Reel Life: Fishing on the Tay

David Profumo is feeling joyous on Scotland’s ‘silvery Tay’.

The fishing life is suffused with rituals, none more potent than the mighty preparations around Opening Day. One of my favourite ceremonies marks the start of the salmon season on Scotland’s ‘silvery Tay’.

You might not associate January 15 with rigging up a fly rod, but this has always been an early river. In its heyday, fresh fish were taken right up in Loch Tay itself (you paid your hard-rowing ghillies three and eightpence a day, plus an ‘allouance of whisky’), but even in these times of diminished runs when, on some rivers, the pursuit of springers has become virtually a unicorn hunt Perthshire still seems the place to head.

This year, I was invited to the historic Stanley beats to open the season with a few words a signal honour for an Englishman, the piscatorial equivalent of switching on the Oxford Street Christmas lights. Our eclectic group convened at the Tayside Hotel, with its tartan carpets and heavy furniture, a throwback to earlier times and featuring a bar with a lively reputation. It was once a hostel for female workers at the nearby cotton mills and is still referred to as the Hen House.

Our baker’s dozen of handpicked zealots was hosted by Brian Fratel (my old chum from Farlows) and featured several familiar faces from London, Edinburgh and Dublin, including the designer John Rocha, whom I’d last seen in Havana. With heavy snow encrusting the streets of Stanley, it was a far cry from those sunlit bonefish flats, but the same sense of sporting fellowship pervaded our proceedings.

At 9am the following day, a lady piper preceded us down the banks of the Catholes pool, where the currents rushed by, high and coloured. The skyscape was dreich, with a dismal upstream wind, but spirits were buoyant and the guest of honour mercifully kept his peroration short. I duly poured into the river, from an ornamental quaich, a libation of the golden Water of Life to bless the stream and invoke its bounty. Then, with a traditional benediction that goes back to my younger days as a Jedi Speycaster (‘May The Grilse Be With You!’), I declared the Stanley season well and truly open and we eagerly sallied forth, equipped with Temple Fork and Templedog, Simms, Skagit and Saracione, in search of something silver.

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Being on the lower river, Stanley is renowned for its chances at these desirable early fish in the words of novelist Neil Gunn: ‘Fresh run, blue-green and silver bright, and of all shapes surely the most perfect in Creation.’ Ideally, to hold springers from running through, you want cold, low conditions—the water was at 38˚F, but it was probably several feet too high, making some of the lies impossible to cover. Boat fishing was out of the question. I began wading the right bank of the fabled Pitlochrie pool, but it was ‘blowing a bastard’ (as they say in the Falklands), so I soon swapped my 14-footer and shooting head for a spinning rod and a heavy copper Salmo.

Opposite, rooks billowed between the beech trees like cinders. I saw Andy’s rod hoop thrillingly and felt my first jealous twinge of the season. Glyn the photographer had driven off with my mittens, so my hands were raw when head ghillie Bob White arrived for a chat, giving me a midmorning excuse for a shared ‘allouance’.

The days may now be gone when the likes of the Marquess of Tavistock could slay 13 springers here in a single afternoon (that was back in 1910), but Bob whose quiet knowledge of such matters is widely respected along Tayside felt the spring runs were still bearing up quite well, despite serious disappointments last year with overall rod catches across Scotland.

He suggested our dwindling grilse numbers might be the result of fish now spending an extra winter at sea before returning to the river, due to changes in their marine feeding grounds. There are manifold theories, but right now nobody seems to know.

Back in the welcome fug of the hut, there was news of a 19-pounder taken upstream at Dunkeld. Our combined catch comprised two sea trout, a brownie and Andy’s ‘rawner’ or an unspawned salmon, also known as a ‘baggot’. Your correspondent touched nothing all day, not even a kelt.

Needless to say, as I left the following morning, the conditions were perfect and team leader Fratel took two gleaming spring fish to his own rod. Es la Pesca!

For more information about the Tayside Hotel, Stanley, Perthshire, telephone Joanne Hardy on 01738 828249 or visit