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Where have our Salmon gone, and will they return.? 


 

Salmon is a species, because of its time spent in the Ocean and danger from many predators [Including Man], rely on safety in numbers.

For reference in this article, I will use the term “Abundance” when talking about safety in numbers.  

"Spawners" refer to every salmon that without man's influence, would have spawned.

 

My mind drifts to a time back in the 1970s, it must be around 1971, I am 8 years old at the time and my father returns to our house in Peterhead with 4 large MSW salmon caught whilst spinning a 2 and ¼ inch brown and gold Devon minnow through some pools on the tiny river Ugie. It’s October, 3 of the salmon are fresh and one coloured. Such a catch would have been standard on most Scottish rivers at this time, especially for a good salmon angler and using this tactic.   

Autumn run salmon were there in good numbers and by today's standards, in many ways, rivers were lightly fished. It would be safe to assume my dad would have been one of only a handful of people fishing this river on any given day at this time. Predators such as Goosander and Cormorants would have been despatched very quickly by bailiffs and anglers alike. As a very keen birdwatcher at this time, I have no recollection of any of those two birds on the river and as for Seals in the river, seeing one of those was almost unheard of. The river teamed with salmon and sea trout. 



Salmon Taken in the 1970s
4 Fish from the Ugie 1971


Six years later my father and I were both lucky and privileged to fish the  Forglen beat, most probably the best on the river Deveron.  

My recollection of the seasons 1977 and 1978 is one of “abundance” of salmon. Not a few in each pool, but hundreds. Most days we fished there we'd be the only two rods fishing as guests of the owner. This would mean all fish caught were given to the house who sold them as a commodity. At this time, all fish were killed, and it was the presumption of everyone involved that, no matter how many were taken from the river, each year, they would return, and the goose just kept laying the golden egg.  

At this time, the Salmon in our rivers belonged to fishery owners, nothing, or no one else! On an odd occasion we would be given the fish we caught.


Salmon being photographed with a boy and dog
8 Potential Spawners from the Deveron in1980.

1980 was an interesting season regarding salmon. The season produced good runs of both, spring, summer, and Autumn salmon, making for an exceptionally good fishing year on most rivers. However, many older heads saw such years as times of natural cyclical change.  

Another most interesting but “man made” change at this time was that of - Changing and updating the wildlife and countryside act. 1981 saw those changes come into place with fish eating and many other birds afforded full protection status. Goosanders are non indigenous and as such had no specialised natural predator, so historically had been “managed” by man. However, after changed to the act, this stopped this stopped, their numbers increasing dramatically and having a significant impact on populations all over Scotland and the UK. As numbers of those birds began to increase dramatically in the 1980s, so the number of Juvenile salmon, particularly smolts migrating to the sea began to decrease, something well noted by those of us working full time on Uk rivers during the period.

It must be remembered too, that on most salmon rivers, scientific study of juvenile salmon did not begin until the mid to late 1990s or early 2000s. Although unnoticed at this time, the period between the late 1980s until 2005 saw the biggest drop off in salmon numbers in every Scottish river. By this time "Abundance" was already under threat!  

That said to the angler fishing this period, on the face of it at least, there still appeared to be plenty. Not until the early 2000s did it become apparent that, in fact, there were not enough, and that “drastic action” was now required. However, with regard “abundance” of salmon, the main damage had already been done and the horse had already well and truly bolted. The goose laying the golden egg, was in fact, already sick.

But what damaged the overall “abundance” of salmon in Scotland? That could not have been anglers, could it?  

No, is the simple answer to that, but to answer the question properly we need to go back to the 1960s. 



A huge catch of salmon on a river
A great catch of fish to one rod in the 60s

 

Overfishing with driftnets at sea was wide scale in the 60s, and the effect on “abundance” began to take its toll. So much so that in 1962 most of it was banned around the Scottish coastline. However, off Greenland and the Faeroes it carries on until this day. By 1968 the number of salmon taken in the Greenland fishery peaked at 850,000 salmon, a figure never to be reached again. From then until now it was all downhill. By 1993, when our own nets stopped on the mouth of the river, Nets in greenland were taking only 20,000. As if a perfect storm, 1968 saw UDN wipe out a huge number of Spawners in most Scottish rivers. Due to technology (advances in netting) Salmon were now being exploited at level never seen before on both ends of their migration. By failing to understand overall population levels, zero regulation, super-efficient modern fishing gear and a greater knowledge, for the first time ever, unwittingly, man was now wreaking havoc on this most amazing resource. 

