fly water, such as Red Rock and Lummels. This stretch of the river downstream to Banchory features classic fly beats such as Mill Pool at Dess, The Gannets at Ballogie, Greenbanks at Borrowston, the Morel at Upper Blackhall, the Grey Mare at Cairnton and Middle Blackhall, the Roe Pot at Little Blackhall and Inchmarlo, and Bohore at Lower Blackhall and Kinnsekie. The wading can be mixed – there are some difficult steps, but much of the fishing can be enjoyed off the bank. There are boats on Cairnton and Middle Blackhall, and Little Blackhall and Inchmarlo.
In a mild winter the fish can be in this part of the river in good numbers on opening day. In colder years the middle river fishes well from around mid-March into June. As the water warms, usually by mid-April, the fish become more active and will begin to chase the fly. Their upstream migration gains fresh impetus as they make for the upper river, with fresh fish moving through the beats.
Sport can be fast and furious when the sea-trout, grilse and summer salmon arrive. Sea-trout fishing on the middle Dee can be excellent and the long nights of May and June can produce some memorable catches. With good conditions the middle river will fish until the very last day of the season.
Lower river: This water begins below Banchory road bridge and traditionally fishes best for early salmon and also late-summer and autumn fish. The Banchory beat can do well in the spring and be prolific in the summer months as the fish build up waiting to run the Feugh. Along this lower stretch are delightful spring pools, such as Jetties at Invery and Tilquhillie, Birkenbaud at Crathes Castle, the Bridge at Lower Crathes and West Durris, and Durris Stream at Park.
Fish pass through the lower beats throughout the season and build in numbers from July to the season’s end. Sea-trout provide their unique brand of excitement during May and June, particularly at night. August and September can provide some of the most exciting sport of the year as grilse, and big late-summer and autumn fish arrive. Pools such as Kirk at Upper Drum and Lower Durris, Alfred’s Pot at Altries, and The Lawson at Tilbouries and Middle Drum can be prolific late-summer and back-end pools.
When are the best times?
Historically, the Dee fishes best in the early season. These first months will benefit from a long cold winter with snow packed into the corries of the Cairngorms – as the snow slowly melts, the river will maintain a good fishing level. If, as some have forecast, the 2016/17 winter is a cold one, it will be welcomed by the gillies.
The runs of fish have changed in recent years and August and September have become the most productive months. There has been much talk of runs turning back towards the spring, but that remains to be seen. While early fish may not be as plentiful as they once were in Scotland, they have lost none of their allure and a fly-caught February springer landed in a blizzard is many people’s idea of Heaven. February and March attract the hardcore spring anglers who relish the opportunity to land an early fish in difficult conditions. The bulk of the spring run comes in April and May but, as happened in 2016, it often extends well into June.
Much of the fishing in early spring is determined by the winter that precedes it. If it has been cold, expect the fish to be in the lower and middle river, with opening day fish between Park and Dess. In milder years they will be more spread out. In 2014 Ballogie and Dess had excellent early season fishing. In 2016 Lower Crathes had the best of the sport.
The sea-trout arrive in May and peak in June when the first grilse will also appear, building in numbers from late July until the season ends.
Where are the most user-friendly beats?
There’s little sniffiness on the Dee. The river caters for anglers of all abilities and experience levels. Beats appear united in their desire to encourage new blood into the sport and are particularly welcoming to ladies and youngsters.
The wading on the river varies from beat to beat – some pools are tricky to navigate, others can be fished from the bank and some from a boat. All the beats have accessible pools and the gillies are there to help those that need individual support. The lower beats, where the river is much wider, offer the easiest wading. If you need advice on choosing the right beat, we recommend contacting T&S’s Ross Macdonald, who also manages the FishDee website (e-mail: email@example.com).
As mentioned earlier, several fine fishing huts were lost during Storm Frank and these are being replaced to ensure that anglers can enjoy a nice warm retreat from the elements; they are great places to enjoy a dram and a blether.
How much does it cost?
The Dee has never been more accessible. Rod days and weeks can be bought online at the FishDee website, which is packed with useful information.
Day-tickets start from £25 at Tilbouries in early spring. The lower beats, such as Altries, offer very good value early-season fishing and syndicate rods are also available in the spring to early summer.
Pricing varies from beat to beat – each will have a prime time, depending on its location. Several beats have reduced their early-season prices for 2017 and there are bargains to be had. Anglers can pay up to £200 per day at prime time, but when compared to some rivers, the Dee is not expensive and there is a variety of fishing to suit all budgets.
What tackle do I need?
