At the height of salmon returns in the seasons of 1978 and 1980, by December, dead and decaying salmon were everywhere on the Spey and probably every river in Scotland. At this time we spent days burying them such was the smell in certain areas. Each day for weeks we’d do this, burying fish by the score where they’d got washed up at the tail of the Long pool at Knockando. By the start of the next season those had decayed to such an extent they could no longer be picked up and were literally falling to pieces, rotting into the ground by the river. The perfect thing for Dogs to roll in! The first of my two dogs Flash and Carron (they lived in the 1980s and 90s) would stink, as would every other guests dog after a Feb and March day on the river during this period. My last dog, Cappie (2001 – 2016) on the other hand, seldom stunk. The FACT was, by this time the river produced far fewer fish, both juvenile and adult. Something totally obvious to all working on it by not, it would seem, to those managing it.
I remember writing about this and expressing concern to our Biologist and owners back in the late 1990s, speaking about the importance of this to the river system. As per normal, you’d have been as well talking to the nearest dead salmon as, at this time, none of those had any idea the decline was well under way, or they certainly didn’t want to admit to it if they did.
Native Indians in North American have rituals around salmon because they fully understand the cycle, the significance and importance of those decaying fish. I’m so glad that our managers and Biologists have finally caught up with and finally taken on board the observations of the “native people” of the River Spey and others.
For years, our observations and ideas have been ignored in favour “so called” science! Most of those people aren’t scientists in my mind. They’re two-bit people who’d never get a job in the real world. I know of only a few I’d personally employ [They are very good because they understand the “big” picture], the others I wouldn’t have frying chicken wings at KFC because you know they’d bun them! Thanks Rob! Those losers were and still are the problem on every river in the UK. 300k on wages [before expenses] annually here on the Spey! I mean, think of the cost of this over the past 20 years, and this is one river!! What have they achieved? Nil. Millions for nothing. The wage bill and cost of those people across Scotland would scare anyone. Especially for zero return.
When talking about the Spey and how poorly it’s performing, the war-cry of those in charge is, “well, it’s not just us”, those quoting this usually say it twice, It’s not just us you know, others are bad too! As if that somehow makes things better!? In actual fact it highlights the lack of joined up, holistic thinking with regard this “river” and country wide problem.
For god sake, we all know this is the case. We all know somethings wrong and we all know they (managers), with the exception of the Tyne, have implemented similar management plans on every British River for years. Now, knowing this, wouldn’t you think some of them would have found a common denominator here by this time?? Wouldn’t you think, with the exception of, oh yes, the only one that’s run differently, they’d think, wait a minute, is there any chance that what those “Natives” have been observing and telling us for years just might just be right!?
On a very positive note, I like what’s happened with the Goosanders here on the Spey, their numbers have obviously declined due to the “lack of juveniles”, It couldn’t be anything else! In fact this year I’ve hardly seen one on the river. Positive news, but we can’t/daren't talk about it. However, what it will do is leave the Smolts in peace from their main enemy, something that WILL lead to the best return of salmon to the Spey either next, or in two years' time. The guy hired to cut the grass, or a half-wit walking their could have told them this years ago.
The lack of juvenile fish have been observed by Ghillies with a keen eye for years, in exactly the same way as the lack of adults and their rotting carcasses have impacted on this greatly too. But no, it’s anecdotal guys, you’re merely Ghillies, you can’t see clearly through your whisky fuelled glasses.
Below is something I wrote in 1999
Walking by the river today, I could not help notice a lack of wildlife. On such a beautiful day I would have expected to see something! But no, nothing! Not a bird, mammal or fish.
At one time, during the winter months, fish which had died after spawning littered the riverbank. Most were cock, or male fish which had stayed with the eggs longer than their female partners, but it would seem that over the past couple of decades, these corpses have become conspicuous by their absence. My own thoughts on this has always been – Fewer corpses = fewer spawning fish! Years with visibly more fish throughout the river system during the fishing season, inevitably end with corpses which could be counted in the 1000s. This in turn would attract birds, Carrion Crows and Black Backed Gulls; along with the once abundant eels would all join the Christmas/New Year feast; but today, nothing! No birds, Eels or dead fish! At one time, Otters could also be tracked in the snow between the corpses, pulling them away from the river bank, storing them to eat a little later when food was less abundant.
As a species, it would seem the future survival of salmon is all about numbers, safety in numbers!! A riverbank littered with the corpses of 100s of fish is the sign of a healthy river, whilst only a few dead fish per 100 meters should give cause for concern!!
If the Native people of North America were treated with this same contempt as the native people of Speyside and the rest of rural Britain have been treated there would be a national outcry. Mmmm, Now there’s a thought!
The above is just two examples of how the river, it’s local businesses, visiting Anglers and the economy of our fragile rural area as a whole, have been let down massively by those who ignored our anecdotal observations, yet 20 years later the same people are feeding the burns on the upper Dee with Deer’s legs in bags because they now realise the problem. Err, listen to the people who actually know in the first place, swallow you're pride and ego and ask the real experts!! I’d add to this their silly fencing projects in such areas, costing millions, actually stop those very same animals getting to the river or water courses. At the end of the day, or they're time on this planet, this is where every animal goes when dying. It’s natural for them to try and find water at the end, hence so many animals will die at the side of a river. Nature! But no, hang on, we’ll fence them all out then wonder why the burn has no nutrients. You honestly couldn't make it up if you tried, yet “every” river has adopted this. Why? Because it applies to rivers such as the Tweed or others where intensive farming [Dairy farms etc] means abnormal numbers of cattle destroying the river bank. Oh, hang on, we’ll roll this one out over every river in Scotland, very few of whom, have the same problem, however, this sounds like a great idea!! We’ll label that as “Habitat Improvement” and get some serious mileage out of that one! Would you honestly give those guys a job serving petrol!?
Everyone has been let down here on a grand scale. It’s time for a total change away from what we have right now, as none making those stupid management plans have come up with anything of any good in the last 25years. Big clear out required and proper people led by “Proper Biologists” people with proper communication skills taken in. Ghillies across Scotland are so pissed off with those people at the helm of this and need people they can feel they can talk to and trust to put their points of view over. Too long have the Natives had their voices silenced!!
Looking forward to seeing the difference fewer Goosanders will make here on the Spey. I’m sure a right lot. Time will tell.