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The Future of Salmon Fishing

"I remember when we used to catch 20 before lunch", "aye and 15 of them were over 20lbs"! All my fishing life I have heard stories like these and thought, my god, fishing must have been fantastic at that time, I was born 50 years too late! The period they were talking about was the 1950s, 60s and, to a certain extent early 70s. This really was the heyday of Salmon fishing on the River Spey, and indeed most other Scottish Rivers. There were more fish spawning in the river during this period, than any other period in living memory. However, the mistake we tend to make is to associate this period with being “normal” or using it as a benchmark. So what is normal?

Lots of Salmon
A Record Catch of Early Summer Spey Salmon from the 1950s

Although some written records do exist, Fishing records for the years prior to 1952, for the most, are vague. Figures given by Grimble [The Salmon Rivers of Scotland 1899], refer to the late 19th century. At this time, the "normal" annual rod catch for the stretch of river between Ballindalloch and Aberlour was said to be around 400 salmon. Sir George McPherson Grant, when giving evidence before Lord Elgin's commission in 1900 suggests, Rothes may take 100 and Aitkenway around 150 salmon annually. In 1921 Calderwood quotes Grimble's figures, and suggests similar catch returns. So nothing much had changed over the interim period.

Changes however, do occur. By 1955 the annual catch on the Ballindalloch to Aberlour stretch would be more like 2000 salmon, with Rothes and Aitkenway producing 600 or more.

Knox, in his book [Autumns On The Spey ,1872] refers to the period around the mid to late 1800s. During this period he fished the river as a guest of the Duke of Richmond and Gordon on what we now know as the Gordon Castle, Brae and Orton Water. The very title of the book would suggest that at that time the best fishing here was much as it is today, august until the end of the season, which at that time was the 15th of October. In the heydays of the 1950s and 60s however, the best fishing here was found between March and May. Limited exploitation during the war years will have had an impact on the population and a series of very cold winters provide a clue as to why the fish were now entering the river at a different time. If Knox had lived and fished in the twentieth century, in all probability, his book would have been called "Springtime on The Spey". However, Interestingly, in his book, Knox can also be quoted as saying, "by September even the best pools only had a few fish in them"! This is not in keeping with our perception of "the good old days" when all was great. Even at this time, at the end of his life, Knox was aware of a big change in the habits of salmon. What we can take from this is – As a species they constantly adapt to change, any change! In a natural sense, without man, this will almost certainly be based around abundance, or lack of, food, both in the fresh and salt-water cycle, which in itself is controlled by fluctuating weather patterns, a by-product of the earth spinning on a 23.4 degree axis and creating seasons. Each season is different, because of this nothing can ever be or stay the same. We live on a fluctuating ever changing planet and the salmon are one of its “barometer species”, maybe even the main one! The fact of the matter is The Spey Salmon, as with all salmon adapts to change in environmental conditions. If left alone by man, The Salmon, has the ability to reproduce an abundance of offspring, but the influence of weather patterns, thus change in both freshwater and marine environments will ultimately dictate whether or not this will be converted into an abundance of adults. Throughout history, salmon numbers peak and trough, good fishing periods will be followed by poorer ones. The timing of their runs will also vary dramatically, some periods will produce good runs of Spring, Summer and Autumn fish, but seldom all three, and if this does occur it is generally for only one or two seasons. 

All this had gone on for centuries until man upset the apple cart. During the 1960s, man begun to harvest salmon from the sea in large quantities. This, if you remember, was during a period of abundance. The general perception at this time was that the resource was limitless; they have always been here in these huge numbers. How wrong they were, and how this misconception, through lack of real understanding, clouded judgements and decision making with regard managing them properly (helping them) in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Salmon have endured centuries of environmental change, through both warm (much warmer than now), and cold (much colder than now) periods, they have endured everything nature can throw at them. There is no doubt in my mind that given, clean water, fresh gravel, good feeding and protection, the future is bright for salmon and they will again become abundant.

One of the many flaws of the human mind is selective memory! We only remember what we want to. Summers were all long and warm, salmon were there in abundence. As we get older we all seem to find ourselves saying, "We don't have the summers like we used to, when I was young all the summers were hot! And the salmon fishing, well it was always fantastic"! If you have found yourself saying things like this, it will mean you are on the wrong side of fifty and would be grateful for the change in font size.

With regard the management of wild Atlantic Salmon, One of the biggest mistakes I can see is – Even when we now know and accept they’re numbers are way fewer than before, we keep the pressure at the same level and expect things to be the same. Then we wonder why 3 out of every 4 people fishing catch nothing and bemoan the fact that the species are in trouble. My guess is the species aren’t in trouble at all, but are in the process of a major re-adjustment, a time of “natural” low, exasperated by man's gross incompetence and greed! This article I first wrote in 1999 and have updated it. Now we are in 2022 and although generally we have fewer salmon, those now returning are now favouring the spring, for me this is a good sign and one that for many reasons will benefit not only the species, but, if properly managed in the future, those relying on their return. Just why they return in spring and the positives I see in this are a whole different subject and one most definitely for a further article.

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