Rods: The most popular rods on the Dee are double-handed fly-rods. Lengths have become shorter in recent years and while the 15-footer remains the workhorse, particularly in the spring, some anglers prefer to fish with shorter rods and 13-footers are not uncommon from the start of the season.
In the warmer months, rods in the 12 ft-14 ft range are typical. In low water some anglers prefer smaller switch-style rods around 11 ft. For sport with sea-trout and grilse, a single-handed rod of 9 ft-11 ft, rated for a seven- or eight-weight line, is about right. A delicate approach is always desirable on the Dee, so be prepared to scale down as conditions dictate.
Fly-lines: There is a tremendous, almost bewildering choice of fly-lines on the market. The most common are: short-belly (55 ft) spey-lines; shooting-heads of varying lengths; and skagits for fishing deep with big flies in the spring and back-end.
To keep things simple and cover most scenarios, we recommend a floating line with a variety of tips, and an intermediate line. The Dee is a relatively shallow river, but there may be times when a fast-sinking line is the best choice. However, be aware of the fly hanking up on the bottom as it comes in to the side. It may pay to heed the advice of Cairnton gillie Brian Brogan, who insists the fly should be left on the dangle to give the fish every chance to take. Many anglers therefore prefer long tips and a floating belly to keep the line out of trouble.
Shooting heads are popular on the Dee, having been introduced by the successful Scandinavian anglers in the Noughties. But for those who place a premium on delicate presentation, a full spey-line line remains the best choice for fishing a small fly on a full floater. That’s not to say shooting-heads can’t be fished delicately. As ever, the gillies are the best source of advice on line selection.
Tackle-shops: Buying new tackle is a treat often enjoyed the day before you start fishing and there are several good shops on Deeside, where you can catch up on fishing gossip and gain good advice on tactics. Try the following: Orvis, 2-8 Bridge Street, Banchory AB31 5SX. Tel: 01330 824 319. Somers Fishing Tackle, 13-15 Bon-Accord Terrace, Aberdeen AB11 6DP. Tel: 01224 210 008. George Strachan, Main Street, Aboyne. Tel: 013398 86121. The MacNab, 46 Bridge Street, Ballater AB35 5QD. Tel: 01339 756 020.
If you have any queries about what to bring, you can get in touch with Ross Macdonald at FishDee (firstname.lastname@example.org). Your beat’s gillie will also be an excellent source of advice. Give them a call before you travel to find out what flies are working well.
Is the sea-trout fishing good?
May and June can bring excellent sport. Salmon fishermen catch many sea-trout on small doubles, but there are a group of hardcore anglers who become nocturnal for several weeks each summer in pursuit of these wonderful sporting fish. The sea-trout average 2 lb but many reach 4 lb and a few fish to 6 lb are caught each year. Popular flies include the Silver Stoat and the Editor, but anything with a touch of black, blue and silver will work well.
Where to eat, sleep and drink
The welcome on Deeside is second to none and many visitors form enduring friendships with hosts, gillies and other rods. There is a tremendous variety of accommodation, including big hotels such as Banchory Lodge and the Tor Na Coille for those who enjoy a bit of luxury. There is also a wealth of B&Bs, such as Lochton House, which caters specifically for anglers. The British Legion in Banchory is very popular with those looking for simple, reasonably priced quarters (see overleaf for more places to stay).
There is plenty of self-catering accommodation. Several beats offer self-catering cottages and lodges. Glen Tanar Estate, which manages several beats, including Cambus O May and Dess, is offering free fishing for four rods in February and March if Mill Cottage is leased for the week. Others beats with accommodation include Glen Tanar, Altires, Park, Ballogie Estate and Balmoral.
Some anglers like to be located close to the fishing for ease of access. Banchory is a great hub that can be a lively venue for those looking for a bit of fun in the evening. Bars such as the Stag are a magnet for visiting rods and it’s a great place to catch up with old friends and share a few drinks and stories.
Very few salmon anglers use single-handed rods in the UK, which is a great shame. Lochs and spate streams are usually the extent of things, whereas in Ireland there seems to be a greater appreciation and in North America the roots run deep. There are many good arguments for double-handers and their place in the first team is assured. The real question is: should we make room for both? Can’t many of the limitations levelled at small rods be reversed and aimed at long rods, if the conditions dictate? As summer advances, it’s the right time to think again about single-handed rods and their techniques. I think it’s time for them to take on some of the salmon workload. Single-handers can take the delicacy and finesse of our presentation to a new level. They also encourage us to think and fish a bit differently than we would otherwise. Perhaps this comes from having to make peace with the fact that we can’t cast as far. We must relax into a more considered approach, doing what we can really well. In low water and particularly in late summer when the fish have seen it all before it’s hard to overstate the importance of stealth and great presentation. We have to change our approach by carefully trying to turn over the right stones – not all the stones, if you follow my drift. Single-handers are great tools for the job. I’m unreliably informed (by a good friend) that the late George Melly (a keen fisher) once quipped about the relationship between his advancing years and the demise of his libido. “I greeted it with the relief of a man escaping from the back of a runaway horse.” I honestly think this could sum up the relationship some contemporary salmon-fishers have with distance casting. When I pick up my single-hander I often smile and think about that man escaping the horse.
