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Time to Count Salmon

I pondered recently over the change I’ve seen on the river over my time here. The thoughts took me back to 1985, interestingly, today, the 19th August was the day I started working on the Spey at Knockando. However, it was a time before that I was thinking of, a day, also at Knockando, but in the mid 1970s, I was just a young boy accompanying my father fishing there. The pool was the pouches on Phones, an amazing low water pool and one stuffed with salmon at this time (August or September 1977). I remember as a young lad thinking, why do they not catch more salmon, there must be hundreds.

Not until much later, until I’d experienced this on an annual basis, did I begin to realise, at this part of the river, those “coloured fish” had been there in the pools since May or June and would only take a fly properly when conditions dictated.

However, spring fishing was different. My first season at Knockando taught me that “spring salmon” were generally easier to catch but the secret was, knowing where they’d be, and presenting our fly, or as was heavily used at this time, bait, in the right way. We could fish the bait (spinner) at the Ghillies discretion until the end of April or after this in high water. However, as a keen fly fisher, personally I liked fishing fly. This said, I had many nice early fish spinning. It was generally easier for people to cover the water properly.

The upper of the three Knockando Beats, Lower Pitchroy, at this time, was also the poorer of the three, especially it would seem, in the spring. Although it looked good, over my first two seasons, I felt my inexperience didn’t do it justice. However, this was to be my first real step on the ladder of learning about the river and how it worked.

The people I had fishing were elderly and had fished the Beat for some time. If I compare the “skill level” of those to the “average” fisher today, there was no comparison. Partly due to much better tackle, Today’s fisher, I’d say is five time more efficient as delivering a fly to the correct position in the river as those I’m talking about above.

Being interested in fly casting and teaching it, it soon became apparent to me that, the better my anglers became, the more salmon we tended to catch. From the mid 80s to mid 90s (with the exception of a few years) the river had decent runs of salmon and what was obvious was, certain groups did so much better than others, simply because they cast and fished better. My goal now was to learn as many to be good casters and fishers as possible. I knew this would lead to success. Yes, there were some years better than others, but generally, at this time, we never dreamt salmon could one day be in short supply! However, the signs were already there and for some of us, the alarm bells should have started ringing. Although some of us could see, particularly the Grilse run slowing down, it was around now (Late 90s, early 2000s) that PR became the new buzzword, The propaganda people [super managers sitting on boards and committees] had arrived on the scene and anyone; Ghillies, Rods, talking about river in a negative way at all was frowned upon. This was the happy period! Everything was great!

By this time our clients were benefiting from some of the best advances in tackle ever. The mix of better, more modern fishing techniques, combined with smaller runs of fish meant we were now catching way more than the 10-15% figure. This was the figure used by our super managers as a benchmark to gauge the number of salmon in our rivers. I have to say, of their many mistakes, this, along with thinking only a few thousand fish still produce enough juveniles, are the most stupid one’s ever. The mainstem of the Spey and most other rivers has the capacity to hold so many more of both and certainly did in the past. Don’t even get me started with Density Dependence!!

Their assumption is - If we caught 10,000 by rod and line, then there are at least 90 x 100,000 fish spawning. If the figure is 5000 then its assumed 45-50k are spawning. However, those of us spending every day and with long enough experience to remember the 1970s and 80s could easily see this was not the case and personally, even back then, I was beginning to smell a rat and could see danger and troubled times ahead.

2003 brought yet another new variable to add to the mix. Catch and release [C&R], was popularised by success on the Dee and was seen by our wonder managers as being the saviour of our salmon. However, what they should have really taken into consideration was, given we had already banned every efficient method of catching salmon, this latest measure couldn’t possibly do anything other than buy us time. What have they done with this time? How many questions have been answered? Yip, you’ve guessed it, Not a single one! Totally useless! How much money has been spent, and for what return? I digress.

30% of fish were released on the Spey during this year [2003], something that meant, for the first time our long-term catch data came into question, and quite rightly so. The rule of returning the first fish back and retaining the second led to many “second” fish being caught, this along with fish being genuinely caught a second or even third time but counted twice began to paint a false picture.

By the time C&R hit levels of 80% the rod and line catch on most rivers had hit at least 50% of the available fish and in the case of some, much more!

This is why, with the help of others, I’ve taken it upon myself to try and find a way of actually counting the fish in our wonderful River Spey. We know how many fish have been caught with rod and line this year,

Why have those charged with the health of the river not tried this? My answer is, they simply don’t want to face hard FACTS. Whether it be adult or juvenile numbers, they’d rather use a slide rule and formula instead of doing what we all did and served us well in the past, I.e. opened our eyes and counted what was there!!

To those of us spending most of our time on the river everything written above will be so plainly obvious its almost laughable that some people won't believe it. However, our super managers, cannot see this, simply because they never spend any time there. All they have is the last report by some PHD who knows every formula but little or no practical experience. My god, we’re a long way from the days when we opened our eyes!!

Now we are in absolute dire straits, incredibly, those guys and their followers still feel all will be fine. Most of this is based on the notion that salmon runs are circular, it’s all happened before and it will all happen again. Well, for as much as I think some of this is true, what I and almost everyone [with the exception of our super managers] know, is, the pressures on Salmon, both natural and man-made, have never been greater. This in mind, wouldn’t it be prudent to think, numbers will never have been lower and in actual fact, could be in some trouble! But no, they think somehow, they will return. If they believed as I do that the river has not many more fish than have already been caught this year then they’d be thinking differently. So why not look?

I’m sure all was a whole lot better when the eyes and ears of our rivers were ghillies and regular rods. A time when all of us actually believed what our eyes told us and didn’t have to rely on some daft formula dreamt up by some guy in an office or part time fisherman who bought or factored a beat and suddenly believed he was a fishery manager. A time before our new super managers, settled their arses onto boards they were no more qualified to sit on than anyone else who had read Salmon Fishing by Hugh Falkus. This, along with the mis-guidance and inaction along the way, for me, has done a huge injustice to the Salmon and those relying on him for our living and is why we really need to try and find the facts by counting as many fish in our rivers as we can. If nothing else to get an idea of how many we are actually catching. The counter on the Helmsdale would certainly suggest this figure is 50% + and not 10-15.

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