Looking back over a long life of salmon fishing, the main differences between salmon fishing pre 1980 was, not only were most private fisheries (beats), inaccessible, but they were fish by far fewer anglers. Generally speaking, 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 very 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 shouldn’t divert from the fact that, throughout the UK, most fish were caught spinning.
At this time, with the exception of just a few; 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 and faunt of knowledge, who had been there since the end of the first war!
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’d been there. Possibly two weeks prior! At this 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 August. 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 actually made it past all the ocean, coast and in river predators, including us, they 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 introduced catch and release of hen salmon caught after July. I remember at the time people thinking he was mad. However, as was indicative of the great man, he was way ahead of his time. What interests me and should others here 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). In the 1990s He financed a fish counter on the Spey to provide us with trends. Interestingly, those dealing with this at the time, spent all the money but ended with no useful data. Parr for the course with all those useless guys.
What am I really saying here? Even with minimal fishing pressure, those few 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 long period of time. Looking closely and with hindsight, even at this time there simply weren’t enough to keep the fishery sustainable in the long term, a point recognised by people such as my boss. With the benefit of hindsight, by killing every fish caught, we were actually killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Why?
Irrespective of the fact we had fewer people fishing, the methodology (spinning, worming, prawning) along with technology meant that angling had become a seriously proficient method of catching salmon once in river. The limiting factors were numbers of fish. If you only caught 2 in all probability, there were only two new ones there. If you had ten, then the same.
Going back to Forglen, unlike today where as one of six rods, you would be allocated a pool, possibly two, 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 particular conditions. We would go from one pool to the next, knowing they hadn’t 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 couldn’t go wrong. This was my perception of what salmon fishing and what it should be, catching those numbers every day.. How naïve I was, and remained for a long time! Interestingly, and remembering back to 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, 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!?
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’s a fair chance we would catch every available 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 little knowledge or with different agendas would even consider comparing the two, especially on a pro rata basis.
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 we should go out and catch 2,3,4……7,8 in a day. Such days only existed due to a particular set of circumstances. In actual fact, the only way the species could provide such fishing to single rods, even at the very 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 on those beats and exploit even more the already declining resource, 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. Its interesting that here on the Spey, properly run/rodded beats, such as Delfur and Arndilly continue to have much interest in their fisheries. 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. Perfect in every way, the only difference being, the fish making it back to that river are now protected by rods understanding 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, similar to what they do in Russia and Iceland making the best of the limited/declining resource. The other option is to do things as they do in much of Norway and crowd as many rods in as possible. I suppose it’s all about supply and demand. Demand locally for salmon fishing in Norway is high, much like what we now see here in Scotland. The business has certainly changed and will continue to do so.
As a footnote, since writing this we had lockdown which meant in 2020, the Spey was closed to everyone with the exception of locals living within a radius of 10 miles of the river. This meant, instead of having 160 rods on the river each week at prime time, less than 25 fished. 4 rod beats were being fished with one rod, over pools that hadn’t been fished for 3 months. This was salmon fishing heaven and took me right back to the days of Forglen. You simply couldn’t miss, back to the days of 2,3,4,5 or more. I really could have tied a fly to the tail of the dog, have him swim around the pool, I know he would have caught one!Individual rod catches in Iceland are around one fish per rod day. Lockdown fishing in Scotland were around 5.
Food for thought!?