salmon fishing

11th February

OK, so the obvious schoolboy error here is I am a full 24 hours late in posting this! I was wrapped up at work all day then busy with household stuff when I got home yesterday so it is only now I have a spare minute or two and can post this to you all. Just imagine it is yesterday!

This date was always one of the major highlights of the angling year for me when I lived in Aberdeen all those years ago. 11th February was the opening day of the salmon season on the river Don. I was very lucky to have easy access to some of the prime water on the lower river and for a few seasons before I moved away from the area. A time of chasing pretty girls, drinking beer, riding motorbikes and catching salmon, what a life! In those marvelous days of my late ‘teens I enjoyed some amazing sport.

As a lad I had fished the local association water which back then came as far down river as the road bridge at the end of the Upper Parkhill beat. While the occasional salmon might make its way that far upstream in the opening weeks it was the hard fished beats from Stoneywood to the sea which offered the best chance of a springer. As luck would have it, I began my working life in Mugiemoss papermill and that factory backed on to a short but very productive stretch of the river, including the famous Saugh pool. The Saugh had been created by a pair of weirs which were part of the scheme to provide vast quantities of water for the mill. These weirs also had the unintended effect of creating a thermal barrier for the migrating salmon. Fish swimming up-river would halt in the Saugh pool and wait there for the water to warm up before continuing their journey. Thus the pool would literally fill up with prime spring salmon.

the big building in the right/centre of this shot is the beaterhouse

For the weeks before opening day my fellow anglers and I would watch the pools to see if the fish were coming in. A four story building called the beaterhouse was where I often found myself working and on night shifts a huge security light shone down on to the pool. This was there for safety reasons but also to illuminate the whole pool to deter poachers. Not that the poachers took much notice and they were always very active at this time of the year. One night I recall being told to go and look out at the pool. Someone had seen some movement on the far bank and a few of us opened the door on the top floor of the beaterhouse to see a gang of poachers at work. They had equipped themselves with a very small dinghy which one of them had rowed across the fast flowing water, dragging a net behind him. The bold enterprise degenerated into farce though as the flashing blue lights of the local constabulary caused panic in their ranks. Someone let go of the rope which held the boat and it shot out of the tale of the pool, its occupant screaming blue murder as he disappeared into the white water and out of sight. We heard later there had been arrests and the unfortunate boatman had been recovered, soaked but alive some way downstream.

Persley bridge, the Saugh pool is about 200 yards above the bridge

Most years we would see some salmon from our vantage point, the odd fish turning at the tail of the pool or a resounding splash as one showed in the neck. One season though we could not believe the number of fish that built up in the pool. It was like looking into a giant tin of sardines they were packed so closely together! There was a booking system for the fishing with only 3 rods allowed to fish on the whole beat at any one time. It was the second week of the season that year before I cast a line in the ‘Saugher’ and I managed a couple of fine springers but by then the shoal had largely dispersed.

The fishing itself was pretty ‘agricultural’ shall we say. This was not classic fly water by any stretch of the imagination. The mill owned the right-hand bank. The river poured over the two weirs (which were only 30 yards apart). A deep, fast neck of the pool dug in to the left bank and this had been strengthen by huge blocks of granite. The main current hugged the left bank and a big back-eddy was created on our side. The water was very deep in the middle of the pool and it shallowed as it flowed to the tail. The salmon lay in all areas of the pool depending on height. This was spinning water, pure and simple. In very high water the fishing was better from our side while in what would be classed as the best conditions the flow meant the opposition had the best of it. Strong gear was required and there was nothing subtle about the angling in the Saugh pool! Devon minnows and a wye lead 3 feet above it was the order of the day. The weight would range from 3/8ths to an ounce, depending on conditions. The bottom of the pool was very rough and as we all know, spring salmon fishing means scraping the bottom with your lure. Tackle losses were horrendous! It was nothing to lose 8 or 10 minnows in a session. Sometimes you might retrieve a minnow lost by another angler but it never made up for the immense losses. I used 20 pound breaking strain line but many anglers preferred 30 pound. This was long before Braid was on the market so this was thick, curly mono we were using.

A very old ariel shot but you can see the twin weirs at the top right of the photo

A typical morning would start by signing in at the lodge. This was a security gatehouse where you solemnly wrote your name and angling club number down in a A4 hard-backed book. Pick up a key to the hut while you are there. The walk through the mill, dressed in waders and fishing coat, waving or chatting to fellow workers before descending into the bowels of the mill. Past the huge water pumps and out of the noise and smells of the mill by a door which led to a bridge over the lade (a lade is a man-made waterway for feeding water to a mill, its like a small canal). Down to the wooden shed which was used as the fishermen’s hut and open the door. Time to tackle up as the excitement rises within you. ‘The Opposition’ would be busy already on the other bank, two rods heaving their heavy tackle into the slack water at our side. What would they be like today? Sometimes there was great banter between both sides but there were often heater arguments too!

