Atlantic salmon and steelhead: the uncatchables? Part 2

Harrison travels to the UK to continue his quest to catch some of the world’s most challenging sportsfish.  

At the conclusion of the North American leg of my journey and my steelhead adventures, I flew into London, from where I boarded a four-hour express train to Edinburgh to commence a journey across Scotland and Ireland. I rendezvoused with my mate Conor who had just flown over from Australia.

We were greeted by British summer weather at its actual finest – and I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way! Almost a week of clear blue skies and sunshine in the high twenties led us to as many pubs and beer gardens as we could handle. However, much like steelhead, salmon prefer some fresh in the river, and all this clear blue sky meant the rivers were ‘bony’ and low. Usually-submerged boulders were sticking out of the water, and every tackle shop or angler we spoke to said Scotland was experiencing its worst salmon return on record. Still, undeterred, we got geared up with some traditional Scottish Tweed clothing, ensuring that at least we would look the part!

For those who aren’t familiar with Scottish salmon fishing custom, it operates on a beat system, where you purchase a ‘rod day’, which entitles you to be one of the anglers to fish that particular stretch of river on that day. The most productive beats are booked months or even years in advance. This meant we had to get organised, and this is where it was fortunate I’d been introduced to Jamie via a mutual friend back in Australia. I’d begun speaking with Jamie three months earlier, and he had arranged two ‘rod days’ on the River Spey for us. This of course only added to the challenge of finding a salmon, as back in March we had no clue what the river conditions were going to be like, and even if this beat was going to be productive at all in June.

River Spey 

We met Jamie at the aptly named ‘Ghillies Bar’ the evening before our first days’ fishing, and just a stone’s throw away from the fabled River Spey. Recent fishing reports were far from positive. Apparently, the low water was dissuading salmon from entering the river, and those that had were less likely to bite due to the warm and sunny weather. Even the famous beats, where you can expect to pay +$800 AUD for a single day’s fishing, were not recording any catches, so I was happy that at least we were paying a comparatively meagre $80 AUD each for our fishing, a victory there at least!

A low River Spey on a bright day isn’t a great combination.

This far north, the sun hardly sets at this time of year, so the game plan was to get up early and fish as hard as possible until late morning, have some lunch and a nap, then head back out around 8pm, fishing until midnight.

Stepping out on the River Spey at 4am and staring at a blue sky with the sun already up was a special feeling. Dressed in a buttoned shirt, tie, jacket and Tweed cap, I rigged the 15ft vintage Hardy Spey rod Jamie had lent me. Maybe my overall appearance would deceive the salmon into thinking I was some English nobleman, rather than an Australian fishing bum.

It took a good 30 minutes until I had adjusted to the rod and traditional 65ft belly shooting head and was comfortably making 100ft casts. Within an hour, Jamie declared I was ready to catch a salmon, so I began swinging my fly in a fashion slightly different to how I had fished for steelhead back in Canada. Salmon apparently tend to like a faster swing, and will chase the fly (and hopefully eat) on a good steady retrieve. This is not normally the case with spring steelhead.

We had a few small grabs on this morning; however these were mostly likely smaller trout rather than salmon. The evening session was much the same, however we did witness a salmon roll on the surface. This gave us some confidence that at the very least, we were showing our flies to some fish, and not working totally barren water.

A consolation Spey brownie.

We fished hard the following day as well, and although I landed a respectable resident brown trout which smashed my Sunray Shadow fly, giving the brief impression of a grilse salmon, we didn’t land the primary target. We tried some great water for swinging a fly and were even able to cross this normally large river in several locations, which is quite rare.

Frustratingly, we had almost no other takes, even from trout, despite around 36 hours of angling effort between me, Conor and Jamie. At least we got to enjoy a few drams of Speyside whiskey on the banks of the River Spey! We had planned to fish a few other rivers in Scotland, however with the total lack of rain, we decided to rely instead on our approaching visit to Ireland – and the prospect of some river-freshening precipitation.

No salmon, but a special opportunity to enjoy a drop of Speyside whisky beside the River Spey!


We arrived in Belfast to stories of more prolonged dry sunny weather, however the reports from down south were more positive, with a good few days of rain having fallen, and more on the way. After a stop at a typically charming Irish pub, we headed south into County Mayo. Our travelling party had expanded to six with Conor (who was born in Ireland) luring his father, two uncles and a cousin into this mission to catch a salmon. If there was ever an occasion in my life where I needed real time subtitles, this was it, as trying to understand a family of Irish gents is near impossible!

We had two days of salmon fishing booked on two well-known but totally different rivers, the Erriff and Moy.

River Erriff

Arriving at the Erriff, it felt like I was in a storybook. The lush green rolling hills reached up into rocky peaks, all periodically shrouded by rolling mist and cloud. The river was in great shape after receiving a few days of rain, and the reports were that some salmon had begun entering this smaller spate river. However, for the first half of the day we were faced by a chilling 30 knot upstream breeze with gusts to what seemed like forty! This was certainly less than ideal for anyone seeking to cast downstream at a 45 degree angle. The Erriff was much more intimate than the River Spey, and in some places, you could cast and hit the other bank with ease. A dropping river and grey skies filled us with plenty of confidence as we fished hard until 6pm.

