top of page

Ghostly Voices From The River Spey. A Must Listen From 1986!

Looking back over a long life of salmon fishing, the main differences between salmon fishing pre 1980 and now was, not only were most private fisheries (beats), inaccessible, but they were fish by far fewer anglers. At this time, rods were non-paying guests invited by the owner of the fishery. Go back before the 1960s and the method of fishing too was quite different to that we are familiar with today. Most of the salmon caught by anglers in the UK, private waters or otherwise, would have been caught using a spinning rod with some form of artificial lure, prawn, or worm. This said, fly-fishing was practiced by some of those anglers fortunate enough to be invited to those private waters, but this should not divert from the fact that, throughout the UK, most fish were caught spinning.

Apart from just a few association waters; private beats were the realm of the most fortunate of anglers, “them,” and certainly not “us”! However, fortunately for me, and due to circumstance; back in the 1970s my father and I had an open invitation to fish Forglen, one of the best fishing beats on the beautiful river Deveron. I would join him on Saturdays or time off school on what was a fantastic fishery and with the bonus of a full time Ghillie, Jonathan Taylor, and Faunt of knowledge, who had been there since the end of the first war!

Big River Deveron Salmon
Jonathan Taylor Forglen Ghillie with a 36 pound Deveron Fish

The beat was sold after the death of the elderly owner in the early 80s, so unfortunately for us, the good times were over, and from then until now, Forglen has been recognised as a 6-rod beat. However, back in the 1970s we would rock up at the beat, just the two of us fishing “all” the pools. Another interesting point was, because of how the beat was managed, no one else had fished since the last time we had been there two weeks before! At that time, especially the good seasons of 1977/78, as a boy, my perception of salmon fishing was about going out and catching 2,3,4,,,,,,,,7,8 or more, every single day! The norm for my father and I was to fish fly, well, at least first time down the pool!

Roll the clock forward to my beginning ghillying at Knockando in the mid 1980s, and the story was much the same. My then boss would seldom fish the 11 rod beat with more than 5. Not only this, but prior to my time and during the 60s and 70s, there was no fishing at all after the 12th of August. Add to this the fact that the five rods fishing 4 and a half miles did not fish more that 6 hours a day and you had very minimal angling pressure. A high percentage of fish in this “area” of the Spey (and most similar rivers at this time) were females, the vast majority of which had entered in the spring. Those were the few fish that made it past all the ocean, coast and in river predators, I very much include us in this description. By the end of July those salmon that had come to the river in April, May and June were now lying around pools in their semi dormant state prior to spawning, responding to a fly or bait only if conditions were right. I.e., a rise in water level, or, later in the season, a drop in water temperature.

Recognising this, back in the late 1980s, at Knockando, my boss, Sir David Wills, introduced catch and release of all MSW hen salmon caught there after July. He recognised that “all” hen fish caught in this area at this time were from the spring component and not fresh salmon. I remember at the time people thinking he was mad. However, as was indicative of the man, he was so far ahead of his time. What interests me and should others, was, he, along with others of his generation, both Ghillies and anglers, knew the run was failing, and we had less salmon (Even back then).

What am I really saying here? Even with minimal fishing pressure, those fish making it back to our rivers would never be enough to sustain the wholesale killing of salmon over such a long season and over a prolonged period. Add to this, better technology, methodology along with many better anglers fishing our rivers and the need for a change in management and regulation was obvious.

Looking closely and with hindsight, even at this time there simply were not enough to keep the fishery sustainable in the long term, a point recognised by people such as Sir David and made to me by Jimmy Milne, the then retiring Ghillie from a famous Spey beat. I remember in 1987, him lamenting about there not being enough fish whilst behind him in the pool there were 4 in the air at one time. This was the year I began snorkelling the beat to get a visual on the numbers. I did this every year until I left there in 2007, interestingly, no one managing the river was interested [then or now], in what I saw. I always found this strange.

At that time, using this method to “count” salmon was impossible, there were so many. However, as was pointed out by Jimmy Milne on me looking at those fish jumping everywhere “Aye, you might think that’s enough,” but it is nothing like enough! At the time, through the eyes of a mad keen 24-year-old, I thought he had gone mad. However, looking back, with hindsight, the man was 100% right. There was no way we could go on killing fish and “hope” all would be OK. Unfortunately, but very typically, he or no one else working on the river we are ever listened to. Remember, this was 1987, only Sir David Wills made the decision to protect spring running females. Everywhere else on the river all those females [Kelts with eggs in them] were being killed just prior to spawning, why?

