Friday, 25 November 2011 12:06

The Scottish Fly-Fishing Experience


Scotland must be the spiritual home of fly-fishing. As it is for golf, Scotland is unique in offering the complete package of tradition, etiquette and above all, thrilling and diverse sport. Whether its dry fly fishing for wild brown trout on remote Highland lochs, night-time fishing for sea trout, upstream nymphing for wary winter grayling or rolling out a line for fresh-run Atlantic salmon; Scotland has it all.

The Scottish Fly-Fishing ExperienceThe brown trout fishing in Scotland can be broadly divided between loch fishing and river fishing. On the lochs, we normally fish two to a boat, using all the usual methods, including dry-fly, wet-fly, static buzzers and dapping. Almost exclusively, we use classic imitative patterns such as Greenwells Glory, Kate McLaren, Wickham’s Fancy and CDC. Good brown trout lochs can be found in every part of Scotland, from Dumfries & Galloway in the south to Cape Wrath in the far north west. Personally, I prefer to fish in the stark grandeur of the more remote parts of the Highlands and on the islands of Orkney, South & North Uist and Lewis. For many visitors to Scotland, these places can be slightly off-putting due to the travel time required to reach them, but here you can find real tranquillity, fantastic fishing and a slower, quieter pace to life. If I had to select just one loch over all others it would have to be the Harray Loch on Orkney. The setting is simply spectacular. There can be fewer more sublime experiences than fishing the sedge on a floating line for fat surface-feeding brownies as you drift slowly past the Neolithic Standing Stones of Brodgar, under the shimmering spectacle of the Aurora Borealis. And then, to return to the quintessentially Scottish, Merkister Hotel for a hearty bar meal and a few single malts in the convivial company of fellow fishermen. Perfect.

The trout of Loch Leven are legendary and worthy of special mention. Leven is a vast loch covering over 14,000 hectares in the heart of the Kingdom of Fife, about 45 minutes north of Edinburgh. A relic feature left behind after the last Ice Age, the loch is surrounded by mostly low-lying pastoral and arable land. As a consequence, the water is rich in nutrients and has, over time, given rise to prodigious fly-life.  In this food-rich and somewhat isolated environment there evolved a unique strain of large finned, hardy brown trout. So prized have been these fish that over the course of the last 150 years or so they have been successfully introduced into river systems across the globe; including North America, Chile and Argentina.

Over the past 50 years or so, many of the traditionally less productive brown trout lochs have been transformed into rainbow trout fisheries; particularly in the more populous areas of the Central Belt – that area between and around the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Most notable amongst these are the Lake of Menteith, Carron Valley Reservoir, Portmore, Loch Frandy and Butterstone Loch.

Rainbow trout are not indigenous to Scotland and being genetically triploid, they do not reproduce naturally in our waters. Nevertheless, through careful husbandry and skilful stocking, they provide easy access to exciting sport with big fish. There are now plenty of such waters to conveniently satisfy the appetite of fishermen looking for a significant bend in the rod, but for whom a trip to the more distant, wilder lochs is a less frequent indulgence. Again, most of these lochs are fished from a drifting boat, using a variety of lines and predominantly streamer-type patterns, static buzzers and dry-flies.

The Scottish Fly-Fishing ExperienceWhen it comes to river fishing, as with stillwater fishing, there is an abundance of riches in Scotland. The most famous of all the brown trout rivers must be the Aberdeenshire Don. Flowing through rich agricultural land, the river supports a huge abundance of fly-life. The air above the reedy banks on a warm Summer’s evening is often thick with clouds of sedges, pale duns, spinners and caddis. This relatively small river has everything; boulder strewn streamy water, gentle glides and deep slow-flowing stretches. The most attractive and possibly most productive water is found on the private Forbes Castle Estate water near to the village of Alford in Aberdeenshire.

Scotland is of course, best known for the king of fish; the Atlantic Salmon. But, if you’re looking for upwards of 10 or 20 salmon a day, try Canada or the Pacific North West. If its monster fish you’re after, look toward the mighty Russian and Norwegian rivers. But, if your desire is to experience the real tradition of double-handed spey casting for bright silver Atlantic salmon in a truly historic landscape, then Scotland is for you. This, in essence, is what sets Scotland apart. Nowhere else in the world can you experience such superb sport combined with that unique, traditional atmosphere. So many factors contribute to that sense of tradition. There are the characterful ghillies, the tweed breeks, the dram of whisky in the fishing hut, the world famous fly patterns and the unspoken etiquette of the river.

