Just past Grantown-on-Spey we park near a stone-built bridge which regally spans the tea-coloured river. The trail down to the water is well trodden. We pass through poplars and pines down to Lurg (pool 29) – where an Arctic north-westerly wind welcomes us to the valley.
The riverbank teems with screeching oystercatchers, their bright orange bills providing a marked contrast to the bleak landscape. Though it’s mid-April, the Hills of Cromdale wear a thick cloak of snow; they blend in well with the overcast sky.
Arthur Oglesby is one of the best known and respected salmon and sea-trout anglers in Britain and abroad. He first came to the River Spey in 1956 as a casting assistant. Now a Chief Casting Instructor on the Spey, he runs courses on fly fishing for six weeks every year, beginning in April.
Arthur has written many books, including ‘Fly Fishing for Salmon and Sea Trout’ and ‘Reeling In’.
With his 16ft (4.9m) rod Arthur casts to a likely pool in deep water on the River Spey.
How to get there
- By car From Aviemore take the A9 north to the A95. Drive north along the A95. It goes right through Grantown-on-Spey.
- By train The nearest British Rail station is in Aviemore. Buses run regularly from
Aviemore to Grantown-on-Spey.
The Strathspey Angling Association has about 7 miles of salmon and trout fishing on the River Spey and about 12 miles on the River Dulnain. For more information, contact the Secretary, G. Mortimer, 61 High Street, Grantown, Scotland.
Arthur Ogiesby runs a course on the River Spey in April and early May, teaching all aspects of fly fishing for salmon. Contact Arthur at 4 Barker Lane, York Y01 1 JR. Tel. 01904 027234.
The Strathspey Pools
- Nethy Pool
- Dulnain Mouth Pool
- Balliefurth Pool
- Poll An Eilean
- Poll Caicm
- Saddle Pool
- The Bushes Pool
- Auchernack Burn Pool
- Little Steam
- Upper Bend
- Lower Bend
- Tarrig Mor
- Craggan Sands
- Poll Scriodan
- Poll A Clachan
- Poll Clachan Lios
- Finnock Pool
- Macleod’s Pool
- Poll A Cearan
- Slop Aindrea
- Clach Na Strone
- Clach An Uaran
- Boinne Uaine
- Big Stream
- Bridge Pool
- Poll Na Creice
- Bun a Bhord
- Long Pool
Just below the Old Spey Bridge, Arthur allows the fly to swing directly downstream before picking up and casting again. He holds his rod high so that the line moves as slowly as possible in the current. This ensures the fly drifts slowly. Salmon have long and painful journeys from the sea to their spawning areas. They must survive all kinds of man-made ills, including industrial pollution, acid rain, untreated sewage discharges, diseases from fishery salmon, destruction of habitat (dam-building) and overfishing (to maximize the value of an estate). Numbers of Atlantic salmon have plummeted compared with previous years. Only a few countries such as Iceland, Norway, Greenland and Canada have prolific numbers.
1. Casting down and across from the bank, you can present the fly attractively to the salmon closest to the bank, but the fly sweeps past any salmon located in mid-river much too quickly to be effective.
2. By casting to the same position and mending the line, however, you can present the fly correctly, covering both lies as thoroughly as possible.
3. Though you might be able to cast to the salmon on the opposite bank, you’ll have problems fishing the fly attractively. In conditions such as this it’s best to wade into the river, cast and then mend the line. The importance of mending the line can’t be stressed enough – especially during the early part of the season.
Arthur used a floating DT11 for shallow, fast-flowing stretches and sinking ST11 for deeper runs. A ‘classic’ salmon pool is often just below a stretch of fast water where the current is swift and the water is deep (about 1.5m/5ft). The tail end of the pool narrows and the current picks up again. Salmon prefer rocky river beds – with boulders to divert the full force of the current and fist-sized rocks and gravel where the fish can dig redds to lay their eggs.
Snow in April? Yes, this is Scotland, land of tempestuous spring showers mixed with blustery snowstorms – all of which had a detrimental effect on the fishing. A multi-coloured selection of Arthur’s flies. His approach is fairly simple: match the overall colour of the fly with the clarity of the water and the colour of the river bed. Having outward-extending hookpoints on trebles helps to increase the hooking potential. The fast-flowing River Dulnain, narrower than the Spey, is a noted salmon and trout water which doesn’t receive the attention it’s due. It is managed by the Strathspey Angling Association and is subject to the same regulations as the Spey. The bed of the Spey is littered with slippery boulders. Unless you have a thorough knowledge of the river, don’t venture in without a wading stick.
A renowned, fast-flowing salmon river which draws anglers from all over the world, the Spey weaves a wide path through the solitary hills of Scotland. Despite the poor weather, the result of two days fishing is a cracking 8lb (3.6kg) Spey salmon, caught by Arthur’s assistant.
Arthur assembles his 15ft (4.6m) rod and threads his DT11 floating line and 14ft (4.3m) leader of 18lb (8kg) line through the rod rings. He attaches a long, tubular, Waddington-type fly, sombrely coloured to match the water. With just his fly box and his rod for convenience (and minimum encumbrance), he cautiously wades into the boulder-strewn river and then casts across stream.