Because guys like Jimmy Milne were never listened to, even Sir David, a man of enormous influence failed to get others to respond. I always said Sir David was born 100 years before his time. It is such a shame his amazing foresight is not talked about more here on the Spey.

With the benefit of hindsight, by killing every fish caught, we were killing the goose that laid the golden egg, but why?

Wester Elchies Ghillie Jimmy Milne
One of life great Characters, Jimmy Milne. Ghillie Wester Elchies River Spey

Here is a transcript of a radio broadcast from 1986 – 35 Minutes of pure gold providing an incredible insight into what was happening with salmon on the Spey at that time. Featuring the afore-mentioned, Jimmy Milne, Spey Superintendent, Jimmy Grey, Angling Writer, Arthur Oglesby, Clark to the Spey Fishery Board, Colin Whittle, Tulchan Factors, Tim Kirkwood and Andrew Coombs, Fisheries Scientist, Dick Shelton, Tackle dealers, Grant Mortimer, Richard Millington Jefferies, and Angus Stuart. For interested parties this is an incredibly unique 35 minutes I have retitled “Ghosts of the Spey”, as sadly many of those are no longer with us, however, they do leave something truly special.

Jimmy Grey Spey Superintendent
Jimmy Grey celebrating his retirement as superintendent of the River Spey from the Spey

The 2000s saw more people fishing and as mentioned above those were better anglers, using better methodology, meaning angling had become a seriously proficient method of catching salmon once in river, particularly those arriving fresh in the river. The limiting factors were numbers of fish. If you only caught 2 it was because, in all probability, there were only two new ones there during your time fishing the pool. If you had four, then the same logic applies. If you had the luxury of being the only rod fishing and following them to the next pool, then you might have another two when the remainder of the mini run arrived there.

This is quite different to fishing for fish that had come into the river in May, than to cast a fly for fish that had been lying in pools for most of the summer. When those older fish “came on the take” it was quite easy to catch 6 or 8 from the same pool, especially if we could change tactics and fish a Devon, Toby, or more recently a Rapalas or Flying C. All those methods were highly effective and perfectly fine if there were enough fish.

Going back to Forglen, unlike today where, as one of six rods, you would be allocated a single pool, two at most, and that would be you for the morning. Back in the “good old days” we could go and concentrate where the Ghillie felt provided the best chance under those conditions. Or, as mentioned above, we would go from one pool to the next, knowing they had not been touched by any angler since we were last there. Add to this, decent runs of salmon in a small river and well, you simply could not go wrong. This was my perception of what salmon fishing and what it should be, catching those numbers every day. How naïve I was!

Interestingly, and remembering those times of plenty, during the quieter days, the old Ghillie would very quickly have us forget the fly rods in favour spinning. The reason - We were fishing as guests of the house and they wanted as many fish caught as possible to sell (no cheap fish farmed salmon at this time, it was expensive). Fish on the bank was the goal. As many fish on the bank as possible. Remember, this was the 1970s. Conservation? Wasn’t that something that happened in Africa or South America..... Maybe!?

Biggest Catch of Salmon
An amazing catch back then. Now seen as being sacrilege. Those were the days my friend we thought they'd never end!!

Coming to the present day, imagine what you would catch on those classic beats if, for the same reason as above, you dropped the fly rod in favour of a spinning rod. With modern tackle and lures, plus more anglers fishing much longer, there is a fair chance we would catch a much higher percentage of “available/new” fish.

Although many people compare salmon fishing and catch data to then and now, frankly, they cannot even begin to be compared. So much has changed that only people with limited knowledge, or with different agendas would even consider comparing the two, especially on a pro rata basis. Of all the mistakes made by mediocre quality fishery managers and factors, this is the biggest and most telling one.

They did try to put it right by building a hatchery at Tulchan which was very successful [Another story], only to be close by the same people above.

