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 world war.
Jonathon Taylor, Ghillie on the Forglen Beat as a young and older man, as I knew him in the 1970s
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. Those 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 here is, 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 long period of time. Add to this, better technology, methodology along with many more better anglers fishing our rivers and the need for a change in management was obvious.
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 Sir David and made to me by Jimmy Milne, the then retiring Ghillie from a famous Spey beat. I remember him lamenting about there not being enough fish whilst behind him in the pool there were 3 in the air at one time.
With the benefit of hindsight, by killing every fish caught, we were actually killing the goose that lays the golden egg, but Why?
The 2000s saw more people fishing and as mentioned above those were generally better fishermen, 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. You catch however many new ones were there before they moved on. 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 very different to fishing for fish that had came into the river in May and had were now in good number in pools further upstream in August. When they “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 Rappala or Flying C. All those methods were very effective and perfectly fine as long as there were enough fish.
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. Or, as mentioned above, 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 it has to be said, 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 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.
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. 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. It’s 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 fairly simple, it’s called understanding and adapting to change and making the best of “every” part of the fishery, not just fish numbers!
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, similar to 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’s 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 radicle thinking based on knowledge of both the fishery and it’s limitations, also, the expectations of those coming fish. The business has certainly changed, as has the status of the resource. Expectations of clients continue to do the same, so how we manage this must be flexible too.