The good old days “I remember when we used to caught 20 before lunch”, “aye and 15 of them were over 20lbs”. All my fishing life I have heard stories like these and thought, the fishing must have been fantastic at that time, I was born 50 years too late! The period they were talking about was the 1950s, 60s and, to a certain extent early 70s. This really was the heyday of Salmon fishing on the River Spey, and indeed most other Scottish Rivers. There were more fish spawning in the river during this period, than any other period in living memory.
The mistake we tend to make, is to associate this period with being normal or using it as a benchmark. What is normal? Fishing records for the years prior to 1952 are for the most quite vague, although some written records do exist. Figures given by Grimble refer to the turn of the 20th century. At this time, the “normal” annual rod catch for the stretch of river between Ballindalloch and Aberlour was said to be around 400 salmon. Sir George McPherson Grant, when giving evidence before Lord Elgin’s commission in 1900 suggests, Rothes may take 100 and Aitkenway around 150 salmon annually. In 1921 Calderwood quotes Grimble’s figures, and suggests similar catch returns. So nothing much had changed over the interim period. Changes however, do occur. By 1955 the annual catch on the Ballindalloch to Aberlour stretch would be more like 2000 salmon. With Rothes and Aitkenway producing 600 or more. Knox, in his book [Autumns On The Spey] refers to the period around the mid 1800s. During this period he fished the river as a guest of the Duke of Richmond and Gordon on what we now know as the Gordon Castle and Brae Water. The very title of the book would suggest that at that time the best fishing here was much as it is today, late August until the end of the season, which at that time was the 15th of October. In the heydays of the 1950s and 60s however, the best fishing here was found between March and May. Limited exploitation by man during the war years will have had a positive impact on the population and a series of very cold winters provide a clue as to why the fish were now entering the river at a different time. If Knox had lived and fished in the twentieth century, his book would have been called “Spring on The Spey”. Knox can also be quoted as saying, “by September even the best pools only had a few fish in them”. This is not in keeping with our perception of “the good old days”. The fact of the matter is The Spey Salmon, as with all salmon will adapt to change in environmental conditions. The Salmon, if left alone by man, has the ability to reproduce an abundance of offspring, but the influence of change in both freshwater and marine environments will ultimately dictate whether or not this will be converted into an abundance of adults. Throughout history, salmon numbers peak and trough, good fishing periods will be followed by poorer ones. The timing of their runs will also vary dramatically, some periods will produce good runs of Spring, Summer and Autumn fish, but seldom all three, and if this does occur it is generally for only one or two seasons. All this had gone on for centuries until man upset the apple cart. During the 1960s, man begun to harvest salmon from the sea in large quantities, this, if you remember, was during a period of abundance. The general perception at this time was that the resource was limitless; they have always been here in these numbers. How wrong they were, and how this has affected the stability of the species. Salmon have endured centuries of environmental change, and overcome all. Over the past 25 years however, this environmental change has accelerated more than at any other time in history, this coupled with over exploitation by man has left the species in unfamiliar territory. To coin a phrase “A Double whammy” One great flaw of the human mind is selective memory. We remember only what we want to remember, the hot summers, the good fishing seasons. But as we get older we find ourselves saying, “We don’t get the summers like we used to,” or, “when I was young all the summers were hot, and the fishing, it was always fantastic”. If you have found yourself saying things like this, it will mean you are on the wrong side of fifty and will be grateful for the change to bold font! Ian Gordon 2002