A Pilgrimage to the River Spey

By Chris Santella

Hip-deep in Millionaire’s Pool on Scotland’s River Spey, I launched a long cast downstream and slightly across.  As the line and my fly – a Kinermony Killer – swung slowly across the river, my attention wandered.  A fellow angler, upstream, likewise cast. Downstream, the tip of a smokestack attached to a Speyside distillery peeped just above the thick stands of hemlock and birch along the river.  Not another angler in sight.  A hundred yards downstream, a loud splash signaled the presence of an Atlantic salmon. 

I’d fished several days without so much as a pluck of my fly, but was thrilled to be here, adding my own tiny chapter to one of fly fishing’s most storied rivers.

There’s debate over where the first humans tried to trick the first fish with a bit of fur or feathers wrapped around a hook.  Most agree that Great Britain is the spiritual home of fly fishing.  The first fly fishing story was published here in 1496 (“The Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle” by Dame Juliana Berner), and the chalk streams of southern England were the playground of Isaak Walton, who published “The Compleat Angler or The Contemplative Man’s Recreation” in 1653—perhaps the best-known fishing book of all time.  

It was toward the mid-19th century that fishing for Atlantic salmon came in vogue, fostered in part by improvements in railroad travel and advances in fishing tackle.  One such innovation was the Spey rod – an 18- to 21-foot beast fashioned from greenheart, a hard wood sourced from Guyana.  The rod, named for the river where it took hold, was developed to facilitate the Spey cast, a two-handed technique that facilitates the long casts sometimes necessary to reach far-off pools where salmon might lie.  

Angler casting at Hollanbush, Delfur, lower River Spey

As a lifelong fly angler, I have long dreamed of one day casting a line in the old country.  The Spey held a special attraction.  I began Spey casting shortly after moving to the Pacific Northwest in 1999, in an often monomaniacal pursuit of steelhead trout.  The notion of salmon fishing in Scotland was cloaked in mystique, rather like the average American’s attempts to understand the role of English monarchy.  The brightly colored flies came on double hooks, with mildly eccentric names like Tosh and Arndilly Fancy. There were huts along the river where anglers could warm up, perhaps with a cup of tea (or something stronger).  Each river section (or beat, in angler’s parlance) came with a ghillie, who was kind of like a guide, but not exactly…and would probably wear some tweed clothing or a tie.

But salmon rivers in Scotland don’t work exactly like the steelhead rivers in Oregon.  Each beat is owned by a private party.  That party may retain fishing rights for their personal enjoyment or lease out fishing access by the week (much like a time share).  Pricing is determined by how many fish have historically been caught on the beat and when you hope to fish, among other factors.  Which means that a productive beat at the height of the season can cost thousands of pounds a week per angler, a rather princely fee.

That is, if you can even find a beat.  Many have waiting lists that might leave you out of luck for years.

Brae Water Beat 3, near Fochabers

Fortunately, my good friend Dinty Leach owns one week a year on the Spey’s Laggan Beat.  And understanding my love of Spey casting and steelhead, he invited me to join him at the Downton Abbey-like domicile overlooking the river.  

The fishing schedule at Laggan is more relaxed than our steelhead regimen at home.  Instead of rising before daybreak and hustling to secure a spot on the river ahead of other anglers, we’d collect at 8:15 for a proper British breakfast.  All the water on the beat was ours, and there was no reason to rush.  (I couldn’t quite bring myself to sample the blood pudding and haggis.)  By nine, we had donned our waders, just in time to meet ghillie Michael Murdoch, who was wearing both a tweed cap and a tie.  He described the day’s best fishing options.  There are nearly 20 named fishing spots along the Carron/Laggan beat; some are more likely to hold salmon at certain times of year, or at certain river levels.  Several anglers were sent to Macgregors, several others to Millionaires.

Atlantic salmon have been called the fish of a thousand casts.  They do not feed upon returning to their natal streams to spawn.  Sometimes they will enter the river and rush upstream, lingering little in the Spey’s lower beats; other times, they will wait near the estuary until heavy rainfall raises river levels.  

As you cast, there’s a decent chance that no fish may be present.  But you cast all the same, the fly swings slowly across the pool, you take two steps and cast again.  

Wading through Macgregors my first morning, I was as attuned to the surroundings as to the path of my fly.  The banks were neatly mowed to almost fairway length.  There was a bench for onlookers; further upstream, there was a covered hut where anglers could take refuge from rough weather.  Nets for landing your salmon were hung at each pool.  In pools too deep to wade, rowboats awaited.  All a far cry from the blackberry/poison oak infested banks of my home rivers, where one’s more likely to encounter a rattlesnake than a manmade shelter.  In America, the golf courses are closely manicured and the rivers are wild, rough and ready; in Scotland, the opposite was true.  

In keeping with the civilized pacing of Laggan angling, the group broke for lunch at 1pm, assembling at the “hut” below the Carron Bridge, which was really a cabin with electricity and a flush toilet.  Our meals included hot soup, cold cuts, and a re-imagining of the previous night’s leftovers.  That first lunch, we learned that Pedro Wakefield, an angler visiting from France, had landed a fish estimated at 14 pounds.  After several photos, the fish was returned to the Spey to hopefully propagate.  (All angling here is catch and release.)

Following tea or coffee, it was back to the river with anglers separating to cover segments of the beat that hadn’t been fished in the morning.  At about 5 o’clock we returned to the “baronial mansion”—with its five double bedrooms, five single bedrooms, five baths and 3 reception rooms—to shower and relax.  We had cocktails at 6:30; dinner at 7.  One could’ve fished into the evening, as the July sun lights Laggan until nearly 11 pm.  But after a hearty dinner and a few glasses of wine, our group was through.

The Pouches at Knockando

As my week on the Spey wore on, the sun shone brightly, and the river continued to drop—two factors conspiring against angling success.  By the morning of my departure, I had not encountered a salmon.  But wasn’t wading the Spey’s clear waters and imagining the many anglers who’ve cast here before me a kind of success in itself?  As most serious anglers know, the path is a large part of the goal; one needn’t be catching to enjoy fishing.

That said, I wasn’t sure when I’d be returning to the Spey…if ever.  So when my wife gave me leave to fish the pool in front of the Laggan House, Delchapel,  I jumped at the opportunity.  Two days previous, Murdoch had pointed out the spot in the pool where salmon were most likely to lie.  I cast down and across the pool, toward the birch trees that Murdoch recommended I use as a target.  My fly – this time, a small Blue Charm, tied by a friend at home – swung into the sweet spot.  The line stopped, then I felt a strong pull.  A salmon rolled on the surface.  Then nothing. 

I took several steps upstream and cast over the water again.  The fish did not return.

Hopefully, I will.

Chris Santella is the author of 23 books, including Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die and many other titles in the “Fifty Places” series.  He’s a regular contributor to the Washington Post, New York Times, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Trout, and fronts “Catch & Release,” Portland, Oregon’s premiere fly-fishing inspired band.

[Photos provided by the Spey Fishery Board]