Joe Gibbs: Even the patron saint of salmon can’t save these fish from the seals

After a disastrous 2023 fishing season, Joe Gibbs is hoping for better.

Anglers will have noticed that St Mungo, patron saint of salmon, is asleep on the job. He has slipped into the ranks of saints ‘who from their labours rest’. Unlike hard-grafting St Anthony, whom my wife keeps busy in search of lost mobiles and car keys (with a 90% retrieval rate), Mungo has been lollygagging by the rivers of paradise. Meanwhile, his ward, the Atlantic salmon, has been red-listed as an endangered species. A bit of saintly sock pulling up is needed.

On a dank and misty February Saturday, I joined a line of 4x4s crawling along the north side of the River Beauly to mark the opening of the fishing season. The track was flooded in places after heavy rainfall and a big river ran, barely contained by the banks. We passed the Priest’s Pool, named for its former reservation to the occupant of the Roman Catholic clergy house in Beauly; many a priestly rod tip must have bent to the novenas offered up from these bosky banks in days when St Mungo was on the case.

“Fishermen are by nature optimistic, but talking to club members, the mood was dour”

Next to it was the Minister’s Pool. Here, the estate owners had hedged their bets by making an identical concession to the Church of Scotland. Prayers to the saints being heretical on this stretch, fishing success would have been dictated by Calvinistic grim determinism. No doubt records will show which of these fishers of men had the ear of the Almighty.

Fifty members of Beauly Angling Club had gathered outside a fishing hut, more in hope than expectation of the new season. For the first time since its origins during the last war, the club drew a blank in 2023. Not a single salmon was landed the length of seven miles of river and 10 pools. The rest of the river had its lowest catch ever outside the years of wars and of hydro-dam construction.

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In the absence of St Mungo, the opening ceremony had more of a pagan feel to it. The Picts, after all, worshipped rivers as deities. The pipes played and a quaich of sacrificial malt was tipped into troubled waters. We downed a dram and the first cast across the river was made, very prettily, by a Spey-casting teacher.

On the plus side, no need to lug that rod around everywhere…

Fishermen are by nature optimistic, but talking to club members, the mood was dour. Dedicated bailiffs, gillies and scientists do all they can to rescue stocks, but much of the problem rests at sea and in climate change, beyond their control. Rogue seals hunt in the Beauly between September and April, when they go back to the herring and sand eels in the firth. They come upriver on the tide and trap what fish there are against the walls of the dam. Obtaining a licence to cull seals has become all but impossible and, I kid you not, a Beauly gillie has a licence to fire paintballs in the vicinity of a rogue seal, but never at it. The seal, of course, smiles and carries on snacking on dwindling wild salmon.

My family fished the Beauly for many decades until the 1990s. In a quiet year, the estate factor would telephone with the voice of assurance to tell us to expect fish any moment. Huge shoals of salmon had been spotted in the Moray Firth, he averred, giving a wartime impression of binoculared Royal Observer Corps wardens in British Warm coats and tin hats in lookouts around the firth. It was nonsense of course, and we laughed, but then we knew the fish would be back the next year. St Mungo, in our hour of need…