Back in the late 1980s the salmon themselves began to make plain to us the warning signs of decline. As a species, it simply could not deal with the level of industrial and commercial exploitation the modern world was bringing to bear upon it. There are simply not enough salmon available to satisfy the desires/expectations of those (like me) who believed, individually, we should go out and catch 2,3,4……7,8 in a day. On the Spey and other rivers, such days only existed due to a particular set of circumstances. The only way the species could provide such fishing to single rods, even at the best of times, was when our beats were run like Forglen and Knockando were. As soon as managers/factors decided to increase the number of rods and time spent on those beats, raising exploitation in a declining resource, then, the writing was on the wall for the wild salmon, and, ironically, their salmon fishing businesses.

Over the past 15 years I have tried hard to explain this. It is interesting that here on the Spey, properly run/rodded beats, such as Delfur and Arndilly continue to have much interest in their fisheries, whilst those fishing too many rods, outside the key parts of the season, all find it difficult fully let their fishing at the price point required to keep their staff in employ. The answers are simple, it is called understanding and adapting to change and making the best of “every” part of the fishery, not just fish numbers! Systematically, we have had the ability to manage the resource properly taken away from us. We all know how to help it but cannot. The same people who made bad decisions back in the 1980s continue to make them now. Never has so much been written about how to fix something with not a chance in hell of it happening. Andrew Coombs certainly got this one right in his observation back in the 1980s. Time has proven him 100% right.

I remember returning from the Wonderful Ponoi river in Russia thinking the place is exactly what it was like at Forglen all those years ago. Miles of the river to myself and my boat partner. Perfect in every way, the only difference being, fish making it back to that river are now protected; owners, rods and managers are fully aware that, even here, overall numbers are in decline but protected by a blanket policy of catch and release.

Those running salmon fisheries have a few options one of which, certainly at the peak times of the year, is to limit the numbers of people fishing, like what they do in Russia and Iceland making the best of the limited resource. Another option is to do things as they do in much of Norway and crowd as many rods in as possible. I suppose it is all about supply and demand. Demand locally for salmon fishing in Norway is high, much like what we now see here in Scotland meaning it now requires some radical thinking based on knowledge of both the fishery and its limitations, also, the expectations of those coming fish. The business has certainly changed and as the resource declines further, will continue to do so.

Next blog will be about our new Cadence rods and lines.

1,166 views7 comments

Recent Posts

See All


My father and grandfather used to fish Wester Elchies and I have many happy memories of picnics provided by George at the Dowans Hotel being eaten in the hut at Delagyle! So lovely to see the photo of Jimmy Milne (I’m sure we have one similar in the family album!). I don’t have the knowledge to be able to add to the debate but this article has brought back some wonderful memories.


Best bit of reading ,about spey in years , my grandfather was alec MacDonald head keeper at carrion.


Thanks for this Ian. It`s depressing that we`re hearing voices from forty years ago speaking of a decline and nothing has been done, not even to slow it, let alone reverse it. The problem is that it`s not a vote winner. I`ve written to my MSP whose remit this is but all I got back was waffle. The Scottish Government is not interested in salmon unless it`s in a fish farm.

Ian Gordon
Ian Gordon
Nov 15, 2022
Replying to

Its a real shame and 100% true Richard. All politicians waffle and those who support any of them, no matter what side of the fence, I feel sorry for. They are all total pants.


Dave MacDonald
Dave MacDonald
Nov 15, 2022

A great piece of writing, Ian - thank you. On NE polis angling outings with your dad and others in the 70’s and 80’s I had the huge personal pleasure of meeting all the characters you mention, and of catching salmon and seatrout in what nowadays are almost unbelievable numbers (six salmon in one day on a teeny orange rainbow trout fly at Forglen and six big seatrout in one night at Knockando on a wee Teal, Blue and Silver stand out In the memory). When our police literature library was dismantled at Bucksburn I managed to salvage the thick Scottish Law Times volume which contained the (unexpectedly!) unsuccessful civil case which Sir David had raised against the canoeists. …

Dave MacDonald
Dave MacDonald
Nov 15, 2022
Replying to

Ayer, he taught me and the other police students Salmon Poaching at the SPC in 1998-2000. A hugely popular instructor in class and esp over a dram on the piano! I went on to teach it at Force level and at the SPC when I too was appointed to the staff there in 1981. Ochone, bobbies nowadays wouldn't recognise a cleek, ripping tackle or a hangie net if they ran right into one!

bottom of page