Some visitors to Scotland are understandably a little trepidatious when it comes to the etiquette. But they need not be. The etiquette is no more than a loose set of protocols borne out of centuries of good manners, consideration for your fellow anglers and respect for your quarry. They are essentially founded on principals of common sense and form an ambience of good will and respect amongst all fishers.

There are four great Scottish salmon rivers; the Tweed, the Tay, the Spey and the Dee.

The Scottish Fly-Fishing ExperienceIt is important to note that all of Scotland’s salmon rivers and most of the trout rivers and lochs are privately owned. This is a feature of land ownership which originates somewhere back in the feudal history of clans and the inherited privilege of English nobility. There is no law of trespass in Scotland and the “right to roam” is embedded in Scots law, but to cast a line requires permission and usually payment.

All salmon rivers are divided into sections of varying length depending upon ownership and the river’s physical characteristics. In many cases one bank may be in different ownership to the other bank. Each section of the river is know as a “beat” and within each beat “named pools” designate particularly productive spots. On all of the best beats there will be a ghillie, employed by the Estate which owns the beat, their duties being to lend assistance and guidance to the fishermen (known as “rods”), ensure that the rules and regulations are adhered to and to maintain the banks.

Of the “Big Four” rivers, the Tweed is commonly recognised as the jewel in the crown. Flowing eastward for nearly 100 miles from its headwaters at Tweedsmuir, this majestic river runs through the historic towns of Peebles, Galashiels, Melrose, Kelso and Coldstream to enter the North Sea at Berwick Upon Tweed. In recent years, a much improved Spring run has helped augment the prodigious “back end” run to ensure its status as the most productive salmon river in Europe.

Under the auspices of The River Tweed Commission (formerly the River Tweed Commissioners) the annual catch on rod and line attained a new record in 2010 with over 22,000 salmon caught. The Commission is charged with the general preservation and increase of salmon, sea trout, trout and other freshwater fish in the River Tweed and its Tributaries, and in particular with the regulation of fisheries, the removal of nuisances and obstructions and the prevention of illegal fishing.

In very broad terms, it is the middle beats from just below Galashiels to around about Coldstream that enjoy the most consistent sport throughout the season. The lower beats fish better in low water conditions and the upper beats only really come into their own after about the middle of September. Most of the beats fish well enough by wading, but many pools on the middle and lower river are covered better from a boat. The Tweed is the most traditional of rivers and fishing is usually restricted to “Gentleman’s hours” of 9am to 5pm.

The Scottish Fly-Fishing ExperienceThe season begins on the 1st of February and runs right through to the 30th of November, with fishing available from Monday through to Saturday. There is no fishing on a Sunday. The length of the season is evidence of the fact that salmon run the Tweed system throughout the year, but the very best months are March, April and May, and then from early September through to the end of the season. From the start of the 2011 season, the whole of the Tweed River system has been total Catch-and-Release for the Spring season. The Spring season is defined as 1st February to 30th June inclusive.

The Aberdeenshire Dee is unquestionably the best of the Spring rivers. Prodigious numbers of large, fresh fish run the Dee from the start of the season on the first of February, right through the Spring and early Summer months. This steady stream of fish is then significantly augmented by the run of grilse and early-run “back-end” fish in August and September. Overall, the river provides excellent sport throughout the season until its close in mid October. Probably the most productive and consistently high-performing beat, and certainly one of the most picturesque, is Park.

The Tay is famous for its big fish. Located in central Scotland and easily accessible from both Glasgow and Edinburgh, the Tay is the largest river in Britain. It was on the Glendelvine beat of the river where, in 1922, Miss Georgina Ballantine landed the largest ever rod-caught salmon; weighing in at an amazing 64lbs. Even as recently as this year, there have been several fish over 30lbs and one at over 40lbs caught.

In my personal opinion, the Spey is the most beautiful of the Big Four rivers and offers the greatest variety of fishing. However, one needs to be careful when selecting the best time to fish any particular beat on the Spey. There is nothing like the consistency of catch returns as one might find on say the Middle Dee. In broad terms, the Spring run is later than on the Dee, with fresh fish only making their way through most of the river by the end of April. The Summer fishing is enlivened by a superb run of sea trout.

