It’s time to fish the Spey

Ian Gor­don cel­e­brates the river clos­est to his heart as he ex­plains how to make the most of your next trip

Trout & Salmon (UK) - - Contents -

Ian Gor­don ex­plains how to make the most of your next trip

WHEN MOST AN­GLERS think about salmon fish­ing in Scot­land, the first name that comes to mind is un­doubt­edly “Spey” – and for good rea­son. I can’t think of an­other place or re­gion on this planet that uses its name to de­scribe so many of its won­der­ful at­tributes. A gen­uine global brand, Spey is lent not only to the won­der­ful river, but to the wa­ter of life it­self. Spey­side is home to the world’s favourite whisky brands and sin­gle malts. The qual­ity of its wa­ter and air have in­spired song, dance (the strath­spey), rhyme and amaz­ing food. It should come as no sur­prise that two of Scot­land’s most fa­mous food brands, Bax­ters and Walk­ers Short­bread, are also based on Spey­side. Qual­ity also de­scribes the fish­ing. From Fe­bru­ary 11 to Septem­ber 30, the Spey and its salmon, sea-trout and brown trout, along with gillies, cater­ers, ho­tels, restau­rants and tackle-shops pro­vide an­glers from all over the globe with a unique ex­pe­ri­ence. From spey rods to spey cast­ing and spey lines to spey claves, you can­not es­cape the name at the heart of the sport.

Know the river

The river has a catch­ment of 1,158 miles². The length of all its streams is about 22,680 miles, of which the main river is 107 miles, flow­ing in a north-east­erly di­rec­tion from Loch Spey in the Mon­adhliath Moun­tains to the Mo­ray Firth at Spey Bay. Most ma­jor tribu­taries join on the eastern side, drain­ing the Cairn­gorms. About 40 pri­vate beats are staffed by around 50 full-time gillies, each of whom, typ­i­cally, will look af­ter four guests over around one mile of dou­ble­bank fish­ing. De­tails of the beats can be found on my Google map (type in the web­site ad­dress In ad­di­tion, there are eight an­gling as­so­ci­a­tions with fish­ing on the Spey and four on the River Avon. De­scrip­tions of th­ese can be found at www.spey­fish­ery­­spey-an­glingim­prove­ment-as­so­ci­a­tion/ The largest trib­u­tary is the Avon (pro­nounced A’an). With an area of 210 miles², it forms 18 per cent of the en­tire Spey catch­ment and be­cause of its lime­stone ori­gins it’s one of the clear­est rivers in the re­gion. This makes the A’an sought-af­ter by the hunt­ing salmon an­gler who likes to search for fish in wild,

beau­ti­ful scenery. Rods can be 9 ft 6 in-11 ft sin­gle­han­ders or 11 ft 6 in-12 ft 6 in dou­ble-han­ders. Al­though fish en­ter the river as early as March, the river fishes best from May to Septem­ber. It also boasts ter­rific sea-trout fish­ing in the sum­mer months, with fish av­er­ag­ing 3 lb but some are landed up to 10 lb. The other main tribu­taries are the Dul­nain, Feshie, Tromie, Truim, Fid­dich, Nethy, Calder and Druie.

What makes the Spey spe­cial?

Spey wa­ter is pris­tine, with clar­ity pro­vided by rivers such as the A’an and Livet, and peat by rivers such as the Dul­nain. Add the per­fect flow and you have a dream river for swing­ing a fly, from above Gran­town all the way to the mouth at Spey­bay. The river rises, falls and clears fairly quickly, so un­less you are ex­tremely un­lucky and the weather comes from the east, you will sel­dom lose more than one day’s fish­ing a week. An­other en­dear­ing fea­ture is the depth of most pools. Salmon are known to pre­fer lies in wa­ter be­tween 3 ft and 7 ft deep, feeling most com­fort­able in pools with a dark, ma­ture bot­tom. Apart from the last cou­ple of miles be­fore the sea, this per­fectly de­scribes most pools on the Spey. Even in sum­mer con­di­tions you have a fly-fish­ing river made in Heaven. An­other sig­nif­i­cant part of the river’s ap­peal are its gillies. The Spey’s big pri­vate es­tates have a tra­di­tion of em­ploy­ing full-time gillies, a blend of young and old. In times of great change, this pro­vides con­ti­nu­ity, some­thing that I know is liked by vis­it­ing an­glers. Gillies are not only am­bas­sadors for their es­tates but im­por­tantly, given the change in the salmonfish­ing busi­ness brought about by mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tion, through their sto­ries and gen­eral chat they pro­vide vis­it­ing an­glers with an in­sight into the won­der­ful cul­tural her­itage that is salmon fish­ing. In this sense, they are not only am­bas­sadors for the Spey, but for the whole of Scot­land. The pro­vi­sion of long-term em­ploy­ment by pri­vate es­tates on Spey­side has not only helped shape our salmon-fish­ing her­itage, but also en­sures its fu­ture through good times and bad.

