The successful Macnabbers of 2022 – first-timers and veterans – recount their sporting adventures in pursuit of The Field’s Macnab Challenge
The Field is enormously proud to have started the Macnab Challenge, a sporting endeavour based on John Buchan’s novel John Macnab, which requires skill and tenacity on both hill and river in pursuit of salmon, stag and grouse. The Field’s Macnab Challenge is kindly sponsored this year by Blaser and Sentinel Aviation, a combination bound to see you make it to the hill when you need to be there, and with all the requisite kit to take on the challenge. This year, 10 sporting adventurers followed in those hallowed footsteps and, as ever, their experiences were most remarkable.
“I don’t think we will ever better that day,” says David Rudge, estate manager of the Rhiedorrach Estate. To shoot a brace of grouse, grass a stag and land a salmon all in one day is a difficult task. For three men to successfully complete the Classic Macnab Challenge on the same day on the same estate is extraordinary.
Simon Russell had successfully bid on a Macnab attempt for three Guns on the Rhiedorrach Estate in Aberdeenshire at a charity clay shoot dinner, and invited friends Simon Eastwood and Jonathan Hicks to join him on the day at the end of September. As with most Macnabs, they headed to the river first thing but the Shee Water, a tributary of the Tay, was swollen and the water level rising.
“Having fished the ‘hot pool’, I returned a resounding blank,” says Russell. “I headed to the next pool downstream with the beatkeeper Jamie Ferguson’s words ringing in my ears, ‘We’ve never caught a fish from that pool – they run through it’.” Just 10 minutes later Russell was in the car, with a salmon safely released. Hicks followed soon after and returned a grilse to the river. “Never have I played a fish more carefully,” he remembers. Unfortunately for Eastwood, as he moved down to the spot where Russell and Hicks had been fishing, his salmon snapped the line and the fish had gone quiet, so they decided to head up the hill for the stag and come back later on if all else had gone to plan.
On the hill, Russell set his sights on a beast roaring in the green valley below and with one shot fired at 150m managed to grass it cleanly. Hicks, meanwhile, on the other side of the estate, had been waiting for an old stag to present himself with a clear shot after a “young, enthusiastic stag was trying to wrest the 40 or so hinds away from him”. After half an hour, Hicks had his chance and the bullet found its mark.
On another part of the hill, Eastwood’s attempt had taken a whole new turn for the worse. He missed a shot at the stag 300 yards away, and spooked the beast and his group over the ridge. He made up for it, however, by running a mile to the next ridge with Liam Donald, the headkeeper, to get in position before the group disappeared completely. They made it. The shot was successful and Eastwood followed up with a superb right-and-left on grouse from the first covey that was flushed. It was back down to the river to secure the trio.
Russell was the first of his party to complete the Macnab Challenge, taking his second grouse 15 minutes before Hicks killed his brace. They rushed to the riverbank to lend support to Eastwood who, in pure cinematic fashion, hooked a thrashing salmon and landed it, to the delight of the estate staff and the other two successful Macnabbers. “David Rudge kindly offered the opportunity for us to try to achieve the same again the following day,” Russell says. “But that’s the thing with once-in-a-lifetime experiences – they are once in a lifetime.”
Gannochy Estate has a well-earned reputation for the Macnab Challenge. Estate owner Allan Hemmings and headkeeper Colin Lanyon’s management styles ensure that a visit to Glen Esk is always thrilling. This year Gannochy produced five successful Macnabs, including three in as many days. The three Macnabbers in question were Americans Illinois Blasdel, Aaron McKee and Doug Newman, who were delighted by their achievements.
For Blasdel, who also completed his first Macnab Challenge last year at Gannochy, this second attempt taught him one thing: “The nerves and the pressure do not diminish the second time around.” This became evident to him after landing his salmon and approaching the dogs who were pointing at visible grouse in the heather. “The birds got up and flew high, arching gracefully to my right, which created a perfect silhouette in the sky,” says Blasdel. “I shot twice and watched all of them fly away completely unscathed. Even the dogs looked at me with utter disappointment.” Fortunately, Blasdel was able to recover his composure and promptly shot his brace of grouse at the next opportunity, and finished by taking his stag with aplomb.
