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Issue 10 - Tales from the riverbank

Scotland Magazine Issue 10
September 2003


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Tales from the riverbank

DOMINIC ROSKROW discovers the delights of fishing – and swimming – in the Spey

They say that the key to salmon fishing – even at novice level – is patience. Providing you’re in the right river and you’re prepared to wait, sooner or later you will encounter a game fish or two.

And it’s true. After two hours in the Spey recently I had my moment. Unfortunately it happened as I was trying to get out of the river, and the beast, probably spotting my vulnerability, crashed into my legs and left me up to my neck in the river with my waders filling with cold, clear, Spey water.

It is possible that my recollection of the event is inaccurate. Witnesses, including our guide, ‘Willie the ghillie’, maintain that my salmon was in fact a slippery rock, and it didn’t assault me as much as I stood on it.

But whatever the true facts, nobody can accuse me of failing to immerse myself in my subject matter. For the second time in recent months I found myself on my back thinking of Scotland.

I was in the Spey as guest of whisky distiller The Macallan, and my two hours of standing in the river while nature went through its repertoire weather-wise provided an insight as to how the environment is looked after in Scotland these days.

Scotland has always had a lot of nature, of course, but until a few years back it seemed it spent much of its time hunting it. These days conservation is key to everything that the likes of Willie the ghillie do.

He might be on hand to help you catch salmon, but his job is to look after them too. He shows genuine anger when he talks of fishermen who catch more than one fish and don’t observe the standard practice of putting half of them back.

We hear a great deal these days about how stocks of nature are in decline, and recent reports suggest that the problem is particularly acute in the world’s rivers and seas.

It’s true, Willie says, that there aren’t the numbers of fish that there once were, but the reason might not be as simple as you might think. Many of the salmon caught have injury marks from seal attacks, he says, and while it’s good that the seal population is thriving in Scotland, they have
learned to gather at the mouth of key salmon rivers and feed on them.

Getting the balance right is as important as preserving a particular species in the first place. In recent years Scotland has been at the forefront in taking some radical steps to conserve a vast array of different species. At times conservation groups have had to carry out radical and upsetting culls to make sure that one species does not destroy another.

After all, it’s all well and good having herds of deer and countless hedgehogs strolling down the streets, but not if it means that any number of other species are wiped out in the process.

There are, of course, conflicts of interest, and a balance between those who want to pursue the traditional sports and those who enjoy observing living nature in a stunning environment must be weighed up carefully.

Unsurprisingly, the issue has become a political hot potato, and the battles will rage for many a year yet. But there are encouraging signs and suggestions that the hunting, shooting and fishing brigade will be catered for while rare species such as the osprey establish themselves on Scottish land.

I take the view that not only is it fine to hunt and kill something if you intend to eat it, but that if you do eat meat and fish, you should be prepared to kill it yourself.

And I know this; the battle between man and fish isn’t a one-sided one, and that there was nothing stupid about the salmon I encountered.

Even if it was just a slippery rock in the Spey.

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