The 1st of September 2017 saw me standing on the shore of the beautiful Loch Maree, once the best sea trout fishery in the world, waiting to be interviewed for a documentary on the effects of fish farming on the environment, wild salmon and businesses here in Scotland. The idea of the film is to educate or enlighten the people of Iceland as to the potential long term threats of fish farming on their wild salmon fishing, environment and businesses too.
So I’m standing viewing the beautiful loch, the lovely Slioch, the most majestic mountain reaching for the sky like some huge top hat, when I was reminded of the date. The 1st September. The first day of autumn, however, for me this was always a date synonyms with the tail of Sandy’s “BIG FISH”!
The date was the 1st September 1987, the place – The Long Pool Knockando.
It had been a year of big fish. Only a few weeks before I’d landed a 36.5lb fish, the guests first ever, on Lower Pitchroy [but that’s another story]. 20 year later I can picture Sandy’s fish as if it was yesterday, such was the clarity of the incident.
The day began with me ghillying for Sir David Wills on Craig Neish, the pool directly above the Long Pool on Knockando. Sir David, one of the most knowledgeable people I ever met, was just beginning his week and, fortunately for Sandy [The head Ghille], or not as the case may be; due to the fact, not all the guests had arrived, he was asked by Sir David to fish.
By this time of the year, pools in this area were full of jumping salmon. So many in fact that, during the same year, I counted 98 fish jump in the Polarder pool at Lower Pitchroy, in one minute! It really was a sight to behold. Anyway, I digress.
Sitting in the boat in Craig Neish, Sir David and I had a good view down the Long Pool where Sandy was fishing and not 10 minutes into the first drift down on the boat I said to Sir David, Is that Sandy into a fish? Peering down the pool at the figure standing on the bank some 120 yards away, he said, yes, I believe he has one, “he’ll be fine though”, Sandy’s very experienced!
The minutes passed and my eyes were fixed on the bent rod some way below us. 10, 15, 20 minutes later, Sir David said, Ian, otter the boat ashore and go and see if Sandy needs help. Ottering the boat [Drifting the boat to the shore with the anchor still attached further upstream] was easy here and Sir David was more than capable of finishing the pool by himself, so off I went, at this time, running downstream to find Sandy by the Saddle Stone, around mid-way down the pool with the rod bent and fish not moving. He’s not moved at all said Sandy, but I know it’s a fish and I know It’s a decent one. “Have you got a gaff”, I asked, no was the answer! At this time, all fish were killed and gaffing fish was still considered acceptable. I thought, shit! I’d not have landed the one a few weeks earlier without the gaff. “I have a tailor”, explained Sandy. A tailor was a snare inspired gadget that you are supposed to slip over the fishes’ tail before triggering the mechanism and capturing the fish by the tail, or at least, that was the theory, personally I’d never used one. Sandy handed me the gadget and we pondered the next move. “What do you think” he asked? After 30 minutes this fish hadn’t moved, I thought and said, “I’d get below him, get some side-strain and see if you can turn his head”. Just what I was thinking myself said Sandy. He moved slowly down stream, the line tightening as he went, the rod tip fell lower causing the fish to feel the butt of the rod, when suddenly, the surface of the water broke and the quiet rippling stream was replaced by the most enormous displacement of water, unlike any salmon I’ve seen before or since, this was incredible. The Marquis reel Sandy was fishing with suddenly began singing, “Holy shit” I said. But this time [3 seconds] this fish had ran from the Saddle Stone into the hole at the tail of the pool, a distance of some 120 yards. I’ll never forget the sound of the reel or the cart wheeling of this fish as it ran down. “That’s got to be 30lbs Sandy” I said. Aye, I recon it’s that for sure was the reply.
