Casting call to get more women angling

Salmon fishing may be thought of as a male domain, but the couple behind Meikleour Fishings are keen to bring more women on board.

Yet, during the 1920s, women anglers established three British salmon records that have not been beaten – and two of them took place on the Tay.

More recently, there has been an increase in the number of women fishing for salmon on that stretch of water, thanks to committed angler Claire Mercer Nairne who, along with her husband Sam, runs Meikleour Fishings.

Claire is no stranger to fishing. Born in Bordeaux, she started sea angling when she was a teenager during family holidays on the Atlantic Coast. When she moved to Meikleour in 2006, she fell in love with salmon fishing, but having three young children finding time to fish was rare.

‘I have a particular love for the River Tay, it is the first thing I see in the morning when I open my window and I have a fascination for its iconic salmon,’ she says.

In 2014, Sam and Claire took ownership of the Upper Islamouth and Meikleour house beats. It was important to Claire to get out on the river to understand the business and also improve her own angling skills.

Fishing in the Tay

Considerable investment has been put into Meikleour’s 1.7 miles of double bank beats, with improvements to the habitat and riverbank to ensure anglers have a wide choice of boat and bank fishing.

Claire is keen to introduce more women to fishing. ‘It is a gentle, relaxing sport, so ladies of all ages, with little or no experience, can take part and enjoy,’ she said. ‘We are well set up to welcome ladies to Meikleour with two fishing huts complete with all mod cons.’

The female influence on the river at Meikleour is woven into the estate’s history.

Sam’s great grandmother, Lady Violet Astor of Meikleour, was a passionate angler who introduced motors on the Tay boats in the 1950s.

Claire has organised a number of female-only charity events to give women the opportunity to spend the day fishing at Meikleour and, in doing so, raise money for a good cause.

‘Two aspects were important; to give ladies more opportunity to fish and to support a charity,’ said Claire. ‘I picked Glasgow-based Angling for Youth Development (AFYD) because they give children the chance to get involved with angling.

‘When you are young, if you do not have a dad or a grandad to introduce you to fishing, there are very few other ways into the sport. AFYD does this, and because they are local, I can see how the money is being used. They teach the children so much and also kindle the fire of the next generation of anglers.’

Ten female anglers, four casting instructors and two ghillies took part in the AFYD fundraising day. The women, of mixed ability and experience, were split into small groups to fish from boats and the riverbank.

Conditions were good and casting instructor Tom Brown ensured everyone got to grips with casting techniques.

Throughout the morning, a number of salmon were seen jumping and at Boxwood Bush a 30lb-plus fish jumped clean out of the water, glistening tantalisingly in the sunlight.

Scottish Field columnist Fiona Armstrong, one of AFYD’s patrons, was first to hook a fish from a boat, but after a ten-minute struggle, her line snapped on rocks.

Late morning, we were joined by Dr David Summers, Director of Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board and Dr. Aileen McLeod, Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. Aileen spent time on the river with Claire and David, and made a few casts before presenting AFYD with a cheque for £1,250.

A two-course lunch from the Meikleour Arms hotel was served on the veranda of the Meikleour House fishing hut in glorious sunshine. The mood following a morning on the river was animated and there was much discussion about how casting skills had improved.

Eager to get back out, within an hour a fish was hooked from the bank, but again sadly lost.

Claire has worked closely with Malcolm Anderson of the Caledonia Fly Company to produce the Lady Meikleour salmon fly. A riot of colour, it features striking pinks and oranges.

‘I wanted to do something to celebrate the beat and for it to be feminine,’ Claire explains.

‘The warm pink and vibrant oranges reflect the colours of the Williamsianum Linda and Gibraltar rhododendrons growing along the banks at Meikleour. When I moved here 10 years ago, I chose that colour combination, but everyone said they would clash. Now they have matured everyone loves them. Some flies have a cold-looking pink, which is good for the spring, but the Lady Meikleour has attractive warm tones so it can be used all year long.’

In 2015, Claire was elected onto the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board, and is thought to be the first woman to be appointed to the board since the 1880s.

‘Women have a place on the river just as much as men. They need to feel they can do it well and, as it is a sociable sport, they can bring their families so everyone can benefit from being outdoors surrounded by nature,’ she says. ‘The more experienced family members can teach and support the inexperienced ones. I think ghillies respect women on the river because of the success and the long-standing track records they have gained in salmon fishing.’

For those keen to cast, there is a choice of accommodation available on the estate, either at the Meikleour Arms hotel, in the Walled Garden Cottages, or in the east wing of the historic Meikleour house, which was redesigned by David Bryce in 1870 as a French chateau for Emily Mercer de Flahaut.

Meikleour House was once a summer hideaway for Napoleon’s extended family and was a secret location for one of his four death masks. Although the mask is now in a London museum, a lock of Napoleon’s hair still remains in the house.

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(This feature was originally published in 2016)