Where Eagles (and Salmon) Dare
Fly fishing for salmon in the highlands of Scotland is about a bucolic as it can get. The rushing water, the smell of damp bracken and the rustling of silver birch trees all make for a fly anglers dream. Wild places breed wild fish and the Atlantic salmon that arrive each season have journeyed far to come home.
I am lucky in that I have had the chance to do lots of different fishing at home and overseas but I have only really had the chance to fish for salmon twice in my life so far. This is the story of my second attempt last September 2015 that originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of FlyMage magazine - Ed.
Swinging round in the current, the Juliet (named for the estate owner’s wife) was working her magic on the Farrar, a stunningly beautiful rushing highland river that tumbles down Glen Strathfarrar to eventually become the Beauly at its confluence with the River Glass just a mile or so downstream. Hints of gold were just starting to highlight the birch trees along her banks as autumn took a grip, perfect timing for seeking a salmon migrating upstream, a scene Bonnie Prince Charlie may well have witnessed on his famous journey through the highlands trying to avoid government troops as he hid in a cave for a while further up the Glen. Juliet’s magic today was strong as I had already missed one fish but I was ready for this second take and the battle of Colonel’s Pool had now commenced.
'The Juliet' salmon fly by Dennis Ross
Taking the High Road.
The road north to the highlands of Scotland is a long one when you live as far south in England as I do. 12 hours and 660 miles after setting out, my father (who I had invited along) and I finally arrived at our lodgings just beyond the tiny village of Struy on the road from Beauly near Inverness and just north of Loch Ness making it the perfect base for fishing and family. The stunning and luxurious cabins at Eagle Brae (brae meaning a hillside in Gaelic) are a result of the hard work and vision of Mike and Pawana Spencer-Nairn who have created an award-winning self-catering paradise of the highest order with 7 beautifully constructed and furnished eco-friendly log cabins made of huge western red cedar logs and finished with top quality details like relief carvings inside (ours had a trout in the wall and deer footsteps on the stairs) and built-in benches and tables outside. Each one melts itself away into the landscape with natural camouflage and for nature lovers the wealth of birdlife and the local red deer that pay daily visits is an added bonus that will get you peeking out the windows frequently to see what’s about.
But it was the fishing that had attracted me and particularly the chance to combine a trip targeting the salmon primarily but also with a good shot at pike and brown trout too and I had just 3 days to fit it all in. Eagle Brae have their own fishing on the lower reaches of the Farrar and Glass down to their junction where they become the Beauly, as well as on Loch Monar and two other hill lochs. They can also arrange further fishing on the main part of the Farrar which belongs to the neighbouring estate (which also belongs to a family member) as well as other local fishing in the area. For non-anglers there are plenty of other activities on offer from hiking and biking to fun things like Husky sled-dog rides, canoeing, pony trekking and red deer stalking with gun or camera. Then you have Inverness, Loch Ness and the natural delights of Glen Affric all within an easy drive too if you can tear yourself away from the comfort of your cabin that is.
Salmon on the Farrar.
My first full day in Scotland started with a pre-dawn alarm to hike up the hill behind Eagle Brae following the path to their little hydro weir hoping for a good view of the sunrise over the Glen. Climbing up through the birch forest to the open moorland above, the only welcome I got was the cluck of a grouse hidden in the heather as I reached the top and the view of a solid bank of cloud sadly. Still at least it provided a much-needed dose of cardio-vascular exercise after the confines of the car journey the previous day.
Once back down the mountain, a fisherman’s cooked breakfast set me up for the day ahead and we went down to Eagle Brae’s reception cabin to meet our host for the day, Frank Spencer-Nairn of the Culligran estate and long-time Farrar ghillie Dennis Ross who had drawn the proverbial short straw and now had this salmon fishing veteran of one solo trip to try and impart a lifetime of wisdom to whilst also trying to find a fish or two along the way. Frank talked me through the pools on the top, middle and bottom beats of the river before we jumped in the cars for the short drive along the road and up Glen Strathfarrar. We had the middle beat for the morning and because I was a total beginner to Spey casting (necessary due to the tree-lined banks), I was given a quick course in the basics by Dennis alongside the river.
