24 hours on the Tweed
Justifiably famous for its prolific salmon and grilse runs, the River Tweed is often overlooked for its equally impressive sea trout and wild brownies, says Marcus Janssen.
(PHOTOGRAPHY: TWEED MEDIA)
It has always struck me as strange that, in the UK, salmon and wild trout fishers tend not to see eye-to-eye, viewing one another with a hint of distrust and disdain.
Perhaps it stems from days of old when salmon anglers were encouraged to kill any form of Salmo trutta they had the misfortune of hooking. Trout were viewed as the piscatorial equivalent of cormorants, prolific carnivorous killers of beloved salmon fry, parr and smolts.
That theory has long been disproved by the clever people at the Wild Trout Trust and yet, until fairly recently, the salmon fisher’s derision towards Salmo salar’s less glamorous cousins persisted.
Conversely, down south on the River Test, where brown trout have always occupied the prime spots above the mantelpieces of Hampshire fishing huts and lodges, salmon were regarded as a pest and killed in their thousands.
Even today, a certain wild trout aficionado and good friend of mine sarcastically calls salmon ‘silver vermin’, an ironic reference to misguided attitudes of old.
Gladly, things have moved on a bit since those medieval times and, as any true fisherman knows, both species offer outstanding sport – it is just a case of picking your moment and fishing according to the conditions.
Indeed, there is no reason why salmon and trout fishing should be mutually exclusive, as I discovered on the Tweed last summer.
I had been invited by my good mate Charlie Brownlow to join him and a couple of friends for a day on the Lower Floors beat and, as an added incentive, he had managed to organise a bed for me at the recently refurbished Roxburghe Hotel.
Don’t tell Charlie this, but no-one has ever needed to go to such extreme lengths to convince me to join them for a spot of fishing of any kind. I would happily have slept in my car. Having said that, I can’t think of finer fisherman’s lodgings than the Roxburghe.
Not only was my room far more comfortable and luxurious than any fisherman truly deserves – I have always maintained that any bed that is difficult to get out of in the morning is not helpful to the fisherman’s cause – but the food was exceptional, too.
But, despite the appeal of a roaring log fire and library full of fishing and shooting classics, I was waiting in the foyer – my bacon and eggs long gone – by the time Charlie arrived to pick me up at 8am. The river beckoned.
Like the upper beat and the hotel itself, Lower Floors is owned by the Duke of Roxburghe and is available to hotel guests who, like me, are more at home on a riverbank than a championship 18-hole golf course or spa massage table.
As soon as I laid eyes on the beat, with the magnificent Floors Castle in the background, all thoughts of four-poster beds evaporated as we hurriedly strung up our double-handed rods.
I was to join ghillie Jonathan Mackereth at the top of the beat where a delightful looking run sparkled in the morning sunshine beneath a stand of overhanging beech and oak. For the next couple of hours I was in heaven.
Although I didn’t connect with any silver tourists, it was clear to see why this is one of the most productive runs on the beat, the sort of water that fills you with confidence as every cast swings through the run at just the right pace and depth.
Indeed, later that morning, Charlie would have more success than I, landing a stunning, chrome-plated and sea-liced fish of about 12lb from this very spot.
Simon Barr, too, who was fishing further downstream, managed to winkle out a similarly fresh fish.
And so it was in high spirits that we reluctantly left the river and returned to the hotel for lunch. But when I spotted none other than Monsieur Albert Roux’s name at the top of the menu, the lure of the river waned somewhat. And then, to our disbelief, the great man himself emerged from the kitchen to check that we were satisfied with our main courses! It was a surreal moment.
As it turns out, Albert has been brought in by the Roxburghe on a consultancy basis to ensure that their cuisine is of the highest standards; I can vouch that he has succeeded in that aim.
And with clear blue skies overhead, it was decided that, rather than make a mad dash back to the river straight after lunch – as tends to be my modus operandi – we would stay right where we were and do justice to the bottle of Merlot that had so perfectly accompanied my venison.
Admittedly, in normal circumstances the thought of forfeiting a single minute’s fishing for anything other than more fishing would have filled me with horror, but Charlie is a man after my own heart, and he quickly put my mind at ease with some very good news. “If we don’t fish the afternoon session, we can stay as late as we like this evening. And Jonathan assures me that there’s a good chance of a sea trout.”
And that is exactly what we did, returning to the river at dusk with our single-handed 8wt rods at the ready.
But, before we ventured out of the fishing hut to our respective pools and runs, Charlie had a another little surprise up his sleeve: the good chefs at the Roxburghe had put together the most amazing riverside picnic imaginable.
Piping hot boeuf bourguignon, freshly baked baguettes, a cheese board, salted caramel chocolate pots, and several bottles of ale from the local Tempest Brewing Company.
And just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get any better, a few large dark olives started to flutter up into the soft evening light.
By the time I had managed to pull on my waders, grab my four-weight and hastily tie on a size 14 March Brown, a number of hungry trout were already porpoising along a gravel shelf, just metres from the near bank.
With my bottle of ale firmly stuffed into the front pocket of my waders, I was soon in my element as a stunningly speckled two-pound Tweed brownie cartwheeled across the pool, my little Battenkill reel protesting accordingly.
Almost an hour later, Charlie and Simon almost had to drag me out of the river by my waders.
“Mate, the sea trout are calling,” laughed Simon as I made yet another “last cast”.
But he was right; with the light fading quickly, it was approaching sea trout o’clock. With that, I begrudgingly exchanged my four-weight for something with a little more backbone and headed upstream to a tasty looking run that I had spotted before lunch.
As Lord James Percy once wrote in Fieldsports Magazine, to be on any river at the gloaming is magical, but a night spent sea trout fishing on the Tweed is truly spell-binding.
That moment, that indescribable, heart-stopping moment, when, out there, somewhere in the inky darkness of the pool and without any warning, a sea trout grabs hold of your fly and powers off downstream is, quite simply, as good as it gets.
Like a distillation of all of the hundreds of reasons why anyone ever became addicted to fly fishing into one acute moment, the take of a sea trout is nothing short of electrifying.
And so it was an hour or so later when the take finally came. Even as I cradled the fish beneath the surface several minutes later, feeling her muscles twitch as she recovered her strength, every nerve-ending in my body was alight, like I had had six double espressos in a row.
“Well done, mate,” said Simon from somewhere in the darkness. He had made his way upstream to see if I needed a hand. Even in the darkness I could tell he was smiling. And I’m pretty sure he could tell that I was too.
Over the past 24-hours, the Tweed had once again been good to us – two stunning salmon, half a dozen brownies up to 3lb and a couple of fresh-run sea trout to boot.
Yes, we had a lot to smile about.