• Ian Gordon

Who Are Salmon Fishermen/women?


Who would be a Ghillie?!

How many people can put their hand on heart and say they look forward to Monday? Who can honestly say “My day is just not long enough”! Not because of work load, but passion for the job. Having worked a 9 to 5 shift, how many people would relish going back to work, unpaid, until dark? As a full time Ghillie at Knockando, one of the premier salmon beats of the River Spey, I find myself in the fortunate position, well for most of the time anyway, to answer yes to the above questions. As a fanatical fly-fisherman, what could be better than spending every day on the banks of the world’s most famous river? Not to mention, spending the day in the company of people who have dreamt all winter about being there! Yes, it’s a tough life but someone has to do it!!

The general perception of the Ghillie would be that of someone who will help with their client’s fishing, i.e. - Advice on tackle, point out the best water, help with fishing/casting technique, along with rowing a boat etc. Whilst all these do form an integral part of our job, the Ghillie must also be something of a diplomat! Looking after fishing parties consisting of between two and six rods can be “trying” to say the least. For me, this was epitomised by Former American Secretary of State, Mr Cyrus Vance, who at the end of his week's fishing, commented “if only we'd had some of you Guy’s during that damned hostage crisis”, it would have been over in half the time! Salmon Fishing is one of those sports that can be enjoyed by people of any age, or indeed sex. But enough said about that for now! It brings the best, and very occasionally, the worst out in people. Happily for both anglers and the Ghillie, the latter makes up only a very small minority. But, as with any sport involving more than one person, there is always that primeval human instinct – Competition!

For the people trying to catch them, the fact that salmon loses the urge to feed in fresh water means, irrespective of skill and knowledge, a fairly level playing field is created. I must add however that experience will, over a period of time, prevail over luck. However, as often happens from time to time, “Lady Luck” will desert even the most skilful angler, something that can be character forming to say the least and a part of salmon fishing that personally, I really like!

So who are these fishermen/women?

The short answer to this would be people from all walks of life. From Kings to Car-salesmen! A common misconception is that only people from a “privileged” background fish for salmon. This may have been the case in the past, but in 2005 [my god is it so long since I wrote this], could not be further from the truth. Good sport can be found throughout Scotland for less than the cost of a game of golf. Admittedly in some cases this may be at Gleneagles!

There I go, straying off the subject straight away. So who are these people? Below are examples of different types of people dealt with by Ghillies on any given day.

Not in any order, you have –

• “Neurotic Fly Man”. This poor fellow spends most of his day sifting through his perfectly organised fly-box containing hundreds, or in some cases thousands of flies, pondering over which one to pick. He often complains to the Ghillie about his “catch ratio”. He finds it difficult to come to terms with the fact that others are catching fish on old “Moth Eaten” flies, whilst he has tried every “work of art” in his box and remains blank!! A quick time and motion study usually does the trick for Mr Neurotic. Although it normally takes time [at least half a week] to sink in, he eventually realises that whilst he is changing flies, his friends are catching fish. Rule 1 - Keep the fly in the water!

• Then we have the “Done it all before man”. This chap epitomises the old adage of - Two eyes, two ears and one mouth, use them accordingly! Quite eccentric, fiercely independent and opinionated by nature, he is known by the Ghilleing fraternity as “Jimmy nae Pals”. On Monday morning he will be found assembling his rod himself, never asking for help, he goes through a weird rod taping ritual different to that of everyone else. Inwardly he is hoping that someone will ask him why! – This is when experience comes into its own. Being naturally inquisitive an inexperienced Ghillie may ask – That’s interesting, I’ve never seen anyone do it that way before! Why that way? Oh dear, big mistake! After being subjected to a fifteen minute diatribe on the subject, the inexperienced ghillie realises his mistake and tries hard to get away. His friends have heard all this before and have slipped away to look at the height of the water! On their return, one of the party will try to have a quiet word with the Ghillie before they begin fishing. Advice on flies, where to wade etc. “Jim”, being a "fount of knowledge" will usually hi-jack this discussion, pointing out, possibly, that he waded in this spot last year, it was only 18 inches deep then! “It couldn’t have changed that much”! Its never too long before we find “Jim” driving off to make an “important phone call”. But in actual fact, he’s trying desperately to hide the fact he has just fallen in and is soaked from head to toe. The wet driver’s seat, along with the change of tweed always gives him away. His spare tweeds, bought 25 years earlier, not only are now three sizes too small, but growing smaller by the minute, absorbing water from his newly fitted “Keep me Dry” incontinence seat covers sold to him by a market trader for three quid. On his return and looking a little like Rudolph Nureyev, he finds that his party have already caught four fish. With gritted teeth, and a face that would turn milk sour, Jim forces a “Well done”, then, in a whisper, asks the Ghillie those questions he should have at the beginning – What, Where and How.

