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Donkin on Fishing - Scotland


1993 - Salmon fishing on the River Beauly, Scotland

Salmon Fishing, Scotland  

He was dressed by Hardy's of Alnwick but it could have been Hardy Amies. Teeth clamped around the remains of a Davidoff, standing waist-deep in clear running water, the fisherman eased back his rod and cast the fly.

He cast with all the assurance of someone who had four salmon on the bank in the time it took to smoke his cigar. They looked like bars of silver-made-flesh, only silver is probably cheaper.

Fishing the Lower Falls beat of the River Beauly in Inverness-shire in July is a heartening experience at a time when estuary netting, drift netting at sea, disease and seals have contributed to a decline in the Scottish salmon. On the Lower Falls beat the fish are there in large numbers, and they are being caught.

There is a price to pay, however: £70,000 for the right to use one rod in perpetuity for a single July week. Stalking potential buyers can be a sport in itself. Further along the bank, a visiting American had rented a rod with a view to buying if his week went well.

Clad in black waders, deer-stalker hat and pale cream waistcoat, he looked part-frogman, part-fisherman. He had flown over on Concorde, lured by the mystique of the Scottish salmon. But would he take the bait? He had caught one fish in three days.

Others were catching bagfuls. Eighteen had been taken on the Tuesday and 75 the previous week, the famous Ferry Pool living up to its reputation. Yet one woman was still inclined to grumble. She had not caught anything that morning.

'I can't understand the attitude of some fishers', said William Midwood, managing director of River Beauly Fishings which owns the beats. Midwood is fishing -mad, comes from a landed background and manages to blend his passion for the salmon and its welfare with the realities of running a salmon river for profit.

The Upper, Middle and Lower Beauly beats were bought from The Hon Simon Fraser, Master of Lovat and son of Lord Lovat, whose family had owned the fishings for centuries, in 1990. The new owners adopted the fashionable late-1980s trend of parcelling-up river beats and selling them in 'rod-weeks'. The stigma of Spanish holiday disasters has led most of the fishing companies to describe their time-share arrangements as syndication, but it amounts to the same thing.

The price that fisheries charge depends on the average catches. The £70,000 asking price for the Lower Beauly beat, for example, was based on an average of seven fish a week at that time of year, or £10,000 per fish. Asking prices are lower at other times of the year when fish are scarcer.

Because some people catch more than others, and because salmon do not always oblige by swimming up the river at the appointed time, the wisest syndicate managers are investing in the future.

The managers of Beauly Fishings have taken something of a designer-river approach, creating lies for fish where none existed. If the water is too low it is raised by the creation of a weir. If the salmon need rocks for a resting lie, they get them. If the fisherman needs a light for his cigar there is a gillie on hand ready to oblige.

Instead of leaving all the returning salmon to their own devices, the gillies spend the winter seeding the feeder burns with fry, hatched from salmon, stripped of their eggs and milt.

The fry are ladled from buckets, one into every square meter of water. 'They soon establish their own territories and do not bunch up in shoals, which is what happens if they are all thrown in together. This way, I believe, they have a much better chance of survival', says Midwood.

His hatchery programme is concentrating on breeding spring fish, in the belief that their fry will also return in the springtime. The Beauly has an extensive feeder system, spoiled partly by the hydro dams which have dried up some of the headwaters.

Midwood is conscious that the company owns 12 miles of the river and not every part fishes as well as the Lower Beat. While Lower Beauly was teeming with fish, only 300 had made their way up the two dams, via twice-daily lifts, to the Upper Beauly where I was fishing . Still, the fish were there, if not so easy to catch.

My salmon fishing experience is basic. Most of it has been spent not catching fish on the River Tay in the spring. The three days spent not catching fish on the Beauly differed only in that I was not catching them with the fly as opposed to not catching them with the spinner or the shrimp.

Just once in those three days a fish rose to the fly, but I managed to snatch it out of its mouth just in time. The gillie groaned, the man from Trout and Salmon magazine groaned also and Midwood groaned too, but I was happy. It has taken many years of thrashing salmon waters to perfect this ability to avoid catching salmon. A long time ago I caught a 23lb fish. It was my first, a big one, and I have not since seen its like.

© Financial Times

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