I virtually gave up coarse fishing altogether, which surprised me even though I was told this would happen by a casting instructor, Albert Whillock from Hayes, a lovely old chap who tried to teach me to cast a shooting head that was badly matched with my cheap fly-rod. I hadn't paid a penny for the rod; I actually won it in the Daily Mirror Fishing club Tip of the Week contest. Anyone remember that? Back to the casting - I was new to the sport and thought all fly-lines were like this shooting head (which was actually quite horrible, and backed by some really nasty twisty coily mono). I moved forward in quantum leaps once I discovered double-tapered lines and balanced outfits. Later, dissatisfaction with stubby-tailed rainbows led me further afield, not only in search of wild trout and grayling in the affordable Wessex streams, but to fishing for the migratory fish in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.


The very first "away" trip was for salmon, the venue Scotland's magnificent river Spey. This was a double first for me, as not only had I never fished for Salmon, but neither had I ever been to Scotland. Twenty-five years ago the roads were not what they are now. We left at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning and were across the border before 8 a.m. So far so good, until we reached Perth that is. There we encountered the A9, the old road, almost single carriageway and full of twists and turns that could see you stuck for twenty miles behind a swaying caravan or truck. We progressed a little more slowly from that point, but still arrived at Grantown in the early afternoon. Our first stop was on the road bridge just outside the town, where we gazed down awe-struck on the mighty Spey. It looked so good; we just could not entertain the possibility that we might not catch a salmon.

Next stop was at our lodgings, a small family hotel run by an angling family who had moved up from the midlands having been so impressed with the Spey. The name of the hotel escapes me, but I do remember that our hosts were the Stones, the salmon anglers of the family Bill and his son Norman. What wonderful people these were, freely giving all the advice and help we needed, and loaning us some huge fibre-glass fly rods, double-handed Milbro Verres. We soon got to practising on the hotel lawn, under the guidance of Norman, who was to become a good friend. It became quickly apparent that there is quite a different technique required when casting with a double-handed rod. No false casting at all is involved, and you need to aerialise quite a bit of line. And once on the river things get even more difficult, as you have to change direction mid-cast. I had quite a few flies hit me on the back of the head during the next few days!


You are not allowed to fish the rivers on Sundays in Scotland, not for salmon anyway. So we set off to one of the local hill-lochs to fish for trout. I can clearly remember my first Scottish fish - a trout, of course. But not what you might have expected. Instead of a sparkling red and black spotted bar of gold my first Scottish fish was a grotty rainbow with no tail, very dark and oozing milt. I caught 3 more in similar condition. If I'd caught them now I should have put them back, even though their presence in this beautiful loch seemed somewhat incongruous. But, and I can't remember why, I banged them on the head, intending to take them back to the hotel. As I walked along the lane towards our car, a red mini pulled up alongside me. The driver wound down the window and asked if I wanted to sell the trout. It seemed like a good idea to me. He offered £2 for all of them. It seemed reasonable - I had barely been able to afford the trip so every little would help. The only snag was that he didn't have the money with him. But, or so he told me, he only lived down the road. He would drive back and fetch the money. Trusting to a fault I gave him the trout and watched him drive away. I never saw him again.


Monday morning broke on two very excited anglers. After we had all eaten a huge breakfast Norman accompanied us to fish a pool some way outside the town, a superb pool called Tarig (though I might be spelling that incorrectly). Along with several other anglers, we fished this pool all day, but for little result save a few exciting pulls. They had felt to me like fish but were dismissed by the sceptical locals as me getting caught up in old spinning lines (despite the fact that they were fishing in the same way, not getting any pulls, and apparently not getting caught in spinning lines). I must admit I reacted to each of these pulls by striking fiercely - couldn't stop myself. Apparently though, you are not meant to do that. Salmon were harder to catch than I thought. We then began to hear the excuses - not enough rain, too much rain; colour wrong, temperature wrong; too windy, too calm; too bright the day, or too dull. It seems there is always a good reason for not catching a salmon. Good, not my fault then.

