A couple of summers ago I joined a group of friends for a few days’ salmon fishing on the River Dee, just upstream of Aberdeen. As it turned out – like most of my fishing trips – the water conditions were hopeless. The river had, thanks to a couple of weeks of near-Sahara weather, dropped way, way below its usual summer level. This meant that the only fish eager enough to leave the relatively comfortable confines of the estuary to run upstream were sea trout that were, honestly, about the size of a good sardine. While the banter among friends was great and the beer flowed (unlike the river), I’d gone all that way and was beginning to feel like all hope was lost. I began to look for other options on the map, just to see a different bit of scenery for a day and to take my mind off the useless conditions.
From the time I first started salmon fishing, I’ve dreamt of the Spey. The sport wouldn’t be the same without the grace (okay, frustration) of Spey casting, and I’ve always wondered what the ‘home’ of salmon fishing looked like and what all the fuss was about. I never thought I’d get to fish it; surely such a famous river demanded the angler to have a double-barrelled name and at least one item of tweed clothing? Asking around the group, my friend John had the vital information; he knew how to get there to start with. Secondly, and equally importantly, he knew of a fishing shop on the banks of the river… that sold the odd day ticket! That was it for me. I wanted to be able to say I’d Spey cast on the Spey. I didn’t care if there wasn’t a salmon for miles around and I didn’t care that the drive – in blisteringly hot weather – was going to take a good deal of the morning.
The ‘back road’ from Aberdeen to Speyside’s Aberlour is a stunner: up the Dee to Banchory then a haul over the Cairngorms with truly unbelievable views. We saw red stags, what I’m sure was either the biggest buzzard ever or an eagle, and an array of ski lifts (which looked a bit out of place in the late July heat wave).

The monster – this 40-pounder hangs in the Aberlour Hotel.

Eventually arriving in Aberlour, John stopped the car next to the smart country clothing and fishing shop Munros. He greeted proprietor Hamish and instantly asked about the fishing. Hamish didn’t really need to say anything – his disappointed look said it all. “I haven’t heard of a fish being caught for a couple of weeks I’m afraid. There are one or two sea trout being landed in the evenings… but I do mean one or two!” he said.
Because of the desperately low conditions, the local Aberlour Angling Association members just hadn’t been bothering to put a rod together. But then they hadn’t travelled several hundred miles to the highlands to go fishing! With six visitor day tickets available each day, it wasn’t a problem for us to get on and at the princely sum of (at the time)… £20!

Tim quickly fell in love…

We were given maps of the half-mile of water, thanked Hamish (who practically tried to dissuade us from fishing!) and jumped back into the car. John turned off the main street, drove literally 100 yards and promptly parked next to the town playing field. We were there, smack bang on the banks of the river that is surely Mecca to any salmon angler worth their salt. Instantly I understood why. Here too the water was as low as it had been in years… but my god it flowed. You couldn’t have made a river look fishier.

The bridge at the top of the beat marks a favourite lie for many salmon.

Near the top of the beat there’s a suspension footbridge and, as we trotted up the steps, we could see every stone on the bottom; the water was like gin. Halfway across, without being able to look away from the water, a large flash of silver caught my eye just downstream of the bridge. The salmon lay in maybe three feet of water, working hard against the strong current; as the sunlight caught its sides you could even make out the sea lice behind its adipose fin. I took time to estimate its weight at 12lb to 13lb and only looked up to see John racing to the car to grab rods and waders! I left him to it and kept watching the fish.
It was only a few minutes before John shouted up: “Silver Stoat… size 14,” as his hands shook and he tested his knots. I stood transfixed, directly above the fish, marking its position as John’s first cast went out a way upstream allowing him to gauge the length of line he needed. He moved half a dozen paces down and cast again. I stopped breathing as I turned back to the fish. The tiny fly touched down perfectly on the mark, yet a good 20 yards away from the salmon into the middle of the river. I swear that fish saw it instantly. Its fins started to bristle and it dropped downstream ever so slightly… like a coiled spring. As I caught the tiniest glint of John’s fly, the salmon moved. Out into the river it swam, lifting all the time in the water, and as it met the fly its mouth opened. I turned back to John to watch his reaction. Nothing. I turned back to the fish. It had vanished! Everybody has a fishing story that they tell time and time again. This one’s mine. It still amazes me how that fish spotted the tiny fly from such a distance, how eager it was to inspect it, yet how, at the very last moment, it simply disappeared.
John and I fished on through the afternoon and enjoyed every moment of it. The flies fished beautifully across the pools, the perfect flow keeping tension on the line all the way round. Although the beat was only short, you just had to fish every inch of it, feeling that a fish could come at any moment… it wasn’t long before it did!
A couple of casts into the final pool on the beat and something took a liking to my size 14 Cascade. The floating line just drew away so gently it could have been a passing fallen leaf. I lifted the rod just in case and, well, my first River Spey salmon was soon cartwheeling across the pool. The gleaming little grilse had fought its way upstream in the low water and made a distinct error in Aberlour! With a few snaps taken, I released the fish before sitting back on the bank, sporting the biggest grin you’ve ever seen.

Even in extreme low water, the grilse were eager for the fly.

Another, almost identical fish joined that one that day, and John later hooked his friend under the bridge, which instantly ran the entire length of the pool before shaking the hook free. The Spey at Aberlour had, in those few hours, become my favourite place to salmon fish.
Since that first trip I’ve returned several times, dropped in to see Hamish and picked up tickets and always had that hand-trembling feeling when it came to choosing the first fly to try. With the exception of a snowbound day in February last year, I have, flukily, never failed to land a salmon at Abelour and so I’m super-confident whenever I’m lucky enough to fish it! I’m sure that the many other beats of the Spey are stunning too, with a better chance of fish and better scenery and better this and that. But this will do me just fine thank you very much. I love fishing it, it’s affordable and it holds some memories I’ll have for life. I wouldn’t want it any other way!

Three flies for the Spey…

Mini Willie Gunn

Arndilly Fancy


Total Fly Fisher