Mark Cockburn's favourite river
FishPal’s CEO, Mark Cockburn, talks to Jane Pruden about the River Spey and why every season holds special appeal.
For some fishermen a particular river is special because they know it so well, or it is where they have had most success, or perhaps it is the one where they caught their first salmon. Mark caught his first “cracking 8lb silver fish” aged 18, on the River Tummel, just below the dam at Pitlochry, and the memory is still as fresh as the day he caught it. But the River Spey has held a particular fascination since his early teens, and it has been drawing him back year after year.
With his job, for the last four years, as CEO of FishPal (the online booking, advice and information service for all types of rod fishing in the UK), Mark could be spoilt for choice. He has access to hundreds of fisheries, but as well as enjoying the big rivers – Tweed, Tay and Dee – he is just as happy visiting and fishing some of Scotland’s spate rivers or casting a fly for wild brown trout in a Highland loch.
“After a career in financial services, before joining FishPal, I really appreciate being outdoors and close to water,” explains Mark. “I’ve had a lifelong passion for fishing but of all the rivers I’ve been lucky enough to fish, it is the Spey that holds magic like no other.
“For starters, it is in the middle of nowhere,” he continues. “It is really remote and as far away from traffic as you can get. The peace is only broken by the sound of songbirds and wildlife going about their business. I’ve seen osprey taking sea trout, watched otters and kingfishers cruising the banks; I’ve even lost fishing time waiting for a stag to strut right through the river. Every beat is beautiful and the majesty of the place is really special. The pools are incredible to fish, too, and some of the ghillies are the best in the world, both for their knowledge and excellent companionship. But as well as all that, it’s a river with stark contrasts throughout the seasons.
“I have been invited to fish on opening day – February 11 – for many years, and each time is as exciting as the last. It will be absolutely freezing with snow on top of the Cairngorms, but with high expectations of catching the first fish of the year, you barely notice. After that, I visit three or four times again before the season closes at the end of September.
“The spring fish are great fun but there is huge sport to be had in the summer, too – even when the odds are against you. Only last year I was on Gordon Castle water, one of the first beats on the Spey by the sea, with good friend and guide, Gary Scott. It was 7:30pm and it had been a blisteringly hot day. The chances of catching anything were practically nil. As well as the heat, the river was also quite low. Fish don’t usually run in these conditions and because the beat is so close to the sea we didn’t expect the fish to move into the river at that time either. However, as the sun had started to dip behind the trees, Gary, who is also an international Spey-casting champion, was fishing with a brand-new split-cane rod with his own fly, the single-hook Gary Scott, and very quickly he hooked into a 15lb bar of silver and landed it on the bank. I have never seen a happier man, shown by the look on his face. Catching a fish, never mind one that size and colour, defied all the odds. It was totally unexpected and made the experience into one of those special fishing moments you never forget.
“Gordon Castle beat is definitely a favourite. It is a six-Rod double-bank beat with two boats and six named pools. It’s also very popular with guests for its really comfortable fishing hut overlooking Birks Pool, complete with wood-burning stove and a lavatory. Towards the middle of the Spey, beats around Rothes fish well from May through to September with some cracking water, and fresh-run salmon of over 20lbs caught regularly. Another favourite is the middle beat on Wester Elchies with ghillie Sam Bremner. He has been there forever and is a real joy to spend time with on the river. At the top of the Spey, Castle Grant and Grantown Association are also really good for salmon and sea trout.”
FishPal have recently won the hugely prestigious Visit Scotland Thistle Award for Innovation in Tourism 2016, something Mark is particularly proud of. “It’s a great honour and reflects our key objective to be the go-to fishing company for all your fishing needs.” His infectious passion for fishing continues but never more so than on the Spey, at any time of the year.
The River Spey fishing season: February 11 – September 30.
For booking information, visit www.fishpal.com