The Speyside poacher

Scottish Sporting Gazette

Within a matter of weeks, a poacher's occasional worm fishing trips to catch one for the pot had escalated into frequent gill net fishing on a commercial scale.

"I used to go to the pub with the ghillies, we all drank together, threw darts together and played pool together; that was our community. But these were also the folk I was poaching from."

Finlay takes a glug of whisky, tilts forward to acknowledge the cocker lying devotedly at his feet and nestles back into his frayed armchair. Now in his late 50s, his tales are merely reconnaissance from more than 30 years ago of days spent poaching on the River Spey.

"The ghillies didn't mind when we were taking one or two for the pot, they knew exactly what we were doing and we would buy them a dram or two in return.

"It began with going down to the river as a teenager with my two uncles", he continues. "We'd just head down late in the evening with a few worms when the beat was empty. My uncles had been worming the river for years and knew which pools were best in low and high water. Sometimes I was on the road looking out for vehicles and other times I was with them learning about the nooks and crannies of the water. They had a special little spot in amongst these trees, so we'd throw a worm upstream and let it swing into this deep wee hole. We'd have a salmon out for the table near every time."

"One night, Eric Robb - one of the most revered ghillies in Speyside - caught us red-handed. Me and my two uncles were fishing away and next thing he was standing on the other side of the river shouting: 'You bastards! Wait there'. So we stood there while he got in his boat and rowed across to us. 'Worming isn't the way to do it!' he yelled. He had his own fly rod with him, so he had four or five casts, hooked into a salmon, pulled it out, gave it to us and said: 'there you go, now f**k off home'.

"A few years later I met his other young guy, Robby, and started going down with him. The first few nights we were down with just the rod and worm, and then one day he said he knew someone with a gill net and we should net the river one night. I was right up for this; I'd never done it before.

"So a while later, me and Robby went down to the Tulchan Waters. I'd bought a wee plastic rubber dingy to cross the river in. I blew it up in the car and on the way to the river; it caught a barded wire fence and burst, he says with a smile stretching across his weathered face. "So I ended up just wading across the river with a rope, pulled the net across, walked down the bank and let my side go. It had a leaded bottom, so the net sunk down as it swept round with the current. Then I rushed back across, caught the other side and hoped there was some fish tangled up in it. The vivid detail in his memory makes it seem as if he did it yesterday.

"The first few times with the net we only had two or three fish, but holy shit it was exciting, like really exciting. The buzz was just brilliant, just so... his words tail off, but his search for superlatives, waving hands and reminiscing grin finish the sentence for him.

"We'd go every few nights," he continues after a short pause to watch a covey of partridge lift from a nearby kale crop and flick past the window. "We carried the net in a bag and hid near the bank waiting until the fishers packed up. As they were driving up round the corner away from the river, I'd be crossing the metal bridge, on the outside rail, dropping the rope in as I went to pull the net across. Sometimes we'd be only a few yards down the river and there'd be fish bouncing and slashing in the net. At times we'd have 20 salmon out of one pool and some big fish too, some bloody big fish.

"I was lucky, I never got caught. Came close a few times though. Got chased down the river by an old estate Factor one time", he jokes, "and another night, I was wading across the river and I heard a vehicle pull up, so I lay down in the rapids with just my head sticking out of the water. Two ghillies sat on a bridge only 100 metres away for a good five minutes looking down the river. Robby thought I'd been swept away to sea, but they never saw me so I stood up and carried on to the far bank.

"Then a few nights later, around midnight, we went down to a different part of the river," he says, with a bristling excitement in his voice. "This was a risky one as it was a smart part of the river and the ghillie's house was bloody close to the bank. The pool beneath was a big, long, slow sweeping stretch - it was perfect for netting. As the net was drifting down the pool it just suddenly exploded with fish. There were so many in the net that Robby could hardly hold it. They were making too much noise splashing on the surface, so I ran back around, grabbed the net and tried to let some of the fish out.

"We only got eight or nine salmon from it in the end, but Christ what an adrenalin rush," Finlay exclaims, rubbing his palms together and rocking forward in his chair. "My heart was racing. It's loud enough with one fish splashing on the surface when you hook one but imagine having 20 in a line just going absolutely ballistic in a gill net. It's so exciting. You're doing something you know fine well you shouldn't be, but it's too much of a kick to care at that moment."

"Robby had a contact down the road at Pitlochry and he would take as many salmon as we could handle, so every morning after netting, my wife used to take the catch down in the car. It was good money back then, we were making a couple hundred quid a night. I bought a Rover 2500 TC and Robby got a new car too - people knew exactly where the money came from though. One night in the pub, a ghillie came in and said: ?You were bloody lucky last night Finlay. That was some chase I gave you, I thought I was going to have you at last'. They all knew we were at it, they just couldn't catch us.

"But poaching was different 30 years ago. The earlier days were great fun, but it's very addictive and we started getting greedier and greedier - it became commercial." The shift in Finlay's tone sums up the escalation of their poaching tactics.

"We started going out more and more, taking guns with us and shooting deer on the way to the river and on the way home - sometimes we'd come home with a boot-full of salmon and two or three roe deer as well. We were hanging deer in my shed and in the woods behind my house and selling them for £40 or £50. I started to get cold feet - it was getting too risky. That's when I decided enough is enough and it was time to get out of it."

Three decades on, Finlay's gill netting days on the Spey are long behind him. Poacher turned keeper, he is now on the other side on the fence, employed on a stunning sporting estate in the Highlands.

"I can see now that I must have been a right nuisance back then. But when I came to this estate 12 years ago, they were catching salmon for the hatchery and asked if I could help out with the netting." Finlay laughs and sinks the last gulp of his whisky. "Aye, I said, I done it a couple of times before."

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