Matching tackle to the conditions
Trout-fishers and would-be or occasional salmon-fishers take heart. During the summer months and when water levels are low, most of our rivers can be very practically fished with single-handed tackle. You might need to endure a bit of leg-pulling, but that’s okay. Play to the strengths of your outfit and you’re likely to fish the water better than many fishers will with bigger rigs. Anyway, some of the old guard might be surprised by the capabilities of modern rods and lines, especially in the hands of crack trout men and women. Why not get out there and mix things up a bit? Converting from trout to salmon If you are new to salmon fishing in rivers and therefore double-handed rods, but an experienced trout-fisher, opting for a good single-handed salmon outfit will mean you can hit the ground running. I think this makes
a lot of sense: you can really focus on the challenge of tempting a fish to take and seeing how you enjoy it, rather than immediately jumping on to the steep learning curve of new casts with double-handed tackle. Which, let’s be honest, adds a lot of cost and complexity that you probably don’t want in your first few outings.
Why not play to your strengths? What are the advantages? The ability to fish small flies – and
the fine tippets they require – with confidence is a big advantage.
A balanced outfit greatly increases your chances of landing fish when small flies are the order of the day. It makes sense to balance your outfit in reverse. Start with the size of fly and work backwards from there. If fishing with size 12s or smaller, swimming them on an 8 lb tippet is going to feel much more practical on a single-hander than a standard nine- or ten-weight double-hander. The latter is more powerful but how can you deploy that power when it’s not in balance with the business end?
In these circumstances a stock double-hander is more of a liability than an asset. In exchange for this delicacy, you will trade some distance-casting potency, and gain accuracy in its place. The finesse achievable with a single-handed set-up is beyond what even the best casters can manage with regular British-style double-handers. Switch rods are trendy but they come with pretty chunky and aggressive lines (I believe one well-known brand even named one the “Chucker”). These switch lines are a bit of a compromise and I would argue that the out-and-out single-handed outfit has the edge when it comes to delicacy.
The tools for the job I favour a 10 ft seven-weight rod. However, any strong single-hander between 9 ft 6 in and 10 ft 6 in, rated for a seven or eight line, will do a good job. A six-weight will work at a pinch, but your fish-fighting technique will need to be good to avoid unduly harming fish as a result of a protracted fight or triggering a trial of the rod’s guarantee policy. I would recommend a middle-to-tip action rather than something faster. Roll and spey casts will be easier and if you want to fish a dropper at some point, you’ll not be wishing for tight loops. The reel is more of a consideration than with a double-handed set-up. I don’t worry too much about a fancy drag (that’s a bonus) but you will need rim control, a decent retrieve rate (to keep up when fish run at you) and decent backing capacity. I can tell you from personal experience that playing a fish by hand (not from the reel) is an accident waiting to happen, so please trust me and recover any slack line rapidly and play your fish from the reel.
Use alternative tactics
For a stealthy, small-fly approach, dry-fly or riffling, most international fishers would make the single-hander their first choice. However, single-handers can be used with more earthy techniques. From late August, as the nights start to draw in and the water begins to cool, it’s well known that Frances-style flies can be very effective. A single-hander and a specialist line can produce fantastic sport with otherwise uncooperative fish. The single-hander allows nymphing techniques, which are in my opinion the best way to fish Frances and Snaelda flies late in the summer. Carefully targeting known lies with stealth and an upstream nymphing style is incredibly exciting. If you equip your single-hander with a shooting-head, you can work long-winged flies over smooth glassy water or thin flows with a winning combination of controlled animation, stealth and easy water coverage. The shooting-head allows you to work the fly all the way back to you, and then you can re-cast easily without the need to first lengthen the line to load the rod. Try a range of casting styles One of the great things about single-handed rods is their versatility. Where space permits and there is room for an extended back-cast the overhead cast is easy, accurate and presents a fly with minimal disturbance. In tight spots, under trees or with high banks, improvised roll and spey casts can keep us fishing in places that are difficult with longer rods. If you are a competent trout-fisher, picking up spey casting with a familiar single-handed rod is much more straightforward than the change to two hands. Use your non-casting hand to pull back line during the back-casting stroke, just as you would with the double-haul cast. This helps to load the rod and is a good trick if you need to find a few extra yards of distance.
