When I went fishing, to learn about the sport and to understand more about salmon, the one thing I did not expect was a fish for my supper.
But then that’s the lure of fishing – you never catch what you expect.
I was lucky enough to spend a day on the Spey, a river famous for its whisky distilleries and a particular type of fly casting. In the early morning the snow was still on the Scots pines, even though it was well into spring and the river levels were high from the melt running off the Cairngorm mountains.
We were hoping the first wild North Atlantic salmon would be on their way back from the sea to spawn at the head of the river. The ‘springers’, as they are known, are the most prized of fish as they are fresh from the sea, still silver from swimming in the cool blue depths and fat from feeding on the riches of the ocean.
Perhaps it is also the romance of hooking this truly wild creature, which has been as far as Greenland and by some mystery of nature has found its way back to the river of its birth, that attracts anglers.
For centuries, Scots have celebrated spring salmon as the start of summer and all the riches of the season to come. But in recent years the spring runs have been sadly depleted. Last year the numbers of rod-caught salmon in Scotland were at their lowest since records began. The population is so endangered that most anglers will put the king of fish back.
No one really knows what has gone wrong, but there are a number of theories. There is no doubt something is happening out in the ocean. Global warming is blamed for shifting the feeding grounds of the salmon and its prey further north. Overfishing means many of the feeding grounds are deserts due to dredging. And the salmon themselves are being hooked in huge drift nets.
Back in Scotland we also have to take some responsibility. Although netting at the mouth of rivers takes a small proportion of fish, for some rivers the nets are blamed for killing what is left of the salmon run. A rise in the number of seals and cormorants, both salmon predators, is also blamed, as are dams built on some rivers.
Most controversially, perhaps, the explosion in fish farms in the last few years has spread disease and sea lice. Despite the denials of the aquaculture industry, no one seriously questions now that sea lice breeding in the ‘battery hen’ conditions of a fish farm fall off and spread to the wild population. Certainly, on the Spey, the salmon numbers have fallen.
Roddy Hastings, the ghillie on the Castle Grant beat, has seen the decline with his own eyes. In the 1970s whole families would fish for a week and net 100 salmon on the same beat. Now he is lucky to get a dozen good-sized fish and, sadly, fewer families spend a week together on the riverside.
Still fishermen keep coming. As the author John Buchan said, ‘The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.’ As a natural optimist, I find this philosophy attractive and am keen to learn the skill. Roddy gives me a lesson in salmon casting using the doublehanded rod. Even in my inexperienced hands the line sails out over the black water and lands with a satisfying plop. I even manage a double Spey cast, enjoying the feel of the line making a figure of eight in the air.
Steve Harrod, my ‘fishing buddy’ and a much more experienced fisherman, goes to the other bank and shows how it is really done, letting the fly fall like thistle down rather than my unsubtle splash.
Before long we are all in our own little worlds listening to the bubble of the curlews and peep peep of the oyster-catchers as the dark river runs past. I cast out, let the line drift down with the current, move a step along, repeat. Even if we catch nothing, I feel lucky to be here on this beautiful river. The swallows are just returning, house martins collect mud for their nests and sandpipers seesaw along the rocks. Red squirrels, chased by Steve’s Jack Russell, Ernie, knock the last of the snow from the branches.
I soon drift into a reverie, considering everything from world peace to why certain men love fishing so much. Is the latter just permission to do nothing? Get away from their wives? Or do they actually want to catch a fish?
Just then I am disturbed by shouts. Steve is onto a fish. The rod is bent and I see a flash of silver as he lets the line run out in order to exhaust the creature before reeling it in. Roddy is there with the net. It is a good size, but we see flashes of other colours – purple and blue. It is a rainbow trout escaped from a nearby fish farm.
As a true sportsman Steve is disappointed, but I am thrilled. Supper! I kill it quickly and cleanly with a blow to the head. It is my cousin’s birthday and I rightly assume she would love a 6.5lb trout for her dinner party. Not including me, we manage to feed five – if not quite five thousand – with the help of a supplementary rainbow trout from the supermarket.
I notice the farmed fish is flabby, its tail and fin blunt in comparison. According to my friends, the flesh is fatty and flavourless. I note the most vociferous opponents of fish farming are anglers. They seem disgusted by farmed fish meat and would certainly never eat it. Suddenly I can understand why.
But then again, in terms of supplying the world with protein, surely farmed fish is part of the solution? Scotland’s £500 million-plus salmon farming industry claims to be cleaning up its act. Sea lice numbers are down (though there are questions over the long-term effects of the chemicals used to control infection), stocking density is low enough to be approved by the RSPCA, smolts are kept in tanks on land for longer, and less of the feed is coming from the world’s already-depleted oceans. Even environmental groups such as WWF are willing to endorse the industry, and it remains a huge employer in remote parts of the country.
Returning to my book, I have to admit killing fish is easier than mammals, but in terms of sustainability there are serious questions over whether we should be eating certain species at all. It’s a complicated business and makes me long for the riverbank where I can have a nice peaceful think. Oh dear, I may not have caught a fish, but it looks like I’ve caught the fishing bug.
(This feature was originally published in 2015)