Fish­ing lu­mi­nar­ies

Craw­ford Lit­tle cel­e­brates the lives of his­tory's finest salmon-fish­ers. This month, the early pro­fes­sion­als who knew their rivers bet­ter than any­body else

Trout & Salmon (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Craw­ford Lit­tle re­mem­bers gil­lies of the golden days

HE HAD A BIG heart and a con­sti­tu­tion of iron. Sec­ond to none at other sports and pas­times in the North, his soul was chiefly in fish­ing and most of his time was spent in the wa­ter with­out waders. Ad­mired by many, re­spected by all, trust­wor­thy to a de­gree, good at fish­ing, ex­cel­lent at fly-mak­ing…” That is how Ge­orge Kel­son de­scribed the gillie, Jock Scott, who in­vented the fa­mous fly that bears his name. He was just 15 when he en­tered the ser­vice of Lord John Scott, act­ing as his gillie, valet and even his spar­ring part­ner. Would such reg­u­lar con­tact have made Jock less of a ser­vant and more of a com­pan­ion? One would like to think so. By the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury, the salmon-fish­ing scene was be­ing trans­formed. Pro­pri­etors still let their fish­ing rights to lo­cals who har­vested the salmon with net and coble, or fur­ther up­river with rod and line, leis­ter, or var­i­ous traps and nets. How­ever, vis­it­ing sports­men dis­cov­ered that, for a small charge, the lessees might let them fish with rod, line and fly. Toffs were hap­pily pay­ing to do what oth­ers were paid for. “What a hoot!” as the late Bill Cur­rie might have said. Novice am­a­teurs re­lied heav­ily on the pro­fes­sion­als. And with the rapid growth in the leisured classes, many lairds recog­nised that salmon fish­ing for sport might yield bet­ter re­turns than op­er­at­ing their rights as a purely com­mer­cial en­deav­our. Or that their friends and ac­quain­tances – in­flu­en­tial or oth­er­wise – might ap­pre­ci­ate an in­vi­ta­tion to fish as much as to shoot grouse or stalk deer. So, there was an in­creas­ing de­mand for pro­fes­sion­als both to ad­vise and su­per­vise the vis­it­ing sports­men. Be­cause while ad­vis­ing the fish­ers, the gillie was also there to en­sure, on the laird’s be­half, that they played by the rules, didn’t un­der-re­port their catches and so on. “He will know the river to the very last stone and eddy, and know­ing it, he will be ready and able to guide your wad­ing steps and search­ing fly,” wrote R. N. Lock­head. “He will not, how­ever, be a school-master, seek­ing to bend your style and in­cli­na­tion to his will, but ready to ap­pre­ci­ate your whims and fan­cies, for salmon fish­ing is your plea­sure and not your liveli­hood.” The gillie’s work might be sea­sonal or full time. For ex­am­ple, on many of the rivers in the West High­lands and Is­lands where the best of the fish­ing might be con­fined to a cou­ple of months, gillieing could pro­vide a sup­ple­men­tary in­come for a man who spent the rest of the year work­ing his croft. The full-time jobs were on rivers with longer pro­duc­tive sea­sons and typ­i­cally on the larger sport­ing es­tates. But re­gard­less of where and how they plied their trade, gil­lies nat­u­rally came in all shapes, sizes and tem­per­a­ments – in­clud­ing those who could make or mar the sports­man’s ex­pe­ri­ence. The best of them were – and still are – ex­perts in the ways of fish and fish­ers. If asked, they pro­vided ad­vice on tac­tics and tech­niques. Above all, they worked hard to en­sure their fish­ers were in the right place at the right time to find a tak­ing fish. Ex­pert ad­vice re­quired an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the beat, the pools and the salmon’s be­hav­iour ac­cord­ing to the wa­ter height. As J. Hugh­es­parry wrote in Fish­ing Fan­tasy: “Even on the river that one knows well, each pool has to be treated sep­a­rately, and all one can do is keep an open mind and learn what is pos­si­ble from the spe­cial­ists, al­ways re­mem­ber­ing that the more one is will­ing to learn the bet­ter chance one has of be­com­ing one of the few who can hold their own on any and all rivers.” Sadly, few gil­lies left writ­ten records of their days and ways. One who did was Fred­er­ick Hill, a gillie at Car­logie on the Aberdeen­shire Dee. His slim book Salmon Fish­ing (1948) gives a glimpse of how fa­mil­iar a gillie might be with his pools, and the sort of in­for­ma­tion that vis­it­ing fish­ers would need in that quest to be in the right place at the right time. “The first pool is the Long Haugh which runs from south to north. It fishes well un­til about mid­day, then goes off when the sun is shin­ing straight down the pool; but by late af­ter­noon the sun is now well down the op­po­site bank and

