November 3rd, 2015


Chapter One: the background.

I have been asked by visitors to FCW, and others involved with recreational salmon fishing, to explain where I think we are on the issue of predation. Whether you are in a boat on the Tay, or on the banks of the South Esk, you only have to observe for a short while before you have evidence of predation before your eyes. Most often in fresh water it will be fish-eating birds, but you might also see mink, otters, or the occasional seal, all of which will most probably be feasting on salmon and sea trout parr, and in the spring on their smolts, as they migrate towards the sea.

You might then logically say to your visiting angler, “terrible, isn’t it, that we allow this to go on. We should be culling these predators to conserve our salmon stocks”.

Dolphins killing salmon 1

Predation by dolphins in the Moray Firth:

The beleaguered Atlantic salmon is prey throughout its life: if it isn’t a goosander or cormorant that gobbles up precious smolts in the river, it might be a large trout or pike in the lower river, or in the estuary or inshore a bass or gilt-head bream. Even after running the gauntlet of the river, another phalanx of predators – seals, pisciverous sea birds, porpoises, dolphins, and as yet unidentified invading species, to list just a few of the potential culprits.

So there you have it. We think we already know which species of UK’s indigenous animals are killing our salmon. And these predators are being supplemented by new arrivals as sea temperatures rise. Should we put a stop to this constant attrition by trying to exterminate more of them than we do at present? If we were successful, our salmon and sea trout could migrate with less prospect of being eaten. Is that the way forward?

I know that most people will say, “what a stupid question! Of course I don’t want to kill them all. I want to see a balance in the way we manage our wildlife”. Good, that is a really sensible answer, as any grouse moor manager and GWCT will tell you; but how do we decide what that “balance” should be? One person’s balance (the salmon angler) is another person’s slaughter of innocent wildlife (the RSPB). So, who is to decide the proportions of predators and prey that make for that balanced management approach?

Usan Nets 4

Possibly the most damaging predation of all: coastal mixed stocks netting near Montrose

It is reasonable to assume that people who want to conserve stocks of wild salmon and sea trout want to see a reduction of predation. But we would also like to see wildlife beside and in our rivers – herons, mergansers and perhaps the occasional cormorant, a family of otters, along with other species such as dippers and kingfishers that pose a minimal threat to stocks. After all, all these animals are part of our national wildlife; they belong here just as much as salmon and sea trout do. I guess we anglers are looking for a sort of utopian balance, with free rising salmon rising in every pool, but without the burden of conscience from having to organise multi-species genocide to get it.

You have the RSPB, IFAW and SPAG (Seal Protection Action Group), to name just three organisations that seek to protect the species they champion. In all cases their favoured species has some level of legal protection. For example, in the case of seals, the Marine Scotland Act allows only minimal licensed culling, and that is constantly under attack by those who want it reduced to zero. At present Scotland has about 200,000 Atlantic Grey seals and 20,000 common seals. Is that enough? Too few? Or too many? Who decides? Furry animals with appealing eyes will always win the political debate,
The same sort of thing applies to RSPB and protection of pisciverous birds, along with birds of prey, and with little thought of that elusive balance. Wise management, not just simplistic species protection is required if we are to get the balance right, and thereby start to rebuild our salmon and sea trout stocks. At present decisions on how many are killed are made a long way from the riverbank.

OspreyHere is a predator, the iconic osprey, at Rescobie Loch, Forfar

The truth is that the various species-protection organisations are not concerned with management. Their interest is protection of their target species. Balance between the biological/environmental, economic, social and cultural aspects of human interactions with different species comes later, sometimes not at all. If ‘balance’ comes into their campaigns it is politically motivated as a sop to the public, or to support specific habitat requirements.

Our resources are limited. Our communities are often divided in their views, and no one really knows where to start. One refrain from decision makers keeps returning, “Get your facts in order. Provide evidence. Wheel out the scientific data”. That means scientists. They are the people who can access the Facts, and politicians will only act on scientific facts. Science is important: in fact you can’t move without it!

WE MUST AVOID HYPOCRISY AT ALL COSTS But, and this is important, we must not become so obsessed with our concern for salmon that we exclude other species, some of which may deserve equal concern from their champions as we have for wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout. We must avoid hypocrisy at all costs. Indeed, there is no reason why we, the salmonids conservation sector, shouldn’t take the lead in defining what ‘balance’ means and how it might be achieved.

9 lbs salmon in net

We anglers are ‘predators too, when we kill a fish

But what happens when we present the facts, as AST did conclusively with impacts of sea lice on west coast Scottish sea trout stocks, and still they won’t listen?

Do we give up trying to conserve sea trout (and wild salmon) on the west coast? Of course we don’t, but we know that in the present circumstances we are highly unlikely to win our arguments, even with the best data in the world. You don’t need to know much about Scottish political priorities to understand why…

In the next chapter I will start to set out the research and actions currently being undertaken to assess the threats to salmon and sea trout survival posed by predators. This is work in progress because it has to be in a rapidly changing natural environment with climate change and over exploitation of the seas, to name but two issues.



