How many anglers, I wonder, heading north through wild country either side of the M74 realise they are bypassing some of the most access-ible and affordable salmon and sea-trout fishing in the land. A westward glance reveals the shimmering mud-flats of the Solway Firth, a landscape famous for wildfowling but also the final destination for rivers such as the Border Esk, Annan and Nith.
The Border Esk is best known for prolific runs of sea-trout that peaked at an annual catch of some 4,600 on the Buccleuch beats alone in 2000. This run mysteriously plummeted by 90% in 2006. But according to the former Esk and Liddle river manager Iain Bell, an Ulster Scot with a twinkle in his eye and a passion for the countryside, there’s been a renaissance in recent years. “With nearly a thousand sea-trout and 450 salmon recorded last season the trend is upwards again,” he says. “Our largest sea-trout arrive by May and the first good tides of June bring in the school fish. The biggest pod I’ve seen this year was over 40. Given the right water conditions, grilse appear in late June and autumn, salmon run from September onwards.”
It’s reassuring to know that good water, a lack of which has blighted countless weeks on Highland spate rivers, is still required to bring up the salmon, though sea-trout have no such reservations. “Sea-trout would run up a wet flannel if they had to,” Iain jokes, before taking me to explore the Buccleuch estate’s picturesque Hollows beat of the Border Esk. The estate has six private beats available for use by three rods, in addition to day, week and season tickets on four permit beats patronised by anglers from as far afield as Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. There’s also fishing on the Liddle, where a day on the Newcastleton beat at the top of the system – described by Iain as “mountain-goat fishing but great value for money in the back end” – costs just £10.
After 20 minutes we find a nice pod of fish in the tail of the Bridge Pool, motionless save for the flickering of fins required to hold them steady in the current, and in water so clear that we can count the spots on their flanks. There are more in shallow gutters downstream and elsewhere in numerous enchanting pools but I am advised that to cast a fly anywhere except into the most turbulent of white water in these conditions would spoil my chances of a fish later under the cover of darkness. The Border Esk in spate brings out local anglers like flowers sprouting in the desert after rain, but few have the time and energy to creep around into the early hours, as I did that night, throwing an invisible line across a blackened stream. I managed a decent brownie and a solid pull at the skinny needle fly Iain had given me before he headed home, as the sun dipped low across hayfields run to seed. I returned to the Cross Keys Hotel, Canonbie, in the small hours having spent an evening enlivened by the plaintive piping of oystercatchers and the noisy splashes of unseen fish.
The River Annan flows into the Solway Firth half an hour’s drive west. I meet fishery director, Nick Chisholm, on a scorching June day at the Annandale estate. “It was difficult to get a day ticket anywhere when the Annan was full of sea-trout in the Nineties,” he says. “Fishermen are loyal to favourite rivers but most drifted away when the runs dried up. We now have a situation where the fish are returning in large numbers but without the former angling pressure.” Catches of sea-trout have improved but it’s the runs of salmon that have been most impressive. Some 2,500 were landed in 2008, up from a five-year average of around 600 in the late-Nineties. Grilse arrive with the first floods of July and the big autumn salmon that are putting this river on the map are prolific from September onwards. Day tickets on most beats are sold on FishPal, although it is again becoming a case of early birds catching worms when it comes to late-season dates. “Salmon tickets become avail-able online at midnight on 1 January,” Nick reveals. “This year I’d sold eight grand’s worth before I got up on Hogmanay.” Not a bad way to see in the New Year, and even more impressive if you consider the top price is £50 a day.
Nick has promised to show me the Hoddom beat of the Annan but he is first keen to reveal one of the river’s best-kept secrets – huge genuinely wild trout that inhabit the upper reaches. I follow him beneath a cloudless blue sky to a pool on the Annandale beat, and within minutes he is pointing out a log of a fish that cannot possibly weigh an ounce under 6lb lying in some 18in of water. On this sweltering midsummer’s day, there’s little point in offering a fly to this monster – spring is the time for that. “We get a great hatch of March browns in April,” Nick whispers. “That’s when our trout fishermen get hold of boys like this fella; we had an eight-pounder earlier this year.” Not bad for a £10 day ticket and well worth a 30-minute detour on the way home from having a crack at a Highland springer. A colony of sand martins is busy on the far bank and Nick tells me these giant trout are quick to grab any fledglings that fall into the water.
Later that evening we move downstream to George Birkbeck’s Hoddom beat, where four miles of exquisite fly water are framed by magnificent mature woodlands – there are 15 day tickets available on this beat, which in 2008 yielded 326 salmon, mostly from September onwards. The autumn colours must be truly glorious but this evening light is fading from sweeping banks of greenery overlooking a river desperate for rain. That has not deterred local fisherman, Dave Nelson, from coming down for a look. “Would you like some company?” he offers, and I spend the next few hours fishing the local expert’s own rod and flies as he wills me to catch a fish in what we agree are near-impossible conditions. The highlight of our evening is not a silver sea-trout but the sight of a bitch otter and two cubs slipping over wet stones into dark waters beneath a sliver of moonlight. After the fly has snagged for the umpteenth time on rocks normally covered by a foot or more of water Dave admits he has never seen the river this low and it is time to call it a night.
My final port of call is the Nith Salmon Fishery Board office, where I meet fishery director, Jim Henderson. “You can set your watch by the main run of sea-trout in the third week in June,” he says, “but the prime salmon months are from September to 30 November when the season ends, although August can be very productive if there is a summer flood. Prices start at around £25 a day, so its not going to cost you an arm and a leg.”
The easy accessibility and affordable cost of fishing this river appear to bear no correlation to the catches a visiting angler can expect. Last year the Nith recorded an impressive 3,309 salmon and grilse, with 1,153 sea-trout also landed. “The Nith is a user-friendly river where no one is going to object if you choose to spin in high water,” Jim explains. “It’s also a river where you will actually catch something.” That something may just include one of the mighty greyback salmon for which the Nith is famous – monsters weighing in excess of 30lb that migrate upstream during the last six weeks of the season and have a distinct gun-metal sheen across a thick, broad backs. “I’ve seen winter redds pulled out by greybacks with an imprint big enough to fit a Land Rover,” Jim says, “These are considerable fish to move such quantities of gravel.”
If you doubt that, ask Sussex countryman, Al Ball, who was once briefly attached to such a colossus on the Blackwood beat. “I saw an enormous bow wave rapidly approaching my fly, followed by a violent swirl,” he recalls. “The fish stood on its tail and shook its huge head from side to side before falling back into the water with a splash that sounded like a donkey had been thrown into the river.” Al knew he’d hooked a fish of a lifetime, but when the giant headed seawards he was powerless to intervene and the hook pulled out. Having fished for years in Norway, Paul Beecher knows a big salmon when he sees one, and he swears the “chunk of telegraph pole” he spotted in shallow water one November morning was the largest he has ever seen, possibly in excess of 40lb. The chance of catching such a monster draws visitors to the Nith each year, but such is their size and power that few are landed, though Jim Henderson netted one for the hatchery that weighed just under 40lb.
Whether you are hunting the fish of a lifetime, chasing spring or summer sea-trout or simply relish the opportunity to fish where the odds of catching a salmon are, for once, in your favour, these Scottish rivers flowing into the Solway Firth answer your call. If you are inspired to break your next journey north by lingering a few days in Dumfries and Galloway, there are many other rivers besides those described waiting to be explored, such as the Urr, Cree, Luce, Fleet and Bladnoch – all of them run by migratory fish.