Net benefits: fishing in Scotland

Casting off among forests of Scots pine, the River Tweed lapping her waders, Tam Leach finds that the enjoyment of fishing is not measured by catch success, nor by the price of the trip
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The Independent Travel

Hands up: whose knowledge of fly-fishing extends beyond JR Hartley, unlikely octogenarian hero of the Yellow Pages ads? No? Quite. My vague impression was of a pricey pastime for bona fide toffs, and perhaps those quiet boys at school who didn't mind wearing anoraks. Then I went fly-fishing in the US, where the sport is both casual recreation and a means to an end: dinner. It was by chance: we camped, friends brought rods, we fished. Nobody sneered at our technique, permits were cheap, and the fish were plentiful and probably stupid, because we caught plenty.

Returning home, I had a mission: find the equivalent, in Britain. Affordable fly fishing, in beautiful surroundings, with no pretensions and no need to buy all the gear. Oh, and my short attention span meant I had no desire to spend all day in a river without catching anything. I wanted to catch a fish. And, preferably, to eat it. Five years on and I think I might finally have figured out how to do it. I'm packing to go Scotland. It's sweltering in London, and hard to imagine needing anything but a bikini.

I remember that I'll need some sort of hat with a peak, to stop miscast flies impaling themselves in my skull. Ditto sunglasses. I'm not sure about the clothes. In photos on fishing websites and in brochures, hardy British fishermen are trussed up in green, but I wonder: is that just to look the part? Can fish see bright colours?

My destination is the River Tweed, in the Borders. Tweed, to use the correct appellation, is the historical hot spot of British fly fishing. It also, according to the official Fish Scotland site, produces more fish caught on the fly than any other river in Britain, so seems like a good place to start. And the region? Close enough to manage for a weekend, remote enough to have a touch of the wilderness. I hope. The trip starts off affordably enough. Travelling to Scotland by train wins on money and time even when you miss out on the cheapest fares, given the cost of getting to an airport and the tedium of check-in and security.

Navigating the Borders by bus is possible, but hiring a car offers more fishing freedom. A shuttle links the train station to Arnold Clark rentals, where a boy with gelled hair and a smart shirt beams at me. "You're in luck! We're out of compacts. Are you okay with a convertible?"

The next hurdle is accommodation. Camping is out on the basis that British weather is notoriously dodgy; spending all day in the water, I don't particularly want to risk a dousing while I sleep. There are good Border hostels, but I wind up in one of the area's many B&Bs. The Garden House in Selkirk has the amenities of a fancy hotel and none of the fuss.

Less than an hour from Edinburgh and I'm eating salmon with a platter of vegetables straight from the garden. Tomorrow night, I think, perhaps we'll be eating trout. It is possible to fish for salmon in Scotland on a budget. In the far north and west, on the venerated waters of the Hebrides, permits start at just £7; even in the Borders, a day's salmon fishing on one of Tweed's tributaries can be had for under £40. But that's unusual.

Most Tweed salmon beats - stretches of the river - are privately owned and permits are expensive, kicking in at around £75. Prime spring or autumn "rods" on the famous Junction Pool in Kelso are almost impossible to come by, even for those who can afford the rumoured £38,000 six-day, six-person price-tag. And no, that's not a misprint - the cost really is over £1,000 per person per day. Trout permits, however, are managed by local associations, and rarely cost above £10. The contrast is due to a historically complex system of rights; bizarrely, you can happily wade into the water from one bank with your £4 trout permit in your pocket, while those on a £500 salmon permit descend from the other.

Ron McCombe helps clarify all this for me while we stand thigh-deep in water. Ron is my guide, instructor, tackle provider and company for the day. What Ron is not is a ghillie. On the Tweed, ghillies manage the salmon beats and maintain the riverbanks, and whether they provide instruction or not depends, even according to the tactful Fish Scotland site, on "the helpfulness of the ghillie". There aren't too many instructors on the river. Ron met business partner Bill Drew on an invertebrate recognition course. Where else? Realising that there was a niche to guide those who saw fishing as an activity, not a lifestyle, Tweed Guide was born.

