Fishing in The Borders Bemersyde Estate

A cock pheasant calls out a harsh klaxon as we descend a steep path, kicking up a left-over pizza pungency from the deep bed of wild garlic underfoot. The path opens out to a delightful bend on the River Tweed where a lemon and white fishing lodge stands. The river flows through a steep-sided valley, well-treed with firs and mixed deciduous. Earlier, prize-fighting hares welcomed us to the superb scenery of the Bemersyde Estate and now the Tweed itself looks as though it’s bursting with a whole Billingsgate abundance of fish.

clip_image002 The Cromwell Pool, looking upstream towards Gledswood.

Ron decides to try the fly from a boat. The small stream on the right trickles into the Tweed, marking the start of the pool. Note the built-in seat for casting comfort.

Tickets are available on Bemersyde and 12 other Tweed beats from J.H. Leeming ARICS, Kelso. Tel. (05737) 280. In the low season day tickets for Bemersyde cost £25 plus VAT. In high season prices rise to about £200 and fishing vacancies can be scarce (1992 prices).

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How to get there

  • By car Take the A68 north to St. Boswells and turn right on to the B6404. Follow this road until you come to the B6356. Turn down this road and keep on, passing Dryburgh, until you see the entrance to Bemersyde House.
  • By train The nearest B.R. stations are Berwick and Edinburgh.

In the background Ken fishes the Cromweil from the boat while Ron spins a Yellow-Belly near the tail end of the pool.

You can’t always avoid wading if you want to cover all the possible lies properly. Ron demonstrates the value of a stout wading stick as he shuffles along in thigh-high water. There’s quite a bit of current out there but he takes great care, using his stick to check the bottom before moving on slowly. clip_image004 At last Ken has,a take in the deep water near the far bank. It could be the fish he saw jump in the pool earlier – pausing before moving upstream. This flashy gold Toby did the trick. It had to be fished skilfully at the right speed and depth to pass near enough the salmon to tempt it. clip_image006 Ron gets ready with the landing net as Ken patiently plays the fish. There’s no point in rushing such a valuable prize at this stage. If you’re spinning with a Devon Minnow you’ll find the line often kinks from the twisting action of the lure. To avoid this, try changing your minnow now and again for one which spins in the opposite direction.

When buying your Devons check the angle of the fins to make sure you know in which direction they’re going to spin.

The monarch of the glen – Ken is chuffed with the 8’Alb (3.8kg) springer which fell to persistent spinning tactics. It’s a fresh-run beauty, but bears the scar of a touch of fungus on its head .clip_image008 There’s no pleasure fishing with a ropy line,’ says Ron, ‘It gets your hands and sounds funny going out.’ Ian manoeuvres the boat as Ron wields his Willie Gunn. clip_image010 Minnow with a grinner knot. He keeps all his gear in good condition so he can depend on it. clip_image012clip_image016 Waiting in the boat for the ferryman – Ken Robinson and Ron Duke look forward to a day’s salmon fishing under the guidance of ghillie Ian Farr.

Ron has fished the Bemersyde beat every season for years and knows the river well. Ken, better known for his sea angling prowess, is new to the beat, but looking forward to a joint Geordie onslaught on the silvery Tweed springers.

Outside the lodge Ron and Ken begin to tackle up. They had planned to make an assault on their local River Tyne. But the Tyne has been in flood and the fishing poor.

So they crossed the border for two days on the Tweed. They’ve a better chance of fish here – although there’s not been much of a spring run so far.

A few yards away a promising flow gurgles – the two Geordies can’t wait to attack it. But the Boat Pool has to wait – this morning we’re offto fish the Cromweii.

Our deerstalkered and cherooted ghillie Ian Farr ushers Ron and Ken into a rowing boat. He’s the man with the local knowledge. If anyone knows where the salmon are lying today it’s Ian.

He rows to the other bank. Everybody gets out and walks upstream. At the edge of the river low trees are festooned with what appear to be the huge, scruffy nests of some enormous roosting bird. It turns out to be debris lifted by the flooding river and deposited in the branches. The water level is on its way down now after flood, although there’s still a fair flow coming through.

The sun makes an appearance accompanied by a gentle breeze. A brace of goosanders flies low along the course of the river. Soon we’re in another rowing boat and crossing back to the other side of the river where we confront the Cromweii Pool.

Ron sets up his 15ft (4.5m) hexagonal section salmon rod with a Wetcel 2 line (medium sinking) and an 18lb (8.2kg) leader about 2m (7ft) long. The plan is for both men to fish the same beats in a team effort. Using a variety of methods they hope to get a fish betweeen them – if there’s one to be had. Ron takes the boat first to try the fly rod while Ken fishes along the bank with a spinning rod.

