Nearly a hundred years after Miss Ballantine’s record salmon, Jonathon Muir follows the River Tay downstream, with its many beats, pools and inimitable charm
Jonathon Muir finds out all there is to know about the mighty River Tay, from its mystique to the folklore surrounding it.
The Field‘s Adrain Dangar has a battle of will and wits with the elusive trout of three North Yorkshire streams, where the mayfly abounds and fishing feels a lot like hunting.
Your guide on where to flick your fly and catch the prettiest brownies. Charles Rangeley-Wilson selects the best trout rivers in the UK and Ireland for fly fishing.
THE RIVER TAY
It is late in the afternoon of Saturday, 7 October 1922. A large cock salmon rests in the neck of the Boat Pool on the Glendelvine beat of the River Tay. Some way upstream of the fish, Miss Georgina Ballantine sits in a boat with her father, James, harling a ‘dace’ bait downstream of their position. Conflicting accounts exist as to whether this was a natural dace rigged on a spinning ‘mount’, or rather an artificial interpretation of dace, which we would recognise today as a ‘lure’. As the boat works from side to side across the river channel, it slowly drops downriver with each pass, the bait working away tantalisingly in the currents below. As it wobbles and flutters in the stream, it catches the autumn light, disturbs the calm of the water around it and quietly announces its presence. Unbeknownst to Miss Ballantine and her father, salmon fishing history is about to be written. The fish hits the bait, line peels off the reel and the battle begins, a struggle that would last for more than two hours. As darkness falls, the fish is eventually landed downstream in the Sparrowmuir Pool and, 100 years on, Miss Ballantine’s 64lb record salmon still holds the crown as the pinnacle of salmon angling achievement in the British Isles.
It’s a story that is etched into the folklore and mystique of the mighty River Tay, the longest river in Scotland and the largest river catchment area in the British Isles. The Tay and its many tributaries exhibit a diversity of water, landscape and environment that cannot be found anywhere else in the country. From its recently identified source in a small lochan on the slopes of Ben Lui, water flows off the hills down through the Dochart and Lochay into the vastness of Loch Tay. From here, the main Tay is truly born and this is where, like the river itself, our journey begins.
Look up to the loch from the beach at Kenmore; in the distance are snow-capped mountains and there is a gentle ripple on the surface of the water. Spring salmon are running the river and, for many of them, this vast body of water is their target destination. The top of the Tay system is a fine place to fish in the early season for these hard-running springers, arguably the ultimate prize in salmon fishing. Packed with fat reserves and muscle power, many of these fish simply won’t stop until reaching the loch. A spot on one of the beats just downstream from the loch is a great place to try to set up an ambush.
Upper Farleyer, located between Kenmore and Aberfeldy, is where friend and fanatical salmon fisher Keith Wallington is out searching for his first fish of the season. This beat benefits from being at the junction with the River Lyon, another important destination spawning tributary for spring fish. Wallington tells me that the conditions are perfect for intercepting a springer in the Junction Pool itself. The water is cold, gin clear and running at a perfect height. The River Tay here bears little resemblance to what one sees from the A9 or crossing over the bridge in Dunkeld. Here, the river is small, intimate and streamy, particularly the Junction Pool in which Wallington’s fly is currently swimming.
At this height, the fishable channel is only half the width of the river and the fly is cast towards a shallow gravel bar in the middle of the stream and then allowed to swing round over the slightly deeper water of the main run. About halfway down the pool the fly comes through an area of rolling water caused by several large rocks on the riverbed. It’s a likely spot for a springer to enjoy a brief pause and, sure enough, the line suddenly goes tight and the reel starts singing. After a spirited fight in the fast-flowing water, Wallington has his prize and his first fish of the year – a 10lb bar of silver, which is quickly unhooked in the water and released to carry on its journey.
Downstream past Dunkeld lies the Murthly Estate and resident gillie Tony Black. Black started his career with four years at Dunkeld House but is now in his 34th year at Murthly, which is nestled within the mature, broadleaved woodlands of the middle river. Just below Murthly is the Glendelvine beat, where Miss Ballantine made history. There’s beautiful fly water here, the Island Pool and the Meetings, and the scenery is spectacular. Like many places on the river, as you reach the middle and lower beats, there’s plenty of varied water, including fast runs and deeper pools for those who enjoy a variety of methods.
One day in September 2008, on a variety of methods from fly-fishing to spinning and harling, Black helped me land seven fish, all fresh-run autumn salmon ranging from 5lb to 26lb in weight. “It was my childhood dream to be a gillie on the Tay. My grandfather was head gillie on Kinnaird and seeing all his fishing clients and speaking to them made me want it even more,” says Black. “People ask me what my most memorable fish is and I always say my first one. It was a 9lb fish caught at Dalguise in 1975 with my grandfather – then I lost a huge one the following weekend, and that one sticks in my mind too. I played it for 45 minutes.” This sums up the magic of salmon fishing in a nutshell.
Before leaving Murthly, I sneak a look at Black’s fly box; he is the creator of the well-known ‘Ghillie Fly’, designed first and foremost for the River Tay. “It was created in the early 1990s as a combination of my two favourite flies, the Oykel GP and the Munro Killer,’’ he says. “I think people overdress flies. You just want a slim profile to make your fly almost invisible. The fish see everything.”
Further down the river at Meikleour and Upper Islamouth is the lowest beat on what can be regarded as the ‘middle’ river, located just upstream of the confluence with the River Isla. This beat is an important location for main-stem salmon spawning. It’s another picturesque spot, particularly when looking up at the iconic Kinclaven Bridge. An episode of Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing was filmed there. “They lost two fish that day,” says Calum McRoberts, who has been head gillie for the past eight years, “but it was wonderful to see two genuine friends enjoying themselves.” Beat owner Claire Mercer Nairne has been instrumental in bringing the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board’s official river opening ceremony to the beat each January. “She made it accessible to everyone,” says McRoberts. “It’s great to see so many people attending. We need to do what we can to get more people out fishing.” All the money raised here on opening day is donated to Angling For Youth Development, a wonderful initiative and a testament to those on the river thinking of the future.
From the junction with the Isla and immediately downstream is the Islamouth beat, one of the most productive beats on the river, looked after for the past 29 years by head gillie Billy Campbell. “It’s a natural stopping point because of the junction with the Isla,” he says. “It’s a fairly shallow beat with lots of level gravel, but it holds fish as they stop to decide whether to go up the Isla or carry on up the Tay.” There’s nowhere better to be on the Tay in low water conditions and the pools here are wonderfully suited to fly-fishers. There have been some phenomenal catches on Islamouth through the years (I once caught a 17-pounder from the Sandyford Pool, which took me well into my backing twice). The fish Campbell remembers most vividly was a 32-pounder caught by a guest in 2018. In contrast to the character of the upper river, what makes the Tay special here is the sheer size of it. “I’ll not say it’s easy – you have to know what you’re doing,” says Campbell, “but it’s a forgiving river at times too.” For that reason, boats play a key role as we move towards the lower parts of the river, and many expert gillies like Campbell know their water inside and out. Boat fishing also brings with it some special one-on-one time between gillies and guests, something Campbell relishes.
In contrast to the shallow pools of Islamouth, the character of the riverbed changes dramatically downstream at Cargill. “Cargill is a deep beat,” says head gillie David Godfrey. “It’s all cut out of bedrock.” The deep pools here have plenty of water in them, even in low water summer conditions, which is why Cargill, and Ballathie, with which it shares its water, is a great beat for holding fish, especially big fish, which enjoy the deep pools for security. The famous Pot Shot pool is the only pool on the Tay where two 50lb-plus fly-caught salmon have been landed and there have been countless 30lb and 40lb fish caught here over the years. This pool will still have a depth of 18ft even at low water summer levels. Over the past 20 years, Godfrey and his team have worked hard to build a loyal following and fishers return to Cargill year after year, not only for the great fishing but also for the excellent facilities on offer, including a new fishing lodge. The Cobble Croy pool on the lower beat holds the distinction of having seen more 40lb-plus fish than any other pool on the Tay.
Next Taymount, where the bedrock channel continues to carve its way down the river, forming a fish-channelling trench. Headed up by Cohn O’Dea, Taymount is another iconic Tay beat, rotating between the lower and upper beats that it shares with Stobhall, and is home to yet another huge variety of pools. Some 80% of Taymount’s spring fish come from the Linn Pool. It’s quite unlike anywhere else on the river, a magnificent culmination of channels and streams carving their way through rocky islands and outcrops.
“It’s an extraordinary bit of water; there are rivers within rivers and whirlpools within whirlpools,” says O’Dea. There is a misconception that the Linn Pool is a temperature barrier for running salmon. O’Dea believes the mixture of channels and currents forces fish to look around to find the easiest way through the turbulence. “There’s something for everyone here. There are beautiful streamy runs, easy wading, extreme wading and good anchoring for boat fishing too. I have a mystical union with this part of the river; it has a magnetism about it,” he says. O’Dea is one of the many gillies on the river with a forward-thinking approach to tackle and techniques, embracing the latest in multiple-density fly-line technology and modern, long-winged tube-fly design for patterns that provide plenty of movement.
Dotted between these beats are many more, ripe with possibility. At the Stanley Fishings beats, spread across Catholes, Pitlochrie, Benchil and Luncarty, head gillie Robert White has been fishing with guests for years. The imposing Stanley Mills, originally established in the 1780s and expanded during the early 19th century, are in stark contrast to the river that started its life at Loch Tay. White tells me that giving guests a great time on the water is what it’s all about. “I still have the buzz to catch fish myself, but I get more out of helping my guests catch fish and capturing that moment for them,” he says. “Expectations are different now compared with the past, but the catch is still the ultimate moment. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does happen, you can hear us shouting in Perth.”
From the changing landscape to the multitude of beats, pools and fishing styles this river provides, the Tay offers the salmon fisher so much. Character is embedded into every part of it and the people who make their homes here, caring for the river and its fish, and working hard to adapt to modern challenges, sharing their passion with young and old, visitors and locals. The Tay rightfully has its place in salmon fishing history, but in salmon fishing’s future too.