1st of September 1987
A date that always sticks in my “fishing” mind, as this was the day Sandy Milne, head Ghillie for many years at Knockando, played the biggest salmon I’ve ever seen. And yes, that does include my time on the wonderful Alta River in Norway.
Although now rare here in Scotland, this was not always the case. Between 1900 and 1950, the stats point to around 50rod caught fifty pounders caught by rod and line in the UK. Even on the world's best river for big Atlantic Salmon, the Alta those once common 4SW fish are now thinner on the ground, although this river will still produce the odd 50 pounder and on a rare occasion a 60!
Once they return to fresh water as mature fish, Atlantic Salmon are safe from predation. The further they migrate in the ocean, the more open they become to predation. GA Nall’s fabulous book on the life of Sea Trout makes this fact truly clear. The closer the migrating fish is to a reliable food source, the more adults will return to spawn, and the greater spawning frequency. In the case of West coast Sea Trout, this meant they would return to spawn an average of 5 times during their lifetime, with one Sea Trout returning to spawn 11 times.
My trip to Lake Thingvallavatn in 2017 produced a 27lb Brown Trout, the world biggest that year. The reason fish grow so big here is the same, the abundance of food and, other than man, no predators. The average spawning frequency of those fish I sampled during this trip was 5 times.
Back in the UK, because of the presence of nets on the East Coast, the average spawning frequency for sea trout would also be 5, however, due to the ultimate predator, man, and his nets, spawning frequency at this time was just twice. At this time herring were abundant around the UK, and, as multiplier spawners (spring and Autumn) their offspring fed every species including many of the Atlantic Salmon and Sea Trouts arch enemies. However, greed and a lack of understanding ensured, by the early 1980s, the days of the Herring were numbered. What has happened since then for Salmon and Sea Trout has been so predictable. Predators have the ability to adapt. The lack of silver darlings meant the diets of many of the salmon’s predators changed, much more pressure was about to be exerted on both Salmon and Sea Trout. This was the beginning of the real decline in those two species, although at this time few made the connection with greed and apathy reigning during the 1990s and 2000s. This lack of understanding from those charged with protecting Wild Salmon meant, regarding the decline, for far too long our eye has been right off the ball.
Click Link to See Herring fishing on 1962
There is no doubt that the main reason our bigger fish have disappeared and as a whole Salmon and Sea Trout declined is because the balance between food and predation is out of kilter. The longer they spend in salt water more vulnerable they are. However, logic would tell us this. But why are there so few now where at one time those were far more common? Well, 70 years since the rot set in, other than offering what we knew back then we are no closing to answering the question.
However, I digress. The date was 1st September 1987
Interestingly the previous year, 1986 was a big fish year with many more 3SW 20+ pounders, so it should not have surprised us to see one or two more 4SW fish in 1987.
The date was the 1st of September 1987, the place – The Long Pool Knockando.
The day began with me ghillying for Sir David Wills on Craig Niesh, the pool directly above the Long Pool on Knockando. Sir David, one of the most knowledgeable people I ever met, was just beginning his week and, fortunately for Sandy [The head ghillie], or not as the case may be; due to the fact, not all the guests had arrived, he was asked by Sir David to fish.
By this time of the year, pools in this area were full of jumping salmon. So many in fact that, during the same year, I counted 98 fish jumps in the Polarder pool at Lower Pitchroy, in one minute! It really was a remarkable sight. Anyway, again, I digress.
Sitting in the boat in Craig Neish, Sir David and I had an unobstructed view down the Long Pool where Sandy was fishing and not 10 minutes into the first drift down on the boat I said to Sir David, Is that Sandy into a fish? Peering down the pool at the figure standing on the bank some 120 yards away, he said, yes, he’s playing one, “he’ll be fine though”, Sandy’s very experienced!
The minutes passed and my eyes were fixed on the bent rod some way below us. 10, 15, 20 minutes later, Sir David said, Ian, otter the boat ashore and see if Sandy needs help. Ottering the boat [Drifting the boat to the shore with the anchor still attached further upstream] was easy here and Sir David was more than capable of finishing the pool by himself, so off I went, at this time, running downstream to find Sandy by the Saddle Stone, around mid-way down the pool with the rod bent and fish not moving. He’s not moved at all said Sandy, but I know it’s a fish and I know it’s a decent one. “Have you got a gaff”, I asked, no was the answer! At this time, all fish were killed, and although not used so much at this time, gaffing fish was still considered acceptable. “I have a tailor”, said Sandy. A tailor was a snare inspired gadget that you are supposed to slip over the fishes’ tail before triggering the mechanism and capturing the fish by the tail, or at least, that was the theory, personally I’d never used one. Sandy handed me the gadget and we pondered the next move. “What do you think” he asked? After 30 minutes this fish hadn’t moved, I thought and said, “I’d get below him, get some side-strain and see if you can turn his head”. Just what I was thinking myself said Sandy. He moved slowly down stream, the line tightening as he went, the rod tip fell lower causing the fish to feel the butt of the rod, when suddenly, the surface of the water broke and the quiet rippling stream was replaced by the most enormous displacement of water, unlike any salmon I’ve seen before or since, this was incredible. The Marquis reel Sandy was fishing with suddenly began singing, “Holy shit” I said. But this time [3 seconds] this fish had ran from the Saddle Stone into the hole at the tail of the pool, a distance of some 120 yards. I’ll never forget the sound of the reel or the cart wheeling of this fish as it ran down. “That’s got to be 30lbs Sandy” I said. Aye, I recon it’s that for sure was the reply. The only other fish I ever saw, properly hooked, doing this was some 30 years later, on the might Alta River. Andy Majerus had one take 300meters of backing in a matter of seconds. This was another great story too and will wait for another day.
