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.”