Fishing Lines: Hooked by the lure of harling

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The Independent Online
PETER KEAY likes his job so much that he often goes to work three hours early. He's there on his days off as well, and if his wife hadn't rebelled a couple of years ago, he would still be spending his holidays at work, too.

Keay is a ghillie, a fishing adviser who accompanies salmon anglers and tells them the best fly to use, where to cast and how to tempt fish. Having him by your side is like having Nick Faldo as your caddy. For Keay knows every stone where a fish will shelter on the mile-long stretch of the River Tay at Perth that is his exclusive domain. And he's so proud of the Almondmouth water close to Scone Palace that he even cuts the bankside grass on his days off - even though most anglers fish from a boat.

Many reckon this is the best stretch on Scotland's best river, and fittingly the fishing is leased by the plush Gleneagles Hotel. As you might guess, a stretch that averages more than 200 salmon every September - more than some rivers produce all year - commands top-hole prices. At prime time, it costs more than pounds 1,000 a day to fish. At those rates, the ghillie comes free (though the traditional gratuity is a bottle of whisky).

Free he may be, but his 30 years' knowledge is priceless. Keay feels personally affronted if he fails to entrap at least one fish for his charges. And it is far from easy when many are merely hotel guests fishing for the first time.

This is where harling comes in. It is a method disdained by purist fishermen - The Salmon Rivers of Scotland declines even to mention it - because the ghillie rather than the fisherman really lures the fish.

Harling is particularly used on the Tay in springtime, when high water and cold conditions make fly-fishing unlikely to tempt a salmon. But it has been practised there pretty well since fishing started. It involves fishing from a boat with three or more rods in the stern trailing flies or imitation fish. The angler just waits for a salmon to hook itself.

And very effective it is too. The 64lb record salmon taken by Georgina Ballantine was caught by harling. Captured 70 years ago next month, the huge fish grabbed an artificial revolving mottled brown lure called a 'dace'. On that occasion, the boatman was her father James, ghillie to the Laird of Glendelvine, and until quite recently, two boatmen would row the heavy boat to and fro across the river all day, covering likely salmon resting places.

It's all much easier now thanks to outboard motors, but many traditionalists feel this pushes an already dubious method beyond the pale. Keay is more philosophical. 'It's true that the boat does a lot of the work. But much of the time I take elderly people, novices or those who are not too steady on their feet. At the end of the day, you have to try and catch a fish.'

But harling is no magic method. Determined to understand this quirky mode of angling, I harled all day but caught nothing while salmon splashed all around the boat. Upstream, fly-fishers landed several salmon.

'I knew ye would noo catch on the harl today. Water was too dirty,' Keay said afterwards. Now he tells me.

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