Retrieving the line and making his way to the bottom of the pool we now began a war of attrition, the fish pulled and Sandy pulled but nothing he could do was making much of a mark on this fish. The excitement was electric. One hour passed and a now tiring Sandy said, let’s go over to the far side and see if we can lift him out of the deep water. The bank was higher and he felt he’d get more leverage on him, so off we went on the boat. Ten more minutes on the far side and no impression was being made. I saw the beginning of the leader a couple of times but down into the depths it would go again. Finally, Sandy felt we might make more of it back on the original side so off we went again. We hadn’t seen this fish since it showed originally but there was so much water it was difficult to gauge the size, however, we were beginning to think it may be a little bigger than originally thought. Back on the left bank we were now joined by Sir David who was carrying his net, a hoop of 24 inches and enough to deal with any Spey Salmon!? Or was it?
“Seems like a good fish Sandy”, said Sir David. It is Sir, was the answer, I could see beads of perspiration appearing on Sandy’s brow. “It doesn’t want to come out of the deep water, a real stubborn fish Sir”!
With the river running at 9 inches, the water in front of us at the tail of the Long Pool was around 12 – 18 inches deep and with a nice gravel bottom. This gravel continued for another 20 yards, after which, very quickly, and with little warning, I suddenly dropped into the deep hole which had been home to the fish for the best part of an hour.
The sun came out and again I was hearing Sandy’s reel beginning to take line. Back came the backing, followed by the line, I watched the edge of the deep water where the line disappeared into the depths, when suddenly I saw the end of the line, followed by, what I can only describe as something the size of a small canoe. “My god Sandy, its like a submarine” I said! Jesus, I’ve never seen anything like this. Sir David, with all his fishing experience was equally excited, but not quite as vocally animated the young 24 year old Ian.
The fish now made its way over the Gravel, I had in in full view, closer and closer it came until Sandy had it tight to the bank. Sir David entered the water, the fish now between him and the bank and trying to put this fish in the net, it was so big, it just kept flopping out again, but with no energy to get away. Try as he might, this fish would just not go into the net and the bank was too high to bring it to the beach. I tried to put the tailor over the tail but at that moment Sir David had the net there. I cant tell my boss to get out the way, OH MY GOD, a gaff, I’d have had it out ten times over! Suddenly there was a “Oh, he’s away”. I turned and saw the line slack and the number 6 Munro Killer hanging from Sandy’s rod. My heart sunk. Now, at this point, most people would have at least said Shit! Lots would have stretched to a Bollocks! And the vast majority would have stooped to a “Oh for F*** Sake”! But Sandy, a true professional, remained as calm as you like [his boss was there].
“But where did he go, I asked”? The water was shallow and the fish had been at rest against the bank, back out of the water, for the past minute. It had simply disappeared, no splash as it swam off, nothing. Sir David, still standing in the water asked, where did it go? I never saw it swimming over the shallows!
After an epic battle, the biggest fish I’ve ever seen was gone, lost in the most horrendous manner. However, looking back, because it was the biggest fish any of us had ever seen, it cast its spell on each one of us. All three of us, when seeing the fish come over the shallows, knew it was something very special, something which made all three of us approach things in a different way to which we normally would.
Reflecting on the fish back at Knockando House, Sir David took the cast of his 35lb fish from the wall, laid it in front of both Sandy and I and said. How much longer was Sandy’s fish? He then gave us a pencil and paper. I wrote 12 inches and both Sandy and Sir David each wrote 10. Our thoughts were, this fish was at least 10 inches longer than the 35 pounder which measured 44 inches.
I could not sleep that night, weakening up, thinking of what I should have done. The next day I walked to the spot with Sandy and straight away, it became evident why we hadn’t seen the fish swimming away. Although we were aware of the bank being undermined, it never crossed our minds at the time, such was the affect this fish was having on us all. Probably, the fish never swam away, but had simply tucked itself in under the bank and had been there all along, hence the reason we never saw it swim away.
20 years later this fish is still fresh in my mind and although it doesn’t haunt me, but I’d have loved to put it on the scales.
As a get ready to talk, I look up the beautiful Loch Maree, Slioch majestically keeping guard at her south-east flank. I see no anglers, but somewhere in the breeze I hear voices whispering; stories of big ones landed, but more about those lost, and the sound of laughter happy times. The whispers fade and ironically all I see on the Loch, are 4 Canoes.
Yes, changed days, those fish farms have much to answer for both here and everywhere else!