The aim is to get people out and fishing fast, adding techniques as the day progresses rather than getting bogged down in casting pedantry. Theoretically, I could grab a permit from the Spar shop in Melrose and go it alone; practically, I have neither the gear, the local knowledge, nor the self-confidence. If all goes well, Ron will rent me the tackle tomorrow, and I can set off by myself.

I think I'm going to overheat when he hands over the waders, but in the river it's surprisingly cool, despite the neoprene and atypical temperatures.

We're nymphing to start with. Not once am I quizzed on fly selection - I just want one that will work - but this is wet fly fishing, apparently, and not quite as technical as the dry version. First I learn the rolling cast, which uses the weight of the water to get the line out . "Some still-water fishermen say this is a girly cast," says Ron, "but you can't cast overhead when trees are behind you - you'll lose your flies." This section of the Tweed doesn't have that problem. Close to the ruins of Melrose Abbey, the river flows slow and wide. Our backdrop is the Eildon Hills: Kingdom of the Fairies, fabled resting place of King Arthur, or geologically interesting volcanic outcrop, depending on who you ask.

I turn my attention from the scenery to the overhead cast. Forearm up, pause, down. No wrist action required. In theory, the line should curve beautifully, then zip out straight, fly dropping gently on the water in mimicry of the real deal. Up, pause, down. Occasionally I get it. The rest of the time the line snakes and flails, fly more sea monster than delicate nymph. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to matter. Not with wet flies, anyway. Within minutes, I catch one fish, then another. Just small ones: baby trout and salmon parr to unhook and gently release back into the current.

Typical for a summer's day, when the water is slow and low and most fish of legal size - 10 inches and above - are hiding down in the depths. But I've at least partially completed my mission. In the afternoon, we move over to a wilder spot in Yair, and practise casting upstream. A good cast might not be strictly necessary, but it allows the angler to fish greater distances and with precision. And a good cast makes a world of difference when using dry flies, as I find out when we switch. Oh, they still bite. But fish rising to a dry fly spit it out the instant that they know it's an impostor - an instant in which a taut line from a straight cast is the only way to hook them. I fail at this, abysmally.

I'll fail again tomorrow, this time on a quiet, well-stocked loch, and on the drive back to Edinburgh, have to stop the car at a U-Pick berry farm to satisfy the hunter-gatherer urge. But now, surrounded by fields of clover, Scots pine and spruce forest, with a buzzard soaring and dragonfly dancing, lulled by the up, pause, down of the cast and the chiming of the river, I almost forget that I wanted to bring home supper. Thirty-odd small fry have been caught and released; I've fly-fished on British soil. Aside from the absence of killing, I can't imagine a more perfect day.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

GNER (08457 225 225; www.gner.co.uk) offers services to Edinburgh from a wide range of stations north from London Kings Cross (return fares starting at £25), including Peterborough, York and Newcastle. Virgin Trains (08457 222 333; www.virgintrains.co.uk) and First ScotRail (08457 55 00 33; www.firstscotrail.com) also offer routes to Edinburgh from a wide range of stations. For times and fares contact National Rail Enquiries: 08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk. Arnold Clark Rental offers two days' car hire from Edinburgh from £46 (0845 607 4500; www.arnoldclarkrental.co.uk).

STAYING THERE

The Garden House, Whitmuir, Selkirk (01750 721 728; www.whitmuirfarm.co.uk); B&B from £56. Scottish Youth Hostels (0870 155 3255; www.syha.org.uk).

FISHING THERE

Tweed Guide (01890 840 504; www.tweedguide.com) offers three hours' instruction with all clothing and tackle from £47. Booking of salmon and some trout beats is available online at www.fishscotland.co.uk and www.fishtweed.co.uk, along with information on regions, beats, guides and tackle hire. More information: Visit Scotland (0845 225 5121; www.visitscotland.com).

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