In terms of equipment, virtually every beat on all the “Big Four” rivers will fish well with either a 12.5 to 13 foot or a 14 to 15 foot double handed rod. However, if you are more comfortable fishing a single-handed rod, then a 7 to 9 weight 9.5 foot rod will serve you reasonably well on many beats, with the exception of the lower parts of all the rivers, where the bigger rods really are essential to cover all, or most of the water. The usual range of lines and poly-tips will give you the versatility to cope with the full range of river conditions. Personally, my favourite and most-used set up would include both a 14 and a 15 foot Sage TCX fished with the AFS line system; for effortless casting and perfect fly presentation every time, this combination simply cannot be bettered.

When it comes to flies, the advice is simple; buy locally on arrival. Time and time again clients will arrive in Scotland for their week of fishing, having paid no small amount for flights, accommodation and their fishing, and yet they want to use only tired patterns that may have worked for them on Russian or Pacific rivers. This is the worst of all false economies. You should always budget time and a relatively small amount of money to buy at least a small selection of locally tied flies in a range of at least 3 sizes. And, always but at least 2 of each pattern and size – there can be nothing worse than finding the winning pattern only to have a fish destroy your only example!

One final word on equipment; if you have fished outside of the UK before arrival, make sure that you have all of your equipment properly sterilised before fishing in Scotland. In an ongoing effort to mitigate against the risk of contamination of our rivers by the Gyrodactylus Salaris ectoparasite it is an absolute requirement that you are able to prove that your equipment does not present a risk of infection.

The Scottish Fly-Fishing ExperienceWhen it comes to cost, there is a direct correlation between price and productivity. For most beats, catch returns have been recorded for many decades, if not centuries. A simple formula applies a capital value to each salmon caught, based on the 10-year average catch. This value is then used to calculate a daily or weekly rent. In this way, costs are low for beats where the historic catch return is low in any particular week, and they are correspondingly higher for the most productive beats during prime time. For this reason, its possible to pay as little as perhaps £20 per rod per day on a beat where there is very little chance of catching, to over £1,000 per rod per day to fish the very best beat at the very best time.

Finally, Scottish sea trout fishing deserves a special mention; not least because this is the highlight of my fishing season. As Spring slips into Summer, the sea trout which have spent the previous one or two Winters feeding at sea, make their return to the river of their birth. Silver and packed solid with muscle, these superb fish will advance into the fresh water when their urge to spawn and their fitness dictate. Unlike the Atlantic salmon, these fish will run even in low water. However, these are cautious travellers; only moving under the cover of darkness and alert to any unnatural disturbance. It is only as the stars appear and the bats take to the air that we venture onto the water to cast a line and when we do so, it is with absolute stealth.

Every year, I take the first week in July to fish the famous Kinchurdy beat on the Spey. In my opinion, this is the most excellent sea trout beat in Scotland. As the darkness falls we gentle wade into position armed with 7-8 weight single-handed rods fishing with intermediate or sink-tip lines. At the business end, we normally fish a small double on the point (perhaps a silver stoat or medicine) and a dropper tied about 18 inches back from the point. In the best of conditions, when the night is warm and still and the river level is low, the flies swing slowly round in the current until grabbed with a violence that can be astounding. Whereas a salmon must be allowed to turn on the fly, the sea trout take must be met with an immediate and deliberate response. What follows can only be described as exhilarating. These fish will leap into the air like tarpon and strip line with the speed of a bonefish.

Most of the east coast rivers provide sea trout fishing between late May and the end of August, but the quality of the fishing varies tremendously and specialist knowledge is needed to realise the best sport. It should also be noted that a salmon, rather than trout license is required to fish for sea trout.

When it comes to accommodation, there is nothing generic or formulaic about staying in Scotland. The scope of choice is as varied as the fishing. Whether it’s a private castle, traditional inn or a basic B&B, any preference and budget can be catered for. And, you can always rely on receiving a warm and friendly welcome – after all, for many of our American clients, visiting Scotland is like coming home!

Tight lines!

About The Author:

River & Green Fishing Holidays in ScotlandIan Walls is the owner of River & Green who organise tailor-made sporting holidays and sporting breaks in Scotland. Perhaps you would like to combine a few days of fly fishing for trout in Scotland with a couple of rounds of golf at St Andrews, or shoot partridge and pheasant in the morning and go Atlantic salmon fishing in the afternoon? Their personalised service allows you the flexibility to design your perfect sporting vacation in Scotland; the ideal solution for groups of friends, families and sporting clubs.

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