• What about Mr & Mrs Hateeachother. Sorry, forgot the hyphens, Hate-each-other! Blissfully married for around 120 years, this couple could argue for Scotland, but around friends put on a brave face! Having worked a 16 hour day for the past nine months, mentally exhausted Mr “H” is on the river seeking his “Get away from it all”! Unfortunately for him, the thing he really wants to get away from has decided that she also would like to try salmon fishing too. Anything for an easy life, he makes his first mistake, concedes, and Mrs H tags along. Ever the gentleman, he soon finds himself in a catch 22. Although eager to catch a fish himself, inwardly, he’s hoping she will catch the first, as he well knows this will relieve the mental pressure. By Wednesday he’s three nil up, and similar to Chief inspector Drefuss in the Pink Panther films, is developing a nervous twitch. In company, Mrs “H” pulls on all her resources to force a make-up cracking smile, but when backs are turned her face would halt a weather-front. Mind you, Mr H’s cause is not helped by remarks form our “inexperienced” Ghillie. Seeing and feeling the tension, he tries to make light of the situation, asking Mrs H, Where did you get those flies? “Your husbands are much better”, and “they’re catching fish”! The comment sees Mrs H loose it [publicly] for the first time. Her dagger eyes have Mr H singled out like a wounded wildebeest in the Serengeti. Belatedly, he fumbles with his fly box, offering her the pick, but it’s all too little too late. As she moves in for the kill, his thoughts are already turning to the safety of the office!

• Then there is the “Road Runner” This man, having received his instruction as to where to fish, with two “beeps” of his horn and in a flash, disappears up the fishing track like Nigel Mansell. Then, as if being chased by the “coyote”, five minutes late, re-appears from the cloud of dust. In his haste he has forgotten both rod and wading stick. Always thinking ahead and never aware of the present, he finds it difficult to absorb information, the receive button crackles with only small parts of the information being absorbed by his “fishing only” brain! Mind you, the road runner catches fish, and if numbers are more important than good company, then the road runner is your man!

• Women and Salmon Fishing – What is it that makes the fairer sex appear so “lucky”? The word “Pheromones” keeps cropping up, but I think it is the fact that we salmon fishermen, generally, are still mainly gentlemen and will usually give the women what is perceived to be the best chance, first time down the pool, or spending more time with the Ghillie. The ghille himself is normally happy with this arrangement as she is a different animal, her “Receive Button” is in perfect working order.

Having said this, it may be that these Pheromones do in fact somehow send signals to fish. Mind you, there must be an age thing here too. For some strange reason, younger women seem to do better than older women. It just might be that younger women produce stronger Pheromones! But on saying this, it seems that there is yet another sub category. Not only do the young women do better, but somehow, good looking ones do even better. After a lifetime, I’m still trying to work this one out and to coin a much used phrase here on the river – “More Research Required”!

Now call me cynical, but if I visit a beat where the men are out-fishing the ladies, then I’d always have a look over my shoulder before going to the toilet!

• Although far from complete, no list of salmon anglers would be complete without a mention of the “Fish is a Bonus man” [FIB] o [FIBBER]. The “Fibber” as he is more commonly known by Ghillies, is a man who normally shows his true colours towards the end of an almost blank week. “It’s just great to be here”, he says, ensuring everyone can hear. This place surely is heaven on earth, I Just love it here, and let me tell you, “The fish are a bonus”! Now then lad, he says to the Ghillie, there’s no pressure on you this week, we’re all here for a holiday and a good time! However, the main difference between this guy and the guy who genuinely means it is - The fibber always follows the statement without pausing for breath with a question – How many did you get last week? You don’t spin here do you! So the intro would go something like this - It’s just great to be back, aye, this truly is Gods country “If we catch a fish it will be a bonus”, how many did you get last week? By Friday the party have played every golf course in the area. The hot weather is taking its toll on both the river and the angler. His metamorphous is complete! Doctor Jeckal, is now Mr Hide! Having spent £8000 pounds, only caught one fish, being beaten 6 and 5 at golf is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