A fish jumps not far away, ‘It could have been moving,’ says Ron, ‘When the water’s high the fish keep running, but you really want them to hold up a bit.’

Ron tries a Gordon’s Fancy. ‘Black and yellow most people call it. You need a heavier cast with a tube fly I think, otherwise it just chafes it and away goes your fly.’

The Fancy whizzes out to the middle of the river where the water is 3.5-4.5m (12-14ft) deep. Ian appears to be rowing upstream but in effect the boat is stationary. He recently did his back in — an occupational hazard – so he’ll be shattered by the end of the day. Nevertheless he skilfully holds the boat steady in the flow, giving Ron a good crack in the best spots.

Meanwhile 100m (100yd) away Ken is spinning – moving downstream gradually from the small stream at the head of the pool to the big oak at the tail end. ‘The thing about fishing is there are so many ways you can do it. It makes the world tick—different ways,’ reckons Ron. He’s into his stride now, bringing a sweet rhythm to his cast. He allows the fly to flow with the current for 30 seconds then retrieves the fine before whipping it over his head to recast. After a while Ron changes his fly for a Willie Gunn -just in case it has the edge.

There’s a rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker nearby as Ian brings the boat close in to the bank, then back to the deeper water.

Ken has reached the end of the beat and seems to be paying a lot of attention to the tail of the pool where the water speeds up.

Ron takes over spinning from the bank, trying to remember the bottom features of the river so he can guide the Devon into potential hotspots and keep out of snags at the same time. Ken gets in the boat to try his luck from the water.

The spring run so far this year hasn’t produced many fish at all. So Ron and Ken try several methods between them to maximize the chances of one of them catching. Because there’s a good height of water, spinning is fancied. Fly fishing is also worth a go, particularly on the shallower runs, and they might try worms later.

Ron’s spinning set-up consists of a 10ft (3m) carbon rod with a fixed-spool reel. He’s using bright yellow 12lb (5.4kg) line, which makes it much easier to follow the path of the lure in the water. The line ends in a ballbearing swivel which joins a 45cm (18in) trace of 12lb (5.4kg) mono. On the end of his trace he attaches a Devon Minnow – it’s a 6cm (21/2in) Yellow-Belly.

On the line above the swivel he clamps a half-moon fold-over lead. In Scotland lead is not on sale, but its use is not banned on all waters. If at all possible, use substitutes such as tungsten – in England and Wales you’ll have to.

Ron’s up to his knees now just 2m (7ft) from the bank, casting his minnow. ‘Some people cast out and start to reel in straight away. I prefer to let the bait swim across the current much the same as a fly, lifting the rod tip or reeling in slightly if it is close to snagging on the bottom. If, at the end of the swing you slowly reel the bait in towards you for a few yards, a fish that has followed it often takes. In slack pools it pays to spin a Mepps type spoon straight across at a steady pace. You can’t fish all lies in the conventional way.’

As he spins he hums. Ron is a bit of a singer in his own right – the Gosforth Crooner. He particularly enjoys singingfolk songs in pubs and clubs around Newcastle. ‘If there’s fish we’re covering them. You can fish all morning with no sign, then all of a sudden a batch offish comes in.’

Ideally they want to see some evidence of lean Tweed springers, although there’s a fair chance of catching a kelt too – surviving fish that are seabound again after spawning. You have to put these spent fish back though. ‘You can have good fun with the kelts. Some of them are better than the salmon. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the kelts from the fresh fish. I don’t think the salmon here are as full-bodied as they used to be,’ Ron reminisces. ‘When you’ve fished for years and caught plenty, catching is not too important, though I like it. It’s the fishing – doing it that’s important.’ And Ron certainly does it. When he’s not warbling, or working at I.D. Fishing in Newcastle, he likes nothing better than nailing the grayling in winter, or competition fishing for trout on waters like Grafham – he’s an angling fanatic.

There’s no sign of a salmon yet, but spirits are still high. Ron hits the nail on the head when he suggests breaking for ‘a little bit of tiffin’ before making a fresh attack on the Boat Pool.

Ken and Ron approach a bend in the river for an afternoon session. A small deer delivers a buttocky semaphore with its flashing white rump as it runs along the high ridge on the far bank.

Ken decides to try a wad of worm on his hook while Ron sticks with the minnow. Both men choose to fish from the same bank – which is easier to fish from and provides a better chance to probe the deeper water near the far bank.

