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Donkin on Fishing - Scotland


May 2006 – Three men and a dog

Salmon Fishing, Scotland

Three men and a dog went to Scotland fishing last month. The team had been handpicked: Jerry for his cooking skills, Will for his Range Rover and Dougie, the West Highland terrier as picker-up and guide.

It was more of an escape committee since I was forced to flee the house when my wife returned from Africa and found various stuffed fish and other angling antiquities that had arrived in her absence. She was barely over the threshold before the storm clouds began to gather.

A welcoming embrace might have calmed things had I not decided to seize the moment, suggesting a display of fine old rods in the hall. Some ideas fall on stony ground. This one was trampled in to unrecognisable pieces. No matter how I describe them – “investments” is my favourite phrase – she does not want them where she can see them.

To rub it in, she was flushed with success after catching some tiger fish in balmy Botswana, whereas I had been fishless and frozen from a brief trip to the Tay in one of the coldest Aprils on record.

My long-planned “lads week” on the Dee was the last chance for a spring salmon this year. It didn’t start well when a hook pierced my waders. It’s amazing how much icy watery water can seep through the tiniest hole, drenching your socks.

How to fish in damp waders? The solution came from John Norris, the Penrith-based fishing shop, where we stocked up with unnecessary tackle on our way north. The plastic carrier bag it came in made a great boot liner, far superior to anything you get at Tesco or Sainsbury; so useful I bought more stuff on the way back to make a pair.

The key to successful spring salmon fishing is a comfy hut with a wood burning stove and gas lights. Our Dee hut had carpets and a sofa. Even the coldest, wettest, most miserable fishless days can be sustained in such a sanctuary when accompanied by a nip or two of whisky.

We had more than a nip on the evening that Jerry cooked haggis for my birthday. Staggering back to our cottage we mislaid the dog while trying to find Cassiopeia among the stars. It turned out that the dog knew where he was all the time which was just as well. Somebody had to guide us home.

It was midweek and still not a fish between us. One of the great challenges about spring salmon fishing – apart from dealing with hangovers - is the variation of water temperature, height and air pressure that makes the fishing more of an exercise in problem solving.

Early in the week we had been persevering with sinking lines and weighted tube flies to get down to the fish until some Norwegian fishers on a lower beat showed me the tiny yellow flies that had been tempting salmon when combined with a floating line. I switched to something similar and caught a fish finally – a beautiful 10lb hen -on our last day when the textbook methods had failed.

Returning the fish earned a bottle of malt whisky from the ghillie. The dog was taking no chances and went to sit in the car.

Sportfish ( had given me some new Irish flies – Donegal Salar doubles – to try out and I did hook, and lose, a big fish with one. They were large flies and I have often wondered if larger flies are more likely to catch bigger fish (although I know from summer fishing that small flies can catch them too).

At £3.50 each they seem expensive, particularly since the cost makes no difference to the fish. These escalating prices have prompted me to photograph my open fly boxes as an insurance record. Whether hand tied or bought singly, it is easy to overlook your accumulated spending on flies. Some anglers I know rely tactically on small but frequent outlays of cash to keep their angling finances under the domestic spending radar.

The conspiracy is maintained in bar room cabals that congregate after a heavy day on the river. On the Dee, the bar staff in our closest pub had introduced a novel phenomenon - the smokers’ lock-in, similar to the old after-hours version - flouting the newly introduced smoking ban in Scotland’s pubs and restaurants.

As the last diner departed, the lock was turned, cigarette packets came out, and the room turned blue with smoke. In this clandestine atmosphere one businessman I met confessed he was spending £50,000 a year on his fishing. But even he had balked, he said, at the £32,000 he had been quoted for a five-rod October week on the River Tweed’s Junction beat at Kelso. If you want one this year, forget it. The beat is fully booked.

The fish themselves are costly too. At £30 a kilo wholesale on London’s Billingsgate market a 10 to 11lb wild salmon would fetch upwards of £200 in a shop. These high prices are bringing back the poachers.

Forget the romance of “one for the pot”. Today’s salmon poaching is organised crime. A water bailiff, just starting his night shift as the sun set, explained that a skilled team in wet suits could make its way down a pool, slipping the catch in to Hessian sacks inside two minutes, leaving no trace of its presence.

The catches are hidden among boxes of farmed salmon, driven south and sold, often to continental buyers who turn a blind eye to the “net caught” origins.

You might think about that the next time you see wild salmon on a menu. Watch out for smoked fish too. You never know how long the poachers have spent in the pub.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved