A famous stronghold of the king of fish and blessed with myriad prolific beats and pools, The River Tweed is truly a salmon angler’s dream, says Sam Carlisle
In October 1938, shortly after declaring that there would be “peace for our time”, Neville Chamberlain repaired to the River Tweed for some fishing; much-needed respite following the travails of bartering the Munich Agreement. Like so many before him, he echoed the angling bard Izaak Walton’s affirmation that “God never did make a more calm, quiet and innocent recreation than angling.” Chamberlain probably chose Tweed because of its reputation as the finest salmon river in the land. It was an auspicious choice.
For much of its length it acts as the border between England and Scotland, and, more than any other river in the British Isles, has been the site of warring and bloodshed. It spills into the sea at Berwick-upon-Tweed, a town so fought over that it changed hands some 13 times between 1296 and 1482. Sadly, Chamberlain blanked on this trip, and soon thereafter Hitler occupied the rest of the Sudetenland, ending hopes for peace.
THE RIVER TWEED – A JOURNEY FROM SOURCE TO MOUTH
Rising among barren hills, about six miles north of Moffat, the start of Tweed’s 100-mile journey to the sea has a modest beginning. The small stream flows through patches of rough grazing and modern conifer plantations. Compare this with other great salmon rivers such as the Dee or the Spey, which rise in the heart of the Cairngorms massif among snow-capped peaks that keep the rivers topped up well into mid-spring, and you might think Tweed lacks the essential wildness that salmon seem to love. But what the river lacks in remoteness, it makes up for in mile after mile of ideal salmon spawning grounds. Across its whole catchment, draining some 1,500 square miles, Tweed provides more ideal habitat than any other British river. It is this abundance of spawning beds that makes it one of the world’s greatest strongholds of Atlantic salmon.
Angling starts in earnest as the river widens into the Stobo valley at Dawyck. While the salmon fishing here can be good – and the trout and grayling world class – it is once the river flows past Peebles that the more storied beats begin. Many have been in the same family for the past three or four centuries. You sense you are following in the footsteps of those who have pursued salmon, for sport and sustenance, before you. Traquair, and its deep Boat Pool, is a fine spot for an autumn salmon in the shadow of Scotland’s oldest inhabited house. It has been continuously lived in since 1107.
As the river widens, beats include Ashiestiel (once home to Sir Walter Scott), the Nest, Fairnilee and the Yair, which takes its name from the old Scots for ‘fish trap’. Monks from Melrose Abbey were granted a charter by King Malcolm IV in 1156 to build a dam here and trap salmon. Being higher up the river, these beats fish best from mid-summer onwards, preferably after a decent lift in the water has allowed the run of grilse and summer salmon to arrive.
The weight of history doesn’t diminish as you work your way downstream. Boleside, the site of the Battle of Melrose in 1526, can be an exceptionally productive beat. Here one of the major tributaries of Tweed, the Ettrick, joins the river. Folklore suggests that most of Tweed’s ‘springers’ are destined for the Ettrick, and although the River Tweed Commission’s scientists aren’t so sure, this didn’t dampen my enthusiasm as a student when I took advantage of the relatively affordable rents during the early season, and successfully landed my first ever spring salmon from the Meetings Pool.
It was here, with the charismatic head boatman Nigel Fell, that I first heard stories about just how prolific Tweed could be. There were tales of fish on every cast and, once, two fish on a single cast. “A guest hooked a fish that wrapped itself round a rock on the far bank,” Fell told me one morning. “So I rowed across, netted the fish and dropped the fly back in the water. As the fly worked its way across the current back towards the fisherman, it caught another.” It was at Boleside, in Glenmayne Pool, that the largest fish from Tweed in recent times was landed. Estimated at 50lb, it was caught on 29 October 2013 on a fly designed by Fell called the Boleside Shrimp.
Middle Tweed stretches from the Ettrick junction down to the famous Junction beat at Kelso, where the Teviot flows in. The legendary salmon angler John Ashley-Cooper said of middle Tweed that its beats “comprise the loveliest parts of the river, with a splendid variety of pools, suitable both for wading and boating”. The three Pavilion beats, Tweedswood and Drygrange, which fish in the shadow of the magnificent Leaderfoot Viaduct, all have productive pools. As the river meanders around Scott’s View it enters perhaps the most picturesque of all Tweed beats, Bemersyde, home to the Haig family for around 1,000 years. The river here is flanked by steep, wooded cliffs, the water fast and streamy, and interspersed with deep holding pools such as Sangsters and Jock Sure.