There’s a reef in the middle of the river where Ron is fishing about 30m (33yd) downstream of Ken. ‘You can’t see it in this height of water but often the fish are just on the other side of it. But it’s easy to get stuck. ‘You need a year to get to know a river like this – see it at different heights.’ But Ron knows this stretch pretty well, casting right to the far bank and bringing the minnow round with the flow just over the top of the reef where it might tempt a fish.

After a while both Ken and Ron change to flashy Tobies, casting the spinners across the river slightly downstream, and bringing them round in the current so they fish at the right depth and speed in the likely taking zones. They don’t wind in the lures until they have completed their entire path across the river and fished for a while at the edge of the near bank.

A big fish surfaces in the middle of the river. It could be a big sea trout or a salmon on a goading mission.

The wind is getting up now and there’s a chop on the water. There’s also a lot more cloud cover.

Moving along the pool Ken and Ron try to cover all lies with their spinners, then walk back to the head of the pool and start again. Halfway down the second descent there’s a big splash as Ken shouts ‘Fish!’ ‘That’s no kelt,’ says Ron, walking upstream towards the action.

Ken plays the fish, letting it go downstream a few yards then winding in when he can. The fish splashes about 6m (20ft) out as Ken applies pressure. ‘A typical Tweed springer – champion,’ says Ron as the fish comes gleaming to the the shallow water near the bank.

The fish doesn’t like what it sees and takes off again for deeper water. Ken bides his time until the fish is ready. Keeping the tension on, he draws it close to the stony spit at the bend of the river. Ron is waiting with the landing net and eventually he scoops out a fine Tweed springer. ‘It wasn’t going anywhere, that fish,’ says Ron. ‘Ken caught it on his cheapest Toby — an imitation Toby,’ he adds with irony. In fact the fresh-run fish was tempted from a He which had been well covered by both anglers.

On closer inspection the salmon, although fighting fit and silvery, bears a few scars. One mark on its head shows an ulcer beginning to heal. Ian explains how the salmon disease UDN (ulcerative dermal necrosis) can affect the fishing: ‘The salmon lose a bit of enthusiasm when the disease has them. But when the ulcers start to heal they seem to pick up and then they will have a go.’ Ken’s 81/2 lb (3.8kg) springer was certainly feeling well enough to have a go at his gold Toby – even if Ken did have to convince the fish on his second bid.

Ken’s fine salmon was the only one of the day taken on Bemersyde. It has given Ron and Ken a great Tweed taster — which they hope to repeat on the second day of their spring spree.

A car turns in to the courtyard of the big house – Bemersyde House to be precise. The atmosphere of the place is Lorna Doone with a touch of Abbot and Costello meets the werewolf thrown in. Ken and Ron emerge from the car feeling fairly fresh and raring to go – thanks to swinging the sporran in moderation the night before. Ghillie Ian Fair informs the anglers that they’re to fish the Woodside beat today.

beautiful salmonConditions on the Woodside beatfly and spinnerFlying Cfresh run springer in lovely conditionin contact with the fishmany fish coming through the River Tweedriver with strong currentssmooth casting actionTweed salmonTweed spring fish

At the fishing lodge Ken and Ron set up spinning and fly rods and head downstream along a narrow path through woodland of pine, elm, birch and ash. Woodside starts with a run of fast water below the Boat Pool and descends in a fairly straight stretch. On the Bemersyde bank small, man-made rocky promontories or ‘croys’ provide casting points and sheltered zones for today’s target – Tweed salmon.

It’s not long before Ken and Ron are getting stuck in. Well spaced on the Bemersyde bank, they cast Toby lures into the strong flow and bring them round in the current. It’s a fresh day with quite a strong wind blowing although it’s dull.

The water is just about right for this beat and with luck some springers are moving upstream and, they hope, resting a while at Woodside. ‘River beds change a bit and create different lies, but we’ll just keep covering as much water as we can,’ says Ron, trying to locate the salmon lies.

It was Ken who had a fine fish the day before so he’s starting off with the proven Toby on a 60cm (2ft) trace of 12lb (5.4kg) mono with 12lb (5.4kg) main line. He may go up to 15lb (6.8kg) for his trace to cope with the rocks. Tweed springers tend to be smallish fish between 6-12lb (2.7-5.4kg) with the odd bigger one, so Ken doesn’t need heavier fine as he might for bigger salmon. Again he’s using the quick-change pierced bullet attached to the swivel by fuse wire.

The first sign of salmon is the coppery back of a dark-looking fish breaking the surface 12-15lb line’ only 2m (7ft) out from the bank – a kelt perhaps. But shortly afterwards a shinier, more vigorous jump causes excitement nearer the far bank. Ken moves a little way back upstream to try and guide the Toby into the springer’s path. The fish surfaces again and doesn’t appear to be in any rush to continue up the river – but Ken’s lure remains untouched.

