Although cold, calculating statistics can dampen a passion for sport, they can be instructive when planning a salmon fishing campaign. For so long we have been conditioned into thinking that foreign is best but, in truth, home salmon stocks are rapidly improving. So why pay high prices and go to all the hassle of flying when you could hop into a car and enjoy salmon fishing that’s cheaper and equally good? We tend to think of Iceland as offering the Valhalla of all salmon fishing, yet the average number of salmon caught there over a 10-year span is just 43,000, compared to Scotland, which is virtually double this at 74,000. Even the much-maligned English rivers come in at 14,000 and the Irish boast a hefty 24,000. Vastly better river management and the removal of nets mean we can expect home statistics to expand considerably in the next decade.
OUTWITTING THAT SPRING SALMON
England and Wales are excellent at the salmon fishing season’s start. Early in the salmon fishing season it is exhilarating to be fishing when there’s still snow on the ground. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing. Simon Evans from the Wye and Usk Foundation has no doubt about what his river offers. “Statistically, the Wye is the best place for spring salmon in March and April in both England and Wales. Wye springers are magnificent by anybody’s standards; 20-pounders abound and 30s are always a possibility. The Wye should still be at the top of any list. And you’ve got 100 miles of river to fish. In low water, look below Monmouth; middling water, look around Ross; and high water, direct your efforts above Hereford,” he says. “You asked about my personal favourite river? I don’t think you can beat the Findhorn for great scenery, location and phenomenal numbers of fish.”
A second wonderful spring river is the Dee, producing between 5,000 and 6,000 fish each year. Tom and Jean Marshall, stalwarts of the Hardy and Greys Academy, are firm advocates of this river. Tom says, “If you’re wanting a new salmon fishing experience, something that’s the very best, the most dramatic, the most unusual, then it’s got to be this – the Dee above Banchory in February and March. It wasn’t long ago that people said you wouldn’t find spring fish so far up but Jean and I have blown the critics apart. I say ‘spring fishing’, but up here they’re winter salmon through and through. In weather this cold, the salmon come up silver as shillings. Catching them is magnificent and challenging. There’s often 2ft of snow on the ground and the water might have ice on it so thick that in the mornings you’ve got to hack it off the pools with axes. You can sit by a fire and wait until the afternoon to fish.”
Tom continues, “You’d think it would be dour salmon fishing but it’s not. A 13ft rod, a floating line with a sink tip and you’re in business. These are short, sharp fishing days, but get some winter sun, and the light over the river is nothing short of magic. If you don’t go for the Dee in winter, try the North Esk in summer – low water, hot weather and [at night]… the salmon are sometimes so close to you that they shower you. Imagine a big salmon hitting you in the pitch black. It’s like being hit with a sledgehammer.”
SPORTING SUMMER STREAMS
So far, we have looked into the classic rivers but now let’s shift our attention to summer, smaller streams. Nick Hart is a guide on rivers such as the Barle, the Lyn and the Exe. “The rivers down here are great to fish,” he says. “You approach them with gear more suited to big trout than salmon – single-handed #7 or #8 rods, intermediate lines. Because you’re so close to the fish and the rivers are so small, the fights are white-knuckle, hang-on affairs. It’s traditional to think of these small rivers as best in the September floods but that’s not always the case. I’ve had guys on the Lyn at the height of summer, and it’s absolutely magical. We’re not just talking about occasional salmon; we’re talking plenty of salmon in beautiful rivers.”
It’s equally good salmon fishing the River Test at Broadlands. I fished there in the Eighties. For any salmon fisherman, the setting is important and Broadlands gives you 4,500 acres of landscape, with 10 miles of river, unbroken by a single public road. And according to the statistics, there are now even more salmon than there were in my day – almost 300 fish in a season is not unusual.
The fishing here has been taken over by Neil Freeman of Angling Auctions. He is hugely optimistic. “The fishing on the Test is definitely better than it was in your day and it tends to begin earlier – from the Wimbledon Fortnight onwards. We actually lost a fish of at least 30lb when Nadal was clearing up last year. Demand has gone crazy, as you’d expect for top-class salmon fishing an hour and a speycast from the centre of London,” he says.
The offices of Fish&Fly are always a good starting point for any salmonid conversation. Editor, Paul Sharman, loves North Uist, saying, “The rivers in the Hebrides are only small but they often produce good annual catch returns. Ten-year averages of 70 or 80 fish might not sound much but you’ve got to remember the rivers are often only a few miles long, and it’s the quality of the fishing that amazes. There are short streams running out into the sea itself, so you’re catching salmon to the sound of the seashore. There are misty mountains in the background and the fish are as silver as freshly minted needles.”
Next, I meet Colin Davidson, Fish&Fly’s salmon editor. “I suppose I ought to say the very best of UK salmon fishing is on the Dee at Cairnton,” Colin says, and continues, “Tweed, too, just can’t be ignored, with an average of something like 12,000 fish caught annually. But I’d go with Paul and recommend something remote, different and romantic. Can I throw in Amhuinnsuidhe Castle on the Isle of Harris? It’s set in 55,000 glorious acres. There’s salmon fishing to die for in the river and the loch. You’re under the flight path of golden eagles. None of it is vastly expensive, certainly not by Scandinavian standards, and catch returns of nearly 200 fish per year are exceptional for small rivers like these.”
So what about autumn? Peter McLeod of Aardvark McLeod is interesting. With the world at his fisherman’s feet, you wouldn’t think he’d want to talk about the UK. “There’s one place for me,” he claims, “I’d pick the back-end of September or early October and go to the Tyne. The valley is stunning. It’s not the most expensive salmon fishing in the UK but it’s a great experience. The Tyne produces 3,000-odd fish annually and always the chance of a 20-pounder. I respect the Tyne as well as loving it because it’s a conservation success story. The river was polluted for so long that nobody expected it to recover as it has. If every river in the UK could do a Tyne, I wouldn’t sell a single trip abroad.”
I’ve fished the Tyne myself at exactly the time Peter recommends and it’s magnificent. In the very early morning, there’s mist coming off the pools, there are plenty of salmon showing and the salmon fishing is close-up and intimate. And autumnal Scotland? My last visit is to guide, Finlay Wilson, from Fish Wild. “It’s either Upper Tweed or the Annan for me,” says Fin. “These are the rivers I’ve known all my life. Everybody thinks of them as true, back-end rivers but for me, the time to be fishing these Border gems is mid September through to October. Needless to say, the scenery is truly spectacular and there’s still good-value fishing to be had if you know where to look. It just doesn’t get any better than casting a fly to fresh fish in that magical autumn light. Both rivers produce large fish every season. I particularly like the Annan’s so-called ‘greybacks’. I doubt these fish are anything more than simple, big Atlantic salmon but there’s a glamour to them – they’re generally over 20lb. I could talk to you about fishing the Laggan on Islay, or the Helmsdale and the Halladale in Caithness and Sutherland, but in the end, it’s always October on the Annan for me.”
From February right through to October and November, there is spectacular salmon fishing available in the UK. The statistics are not wrong; in fact, they tell their own success story. We all love the idea of glamorous trips to Iceland, Norway, Russia and Canada but they are not strictly necessary for the angler who wants good salmon fishing sport. Great Britain provides all the salmon angler could ever want, while avoiding the unappealing hassle of visas, long-haul fights and overcooked cabin food.
Where to go salmon fishing
■ Nick Hart, guide, tel 01398 323008;