“A dream river for swing­ing a fly, from above Gran­town to the mouth of Spey­bay ”

What’s the wa­ter like?

By rep­u­ta­tion the Spey is the fastest-flow­ing river in Scot­land al­though this only ap­plies to the river down­stream of Gran­town. From Gran­town to the river mouth at Tugnet, the gra­di­ent is high and uni­form with a 650 ft drop in al­ti­tude over a river dis­tance of 47 miles. From Gran­town up­stream to Spey Dam the gra­di­ent is much flat­ter with an al­ti­tude change of 190 ft over a river dis­tance of 46 miles. Up­stream of Spey Dam the gra­di­ent in­creases again to the source of the Spey at Loch Spey, which lies at an al­ti­tude of 1,148 ft. The river has a dis­tinct up­per, mid­dle and bot­tom. The two big­gest fish­eries lie at op­po­site ends and are very dif­fer­ent. Beats near Gran­town are tricky to wade over ma­ture black rocks that are per­fect for hid­ing fish still in their sea cam­ou­flage. At Gor­don Cas­tle, an eight-mile beat that is among the most cel­e­brated in the coun­try, the gravel banks are con­stantly mov­ing, the pools chang­ing af­ter each large flood.

When are the best times?

Cas­tle Grant, the fa­mous beat near Gran­town, fishes best from April to Au­gust, with peak times for large, fresh, multi-sea-win­ter (MSW) fish in late May and June. The whole river per­forms well then and I’ve said to many peo­ple over a long pe­riod of time that if pick­ing a month to fish the Spey, with the ex­cep­tion of Gor­don Cas­tle and the Brae Wa­ter, I’d pick the pe­riod be­tween mid-may and mid-june, un­doubt­edly the best pe­riod for catch­ing fresh MSW fish. How­ever, if you’re look­ing for grilse and sea-trout and the most amaz­ing evening fish­ing, then mid-june un­til the end of July would be best and, weather-wise, cer­tainly the most pleas­ant.

Peak fish­ing at Gor­don Cas­tle is from July to Septem­ber, how­ever last year was the beat’s best June since the 1950s. I’ve often said that when the river is in its “au­tumn cy­cle” then Gor­don Cas­tle pro­duces some of the best fly-fish­ing for salmon in the world. One week in 2003 saw a team of six rods land al­most 200 sil­ver salmon in six days’ fish­ing. The 40 rods fish­ing Gor­don Cas­tle and the Brae Wa­ter will catch be­tween 15 and 20 per cent of the river’s an­nual catch with a gillie-rod ra­tio of 1:5, which is close to the av­er­age for the river. Be­tween those two beats lie around 40 miles of ex­cep­tional fly-fish­ing. Tulchan, a mid/up­per beat, is in my opin­ion the only true five-star beat; per­fectly kept and with fa­cil­i­ties sec­ond to none. Its eight miles are fished by up to 24 rods and will catch around ten per cent of the river’s an­nual catch with a gillie-guest ra­tio of 1:6 in the spring and 1:3 dur­ing peak times. Rothes, Del­fur and Arndilly fish 17 rods over the “golden six miles” and, in­cred­i­bly, ac­count for around 25 per cent of the river’s an­nual catch. The gillie-guest ra­tio of 1:2 is the high­est on the river, some­thing that I know helps the catch sta­tis­tics. De­mand for fish­ing on th­ese three beats is high, known lo­cally as “dead man’s shoes”. How­ever, re­cently, rods have be­come avail­able on Rothes via the book­ing web­site Fish­pal. A sign of chang­ing times? In the past, th­ese beats have let them­selves.

