The 2020 salmon season exceeded all expectations, much to anglers' delight, but why was the fishing so good? Marcus Janssen investigates.

We’ll probably still be talking about the 2020 salmon season when we’re no longer able to get into our waders without some help from the gillie. “Aye, it was like the Ponoi, son. There were more salmon in the rivers than you could shake a stick at.”

Certainly, fishermen tell tales but there can be little doubt that the year was indeed a good one. Some, like my friend Tom Leslie, would say the salmon season this year was an outstanding one. He caught 15 fish in only a few hours on the Tweed in July and ended the season with 80 fish to his name, having fished fewer than 30 days in total. “I’ve been to Russia four times and only once have I caught more than 15 salmon in a day,” he told me. “This season was simply incredible. I still can’t quite believe it.”

Pretty much every Scottish gillie I have spoken to agrees, reporting sustained runs of fresh fish and good catches throughout the summer and early autumn months. “Up on the Spey, we had a considerably better spring and summer runs of fish this year,” said gillie Ian Gordon. “To me it felt like there were something like double the number of fish in the river this year compared with last year.”

When I spoke to Mark Cockburn, chief executive of FishPal, in August, he was more upbeat than I’ve ever seen him. “Rivers are seeing tremendous catches,” he said. “And it’s across the board — all our salmon rivers seem to be fishing well. There is no question about it, we are having a great season.”

Longest in-season rest

Following lockdown, which gave our rivers the longest in-season rest they’ve had since the outbreak of World War II, the fishing was excellent. Collated catch return data on the FishPal website shows that in June, catches on the Tay and Tweed far exceeded the five-year average, and Ian tells me that it was the same on the Spey.

Ernie Duff, who has gillied on the Tay for 34 years — 28 of those at Stobhall — has in recent years, like most Scottish gillies, had to perfect the art of yawning with his mouth closed. However, when I fished with him in August, he was uncharacteristically animated. “The fishing in June was exceptional,” he said. “I am sure it had a lot to do with the fact that the fish hadn’t seen a fly since March, but I am also certain that there were more fish about this year than there have been in recent years.”

The FishPal data backs up Ernie’s assertions: total Tay rod catches exceeded the river’s five-year average through June, July and August. And though they dipped somewhat — relatively — in September and October, they were still better than in 2019.

Dramatic

On the Tweed, the uptick was even more dramatic, with rod catch data showing they were considerably up on their five-year average from June right through to October. In July and September, the river produced more than twice as many fish as it has on average over the past five seasons. At Sprouston, which is one of the most productive beats on the river, July catches were up an incredible 281% against the five-year average.

Why was the fishing so good?

And further north on the Dee, while June catches were relatively low due to poor conditions, July was outstandingly good. But the question remains: why was the fishing so good? The debate is already well under way.

I’ve known Ernie for more than 10 years and he isn’t one for speculation, but he, along with many others, believes that it is no coincidence. For the first time in living memory, pretty much all European fishing vessels were docked for almost three months as a result of COVID-19, and notably at a time when the majority of our adult UK salmon would have been en route back to their natal rivers.

“It is hard to see how this could not have had a positive impact on salmon runs,” said Ernie.

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Ernie’s logic is difficult to dispute, but Mark Bilsby, chief executive of the Atlantic Salmon Trust, isn’t yet convinced. “Until we have the scientific evidence to quantify whether or not more fish did actually enter our rivers this year — and if so how many more — we can only speculate on the reasons why the fishing was so good.”

Mark pointed out that, though many smaller fishing vessels were indeed docked throughout lockdown, a large number of supertrawlers — vessels more than 100m long and each capable of catching thousands of tonnes of fish — actually stepped up their fishing in the UK’s protected waters. According to a Greenpeace investigation, 23 such vessels collectively spent 5,590 hours in 19 of the UK’s marine protected areas in the first six months of 2020, compared with 2,963 hours in 39 protected areas in the whole of 2019.

“So, the jury is still out, I’m afraid,” Mark added.

Ian Gordon agrees. “I know a number of trawlermen who fish out of Scotland and they very rarely catch salmon as bycatch. That’s just a fact. That’s not to say that when the salmon are at their feeding grounds off the Faroe Islands and Greenland, they aren’t more susceptible to netting by these supertrawlers or drift nets.”

Mark continued: “Because we don’t have reliable fish counter data for most of our UK rivers, the best indication of just how good this year’s runs have been will come in November and December, when we count the redds.”

Pressure

This salmon season season has led to a fascinating debate about the impact that angling pressure — and, conversely, a reduction thereof — has on salmon behaviour. Peter Rippin, who was one of the founders of Fly Fisher Group, which has been part of Roxtons since 2015, and now runs East Ranga in Iceland, one of the most prolific salmon fisheries in the world, is unequivocal. “To my mind, there is simply no doubt that sustained fishing pressure reduces catches. Fishing pressure can come in the form of lots of rods or not resting a pool or beat. Which amounts to the same thing — too much disturbance,” he says.

Peter, who has fished and guided extensively in Iceland for more than 20 years, told me a story that perfectly illustrates his hypothesis. He and a few friends decided to take an Icelandic river privately for a few days in the latter part of the season. Conditions were stable, the water lowish and warmish and fish were holding. There were very few fresh salmon arriving and the holding fish were dour and a bit depressed.

Though the beat is usually fished by eight rods, they decided to fish just four, with each rod being shared by two anglers. The result? “We landed way more fish than we expected,” he recalled. “Not only from the pockets, runs and lesser-known lies, but also from those larger holding pools. Fish were simply way more willing to take when cast over less frequently.”

Peter believes that less fishing pressure results in more fish, overall, being caught. Of course, you need a critical mass of fishers as a baseline — you’re not going to do justice to the Tay or Tweed with only a handful of rods — but beyond that, he argues that there is essentially an inversely proportional ratio of rod numbers to salmon landed. “I would estimate that, assuming a control level of fishing skill, tackle, average water level and weather conditions, reducing fishing pressure by 30% would result in 30% more salmon landed. Arriving at rested pools, where salmon have settled and relaxed — often in shallower, more streamy water — increases the odds of success massively,” he said.

Back on the Tay, Ernie is in agreement. “It’s a catch-22, though,” he said. “Because there are fewer fish running our rivers these days than there were 20, 30 or more years ago, angling pressure has inevitably increased. People have to fish longer and harder to get a fish, so there is no question that the fish in our rivers experience more fishing pressure than fish of yesteryear did, which invariably makes them less likely to take.”

Ian told me a similar thing. “When we came out of lockdown, we were catching fish from lies that I haven’t seen salmon in for years. They hadn’t been disturbed for over two months and they were relaxed and far more likely to take. There is absolutely no doubt that a pool is more productive when it has been rested.”

In summary, 2020 was probably a perfect and unprecedented salmon fishing storm, a combination of better runs of fish and well-rested, undisturbed rivers resulting in the sort of fishing that the old boys in the fishing hut talk of from way back when.

Will we see a repeat performance in 2021? Probably not. But I am feeling far more optimistic than I was this time last year. “I really believe that we have good reason to feel excited about 2021 and 2022,” said Ian. “I certainly am.” Which is just wonderful, because we have had it tough for so long.

Maybe, just maybe, we have turned a corner. Only time will tell, but if I were you, I’d book some fishing soon.