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Fishing: Investigating salmon and the scent of a woman

Annalisa Barbieri on Fishing
I AM ORGANISING a big trip to Scotland. The focus of my trip will be two-pronged: to fish in the footsteps of Georgina Ballantine, the woman who holds the UK record for a salmon caught on a rod and line - which weighed 64lb. And to investigate further the supposed link between pheromones being the reason women catch such big fish. Because Georgina is not the only woman to hold a salmon record. The record for the biggest spring salmon is held by a woman; Doreen Davey's 591/2lb salmon was caught in March 1923 from the Wye. And the biggest salmon caught on the fly (the others were caught with spinning bait) was also caught by a woman, Clementina Morison. Her sleepy 61lb salmon, caught on a "Brown Wing Killer" fly, was taken from the river Deveron, in October 1924, in less than half an hour. But it is Georgina's story that particularly fascinates me.

On the evening of 7 October 1922, Georgina Ballantine and her father James, who was a ghillie on the Glendelvine estate, were fishing the Boat Pool on the Glendelvine beat of the Tay in Scotland. The laird had not wanted to fish that day so he and his daughter had taken the rods. The clocks would be going back that night so Georgina and her father decided to make the most of the fading light. She had already caught three salmon that day, totalling 63lb (those were the days!). This would prove to be ironic because, at 6.15pm, just as she had cast to the "Bargie stone" her dace bait was taken "with no unusual violence". What had taken it with such quiet confidence was a monster salmon that weighed one pound more than her previous three fish put together.

Georgina had no idea of the size of the fish she had hooked. She and her father got into their boat, and the fish took them up and down river several times, while her father shouted "encouragements" to her such as: "Man, if only the Laird or the Major had ta'en him I wouldna' ha' been sae ill aboot it." The salmon never once showed itself until two hours and five minutes later when it was gaffed and all 54 inches of it were hauled into the boat.

It is a record that is now unlikely ever to be broken. You can still get fish of this size and bigger in Norway or the Kola Peninsula, but not here. If you were to catch a salmon even half that weight it would be something to write home about (indeed, if you catch any salmon). There are two other women who have caught salmon of note, again in the 1920s.

In the September of 1927, Gladys Blanche Huntington took four hours to land a 55lb salmon from the River Awe - it had been hooked in the back of the head so was much harder to tire out. Then, in the autumn of the following year, the very stylish Lettice Ward caught a 50lb fish on the Kinnaird beat of the Tay, where I fished earlier this year, and caught nothing. The cast of this fish can still be seen on the wall of the snooker room at Kinnaird House.

One of the theories put forward about women's phenomenal success with salmon is their pheromones. Because the biggest salmon are cock fish it is said that they are attracted to a woman's pheromones, which transmit themselves to the water by the woman handling the fly and fishing line. Salmon have very powerful olfactory systems - it is thought this is one of the ways they find their way home to spawn, so this theory starts to look intriguing (of course, it's not the only reason women catch fish).

But it has never been proved conclusively; I don't see how it ever really could be. There have been stories of men putting one finger into a river and stopping the passage of salmon through a fish ladder (constructed to help salmon pass a man-made obstacle such as a dam) for half an hour. (This was viewed via an observation window in the fish ladder.) The fish were also said to have become agitated further down river. All this because of the presence of one finger. But when a woman put her whole hand in, the fish were unbothered.

Men have tried to capitalise on this. Some have been known to tie salmon flies using pubic hair from (I am hoping) their wives or girlfriends. It has not been unknown for male friends to ask me to "stuff a few of these flies down your pants, treacle" in order to give them the edge.

But on a serious note, I should like to appeal to anyone who knew Georgina Ballantine to get in touch with me via the Independent address or email. Then I can find out a bit more about my heroine and do some intensive research into pheromones, fish and women.