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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part IV.—Guide to Gairloch and Loch Maree

Chapter XIX.—Salmon Angling


SALMON fishing is undoubtedly at the head of all angling, whether in Gairloch or any other part of the world. Here it may he enjoyed under very pleasurable conditions, and with fair prospects of sport.

There are five salmon rivers in the parish of Gairloch, viz,—the Kenlochewe or Garbh river, the Kerry, the Badachro, the Ewe, and the Little Gruinard river.

The river Ewe is by far the best of them. It has, or had, the reputation of being one of the best salmon rivers in the Highlands, but since the removal of the last of the cruives it has not yielded large bags to the angler, except in a few unusually good seasons. The cruives were removed about 1852, with the object of lowering Loch Maree, and so draining land at the head of the loch. The cruives consisted of dams or weirs constructed across the river, containing openings; in these were inserted boxes or large creels, through which the water could pass down the river, but fish could not pass up except at certain times when the cruives were open. The oldest cruive on the Ewe was that which is still called " the old cruive," a little below the Poolewe manse. A great part of the dam still remains. The lower banks of stones were the original cruive; the higher dam was more recent. When entire the old cruive was frequently used by pedestrians as a means of crossing the river, which had then no bridge. Some deaths by drowning occurred here. For instance, the piper Roderick Campbell (Part II., chap, xvi.) was drowned whilst endeavouring to cross this cruive. Again, an American merchant was drowned in the pool below the old cruive about sixty years ago. He was crossing the cruives when his tall hat flew off; he swam across the pool to recover it, and he got to it on the little island, and stood there a minute. In returning, the stream at the tail of the pool was too strong for him, and carried him down to the rough water, where Alexander Maclennan, the old mason of Moss Bank, saw him dashed against a large stone or rock opposite the Poolewe Free church, and so killed. He saw the poor man no more; the body was found a fortnight after, at the ebb, on the Ploc-ard side of the head of Loch Ewe. It was long after this time that the old cruive was abandoned, and the new cruive was erected just at the foot of the navigable water of the Ewe, where are the remains of the old ironworks called the "Red Smiddy." This cruive appears to have only existed for some ten years; it was removed about 1852, as already stated. Great numbers of fish were taken in these cruives. Bag-nets and other engines for taking salmon in the sea are still sanctioned by the legislature, and some people think the gradual but certain diminution in the stock of fish is due to them, though this charge is by no means proved. There is sometimes a good year, like 1883, but on the whole the tendency is downwards, as both the net-fisher and angler complain.

The fortunate angler who has permission to fish the Ewe must first learn something of the pools on the river. The Ewe is nearly two miles long from the place where it leaves Loch Maree, close above Inveran, to the bridge at Poolewe. Taking the casts from Loch Maree downwards, we find on the east side of the river (whose course is very little west of due north) the following pools or casts:— There is a cast, almost useless, at the lower end of the kitchen garden at Inveran; it is difficult to fish from the shore, and I have never known anything but a chance sea-trout taken from it Sir Kenneth Mackenzie once captured two bull-trout here. The Upper Narrow below the fir wood comes next; it is an excellent cast when the river is high. Below this the river expands, and at the end of the birch wood, where it begins to contract again, is a cast called the " Kelt corner;" it is of little use, but sometimes a grilse is hooked in it. The Middle and Lower (or Little) Narrows are the next casts, and are both good; indeed, I would rather have the Middle Narrow than all the rest of the river. The Lower Narrow is a favourite resting-place of running fish, after struggling through the rough water below. Then comes the New Cruive Pool, which is excellent, and fishes best from this side. Below is a stream called Mac Cordaigh ; in Gaelic the name signifies " the pool of the son of Mac Cordaigh," who was probably a noted angler, but whose deeds are lost in the obscurity of the past. Below is the Ash Pool, a good place for grilse. Some distance further on is the Craig Pool, or Manse Pool, which is difficult to fish from this side, owing to the high rough rock which juts down into it. The flat between this pool and the old cruive affords a considerable stretch of good fishing when the river is in spate, but is useless when the river is low. The Old Cruive Pool, immediately below the cruive wall, is an uncertain place. Alongside the Free Church meeting-house is the Sea Pool; it fishes better from the other side. From the other side of the river are the following casts, viz.:—The Middle and Lower Narrows, same as the other side; the New Cruive and Mac Cordaigh; and then the Ash Pool and the Hen Pool. The Manse Pool, which comes next, is best fished from this side. It often holds good fish, but they are "very stiff." The "flat" is well worth fishing from this side; it requires a pretty long cast, and there is a bank behind. The Old Cruive Pool being out of reach, the next and last pool on this side is the Sea Pool, an excellent cast. There is a beautiful dark pool below Poolewe bridge. It looks very tempting, but it is very rarely indeed that a salmon is taken in it. I have, however, known a grilse of 7 lbs. weight, and several good sea-trout, taken from it.

