A new season – new laws

The 2015 Salmon fishing season on the Spey opens tomorrow with I’m sure the usual mix of optimism and pessimism depending on the individuals outlook. Certainly everyone will be looking for an improvement on last years poor catch; the worst since official records began although the Spey did better than many other rivers, both large and small.

Various calculations have been made to estimate the number of spawning fish required to fully populate the Spey with juvenile fish. These estimates are usually based on the wetted area of the river and the number of eggs spawned. The problem is of course that whilst we can calculate the wetted area with some degree of confidence and we know how many eggs an average hen produces we don’t know how many run the river in any one year. The only counters on the river are in the very upper reaches and confidence in the counts produced by them are low. My hunch is that the spawning stock in the last two years must be getting close to the estimated conservation limit.

Whilst juvenile stocks in the core habitat still appear to be okay, good even in many places,  we have evidence of declines in the more peripheral areas of the catchment.  However, the majority of the smolts are produced in the core habitat and the salmon has a great capacity to recover if runs improve and conditions are favourable. But with the new season about to start it is appropriate to reflect on the need for abundant runs if the river is to suppport a viable fishery. The consequences are already evident on the river; lettings are down, budgets squeezed, accommodation goes unlet.  The world is a small place now and there is a high degree of transparancy about all aspects of salmon angling. Having said that the Spey remains one of the worlds great salmon fishing destinations and anglers still travel from all over albeit with expectation tempered at present. At least it is now possible for new anglers to fish many beats that were formerly “dead man’s shoes”, although that won’t happen without marketing.

Strangely the 2014 season started well with catches through Feb and March almost as good in that period as in the best seasons over the last decade. From mid April onwards however things went flat. The high average weight of the early fish was notable, a feature of the early season not missed by many. One seasoned ghillie commented that big fish early on means there will be a poor run overall. He was right, the decent run of big three sea winter fish was not followed by any numbers of two sea winter fish (always the dominant age class  on the Spey), with an equally poor run of grilse. We have noted from scale readings that the proportion of three sea winter fish is increasing. This tendancy for the fish to remain at sea for a year longer has been commmented on elswhere in recent seasons, notably on the Tay, providing an indication of what is happening to our salmon stocks. On the Tweed this spring the size of the largest fish landed each day so far this season has been in the high teens, yet recent salmon angling books state that the Tweed early spring run consists almost exclusively of 7-8lb two sea winter fish.

Evidence abounds that the runs of salmon are changing. The proportion of grilse in the Spey rod catch has declined from 41% in the 1990s, 38% in the 2000s to 29% in the 2010s so far. Based on historic salmon cycles there is little chance of that trend reversing in the next few years. If the spring and summer salmon runs return to anything like former abundance most would be happy. This spring? I’d settle for a few 7-8lb fish from the river tomorrow.

What about the new laws? The Scottish Government has over the course of the last year taken a great interest in the management of salmon fishing. About time according to some, others caution “be careful what you wish for”. The Government is currently consulting on a range of conservation measures including banning the killing of salmon except under licence, legal control over methods used and carcase tagging. But a law banning the killing of any wild salmon up to the end of March is already in place. This law is absolute; there can be no “first fish killed”, no first of the season for the old folks home, or the laird; even bleeding fish have to be returned to the river where they may die. This places a responsibility for anglers to fish with appropriate tackle i.e. capable of landing a fish quickly and with minimum damage – hook choice in this regard has never been more important. A springer is one of the greatest prizes in angling lets hope there are a lot of small ones about this year, along with the odd big one!

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Spey Fishery Board