The thing to remember here is – 

  1. Having no real understanding of the overall population. Guessing! 

  1. No regulation. Time nets were set and their overall length. 

  1. Efficiency of nets. Monofilament. The tools used for catching them.  

  1. Sonar - A greater understanding of where to find salmon. Better Knowledge.  

 

Given this information, it can be safely said that this was the year that saw salmon go into decline in Scotland and elsewhere. However, to the eye of the angler, this loss of abundance did not become apparent until; well, depending on the particular angler's eye, anywhere between the late 1980s and in the eyes of some less experienced anglers, after 2012.  

To those of us who spent all our time on the river through the 80s, the decline was becoming more than obvious.  

On the River Spey in the 1980s, although there were still < > 10,000 salmon being caught. However, by 1987, visionaries, people such as Sir David Wills, the owner of Knockando began to see a need to stop killing salmon, imposing catch and release of all MSW females after July. Based on long term study and a passionate interest in the longevity of the species, he realised something had to be done, he knew numbers were in decline and “abundance "under serious threat. He also knew the result of its loss! 

This was 10 years before it became popularised on the Dee, by which time it was already too late to stop a future dramatic decline.  

We know what caused the overall loss of abundance, but what caused the “dramatic decline” or final loss of abundance in the 1990s?  

For me this was the real frustrating part of the whole wild salmon story in Scotland, Ignorance, greed, apathy and second rate, poorly qualified people.  

Catch and Release was never going to reverse the overall decline, anyone who know about the overall population of salmon knew this. However, it would buy the business of salmon angling a little more time to try and deal with the real issues.  

Although obvious to those of us working on the river, but apparently not to the decision makers, a lack of “action” to stem the loss of spawners through the 1990s, for me was the single biggest mistake and by the time we had the data to prove this the battle to save “abundance” was long lost.  

Referring to the need for releasing fish and preserving enough to provide “abundance”, I would hear Sir David frequently using the term, “a stitch in time”! Unfortunately for those of us relying on salmon for their income and the future of this species, no one listened, instead, they would blame everything except the main things still killing adult salmon, nets at sea and rods in the river.  

Because of what he knew to be a problem, in 1993 he funded the trial of a fish counter on the river Spey. Take note of number one above! Sir David knew the importance of understanding how many fish entered the river and wanted to do something about it. To manage anything, we must first know what it is we are managing he would say. Initially he invested £300,000 on a fish counter for the river. Those receiving the money and hardware failed to make it work, but did manage to spend all this and so much more cash.

Looking back I feel sorry and sad for this, A man of real integrity, who due to his passion and benevolence, wanted to give so much but unfortunately it all found its way to the wrong people. Second-rate people have a knack of chewing up other people's money for no result. How many times have we seen this play out before and after!? 

Interestingly this was the same year the net and cobble were removed from the river.  

Over the years, those nets had caught vast numbers of fish, which, without this impact from man, would and should have saved millions of spawners, thus providing abundance. However, by 1993, the number of fish being caught in the net and cobble was much less than that being caught and killed by anglers. 

 


Netting salmon on the river Spey
Net and Cobble with Finnock fishermen in the backgroud

What was abundance? How many fish made it back to our Scottish rivers in the 1970s to mid 80s? After the Net and Cobble had finished with them, my guess, and I know Sir David’s too, would have been, 4 times that of the mid 1990s, at least 5 times more than the 2000s and at least 10 times more than in 2023! During the best seasons of 1978 and 1980, this figure would have been in the region of 100 –150,000 salmon. By 1993 this would have been less than 40k. By 2023 this will be <>10,000, interestingly, the same as the long term average annual rod catch and until 2015 the figure quoted by the Spey fishery Board as the benchmark for our fishery.  

