Sunday, January 16, 2011

Salmon Fishing Scotland River Tay opening 2011 at Kenmore, Perthshire, Scotland.

This is an article written by Peter Ross in the Scotland on Sunday.
Peter Ross: In tune with the beat.

Published Date: 16 January 2011
By Peter Ross

Another salamon season is ritually ushered in on the Tay where anglers gather for the drug of the tug when a fish takes.

Lee Conway (main) caught the first salmon of the day on the Tay at Kenmore, where the start of the season drew many anglers. Photograph: Robert Perry

THE Perthshire village of Kenmore, early yesterday morning. The drone and keen of bagpipes carries from the historic square across the river to the cloud-shrouded hills. Behind the band, around 100 anglers gather, rods aloft like quivering antennae. This is the opening ceremony of the salmon fishing season on the Tay. Here, as it passes under the old seven arch bridge, the river begins its journey from loch to firth.

Salmon, remarkably, find their way back from the Atlantic to the place in the river where they were born using their sense of smell. What, I wonder, does the Tay smell like at Kenmore today? Damp plaid and tweed, perhaps; tobacco, bacon, whisky and - most of all - hope. Everyone here today hopes to catch a salmon, the first of the season or the best fish, for which latter achievement a trophy is awarded. Mostly, though, people hope there will be plenty of salmon in the water this year. That is what this ceremony is about, at heart - a prayer for abundance. The quaich of whisky poured into the boat from which the ceremonial first cast is made is a sacrifice to the river spirits.

This is a grand event, much loved by regulars, of whom there are many. You might expect the ceremony to attract only the blue-blooded and green-wellied, but in fact there are a great many gallus west-coasters, bringing with them a whiff of the Clyde. Tommy Donnelly, a forty-something railway worker from Glasgow, has teamed a Barbour jacket with a "Baw Bag" T-shirt. He glares heavenward at the teeming rain. "Welcome to Scotland," he says.

Christopher McVey, 31, is a wood machinist from Hamilton, a big, solid man in a camouflage jacket with "Donna" tattooed in elegant curlicues on the ring finger of his left hand. He's excited by the prospect of a good day on the water. "Buzzing," he says. "I love it. The pipe band and all that. That's been seven years I've been coming here. I caught the biggest fish of the day last time. Just down there under the second arch of the bridge. Sixteen and a half pounds. Some feeling."

Kenmore enjoys, if that is the word, something of a rivalry with nearby Dunkeld, which holds a Tay opening event on the same morning. Last year, in fact, Dunkeld is thought to have got a line in the water first, causing some gnashing of teeth in Kenmore. However, the villagers comfort themselves with the knowledge that they have tradition on their side. The opening of the salmon season has been marked here, on the riverbank behind the Kenmore Hotel, since 1947.

At around 9.40am, local ghillie Rob McIntyre is rowed out into the middle of the Tay and makes the ceremonial first cast.

"Ladies and gentlemen," says the master of ceremonies, "the river is now open."

McIntyre is a slender, self-contained man of 63, rather mournful in appearance and demeanour, who has fished this water for almost half a century. He is as rooted in this area as one of the giant firs which cloak the hillside, and - hardly what you'd call garrulous - he is as reluctant to part with words as the Tay is to part with salmon. He gives the impression of being patient, stoic and resigned to disappointment - the perfect qualities for a Scottish angler. "The harder you try to catch them," he says, "the worse it is."

For a variety of hotly debated reasons, salmon numbers have been declining in Scotland's rivers for a number of years. The fish are also much smaller than they once were. It would be wrong to overstate the crisis, however. There were around 12,000 salmon caught on the Tay last year, and it's estimated that around 100,000 went up the river in that period. The Tay, in common with many other rivers, operates a voluntary catch-and-release code in order to help with conservation.

Though he has worked as a ghillie since the early 1960s, McIntyre continues to fish for pleasure most evenings. "It's a thrill to catch one. But I don't keep any now, other than maybe an occasional wee grilse for the pot." A grilse is a salmon that has returned to fresh water after one winter at sea. As it goes through its life cycle, a salmon is known by various names including smolt and kelt. They worsen in appearance as they age. At this time of year, the dazzling silver salmon returning to the rivers are known as "springers".