Seemingly ideal conditions on the lovely River Erriff didn’t translate into salmon action.

Despite what seemed like good conditions, we did not have so much as a bite all day and did not see even a single salmon roll. The confidence at this point was a bit shot, with plenty of head scratching as we all sat around the pub that night surmising why we’d had so little success. We could only hope the Moy and the famous Foxford Beat we were booked for in two days’ time, would provide us some excitement.

River Moy

In visual appearance, the Foxford Beat of the Moy is nothing when compared to the Erriff, being in proximity to several towns and surrounding dairy farms. Nonetheless, what the beat lacked in aesthetic surrounds, was certainly made up for by the number of salmon physically in the river. We had not even begun fishing and were telling our ghillie about how we had not seen a single salmon on the Erriff, when two salmon rolled in the pool below us. We speedily rigged up our rods, all while witnessing another half a dozen salmon roll on the surface. We then split up across the lower beat.

I picked a spot with a little more flow, achieving a decent swing before making a steady retrieve on the final quarter of the swing to ensure the fly was moving with enough pace to hopefully entice a salmon. On my third cast in, as I began to retrieve, it was as if a lightning bolt had hit my fly. Line was ripped from my hands with the reel singing straight away. I was finally connected to my first Atlantic salmon! It made for the air with several graceful jumps and dogged runs deep into the pool. The fish was fought for about five minutes, with my confidence of fulfilling a dream growing with every passing second as the net was prepared. Then all of a sudden, and through what I would say was no fault of my own, the hook pulled and flew back at me. I was shattered, although at least I had finally hooked a salmon.

We moved to the upper end of the beat in the afternoon. We’d already spent hours watching salmon jump, roll and porpoise on the surface, all while ignoring every fly we threw at them. As the afternoon passed, we were seeing fewer and fewer salmon on the surface, indicating something had changed. However, one thing that hadn’t was their lack of attention towards our flies!

Fishing the tail-out of a great run which had enough consistent flow to achieve a good full swing without the need for stripping, my confidence built as I fished down to a little drop-off lip where salmon were likely to lie. It’s a hard thing to explain, but the fly was just swinging so well in this spot that on every cast I was expecting a grab – until it actually happened. The line came tight mid swing, the reel ever so slightly ticked over, and I raised my rod, connecting me briefly to a salmon as it jumped, dislodging the fly in the process.

I just looked up at the sky, made two more casts before the run ended, wondering about how it was I had hooked a salmon on the third cast of the day – and third last cast – while not landing either. It didn’t help that this was meant to be my last day salmon fishing in Ireland, unless there was some rain up north, which is where Conor and I were heading next.

Last chance on the River Finn

Near perfect conditions on the River Finn: grey skies just as it begins to drop following several days of rain.

Every time I’m asked what’s the best thing about flyfishing, I always answer that it’s the people you meet along the way. Earlier in the year, when I was still in Canada, a guide mate of mine, Pat, had some regular Irish clients out fishing with him. When Pat mentioned I was on an around the world fishing trip and was planning on visiting Ireland, they asked for my details, promising to take me fishing. Stephen and I got in touch, bonded over disdain for flat Canadian draught beer, and set a plan for fishing in Ireland provided conditions suited. Yet for a long time, due to the ‘bad’ weather, it looked like this day’s fishing was not going to happen.

And then every star seemingly aligned at the last minute. We had near perfect conditions in the lead up, with some more than decent steady rainfall over a number of days prior.

After a late night, it’s fair to say my first casts that morning on the River Finn were just a little bit messy. However pretty quickly, I was on a high as I began to realise just how good the conditions were. We had perfect grey skies, almost no wind, and a river which had just peaked from a fresh and was now dropping.

Back into the Spey casting groove.

The Finn was a deep red colour and quite small by salmon river standards, making for easy short casts of around 50ft when casting at the 45 degrees downstream. Within the first hour, I heard a yell from behind me and I turned to see Stephen connected to a salmon as it leapt in the air! I quickly reeled in, ran upstream and got ready to tail the fish. (We forgot to bring a net!) After a few failed efforts, I managed to get two hands around the tail of a beautiful grilse salmon of around 5-6lb that fought well above its weight. It was a silvery, almost purple hue – indicating it was very fresh from the ocean. It was Stephen’s first salmon for the season, and we were both ecstatic. I said something along the lines of, “So I guess salmon are catchable after all?” He just laughed and said he would happily trade a few salmon for one of my Canadian steelhead.

Stephen’s salmon – so they can be caught after all!

We fished some amazing water throughout that day, and at several points we felt it was going to happen again. And it did – almost – with Stephen hooking another salmon, while I had two good grabs from what we assumed were also salmon.

Although I wasn’t the one to land a salmon, I still had the feeling I had achieved something after 5 days of salmon fishing. Being a part of catching one was almost as good as the real thing, and I guess I’ll just have to come back again.

Stephen is planning on visiting Australia early next year and I intend to return the favour by taking him hopper fishing on a Victorian trout stream. This brings me back to what I feel is most important in flyfishing: the people and the friendships made on the water. This is what makes the countless fishless days still enjoyable, regardless of whether you are chasing salmon or steelhead overseas, or fishing at home for trout or bream.