Fishing: Salmon in clear present danger

THIS WEEK I met a man who shared a catch of 79 salmon. This is not one of my sneaky journalism tricks to make you read further, only to discover that the chap in question: a) caught all the salmon in 1931; b) works on a fish farm; c) was playing a computer fishing simulator; d) dangled a line in one of those Alaskan rivers where even the bears get fed up of salmon; e) is a professional poacher who nobbles fish by net, trap, poison or gaff; f) found a nursery area and hooked out a mass of baby salmon, called parr or smolts depending on their age.

None of those. This was the real McCoy: a genuine haul of Atlantic salmon, captured on rod and line from Scotland this year. Non-anglers may say: "So what? Catching fish is what fishermen do, isn't it?" Not in Scotland, and not this year. On many rivers, catches have been the worst ever recorded. There have been months when 79 salmon have not been caught along the whole river, never mind by a couple of chaps from one short stretch of water.

In England and Wales, in particular, salmon catches have been so miserable that the Environment Agency has devised all sorts of measures to protect the few fish left. These range from limiting anglers to fly only - which catches far fewer fish in the first place - to insisting that every salmon caught before June is returned.

For many who pursue salmon, the idea of returning a fish is like asking them to donate their left foot to charity. The cost of a week's fishing on a prime stretch of the Tay, Tweed or Spey would buy you a pretty decent car. When salmon stocks are bountiful, putting back a few seems the right thing to do. But when you have flayed the water from dawn to dusk and caught the only fish taken there all week on your final day, altruism gets washed downstream. Future generations be buggered: it is my fish, I caught it and I will do what I damn well like with it. Arguing against such ingrained attitudes is not easy.

So it is interesting to look through the 243 lots of the Atlantic Salmon Trust's annual postal auction. The Trust, which is dedicated to preserving Atlantic salmon - not just for anglers but for posterity - persuades owners of salmon and trout fishing to donate a day or a week. Send in your bid, and if it is the highest one received by 25 January then the fishing is yours. To make it easier, they put an estimate of the lowest likely bid with each lot.

Sounds dull, huh? On the contrary. The lots include fishing on many of Britain's finest waters: the Tweed, Deveron and Findhorn for salmon; the Itchen, Wylye and Wey for trout. Suggested bids range from pounds 20 for a day's salmon and sea-trout fishing on the North Esk for one person, to a week on the Spey for four people. The latter has a boat and ghillie available and is for a prime week in September on the renowned Knockando Estate in Moray. Trouble is, it will set you back around pounds 3,000.

Stuck for a Christmas present? Then whack in a bid. But be careful if you are one of those who needs a fish or two to prove that you have not spent the week holed up in Paris with Olga from the typing pool. Many of the lots have restrictions on the number of fish to be retained, such as Viscountess Ridley's stretch of the Tay at Strathtay, where all hen fish must be returned.

A few insist on catch and release, and the Trust itself, despite efforts to be objective on the issue, writes: "Anglers must consider their own attitudes to the conservation of spring fish. It is encouraging to see that the proportion of spring salmon which are released has grown steadily." So there you have it. Take all the salmon you like, but do not be surprised if your bid next year gets lost in the post.

Your chances of catching 79 salmon (from the Tweed I can reveal) are as likely as Father Christmas leaving me a Sage rod. But who cares? Well, the salmon do, but that's another story.

Have a good Christmas.

For more information, contact the Atlantic Salmon Trust for a free catalogue on 01796 4734349.