Cast­ing about

At your beck and call? Not likely. Richard Donkin ex­plains what you should ex­pect of the mod­ern gillie

Trout & Salmon (UK) - - Contents -

Richard Donkin con­sid­ers gil­lies and what you might ex­pect from them

ARE GIL­LIES worth the can­dle? I’m aware that to ask that question in a mag­a­zine de­voted to trout and salmon fish­ing is akin to Punch car­toon­ist H M Bateman’s “The man who lit his cigar be­fore the Royal toast”. It just isn’t done. But it is. It’s a question dis­cussed fre­quently among fly-fish­ing friends, though never in the earshot of the gillie. It’s some­times mut­tered at the end of a fish­ing trip when some­one will al­ways ask: “What’re we giv­ing the gillie?” Cut to that scene early in the Quentin Tarantino film, Reser­voir Dogs, when one of the gang­sters, sit­ting around a lunch ta­ble, asks the oth­ers to chip in for the wait­ress. There’s a si­lence as Steve Buscemi, play­ing “Mr Pink” says: “I don’t be­lieve in tip­ping.” Pres­sured fur­ther by his friends, he says: “I don’t tip be­cause so­ci­ety says I have to. I mean, I’ll tip if some­one de­serves a tip, if they put forth the ex­tra, I’ll give them some­thing ex­tra, but I mean, this tip­ping au­to­mat­i­cally, it’s for the birds.” A fierce de­bate en­sues about how hard wait­resses work, how it’s one of the few jobs avail­able for women. “This is a hard job,” says Har­vey Kei­tel. “So’s work­ing at Mcdon­ald’s,” says Buscemi, “but you don’t feel the need to tip them, do you?” H M Bateman, him­self a keen fly-fisher, would have found rich in­spi­ra­tion in such ex­changes, not that he needed to look much be­yond the river for his ob­ser­va­tions of snob­bery and the as­pi­ra­tional mid­dle classes. He tended to steer clear of lam­poon­ing gil­lies, how­ever, pos­si­bly through an in­nate sense of self-preservation that seems to have eluded me. Scot­tish gil­lies, then – what do they do and are they worth the ex­tra ex­pense on an al­ready costly fish­ing trip? My salmon-fish­ing year is di­vided about half-and-half, gillied and non-gillied. I of­ten en­joy a gillie’s com­pany, but some­times I pre­fer my own. Should I feel guilty for that? The gillie’s job has been around a long time, steeped as it is, in the semi-feu­dal re­la­tion­ship be­tween the gen­try and their ser­vants. The word it­self is Gaelic for ser­vant. Is that what a gillie is? Not in my ex­pe­ri­ence, though the best gil­lies I know re­tain a ser­vice ethic, so long as we know that they’re not to be treated as dogs­bod­ies. The beauty of gillieing is that the role tends to be fash­ioned by who­ever is do­ing the job. It’s also de­fined by the em­ployer and that is the beat-owner. Pay­ing anglers need to un­der­stand that. The term “your gillie” is just an ex­pres­sion. Don’t go think­ing you’re the gillie’s boss, or that you know best, how­ever much you think you know. Un­less he’s just ar­rived at a beat, he’ll know the wa­ter in­ti­mately at all lev­els. To ig­nore his ad­vice is just plain stupid. Gil­lies want us to catch fish be­cause they know it has an im­pact on the suc­cess of the beat, its rep­u­ta­tion (and by im­pli­ca­tion, theirs) on the river and the price that may be charged for the fish­ing. The job has changed. In the old days, when salmon fish­ing was only for the rich, an angler might have a gillie con­stantly by his side. The gillie would set up the rod, choose the fly, the pool and some­times the fish. I’ve known them do the cast­ing and hook­ing, too, pass­ing the rod to the so-called fisher for the fight. A lot of that has gone. More and more, fly-fish­ers are adding to their knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence, of­ten ty­ing their own flies and find­ing sat­is­fac­tion in read­ing the wa­ter and con­di­tions. They’ll mon­i­tor wa­ter lev­els on­line, check catches and read ev­ery­thing they can to sup­ple­ment their ap­proach. Ask many gil­lies to­day where they learn their stuff and they’ll tell you “from other guys who come here”, par­tic­u­larly the Scan­di­na­vians who have added so much to tac­tics on Scot­tish rivers. Some gil­lies are be­com­ing celebri­ties in their own right, recog­nised by tackle mak­ers as mas­ter casters or fly-ty­ers of re­pute. A few have their own busi­nesses that can de­liver a good liv­ing. Ves­tiges of feu­dal­ism re­main in tied cot­tages, branded tweeds and ar­cane rules on the river, but gil­lies should ex­pect de­cent wages and while tip­ping may be a wel­come sup­ple­ment, em­ploy­ers shouldn’t view it as a com­po­nent of in­come. The work that gil­lies un­der­take for pay­ing rods de­pends very much on what a client seeks from them. If you need some in­struc­tion, a good gillie should be able to help with your cast­ing, but he’s not your nanny. Put sim­ply, a good gillie should en­able you to catch more fish. Now what is that worth when salmon are prov­ing so hard to come by? In these days of catch-and-re­lease, gil­lies are also there to keep us hon­est and to pro­tect the beat. They’re there to re­mind us of the eti­quette we may of­ten for­get. They’re there to make the whole thing work. Gillieing is a spe­cial job and at its best the role is al­most in­de­fin­able. So don’t be a Mr Pink and grum­ble too much about gil­lies. Salmon fish­ing would be so much di­min­ished with­out them.

“Ves­tiges of feu­dal­ism re­main in tied cot­tages and branded tweeds…”

Richard Donkin is a jour­nal­ist and has fished in Nor­way and Ice­land. His favourite river is the Aberdeen­shire Dee

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