â€œNo fishing before 9am or after 5; stop fishing the top pool at 5 minutes to 1 o’clock, unless it’s the third rotation of the day; no spinning unless the water has reached 1’6â€ on the marker under the crooked bridgeâ€, and so on.
There are many rules and formalities surrounding salmon fishing on our more commercialised rivers. There are good reasons behind them too, but I have to say many of them bug me. I’m sure in the long run they make for a better days fishing for the individual, particularly as I am an occasional visitor to these settings. My real grumble however, is that it turns something as primal as possible; swinging a lure across the face of a fish as wild as can be, in most cases hoping to connect via the simple medium of a piece of line directly attached to a single action reel, into a forum for disagreement and disillusion. As if by its very nature, salmon fishing wasn’t frustrating enough.
The one part of this very British institution that I wouldn’t change is the lunchtime changeover, with anglers of all dispositions thrown together for fodder in the hut.
A lot can be gauged of a fisher by simply looking at their lunch provision; a neat, wicker lunch basket, or a cellophane wrap tucked at the bottom of a fishing bag. A bottle of white, followed by a tot of sloe gin, or a dram topped up with best Deeside snow melt collected from the home pool.
But what I really enjoy is the banter. A recent trip to the Dee was a treat for this. This is pretty much my only regular salmon fishing trip, and I head up with 3 pals of old. We share two rods for half a week, which means there is the delight (and it normally is) of sharing the beat with two other rods. Crathie is perfectly set up for this, with distinct upper and lower parts, the rods swapping at the end of the day.
Our usual opposites, Mike and Geoff, with whom we have a friendly rivalry over everything from wine provided, to fish caught, weren’t up this year.
On entering the hut at lunch, I met two fishers who I immediately liked. One 89, still wading, with over 3,000 fish to his name over 60 years of salmon fishing. The other maybe 5 years older than me, and in the past two seasons has caught approaching 200 fish from the Don, a river not so well known for numbers of fish. Both have plenty of time to do this of course; one spending 3 months a year on the Dee, the other working offshore, with long periods of shore leave to master his art.
Once introductions were made, conversations led around all aspects of fishing. Someone noticed a card tag inside the hut, the sort you might have tied to a parcel when posting during the war. It turned out it was the tag of the fish merchants who used to buy the majority of the rod caught Dee fish which were then sent down to London.
This was a whole new world to me, and fascinating. I had heard stories of semi professional fishers on the Tweed many years ago, but I didn’t realise how recently it had carried on. Both the other rods had used the services of this merchant in years gone by. It was simply what one did.
Archie Hay, the ghillie, regaled how the London prices were published in the national papers, a way of cross checking you hadn’t been stitched up. The venerable gent we were fishing with could remember a spring trip to the Dee where his catch had paid for his fishing, accommodation, dinner out and left enough change to buy his wife 6 Waterford crystals on the way home. Anglers seldom ate a fish, it was incredibly expensive in terms of opportunity cost.
What was interesting was the chat that followed. The Dee is fully catch and release now by code. The last season accounted for [either the biggest or second biggest] number of rod caught fish from the Dee since records began in . Catch and release is a subject perennially getting anglers hot under the collar in disagreement.
There were basically two strong arguments coming from all members of the hut. The underlying acceptance was that we can never go back to the days of killing everything and expecting rivers to keep up returns.
But what surprised me was that the older gentleman was not interested in killing his fish. It wasn’t necessary to his enjoyment, and on balance he thought it was a price worth paying. What is perhaps not a surprise in these days when the rich have more disposable income to spend, is that the price of fishing charged by the riparian owners has increased considerably; obviously different now as in years gone by, oneâ€™s fishing could be heavily subsidised by selling a large number of the fish caught.
The younger lad was much keener to be allowed to take a fish now and again. This was backed up by not inconsiderable knowledge of the local rivers, and an opinion that the fishing is probably as good as it ever was. There is a strong argument that fishing becomes like golf without the taking of fish, however occasionally. The only difference is the involvement of a living thing in the sport, which, whatever your personal views, somehow becomes less defensible to the general public in 21st century.
The view that more damage is caused to the river by what goes on at sea is probably a valid one, and yes, there are still netting stations on some rivers, and we hear tales of European trawlers hoovering up smolts along with sandeels, and so on. But in my mind one thing is for sure. Catch and release certainly isn’t hurting our rivers.
Nb: I asked Alan what salmon fishing would be like when I am 89. His response made me quite sure that he is happy to have fished through the era that he did!