I consider myself as a fly fisherman, trying to catch trout in Hampshire chalk streams. I have been asked to go salmon fishing three times in Scotland; the first on Loch Long
that fed into the Kyle of Lochalsh, just east of the evocatively-named Sound of Sleat. Our host had landed an 18lb specimen the day before we arrived, which he nonchalantly displayed to us in his freezer, alongside a slightly smaller version, which he had caught the day before that. I recall the tongue-and-groove rod room at the lodge, painted in a buttermilk cream colour, with rows of mighty double-handed rods stacked on notched brackets along one wall. There was an ancient pine table against another wall, that at first looked as though some naughty schoolboy had scribbled all over the top, but on closer examination, they turned out to be dozens and dozens of overlapping outlines of fish, each one dated, with a weight written underneath the tail and the name of the pool where the fish was caught. Some of the earliest dates went back to the 1930s, and the most recent was the day before.
Hopes were running high, as we were issued with rods, some cold lamb in a home-baked roll with redcurrant jelly (known locally as a ‘jeely piece’), an apple, a bottle of beer and a Kit-Kat, and we set off up the torrent that was pummelling down through enormous boulders on its way to the loch. It all looked highly improbable that a salmon would swim against such a forceful stream, but our host said this was exactly where he had caught the 18-pounder the day before. We had some rudimentary lessons in casting, which was trickier than I had thought, with everything much heavier and slower than my dainty 8 foot 6 Inch Hardy Gem Smuggler. Timing was of the essence, not strength. We walked for miles upstream, each of us taking it in turns to cast, but it was a fruitless morning, and even our host had no luck. We stopped for lunch at around midday, which was most welcome, even after our early morning fry-up, cooked on the stove by our charming housekeeper, Mary. The beer was even more welcome, if not necessary. In the afternoon, we donned waders and tried our luck where the river went into the loch, but again, the fish just did not want to know.
The second time, I was asked to fish the Border Esk, which rises in the hills to the east of Moffat in Dumfriesshire, crosses the border briefly into Cumbria, before darting back into Scotland, entering the Solway Firth. I was billeted in an old railway station on a disused railway-line just off the A7 north of Langholm, and the river was a short drive across a meadow, past Gilnockie Tower, the 500-year-old home of the notorious Border Reiver, Johnnie Armstrong. It was raining when I arrived and too late for me to start fishing, so we drove down to the wooden fishing hut for a glass of wine on the little verandah. The hut was decorated with old faded photographs, prints, maps and newspaper cuttings, and had an old sloping wall-mounted desk, on which was a ledger to record the day’s catch. Overnight, the rain came down like push-rods, and the following morning, the river had risen by at least ten feet, with trees, boughs, branches and general rubbish being swept downstream at a ridiculous rate, including the incongruous sight of a white fridge speeding past. Games were off on Saturday, and as there is no fishing on a Sunday in Scotland, my second experience of salmon fishing was a bit of a disappointment. The page in the ledger remained blank for that day.
I was asked again a couple of years later to the same beat on the same estate, but staying in a comfortable house with stables and a courtyard, which kept out the elements. That year, the weather was unseasonably warm for early October, and very soon, I was kitted out in waders and waterproofs, with a sturdy wading stick. My host had been thrashing up and down the river all week, with a succession of guests staying for a couple of days each, and I was the last. No-one of the party had landed a fish all week. A ghillie was on hand to offer advice, and he demonstrated the Scottish Spey cast with such grace, it was almost poetic. I was getting the hang of it and I was able to cast further and further with seemingly no effort at all. After an hour or so, soaking up the beautiful Borders scenery and bird life, I snagged my fly on an underwater branch or rock. But then the branch started to move, pulling all the time with an inexorable force, and I realised I had hooked a big ‘un. The reel screamed as he headed off downstream, then he turned and came charging up the river towards me. I was being shouted at by both the ghillie and my host, as well as another fisherman, telling me to reel him in, then let him go, then keep my rod up, then reel him in again, then let him go. It was exhilarating. It was also surprisingly tiring. For over half an hour, I played this large fish, and managed to coax him towards the shingle, where the ghillie had clambered down and was waiting with a big landing net. Because he was a spawning cock, it was a case of catch-and-release; so I never saw my catch close up, but the ghillie said that in his experience, I had hooked a twenty-something-pounder.
I have stopped eating Scottish smoked salmon altogether. There has been a massive decline in Atlantic salmon, not just in Scotland, but all around the British Isles and Ireland, as well as a drastic reduction of salmon population in Canada. The reasons are various, but the main factors are climate change, along with habitat destruction, pollution from agricultural methods, high-seas fishing, poaching, and the rise in the numbers of grey seals. But one of the main contributory factors is the sheer number of fish farms in Scotland and where they are located. There are roughly 200 facilities in Scotland, which employ about 2,000 people and produce £630 million of the product a year. “There is a crude economic calculation at play,” one opponent argues. “The SNP is interested in one thing and one thing only and that is trying to win independence. To support that, they need rapid GDP growth, and they are not going to stand in the way of any industry they think will help it.” Taking into account the hotels, tackle shops, restaurants and suppliers, it is estimated that the value to the Scottish economy of a single rod-caught fish is more than £1,000.
For wild salmon, the principal problem with fish farming revolves around one simple fact: because they keep creatures designed to roam thousands of miles confined to small, crowded enclosures, many facilities are riddled with disease. Indeed, despite the slick branding of Scottish salmon, which is typically sold in packages depicting seductive, pristine sea lochs and healthy, leaping fish, documented mortality rates are more than 20 per cent. Up to 118,000 fish escaped from their cages in Colonsay and Hellisay last year, owned by the Norwegian fish farming giant Mowi, which is a mere drop in the ocean when it comes to nine million farmed fish killed last year by infestations of sea lice, amoebic gill disease, poor handling and the mis-use of chemicals. The positioning of the farms at the entrance to sea-lochs, means that the wild fish have to swim through the polluted, disease-infected waters to get to their spawning grounds, and become infected themselves. Today, fewer salmon than ever are making the return journey successfully. According to the Atlantic Salmon Trust’s ‘Missing Salmon Project’, less than five percent of salmon that leave Britain’s rivers return, a decline of almost 70 per cent in 25 years. In a very small way, eating responsibly-sourced Pacific Sockeye and Coho salmon from Alaska will take the pressure off the Atlantic salmon, and reduce the chances of it becoming extinct, through politics and greed, which is a very real threat.