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Conserving Salmon – How to save but catch more!

Many moons have passed since I began working as a Ghillie on the #RiverSpey, in fact 35 years to be precise. Looking back, one of the things I remember was, most guests were much weaker fly casters than today’s guests. In fact, most couldn’t handle a sinking line and heavy fly at all. But to be fair, this was down to the fact that all they had was a fast sinking double taper line. 4 - 6 hours of lashing this around each day was more than enough for anyone. Most would resort to the spinning rod long before this. The fact we were still allowed to spin, making getting the bait from A to B much easier and requiring much less skill also deflected from learning how to cast properly. I’ll point out right now, like “Fly casting”, simply getting the bait from one point to another, and actually “fishing” it, are two totally different things.

At this time (the 1980s) the emphasis was on catching and killing as many fish in the pool as possible with whatever method was legal. Very few people practiced #CatchandRelease [Knockando was probably first I know of, in1987 all hens went back after July]. Using the spinner helped those less proficient fly casters cover the river, so increasing their chances of catching a fish, particularly in poor water, or windy conditions. However, 25 years earlier one of the most popular lures was the shrimp and prawn, which, “in the right hands” was a deadly method of fishing. So effective in fact, it was banned! However, back in the 50s it was the chosen method by many people fishing many beats on the Spey. In the late 1980s I heard murmurings of the spinner going the same way. Banning the spinner would help conserve salmon! Something which, if true, suggested to me, those making decisions knew there were not enough fish available. We must remember that the aim of those measures was to “conserve” more of the stock!?

Over the years, #SalmonConservation has come in many guises, all of which were aimed at anglers and nets-men killing fewer fish. 

From the banning of drift nets, prawns, shrimps and worms. On the Spey, in the mid-1990s many estates banned spinning this was followed by catch and release and a suggested shortening of fishing hours. All those measures have been aimed at the angler to “conserve” stocks of salmon. None of which have halted the decline.  

Interestingly, during the same period, little or no effort has been made to cut the actual number of anglers fishing on a particular fishing beat! Even more interesting, to those who’d want to take the positive from this is, those beats who fish with the “correct” number of rods [and ghillies] beats such as #Delfur, #Arndilly and #Rothes, happen to be the ones who do best and are the most sought-after fisheries. I wonder why?  Could the answer be, they have a better ghillie/guest ratio!? I know the value of taking my guests who were poorer casters in the boat when ghillying at #Knockando. 50% more fish caught than otherwise would have been caught without it. So many happy people who otherwise would have caught nothing!! This proven methodology helps to sell more salmon fishing than even the internet. Why? Because catching more fish “per rod” ends with fishing people talking about it to their fishing friends. Nothing trumps word of mouth in this game. Very Simple! Good ghillies, as well as wealthy, clued up/passionate owners are the key to this. 

What are the ‘correct’ number of rods? Although the three beats at Knockando fish 11 rods between them. During my 25 years there, all (100%) of the “memorable” days came when the beats were being fished with much less than this. In fact, the present owners Father (Sir David Wills) normally fished his weeks on all 3 beats with 6 friends. 

When Mr McCorkendale fished #Tulchan in the 1920s and 30s, he fished the beat with 4 rods and not the 12 fished over the same water today. Those numbers of rods relating to fish were sustainable and, given decent conditions, provided the individual angler a good possibility/chance of catching a few salmon to their own rod. Those were the heady days of salmon fishing and the focus of a great many books written on the subject. In actual fact, at this time, with the numbers of fish available, those beats could easily have fished more rods. The key factor here were the number of salmon available.

With regard employment, PR and putting clients home happy, its so important to -

  1. Understand the limitations of your beat at a given time of year. Each time is different, so why would you fish with the same number of rods?

  2. Make the best of what you have. If clients can’t cover the water or use a spinner, get another ghillie and/or put them in a boat. 

  3. Don’t have ghillies run ragged or spreading themselves too thin, looking after too many clients. It shows!

  4. Four rods to one double bank mile with 4 pools should be maximum. At prime period 3 would be even better.

  5. Ensure the facilities [Roads, Banks Fishing Huts, Toilets, etc] are not sub-standard. 

Professor John Thompson fishing from the boat on the Gordon Castle water. This method of fishing allowed the lovely old gentleman to fish many more years and catch a good number more fish than he would have otherwise done.

Rolling the clock forward to 2019 and the change in Salmon Fishing is incredible. It’s popularity has never been greater, Anglers now fishing with much better, more user-friendly, fly fishing equipment. Via the internet and passionate ghillies, they have greater knowledge. They are also better casters, however, each beat has more people fishing than in the pre-1970s, something which means, more pressure on the resource! I’ve heard it said many times, a good caster doesn’t necessarily make a good Salmon Angler! A very true statement, however, I’ve never heard such a lame excuse for not learning to cast properly. “All” the best salmon anglers I know are also decent casters. 

