William B Currie: The River Tyne, and all that it means

The chance of a visit to the Tyne is not to be missed. To add extra spice to the prospect, my friend called to say that the word from the lower river was of a good run of early salmon. Being by nature an opportunist, I drove down over a wet and windy Carter Bar, crossed the Rede—which was showing a promising run of fresh water—and turned south to Bellingham to the upper waters of the North Tyne, where my friend has his beat. It was a chance to see the water he rents for one day a week through the season, and to talk about prospects for the remarkable Tyne system as it continues its wondrous recovery as a salmon and sea trout river.

The Tyne is really two rivers; neighbours, but each very different, reminiscent of families where one son is dark and his brother is fair. The North Tyne is the dark son from the Cheviots, peaty like a Scottish Highland burn, and dark—indeed so dark that, wading across to fish the first pool, I was in water only a foot deep, but that was enough to hide the shingle below and leave me searching for a footing in the dark water.

I have waded the North Tyne many times and this darkness always throws me. It is not the amber darkness of the Helmsdale, which makes your salmon glow golden as they turn in the water. Nor is it the flashing tint of trout lochs coloured by mossy water from the moors. It is something more radical, not far from the burn Gerard Manley Hopkins described dramatically at Inversnaid, ‘the broth/Of a pool so pitch-black, fell-frowning, ‘It rounds and rounds/Despair to drowning’.

Dark waters change your perceptions. The deep brown flow of the North Tyne makes me think differently about the river. This is partly to do with the way hidden things can be mysterious, with the compulsion we have to search and find, and with the promise of revelations through discovery. The alluring dark stream of the North Tyne turns you back into a fisher whose senses lie as much in the fingertips as in the eye. The dark water also makes us gang warily, as the Scots have it, lest the next step takes you not knee deep, but uncomfortably thigh deep or more. In keeping with the river’s covert character, the salmon of the North Tyne seem not to show at the surface as much as they would in clearer streams. It is as if the Kielder water, which gives the river its birth, thought the North Tyne special and wanted it to be secretive.

The South Tyne is that brother you cannot believe belongs to the same mother as the North. This fast-flowing spate river runs as clear as a bell at summer level then takes on a gorgeous sherry colour at the first hint of rain. The river runs north from the Pennines, flowing rapidly over hard limestone and sandstone strata and it cuts spectacular gorges and steep-sided valleys as it passes below the cobbled streets of Alston. At Haltwhistle the river turns east and the valley widens through Haydon Bridge and on to Hexham. There the North and South Tyne meet.

For some distance below Hexham you cannot fail to see a reluctance in the two rivers to blend. There is a darker flow to the north side—water from Kielder and the North Tyne—with clearer water on the southern side. It is not misleading to think of the branches temporarily forming parallel rivers before the final blend is achieved. The merged rivers form the Tyne proper. On that fine lower river, where the two sons meet, you will find some of the best salmon reaches in England, made famous in the past by, among others, A H Chaytor and Augustus Grimble, although Grimble as early as 1900 raised concerns about pollution affecting the lower river. Grimble and others saw the threat to the lower Tyne very clearly. Serious decline followed. Today, in a new era, the river is enjoying a wonderful, steady recovery from a threat to its very existence as a salmon and sea trout river. How good is the recovery? In a word, stunning.

The Tyne reported that 48,668 salmon and sea trout had passed through the counter on the lower Tyne in 2004—a remarkable number—and while it is not easy to be specific about how many fish run the North Tyne and how many the South, we have little hesitation in accepting the view that the two Tynes share this great run of fish equally.

We found the North Tyne low, despite the rise of water showing in the Rede and in the main Tyne. The culprit, of course, is Kielder Dam, the largest piece of enclosed water in England. The flow of the North Tyne is regulated and while it does vary naturally to a small degree, particularly in the lower river where the Rede helps matters, the North Tyne has the advantages and drawbacks of a river with managed flow. The advantages are maintenance of flow in drought and flood control. The drawbacks are the way regulation changes the natural flow, largely leaving it managed by compensation flow and other features of river regulation from Kielder. Yet into this managed river comes a stock of salmon similar in size to the run into the South Tyne.

It seems that salmon do not immediately prefer the South Tyne—the fair brother—over the darker waters of the North Tyne. I am sure a detailed study of the genetics of Tyne salmon would show that the two Tynes have their own populations of salmon and sea trout. Indeed, the most advanced genetic studies on many rivers are close to identifying not only main runs into tributaries as having their own specific populations of fish, but showing that there is, within each river, a complex pattern of what we might call tribes or families of salmon, homing to their own locations at their own times and bringing into the river all the diversity of size and character this implies.

We had no fish to report for the morning on the North Tyne, save a good trout. No salmon showed. But my friend had a telephone call inviting us to fish the remarkable Wylam pool on the main Tyne, just above the final influence of the tide, that very afternoon.

The Wylam pool is not the end of the Tyne, far from it. Wylam is 17 miles from the sea. Between it and the mouth lies Newcastle, which in my lifetime was declared to be a gross polluter of the river to the point in the 1950s at which it was said that the Tyne had no viable stocks of salmon left. It was a dead river. A major clean-up was mounted. Salmon ova from Tweed and other Scottish rivers were planted. Pollution was halted and the effect on the salmon and sea trout populations was remarkable. Today Tyne is not only the most productive salmon river in England, but rivals many in Scotland, last year producing 4,000 salmon and 1,900 sea trout to rods. It is astonishing.

Wylam Pool lies just downstream of a high road bridge and under this the river flows over a low weir and forms below this point a fine deep rocky pool with the main stream holding to the left bank. The news we had received while fishing the North Tyne some 30 miles upstream, that a good run of salmon was entering the river, was accurate. We arrived to hear that four salmon had been caught on the pool that morning—but that was not the only thing that gripped us.

As soon as we arrived, we saw fish after fish showing as they left the tide and entered the tail of the pool. It was a great spectacle. Sometimes the splash of the running fish was quick, a tight, powerful arch in the fast draw-off of the pool, sometimes the running fish made a higher leap a few yards farther up the pool in deeper water. I will not go so far as to say we were drenched by spray as we fished, but it was close to this. It was a vigorous run, presumably the spring stock of the whole system, heading for both north and south branches. We were lucky enough to see in one day the top and bottom of the river, the northern branch just receiving its first fish of the season and the lower river heaving as the main early run arrived.

That day reminded us of many things: of the vigour of the river, of its remarkable recovery, and of its great hinterland. We had grandstand seats and witnessed the migratory single-mindedness of the running salmon. Four were taken before we arrived and when we were on the pool a rod on the left bank added another. But the catch seemed to emphasise that, even if five were caught, the main run sped past, ignoring the anglers. Running salmon are like that. Nobody’s fools, they know exactly where they are going. Seeing the top and bottom of the Tyne on the same day in these circumstances was unforgettable.