When it comes to fishing for large migratory species such as salmon and sea trout, the River Spey is right up there as one of the most famous rivers in the world. Starting from humble beginnings, its source is a small loch high up in the Monadhliath Mountains, it travels over 100 miles to its outlet to the North Sea through the Moray Firth at Spey Bay. The upper catchment area is steep and the final stretch to the sea descends rapidly, but in the middle section where the river travels through the Strathspey and Badenoch region there's a low gradient resulting in a broad, meandering course through some of Scotland's most beautiful scenery.
Such is the association the river holds with salmon fishing, it has even given its name to a rod and casting technique. The Spey Rod is a large double-handled fly rod that's a must for big rivers when you're catching large fish! The original Spey rods were 22 feet long and made from hard, greenheart wood imported from British Guyana. They may have reduced in size today to around 12-14 feet but they're still longer than the standard rod and retain their double-handled grip - essential when you're trying to land that 20 pounder.
If your idea of fishing is relaxing in boat with a string tied to your toe then try the Tay or the Tweed because the Spey is not for you. The speed of the river together with frequent shallows and rapids along its course mean that most fishermen (and women) cast from the bank or more often, wade out into the stream. With steep sides and obstacles such as low-hanging branches to snag your line, the two-handed Spey casting technique has been developed to give more powerful casts (the record set in 2018 is 212 feet!) while keeping most of the line in front of you to avoid danger overhead.
If you have a notion to try your hand, then the advice would always be to start by consulting a professional salmon fishing guide known in Scotland as a ghillie. These experienced professionals will not only develop your ability to cast the line but will also advise on what flies you should be using to encourage the salmon to bite. "Flies" is a bit of a misnomer as these artificial lures more resemble a prawn or shrimp and are "tied" from gaudy materials such as gold tinsel, silver beading, bright silks and wools and in particular, the brightest feathers from teal, mallard and other birds.
They will also keep you on the right side of the law as Scotland has strict legislation with regard to fishing in general, and salmon fishing in particular. The season opens on the Spey on 11th February and runs through until 30th September. From early spring the salmon will begin to gather in the sea around the mouth of the river and any spate resulting from heavy rain will raise the level sufficiently to allow them to cross the sandbar at the mouth and begin their migration up the river to the streams and shallow pools where they themselves were spawned.
The Romans named this remarkable fish Salmo Salarying - "the leaper" - and although there are no man-made weirs or major obstacles on the Spey, they must still battle strong currents and turbulent waterfalls en-route to starting the life-cycle all over again. The Spring fishing is recognised to be very special in Scotland because it's the largest, most physically fit fish who lead the salmon run through the cold, oxygenated waters and to catch a "Springer" is considered the ultimate Scottish salmon fishing experience.
To conserve stocks and ensure a sustainable future for an industry that brings in excess of £12 million to the Speyside economy, Scottish legislation requires that all fish caught before 1st April are released to maximise spawning potential. The Spey Fishery Board take this catch and release policy further and require all fish caught up to the 31st May to be released, and from 1st June each angler must release all hen salmon and the 1st, 3rd, 5th etc male fish caught. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland also wanted you home reading your Bible rather than out enjoying yourself on the Sabbath and as they had a major say in the formation of many laws in Scotland, fishing for migratory species such as salmon and sea trout is still banned on a Sunday. Break the law and you're likely to find yourself in front of the Sheriff (as law officers are called in Scotland) and liable for criminal prosecution!
Finally you have to consider where you're going to fish, with the Spey being divided into over 30 famous salmon fishing "beats" usually between 1-3 miles in length. Since Victorian times the Highlands have been divided up into large country estates and each landowner owns the stretch of river passing over their land. Traditionally the beats would have been reserved for the owners and their invited guests only but today they're a means of making money for the estate and fishing rights are sold on a commercial basis. To fish a beat you must first purchase a permit which can range from £30 to over £500 per day. Before you're granted the permit you'll have to demonstrate that you have the correct fishing equipment, including chest waders and a life jacket, and a working knowledge of the etiquette. Without these you'll be advised to hire a ghillie!
With each beat granting access to around 4 rods per day, there's very high demand. Though most are privately owned, there are some excellent beats which are controlled by Angling Associations and these tend to be more accessible. Among them the Kinchurdy beat, upstream of Boat of Garten, which is controlled by the Abernethy Angling Improvement Association - you purchase a daily or weekly permit from the local Post Office.
They claim to offer some of the best salmon, and in particular sea trout, fishing on the whole of the Spey. As the permit lasts 24 hours from the specified time of purchase you might even want to try your hand at night fishing.
"there is a very real prospect that the sea trout fisher willing to fish through the short summer nights may find themselves alone on a pool alive with fresh sea trout, and not another angler within a mile".
Remember to wear that life vest!
When I visited last week the river was calm and serene but when you learn that the river drains from an area across the North East of Scotland measuring almost 2,00 square miles, it's not difficult to appreciate that it can quickly turn into a raging torrent capable of washing away anything in its path. Kinchurdy has been recognised as "one of the Spey's most private and prettiest beats', tranquil with easy wading and the added benefit - no canoeists!
The structure visible in the photo is known as a croy and these were often created on a salmon fishing beat to create a deeper pool for the fish to rest in while protecting the bank from erosion. Not bad if you want to dip a toe!