Retrieving the line and making his way to the bottom of the pool we now began a war of attrition, the fish pulled, and Sandy pulled but nothing he could do was making much of a mark on this fish. The excitement was electric. One hour passed and a now tiring Sandy said, let’s go over to the far side and see if we can lift him out of the deep water. The bank was higher, and he felt he’d get more leverage on him, so off we went on the boat. Ten more minutes on the far side and no impression was being made. I saw the beginning of the leader a couple of times but down into the depths it would go again. Finally, Sandy felt we might make more of it back on the original side so off we went again. We hadn’t seen this fish since it showed originally but there was so much water it was difficult to gauge the size, however, we were beginning to think it may be a little bigger than originally thought. Back on the left bank we were now joined by Sir David who was carrying his net, a hoop of 24 inches and enough to deal with any Spey Salmon!? Or was it?
“Seems like a good fish Sandy”, said Sir David. It is Sir, was the answer, I could see beads of perspiration appearing on Sandy’s brow. “It doesn’t want to come out of the deep water, a real stubborn fish Sir”!
With the river running at 9 inches, the water in front of us at the tail of the Long Pool was around 12 – 18 inches deep and with a nice gravel bottom. This gravel continued for another 20 yards, after which, very quickly, and with little warning, I suddenly dropped into the deep hole which had been home to the fish for the best part of an hour.
The sun came out and again I was hearing Sandy’s reel beginning to take line. Back came the backing, followed by the line, I watched the edge of the deep water where the line disappeared into the depths, when suddenly I saw the end of the line, followed by, what I can only describe as something the size of a small canoe. “My god Sandy, it's like a submarine” I said! Jesus, I’ve never seen anything like this. Sir David, with all his fishing experience was equally excited, but not quite as vocally animated the young 24-year-old Ian.
The fish now made its way over the Gravel, I had in in full view, closer and closer it came until Sandy had it tight to the bank. Sir David entered the water, the fish now between him and the bank and trying to put this fish in the net, it was so big, it just kept flopping out again, but with no energy to get away. Try as he might, this fish would just not go into the net and the bank was too high to bring it to the beach. I tried to put the tailor over the tail but at that moment Sir David had the net there. I can't tell my boss to get out the way, OH MY GOD, a gaff, I’d have had it out ten times over! Suddenly there was a shout from the bank, “Oh, he’s away”. I turned and saw the line slack and the number 6 Munro Killer hanging from Sandy’s rod. My heart sunk. Now, at this point, most people would have at least said Shit! Lots would have stretched to a Bollocks! And the vast majority would have stooped to a “Oh for F*** Sake”! But Sandy, a true professional, remained as calm as you like [his boss was there].
“But where did he go, I asked”? The water was shallow, and for the past 2/3 minutes the fish had been at rest against the bank, back out of the water. It had simply disappeared, no splash as it swam off, nothing. Sir David, still standing in the water asked, where did it go? I never saw it swimming over the shallows!
After an epic battle, the biggest fish I’ve ever seen was gone, lost in the most horrendous manner. However, looking back, because it was the biggest fish any of us had ever seen, it cast its spell on each one of us. All three of us, when seeing the fish come over the shallows, knew it was something very special, something which made all three of us approach things in a different way to which we normally would.
Reflecting on the fish back at Knockando House, Sir David took the cast of his 35lb fish from the wall, laid it in front of both Sandy and I and spoke. How much longer was Sandy’s fish? He then gave us a pencil and paper. I wrote 12 inches and both Sandy and Sir David each wrote 10. Our thoughts were, this fish was at least 10 inches longer than the 35 pounder which measured 44 inches. The time of year meant this fish would have grown a kype, so the head could have grown 3 to 4 inches. However, this would have still put the fish as a good 50” or 127cm minimum.
I could not sleep that night, weakening up, thinking of what I should have done. The next day I walked to the spot with Sandy and straight away, it became evident why we hadn’t seen the fish swimming away. Although we were aware of the bank being undermined, it never crossed our minds at the time, such was the affect this fish was having on us all. Probably, the fish never swam away, but had simply tucked itself in under the bank and had been there all along, hence the reason we never saw it swim away.
30 years later this fish is still fresh in my mind and although it doesn’t haunt me, but I’d have loved to put it on the scales.