“Mid-may to mid-june is un­doubt­edly the best pe­riod for catch­ing fresh MSW fish”

The ben­e­fits of boat fish­ing

Guests fish­ing on the golden six miles can en­joy the lux­ury of be­ing looked af­ter on an al­most in­di­vid­ual ba­sis from bank or boat, should this be needed. With the ex­cep­tions of De­lagyle, Aber­lour As­so­ci­a­tion, some weeks on Up­per Arndilly and Cas­tle Grant (which per­mits spin­ning at the head gillie’s dis­cre­tion in high wa­ter), fish­ing on the Spey is fly only. Spin­ning is not il­le­gal, but dur­ing the 1990s it be­came un­fash­ion­able to fish with any method other than fly. Some would say “good”, oth­ers would dis­agree; the jury’s out. How­ever, what can be said is that more than 98 per cent of Spey salmon are caught on fly. Beats such as Knockando have a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude to­wards fish­ing from a boat. As most Spey beats of­fer dou­ble-bank fish­ing, a boat pro­vides those new to the sport, or those with mi­nor health is­sues, with a safe plat­form on which to en­joy their fish­ing. Boats are pow­ered by mus­cle be­cause en­gines are not per­mit­ted. The boat is an­chored in po­si­tion and the an­gler is dropped down the pool on a long rope, a yard each cast. Dur­ing my more than 20 years at Knockando, the boat ac­counted for at least one third of all the fish caught. But they were often more than just a num­ber: many were a guest’s first fish and they wouldn’t have been caught with­out the boat. Dur­ing th­ese chang­ing times, when com­pe­ti­tion for busi­ness is grow­ing, I see this as an area where the ap­peal of most beats could be en­hanced. Be­cause I could see the po­ten­tial ben­e­fits for my guests, I liked work­ing the boat, chat­ting and hav­ing a laugh, keep­ing morale high. How­ever, on beats where the gillie-guest ra­tio is high, it could be un­fair on other guests if the gillie’s time is taken up on the

boat. It places un­due pres­sure on the gillie, par­tic­u­larly on days where they must look af­ter mixed-abil­ity groups and larger par­ties. The top beats take on part-time staff dur­ing peak times to deal with this.

How much should I pay?

It is a myth that salmon fish­ing is only for rich peo­ple. Many days on the Spey are avail­able for £30-£50 dur­ing March and April, ris­ing to £350 on the top beats in peak sea­son. How­ever, I think the fish­ing that costs be­tween £120 and £180 of­fers the best value for money – if the mea­sure of your day is count­ing fish caught per pound spent. Per­son­ally, as a Scots­man, I like to feel that I’ve had value and those days in March and April spent fish­ing the best salmon beats in the coun­try, when the first of the salmon are ar­riv­ing, and the trout and birds are wak­ing up, re­ally do it for me. To fish such places, with a gillie, for less than the price of a day on the golf course or half the price of a good meal is cer­tainly not for the “rich man only”. That’s to­tal non­sense, a story fab­ri­cated by those with an agenda. You can also fish ex­cel­lent as­so­ci­a­tion wa­ter.

Aber­lour An­gling As­so­ci­a­tion sells day-tick­ets for £35 up to April 1 and £40 there­after. Strath­spey An­gling Im­prove­ment As­so­ci­a­tion pro­vides day-tick­ets for £20 up to March 31 and £55 there­after, pro­vid­ing ac­cess to 6½ miles of the Spey and 12 miles of the Dul­nain. Fochabers An­gling As­so­ci­a­tion pro­vides day-tick­ets for vis­it­ing an­glers from Fe­bru­ary 11 to Au­gust 10 on the lower part of the river, which is not only beau­ti­ful fly wa­ter, but also ex­tremely pro­duc­tive, es­pe­cially when the last of the snow melts and the river be­gins to drop to sum­mer level. For de­tails of Spey beats and their prices, visit my web­site: www.sp­ey­ or visit fish­

Are the catches im­prov­ing?

When­ever there’s talk of the “good old days” ev­ery­one in­stantly thinks there were once mas­sive catches. This is wrong. Weather pat­terns and the avail­abil­ity of food for fish in fresh­wa­ter (ju­ve­nile stage) and salt­wa­ter have ob­vi­ously changed through his­tory, and thereby af­fected the num­bers of fish mi­grat­ing to and from the river. This is clearly demon­strated by the long-term records.