Some of the mill fishers, most are sadly gone now. Some great characters in that old photo!

It is hard to describe what it felt like fishing the mill pools. The constant hum of the huge machines was only a few yards behind you so this no country ideal. The bed of the river was coated in thick, smelly, brown scum caused by generations of waste from the other mills upstream of Mugiemoss. Waste treatment in all the mills was rudimentary back then and the river stank, turned different colours and looked like an open sewer some days. The situation is much better now but back then it was amazing any fish at all could live in those conditions.

Two rods could fish at any one time on the Saugh from our side, a third rod could rotate or go and fish any of the other water. When it was your turn you started at the lower end of the neck and fished down, roughly one step per cast. The total fishable water was less than 100 yards in length. Cast square across, keep the bale arm open to let the bait sink as fast as possible, close the bail arm when you judged the minnow was near the bottom. Hold the rod high and let the minnow work around in the current until it was below you then wind in fast. You might change weight if you were sticking on the bottom or were too light and not feeling the ‘bump, bump’ of the lead/minnow on the rocks. ‘Stickers’ brought a fine array of cuss words and much tugging until the hooks pulled out, straightened under the pressure or the line snapped with a sound like an air rifle.

Heavy ABU rod and reel were my preferred weapons and I own virtually the same set up today

There was no mistaking it when a salmon took the bait. The rod hooped over and the reel screeched. ‘FUSH’ you would yell in your finest Doric dialect, indicating to the other rods they had to wind in to give you space to play the salmon. In such deep, strong flowing water a fresh salmon usually out up a terrific struggle. A large net was on hand but I often beached a fish on the fine golden sand bar near the tail of the pool. After reading Hugh Faulkus’s book I practiced hand tailing them too and really enjoyed that way of landing a salmon. With such a density of fish in a pool it was inevitable the odd fish would be foul-hooked and that led to some protracted battles. These days we release most of the fish we catch but it was not like that back in the 70’s. Any salmon landed were the property of the mill and had to be killed and handed over. I understand the fish were then sold. The fish were stored in a disused dog kennel near the lodge (they had a number of German Shepherds as security dogs).

Some days the opposition would completely out-fish us, their rods continually bent into another fish. There were days though when we could do no wrong and for whatever reason the fish preferred our baits. I have endless tales of derring-do from those far-off days. Some great characters fished there and got up to the height of nonsense. Huge catches, days when every single fish escaped, lads falling in, rows with the opposition, hip-flasks of whiskey to warm us up on freezing mornings, there was always something going on at down the Saugh pool.

devons, I wonder how many salmon I caught on these?

It started fishing there back in 1976 (I joined the mill in May that year) and apart from one day many years later I didn’t fish it once I left Mugiemoss in 1981. During that time the mill water gave me a couple of 20 pounders, very many in the ‘teens and a host of smaller salmon to my rod. Now I look back on the killing of so many fine fish with regret but in those days we had not even heard of conservation. In our view, the bad guys were the netsmen who took a huge toll on the returning salmon. The nets have thankfully been bought out and anglers practice C&R but the salmon numbers continue to decline.

I don’t know who owns the fishing rights to the right bank of the Saugh these days. Granholm still have the left bank as far as I know. Mugiemoss mill shut down and the land cleared years ago. There are smart new house now where the massive machines used to rumble and thunder. With Covid-19 restrictions I doubt if any of us will see spring fishing in 2021 and the best we can hope for is we get access to some angling in the autumn. Our memories will need to tide us over for now and I have those in abundance!

Stay safe out there.

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8 thoughts on “11th February

  1. Paul Hance says:

    Fishing rights are owned by Dundara on the south bank now. They did try selling the fishing when I was still ghillie on the Grandhome side. 2016 I think it was. No offers where made so it remains with them. The Saugh dyke as it is today is actually a modification to the original dyke. The step in the middle was not part of the first structure which actually covered most of the south bank to nearly the tail of the pool. You can see the changes made if you look at old Ordinance Survey maps. There are stories in the Press and Journal from around the turn of last century of river bailiffs netting the pool and the fish being transported in water carts up river to be released in front of Grandhome House. That took the salmon above the Waterton dyke and the Stoneywood dyke. Both of which at that time were even more of a problem than the Saugh for the passage of fish.

