The former ghillie, World Spey Casting Champion and award-winning fly tackle designer talks to Marcus Janssen.
(Photograph: Eoin Fairgrieve)
Tell us about your upbringing and how you got into salmon fishing?
I grew up in Inverness and developed a love of fishing from a very young age. My father got me started and by the age of 10 I had caught my first salmon. After that, every spare moment I had, I was on the river. Even at such a young age, my life began to revolve around fishing and that is the one thing that has never changed.
Because the Ness is a fairly wide, fast-flowing river, it has always been famed for its Spey casters. I remember standing on the bridge in town watching guys casting huge lines. But it was only much later that I realised what they had been achieving with 14ft glass fibre rods and basic PVC fly lines. And bear in mind that the longest line you could buy back then was 27 yards – these guys used to splice two lines together and cast over 40 yards! Growing up in that environment was amazing – it certainly planted a seed.
So how and when did you become a ghillie?
Upon leaving school at 17, I became a postman which I really enjoyed as I was finished for the day by 12:30, and could be on the river by 13:00! But within a couple of years, I began to realise that I really wanted to turn the fishing into a career.
I got my first opportunity at Kinlochbervie, right up in the northwest corner of Sutherland. It was certainly very different to the Ness – it was all about small, intimate spate rivers, wild brown trout on dry flies, and dapping for salmon on the lochs. But it was a very exciting time and was a big step for me, leaving home and heading for the wilds of northwest Sutherland. But I knew that that was what I wanted to do.
(Photograph: Matt Harris)
Four years later, I moved to the Montcoffer beat on the Deveron to work for Lord Morrison. The Deveron was a very good river back then (mid ’90s), and it offered a new set of challenges. Unlike the Ness (which, because of the Loch, practically never colours) it is a spate river and is often coloured and can therefore be temperamental. But I saw some very big fish landed on the Deveron, including a 34-pounder. And of course the biggest salmon ever caught on the fly came off the Deveron in 1924, weighing in excess of 60lb – a true monster.
But I also loved the Deveron for the incredible trout fishing it offered. Everyone thinks of me as a salmon fisher, but give me a dry fly, a single-handed rod and a hatch of March Browns and I will be in my element. There’s a real magic to that.
I ghillied on the Deveron for about five years until 1998, but then I got the chance to head back home to work on the Ness as head ghillie on Ness-Side. That was my ideal job at the time, coming back home to the river I grew up on and loved. I was there for 12 years.
And the competitive Spey casting and demonstrations – how did that come about?
I was always keen on my casting and even from a young age I started winning casting competitions at local game fairs, often beating the men in the open categories. But then in about 2000, someone encouraged me to enter the open Spey casting competition at the Scottish Game Fair at Scone Palace, and I won that, too. So I knew I could cast. But for one reason or another, I didn’t take it any further at that stage. And, besides, I assumed that the serious competitors from overseas could cast a lot further than me.
But then Trout and Salmon asked me to be a tackle reviewer, along with Kenny MacDonald and Andrew Graham-Stewart. One day, we were testing fly lines and I got on particularly well with a line from Scientific Anglers (the XLT) which had a 100ft head (this is a very long head which the vast majority of anglers would find impossible to cast). Anyway, Kenny commented that I was casting a hell of distance and decided to pace it out. It was only then that we realised that I was casting over 50 yards. I then noticed that on the box it said that the line had been developed for the CLA Game Fair Spey casting competition which Steve Choate had won in 2001 with a staggering cast of 50 yards on an 18ft rod. Suddenly, it dawned on us that I had just cast further than him. So, I decided that it might be worth having a wee look at this competition the following year at Harewood House.
In short, I ended up winning it on my first attempt with a cast of 51 yards. The style of casting I was doing was different to what everyone else was doing; I was bringing the rod a lot further back and lower which resulted in a more aerodynamic V-loop (rather than the more conventional D-loop) which, in turn, was loading the rod more effectively. But the new Spey casting era, which was in its infancy then, was about to take a major step forward.
How did Spey casting change in the following years?
Over the next few years, we spent a great deal of time refining our tackle and technique. Casting became more of a science; we started to look at the physics of casting, faster actioned rods were developed, line tapers were refined and tweaked, and all of a sudden the distances went up a notch or two. The following year I won the CLA Game Fair competition and the Ireland International Spey Casting Competition. Then in 2005, I decided to head out to San Francisco to the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club for their Speyorama (the biggest and most prestigious Spey casting competition in the world) and I won that, too. And that was the year that I made a cast of 68 yards in the heats of CLA Game Fair competition, a cast that broke Alexander Grant’s world record that had stood for 110 years.
By that stage I was doing that much casting that I was beginning to suffer from repetitive strain injuries from casting an 18ft rod, so I more or less came away from the competition circuit altogether. But in 2006 I was asked to captain the Scottish team (which included Ian Gordon, Eoin Fairgrieve, Gary Scott and Bill Drury) in the Emerald World Masters in Ireland. We won the whole thing outright (Ed – by a country mile!).
So when did you start your own tackle company?
