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.