That beauty is in the eye of the beholder is as true of salmon fishing as anything else. Here Mungo Ingleby picks his selection of Scotland’s most idyllic casts.
Each and every rod has different reasons as to why they fish. For some people, fishing is really no more than an excuse to be in a beautiful place with old friends. Others fish to find peace or as an escape from the pressures of the modern world. Some have a fascination with the fish or the act of casting and catching. As a result, any list of favourites will likely resonate with that particular rod and perhaps not with others. Some like mown banks and others would leave nature to her own devices. The prospect of a dry spate river can be anathema, while some would rather play golf than fish on the Tay or Tweed. I would never prefer to play golf. One of the great joys of fishing in Scotland is the multitude of contrasting beats and rivers that the country offers and for that reason I have deliberately picked a varied selection. Any list would likely be different tomorrow, and different again when I have hit a spate on one river and missed it on another. Such is fishing.
Naver Beat 1
On another day it might be Beat 2 but the view up and across Dal Mallart towards a snow-capped Klibreck encapsulates everything that spring fishing in Scotland should be. There are no huts, it can be inhospitable, cold, windy and the snow and sleet arrives horizontally rather than vertically but this is all completely and utterly irrelevant. Every day is glorious and, if I could negotiate a certain amount of water with the man upstairs, then my last days fishing might well be right here. Endless pools, each better than the last.
I normally see Wester Elchies in early March, when Speyside is beginning to wake up. The first green shoots can be found in sheltered corners. If snow falls it melts quickly and there is a touch of urgency about nature’s movements. The same can be said of the river and it is a moment in time when the odds of success shift from needle in a haystack to something more winnable. If I was offered one mid-March cast it would be at about 2pm in the tail of the Ryhnd and, if the river was in a generous mood, I would then retire to the old armchairs under the front porch of the Wester Elchies hut. I have yet to find a better place to toast success, drown sorrows or watch the world go quietly by.
The River Farrar, a tributary of the River Beauly, is a little gem that flows through one of Scotland’s most beautiful glens. Significant remnants of the Caledonian Forest hug the steeper parts of the glen and there is biodiversity here that would be the envy of any fervent rewilder. From the Otter to the Cave there must be 80 rocky pools and runs. Some named while others, a quiet run or a softer spot in a hard current, are known only to those who are happy to explore beyond the beaten path. The Farrar is a hydro river with guaranteed flow and weekly spate, and grilse arrive in July. Just 25 cars are allowed up the 15-mile, single-track road every day but rather than daily travel it is far easier to stay in one of the glen’s chalets.
The Dee is a beautiful river, the colour of the water is particularly beguiling and it has a surfeit of glorious places to cast a fly. A favourite is Cairnton. The road to the beat builds anticipation as you pass the Grey Mare, Old Warrior (remarkably still standing) and Ferroch’s before arriving at the stunning hut. On one such drive, and on 1 February, I saw a friend’s bent rod in the Grey Mare. It was the first off the river that Dee season and remains the closest I have ever got to an opening day fish. The beat is quietly smart with a history and rod room (the place where Arthur Wood developed greased-line fly-fishing) that are hard to match. My top tip for the Dee, if the beat is not double-banked, would be to try and take both banks. It is a sensitive river and it is beneficial to have the ability to rest or fish specific pools.
The River Carron is a classic Highlands spate river, tucked away in the centre of the Strath with only occasional glimpses of the water to be caught from the road. Like many rivers north of Inverness, it is spatey in character but, with water, the fishing can be phenomenal. All the Carron beats – Cornhill, Gledfield, Dounie, Braelangwell and Amat – have their own passionate supporters but the Glencalvie falls pool is an intoxicating place. The roar of the falls and the sometimes remarkable number of salmon are a captivating combination. If there was a little water running I would break my reverie and take my rod down to the Gruinards beat, also controlled by Glencalvie, where as recently as May 2019 three rods shared 21 fish in a day.
