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Atlantic salmon fishing as we know it today began in the United Kingdom and for the last 150 years or so the heart of that fishery has been in Scotland. The makeup of Scottish salmon fishing differs greatly from river to river and region to region. The largest of Scotland’s rivers, the Tay and the Tweed, are in the southern half of Scotland. These are moderately big salmon rivers even by Canadian standards, and they have historically produced most of Scotland’s largest rod-caught fish. As recently as the autumn of 2013 a Tweed angler released a cock fish estimated to weigh more than 45 pounds.
From these large rivers, we move down to the next tier of mid-sized rivers, of which there are many. The Dee, Spey, and Deveron are some of the more famous examples. Not all the big fish come from the largest rivers. The greatest fly-caught salmon in Scottish angling history, a 61-pound behemoth, was taken by Mrs. ‘Tiny’ Morison on the 21st of October in 1924 from the Deveron which is a mid-sized spate river—spate meaning needing a spate of water to produce fish. The Spey River is, of course, the namesake for a complete casting culture that was conceived to allow long casts with only a moderate amount of distance available behind the angler.
Beyond the mid-sized rivers Scotland hosts an almost innumerable number of small rivers. Of these the Helmsdale, Naver, and Findhorn are often mentioned as some of the best. Even these small rivers have produced fish over 40 pounds within living memory, though catches like that are extremely rare today.
Scotland’s salmon rivers fall into two broad categories: that is, those with lakes or lochs at their heads, and those without. The ones with a loch to hold water offer some degree of buffering against periods of low rain. True spate rivers only produce good fishing when there is sufficient rain to raise the level of the river considerably and bring in a fresh run of fish. In between these times, the fish hold in small lochs or deep pools along the river’s course, and they can be nearly impossible to catch in these tenuous locations. Spate rivers do not make good destinations for traveling anglers since the occurrence of the needed conditions is impossible to predict in advance.
So, if you are a fly-rodder smitten with the Atlantic salmon bug, how do you weigh the option of a trip to Scotland? As succinctly as I can put it, salmon fishing in Scotland is not a high-percentage game when it comes to catching. There are days when all the stars line up and rivers like the Thurso in far northeast Scotland can produce 10 or 15 Atlantic salmon to a rod in a single day. It actually happens there every year, but picking those dates in advance is impossible. You can pick the general time, and by researching Scottish salmon fishing through sources like Fishpal Scotland ( www.fishpal.com/Scotland/RiverAreas.asp?dom=Scotlandor ) and other sources you can Google up on the web, you can find rivers and individual beats (privately owned parts of the river that sell fishing time) that you can contact to discuss availability and optimum times to visit. But as with almost all salmon fishing, it can still be very chancy. As a general rule, the mediumand larger-sized rivers are far more likely to have at least an acceptable level of water and therefore chances of catching a fish.
There are many reasons for a salmon fisherman to go to Scotland besides just feeling the line come tight, of course. Personally I’ve been heading over in March every year since 2007. Most people think of bonefish in March and not salmon, but I’ve caught some lovely earl-season fish including a 23-pound cockfish and several mid- and high-teen-sized silver bullets during my early trips. They’re called silver bullets because these early-run salmon (or “springers” as the Scots call them) are chrome-colored, thick-bodied, high-horsepower examples of their tribe straight from feeding on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Historically, the late-February through April time frame has provided terrific fishing in many rivers along the north and east coasts of Scotland. As for west coast rivers, for whatever reason, they are not generally known for their early runs. Moreover, the west coast rivers have been terribly damaged by sea lice infestations from the salmon aquaculture industry. Catches of salmon and especially sea trout there are a shadow of what they were 30 years ago.
In the best Scottish rivers, you will work hard for your springers. In 2012 my fishing partner caught two the first day of the trip and we each got one the second. That was about as good as it gets, and my god, what fish they were! In addition, though, there is often a fairly consistent catch of kelts—salmon that spawned the year before and will head back to the ocean as the season warms up. These are nowhere near the equal of the springers, but many are feeding at that time and are therefore well-mended. Their presence helps keep things interesting. Beyond the salmon, it is not unusual to encounter a wild brown trout this time of year, as well as an occasional sea-run brown trout.