Fighting salmon with a single-hander
With catch-and-release, prolonging the fight is an argument against using a single-hander and I think this concern is valid – up to a point. Modern seven- or eight-weight rods are powerful and with good technique it’s possible to land fish quickly. In my experience the same fundamental aspects apply to fighting salmon on a single- or double-hander, however a single-handed set-up will expose the issues more quickly and leave you feeling undergunned. Watching Alaskan guides subdue large Pacific salmon taught me much about how to carry the fight to salmon on single-handed tackle. Here are some suggestions:
1 Get level or downstream of the fish whenever possible so the salmon battles the pull of your line and the current. Try to prevent the fish getting far downstream of you in a strong current – you will be forced to work it back against the current and this gives the fish a free ride. It’s hard work for you and easy for the fish. Whenever practical, walk downstream and wind quickly to recover line on downstream runs. If you can get level or downstream of the fish in the same manoeuvre, the fish will often respond by making an upstream-and-across run, which will give you much more control.
2 Use side-strain to keep the fish off balance and moving. Letting the fish pause allows it to rest and re-charge. Keeping the fish off balance makes it work much harder. As long as the pressure is firm and steady you can angle the rod (as you want/need) parallel to the water and apply pressure towards your own bank (or in any direction to try and move the fish away from obstacles). You don’t need to hold the rod vertically all the time.
3 Use the power in the rod butt by lowering the vertical angle. As you lower the angle the powerful butt section does more work with less cushioning from the tip. The strength of your tippet will determine what’s sensible. As a test, set up your rod and tie the tippet to some scales or a weigh net. Then get a friend to pull as hard as they dare with the rod at various angles while you take a reading. I think you will be surprised how little pull you can muster with the rod vertical. Either way, it’s handy to have a sense of how hard you can pull before your tippet is at risk. Think about how you can use the angle of your rod to apply side-strain and access power from the butt section.
4 Take every opportunity to recover line. Use a pumping action (lifting the rod and winding down) to recover line when a fish pauses or holds station. It’s tempting to just cling on and have a breather yourself in these situations but always try to carry the fight to the fish.
5 Use a net. Netting a salmon on your own with a long double-hander is pretty tricky, but with a single-hander it’s much easier and will usually shorten the fight considerably. Once the fish is netted, you can let it recover while you organise a quick photo. This minimises the time the fish’s head is out of the water, and that’s the key to it recovering quickly and swimming away strongly.
On small and medium-sized salmon rivers, single-handers are under-utilised and offer lots of practical fishing advantages. On big rivers during periods of low water, they also enable a new level of finesse and balance with small flies and delicate tippets, and allow nymphing techniques with flies such as a small red Frances. Let’s not dismiss single-handers as toys or novelties. They’re great fun and many fish are to be caught with them
When writing about the Tweed it is easy to run out of superlatives. Its rod catch of salmon and sea-trout is greater than any other river and it can boast probably the largest salmon ever caught on rod and line, as well as the largest sea-trout and the biggest day’s catch ever made. It also has more beats and boatmen/gillies than any other, the longest fishing season of any other river and can claim to be the cradle of the birth and popularising of salmon fishing with the fly, a sport that it has spread worldwide.
The river is 101 miles long, the second-longest in Scotland, and drains a massive catchment of 1,800 square miles through 2,500 miles of tributaries, 96 of which are accessible to spawning salmon and sea-trout. The water has a nutrient-rich PH neutral quality and is within ambient temperatures for spawning and the feeding of juvenile fish.
Tom Stoddart, the famous author of The Art of Angling, As Practised in Scotland, once described the Tweed: “Here we perceive no rocky shelves, no impertinent cataracts saying to ascending fish ‘Hitherto shalt thou come and no further’ … The whole is planned according to an angler’s taste; every inch of water accessible to the wader without dangers or interruption … fertile in food, provided with shelter and admirably fitted to the purpose of spawning.”
The angler will be able to catch freshly run salmon in every month of the river’s ten-month season – and he will have the chance of landing a big one: were it not for a question over which weight measure was used to weigh William, 8th Earl of Home’s fish in the mid-1700s, the Tweed would hold the record for the biggest-ever salmon caught in the British Isles. This fish weighed 69¾ lb but was it measured in Scotch, English or Dutch pounds? If it was in Scotch pounds it would have weighed circa 73 lb. It was William, 8th Earl, who popularised the sport of salmon fishing on his beats at Birgham.
