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33,000 Salmon caught in Scotland Last Year

Over the past decade or so I have been fortunate enough to fish in many top salmon rivers around the world, wonderful rivers, which, like the Spey, Dee, Tweed and Tay, have great reputations and the kind of places most anglers have on their bucket list. However, they all have one thing in common. They were all better and produced many more salmon in the past! That said, for those fortunate enough to be visiting them in 2024, does that fact make them any less desirable?  I would say if you asked any salmon angler if they would fancy a week's fishing on the Alta, Ponoi, Sela or Hofsa, right now, 100% of people would bite your hand off. It would not matter that those rivers have fewer fish than before, but the aura and reputation of those, plus the fact they are almost impossible to access makes them every anglers goal or dream to visit.  

In the meantime, most of us must be happy fishing rivers such as the Spey, Dee, Tay, Tweed, Gaula, Orkla and other “more accessible” rivers. How unlucky! Or not as the case may be. Turn the clock back 50 years, and for the majority of us, none of those rivers would have been accessible either, like those others above, all would have been a distant dream.  

How many times I have heard people say, I was born 20 – 30 years too late. Err, no you were not! With regard salmon fishing you were born at exactly the right time. 50 years ago, you would have not had a chance of fishing those rivers at the good times.  In fact, 50 years ago so few people fished private beats on those rivers for salmon. The only fishing available to us was on club water or if you happened to know a ghillie who let you on after the guests had gone home. At this time there were plenty fish and to be honest angling had little or no impact on the rivers ability to produce salmon, adults for visiting rods and juveniles for the ocean.  

So why is it the case that some rivers still fall into the “dream’ bucket list category whilst those others are seen as being the opposite? Is it all about fish numbers? I don't believe so. It’s about expectations and genuine availability of salmon! Salmon fishing has never been as accessible as it now is. Never have so many rods fished our salmon rivers in Scotland, however, managing expectations is becoming more difficult. 


Man Kissing his first fly caught salmon
Jim Cowie with his first ever salmon. Jim took up salmon fishing after retiring



The official catch for salmon in Scotland in 2023 was just over 33,000, a 25 % fall on the previous year and lowest figure ever. However, with an annual return of 100 - 150 thousand adult wild salmon to our shores, it would appear to me that Scotland should still be a dream destination for salmon fishing. Most of those fish are found in the four Scottish rivers above, so in essence, they should be sought after destination to fish, should they not? 

Iceland has a total run of between 60 and 80 thousand salmon and, rightly so, is seen as being a dream destination for salmon fishing. Even here, long gone are the days when guests would “expect” to catch 10 or more salmon in one day, although in some places this still happens. I remember when ghillying at Knockando on the Spey, one client catching 10 before lunch and I am sure many people will have comparable stories from this time and before, but the chances of this happening, even in the best place in Scotland now is very slim, whilst in Iceland it will happen each year. Why, when there are fewer fish overall, should this be the case?  The simple answer is in Iceland rivers are run by well informed, fishery managers who understand the resource they are dealing with. Every two anglers require a experienced local guide. By law, anglers cannot spend more than 12 hours on the river (a max of 24 hours of fishing effort per day per guide). One rod per mile of river is normal, ensuring the declining resource has as little pressure as possible. Around 350 visiting anglers fish in Iceland each day compared double that amount on just the four big rivers alone. 

In Scotland, emphasis is on high pressure fishing rather than properly looking after the the resource.  For instance, everyone running beats on the Spey, Dee, Tay and Tweed, still run them in the same way as they did in the 70s and 80s and part of the 90s, when they had 10 times more salmon! Even a layman can see this cannot be good for the resource? It's also not good when it comes to keeping young ghillies in full time employment, nor is it positive for the wider community? 4 rods to one Ghillie on each mile of river. Rods fishing all day and, in the evening, too, encouraged by managers who’s only measure of client's success is by catching more fish than their neighbours making their beat more desirable to the splash chasers following them on the Internet. Speak about seeing how quick we can reach the bottom! How far has our sport fallen! Anyone knowing anything about this resource knows this system is destined to fail because the declining wild fish resource cannot sustain this level of pressure and expectation from rods. Statements such as – Whilst things are bad, they are not as bad as river X. Or, at least we are faring better than river X, actually say it all to the blind nature of those making such statements.  


A happy Salmon Fisherman
A Salmon Angler Delighted with his first salmon

Below is an excerpt from the Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust Website https://www.gwct.org.uk/news/news/2023/december/iucn-classifies-atlantic-salmon-in-great-britain-as-endangered/ 

The IUCN have identified a number of key pressures faced by Atlantic salmon including climate change, poor water quality, dams and barriers, salmon farming, exploitation at sea, and invasive non-native species. 

Removing barriers, improving spawning and juvenile fish habitat, bolstering river climate change resilience, and reducing water pollution can help support the restoration of wild Atlantic salmon. As can more protections in the marine environment.  

The Missing Salmon Alliance, including the Atlantic Salmon Trust, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Fisheries Management Scotland, Rivers Trust, Angling Trust, and Fish Legal, are working together to ensure that our wild Atlantic salmon have free access to cold, clean, water. 

A number of non-statutory bodies are working to conserve Scotland's wild salmon, with Fisheries Management Scotland representing Scotland's District Salmon Fishery Boards, Rivers and Fisheries Trusts, and the River Tweed Commission.  

