Any chance to fish the River Spey is exciting, but for me this visit is also a pilgrimage. Memory was stirred. Returning to Spey at such a time of hope felt like a mission of discovery. Were the recent spring and summer improvements merely a flash in the pan, or signs of radical and long lasting change?
The road north gave me time to think—and to let the magic of Speyside begin its work. The hope inspired in spring is not merely one of better numbers. No fisher can return to any stretch on this remarkable river—let alone to a distinguished lower beat—without feeling again the sensation of the river opening up, stirring memories, extending promises, raising hopes. The river reaches out to the salmon fisher and winds him in, almost like an embrace.
It is difficult to comprehend Spey as a whole. The second longest salmon river in Scotland, it presents many different characters in its extensive course. If your journey north takes you to Speyside by way of Newtonmore, you will glimpse the upper Spey swinging in from the west and being joined by the Truim, full of the briskness of a Highland stream. Immediately below that you may be aware of certain anomalies; at Kingussie you find this Highland river a sluggish water, easing through a rushy marsh and opening out into Loch Insh, near Kincraig, ‘a foiled, circuitous wanderer’. In this reach it is difficult to believe that Spey deserves the reputation of being the fastest-flowing salmon river in Scotland. How can that be true, when the river idles, canal-like, through much of its middle valley, and harbours quantities of pike? It is easy to forget that often Highland rivers—even those with such a reputation for pace as Spey—have upper valleys where the flow is interrupted, producing substantial stretches of slow water. At first these seem to be ‘pike territory’; indeed, I have caught a jack pike there on a trout fly. But do not be deceived. In Loch Insh and its marshes we also catch salmon and first-class brown trout. And there are plenty of salmon and excellent sea trout on the slow waters from Aviemore to Grantown. Then, from Grantown down, the classic Spey begins.
If, like me, you prefer the quieter route, take the small road on the left bank and you will have glimpses and vistas of Spey to stir the soul: the magnificent Highland river, with its well-defined pools and salmon streams, cutting its way through a fine wooded valley. The beats and pools of the river here are legendary: among them Castle Grant, Tulchan and Ballindalloch, where the Avon joins, itself a notable salmon river. Below lie Knockando, Carron and Wester Elchies—beats whose very mention puts a gleam in the eyes of the salmon fisher. Cross the river and stand on the suspension bridge at Aberlour to sample the view, as I have often done. My friend in past years was the minister at Aberlour, and it was there in spring, and at Delagyle above, that first I knew the meaning of abundance on a salmon river.
Below Craigellachie the character of the Spey changes again. In its lower valley it starts to meander, but seemingly without losing power. At Arndilly, Rothes and Delfur, the river forms great alluvial bights as it sweeps down over shingle. Some of the long pools here, with arable land behind—the ‘haughs’ of Spey—are reminiscent of Highland water meadows, only on a larger scale. Some of the river’s most productive salmon pools lie here. That great authority Richard Waddington, who knew this reach of Spey intimately, writes of the Two Stones Pool at Delfur as the pool that most nearly deserves the accolade of perfection. As if that were not enough, he goes on to praise the Broom Pool, 200 yards downstream, as the most consistent holding pool he has known. In his praise I detect that, on the Delfur water, he suffered an embarrassment of riches. The mature Spey runs on to other productive beats, including Orton, the Brae Water and the Gordon Castle fishings, before the river eases through the sandy Spey Bay and finds the Moray Firth.
On such a pilgrimage as mine it is likely that what follows will be an anti-climax. It was not to be. When we boated the wide, gliding Collie pool on Delfur, formed from the lower glides of the famous Back-of-the-Broom, I felt a wonderful fulfilment. The reward was in being there, feeling the rod in my hand and seeing the fly track through the great glide. Although it was a new beat for me, I felt at home. A few fish showed, two of them fresh-running salmon. The ghillie spoke to me of his river with enthusiasm and respect. All was at peace.
Then, suddenly, towards the end of the Collie Pool, when I was beginning to gather line in for the next cast, the fly was taken with predatory force. There was a powerful wave on the surface, then a great heave, and the reel began a long, wild note. What power. Anxiety and delight mixed. Spring fish are so fresh from the sea, so powerful. I gave line to run after run. Then at last the fish circled and was brought to the shingle and netted, admired, photographed and released. It kicked hard as it left my hands and was off, veeing the surface of the glide as it stormed away.
You might think that a fishing life with decades of salmon in it would breed in the fisher a more casual response than in his fish-hungry youth. It is the reverse. Each encounter is unique, sometimes overwhelming. Fishers know what it is to tremble after landing a good salmon. They also know the great emptiness of a line suddenly going slack as a salmon escapes.
That morning, the rods had two off Delfur. In the afternoon we saw a great head of fish running the river, but none took the fly, merely giving the line an occasional sharp knock, too intent on storming up the Spey to be interested. They were heading hard for beats above, as spring fish do, some perhaps in Tulchan, or Grantown, or Loch Insh.
A week later my fishing friend had a call from the beat to say they had taken 11 fish. ‘Not a bad week,’ my friend replied. ‘Not a week,’ said the caller. ‘Today.’ Again the Spey had been full of running salmon, and this time some had paused in the beat. Spring days such as this are magnificent, though rare. To have them now supports the feeling that early season salmon on Spey are returning in strength. Impressions can be misleading. We will have to wait for the full statistics. But the feelings on Spey in the last three spring seasons strongly support the opinions of fishers and ghillies that Spey is sending out signals that the age of gold might be more than a poet’s fancy.