McIntyre covers six miles of water from here almost to Aberfeldy, helping visitors who have paid for permits to catch fish. He recalls the days when English gentlemen of leisure would indulge their fanaticism for salmon with lengthy pilgrimages to the Tay. "There was one old ex-serviceman, a Major Adam; in April he'd put his car on the train in London and then he'd drive over from Perth. He would stay at the hotel for months, fishing, and then return south for the winter. He did that every year for 20 years or more."

Looking through the Kenmore Hotel's salmon register, a rather battered but evocative leather bound book, it's possible to trace the Major's progress on the river. It's pleasing to notice that on the second of October, 1963, he caught an 18 pound salmon in the Pony Haugh pool, and has registered the fact in his small, neat handwriting. The same names keep coming up over the decades, indicating that for many anglers the journey to the Tay is as much a migratory compulsion as it is for the salmon themselves. As one fishermen told me, "It's not that you want to go fishing. It's that you have to."

Rob McIntyre's name appears often in the register. There is not an inch of his beat that he does not know. Every pool and eddy. Salmon are territorial creatures.

They like to rest in particular deep parts of the water, as if in a favourite armchair, so a good ghillie always knows where to find them.

There are dozens such salmon pools on the Tay, jewels strung along the forty-odd beats. Even a non-angler can enjoy the poetry of their names: The Fiddle, The Gutter, The Gushet; Minister's Stream and Pulpit Rock; Neck of Otterstone, Tail of Clachantaggert, Weal of the West.

The landscape around the Tay, at this time of year, has that sort of dolorous beauty which makes the chest ache. There is something of medieval Flemish painting about it, a rural study in brown, grey and white. Horses huddle in snowy fields, bent over pyramids of hay. On the spasmed limb of a dead oak, a hoodie crow perches in a sulky hunch.

A few miles downstream on the Cargill beat, run by The Tay Salmon Fisheries Company, the river runs fast, brown and high. Mist obscures the legs of the disused railway bridge and ice floats in sheets down the tide, bumping and scraping against the boat as the head ghillie David Godfrey navigates the waters of his beat, pointing out the pools.

Godfrey is 39, has fished all his life, and left a well-paid job in civil engineering to become a ghillie. He loves the whole culture and tradition around angling, is full of admiration for the salmon, and he loves the Tay, as does his colleague Michael Brown, 32. "It's a special river," says Brown. "The Tay's a river to be proud of." The Tay is bigger than the Dee, Tweed and Spey put together, the ghillies like to boast; it has more water flowing down it than the Severn and Thames combined. And see the fish? You can still catch the odd leviathan.

Last year, Godfrey was with an angler who caught and then lost a huge salmon. "It's amazing how losing a fish can affect somebody," he says, shaking his head at the memory of the man's distress. "It was like somebody had died."

Having caught thousands in his life, Godfrey isn't that bothered about actually landing fish. What he loves is "the take" - the jolt the line gives when a salmon is hooked.

"The take is the best bit," Godfrey says. "That's the drug. The tug is the drug. If you could bottle that and sell it, you'd be worth more than bloody Bill Gates."

It is an addictive sensation. A feeling that causes the adrenaline to flow. I see it in action shortly before 10am at Kenmore. On the bank, by the bridge, a line tightens and a cry goes up. Lee Conway, a 26-year-old unemployed electrician from Glasgow, has hooked a fish, and going by the way his rod is bending it's a big one. He plays it, reels it in, and suddenly it appears - a quicksilver flash that makes everyone's heart leap. "Make sure you get it," he yells to Daniel McGuigan, who has the net. "Dinnae f*** this up!"

McGuigan does as he's told. Nets it.

Conway holds his fish, poses for the camera, looking ecstatic. A consensus develops around the weight. "Twenty pound easy. That's a topper." One of his pals has tears in his eyes. "I'm just so chuffed for the boy."

Gently, a little reluctantly, Conway bends back to the Tay and allows the salmon to swim off back into the river. Then he turns, roaring, and punches the air with both fists, a prizefighter in an anorak. Somebody suggests he's a shoo-in for the trophy, that he might as well pack it in now and get a pint.

"Naw, naw," he says, a zealous gleam in his eyes. "I'll keep fishing on, man, and hopefully get another couple."

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That is a really nice, sympathetic take on my frustrating sport, 10 years trying (albeit a few days a year) and still not a fresh fish landed! Well done to the author and all at the opening day....

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