The River Dee is renowned as one of Scotland’s finest salmon rivers, with its fast-flowing waters and beguiling pools enchanting the Royal Family for more than 175 years, says Sam Carlisle
Sam Carlisle charts the lure of The River Dee, one of Scotland’s finest salmon rivers, and finds out how it became a favourite with the Royal Family.
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As your mind wanders while sat on the riverbank during a slow day, try conjuring up the perfect stretch of water for the best salmon fishing in the world, says Sam Carlisle.
THE RIVER DEE: A RIVER THAT WON ROYAL FAVOUR
When Christ chose fishermen from Galilee as his closest disciples, it was a statement that the Kingdom of God was run by unassuming men of peace, in contrast to the commanders of the occupying Roman Empire. The bard of angling, Izaak Walton, amid the violence of the English Civil War, proclaimed that “God did never make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling”. And George V, King during the most tumultuous period of recent British history, which saw our empire crumble and World War I wipe out close to an entire generation of men, confessed: “I am never so happy as when I am fishing the pools of the Dee.” Angling and peaceful escapism have been bedfellows since time immemorial.
George V was not the first, nor the last, monarch to find comfort away from the glare of public life on the banks of the River Dee. When Sir Robert Gordon, leaseholder of the Balmoral Estate, choked to death on a fish bone in 1847, it was the opportunity Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were looking for. They took on the lease of Balmoral the following year and began to make Scotland, and in particular Deeside, a favourite home for the Royal Family. They bought the estate outright four years later, in 1852. Seven generations on, it is still cherished by the Royal Family, and fishing remains a thread woven at the heart of their love of Deeside.
Knowing the Dee, this is hardly surprising. From a series of small mountain pools, known as the Wells of Dee, perched at 4,000ft on the upper slopes of Braeriach, this high-altitude start tumbles through the Cairngorms until it reaches the Linn of Dee. Allegedly a favourite picnic spot of Queen Victoria, here the river is corralled through a narrow passage almost 60 yards long, with sheer rock on either side. At its head is one of the few waterfalls on the river. Later in the season, it is a fine spectacle to see the salmon jostling to make it beyond the white water, pushing closer to their natal home.
After the Linn, the river clatters through a series of beguiling salmon pools as it travels past Braemar and Ballater to Aboyne, with the arresting massif of Lochnagar dominating the horizon. In most rivers these upper sections are the least prolific, but on the Dee they are some of the most storied. The great salmon angler John Ashley-Cooper wrote that “there is perhaps a greater length of first-class salmon fishing on the Dee than on any other river in Britain”. Exceptional beats from late spring onwards, towards the top of the river, include Crathie, Lower Monaltrie and Invercauld, Dinnet and the royal beats themselves, Birkhall, Abergeldie and Balmoral.
Downstream of Aboyne, the Dee changes tone, embracing a softer and more pastoral lowland course. It is no less beautiful for this; by mid-April it is a sea of luscious green and in autumn it becomes a riot of colour. There are few moments in salmon fishing as stunning as swinging your line through the Calm pool on Carlogie, first thing on a late-September morning, as mist rises from the river and dawn light catches the mesmeric coppery display that lines the far bank.
The fast-flowing character of the upper Dee continues through the middle reaches, and much of the lower Dee as well. And it is this speed that makes the Dee heaven for fly-fishermen. The current has enough velocity to swing your taut line across the river, seductively fluttering the fly with just the right amount of liveliness in front of the salmon. Anyone who, like me, is devoted to pursuing Atlantic salmon on the fly should remember this when comparing the Dee’s catches with the other major rivers in Scotland. Almost all of the salmon caught on the Dee are caught on the fly. The same cannot be said for most rivers. Iconic middle river beats include Dess, Ballogie and Woodend. The latter’s Moral pool is one of the finest on the Dee.
It was on one of these middle beats, around a century ago, that a major development in salmon fishing took place, further cementing the reputation of the Dee. The beat was Cairnton and the man was the well-to-do engineer from Glassel, Arthur Wood. AHE Wood was a salmon fanatic and, from 1913 until his death in 1934, he leased the fishing at Cairnton Estate. During this time, he landed 3,490 salmon. His enquiring mind was never satisfied with the status quo and, combined with meticulous record-keeping, he set about improving his odds. The prevailing techniques of the era were to fish large flies, the type we call ‘classic’ salmon flies today – elaborate concoctions on 2in hooks. These were cast using untreated silk lines at a shallow angle downstream: swings were short, the silk line sank rapidly and, without much traction between the current and the line, the fly swam slowly.