There are probably more, but the Tweed has records of 65 salmon caught by rod and line and weighing over 40 lb; 14 are over 50 lb but the biggest, an 81 lb monster, was caught by a seal, which left it injured, and weighed accurately by netsmen.
The last 70 miles of the Tweed’s journey to the sea provides 72 named beats, and its tributaries Ettrick, Teviot, Till and Whiteadder add a further 49 beats. Fully fished, the river will accommodate 590 rods per day. The first 70 miles from its source are wholly in Scotland and on reaching the village of Carham its north (left) bank remains in Scotland and its south bank in England. When it reaches Paxton, some six miles from the sea, it is wholly in England. With the exception of the Till and the final two miles of the Whiteadder, all its fishing tributaries are in Scotland.
Where and when to fish
For administrative purposes, it is divided into upper, middle and lower Tweed. Its source is 1,850 ft above sea level and follows a steep gradient until it reaches Kelso.
The long season, fresh runs of salmon throughout and 121 beats provide the visiting angler with a huge choice of where and when to fish. Spawning will not be triggered until the water temperature is in the range of 35-47 deg F which, on the Tweed, is from mid-October onwards. In colder water conditions below 44 deg F, the upstream travel is slow and movement can be temporarily arrested at temperature barriers where there is torrential white water. This matters to the Tweed angler’s decision as to where to fish in early spring, since the stock of fish is not evenly distributed between the lower, middle and upper river.
From February 1 until the water temperature reaches 48 deg F, usually in late April, the angler is advised to take his fishing on the beats between Coldstream and Mertoun. Rather strangely, salmon move quickly through the beats between Coldstream, Horncliffe and Lennel in early spring – some say this is due to the lack of resident kelts in the pools.
From May onwards all the beats between Horncliffe and Boleside will hold a good stock of salmon and May is a wonderful time for fisherman to be on the river: a time when nature is working overtime, when birds are singing, insects are busy, wild flowers adorn the banks and treebuds are bursting out new growth.
The longer salmon and sea-trout are in freshwater, the less likely they are to take a fly but again the Tweed angler is lucky because runs of spring fish continue through April and June. The current five-year average catch of spring salmon on the Tweed is 2,100, of which 74 per cent are caught on the 17 beats between Coldstream and Rutherford. A typical Tweed springer will weigh 8 lb-9 lb but over the past six years there have been more bigger fish, up to 34 lb. The largest on record was a 43-pounder caught at Rutherford in April 1920. It is a common misconception that it is autumn that produces days of record catches when in fact it is spring that claims this prize. During the last cycle of dominance between spring and autumn runs in the 1950s and ’60s, days of more than 20 and even 30 fish to a single rod were not unusual and 75 per cent of the total season’s catch was spring salmon. With the last three seasons seeing a reduced autumn run, it is the ardent hope of Tweed anglers that this might herald the return of spring to produce the dominant run.
Following the last of the spring-running salmon in June is the Tweed’s other great bounty – sea-trout. Tweed sea-trout are plentiful and can be very big. The average rod catch is about 2,000, many of which weigh double figures. The largest sea-trout ever caught in the British Isles, 28 lb 9 oz, was caught by a poacher in July 1987. June also brings an odd run of very large salmon over 40 lb. Anglers at this time will be using light tackle so these large sea-trout and salmon can make things difficult but the true angler relishes difficulty and, after all, “easy” for him is not a proper test of skill.
From July and through August comes the grilse run, a one-sea-winter fish that accounts for 60 per cent of the total seasonal catch.
William Scrope, author of Days and Nights of Salmon-fishing in the Tweed, 1843, wrote: “The most plentiful season in Tweed grilse is, if there has been a flood on St Boswells Fair, namely 28th of July.”
Tweed grilse typically weigh 4 lb-7 lb but one of 19 lb was caught at Junction some years ago.
The next run of fresh fish is the August run of summer salmon, which in recent years has made up an increasing proportion of the year’s catch. In years of low summer water levels, the ten beats below Coldstream bridge can have spectacular sport in August and through September.
The final flush of fish is the famed Tweed autumn run, which was said to start if there was a flood during St James’ Fair, the first weekend of September.