Inver and Kirkaig
The Inver and neighbouring Kirkaig are two sparkling rivers of contrasting character that flow out of Assynt’s high ground. Suilven, Canisp, Ben More and Quinag dominate the horizon and there are few more dramatic places to cast a fly. The Inver has five two-rod beats and a huge variety of water from source to sea. Fed by Loch Assynt, the river holds and fishes for longer than the neighbouring Kirkaig and its runs of fish are more plentiful. The Kirkaig’s three two-rod beats are steeper, rockier, wilder and in turn the fish run a shade bigger (there remains the prospect of a genuine whopper) and a shade earlier. Both rivers have their devotees but if pushed I might surprise one or two by picking the Upper Inver as my favourite. I love loch fishing for salmon and the beat includes Loch an Iasgaich (perhaps the best holding pool in the river) and views away and across Assynt. Magic.
Thurso, beat 11
Some people insist that Caithness is boring and flat but I wonder if they have ever been. There are other beats and rivers just as remote, quiet and private but I’m not sure that any can match the sheer emptiness of the Upper Thurso beats. We live in a crowded world and this quiet, although it is a natural quiet broken by twittering skylarks and the rustle of wind, is as rare as it is recharging. Beat 11 is far from the Thurso’s most productive beat but acts as the gateway to the true wilderness of the Flow Country. With a drop of water I would expect (a rare word to use in Scottish salmon fishing) a couple of fish and with 18 pools to work through and every chance of not seeing another soul all day it is, perhaps, my favourite.
River Tay: Taymount/Stobhall
I speak to countless rods and, much like Caithness, it always surprises me how many shy away from this great river. It is, of course, a large river but this is its attraction. While different beats might grumble that they want a little more or less water, it is rare for the river to be unfishable. If you have had a bad run of low water on smaller rivers it is reassuring to have Tay dates in the diary. Tay fishing has something for everyone – the expert, novice or social fisher – and Taymount and Stobhall, which rotate, are two of the best. Great gillies, huts, big trees and super big river fly-fishing. I saw more fish in a single July Tay day in 2020 than in the previous five or six combined. Is it the start of a resurgence?
The Bruton Stream is surprisingly well known amongst fishermen as the ‘only’ place in Scotland where you catch salmon in the salt. Not quite the case but the extraordinary character of the place is only really revealed when you are standing beside it. It is both a river and a Caribbean beach and, at the same time, it is neither. If you have been brought up on peaty water and birch-clad banks then it is the most unlikely of places to catch a salmon but, goodness, what a place to try. I have yet to succeed, a handful of bright finnock and the occasional small pollock being my only captures, but the hard, bright sands of Uig and the wilds of Lewis and Harris remain a happy daydream.
When I think of the Brora I think of a blaze of yellow gorse. The upper river watershed is largely untouched by the hand of man. The loch is large and a blessing for the lower river, and the bottom reaches have a wonderful mix of pools: the Madman, Rallan, Ford, Bengie and many more. It is a river that you can relax into, where each tide brings new promise and, as in so much of the Highlands, there is no hurry. A peculiar quirk of the lower river is that fish will run in the lowest of low waters. Is it because they know the loch, and safety, is just three miles from the tide? I suspect so. So there you have it, a list of 10. There are glaring omissions: the Findhorn is staggeringly beautiful; you could make lists that concentrated on the Hebrides, Sutherland or the Spey; the West is grievously under-represented and the Lochy, Scotland’s queen of rivers, is not mentioned. Nor Tweed! I have only fished half a dozen of its beats and there are others who know it far better than I. No matter, it is not a competition. Come May, I sincerely hope that we are all exploring rivers of our own.
Naver – direct to the estates; Wester Elchies 07967970704, wester-elchies.co.uk; Farrar 01463 761285, culligrancottages.co.uk; Cairnton 01224 872702, cairnton.co.uk; Glencalvie 01463 224343, glencalvieestate.co.uk; Inver and Kirkaig 07920724904, sportinglets.co.uk; River Thurso 01847 831641, riverthurso.com; Taymount/Stobhall – direct to the estates; Uig 01851 672396, uiglodge.co.uk; Lower Brora 07920724904, sportinglets.co.uk; Upper Brora 01488 689788, roxtons.com/fishing For Scottish lodge and fishing holidays contact the writer at Mungo@sportinglets.co.uk or follow @sportinglets on Instagram.