As the current sweeps the fly downstream he mends the line occasionally to stop the fly moving too quickly across the river. When the fly is directly downstream of him, he repeats the process and then takes a few steps downstream. By doing this he can cover every foot of river, maximizing his chances of catching an Atlantic salmon. He fishes the deeper sections more than once, for in spring it’s the hard-working angler who usually catches fish.
When summer comes, however, the salmon adopt more permanent lies, and many beginners are often guilty oi overfishing their pools.
Many theories have been suggested as to why a salmon strikes a fly, prawn or lure. Arthur says: ‘A salmon doesn’t feed in freshwater, but it takes a fly for the same reason that a cat chases a leaf blown by the wind. The cat knows the leaf isn’t anything special, but its predatory instincts are aroused. Any predatory animal that has to survive by chasing its prey has to keep in practice. It strikes as a reflex action.’
Not surprisingly, given the cold, big powdery flakes of snow begin to fall. Arthur moves steadily downstream, holding his rod tip high (at a 45° angle to the river) while the butt rests just below his thigh. He holds the rod high so that a minimum amount of line is in contact with the water; this ensures that the current doesn’t pull the line too quickly in the water, dragging the fly.
He pulls in 25m (27yd) of line and then makes another cast, covering a possible lie behind and in front of a boulder.
With normal April weather 10-16°C/50-60°F) a salmon normally doesn’t spend too much time in any one lie: sometimes it stays as little as ten minutes before continuing its journey. A cold front pushing through (like this one) usually means that salmon remain in deep pools, their migration temporarily halted until the water warms slightly.
Though the sun is trying to break free from the clouds, it’s still cold – at freezing point, in fact. When asked to give any tips for fishing in this type of weather, Arthur replies immediately, ‘Wind in and go to the nearest pub.’ ‘An ideal day for salmon fishing,’ he says, ‘is when the water temperature is a good 4-6°C (6-10°F) below the air temperature. Today the air is colder than the water. Fish become lethargic in very cold water, unwilling to exert themselves. And salmon won’t leave the sea if the water temperature in the river is colder.’
Arthur continues to work the pool meticulously, making sure his fly isn’t moving too quickly in the current.
After half an hour Arthur moves farther downstream to a stretch of water which he leases in April and early May from the Seafield Estate for students on his fishing course. The river is much deeper on this beat, so he opts for a longer rod (16ft/4.9m) and a sinking shooting head. He shortens his leader to 2m (7ft) to cope with the unwanted return of the wind.
When river fishing, he explains, ‘You should look for features which offer salmon comfort – recesses and hollows with strong water over their heads but out of the full force of the current.’
It begins to snow yet again, making conditions especially difficult. Since the water is deep, he fishes from the riverbank, using the Spey Cast to put line out.
Arthur believes that one key to catching a salmon is knowing the area you intend to fish. If you don’t have an understanding of the water, hire a gillie to guide you – this is time and money well spent.
Where the river divides into a deep-flowing branch, he works the fly slowly downstream again and again, concentrating hard to present the fly attractively. Soon he covers the area – soaks it thoroughly. No response, though.
Again the weather is the real enemy. Despite a coffee break at half past eleven we decide to pack up and call it a day.
Arthur begins fishing on the deep stretch of water where he left off the day before. His assistant and students are also fishing nearby. His ambition isn’t daunted, nor is his ability to cast 30m (33yd) of line. His tools remain the same: a 16ft (4.9m) rod and sinking ST11 (shooting head) and short leader. Sadly, the weather is also relatively unchanged – though the wind is much more civilized and co-operative for fly fishing.
In spite of the wintry conditions we see an encouraging sign: a small salmon leaps in mid-river. Arthur works his way towards the fish and saturates the slow, dark water with his Waddington-type fly. The salmon, however, is unwilling to cooperate.
A jocular suggestion to try spinning ii met with an equally joking response from Arthur. To some fly fishing purists, how ever, mention the words ‘spinning’ or ‘prawning’ and you’ll be greeted with antagonism, stares of disdain and utter horror and thoughts such as, ‘If he spins, he probably also murders people, robs banks, or worse still, competes in coarse fishing matches.’ (What morality has to do with fly fishing is not yet fully understood.)
Arthur used to spin quite a bit but ha fished with the fly only since about 1976. He explains that many people spin because they want to use a relatively restful and very effective means to catch fish — fair enough, but having caught hundreds of fish by spinning, he decided to give salmon more of an opportunity by using a fly. The art of successful fly fishing involves mastering. different types of casts, reading the water and controlling the line in an ever-moving current – all satisfying and artistic task (and by no means easy).
And even when the fish aren’t biting, the solitude of the countryside and forceful AURA of the dark, wide river are more than enough consolation.
The cold, relentless wind resumes its punishment, putting the fish down an making casting a tiresome chore. We again decide to pack up and call it a day. Reaching the hut we discover that Arthur’s assistant has caught an 8lb (3.6kg) salmon. Can w detect an element of rivalry, perhaps? N despite the poor weather, Arthur winks ar smiles, generously acknowledging the success of his fellow angler.