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.