Ken decides he can cover the water better from the other bank so he winds in and takes the rowing boat to the other side. From this bank he can now probe just where he wants with his spinner. Meanwhile Ron changes to the fly and casts from the croys to a spot where a fish has been showing itself. He explains how he reacts to a take on the fly:’ I always fish the fly with various kinds of sinking line and strike as the fish takes, keeping the strike low and pulling the rod in towards the bank. Fishing with a sinking line is a bit like spinning – if you strike upwards the fish usually comes off. Unfortunately you can’t always avoid it if you’re dreaming away or chatting to the ghillie when you get a sudden take.’

The Tweed is receiving a double broadside -from an enthusiastic Geordie on either bank. Gradually the pair move downstream, making sure they cover the whole pool. Ron switches back to the Toby and Ken changes to an orange Flying Condom, just in case a different sort of movement stimulates a take. The blade and rubber skirt of the small Flying ‘C create a lot of vibration in the water but still nothing wants to have a go at it.

Toby, Condom, fly, minnow you name it. Ken and Ron give everything a crack — everything allowed on this beat, that is. Fishing the prawn or shrimp was recently stopped here, so they’ve avoided using that method. Regulations imposed by beat owners must be followed to the letter to safeguard sport and fish stocks on the Tweed.

A metallic clicking sound comes from a pair of grey wagtails in undulating flight over the water. There’s a mild whizz and splash as Ken sends his Toby flying out across the Tweed. It hits the water and he winds in slightly to engage the bail arm, then lifts the rod high to allow the lure to sink a little. Every cast he makes is placed so the bait when the fish decides to buzz off again, he loses balance, almost falling backwards -but never losing contact with the salmon.

The splashing continues as the stubborn springer is joined by another silver fish jumping yards away. Meanwhile Ken winds in when he can but bides his time until the fish has shot its bolt. Once again it comes close to the edge. Ken almost grounds it but it’s not quite ready to succumb. Instead it takes a bit of fine, causing Ken to pirouette. But it’s a short-lived burst for freedom. The salmon is played out and Ken finally guides it to a slope in the bank where he slides it over the edge, gets hold follows a calculated path in the current -crossing the probable taking zones at the right height and speed.

Every couple of minutes or so he lobs the spoon out, fishes it downstream and across into the near bank. Little by little he edges along the bank to make certain he covers most lies.

Whizz, splash – judder and strike. Ken makes meaty contact with a fish. There’s plenty of splashing close to the bank. He keeps a healthy curve in his rod, applying side strain as he needs it to keep pressure on the effervescent springer. The fish decides to head upstream and Ken walks it along the surface like a dog in a public park. It dawns on him that he has no net or tailer nearby – they’re on the opposite bank where Ron is fishing. There’s nothing else for it but to get down and grab the fish’s tail. But Ken is not known for his gracefulness in the Ukrainian dancing position and and quickly flicks it up to safety. ‘It’s as clean as a whistle – lovely condition’ says Ken admiringly as he swiftly administers the priest. Just as on the day before, it’s the Toby that has come up trumps. Back at the lodge the fresh-run fish weighs in at 6 1/2 lb (3kg). ‘They don’t seem to want to know the fly,’ says Ron, who has tried with fly and spinner without luck. The Toby spoon scored on the first session and Ron and Ken have given it a good go today but not at the expense of other baits.

Ghillie Ian Fair explains how certain baits sometimes gain undue credit. Some anglers have too much faith in one particular fly for instance. ‘It’s like the blind leading the blind,’ says Ian. ‘People look in the book (catch records kept in the lodge) and see that a particular fly has a good rate of success. So everyone uses it and when they catch it looks as though it’s down to that fly.’ If they tried other methods they might catch even more fish – or bigger ones.

Ken and Ron didn’t limit themselves to one method in the morning and in the after- noon they have a bash with everything -even trying the worm.

Worms are still just about acceptable round these parts. It’s a good method but the water needs to be a bit lower than it is. Nevertheless it’s the worm, in the form of ‘a big lump of wrigglers’ that Ken plumps for on his last chuck of this two-day session on the Tweed. The afternoon sport was enjoyable but didn’t produce a fish. Two salmon in two days, though, is an excellent rate of success, especially as the spring run this year has been particularly disappointing.

Ken’s ‘last chuck’ seems to take a good half hour at least. It shows how dangerous it can be when you get a taste for salmon fishing. That’s why Ron has been coming to Bemersyde for years, and that’s why he says of the valiant Tweed salmon: ‘There’s nothing tastier.’

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