I tell you this lad, I don’t know why I keep coming bloody place, £8000 for one fish! Never a-bloody-gain! One bloody Fish! I remember when we would catch 40 in the week! No, this is the last. I wouldn’t care if I never saw this dammed place again. Can’t even spin! And, just who the hell is running this shambles? Foaming at the mouth, face turning crimson, he’s now hyperventilating and his throat gurgling, like a coffeemaker! Fortunately for the fibber, this is actually quite a good thing, as it means he must now at least pause for breath. It gives the Ghillie a chance to determine the best course of action. This is truly where experience takes over! Does he want to see this guy back next year or not? If the answer is no, then he will probably agree and may even embellish it all a little, just to make the guy feel a little worse, if that were possible. If however, the answer is yes, ever the diplomat, he may point out – It was the hot weather, along with low water that contributed to the poor week. Also, that he was one of many throughout the river to have a poor week, and there are positives to take from this. That fish we caught happened to be one of the best that week and his best ever. He may also point out that he had never seen him cast so well, and that the good weather had contributed to that. Also, his family had remarked that they really enjoyed the break, the weather although not the best for fishing, made a nice change from what they normally find in Scotland. Having caught his breath and listened to this, our man is feeling somewhat better and beginning to calm down; suddenly he has found the will to live again.

Yes, we meet some characters on the river-bank, people who by default provide us with so many stories and endless hours of fun.

But fun is not the only thing on offer from our fishing clients. Over the years I have learned so much from clients who have visited the Spey.

Salmon Fishing is, some would say, an enigma. There are very few hard and fast rules and experience only comes with time on the river. Realising this from an early age I would, if at all possible, try to do my fishing alongside old experienced anglers.

I have found that experienced salmon anglers impart their best secrets only to those who have their confidence, and also express a genuine interest in the subject. Most of the time they will go about their business quietly and without much fuss.

Ghillies are also known for their wit, sense of humour and the love of an occasional glass of the local amber produce. A glass or two is often the preface for some wonderful stories and interestingly, maybe why so many visitors now comment on the fact “There’s not the same characters anymore”. But that’s another story!

I remember my first day on the beat. I had to meet the old Ghillie from whom I was taking over. George, an ex prisoner of war, was sat on the bench overlooking the tail of a fantastic salmon pool. Typical, as I found out later, was his pose; “piece-bag” [Old WW11] gas mask bag] on back, with cup of tea in one hand and “roll up” in the other. I introduced myself and focused on the women fishing the far side of the pool. Hearing a loud crack every time she made a cast, convinced me she was fishing without a fly and the fact this was a horrendous wade made me feel even more bad for her situation. Trying to be tactful, I felt the best course of action was to stay quiet, however, after gaining confidence and listening to the circus act for what seemed an eternity, I finally said to George, do you think she still has a fly on? There was a short pause between a sip of tea before he replied, “Na, she’s nae had a flee on ah morning but she’s dein fine”! This was my introduction to the job on my new beat, laid back to the extreme!!

He turned out to be one of the most knowledgeable people I had ever met; a man who like lots of his generation, kept his ear to the ground. However, by this time he was nearing retirement and I think years of beginners and poor casters had taken their toll.

Mind you, he hadn’t lost his sharp wit. Another day, I arrived to find him fishing the main pool from the boat, which I noted, positioned in the wrong place. It hadn’t stopped raining all day and he looked thoroughly miserable and dejected with the water pouring off his hat into his tea. Aye you look pretty wet out there, I said, to which his reply was; I’ve never been so dry in my life! Alluding not to his outer, but inner state!! His client had caught three fish, but by the position of the boat, it was plainly obvious he had no chance of catching another. Three fish without a “dram” was quite enough for anyone!

I have heard it said that Ghillies of this generation were generally better than their counterparts of today. I’m not so sure about this, but what is true, is that there were many more fish in our rivers at that time. And, when the fish are there and in the mood, every salmon fisherman knows, it’s easy.

Salmon-Fishing has changed in the 21st century, some would say not for the better, but change it has.

It is now part of an ever expanding leisure industry, an intricate and important part of the Scottish Rural Economy, which in itself, calls for greater professionalism. Today, people expect more for their pound than in the past.

Greater competition globally, fewer fish in our home rivers, along with fewer clients fishing for salmon, are only a few examples of what makes the Ghillies job in the 21st century more challenging than ever before. More information = More questions = More informed answers.

The Land Reform Bill Scotland has also brought with it new challenges for the Ghillie, with right to roam, increasing volumes of canoeing/rafting, all of which are dealt with, at the sharp end by the Ghillie. Mind you, for most of us, this is just another diplomatic challenge, just another day in the office, like water off a ducks back!

Ian Gordon [2005]


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