Like almost all ocean fisheries, the salmon fisheries of Scotland have been substantially reduced by commercial fishing activities that governments everywhere inexplicably continue to allow. Scotland is a land of private ownership of fishing rights, and there is an important battle unfolding between the riparian owners of the fishing and the owners of commercial netting rights out along the coast. The vast majority of the riparian owners lease their fishing to visiting anglers from England primarily, but also Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, Europe and to a lesser degree America. They use these funds to mitigate the high costs of ownership. Their businesses depend on good fishing. The riparian owners run hatcheries, practice catch and release, hire biologists as fishery managers, retain ghillies to guide their guests and water bailiffs to safeguard the fishing on their rivers. They also do environmental enhancement work out of their own pockets. The netters just catch the fish and sell them at a price per pound that has a tiny portion of the value derived from the recreational fishery. In the process, they do considerable harm to the quality of the rod fishing, thereby reducing its value while putting nothing back in.
It is this system of private ownership that also gives Scottish salmon fishing a great deal of the flavor that it possesses. You fish a beat or stretch of river every day with a small, defined number of people. In many cases, the number of rods is very limited, and your small group of two, three, or four may very well be all they accommodate. There is a definite pleasure in knowing that you won’t be pushed or cut off on your way down through a pool because someone simply doesn’t care or doesn’t know any better. Additionally, while every fishery is a bit different, you can usually stay in a house, lodge, or country hotel owned or recommended by the estate owner and enjoy a very aesthetically attractive and comfortable experience.
The traceable ownership of some of these estates goes back 700 years to the Knights Templar—maybe further. Tradition is an important part of the culture. In many cases, guides or ghillies still wear the estate tweeds, wool colors made as ancient cammo to match the colors of the flora on the nearby hills for deer stalking or grouse shooting. Standard attire for ghillies and sports alike are often a tie and breeks with long socks as under-wader wear. Nothing is hurried, there is no competition, and you are surrounded by stirring views of the countryside which in the northern areas is amazingly wild and undeveloped considering the long history of this land.
You can fish many of these beats and rivers with a single-handed fly rod. I would not discourage someone from taking a trip to Scotland to fish in that fashion. I would suggest, though, that you pick the summer or fall fishing when the waters are likely to be lower and warmer than during the cold, rainy weather of March. During the warmer weather periods, flies are usually much more like the salmon flies we are used to in North America, and they can usually be fished on floating lines and monofilament leaders. Spring time, on the other hand, usually sees high, cold water that is best fished deeper and slower than you can get with a standard singlehanded rod sinktip. For spring fishing, the flies and other gear “kit” (as the Scots call it) is now heavily influenced by Scandinavian methodology. The flies are long, slim styles such as the Sunray Shadow or Monkey Flies, and they are typically tied on metal tubes of different density. These tubes are also commonly fished with sinking tips and/or poly leaders that help put the fly close to fish that are often hesitant to move far to take in mid 30-degree water.
This style of fishing is the province of the two-handed rod. The long rod provides great leverage and, with practice, relatively long casts can be made by placing a loop of line in back of the angler but with the tip and fly in the water beside the fisherman to load the rod—the D loop. The line weights with this equipment are often three times or more those of the single-handed rod, and easily launch tubes made of aluminum, copper, brass, or even very dense tungsten.
A good starting point for someone with little or no knowledge of the Scottish salmon fishing scene would be a choice of two directions. The first would be simply to use the services of an estate agent. There are several well-known agents such as Bell Ingram (www.bellingram.co.uk) , CKD Galbraith (www.ckdgalbraith.co.uk ), and George Goldsmith (www.georgegoldsmith.com) -to name only a very few—who can arrange entire trips, have access to several rivers and various beats, and have expertise in helping you make the best selection from what is available.
Naturally, the estates that own the fishing want to try to rent to one group for the full week. In addition to the fishing, the guests are normally put up in a house on the estate that is used for essentially that purpose. They are typically very comfortable and charming. A week of fishing is Monday through Saturday, as salmon fishing on Sunday has historically not been allowed in Scotland. As a general rule, prices for this type of trip are comparable or less than you would expect to pay in Atlantic Canada. A few minutes with google searching variations of subjects like “salmon fishing holidays in Scotland” will produce a large array of options for you to explore. A local reality check can be achieved by joining The Salmon Forum ( www.salmonfishingforum.com/forums) -free of cost-and starting a thread asking about what to expect for a particular beat at the time of year you might want to go over.
A friend and I just returned from a March week on the Naver where we fished with two friends from Scotland. The four of us landed five springers up to 15 pounds for our week. We lost a couple more, plus some kelts and a few sea trout. We drank a little whisky and had some very pleasant dinners of local seafood and game in the Hotel Altnaharra.
The Salmon Forum has a post under Picture Gallery called the Naver and Thurso Report that will have some photos of springer salmon, the rivers, and the countryside. If it isn’t still current when you read this, you will easily be able to search for it or other articles on both of these rivers or, for that matter, others that might interest you. Enjoy!