Wood’s innovations were threefold. In order to cast further across the river, he altered the angle of his cast, aiming more squarely towards the far bank. He noticed that casting across the current increased the speed of his fly and improved his catches. A faster fly had less time to sink and, spotting that his success was occurring close to the surface, he started to oil, or ‘grease’, his silk line two to three times a day with lanolin to aid buoyancy. Finally, he departed from tradition and began using smaller and more sparsely dressed flies. They were more nimble and lifelike as they danced through the river. Three small, consequential steps to how you fish a fly may seem like a minor evolution. But at the time these were radical steps and as the luminary of salmon and sea trout fishing, Hugh Falkus, wrote, “the ‘greased line’ method Wood devised was a brilliant innovation, and every salmon fisherman who sets out today with small fly and floating line is in his debt”. Almost 100 years later, the Dee is still known as a river where the method of choice is a smaller-than-usual fly, fished close to the surface.
A little downstream of Cairnton, the river reaches Banchory, where some of the famed lower Dee beats start. In Banchory itself, the river is joined by its major tributary, the Water of Feugh. The junction pool, on the Lower Blackhall and Banchory beat, is exactly where you want to spend a summer evening. Grilse can congregate in enormous numbers, waiting for a spate that will allow them to ascend into the headwaters. Below this are beats such as Lower Crathes and West Durris, and Park. These have traditionally provided the cream of spring fishing on the Dee. And it is spring fishing that the Dee is renowned for, historically having the largest number of salmon in the first few months of the season of any river in Scotland.
In common with the rest of the Atlantic salmon range, numbers are falling at an alarming rate. Robert Harper has been a gillie at Lower Crathes and West Durris since 1977. “I remember well my second season on the river, in 1978. In February that year we had 119 fish, and in March more than 221.” These are startling figures from halcyon days. The five-year average for February and March now is 16 and 23, respectively. In spite of this dramatic fall, Lower Crathes remains one of the most productive spring beats on the river.
The River Dee Trust is not resting on the river’s former glory or royal connections. Along with all major salmon rivers, it has seen a significant fall in catches, with high levels of mortality at sea. It is at the forefront of conservation efforts, battling to secure a future for the Dee’s Atlantic salmon. Projects include river restoration schemes, which have provided immediate benefits. These have seen salmon spawning in areas for the first time in generations, while providing shelter from predators and improved conditions for invertebrates on which the young fish feed.
Longer-term projects include planting a million native trees in the upper catchment, providing shade and mitigating rising water temperatures, which can be lethal to juvenile fish. The trust has also undertaken a comprehensive tracking project, monitoring the success of the young salmon, or smolts, as they make their first migration down the river and out to sea. The fish are especially vulnerable at this stage, and the results show mortality of up to 40%, with predation a prime suspect. These findings are informing lobbying efforts. Arguing for predator control, regardless of how plainly necessary it may be, is like walking a tightrope, with pitfalls on either side. Government agencies often seem to make decisions based on sentiment over evidence, so robust science is an essential part of the conservationist’s arsenal. Providing this science is a critical part of the trust’s mission.
Fishing such hallowed waters may seem a daunting prospect. While a few beats during the prime parts of the season are already booked by loyal tenants for many years to come, there is a remarkable amount of choice for the visiting angler. From the highest beat on the river, Mar Lodge, to the lowest as the river enters Aberdeen, fishing can usually be secured by the day via online agent FishPal. Aside from during August, when HM The Queen and her family are there, it is often possible to secure fishing at Balmoral.
Deeside, and in particular its salmon fishing, continues to hold a special place in the heart of the Royal Family. HRH The Prince of Wales, an advocate for salmon conservation, in 2015 rearranged his calendar, extending his visit to Deeside by another week to take advantage of the stellar fishing conditions. As children, Princes William and Harry were chaperoned by Tiggy Pettifer, who is now a renowned angler, casting instructor and fundraiser for the Atlantic Salmon Trust. During summers at Balmoral, she helped them learn the intricacies of the sport. And headlines confirm that Prince George has already started fishing lessons on the Dee.
More than 150 years after the area became known as Royal Deeside, for everyone who fishes there the river still weaves a sparkling thread of sport, with its banks a place of calm escape.