With 100s of experts in the field working hard to conserve “Scotland’s” wild salmon,  particularly during the last 10 years of massive decline, you’d have thought at least one would have thought, wait a minute, we now only have 20% of what we had before, maybe it's time for a change to how we manage this declining resource on the riverbank!? A good place to start would be at looking how others, others catching less fish overall, still manage to keep a positive air around their fishery?  

The first 2 weeks in May saw me fishing on the Deveronside beat on the River Deveron, a beat consisting of 7 miles of river with a great system incorporating rods for a local syndicate as well as visiting anglers and the owners too. The system is based on limited/gentleman's fishing time [much like it was before the influence of present   managers] ensuring the salmon have time to settle in a pool without being fished over by too many rods. A credit to the owner. Although not 100% the same, this nevertheless is similar to what I see in Iceland and to what I saw when I first began ghillying at Knockando. In the time of the Spring run, Sir David Wills would fish the 3 Knockando beats with just 5 rods and not 11. Seldom would I have more than two rods on Lower Pitchroy during his weeks, add to this their limited time on the water and even during a decline, we had a sustainable fishery. Unfortunately for Scotland, ignorance, along with a poor understanding of the resource along with “our impact” on it has led to an unprecedented level of negativity surrounding the sector. A real shame as just today a friend of mine fishing a middle Spey beat sent me a message saying he had caught 3 Salmon in a single day.  

The bottom line is, during its peak times Salmon fishing was never a cheap game, but the cheaper it becomes, the more negativity it propagates. The maths is simple, there are not enough fish now to keep the number of people now fishing happy. It really needs some change.  

I would ask people reading this far the following question - 

On the river you know, how many weeks of the year could an angler now “expect” to have a chance of catching 3 fresh, Multi Sea Winter salmon in one day if they were lucky?  

I will help by saying, on those private beats on the Spey, I would say maybe 4 - 6 and we are in the thick of them right now. Its time fishery managers sat up and took note. They still have an amazing resource, with the best salmon fishing infrastructure in the world, but it needs to be managed in a much more delicate way right now. If people are serious about protecting this resource, then its time they valued it more like they did in the past and had people with proper experience at the forefront of managing it.  

There is a way, but everyone needs to embrace a new system based on numbers of salmon available in 2024 and not 1980.  

Please answer on the blog.  

As a footnote, how can a species still available in such numbers be classified as endangered? I will obviously have a follow up on this blog.  

 

 

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Well said. The problems in Ireland are similar. It’s an entire ecosystem that needs rethinking, not just the rod—and-river end of it. Consumers of farmed salmon , fishing at sea, pollution and predators all have to be included in the conservation conversation. And it starts with thinking what’s a fair, reasonable, sustainable and manageable number of salmon our community could catch a year, and reverse-engineering solutions from that point.

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Well said Ian and I totally agree. A real concern of mine though which seems to be out of control in the last couple of seasons is the level of “pollution” creating algal bloom/slime/discoloration in the rivers. We have done 4 x trips so far this year in both Scotland & Ireland and the level of slime on the river bottom is alarming for so early in the season. We have also recently been fishing on the River Kennet for trout (supposedly beautiful chalk stream) and the water was filthy. This can only be from farming and sewage plant activities but seems to be largely uncontrolled and very scary for the health of these amazing rivers. 😩

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Why does nobody speak about predators. I fished the Ythan. At the mouth there is a seal colony of around 3000 seals at its peak. My first job was on the Salmon Coble at Cruden bay and we also had the rights for stake nets on the North mouth of the Estuary. If A seal popped his head up he got a lump of lead.

The Net Fishing has all been stopped but just been replaced by Seals 🦭 in my opinion

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I don’t think theres a day passes when I don’t hear someone speaking about predation. Unfortunately we are now being run by the green lettuce munchers who believe man shouldnt impact on any animal and is not the apex predator. Unfortunately this is where we are and whilst they dont mind at all seals and Dolphins eating and taking chunks out of them, given the status of salmon stocks man killing them by any method would be clasified murder in their eyes. Worse than killing a child. This im afraid is what we are up against now. If salmon netting were still permitted seals would not be allowed to be shot. Even non indigenous fish eating birds are under thei…

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I note that from the IUCN don’t mention predator control unless the exert had been missed on putting into your blog.


I concur Ian. We go to Findhorn every year. Now 4 of us in late 50’s and 60’s. We spend most of time chewing the fat, drinking whisky, smoking cigars and pointing at running fish. On occasion we have a cast for an hour or so. We had a young lad up (a son of one of the chaps) and boy was he keen. Couldn’t stop. Saw a lot in me of him bavk in the day but we will sort him out.

I mind fishing with Michael Smith (who you know) when he just bought Farleyer and took…


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fentonapf
fentonapf
May 24

A thoughtfull reflection on the reality of the current situation in Scotland Ian. Thank you.


I totally agree.


Even as a relative novice to salmon fishing I completely see both the challenge and the opportunity. A problem I see - from my limited perspective of fishing but reasonable experience in businesses with similar commercial models - is that the beat owners have adopted an 'inelastic' financial model which is ultimately 'doomed' as you say. By this I mean the resource is identified as generating a fixed level of £X revenue and £X per annum margin per annum and, (subject to inflationary pressures etc) this dictates investment in facilities, human resource (i.e. Ghillies) and importantly, the number of rods and cos…


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