Our casting gradually improved as the week wore on, but ironically the first salmon was hooked on a trout rod, my friend latching into a good fish late one evening. The fish was hooked on a small dropper fly - maybe too small as it fell out after fifteen minutes during which time we never saw the fish at all. We were back early next morning, accompanied by Norman who impressed us by putting thirty yards of fly-line across the pool with his beautiful Sharpes spliced cane rod. To demonstrate it was the angler and not the rod, he took my friend's Milbro from him and repeated the cast, handing the rod back just as the fly began to work around the pool. As my friend took the rod, it suddenly pulled round - there was a salmon on the end. But this one too escaped, though it came tantalisingly near. It was just inches from the net frame when the hook pulled out and the fish righted itself and swam off. We didn't hook another, but appetites were certainly whetted for a return trip the following year.

Details of much of the next trip escape me. I do remember that year passed extremely slowly and all I could think of were those salmon. It may be that the excitement of my first capture blotted everything else out. I'd tied a good supply of flies, and it was one of my own design that hung from the leader as I stepped into the head of the pool for the umpteenth time on a freezing, snow-blown day. Wading out until the water came almost to the tops of my waders, and a little beyond the prescribed "fifth button of the waistcoat", I made a cast across the pool & let the fly swing around. As it reached the end of its drift I let it hang for a while before taking a careful step downstream and making a second cast.

I had read as much as I could on salmon fishing during the previous 12 months, including many suggestions as to how one should react to a take. Opinions seemed to vary from giving the fish a little slack line to striking hard straight away. When my first salmon took I had no time for any such considerations. One moment the fly was swinging round in the current, the next the old Hardy Perfect reel was singing a fine tune as a yard of silver salmon leapt high in the air then sprinted downstream. The most impressive thing about the way salmon fight is their speed - these are fish that can swim and leap waterfalls. Get one on the end of a fly rod and you will certainly know all about it. It is a wonderful experience, a final fantastic compliment to the pleasure of wading and fishing such superb rivers in such spectacular scenery.

The fight lasted 20 minutes, with several high-speed runs from the fish. The salmon was eventually tailed by my friend, and I can tell you much air punching followed, rather to the dismay of some of the more dour locals who didn't seem to understand the excitement. I remember I heard one of them mutter "You'd think he'd never caught a salmon before". Well, 'he' hadn't! Maybe they were too old to remember their first. Or maybe there was a little envy there, they were not catching you see. For me this was I think the best moment in my angling life. The fish weighed twelve-and-a-half pounds, not that that mattered at all.

It was our only fish that week. It was clear that for mere mortals such as my friend and I, anglers who could afford neither Helmsdale, Tay nor Tweed, that the capture of one or two salmon in a week's fishing was really all we could hope for. The Spey is a fabulous river, and the association water at Grantown has pools as good as any on the whole river. The problem lies, or did then, in the fact that on a given day there could be as many as thirty anglers fishing a pool. Sometimes you had to queue up to fish. This is mostly carried out in very good spirit, but truly it is not my idea of fishing. I seem to have an aversion to crowds in all walks of life. It did also reduce the odds somewhat.

Imagine that on a given day there might be two or three salmon in a pool willing to take a fly. Further imagine you are the only angler on that pool. Given the right mixture of luck and skill, you will very likely catch, or at least hook those salmon. But then put thirty other anglers on that pool. Aside from the fact that the extra commotion might reduce the number of taking fish, you have now reduced the odds of you being the angler who catches them by a considerable amount. We loved the Spey, we loved the pools there, our hosts were brilliant, but we felt that next year we needed a little more elbow room.

So the following year, which was I think 1978, we travelled to Ireland, to fish the famous river Blackwater at Ballyduff. There we met possibly the only Englishman in charge of an Irish fishing hotel - Mr Martin. I'll tell you all about it next time…

Alan Tomkins