Stoddart, again: “Spring, summer, autumn and winter all furnish their fresh run supply of the scaly tribe. The clean, firm-set eye-delighting fish of March and April is succeeded, during June and July by the sea trout and early grilses; these again, throughout the remainder of the season are followed by others of older growth intermingled by breeders of every description; while to crown it all, the ‘grey schule’ cleaving undauntedly the December torrent, brings up the rear.”
From September 15 to the season’s end on November 30, fishing for salmon and sea-trout is by fly only. Spinning methods are allowed on the Tweed between February 15 and September 15 and, the Tweed being prone to coloured floods, anglers are advised to include this equipment for their visit and its use can rescue some sport when conditions are unsuitable for the more favoured method of the fly.
Since the decline of the great spring cycle of the 1950s and ’60s, it is autumn that has become the season of plenty. As recently as 2010, the Tweed had its record day, September 27, when 800 salmon were caught. The top beat that day was The Lees with 61 fish; one of its anglers had 23 to his own rod. Autumn on the Tweed is also the time when there’s a chance of landing the big one and anglers in pursuit of monstrum horrendum are advised to book their days after October 10, a date beyond which 95 per cent of all fish over 40 lb have been caught.
As with all salmon rivers, the angler is hostage to the uncertainty of river conditions. Few, except those who live near the banks, are able to plan their trip to coincide with good conditions but, if they can, Tweed will offer the best chance of taking salmon, when there are the following “ideal” conditions:
- When there’s been a flood three or four days before
- the water still has a slight stain of colour
- a steady water height between 1 ft and 1 ft 9 in
- a water clear of the acid water of the Ettrick or Till
- when the air temperature is slightly over the water temperature
- a warmer river temperature than the sea
- a water temperature above 38 deg F and below 60 deg F
- a south or south-west breeze
- a steady barometer
- cloud cover
- four days after a full moon and big tides
- and given these conditions, the angler should concentrate his efforts between 10.30 am and 12.30 pm in spring and autumn and earlier and later in summer, taking the afternoon off in strong sunshine.
Where the angler has the choice of fishing both banks, he should cast towards the light and to delay the first cast until the air temperature rises above the water temperature.
Choosing tackle and flies
The choice of rod and line will vary with the season: in the colder water of early spring and autumn, a 15 ft double-handed rod fished with a variety of weighted tips will enable the angler to fish deep and slow. In lower water, summer conditions, a shorter switch rod is more suited to achieve a faster fly speed and a better “feel” and reaction time for the soft-mouthed grilse and sea-trout.
Almost all Tweed beats have professional boatmen or gillies, 65 full-time and 30 part-time, who will provide the best advice and be just as keen, or keener, than their tenant to catch fish.
My best tip to the fisher is to follow their advice. The decision to buy a stock of flies is best delayed until arrival on the river since conditions change constantly – and no two days are the same.
Communication along the Tweed is the envy of other great Scottish rivers: the Fish Tweed and Tweed Beats websites offer information on conditions, flies, tackle and weather, or the angler can get first-hand knowledge from other anglers, in the pub or local tackle-shops. Fishing is deeply embedded in the psyche of the local community, particularly in Kelso.
Don’t forget the sea-trout
Although the Tweed enjoys prolific runs of fresh sea-trout from June and through July, there is little dedicated effort by anglers to catch them and, mostly, they are caught during the day by salmon anglers on salmon flies as a sort of bycatch. The main run of sea-trout is in June and July and, given water, they will travel quickly throughout the river and its tributaries, with the Till and the Teviot taking a large share.
If you must kill one for the table, choose the quality maiden fish of 2 lb-5 lb and do not kill them beyond mid-August when their flesh becomes soggy and unpleasant. Some 60 per cent of the Tweed’s sea-trout are caught in June, July and August and most are taken during their dusk feeding hours and if the salmon angler has not left the river for his supper he should choose a warm evening when there is a gentle southerly or south-westerly breeze. Sea-trout are easily spooked so wading should be limited to the shallow edges and the rod should be light and sensitive and the leader long and light. As with salmon, sea-trout lose their appetite for the fly with time spent in freshwater. The best beats to catch fresh sea-trout are from Milne Graden to Upper Floors on the main river stem and in the Till and Teviot.
Dry-flies, such as the Yellow May Dun, and single-hook wet-flies, such as Editor, Mallard Professor, Invicta, Stoat’s Tail, Teal, Blue and Silver, and Medicine are favourites and recommended by Tweed boatman Jonathan Mackereth.
How much will it cost?
Salmon fishing rents on the Tweed are a product of the likelihood of a fish being caught and rents are based on the average catch for each week. The present benchmark rate is around £400 per salmon which, on average, means that if the rent is £800 per day, then the rod might expect to catch two salmon; at £400 per day the expectation is one salmon; at £200, two days’ fishing might produce one salmon.
