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Salmon and The Corona Lockdown

For those fortunate to have time on the river and cast a fly, the salmon season of 2020 has almost seen us step back into a time warp. With all but essential travel discouraged, rivers rested causing minimal disturbance from both anglers and canoes, fishing this year is almost like a throwback to what I’ve often heard referred to as “The good old days”. 

Although some rivers south of the border opened a little earlier, Scottish rivers had to wait until the 29th May before anyone could have a cast. The exception to this being the English side of the Tweed, a somewhat contentious decision but not one I’ll get in involved in here. Beginning the season at the height of the spring run has proved to be, well, interesting to say the least.

For those lucky enough to have been first to fish beats on the English side with some fish in them, fishing was indeed like the good old days. Single rods catching 10 or more salmon in one day and some beats having their best opening for decades. It must be said, the fishing was incredible, like what you’d expect in Iceland or Russia; possibly better!? 

Scottish rivers opened 10 days later, by which time everyone was biting at the bit and couldn’t get to the river quick enough. However, beats were open to locals only, and travel discouraged by the government.  All of this has meant beats normally fished with 4 rods, have been very lightly fished and because of this, anglers have enjoyed a level of exclusivity last seen back in the 1970s before the commercialism of salmon fishing. No canoes also meant, undisturbed salmon felt safe resting in the parts of pools they wanted. I've always felt "In the spring", with running fish, this makes them good takers.

Back in the 1970 and before, away from association waters, salmon fishing on private beats “at the best times of year” was very much a luxury, accessed only by invitation of the fishery owner. Beats were fished with far fewer rods and pools rested. Pretty much exactly what’s happening right now. Using the Spey as example, typically at this time, a mile of private fishing with both banks would be fished with 1 - 2 rods. Those rods would fish for no more than 6 hours in any day, so a rod pressure over that mile of - 12 hours per day. I fished and had a successful day on the Lower Pitchroy Beat last week and was the only rod fishing, so 8 hours of fishing pressure max. I know the following day it was much the same, with a similar number of fish caught. 

Turn the clock back to 1985 when I began ghillying on that same beat, the then beat owner, Sir David Wills, would fish this with either one, or two rods. There are many great days etched in my memory all of which have a single common denominator, there were never more than 2 people fishing! All the big days had fishing pressure of no more than 12 hours per day per mile. 

Interestingly, I know of only one beat on the Spey currently doing this, that being Delfur. Five rods fishing 2.5 miles. Pressure here will seldom be more than 16 hours per day per double bank mile. 

What we must also remember about this time is, by modern standards, tackle was primitive at this time. Also, compared to today’s well equipped and better informed anglers, methodology and understanding at this time was "generally" poorer than today.  Although there were some real experts back then, neither their tackle nor methods would live with the best anglers of today. I suppose it’s a basic fact of life, we learn from the generation before and become better. 

By contrast, think of how the river has been fished for the past 30 years. Commercially let, you have beats like Tulchan fishing six rods over their two miles and most around 4 over one mile. This is typical of the Spey and other commercially run beats across Scotland. Looking at fishing pressure from the same angle, we look at fishing pressure per mile. Most people, having paid to fish a private beat, will fish 8 hours per day. Multiply by the 4 rods and you have 32 hours of fishing pressure in a single day. 

To those of us with an interest it’s been obvious for some time, only during peak times of salmon runs, and in years of exceptional runs, can the resource stand this type of pressure, which is why, over the years, any efficient method of catching fish has had to be banned in order to protect the dwindling stock. Starting with drift netting in the 60s, moving through to shrimps, prawns, worms, spinning and finishing with catch and release, all have had to be put in place simply because we, anglers, with our better tackle, methodology and longer hours, have put too much pressure on the declining resource. Like I say, fine in peak times and years of good runs, but not throughout the full season. There's no doubt that Catch and Release has come just in the nick of time, not for the species, but for the business of salmon fishing.  

It's interesting to note the best fisheries in the world are those difficult to access. Think of a trip to Scotland in the mid 1800s, it would have taken a whole day on a very slow train. Interestingly, around the same time as it would take to get to the wonderful unspoiled rivers of the Kola Peninsula in Russia.

Ponoi and Varzuga have good runs of salmon but thinking of the number of fishing hours per mile and length of season, they manage it really well. In the case of Ponoi, I’d say there will be no more than 2 hours daily fishing pressure per mile, if that. This, along with the very well run camp at Ryagaba, makes it some of the best and most exclusive and value salmon fishing in the world.

What’s become evident from the lockdown and associated resting of salmon pools is, if undisturbed  salmon will take up residency, locally in good numbers and those first rods will have great fishing, catching a good number, or high percentage of available fish. After this initial good fishing, those fewer rods will also enjoy good fishing, catching fish that have moved into the pools during the hours of darkness from the previous night. Success or failure of those fishing will be determined by the number of fish moving in the night before. Of course, fish run in daylight hours too, especially in a higher, slightly coloured water, but for the most, they run in the darkening. The general size of the run [fantastic, Good, bad or indifferent] can me measured roughly by how many "specific beats" are having good catches. Of the 40 or so Spey beats, my personal measure of a "good run" is one where 30 of the 40 beats are doing well. A Fantastic run is 35+ and a poor run below 10. This year it would appear the Spey is having a good early run and the signs are good.

All in all, those lucky enough to have fished on any beat during this time will have had the chance to sample what it was like in the “Good old days”, albeit with fewer fish, but never the less a taste of what it would have been like.

What I’ve taken from this is if we want fishing for everyone like it was in the “Good Old Days” then we need either more fish or less people fishing. Or, we do as we’ve become accustomed to, accept what we have and enjoy our fishing with reduced expectations, embracing catch and release and “possibly” other measures to relieve pressure on this natural resource, such as time spent on the river!? 

As soon as people are encouraged to travel again there will be some very nice fishing available on all our rivers, most will have benefited from less disturbance.

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