Writer and broadcaster

Getting hooked on the sport of queens. The Independent.

NOT MANY people dream of being Georgina Ballantine, but I do. In October 1922, Miss Ballantine caught the biggest salmon (64lbs) ever to be taken on a rod and line in British waters. Seventy-eight years on, this record remains unbroken. In the excellent book Salmon and Women by Wilma Paterson and Professor Peter Behan (Witherby) there is a picture of the stretch of water she caught it on, Glendevine Water on the River Tay, with the caption: “This was the scene of the most famous battle in the history of salmon fishing.”

Such romance, so many years ago and such a big fish… I became obsessed with the River Tay, and this year finally had an opportunity to attend the opening day of the Scottish salmon season. Even if I couldn’t visit the actual pool Ballantine fished I would at least stand in the water of Scotland’s longest river… and perhaps tempt the great great grandson of Ballantine’s mighty fish as he headed back home to spawn.

The Scottish salmon season closes in October (although some rivers stay open until November) and re-opens from January through to March. The Tay is one of the first rivers to open and it is on this river that the spring salmon season focuses. The opening day, 15 January, is marked by much merry making, bag pipe blowing and whisky splashing. But this year, out of the hundreds of eager anglers on the river, only eight caught anything at all.

This was not surprising: salmon are never easy to catch and “springers” are harder still. As they make their way from the sea to the place they were born, they don’t feed – which is why catching them is such a skill. No-one knows why salmon take a fly (made of feathers and other coloured stuff and “tied” with great precision to imitate a real insect or little fish), or a spinning bait (in simplest terms this is like a spinning top in the water and imitates a little fish in trouble): perhaps it is the colour, or commotion, maybe it is done out of curiosity or aggression. Whatever, they don’t do it out of hunger.

I knew that, as a woman, I had a better chance than most of catching a fishie. Ballantine is not the only woman to hold a salmon record: two years after her big fish was gaffed, Miss Clementina Morison took, on a “Brown Wing Killer” fly (Ballantine’s was with a spinning bait), a 61lb salmon. And in 1923, the heaviest spring fish (59.5lbs) was caught by a Doreen Davey from the river Wye. Evidently, the twenties were a good time for big fish. The reason why so many women hold records? Some say that the biggest fish are male and male fish are attracted to the pheromones from female anglers (salmon have a very sensitive olfactory system – it is partly smell that leads then back to the very pool they were born to spawn again). But female anglers say this is a theory put around by men to demean them when, actually, female anglers are just better.

But male or female, salmon fishing is the sport of posh folk. Most “beats” (stretches) of good salmon river are privately owned, so if you know someone posh you can fish on their beat. Others are owned by syndicates (like time-shares). There is currently a 1,000-odd yard stretch of the Tweed where the fishing rights are for sale. Cost? Five million. If that sounds a little steep, how about one week’s fishing a year in perpetuity for one rod on the Tweed for only pounds 400,000?

There are cheaper deals of course. The sensible way for normal people is to go to a hotel that either owns a fishing beat, or has access to one. There are several that do this but the one I visited was the Farleyer House Hotel in Aberfeldy in Perthshire, set in the middle of lots of lovely countryside. It’s a lovely place to go even if you don’t fish, and ideal if you fish but your partner doesn’t as there’s lots else to do (golf, walking, falconry, cycling etc).

Before I go on about the fishing deals, let me tell you about the food, which was superb. At Farleyer everything save for the sliced bread used for toast, is home-made. Starve like crazy before you go and fish like a pelican whilst you are there, because otherwise you will end up having to book a double seat on the train home. You breakfast in a splendid room, over looking the Perthshire hills. The eggs are perfectly poached, the fish smoked so flavoursomely that you will profess love to your waiter. You get lots of mushrooms, teeny tiny muffins, flakey butterstuffed croissants, yummy, runny jam that tastes of fruit, as jam should. What better start to a day’s fishing? (And when you’re mid-river, cold and the fish aren’t biting, you can dream of dinner and torrone ice-cream, wood pigeon cooked with berries, big steaks, home baked sunflower rolls and the cosy real- fire-heated drawing room where you can sample many delicious whiskies…)

Back to fishing: you can go for three days or six. This will include three/six days fishing, three/six days dinner, bed and breakfast, a packed lunch and a personal ghillie. Now, a word about ghillies, wherever you go. Ghillies tend to fall into two types: the lovely, gentle ghillie that will tell you you’ll find “him (the fish) there”, or the one that cannot stop slagging off every other fisherman he’s ever met (this is an incredibly competitive business). Treasure the first type and avoid the second.

The nice thing about the Farleyer courses, if you’re a beginner, is that you actually get to fish (on some courses they don’t let you get near a stretch of water for days and casting on grass isn’t much fun). You start off having a casting lesson on grass with a piece of wool instead of a hook and then you progress to using the bit of wool on the river and finally your ghillie puts a real hook on for you, with an appropriate fly (yellow is good in spring water and as the seasons progress colours become warmer). Casting is really, really hard and takes years to perfect so just keep at it and make sure you don’t imbed your hook into someone’s head. This is why having a ghillie is really necessary. You have constant guidance and if you do hook a fish, he’ll talk you through every line- stretching minute.

The other fantastic thing about going to Perthshire, is that I got to meet Ally Gowans who is a God in the fishing world. In 1980, Ally invented a new fly which is called the “Ally Shrimp” and it revolutionised salmon fishing. Up until then all the flies had little feelers. Ally’s had stonking great long feelers and the salmon gobbled them up. Ally showed me how to make my own Ally Shrimp, which I did, painstakingly tying each bit of coloured feather around a salmon hook (fly-tying is an art, and not easy). Despite my shaking ever so slightly at being in the presence of Mr G, the fly was, he said “the best first fly he’d ever seen”. It didn’t catch anything, but then I never used it. Ballantine fish’s great great grandson can rest easy. For now.