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    • Hi Paul, that is very interesting. It always amazed me that salmon survived in the river at all given the huge levels of pollution from the mills, the dykes and the netting at the mouth. I presume the saugh dyke was built at the same time as the Mugiemoss lower mill was expanded and required more water to power the machines and for the papermaking process. I suppose we are slightly more enlightened these days when it comes to building major obstacles across rivers.

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  2. Paul Hance says:

    If I recall correctly the issue with the Saugh Dyke was more due to it’s size rather than water extraction. There was so much dyke the water got spread out to such a degree that it was too shallow for fish to swim. That wasn’t the case for the two dykes at Stoneywood however. During the court case of 1900 to 1906 involving both paper mills, one witness reported that below the Stoneywood dyke the river bed was crossable with out getting youe feet wet due the water being diverted into the mill. The result of this case was the reason for the two step dyke at Mugiemoss as we knew it, (before it started disintegrating)., and the alterations to the two Stoneywood dykes (Westerton and not Waterton as I incorrectly said earlier). You can find the transcript of that case online but it is a lot of reading full of legal terminology.
    What really brought the tragedy of the Don home to me was when I found an article in a Scotland fishing guife book from the early 19th century. The article quoted the net catches taken from Benzies Pool down to the ctuives at Tillydrone where the new bridge is. In one netting season close to the end of the 1700s that roughly one mile stretch of river produced nearly 55,000 salmon and grilse. If you then add on catches from the netting stations both upstream and downstream plus the catches of nets on the coast and of course all the fish that actually made it up river to that 55,000 we can get a true pictute of what salmon runs on the Don where. Compate that to my last year as ghillie at Grandhome which was 2017. The river board estimated the total run of fish that year to be around 4000. Scotland should metaphorically hang its head in shame for allowing this to happen. (Please excuse me for moralising). I hope my comments are of interest to you and anyone who visits your website.

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  3. Those numbers are astonishing Paul. I suppose the other rivers in UK and Ireland could boast similar huge runs of Atlantic salmon too around that time. I know there is a greater focus on conservation these days but we will never see the like of those figures again, we have just don too much damage over the years.

    You must have some tales from your time as a ghillie at Grandholm?

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  4. Paul Hance says:

    Absolutely. The sad tale of the Don is only one of many sad tales. However as one 19th century fishing writer said, “Never have fish been persecuted as much as that which run the Don”. (paraphrase) Hopefully it’s not too late for things to turn round.
    The ghillie position at Grandhome was certainly challenging at times. Being so close to the city we got more than our fair share of ner do wells especially around the lower pools and fly tipping was and still is an issue. It was still the best job I’ve ever had though with never two days the same. Being so close to the sea meant you just never knew what might happen. There was up until recently never a day someone didn’t turn up to fish. Flood or drought, wind rain, sun or snow I would just be thinking of shutting up the bothy and a mad fisher would appear. Usually Mel Thomson, who I think you probably know as he worked at the Mill around the same time as you. Now I drive down to Tesco from my house on the Estate and hardly see a soul on the river. What was a thriving community of anglers is now gone forever and I can unfortunately be described as being the last full time ghillie on the Don.

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    • I’d say we probably know a lot of the same guys all right! A lot of the poaching fraternity worked in the mills (I worked in both Mugiemoss and Donside). Lots of tales of night time netting and gaffing on the lower river. Some of them did time for their efforts. Yet despite the abuse the salmon still ran the river, sometimes in great numbers. Used to be some huge trout in the lower Don too but nobody ever fished for them. I have seen trout which must have been in double figures at the big stane! Hard to see how the fishing could be restored to its former glory these days, just not enough people interested in angling for wild fish any more. Its not much better over here in Ireland these days and poaching is a huge issue along with the bloody fish farms.

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  5. Paul Hance says:

    Here is a video I came across a few weeks ago.

    The interesting part for us is from 1m 15s up to 2m 30s. I’m sure you will recognise the first two areas of river but the last shots might not be so familiar. At 2m 17s is the run from the Stoneywood Dyke down to the Millstream Pool followed by a look at the Millstream it’s self. Stoneywood Mill is hidden by the trees on the opposite bank. Although it’s very short, I’m sure you will enjoy at least one or two of the scenes.

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    • Thanks for sharing that vid Paul, it sure brought back a few memories! I suppose I have a very romanticized view of the river having left the city back in the early ’80s. Fond memories of great fishing for salmon, sea trout and brownies the length of the river. The sea trout fishing below the Brig ‘O Balgownie could be fantastic and I would frequently catch a dozen or so finnock/sea trout off one low tide on wee doubles. Funny how we never remember all the blanks!
      I still have a box full of devon minnows from those days. Doubt they will ever be used again now. God only knows how many I stuck on the bottom of the Saugh and Millionaire’s.

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