Tweed then travels past yet another ruined abbey at Dryburgh and its ancient Lebanese cedars, which were allegedly brought back by knights returning from a crusade in the Holy Land. The bottom of Lower Dryburgh meets the top of the Mertoun beats. Mertoun Cauld, which constricts the flow of the river dramatically, provides a temperature barrier during the first few months of spring. In the early part of the season, especially if it has been cold, it is best to focus your fishing downstream from this section of the river.
Of the Mertoun beats, Middle is the most productive. Pools such as the House Stream, where the then owner had three 40lb fish between 1918 and 1923, and Collarhaugh are a salmon angler’s dream: a perfect flow with enough features to make them interesting. As Tweed continues, there are more pools full of character and ideal for the fly, from the Dub at Rutherford with its sandstone cliff on the far bank, to the bedrock striations at Makerstoun, the fast pools of Upper Floors or the Coach Wynd on Lower Floors, which so often seems to catch the first fish of the season.
While the upper beats of Tweed fall 260ft during their seaward passage and the middle beats another 220ft, once the Teviot joins the pace of the river slows, falling only 75ft yet sweeping “in stately curves, broad bosomed… slumbering occasionally in ladylike dubs… at Sprouston, Birgham, Carham and the like”, according to Sir Herbert Maxwell. What stately lower Tweed lacks in dramatic scenery, it makes up for in fishing quality. Bill Quarry, author of the seminal work on Tweed and founder of the Tweed Fishing Museum in Kelso, describes this stretch of the river as “super prime”. Given that it catches roughly half the Tweed fish, this is an apt description.
Slower stretches are often punctuated by old caulds, called dubs, that form faster pools and in spring especially provide a stopping point. Some estimate that 80% of all Tweed springers are caught in this part of the river. Depending on the metric you use, Junction, Sprouston and Hendersyde are likely to top the list of the most prolific salmon beats on the planet in any given year. A little lower down, Birgham Dub could justly lay claim to being the cradle of salmon fishing for sport. In 1743 the 8th Earl of Home caught a 69¾lb fish on a 22ft rod with a horsehair line. It was too long ago and without adequate proof to take the British record but the specificity with which it is recorded, at just under the 70lb mark, means it is probably accurate.
More than two centuries later, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, along with a couple of friends, landed 64 springers on one February day. The flurry of superb beats continues: the Lees, where they landed 61 fish on a September day in 2010, West Learmouth, Cornhill and Tillmouth.
It is this part of the river where one bank is English and the other Scottish, a divide that has seen many pitched battles and spilled blood. Although the river management is under Scottish law, the most recent flare-up was in 2020 when Covid restrictions were lifted slightly earlier in England, allowing anglers on that side to fish. One fisherman landed 15 to his own rod in a day, while the sedentary boatmen on the Scottish bank could only watch.
The beats at the bottom of the river, such as Milne Graden, Pedwell, Horncliffe and the tidal Tweedhill excel in lower water, as the salmon are content to stay in these reaches until a flood allows safe passage upstream. This year, one of the lowest ever recorded, saw some monumental catches, with Ladykirk landing 332 in September.
Alongside warring nations and differing Covid restrictions, the lowest part of the river in particular has seen a historic battle between recreational anglers and those who harvested salmon for a livelihood – the netsmen. At their peak in the 1880s, there were 105 netting stations along the coast and in the river stretching up to Tillmouth. Although netting has now ceased, it is not ancient history. The record year on Tweed was 2010, with 31,321 salmon caught; 8,000 of which were caught in nets. This was when the great autumn run on the river was still abundant.
Up until 2013, Tweed pulsed with bright silver fish throughout November, and it was reckoned that some salmon entered the river on every day of the year. And then, as suddenly as switching off a light, the autumn fish stopped coming. No one knows quite why but the figures are startling. In November 2010, 5,779 salmon were caught by anglers. A decade later only 141 were landed, almost all of which were coloured fish that had arrived earlier in the year. A fall of 98%.
Theories on this dramatic disappearance abound. The most plausible is that this is part of a natural cycle. Our great-grandfathers would have recognised Tweed as a spring river, and it was only from the 1970s that the autumn run began to improve, peaking in 2010. The past 10 years have seen a slight uptick in spring and summer fish, but the sheer scale of the decline in autumn fish remains a concerning mystery. While the scientists fight over the causes, and the anglers debate their own theories from the comfort of the fishing hut, Tweed remains the pinnacle by which all other British rivers are judged. Its ample spawning continues to produce the largest run of salmon, and its pools continue to deliver solace and excitement in troubling times.