River Dee - Scotland
by Sindre Mittet
The Scottish Highlands; no other landscape holds so much history and so many tales of battles and heroic deeds than this place. Over a thousand years with rivalry between clans, freedom movements and rebellion against Englishmen gives this striking landscape a special atmosphere.
It is here, on the east side of the Scottish Highlands, in the famous rivers Spey, Tay, Tween and Dee, that modern fly fishing started 200 years ago.
It began as a sport reserved for the rich landowners and their equally rich friends.
Arthur H E Wood. It was along the Dee riverbank between 1920 and 1930 that Mr. Arthur H E Wood caught 3540 salmon. By far, the most ever caught from a single pool. Not bad statistics considering the fact that he didn’t like to wade, he didn’t start to fish before late spring, and he only fished using a 12 foot hand rod. At this time period it was normal to use a 22 foot fly rod. The mystery behind Arthur’s success can be found in many museums across Scotland. The fly fishing line was made of silk, and Arthur made history by greasing these lines with fat in order to get them to float, calling them ‘greased lines’. This was the precursor to the modern, buoyant fly lines, and they were developed along the Dee riverbank. Today a much greater range of lines are used, including sinking lines. These are especially good to use in cold deep water conditions, where the salmon are not as active. This allows the fly to sink close to the salmon and increases the chance for a bite.
My Danish friend and good colleague, Mads K Pedersen from the Zpey team, invited me over last autumn. When the regional BMI airline introduced direct flights between Kristansund (Norway) and Aberdeen for less than 2000 kr (no joke), I just had to pack my bags. Mads is a very good fly fisher and has many years of training as both a guide and instructor. Among other things, he has guided many fish enthusiasts to Kolahalvøya in Russia on several occasions. It was here on one occasion that he met Martin Ghilbert, a multi-millionaire businessman from Scotland. Mads and Mr. Martin became good friends. Not long after, Mads moved to London, where Mr. Martin offered “cousin Anton” a permanent position as a Ghillie, with his own 4 star Maryculter House Hotel as a base, just a stones throw from the famous river Dee. A Ghillie is a local guide that knows the river, can show you the best location to fish, as well as give advice on the type of fly and fishing methods to use. If you need to learn casting techniques they can course teach you this as well. With Mads working as a Ghillie you are guaranteed expert level fishing related tips.
Today the Maryculter House Hotel is a modern 4 star hotel, speckled with soul and history from as far back as 1226, where among other things, the Temple Knights lived. Even after many renovations, the hotel has maintained its charm and much of the old structure.
It lies on the Royal Deeside in Kincardneshire, Scotland, just a few miles outside Aberdeen and the international airport. The Dee River is just 50 meters from the hotel. The church and cemetery associated with the Maryculter House are designated as national monuments.
What the temple knights would say of this modern form of hospitality we can only guess. It seems certain that there continues to be evidence of the past with Maryculter; it was certainly what I was told. An instance occurred recently on a winter evening, when many guests were together in the bar of the hotel. They had just been told the history of the hotel and one of them asked “are there any ghosts here?”, and just as he asked, two small windows broke in the room and the wind howled. No natural explanation could be found for this, nothing that could break the glass was found, the weather was fine and there were no trees outside that could have caused the broken windows; a visit from the past perhaps? There is apparently also talk of a “green lady” that walks through the hallways here at night. I had thought that I met her actually, when I realized it was just my reflection in a mirror after X number of Glen Livet’s at the bar.
I was, of course, very excited to be in Scotland at the Maryculter Hotel and could hardly wait to start fishing. My hunt for the silver salmon would begin in October, in the Dee River itself. The following morning, I awoke to a fantastic +14 degrees and a magical sunrise in a place I cannot describe with words. I had a solid English breakfast with a good cup of coffee before I grabbed my fishing rod and stood awaiting Mads instructions.
As with most other Scottish rivers, the salmon here were endangered until about 15 to 20 years ago. The reason was primarily over fishing (with a net) and pollution. Increasing environmental awareness in the last years has changed most of this. Since the 1990s the outlook has been positive, net fishing has stopped, and the pollution has been limited. This has led to a gradual increase of the salmon stocks in Scotland.
The practice of “catch and release”, where we release the salmon back into the river was eventually instated. For many this was an incomprehensible thought, but even I had no reservations about it. In recent years this has also become increasingly exercised in rivers where salmon are endangered.
I had access to 1.7 km of the salmon populated river, and had 3 happy anglers along with me. We spread out as well as we could, and after only about 10 minutes of fishing we had already caught 6 or 7 nice salmon. Just the visual contact with the salmon increased our pulse and made us weak in the knees. It was not particularly easy to hook the fish, so we lost a few, but statistics like this would be tough to maintain.
The river has areas which offer different fishing challenges and require different fishing techniques. In the quiet rapids, it’s an advantage to work hard with the fly to get it to the fish properly. On several occasions the first night, I could see the salmon come after the fly and take it a few meters out of my hands with a splash. There were quite a few times my heart/pulse was racing.
The following evening, as forecasted, we received heavy rain in the upper Dee. This made conditions near perfect the last two days. We couldn’t see the salmon, but they were aggressive on the fly.
I was in the section of the river called “Peter’s Pot Pool” when the sun began to go down. I stood there in the middle of the highlands, surrounded by such stunning and beautiful landscape that I almost got tears in my eyes.
Ok, enough about that. No one had been fishing in “Peter’s Pot” for some time, and I decided myself to fish over every little cm of the area using tactics, technique, guts and pace. I had access to one part of the range to Zpey for the 2014 season, and had for this occasion picked Henrik Mortensen’s newly developed 10”8. In Norwegian this is a 10 foot long one hand pole, and after my assessment, a nice setup together with a compact fly of medium size.
On the opposite side of the river a nice salmon rolled up to the surface of the water many times, which I naturally had casted myself in to. I fished with precision and varied the speed of the fly. After the fifth cast, I decided to just let the fly run over the water while I gently tugged the line in hopes to possibly irritate the salmon further. No sooner than the fly began to drift towards shore, I felt the salmon take the line and go straight down towards the deepest part of the area. The adrenaline hit instantly. I got myself to shore and noticed that my rod bent like a horseshoe if I put pressure on it. After about a 10 minute fight, the fish was neatly on the bank for the help of Gillie Mads K Pedersen. It was estimated to be about 4 or 5 kg when we released it back. It wasn’t the biggest salmon I had landed, but because of the surroundings, I consider this one of my finest moments as a salmon fisherman.
In total, we caught 8 fish on the trip, including one silvery salmon, new to the river from the sea.
Maryculter House Hotel is a stunning place with much soul, extremely good hospitality and a location one might think was created for salmon fishermen.
But, the place is not just for us fishermen; they hold arranged wedding parties every week as well. On Saturdays parties with bagpipes and friendly red nosed Scotsmen in kilts, who will gladly share a beer at the bar, transpire.
I huge thanks to Ghillie Mads K Pedersen and the staff at the Maryculter Hotel for unbeatably good service.
I will definitely return.
Tight lines - Sindre Mittet