The ten-year av­er­age catch for salmon and grilse is now just over 8,100; with 2,000 sea-trout. The high­est recorded catch was in 1978 when 14,633 salmon and grilse were caught. Other no­table years in­cluded 1977 (13,482), 1979 (14,034), 1985 (12,246), 1986 (12,898) and 1994 (13,071). More re­cently, 2006 (11,378) and 2008 (11,545) were good years for salmon and grilse catches on the Spey. Catches in the last five years are: 2012 (7,490), 2013 (5,780), 2014 (4,563), 2015 (7,728) and 2016 (7,632). This trend, seen through­out Scot­land, is be­low the long-term av­er­age catch of just un­der 10,000 fish. Most an­glers on the Spey, though, are en­cour­aged by the up­turn in catches over the past two years. I’m sure that this will con­tinue in 2017 and over the next few years.

What tackle should I take?

There are five ques­tions to ask when fish­ing any river. How big is it and how much of it do I need to cover (from a boat or by wad­ing)? What time of the year am I fish­ing: spring, sum­mer or au­tumn? Which part of the river am I fish­ing: up­per, mid­dle or lower? And what are the wa­ter con­di­tions: high, medium or low? I can’t an­swer ev­ery per­mu­ta­tion here but I can say that, gen­er­ally, the Spey is recog­nised as a “big” river – in its up­per and mid­dle parts (Gran­town to Craigel­lachie) in spring and au­tumn it is around 50 yards wide and in sum­mer 35 yards. If fish­ing in th­ese ar­eas dur­ing th­ese times, a 15 ft rod will do a good job. How­ever, mod­ern shoot­ing-heads and multi-tip lines can be shot a long way with a shorter rod and there­fore 13 ft 6 in up to 15 ft rods will also be fine. If fish­ing for grilse in low-wa­ter sum­mer con­di­tions, 11 ft 6 in-13 ft 6 in rods will be long enough. Be­cause the Spey is fairly shal­low, float­ing lines with sinking tips are ad­e­quate. How­ever, dur­ing highor cold-wa­ter con­di­tions, in­ter­me­di­ate or even sinking lines will be needed. You can find out more at www.sp­ey­ If I could take only one line it would be a short-head multi-tip.

Should I pack my trout rods?

The Spey is one of the best sea-trout rivers in Scot­land and one of the top three sea-trout rivers in Bri­tain. The best time is the six weeks from the be­gin­ning of June, on the mid­dle and up­per beats, such as Knockando, Tulchan and Cas­tle Grant, as well as tribu­taries such as the Aa’n and Dul­nain. Lit­tle is known about its amaz­ing trout fish­ing. An­glers look­ing for a first out­ing on the Spey will be happy – even amazed – to learn that some of the best trout fish­ing in the UK can also be found here. Dur­ing March and April, trout fish­ing for spec­i­men wild fish up to 8 lb can be ac­cessed by buy­ing a day on a pri­vate beat. The best area is the up­per river from Aber­lour to Aviemore. Al­though there’s no pro­vi­sion for trou­tonly per­mits, ac­cess to a pri­vate beat at this time will cost around £30-£50 per day with a guide for salmon and, from March 15, trout.


1 Lower Spey 2 Fochabers 3 Rothes 4 Aber­lour 5 Mid­dle Spey 6 Aber­lour 7 River Avon 8 Gran­town 9 River Dul­nain 10 Up­per Spey 11 Aviemore 12 River Druie 13 River Feshie 1 2 3 5 4 6 7 9 8 10 11 12 13 THE SPEY ABOVE One nears the net at Del­fur on the lower river. Spey­mouth and Tugnet ice­house which was once used to store net­ted salmon. ABOVE RIGHT


A fine May fish caught at Craigel­lachie. The Lord March pool at Gor­don Cas­tle. Fish­ing the head of the Dip­ple pool on the Brae Wa­ter. A Fe­bru­ary day at Tulchan, ar­guably the best-man­aged beat on the river. A bright Spey seatrout, which av­er­age 3 lb. TOP ABOVE ABOVE RIGHT TOP, FAR RIGHT ABOVE, FAR RIGHT


ABOVE Pouches pool at Knockando.


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