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Spring Salmon, an Obsession

Ian Tennant (head Ghillie on the Brae Water) and I were discussing how the river had now become a spring river, with little or no grilse. Significantly shortening our potential season. The conversation reminded me of this interesting piece I wrote in 1999.

Grilse were described as vermin in the 1990s. The picture above shows a nice catch on the Spey on the 6th Sept 1995. What we would give for some of those fresh grilse now! 

Commercial angling in the 1990s has become big business. The pressure on salmon rivers has never been greater, with most anglers chasing the prime weeks. A typical week fishing at prime time on a Salmon River will cost five to ten thousand pounds. Prime time on most Salmon Rivers is the summer months, June and July. It is during those months that we are likely to catch most salmon.  

Through the 80s and 90s, we on the middle reaches of the Spey have been very fortunate to have a sustained run of fresh salmon. On the middle beats of the Spey it is possible to catch a fresh salmon from the start of the season, in February, till around the end of August. In February and March we would not expect to catch more than one or two fish for the week, but there is always the exception. April and May have long been regarded as the main spring weeks on the middle Spey. Those months in the 50s and 60s were prime time on the middle Spey. The quality of fish at this time was fantastic, with fish of 15 to 25lbs commonplace. In the 1990s we crave for the return of those large two sea winter fish, we have become obsessed with the notion of the river filled with those large fish. We can only imagine how it must have been, all the stories of fish taking off down two or three pools, to be landed after a titanic struggle. If only we could see the return of those days! Well, if we could turn the clock back this is what we would find. We would find the river with lots of fish in April and May, Spring Salmon at abundant levels, then in June and July we would find the river with nothing but old stale fish. There would be no Grilse run, or nothing to speak about and the fishing on the middle Spey would come to an end at the beginning of July. As far as the commercial side of angling is concerned in the 1990s this would be a disaster. We would end up with one month of quality angling and the rest of the season we would find it difficult to let the fishing. Not only would it be difficult to let the fishing in the summer but also the fish we might catch in July would be classified as being stale and out of condition, to kill those fish would not be politically correct in the 90s. So if the Salmon started returning to the river in the spring, and spring fish became the main stock component, would we be any better off? No, because, at the moment we have the small amount of spring fish, these attract, on the whole, the more experienced angler. We also have a fair run of early summer salmon; those also attract the experienced angler. Then we have the main fish component, the Grilse. Grilse have been the main stock component on the Spey for the past 20 years. The early Grilse start coming into the river in May and the last by early September, although the late Grilse do-not tend to run into the middle river, and are exploited on the lower beats. What we have had in the 80s and 90s is a situation on the river where by we can let our fishing’s on a commercial basis, knowing we can offer reasonable sport spread over most of the season. This could not happen if the river were a spring river, and a spring river alone. I have heard the grilse being talked about as vermin, indeed there was even a suggestion in early 1999, that we should put the nets back onto the mouth of the river to catch the excess. The reason given for this was that “to many Grilse are bad for the river as they over cut the spring fishes redds, and interbreeding affects the genetic integrity of the spring salmon”. In 1999 we had the worst grilse year for 20 years, and a slight improvement in the spring salmon catch. This may be the start of a change in trends on the river, I hope not, because over the last 15 years I have seen some fantastic fishing on the Spey, with some memorable spring, summer and autumn weeks. This has only came about by the presence of not only spring salmon, but also summer grilse and sea trout. It must be noted that in the 50s and 60s there was very little commercial angling. Angling was a hobby of people fortunate enough to be invited to the river by the beat owner or leaseholder. 

18 years later we find ourselves in exactly the place I wrote about back then, sad as it is, I'd say it's pretty natural, all happened before and will all happen again. So many people are now obsessed with "why" this change happenes. Personally, I couldn't care less, But what I do know is, one day, grilse and autumn fish will return.

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