October 1st, 2015


A friend wrote to me about our Indian summer. He is coming to fish at FCW in late October and told me that he thought it might be a good time to paint some water colour pictures of the river if the current bright days and low river level continues. Here’s my reply;

Yes, idyllic. In fact I took the dogs out early this morning for their constitutional (which I have to say they take extremely seriously) and wandered down to my vantage seat at the head of Tyndals, tucked under the mature sycamore tree. As I sat there, with the dogs starting to think about breakfast (ie getting affectionate!), I saw a fresh grilse clear the water at the head of the stream, just a matter of five yards downstream of the Webcam Boulder. It was a fresh fish!

9 lbs salmon in net

Even better was an incident yesterday afternoon, with the sun blazing down and the water dead low. Iain had been ghillieing all day for a Mr Symonds to whom I had explained that there was small chance of catching a fish, but that he would have a lovely day fishing all the FCW pools (no one else fishing) in the excellent company of Iain.

Well, two things happened: first, Iain reported on huge numbers of salmon, mostly coloured, splashing about in House Pool, but none was in the slightest bit interested in his or Mr Symonds’ offerings. Then Iain told me that he had seen a veritable monster, as fresh as a spring daisy, or a Buckingham Palace freshly bulled tureen, leap clear of the water at the top of Breadalbane Pool. He was a bit coy about how big, but relented this morning when I pressed him by saying that it was in the upper twenties, or even bigger. A real South Esk Brammer!

Early autumn view in low water from the Red Brae Hut.

Early autumn view in low water from the Red Brae Hut.

Then, to cap it all on a hopeless day for fishing, our friend Mr Symonds, by this time charmed into a bucolic lethargy by the natural assets of FCW, convivial company of Iain, and warm sunshine, was fishing through the Red Brae with Iain beside him. Fishing with a Wetcel 2 and a Willie Gunn weighted cone head they fished through all the streamy bits before getting to the end of the Wall. Iain said to Mr S, “this is the dub where fish lie, but you will need to work the fly (there being no stream of any consequence)”

So Mr S took Iain’s advice and dropped the fly just short of the broken rocks under the south bank, downstream of the end of the Wall. As soon as he started to work the fly it was snatched hard by a heavy fish which turned out to be a splendid 15lbs cock salmon with full kype and glorious tartan. It gave the surprised Mr S a real struggle, as those big sexed-up, testosterone-filled male monsters do, was landed weighed and returned.

Beechesin very low water 9.13

Salmon fishing really is a mug’s game isn’t it?


PS By the way, I am sure there will be water when you are here, with the Indian Summer long gone and your water colours in their box. Leaves may be a problem. We will see.


Memorable Summer Salmon

July 28th, 2015
After a day on AST business in Edinburgh yesterday, I decided to fish just one pool in the gathering dusk of a drizzly late evening. I chose the Red Brae, where the water level was lapping the top of the wall – a perfect height for catching a salmon. Getting to the Red Brae’s north bank from the suspension bridge is much easier, and less like bashing through the Sumatra jungle, after Iain’s work clearing a wide path.  Combined with repairs to the suspension bridge access to the north bank is now fully restored. It is now an easy stroll along the bank to fish the Red Brae itself, from the Lemno confluence at the height of water last night. I should also mention the emergency repairs carried out by William Wells and The Scottish Oak team on our flood damaged suspension bridge. It is as good as new, awaiting the next massive tree rolling down the river on top of a big spate! Thanks Will.
9 lbs salmon in net
9lbs salmon from the dub of Red Brae Pool
A silvery and drizzly dusk.
I was encouraged by the sight of a neat, split fresh, little grilse rolling it’s back and flicking its tail in the way only grilse do. That fish showed just where the current changes direction at the downstream end of the wall. And then I saw a salmon boil a bit further down in the deep part of the pool – the Dub. The water was slightly peat coloured and enticingly clear, so that I could see every cobble and ripple of sand on the bed of the river.
I fished the pool down steadily, plopping the fly just short of the wall on a fast sinking leader with a size 8 Yellow Torrish double with reduced barbs. Below the wall I started lengthening line to get the fly swinging nicely across the widest part of the pool, led smoothly by bringing the rod tip across and parallel to my own bank while gently hand lining to keep up the speed and depth of the fly About ten yards down from the end of the wall, in a lovely swirly bit of water where the current starts gathering pace, I felt a long, firm draw. The rod tip bowed reverently and I tightened into a strong hen fish of about eight pounds, which after two determined runs, gradually came to the net after about ten minutes. She was a bit coloured and the hook came away in the net, so I was able to photograph her in the net and release her without touching the fish. Needless to say, she swam off strongly, with relief expressed in every movement of her fins as she slid away into the peaty depths of Red Brae.
You might be thinking to yourself, “why is Tony telling this story of one very ordinary and not very fresh salmon?” A simple answer from me: it was all about the satisfaction of ending a long and tiring day on a note of perfection. As I walked back in the deepening dusk, with a fine drizzle keeping the trees shiny and dripping, I was reminded of why I go fishing, and of those elemental emotions the hunter in me evokes!