Dee Day landings
Our correspondent accepts a welcome invitation to the opening day on the ‘Silver Dee’, the Aberdeenshire river on which he caught his first fish at the age of five
David Profumo visits the opening day on the ‘Silver Dee’
‘The river is seen as the lifeblood of the community and its pride’
BORN 4,000ft up amid the high corries of the Cairngorms, in one of Britain’s most remote places, the Silver Dee makes its way down from its cold cradle through pines and rowan and royal purlieus for nearly 90 miles until it reaches the North Sea at Aberdeen.
Although I’ve grassed more salmon from other waters, this remains my favourite of Scotland’s larger rivers—not least because, in 1961, I caught my first ever fish here, up at Braemar (Mrs Reel Life thinks the humble Sluggan burn has much to answer for). Since then, I have glittering memories of Deecastle during Easter snow squalls, casting after dinner at Dinnet and Park and nightcaps in the Gin Palace at Waterside. Dee afficionados tend to love her with a peculiar fervour —Augustus Grimble pronounced it ‘the best angling river in Scotland’.
That was back in 1913 and, in its heyday, this was an unparallelled spring river—many estates even hung up their rods in June. One can only imagine what the runs must have been like during those years that Arthur Wood was a tenant at Cairnton—between 1913 and his death in 1934, fishing with a 12ft single-hander, he accounted for 3,490 salmon to his own rod. ‘This is a large number of fish,’ drily observed the great John Ashley-cooper, no fan of the man who pioneered greased-line methods here and required his guests to fish 14-hour days.
Largely because it runs clear off granite and offers shallow, streamy fly water, the Dee remains popular with anglers from around the world—including many Scandinavians, who visit before their own seasons open. However, in common with certain other Scottish rivers, there have been recent concerns about dwindling catches. Patterns of loyalty are also shifting.
Partly thanks to the internet, some sportsmen are becoming more picky and the days are gone when parties would arrive at the same beat every year, irrespective of conditions. Some beats are being significantly underfished and the rod returns are therefore in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This situation was not helped by the annus horribilis of 2015, when just 2,500 fish were recorded (an all-time low) followed by the devastation of Storm Frank over the New Year, which caused the worst floods since the ‘muckle spate’ of 1829, ruining hundreds of local homes and businesses. Is it really a doomsday on Deeside? Last August, I went to find out.
Perhaps more than any other Scottish valley, the Dee seems to welcome you. The river is still seen as the lifeblood of the community and is treated with collective pride by most of the locals—witness the large number of non-angling volunteers who turned out to clear up the bankside in the wake of Frank.
It’s not just that the Dee supports some 500 rural jobs (and is worth £15 million to the economy); you really feel its liquid history and the sense of camaraderie that fosters. Also, the surroundings are peerless.
On a brisk August morning, I began at Cambus O’ May beat in the excellent company of young Craig Mcdonald and we soon had a nice sea trout from the Clarich pool (nowadays, the summer sport on Dee can exceed the spring and the healthy sea trout runs are no longer an open secret). In her lively book A Portrait of the River Dee, artist Mel Shand profiled some 51 gillies with an impressive spectrum of backgrounds—quantity surveyor, oil worker, upholsterer, slaughterman—and Craig is representative of the new breed; an ecology graduate from Edinburgh University, he received one of the River Dee Trust’s annual bursaries and used it to qualify as a professional instructor. There are others like him and I’d say the sport’s future is in good hands.
It also strikes me that the river is very sensibly managed by the Dee Board, whose chairman is the popular and knowledgeable Richard Gledson. Although his day job as Balmoral factor meant he couldn’t join us to fish (I have to concede that Her Majesty must take precedence over Country Life’s fishing correspondent), I met some of Richard’s colleagues over dinner at the excellent Banchory Lodge Hotel and learned something of the issues currently facing the lovely Dee.
River director Mark Bilsby and fisheries development officer Ross Macdonald (the renowned fly dresser) explained that smolt survival was a key issue—their tracking programme seeks to determine why a quarter of tagged smolts never successfully leaves the river—and that funds were better spent on habitat enhancement rather than any hatchery scheme. The trust has built 37 fish passes and planted nearly 56 miles of native woodland to shelter the headwaters. There are signs of improvement, too: the 2016 rod catch was up by 41% on the previous year, but all concede there is still a fair way to go before the river regains its full potential.
I was invited back for this year’s opening-day celebrations. On February 1, in a marquee on the Banchory Lodge lawn, there foregathered some 300 assorted well-wishers to see the river blessed by a libation of Dee dram from a ceremonial quaich and the first official cast being made by comedian and Pointless presenter Alexander Armstrong. (Ross tied me some special flies that I appraised with the star guest; I almost said I hoped the hooks weren’t pointless.)
Then, I was off to historic Cairnton itself, where gillie Brian Brogan was just putting his net under a fresh run 8lb springer— a triumphant start. He had earmarked for me the legendary Grey Mare pool, which Wood often kept for himself, and there, in the grey afternoon light, I landed a bright little kelt, thereby modestly opening my own season.
I’m not sure what ‘the best angling river in Scotland’ actually means, but I do know where I’ll be fishing again this year.
For information about availability of fishing on the Scottish Dee, visit www.fishdee.co.uk. David Profumo stayed as a guest of the Banchory Lodge Hotel (01330 822625; www.banchorylodge.com). For details about Ross Macdonald’s flies, visit http:// macdonaldsalmonflies.co.uk
Clockwise from far left: Deep in the Dee; Alexander Armstrong and David Profumo; Richard Gledson opens events