I initially got into the development of tackle with Daiwa, but towards the end of 2006, I was having a chat with some friends and someone suggested that I look at developing my own brand. We started with a DVD – Scott MacKenzie’s Spey Casting Masterclass – which went on to become one of the best-selling casting DVDs of all time. But we did spend in excess of £100K on the production of the film, which was a hell of a lot of money in those days.
Shortly after that, I launched MacKenzie DTX (Design Through eXperience), my tackle brand. I had a lot of experience behind me as a ghillie, casting instructor, demonstrator and competitor, so I wanted to apply that to the development of a new range of rods and lines. We launched our first range of double-handed rods in 2008 and got the Best New Product Award at the Tweed Game Fair that year. And, honestly, we haven’t looked back since. We now have a design team which I have built around me to keep it evolving, and a separate team of experts to encompass single-handed rods. Our core principle is that our rods are designed by fishermen for fishermen. Everyone who works on the development of our tackle has spent their entire life on the river.
So when did you stop ghillying altogether?
I kept ghillying until 2010 when the MacKenzie DTX brand really took off and I made the decision to go on my own. It was a great leap of faith, leaving a job of 12 years which I loved, but I knew what I wanted to do. I have the belief that if you work hard, you will get there. I was coming up to 40 and needed to take the next step; I didn’t want to die wondering ‘what if?’.
And did you ever enter any more casting competitions?
Yes, in 2013 – seven years after I last competed – I was at the CLA Game Fair as an exhibitor and casting demonstrator, and someone suggested that I should have a go at the open casting competition for old time’s sake. Anyway, I had a little go and couldn’t believe how well it went. It just clicked. Somehow, in tough conditions, I managed to win it. A few of my mates had teased me, saying that I was an old man, past my prime and would be better off taking up bridge. Aye it felt good to have the last laugh!
So how many competitions have you won in total?
I won the CLA Game Fair competition four times (the most times it has been won by any one person), I won the Irish International Spey Casting competition twice, I won the Golden Gate Speyorama in San Francisco in 2005, and in 2006 I captained the Scottish Spey Casting team to victory in the World Championships in Ireland.
So what is your all-time longest cast?
In that World Championships in 2006, Bill Drury and Ian Gordon witnessed me casting over 80 yards on several occasions during open practise. That would have been a world record, but because it wasn’t during official competition time, it didn’t count.
So, what is the secret to casting a really long line?
The key is to make the rod do the work; you must make it flex properly. The theory is as important as the practice, so you do need to understand the physics and mechanics of how a rod functions. And then you’ve got to practice. But it really isn’t about how big or strong you are – Alexander Grant was a small man – it’s all about getting the most out of the rod without forcing it, and getting the balance right between the top hand and bottom hand, and that comes from the right pivot motion and perfect timing.
And what are the most common casting mistakes that people make?
Not flexing the rod by trying to throw the line, often too hard and too fast. You need to slow down and make the rod do the work. And remember to use the bottom hand. That is key.
Tell us about your most memorable salmon so far?
That would have to be the fish I had off the Reisa in Norway last year, an absolute beauty of 38lb. My son was with me which made it even more special. We had to chase it downstream with the boat for more than a kilometre, eventually landing it after 45 minutes. I was definitely a wee bit emotional. I had never seen a fish that big.
How many salmon rivers have you fished over the years?
Countless. I would say that I have fished most rivers in Scotland, a good number in Norway including the Orkla, Stjørdal, Namsen and Reisa, I have fished Canada, and I have also fished several rivers in Iceland. I am yet to fish Russia, but it is definitely on the bucket list.
And which rivers would you regard as your favourites?
The Ness as it is my home river and I know it like the back of my hand – but I love fishing little spate rivers, too. The Spey is very special as it has such beautiful fly water, but the Reisa in Norway is incredible as it offers the possibility of hooking a truly huge fish, which definitely adds a different dimension.
What is your favourite fly?
It would be impossible to choose just one pattern, but the Collie Dog would probably be my go-to fly for most conditions.
Who is the most talented salmon fisher you know?
One of my pals, Jack Christison from Inverness could catch a fish in a muddy puddle. He would stand out as someone who would have a chance of a fish in even the most difficult conditions.
If you could share a day on the river with any one person, who would you choose?
Apart from Angelina Jolie, you mean?! It would have to be the late Alexander Grant, the Wizard of the Ness. That man was incredible and I would just love to see what he could have done with modern tackle. He had a real love of music and made fiddles, so when he started making his own rods, he acoustically tuned them with a tuning fork to C sharp which ensured that they would bend perfectly! His rods were way ahead of their time, and he, as a caster, was 100 years ahead of his time.
What would you regard as your biggest achievement(s) so far?
Probably taking the MacKenzie DTX brand to where it is now. We entered into a really competitive market in the middle of a recession, and yet the brand has really grown in eight years. We have a great reputation, and we feel like we are just getting going. In fact, we have just launched what we think will be the next big thing – the world’s first double-handed rod made with Graphene, a substance that is 100 times stronger than the strongest steel, enabling us to make stronger, faster, lighter rods, which is a major leap forward. We genuinely believe that we have created the world’s best double-handed fly rod.