The 1990s saw the end of the old “spinning” groups at Knockando. Emerging were groups of people keen to learn how to use new technology properly. Not happy with their ability, they’d want to improve, eager for information and knowing throwing a spinner was no longer an option. Those were the guys who came asking about casting and fishing, looking to ghillies like myself for advice, advice that ultimately, would turn them into the “fish catchers” of the 21st century. They were also the people who would catch fish during the poorer seasons when others struggled, making the most of the dwindling resource. They’d fish at the times they knew provided a better chance, ultimately catching one or two when the chips were down.

At the same time some experienced, but older rods would say, I don’t need that new tackle, we caught just as many on the old stuff. What they failed to recognise was, although this was the case, they were no longer catching as many. In fact, compared to those new groups [I’d describe them as “expert” fishers and casters], those failing to embrace the change were slipping further and further back. Even then, managers/factors didn’t, and still don’t quite get! So important are those groups, the value they bring to their beat cannot be measured. Such groups of anglers are like gold dust for a fishing beat, especially at this time of low numbers and those lightly ghillied. Given how far in front such groups were of the rest of the pack, I can say with certainty, when those guys aren't catching any, there are none there to catch. 

Looking at some of the fishing I take abroad. In Norway, for instance, they have a very short season and very different fishing culture. Other than key places like Alta, which interestingly, are the most sought-after salmon places in the world, they have few ghillies or guides. Rods just fish for themselves and all the hours they can. The first lodge I visited fished 12 rods 24 hours a day. During the prime weeks, I advised the owner to cut this to 8 and the fishery would be much better. Six would be better still, however, the lodge would have to be of a certain standard to make it this exclusive. As it turned out, 4 years of taking people there ended with fish caught for 31 of the 32 Guests. Reason being. It was properly rodded, well managed and not overly hard fished. Since leaving this place they have increased the number of rods and never again have all the rods fishing caught fish.

The value of A proper guide, someone who’s goal it is to see the “clients” and not him, catch the fish helps enormously. Add to this experienced guide, a boatman and most people visiting this and I’m sure many other places in Norway would catch their dream fish. Without this, I'm afraid its join the queue and take your chance! Norway is the most fantastic place to fish with some amazing fishing and people, but if you haven't been before, make sure you do you're homework and have realistic expectations.

 Another Happy Client with a fish which, without the use of the boat, would not have been caught.

When fishing in Iceland, rods pay a premium to fish. Simply because, again, like Norway, their season is also short. However, unlike Norway, and they have a system where, just like the best beats on the Spey, every two rods have a guide. Guides here are excellent, they have a mission, that mission being to help the paying customer catch as many fish as possible. They don’t even think of or talk about fishing themselves. A totally different culture is similar to that of the best run beats in Scotland.

Even in Russia where you have people paying to go to some of the best rivers in the world. This methodology applies. How I’d love to take a couple of good ghillies with boats to some of those rivers. Those large #Russianrivers are perfect examples of a place where good “expert” rods as described above, will out fish and catch more than anyone else, simply because they have the ability to wade and cover the river. I’ve been in and seen the competition around a dinner table in such places. In a room where the same people catch most fish each year, as a ghillie, I feel for those who, having paid the same, cannot reach the fish. As described 'Lower Pitchroy' above, a boat and a good willing guide deals with this problem and had the ability to put everyone home happy. After all, they’re paying a lot and even the experts will eventually get old. If they're lucky!! The #Ponoi River is very different and for me provides the salmon angler with the best of all worlds catering perfectly for anglers of all abilities. They have some of the best-equipped boats and a team of excellent guides.

Please feel free to drop me an email should you require any information on any of the above. Also, If you have any questions you feel I could answer in another blog?

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Thank you for your kind reply. I agree lifting a fish could be unwise with a spiggotted cane rod like Hardy's ''The Greased Line'', the rod may give at the joint. The well spliced Scotty is very tough...probably for the same reason Hong Kong builders like bamboo gives and the through sensation tells you much! I'd rather lift a good fish with the cane than a delicate 13.6''; the control is so dependable, as though it were your hand. Do I still fish ..why of course all day every day.


Ian Gordon
Ian Gordon
Dec 13, 2019

Hi Mark, I'm glad you enjoy the reading. I concur with the Double Taper line, in small doses it was fine, but nice to get back onto the spinner a while, or now a short head line.

I too really love fishing the cane rod, also the Greenheart too. Great fun and your 100% right, they played fish differently to any carbon rod. the fish were played by the strong butt of the rod, tiring them quicker. Not so sure of lifting a big fish, I've always favoured the Carbon rod at this stage of the proceedings. Great fun though, and the Carron line really was good, though I say it myself. Line technology made the most positive impact on…



Always a pleasure to read your thoughtful pieces, especially in the dark of mid winter! I do remember the 'joy' of hauling a DT Wetcel 11 on the Dee in March, Alan Brodie advising one to switch to a 2 1/2" Brown+Gold minnow when one's fingers could no longer register the line! We were always pleased to do so.

On one of your favoured beats above I use a 14' Sharpe's spliced rod , married to a 10/11 Carron Jetstream. It really works, catches fish and is loved by the 3 ghillies who think it eccentric and promptly 'borrow' it for generous periods. While it is far heavier with an appropriate ancient reel than a Sage or Loop i…

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