“Sadly, few gil­lies left writ­ten records of their days and ways”

there is again a good chance of catch­ing a fish. It is a very long straight pool with plenty of fish in it when the height on the gauge is 1ft 6in. The first 40 yards does not fish well un­til the river falls to 1ft or un­der. This part of the pool is very fast-run­ning wa­ter with no hold­ing places for fish off the stream. The re­main­der of the pool all fishes well at 1ft 6in while the lower half of the pool can pro­duce fish at a height of 2ft 4in. Over this level the pool is use­less. The fish­ing is very straight­for­ward with an over-all depth of wa­ter of 5ft to 6ft. The wad­ing is very easy.” You might never have seen the Long Haugh, but with Fred­er­ick Hill’s de­scrip­tion to hand you’d al­ready know when to fish it if the sun is shin­ing, and where to fish it ac­cord­ing to the wa­ter height. Cer­tainly, with the wa­ter run­ning at 1ft 6in, you’d feel far more con­fi­dent here than in the Coro­na­tion pool. “It does not fish well from the Car­logie side. Only an oc­ca­sional fish can be got in very low wa­ter. The pool varies ev­ery sea­son with the amount of gravel brought down from above.” It seems its only re­deem­ing fea­ture was that, “It is a good place for sea trout in July.” That aside, when the wa­ter level had fallen be­low 1ft, and with the fisher hav­ing cov­ered the first 40 yards of the Long Haugh, Fred­er­ick might have hur­ried him away to the March pool. “This is a small pool which comes in or­der when the river falls to 10in; 8in is ideal. The an­gler must wade out to the edge of the stream and cast well over un­til the fly is al­most touch­ing the op­po­site bank … It is a very tricky lit­tle pool to fish but a grand place at the proper height of river from mid-april on­wards. In June and July it is spe­cially good dur­ing any very warm spell in low wa­ter...” Some mod­ern gil­lies have learned to keep such knowl­edge to them­selves. And who can blame them? Well into the 20th Cen­tury there might have been just one or two fish­ers on a beat that now takes six or more, and who change from day to day. What is the gillie to say when he knows that just two or three of his pools will fish well in the cur­rent wa­ter con­di­tions? What should he say to the ea­ger fisher he is send­ing to the Coro­na­tion pool, be­cause it’s all that’s avail­able? “It does not fish well from our side. Only an oc­ca­sional fish can be got in very low wa­ter. But off you go and I’ll see you back here at lunch-time…” Changed days and ways, and none the bet­ter for it when one thinks of how things were in the past. I re­mem­ber be­ing hugely im­pressed when I heard, as a young­ster, that Del­fur (on the Spey) fished five rods al­lo­cated to four gil­lies. Three rods got a gillie to them­selves while the head gillie – Wil­lie Main at that time – looked af­ter the re­main­ing two. A cen­tury ago, Ge­orge Mc­corquo­dale’s 13 miles of the Spey was typ­i­cally fished with just three rods, each ac­com­pa­nied by a gillie. Imag­ine the free­dom! In­di­vid­ual fish­ers could con­cen­trate ex­clu­sively on the right pools at the right times. Pools that might have been rested for days and pos­si­bly weeks. Or play golf or catch up on some let­ter-writ­ing if the con­di­tions were less than per­fect, be­cause there was al­ways to­mor­row or even next week for those who were able to fish for months and some­times the en­tire sea­son – or at least the best of it. This lack of pres­sure meant that on many beats there were am­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties for the gil­lies to have a cast – par­tic­u­larly if fish ar­rived early in the sea­son, or af­ter the start of shoot­ing in Au­gust. In­deed, they were often en­cour­aged to fish hard be­cause a fish on the bank was there to sell in or­der to de­fray the costs of run­ning the beat. So, one hears that Tulchan gillie John Cruik­shank had 22 Spey springers in one day. And in 1932, when Dalchroy pro­duced 880 salmon and grilse, the five gil­lies ac­counted for 329, with Flock­hart hav­ing 101 of them. Over the years, the same gil­lies ac­counted for a num­ber of 30lb-plus fish. What can one say? Golden days in­deed…

The far bank is Car­logie, on the Aberdeen­shire Dee, where gillie Fred­er­ick Hill de­scribed the best wa­ter heights and sun po­si­tions to fish each pool.

1923: Gillie John Jel­lis and Doreen Davey with her 59½lb salmon – the record rod­caught Wye salmon.

CRAW­FORD LIT­TLE started fish­ing with a bent stick be­fore he went to school and has fished for salmon at home and abroad for more than 50 years. He has writ­ten seven books, in­clud­ing Suc­cess with Salmon, The Great Salmon Beats, The Salmon & Sea Trout Fish­eries of Scot­land, and The Salmon Fish­er­man’s Year.

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