• Ian Gordon

Whats happened to our Autumn Salmon?

Here on the Spey and across most of Scotland, the salmon fishing season of 2020 is coming to a close with our rivers showing a decent, much improved stock of spring and summer salmon, a few more Grilse, but little or no fresh running Autumn fish.


Spring Salmon and Cane Rod

A 2020 early June "Spring" Salmon


It would appear we are going through what we anglers recognise as being a “Spring Cycle”, so most fish running the river between the months of May and July. Although we refer to those as Multi Sea Winter (MSW) Springers, in actual fact the vast majority of those arrive in our rivers between mid-May and July, so not Springers at all, most of those are MSW summer salmon, “a springer”  it’s a good collective term. Right now, and for the past 40 years this has been the case. Prior to this, in the 1950s – 70s, those arrived in our rivers slightly earlier, in some parts of the river, generally the lower reaches, as early as March and April, whilst in the upper part, May and early June was the time. During this time period, those would then be followed by a small run of Grilse and even smaller run of Autumn fish. Then in the late 1970s things began to change, springers went into decline, replaced, it would appear, by Autumn running salmon. All of this suggested a natural cycle, something that’s happened for millennia! Because of our weak and very “brief” understanding of the pertinent timescale, Cycles relating to salmon fishing, are something we are conditioned to believe are uniformed, providing perfect cadence, similar to that of a heartbeat. However, in the case of Atlantic Salmon this is certainly not the case, although we describe fluctuations of spring and autumn salmon runs as a cycle, there is no cadence or pattern, so in actual fact, thinking of this as a cycle is flawed and in the big picture, misleading and something which inevitably has us looking in the wrong places when trying to find answers. Barking up the wrong tree springs to mind!

Autumn Salmon Arndilly

Simon Martin With one of 5 Salmon Caught that morning on Arndilly. All were Spring/Summer Salmon.


Instead of looking for and trying to work out patterns, we should be looking for the cause. Why would this change in run time happen? Is it influenced by us? Is it totally natural? What are the natural drivers? 

Having studied the river and those changes all my life, I believe the answer to the last of those questions is to be found in where the progeny of those adult fish end up as Parr before smolting and going to sea. It makes sense that this “particular area” in the river, due to ever changing levels of flooding and freezing, can/will never remain constant and as adaptable as they are, they have little or no defence mechanism against man made problems such as water abstraction, dams, pollution via Chemicals, farm, forestry and roads. 


We are conditioned to accept science. A perfect example of this is Covid. The science says this is what we should do, so we follow. However, a little knowledge can be dangerous and incomplete or poorly formulated science can be seriously misleading. When the full picture is not clear and Science cannot properly answer the question, then what do we turn to? 

I remember a room full of learned people watching in awe, nodding their heads in approval as a biologist presented data based on one year's experiment (the results of which suited his narrative). Listening to the comments made by his followers after the meeting, I conceded, we have no chance here! I never returned to another such meeting. What was the point!?

We accept as gospel that all early fish run upstream, utilising the upper part of the river and tributaries to spawn. However those "conclusions" were drawn from a limited experiment carried out over a relatively short timescale. I’m sure had the radio tracking experiments been carried out in the 1950s and 60s the answers and conclusions would have been very different. I remember saying to Director of Fishing at the time, Dr James Butler, this work really needs to be re visited. This is one of many reasons' although extremely useful, if not complete, fisheries science, be misleading, sending everyone down the wrong track for years. Due to a lack of long-term field study, fisheries science it’s in its infancy, so even to “assume” we have the answer to this question, one which everyone generally accepts to be true, is foolhardy. It’s true that over the lifetime of the experiment (1988-89, 2 years) early running salmon utilise the full length of the river for spawning (including upper tributaries), however, some of those fish tracked stayed and spawned in the middle part of the river. The progeny of those fish will not have had the desire to run any higher up the system.


Another Springer at Macallan

What we can say with almost certainty, backed up by historic records, is, true Autumn salmon only ever use the lower reaches of the Spey to spawn. This means that the progeny of Autumn, because they spent all their life as Juveniles in the lower river, when returning as adults will never have the desire to run any higher than this. 

Spring and Summer Salmon, on the other hand, colonise the river over its entire length and as such will most certainly have the desire to run to the area they went through the change from Parr to Smolt before stopping for the first time. Some will migrate as far as the place of their birth, but a great deal will stay in the mainstream of the river.


Salmon Fishing on the River Beauly

An early running summer grilse being returned to the Beauly in late September.


If we can imagine for one moment a 10 year period with no extreme weather conditions, perfectly stable water levels and temperatures, then there’s no doubt in my mind the main cohort of fish in the river would be spring/summer salmon and in all probability, some, albeit fewer Autumn fish. The main reason for this is obvious, the progeny of those fish are present over 90% of the length of the river whilst the offspring of Autumn fish are present in the remaining 10%. 

Looking at the above and thinking about the the flood events contributed to extreme weather over the past ten years, is it any wonder that Autumn fish have faired worse on every river in Scotland and the UK? Of course it’s not. Their eggs, fry and Parr and much more vulnerable to that of spring or summer running grilse and salmon, all of which colonise and utilise a far greater part of any river. Theres no doubt that big spates wash fish from the top and those then colonise the part of the river vacated by their Autumn cousins. So begins the cycle of recolonisation. Simple, yet extremely complex!

Rivers such as the Ponoi in Russia are great examples of this, it has little or no influence from man and as such produces very stable runs of fish. We can almost set our watch by those. Osenka or ice fish, are nothing but early running springers. They arrive in the river mainly in September, migrating slowly  upstream but not spawning till the following October /November. The river has distinct run timings and, for salmon, a very uniformed pattern. However, it too is affected by natural influences such as extreme weather. 


Ian Gordon on the Ponoi

An Osenka [Ice Salmon] being returned to the Ponoi river in early October


There’s no doubt, and I told the guests I had fishing at the time, that the 2009 flood on both the Spey and Deveron and subsequent change in “Juvenile structure” and “overall output” would have a massive long-term effect on each of the two “fisheries”, it had to. The double whammy of Storm Frank in 2015 was the final nail on the head for those fisheries, particularly Autumn Salmon. 

However, from the ashes rises the Phoenix. Because of the nature of this amazing creature, the 90% will prevail and as we have seen in 2020. Eventually, during a period of less extreme weather, or, a series of environmental changes, those Autumn fish will begin to make a return too and hopefully keep the next generations guessing too. Thankfully we don’t need the masses of salmon we had in the past to enjoy them in the 21st Century. It’s all about managing and understanding them through “good science” and understanding.  

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