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.