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.”