5 minutes with George Ross MBE

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Third generation ghillie awarded an MBE for services to salmon fisheries within the Kyle of Sutherland.

How did you get into fishing?

I am the third generation of my family to be head ghillie on the River Oykel, so I suppose it was inevitable. I got the fishing bug at a very early age and simply could not wait to get out of school and onto the river. I began work at the age of 15 and worked as a ghillie for 50 years until I retired in 2009.

I always remember my careers officer's comment before I left school. He asked us all what jobs we were going to - amongst us there were electricians, joiners, plumbers, engineers, accountants, etc. When it came to me I proudly announced that I was going to be a ghillie. His comment was: "Oh well, I suppose any job is better than nothing."

It turned out to be a lot better than nothing, as it provided me with continuous employment for the remainder of my working life.

What kept you in the role for so long??

Primarily it was my passion for fishing and the Atlantic salmon, and later in life studying the way in which rivers change. Constructing new pools, so as to improve the angling potential, was also very interesting. As was studying the migration of fish upstream each season, and then trying to estimate the migration of juveniles downstream each year. It takes a long time to become familiar enough with a river to the extent that you feel confident about making changes to the flow regime.

And, of course, it was the people, from all walks of life and all parts of the world, I met. I believe that this is a very important and interesting part of any ghillie's job.

Your best memories?

Without any shadow of a doubt, my most memorable day was at Buckingham Palace when I was honoured to receive an MBE from His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales in 2005, for services to salmon fisheries within the Kyle of Sutherland.

In terms of fishing, the late 80s were incredible when the grilse runs were so abundant that I still regard it as being like mackerel fishing. I used to have a trailer on my car with which I was fully occupied going round my Rods, picking up fish from lunchtime onwards!

The worst was in 1968 when UDN reared its ugly head. All us ghillies were in fear of being made redundant, so much so that I can remember a visitor from Norfolk genuinely offering us employment.

Have you noticed many changes to the sport?

I suppose in my younger days it could be described as an elitist sport. The cost of a beat was such that it prohibited the ordinary working man from having any chance of being able to experience the sport. However, today this is not the case. Salmon fishing is within the grasp of everyone and has become a very popular sport and indeed a very significant industry, especially up here in the Highlands.

The tackle has improved out of all recognition; carbon fibre means that anglers can fish for many hours without getting nearly as fatigued as they would have done. On wet days 40 years ago, I never knew what it was like to go home at night with a dry shirt.

In former years, packing, freezing and despatching fish played a considerable part of my job. A sight I really miss is the day's catch lying on the slab at night. Are the next generation really going to know what salmon fishing was all about?

Do you think salmon fishing has a bright future?

The Atlantic salmon is a survivor, and if only man would stop interfering, then I believe the salmon would quickly return in abundance. I am optimistic about the future, but undoubtedly they could be in danger.

I hope we never experience mandatory 100 per cent catch and release. Why impose further restrictions on anglers who want to take an odd fish for the table? If stocks are in danger of dwindling to a serious level, then close the river altogether, which of course in itself would be a very serious step.

What do you do now in retirement?

I am still working part-time, which involves ghillieing and giving tuition to beginners.

I am also tying more flies to order - the Oykel GP is still a very popular fly and in great demand, ever since we introduced it decades ago. I hope to continue tying flies as long as I am able to do so.

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