Catching the bug

I can remember my first salmon like it was yesterday. Actually, it was a Saturday. I know that because I was fishing with my father on the River Forth. I was 8 years old when I caught that 14lb, coloured cock fish. But I caught more than a fish that day – I caught the bug. And as every angler knows, there’s no going back!

My father wasn’t a ghillie. But he was an avid salmon and trout angler. He’d work all week and take me fishing every Saturday since before I can remember. You know you have a real love for something when it stays with you throughout your teenage years and into adulthood. I’ve never stopped salmon fishing.

Today, it’s not fishing myself that gives me those memorable moments. It’s seeing a young angler catch their first spring salmon. That’s something we all remember.

As a young adult, I used to go fishing with a good friend of mine, who’s since passed away. And it was Stan who first asked me why I hadn’t become a ghillie,

“You’ve got the knowledge, you’ve got the skills and you’re great with people.”

And I thought, “Well, for a Glasgow boy, that’s the stuff of your wildest dreams – being a ghillie. These jobs are handed down from father to son.”

But to my surprise, the transition from angler to professional ghillie was quite easy. I’d built up a wealth of knowledge and I knew the job and the sport intimately, so really, it was a natural move.

Stan helped me get my first under ghillie’s job on the Tay. And I honed my ghillieing skills and went out harling with him, up on his beat. I was thrilled when I landed my first full-time ghillieing job on the Tay. Then, when the job came up at Dalmarnock, I went for it. And the rest – as they say – is history! I was ghillie on the beat for 5 years before we took on the lease ourselves and I’ve never looked back.

Even after all these years on the river, I still have to pinch myself sometimes and ask, “Am I really here doing this?”

It’s a ghillie’s life for me

Every season starts with Opening Day on the beat. We have a wee dram on the river and the first line is cast. We open on 15th January and we fish right through to 15th October, although I start back just after New Year – getting our boats back in the water and the fishing lodge ready for next season’s guests.

Come October, I take our two wooden boats out of the water to be rubbed down, steam cleaned, sanded and repainted – ready for the next season. You have to let them dry out properly before you paint them, which can take a few weeks, depending on the Scottish weather. So that’s when we try to sneak in our family holiday!

Before you know it, it’s Christmas and New Year – and I’m back on the river again.

Why the Dalmarnock beat?

The Dalmarnock beat itself is very underfished because it was never let commercially. It’s been in the same family for generations, who (until recent years) had only fished it themselves. That makes Dalmarnock a really special beat to fish. My favourite pool, at the right height, is the Clachtaggart Pool. It’s a beautiful fly pool. And for the angler who’s fishing it, the expectation is always very high. It feels like you’re going to catch a salmon with every cast. It really is a beautiful pool.

Spring Fishing

My favourite time to fish (and I think most anglers would agree) is in the spring. We catch springers at Dalmarnock from Opening Day but they peak in the springtime. And because these fish need to be in the river for over a year without feeding, they’re in optimum condition. Any salmon angler that comes to Scotland wants to catch a big springer on the fly. And you’ve got a good chance on the River Tay, where we’re renowned for our big fish.

Legendary catches

There’s been a few! This year, we had a big catch in January – a particularly big, 27 lbs, springer. I’ve seen (and heard stories of) plenty of big catches on the beat, including a 42 lbs springer. But perhaps my favourite one, was featured in Fred Buller’s, ‘The Doomsday Book of Giant Salmon: A Record of the Largest Atlantic Salmon Ever Caught’. The monumental salmon was hooked at Dalmarnock by the Duke of Atholl, and they reckon it was 72 or 73 lbs. You don’t get fish like that anymore!

A ghillie’s word on retirement

Oh, that’s easy. There’s no such thing!