The Ewe is not an early river, and many of the fish that do come in the spring run through into Loch Maree, and as far as Loch Clair. The kelts, or spent fish, often remain in the river until May or even June. There is generally a run of salmon early in May. The grilse and more salmon come in June and July, especially July, and fish continue running until the breeding season in November; indeed, some say there are always fresh-run fish in the water. If a low state of the water hinders the kelts from going down to the sea, they become very numerous in the Ewe in the spring, and I have landed as many as eight in one day. Of course they had to be returned to the river, pursuant to law. The Ewe salmon is a handsome fish when fresh run. I once caught a fresh-run bull-trout in the river weighing 21 lbs., a very handsome fish. The natives call these bull-trout Norwegian salmon. Mr Osgood H. Mackenzie, some years ago, caught one of them which weighed 27 lbs., the largest fish he ever took from the Ewe. I have caught several large sea-trout, which were of the same species. A few of the ordinary sea-trout are got in the river when they are running up to Loch Maree, and occasionally a respectable brown trout. The largest salmon on record from the Ewe weighed, I believe, 34 lbs., and was taken from Mac Cordaigh by an angler fishing on the west bank of the river. I got a fine hen salmon of 30 lbs. from the Middle Narrow in August 1876. The best flies for the Ewe have yellow or black bodies rough and full, and mixed wings also pretty full, jay hackle or heron hackle, and a gold pheasant tail. Small flies kill best, unless the river be in spate.

If the Ewe could tell its own tale, it would mention many illustrious characters, and would no doubt give us some good stories of them. Here is an amusing yarn of Dr Mackenzie's. Speaking of the landlady (about 1808) of the Kenlochewe Inn, the doctor writes:—

"She would wait long for a character from the late Sir Humphrey Davy, who used to fish and write 'Salmonia' on the river Ewe. Once going east with Lady Davy, he had put up a 20 lb. pattern salmon, probably to show his friends what sort of fish he was catching. They arrived at the inn, when, I suppose, the larder was rather empty, and the landlady, who valued a salmon no more than any other fish, imagined the twenty pounder was being carried by Siromfredavi (as a foreigner once addressed him by letter) to help empty Highland larders as he moved through the land; so she chopped Mr Salmo in two, without a hint or 'by your leave,' and astonished her guests by presenting it boiled as their mainstay for dinner! It was reported that Sir Humphrey's ugly language was audible half a mile away, and that listeners suspected he was on his way to an asylum."

Not many years ago I was walking along the road from Inveran to Poolewe, and saw, as I thought (and rightly), a well-known politician fishing the river. His attendant was the water-bailiff, John Glas, who came up to speak to me about something or other. I asked him, "Who is that gentleman fishing?" He replied, "One Bright." I said, "The great John Bright, you mean?" His answer was, "I never heard of him, but he is a good fisher." Such is fame!

How many odd little incidents happen to the angler; they seem so extraordinary at the moment, but perhaps lose their effect by repetition. When a salmon is in good humour, or hungry, or irritated, or vicious, or whatever it may be, he will take any sort of fly. Having gone out one day to fish the Ewe without my fly book, I suddenly discovered the old fly I was fishing with had come to pieces; there was little left of it but the hackle, untwisted, and attached to the hook at one end. I shortened it to the length of the hook, and got a salmon with it at once.

What a pleasant incident it is, how flattering to one's self-esteem, when a friend who has toiled in vain all day begs you to try his rod, and you immediately get a salmon from a pool he has just fished! This has happened to me more than once, each occasion being a palpable fluke.

I remember hooking a very lively fish one day in May 1881 at the Middle Narrow; he jumped, he flashed hither and thither; he now had out almost the whole of my line, and in another instant was at my very feet. After a little of this sort of work, he got off; I was horrified when the line came slack, and in a bit of a tiff jerked the rod up, drew the line, and threw it again. At the moment the fly touched the water another fish took it, which I ultimately bagged. A friend standing by positively never noticed that I had parted company with the first fish!

Fishing a year later at the same Narrow, I felt a slight suction as my fly approached a well-known yellow stone in the water. I pulled the fly away, thinking it might be a fish. My gillie said he saw nothing. After a brief pause I began again, and again felt the slight suction at the same spot. My gillie had seen nothing, and assured me it was but the eddy round the stone that I had felt. However, I allowed the usual interval, and, instructing my attendant to place himself where he could command the best view, I re-commenced. The same suction, the same remark by the gillie. So without further pause I threw again, and this time hooked a good fish at the same stone, which, after a sharp struggle, I brought to bank. It was he who had been at me all the time. '

On another occasion, after I had fished the New Cruive Pool, I was coming ashore from the stone I had stood upon, and carelessly left the line dangling in the water. On lifting the rod I found there was a fish on, and I soon grassed a fresh run grilse of 7 lbs.

How well I remember the February fish which my faithful attendant declared (wrongly) was a kelt, and the other one, really a kelt, which I landed above the Middle Narrow, marked and returned to the water, and caught again two days later in the Old Cruive, when he received quite a cordial greeting and a second benediction to help him further on his way down to the sea!