   

But why did this loss of abundance take place at this time? And why did 1995/6 along with 2003 and 2012 produce good numbers caught to the rod and line?  

 

To answer this, we must look back at what changed with salmon fishing during this time. We need to look at the people fishing. How long they fished. What methodology and tackle they used. Oh, how that seems to mirror what happened in reasons 1 – 4 above!  

 

The first big difference was the number of people fishing. If I go back to Forglen on the Deveron during the years of 1977 – 1980, the beat was fished by just my father and I. It was still normal at this time for private beats to be by invitation only. Two rods fishing 10 main pools, most of which held hundreds of salmon.  

Although my father was an experienced and good angler, the same could not be said of myself. I was young and inexperienced. Transport me back there with what I know and the tackle I have today, and I know I would have caught many more salmon than I did then. Ability and knowledge are particularly important when it comes to catching salmon. Also important is having “enough”, “fresh”, catchable fish in the pools for the number of given rods fishing. At this time on Forglen we had plenty and many days dad and I caught between 3 and 7 salmon in the day, on some occasions, double figures. Many pools went unfished. All we would do was focus on the main ones. If we had the same number of fish today (all things being equal) with the beat fished by 6 proficient rods with modern tackle, I know that this number would be at least double. The fact of the matter was, during this time, the beat and resource was never over exploited by those fishing.  

This was also the case when I began work as a Ghillie at Knockando in the summer of 1985. Most of the top weeks were fished by the owners. Sir David wills would fish all 3 beats with no more than 5 rods. Half the number of what they would be fished by the now growing number of paying guests. Not only this, but Sir David’s guests would fish no more than 6 hours in any one day, meaning that rod pressure on a one-mile-long double bank beat was seldom more than 9 “rod hours” in any 24. Many times I had just one fishing no more than 6 hours.  

Compare that with the four rods renting the beat in the 1990s, each of whom would get their money’s worth and fish at least 8 (32 rod hours), including now coming back in the evening, a much more efficient time for catching fish, particularly in the summer months. Gone was nine to five and in came hunting for numbers. Not only was Rod pressure up by 300% but giant leaps forward in quality of both tackle, knowledge and ability meant rods were now catching a much higher % of the dwindling number of salmon. The loss of tradition groups of anglers on the river Dee in favour of highly efficient Scandinavian anglers in the late 90s was a notable example of this. Rods still killing fish had gone from making little or no impact to the breeding population, to making a substantial difference. Collectively, by comparison to those of the 60s and 70s, anglers in the late 80s until 2000 had become a well-oiled, efficient killing machine and by the time catch and release (C&R) had become widespread practice, had made a serious impact on numbers of spawners.  


Dead salmon strung up for a picture
Salmon in Norway in the 1930s

This was the period the final damage was done, but not only by efficient anglers, the afore mentioned rise in predator populations were also taking their toll during this period, but due to the reasons pointed out above, most of this went under the radar of those looking after our rivers. Although the Dee had brought in C&R in the late 90s, the damage was already done, abundance was already lost. C&R was only every going to buy us time, but what we have done with this time is nothing short of a scandal and national disgrace.  

I look back at what I have seen in my lifetime on the river and ask myself, could we have done anything more to help? If people of major influence, real passion, and desire, like Sir David Wills could not help and the 9th hour, then I am certain there is little we can now do at the 11th. Could it have been different? No, as a species we are just too greedy and when it suits us, enjoy hiding from the truth. For more than 30 years we have known all the above and with 50 Sir David Wills, could have could have done much to mitigate against it. However, instead we have had an army of Benny Hills. Jokers who have chosen to go down a path of simply pretending to help. The fact that the species have now been placed on the endangered list is testimony to those who failed to take note and act on what was happening during the 90s. Once again – For salmon to thrive, they require Abundance! 


An old man reflecting on his younger life
Reflecting! However, after death and taxes nothing is more certain than change.

How does this affect our fishery in 2024? Well, we must lower our overall expectation, we should fish at the time we know there are some “fresh fish” there. We also know that knowledge is important so we should fish with those with the greatest knowledge, good ghillies and guides. Another thing to look for are quiet beats. Places that are not over-rodded.  

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