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River Spey 2022 - Why are the fish running through the lower beats?

The Spey season of 2022 has got off to great start. Well, that is of course you happen to be fishing on the middle beats. In those days of ultra fast communication, where, it seems, every fish finds its way to Facebook almost before it’s landed, the question has been asked of me a few times already this year. Why have the fish made such a good start on the middle but not so much on the lower beats.

Richard Meigh with a nice fish in the 20lb plus range from D Beat on Tulchan

Looking at this more closely, I’d say that the middle Spey is having an average start and the

Lower river not as much. So what the difference between poor and average? I’ve always felt that this can be measured in the catch over the whole river. A good season is when 80% or more of the river fish well. An average is around 60%, and a poor season is measured when less than 40% of beats fish well.

If you were to ask the Ghillies from below Arndilly if they’d had a good start to the season, they’d nearly all say the season thus far has been poorer than average with catches below normal. However, the same question asked of Ghillies looking after beats in the middle river, Aberlour to Grantown, most would say it’s been a better than average start. For some reason more fish than normal have missed those favoured lower beats. Places such as Orton, Delfur and Rothes, who normally catch the lions share at this time have had a lean time, especially given how many fish are being caught in the middle beats.

Another Cracker for one of the clients on my early casting courses at Tulchan.

I had some fishing with clients at Tulchan last week where over the four beats 18 fresh salmon were landed. Beats between here and Aberlour had similar decent catches.

What really interested me personally about all of this was, this year is exactly what it was when I began working on the river in the 1980s. However, and interestingly, it is also very different to that seen in the 1960s and 70s. Never, it would seem, was there a species that kept us all guessing more than the Atlantic Salmon.

So what could be the most likely possible causes of those changes in behaviour? Some say water temperature, however, there’s no obstacle on the Spey to cause a temp barrier and I know many fish were caught in springtime on the lower Spey back in the 60s and 70s even on years when water temps were warmer.

The old guys used to say it was a sign of dry summer! I’m not so sure of this one. Others believe it’s because of the lack of kelts in the river and fresh fish stop off where remaining kelts are, colonising those pools first. This one I sort of buy into, well, to a certain extent. However, I think it’s a whole lot more simple that this and linked to gravel movement and its impact on the distribution of juvenile fish.

We know for a fact that “in the main” salmon migrate back to, not only their river of birth, but continue upstream to the area they went through the change from parr to Smolt. It would seem that the areas in which smolts congregate during their downstream migration have a bearing on where they may be caught by rod and line on their return. Scent of a particular area and of particular fish seems to be relevant, which could be one of the reasons why once we have fish holding they seem to attract others to stop in the same place.

Without kelts hanging around, fish simply bypass and run through those lower beats, instead heading into an area with or nearer their natal home. But why miss out the lower beats this year?

The Golf Course at Banff after the river Deveron had risen 25 feet in November 2009

The answer to this, I believe, lies in what’s been happening on most rivers since around 2009. A series of massive spates have shifted tonnes of gravel, more particularly from the lower half of all rivers, the area most autumn fish choose to spawn. A byproduct of this is also the loss of juvenile fish born in those gravel beds, which on most rivers are in the first 10 miles. Many juvenile fish in those areas are lost during those events, especially those where the river bursts its banks. Whilst it’s true the salmon always has an insurance policy of fish derived from this cohort at sea, big spates arriving on a frequent basis, year on year, soon dilutes the species ability to reproduce in the numbers required in this area. Fish returning to Scottish rivers between 2015 and now (2022) will almost certainly be the progeny of early running fish and will head for the middle and upper river. Those will be the main cohort until such times that there is another change, be it natural or man made.

The one river affected more than others was the Dee. The real damage began with the double flood in 2009. It would seem that every year after this saw similar significant “gravel shifting” floods, something which has had a devastating effect on the salmon fishery. This culminated in the daddy of them all, storm Frank, a devastating flood where the river burst its banks and displaced 1000s of tonnes of gravel, but importantly, not just over the last 10 miles, but over 95% of its length. Such events have a devastating affect on the production of Juveniles.

The flood events of the early teens, and for me, the lack of proper subsequent action plan for the “fishery”, is something I’d say those managing the river at this time should seriously look at themselves and hang their heads in shame about. The whole of the salmon fishing world and their granny will have known to expect less juveniles going to sea after a series of such events. This is/was when a hatchery programme is essential on even a large river. This was a failure on epic scale and businesses in Deeside are now paying a heavy price.

Add to this the impact of Vermin such as Seals, Goosander and cormorant and there is the perfect storm.

Spates along with gravel/Juvenile displacement will play a big part in what’s happening on both the Spey and Dee right now. Our rivers go through periods of natural healing after such events and the healing process is what leads to what we see as changes in where the fish decide to stop on their return. I firmly believe they will all have many fish returning in all our rivers in the future. The question however, is, do managers want to help speed up the process?

Ive always described the Dee as the worlds best spring fishery. But how many would now say it’s still worthy of this billing? Maybe not right now, but be sure, the healing process is in progress and the day will come when it once again will be.

Salmon are enigma that I for one hope we don’t ever find out too much about them. The reason I say this is, in the past, questions answered has lead to over exploitation from, for want of a better phrase, greedy *******. This greed has manifested itself in many ways and certainly not just the capture and sale of fish as a commodity!

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Meigh's fish is one blocky chunck of salmon. A lovely fish. Great to hear of a year where the early catch numbers are similar to 40 years back.

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