Salmon and sea-trout fishing need not be expensive and the Tweed can offer good fishing to suit every pocket at a cost of £20 to £800 per day. A prime beat on the Lower Tweed in October will be more expensive than spring or summer fishing.
The Scottish Government operates two incompatible policies: the first is its mission to conserve wild salmon and sea-trout; the second is its promotion of salmon farming. Salmon farming is harmful to wild salmonoids, spreading disease and sea-lice infestations. The Government’s backing of both policies is a contradiction.
The Tweed loses a huge number of salmon returning to spawn to seal and dolphin predation. All of Scotland’s major seal colonies are adjacent to its major salmon rivers – it must be deduced that salmon is the seal’s favourite food. The Tweed has some 20,000 seals close to its estuary and each adult needs 10 lb of fish per day to sustain itself and many of the Tweed’s salmon show horrendous injuries.
The Tweed also suffers, more than any other river in Scotland, from the predation of its juvenile salmonoids by cormorants and goosanders; each of the 700-bird population needs to eat ten fish every day.
Other threats to Scotland’s salmon are the bycatch of the North Atlantic pelagic fishing fleets and the increasing catch of the Greenland fisheries. Greenland, probably rightly, claims its right to take wild salmon at sea when England still permits drift-netting for salmon. Tweed catches are declining and the above threats are having an impact: its governing body, the Tweed Commission, has much work to do.
The angler on the Tweed will fish in a land with a rich history and he can, perhaps, make history. Anglers should remember that a day on the river is not just about catching fish:
Final words are by the noted Tweed fisherman, Lord Grey of Fallodon, 1862-1933: “Fishing is to be enjoyed but it will not be enjoyed any the more by rushing by what nature has to give on the way.”
Identify the overwintered trout
I put reservoir trout in two categories. Fish under 4 lb will have been in the reservoir for less than 12 months and despite popular belief they are at best only well-mended, hard-fighting, early- or late-season fish that are no more difficult to catch than a fresh stockie.
Overwintered trout weigh more than 4 lb and have been in the reservoir for at least a year. These fish have wised up and are what I call “educated”. They have been feeding naturally over the course of a season and understand what their food looks like and how it behaves,
ie it’s not bright orange and pulled at 100 mph. They are, in my opinion, a much more challenging fish to catch.
Find their food
Overwintered fish will almost always be found where there is a large food source. The trick is to find it. On most reservoirs it will be buzzers, shrimps, corixa and fry and the best places to search are near structures. Target weedbeds, pontoons, anchored sailing boats, towers, inlets, streams, marker buoys and drop-offs.
However, contrary to popular belief overwintered fish don’t often get preoccupied with one food source – they are not programmed that way. Look at the stomach or throat contents of
a 4 lb-plus rainbow and it will often contain a multitude of foods. It would make little difference if you were fishing a Cruncher, Pheasant-tail, Diawl Bach or Hopper, so long as it was presented correctly at the right depth. This opportunist feeding also explains why anglers catch on a variety of different patterns when targeting the same fish in the same area.
Conversely, stockies can be caught anywhere on a reservoir. They haven’t yet learned how to find the major food groups and can be caught in areas with little food.
Weedbeds and deeper water
Reservoir water levels greatly affect where resident fish will be found. Weedbeds die as water levels drop over the course of a season and those that remain are often out of reach of the bank angler at the beginning of the following season when the reservoir is full again. Yet it is here that resident fish will often be feeding. Because the shallows at the start of the season are often devoid of food, instead target areas that are naturally deeper close to the bank
that didn’t dry out at the end of the previous season.
From June onwards the water warms significantly and new weedbeds (those that died over winter or when the water levels dropped) become established. They are home to shrimp, pin-fry, corixa … and resident trout.
Many anglers find these fish difficult to catch. The water is usually shallow and clear and fish are highly visible. You will often see good trout cruising over the weedbeds only feet from the bank, confidently taking food in their path. There is a temptation to rush to the water’s edge and frantically cast at every fish you see, especially if they’re big. But remember, the angler is also visible to the trout. Numerous casts, weighted flies, and an animated angler only do one thing – spook the fish and push them out of reach.
Patience and a stealthy approach are vital. At Grafham Water the shrimp-feeders cruise only five yards from the bank, but once they see your silhouette they will veer out to around 20 yards. If you sit, remain still and only cast once every 30 seconds or so, the fish will remain confident and close.