It was in the spring of 1883 that, fishing the Lower Narrow one afternoon, two fish, almost elbowing each other, came at my fly at the same moment, an incident that had never occurred to me before. I hooked one of them, but it proved to be a kelt; these kelts are greedy beasts.

A friend with me one day hooked a big fish in the New Cruive Pool; the fish ran and leaped for some minutes, and then went down. We alternately held on from eleven a.m. till five p.m., when a growing suspicion proved true that the fish had got the line fast under a stone, and had escaped.

I. shall never forget the Rev. Gordon Calthorp, minutely cross-examining me at a lunch one day on the subject of salmon fishing, and, a day or two afterwards, during a church mission, using the information he had thus acquired to illustrate, in his telling way, the wiles of Satan. Of course, the successful angler represented the Evil One! I was meekly sitting near.

The present water-bailiff of the Ewe is John Mackenzie (Iain or John Glas), of Moss Bank, Poolewe. He is a silent man, but knows the river thoroughly. His predecessor was Sandy Urquhart, well remembered for his stupendous loquacity. He had many good stories,—one, of the " fine gentleman " who had a day on the Ewe, killed a salmon, and gave Sandy a five pound note (!); another, of a well-known Ewe angler, who, Sandy said, being annoyed by the long sulking of a fish, stripped and dived down to the hole where the salmon lay. He succeeded in pulling the fish from his lair, but also pulled the hook from the fish's mouth.

The Ewe is easy to fish. There are few trees or banks, and all the casts are accessible. Waders are not necessary, and a long cast is seldom required. There are convenient "toes" for many of the casts, though not always quite in the right places. A north-west or north wind is the best for the Narrows, as it rouses a useful ripple against the scarcely apparent stream. I have said nothing about rod and linú; they should be light. It is no use the angler wearying himself with a heavy nineteen or twenty foot rod. A sixteen or seventeen foot rod is quite enough, remembering the elementary principle that the shortest line which will cover the water is the best. I never ' now use a gaff on the Ewe. It is quite unnecessary, as there are no steep banks. I never lost a fish for want of a gaff, but many I have hooked have got off during vain attempts to gaff them, even when the gaff has been wielded by an experienced hand. To gaff a kelt involves an almost certain breach of the law, for the kelt is nearly sure to die. To gaff a clean fish is to mar one of the most beautiful objects of sport. My plan is to draw the nose of the fish to the edge of the water, then lay down the rod, and instantaneously grasp the root of the tail firmly with one hand, whilst the other hand, under the head of the fish, assists to place it the next moment high and dry upon the bank. Dr Hamilton of Windermere has invented a spiked glove to be worn on the hand tailing the fish, but I see no need for it; and between the difficulty of putting it on at the right moment and the clumsiness that must accompany its use, I would rather be without it.

The number of salmon and grilse taken from the Ewe is insignificant as compared with the quantities captured in the bag-nets. The largest number I have ever known killed in one day was eight clean fish; this was in 1874. I never got more than five clean fish myself on the same day. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie once killed ten fish in a day on the Ewe,—his best bag. Mr O. H. Mackenzie of Inverewe about 1853 killed seven salmon in one day, and five the next. day. He was only a boy at the time, and was not fishing long on either day. For a notice of the sport the late Sir Hector Mackenzie and others had in the Ewe many years ago see Appendix E.

Sir Hector had a singular mode of fishing. His son,. Dr Mackenzie, writes:—" Few were better able to handle a rod than our father, and then there were no wading mackintoshes dreamed of to keep all dry. And as many pools in our river needed to be waded into or a boat to fish them rightly, wicked knowing old white Trig was ridden by my father into the pool, which thus was commanded by his rod all over it; and very soon Trig became quite interested in the sport, and the moment he saw a rush from a salmon or sea-trout, he backed slowly and steadily to the bank and let my father dismount and land the fish." This was on the river Conan.

The charms of the Ewe are manifold,—the wooded knolls on its upper reaches; the lovely peeps of the mountains of Loch Maree, and of the nearer range of Craig Tollie; the stories of the past that linger about its neighbourhood; the beauties of the river itself, replete with bird life and with wild flowers; and above all the exciting sport, are attractions which cannot fail to delight the angler, especially if he be successful. And there are pools in the Ewe that yield an occasional fish, even when the river is at its lowest. After August the fish are mostly dark in colour, though I have known a bright grilse bagged as late in the season as nth September.

The other salmon rivers in Gairloch depend more on a good supply of water than the Ewe. They fish best in July if there be water. Each of them has had cruives at some time. They are all in private hands. For the benefit of any angler who, being a friend of the tenant of any of these rivers, obtains permission to fish, I may mention that the river running from Loch Clair to the head of Loch Maree, called the Garbh, is best fished from Kenlochewe, and is let with the Kenlochewe shootings; the Badachro river is let with the Shieldaig shootings; and the Kerry river is let with the Flowerdale shootings. The Little Gruinard river is not exclusively in one hand ; the principal right to it is let with shootings.


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