“This was the first time I truly understood how difficult the challenge would be,” admits McKee as he recalls the first morning on the water without a hint of a fish. His luck changed on the third day when he was about to reel in for breakfast. “I said to the gillie, Carl, ‘Let me have one more cast.’ As the line swung through the water below a shallow rocky section, it tightened. Carl and I looked at each other and thought we had hung up again on the bottom,” McKee says. “Shaking my head, I started to strip the line back in and soon realised it was certainly not the bottom.” After cautiously playing the fish, McKee successfully landed it, afterwards heading to the hill where he bagged a brace of grouse in short order. The stag took longer to locate but, with the sun approaching the beautiful rolling hills of the Angus Glens, the shot was fired, awarding McKee with his first red stag and membership of an elite sporting club.
There is a general rule of thumb when it comes to a Gannochy Macnab: the salmon must be landed by 1pm. For Newman it was a close-run thing as his 10lb salmon was netted at 12.30pm and he was quickly rushed off to the moor for the chance at a grouse. Almost immediately the pointers presented a single bird, which Newman promptly shot. “I naively thought to myself, ‘Oh, this ought to go very quickly’,” he says. Another 90 minutes passed without success and Newman’s nerves were starting to show as the grouse would either get up almost out of range or flush from a direction he was not expecting. Finally, at 3.30pm, he successfully shot the other half of his brace.
Lanyon and Newman rushed to pick up the stalking apparel and started to crawl towards a stag at 4pm. Daylight was fast fading as they waited for a particular beast surrounded by hinds to stand up. “A couple of hinds winded us and became nervous,” Newman recalls. “We held still, but they knew something wasn’t right and began to trot towards the safety of a ridge. Then all the hinds, with our stag standing behind them, started to move out of our sight at a hurried pace.” To Newman’s good fortune, the stag paused on the top of the ridge to let the last of his hinds pass. The shot was made and the Macnab achieved, completing the third consecutive successful attempt for the group.
After catching a 5lb salmon on the North Esk at 7.40 on a mid-August morning, three-time Macnabber Paul Paré was able to bag a brace of grouse after a steep climb and then went on to search for the stag. “We stalked 2km to position ourselves above and downwind of a herd and selected an older, inferior stag,” he remembers. Grassing the stag, Paré completed his fourth Macnab. “Each time the challenge is a memorable experience,” he says.
Rob Wheal is a new member of the club after he also completed the challenge at Gannochy. It is a mark of how close the three Macnab species are in location at the estate, as Wheal recounts after shooting his stag: “From where we sat, I could see the exact spot where it all started six hours earlier, and further off into the distance where I bagged the grouse. It is a truly fantastic place. I hadn’t left the boundaries of Gannochy but had completed the ultimate sporting challenge.”
When James Arthur visited Glenmuick in September, it was his sole hope that he could catch his first salmon. “In 10 to 15 trips to the Highlands, I have only seen a salmon caught twice. In fact, I’ve shot as many ptarmigan as I’ve seen salmon landed,” he says. The water height of the River Dee was good, and after two hours Arthur landed a 9lb hen fish. “It was a nerve-racking experience but I had a cracking fish to show for it,” Arthur recalls. After catching another 13lb cock fish later on, Arthur asked whether he could try for a Macnab the following day and was delighted to find out he could.
The next morning, Arthur landed a 10lb salmon before breakfast and headed to the hill in search of a stag. They duly found a suitable beast and after waiting patiently for 45 minutes to ensure a safe shot, Arthur squeezed the trigger and the second part of the trio was secured. The grouse proved to be tricky for Arthur. “They weren’t getting up close but they were still shootable; as is often the case, however, they took me by surprise,” he says. After an hour, though, he had his brace in the bag.
At Amhuinnsuidhe Estate in the Outer Hebrides, Blair Crump had spent the previous day performing more than 500 casts without success. “The conditions were good but not ideal, with not enough wind to stir the salmon,” he says. The weather gods took pity and the next morning Crump was able to land his fish. After that the day went smoothly, with the stag shot an hour later and the first grouse in the bag before noon. “I felt confident and energised that I was within minutes of the second grouse but nothing came,” recounts Crump. He walked for another 15 miles over seven hours until finally a lone grouse was flushed and the final chance was expertly taken.
The Field, alongside kind sponsors Blaser and Sentinel Aviation, is delighted to congratulate those who have taken part in this year’s Macnab Challenge. The 2022 roll call of Macnabs have been achieved with the best of skill, sporting tenacity and a sense of adventure but also the effort and dedication of the gillies, stalkers and gamekeepers who tirelessly work to place hopeful Macnabbers where they need to be in the short amount of time available. And don’t forget that all-important dollop of luck.