The same rules apply for corixa- and fry-feeding trout. Make few casts, keep low and remain patient. If I see a large fish working the bank, I may creep in front of it in a wide (20-30 yard) arc and simply wait until it comes into range. Casts must be within your capabilities (don’t push for distance, you’ll hit the water hard and the leader will not turn over correctly) and, importantly, don’t cast too close to the fish – let it come to your flies. This may require a change of attitude – it took me many hours of spooking fish before I finally accepted that patience is a virtue I need to possess.
Occasionally, you will get the opportunity to cast at two or more fish rising or cruising in close proximity to one another. Consider this a golden opportunity. One trout will consider the other to be competition and often attack the fly aggressively.
A classic rod and clear copolymer
Tackle is subjective, but I prefer a 9 ft 6 in or 10 ft rod, rated AFTM 5, 6 or 7. Good-quality, clear, co-polymer leader material is essential. It’s thin, strong and does not sink as fast as luorocarbon. It will not pull your flies down into the weed in shallow water. However, it must be degreased to remove its shine. I prefer Rio Powerflex 8.2 lb.
Three methods to try
Washing line: When fishing in shallow, clear water, your flies must remain high and display the correct silhouette. Any droppers you fish can easily snag weed (hence why I fish with a maximum of two flies). By making fewer casts to avoid spooking fish you are inevitably more likely to fish with a desirable static or slow retrieve.
My initial line of attack is always a 12 ft-15 ft leader of 8 lb co-polymer with a realistic Mylar Floating Fry on the point and a size 12-14 red holographic Nemo Cruncher on the dropper. The dropper is just 2 ft from the point fly because in shallow water trout will have a very small window of vision. In flat calms, fish are often attracted by the Floating Fry, but will then take the subsurface Cruncher. When there is a ripple or wave, they will take both patterns equally. Really big fish of 5 lb and more usually only take the fry imitation.
In a flat calm I sometimes swap the Floating Fry for a Suspender Minkie. Its mink wing imparts a small amount of movement, which is often all that’s needed to turn swirls into positive takes (a Suspender Minkie can also be given a sharp strip to create a disturbance that can attract the fish to your cast).
Sinking line: A Humungous Booby (or Snake Booby) fished deep and slow on a fast-sinking line, Di-5 or 7, is undoubtedly a very effective method of catching big trout throughout the season. It ticks all the boxes: correct profile, enticing movement, correct colour, disturbance and depth. It has the perfect presentation. Your sinking line is hard on the bottom and your fly is popped up, ensuring there is no silhouette of the fly-line to spook fish. Use a slow retrieve and an occasional pause for four or five seconds, so that you make fewer casts and therefore cause less disturbance. A slight tweak I occasionally make when the fish are fixated on fry is to fish a Floating Fry popped up off the bottom. Fish it statically with the odd 2 in-3 in sharp pull every 30 seconds. When fishing Boobies or Floating Fry I prefer to use a Rapala knot, as it allows the fly to move freely and naturally.
Nymph fishing: Whether I’m fishing with an indicator or straight-line nymphing I always place my brightest nymph on the top dropper (pearl or red rib/back or fluorescent red head). This attracts fish to my flies because it catches sunlight. It will attract stockies, but it will also attract resident fish to the more natural patterns beneath it. I think this doubles your chances because any big fish that can be tempted to rise from the deeper water to investigate your top dropper must swim by the more natural-looking flies on your cast twice (on the way up and down).
When fishing nymphs and Buzzers most anglers feel it is best to have a light (5 mph-9 mph) left-to-right wind, which will allow your team of flies to swing gently around in an arc. I accept that this is a very effective method but in my experience it only tends to catch fish up to 4 lb.
Guiding over the years revealed to me that while I would catch more trout using the straight-line nymphing method, the novices I was assisting would consistently catch much bigger and better-quality fish. This was no fluke – it happened too often. Two seasons ago, one of my rods had a brownie over 7 lb and a 6 lb rainbow in the same day, having never cast a fly before. He was fishing downwind, under a bung, just off the bottom and with no retrieve whatsoever.
My theory is that by fishing across the wind, the flies are moving too fast and look unnatural to educated fish.So for some fish, movement wins hands down but for quality fish, static is king.
Which is why I now favour a flat calm when fishing nymphs and Buzzers and I love the bung because it consistently puts really big fish in the bass bag. It gives me perfect depth control and the option of fishing ultra-slow or statically.
I have since taken this theory a step further and often fish directly into a light wind, allowing my flies to drift back “dead-drift” with no drag. Or I’ll fish straight down the wind, again attempting to keep them totally static. The results have been very encouraging over the last few seasons.