Allan Sharman and ghillie Dennis Ross work a salmon pool on the River Farrar
It would be hard to describe a more typically beautiful highland scene with the river rushing from pool to pool down its rock-lined course between the scots pine and silver birch trees, dippers dashing up and down the river to look for underwater morsels and the occasional rise of a small brown trout in the slack water, very occasionally punctuated by the splash of a salmon making its presence known. Red deer are stalked up on the hills above and otters occasionally are spotted in the river too, a truly wild and special place.
Because the road follows the river, access is fairly quick to all the pools although some require more of a scramble to reach than others. During one such scramble Dennis told me a story of his initiation on the river many years ago from the previous ghillie who had taken him to a pool and asked Dennis to wade across the river to retrieve a fly stuck in a bush opposite. After half a dozen easy steps he suddenly found himself neck-deep after stepping off an unseen ledge. “Aye, that’ll be where the salmon lie” came the retort from the bank with a wry smile knowing full-well this bit of sage advice would now never be forgotten. The reason I will never forget that story is because that is where my first take happened, in that exact spot. I’d like to tell you the glorious story of how I then proceeded to battle my first Farrar salmon to the bank but alas I cannot. Unfortunately a lifetime of trout fishing and muscle memory caused me to forget all the instruction I was given about letting the fish take the fly, turn and hook itself and I struck, yanking the fly up and out of the salmon’s mouth before it could find a hold. We trudged back to the car to move spots but not before Dennis and my father had taken great delight in teasing this poor hapless salmon newbie on his mistake and reminding me of the fact that chances do not come easy and that could have been my one and only shot for the day. But I took it in good heart and vowed not to repeat the mistake again.
Casting at the Colonel's.
Reaching a nice long pool known as the Colonel’s we got back in the water once more and out came the Juliet once again to swim her way down the river to entice any salmon with her siren song. My casting was coming along and when I got the rhythm right in the lift, the sweep and the push, I was quite pleased to see the line shooting out across the river. I’m no stranger to roll-casting a fly line on trout streams but this was an education in long rods and long lines. Whilst doing all this I was also chanting a mantra in my head on every swing downstream, “don’t strike, don’t strike…”, which was just as well as all of a sudden I felt the line slip between my fingers as a fish once again took the fly. This time everything went as it should and I waited before lifting the rod into the fish which gave a healthy pull as it took its first run.
The first few minutes were a tug of war as I retrieved line which was then duly taken back by the fish on another run, exciting stuff and just the action I had been hoping for. Then on one run the fish came straight towards me and it was all I could do to keep the line taught and the rod high. This ended with the salmon literally sitting at my feet stationery while I had to hold my arms stretched as high in the air as I could with the rod held vertically above so as not to get the knot of the leader inside the tip ring. Dennis was in the customary position a little downstream with the net so no chance to scoop it up there so the fish decided it would take another run or two across the river. It was obviously tiring now so I put a bit more pressure on it and finally guided it back to the waiting net where 10lbs of cock salmon eyed me suspiciously through the mesh as we took it to the edge of the river to unhook.
In his breeding livery of russet reds and browns the salmon had obviously been in the river for a while but it hadn’t seemed to have diminished his fighting abilities and I could now appreciate even more why salmon have such an appeal to my fellow anglers. Once unhooked we faced the fish into the current to give it time to recover before finally allowing it to swim away back to its lie and ready to continue its migration upstream, onward to its ultimate goal of the procreation of its species in the coming weeks. Smiles all around this time and some nice photographs too to mark the occasion and I was now out of the doghouse it seemed, for the time being anyway!
10lb Autumn cock salmon from the River Farrar
After a stop for lunch in the field overlooking the picturesque Green Stream pool it was time to swap to the bottom beat for the afternoon. Here it transpired I was still ‘not quite there yet’ in terms of my discipline as once again I managed to trout strike at my third take, quite an exceptional day by all accounts for the Farrar but one that could have been even better I was reminded wickedly by all had three salmon been brought to the net instead of just the one!
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