Fly for a try

A day on Scotland’s famed River Tay
river tay - scotland
Photo: Shane Townsend

Scone, Scotland may not be the epicenter of the flyfishing world; but this morning, it feels like it. A hundred thirty miles north, the River Spey runs past the Gordon Estate where in the mid-1800s, the spey cast was born. Twenty miles south sits Loch Leven where – just a generation later – brown trout eggs were gathered and sent to America to build a wild population. And, beneath the rising fog before me slide the waters of the River Tay—from which in 1922, Georgina Ballantine hauled a 64-pound salmon that stands as the record in the British Isles. The clock strikes 9 a.m. It's time to fish.

Harry Proud, the longtime Waulkmill Beat ghillie, slings coffee dregs from his mug and walks toward the bank. Guide Callum Conner grabs the rods. And, we load into the wooden boat. Harry ferries us up and across the river to the stretch reserved for we rookies of the spey. There are fish here. And, it's well out of the way. We step into the Tay.

Callum demonstrates the spey cast. He hands over the rod. My turn. And, it feels a little like holding hands on a first date—generally familiar, but still awkward, eager, hopeful. The eager discomfort reminds me of my introduction to the fly.

The dead air in the summer of 1983 wielded the kind of Mississippi hot that damn near scalded your lungs on the inhale. The heat had long sucked the wet from the fields and what little water remained in Providence Creek concentrated in a string of potholes like pearls along the one-mile necklace of creekbed behind the house. The good things – as I would come to understand – were that the swamp was cool and the tea-colored water of those potholes was black with the backs of hungry fish that'd never seen a fly. But, the overhangs were tight. A cane pole was too long. And you couldn't cast in that mess to save your soul.

"Wouldn't it be fun?" my dad said, "to get into them?" He lifted an ultra-light spinning rod onto which he'd mounted a cheap new fly reel. He tied a white chicken feather onto a golden bream hook. He did it all again. Then, we practiced a wrist flip of a cast in the yard. And, in no time, we were squatted at the first pothole, weighing the presence of copperheads against the promise of redbellies. The snakes never had a chance.

"Go ahead, son," he said. I flipped the fly so inexpertly that it barely reached the water. The feather touched the film and suurpt it was gone. Tight line. "That's what it's about, son."

That little white fly changed my life. And, it set me on the path for too many fish fights to recall, ever jonesing for the next one. That summer that little rig and I worked the creeks like miners panning for gold. That Christmas, Dad gave me a beast of a fiberglass fly rod and a box of Styrofoam bugs that big, cow pond largemouth and bluegill couldn't resist. Later came more gear, and it was skinny water reds and sheepshead on the Texas flats. In time, on the backside of the Stikine ice fields, I fell into rod-breaking kings and rainbows so big (and so undeserved) that I'll spare the details and save everyone the trouble of disbelief.

Standing in the Tay, I find my rhythm with the spey and earn some attaboys from Callum. Two steps and cast. Nice. Two steps and cast. Well done. I wish everybody I guided picked it up this fast. Brilliant. Then like a rookie with too good a winning streak, I let the gods of don't-get-ahead-of-yourself-son have their way with me and I fall apart. I'm not really fishing. I'm not even casting. From 09:30 to noon I probably average one good cast in twenty, with all of the quality having come back to back in the first hour. Callum is both technically sound and kind so after doing his damndest to lead me back to the path of enlightenment, he recognizes the futility and gives me space. For the rest of the time I'm sloshing and swooshing like an Amazonian pescador trying to whip the piranhas into frenzy. I concentrate. I go all empty mind. I focus. I will myself. I do it all and nothing works. I am making a mess of it but at least there are no witnesses—save Callum—up here in the spey rod practice pool.

The hum of Harry's outboard is part dinner bell, part Octagon buzzer, and wholly welcome. Back on the bank near Harry's ghillie hut, a group of us lean against pickup tires, drink a dram or two, eat venison burgers, and review the highs and lows that are Scottish Atlantic salmon fishing. They've all been in my wading boots, so to speak. A beat can go long stretches without giving up a fish and an angler can go seasons without the favor of the salmon gods. One of the anglers – a jovial local gentlemen who spends every possible moment chasing salmon – understands this and he wants to make sure I do, too. So, he shares his mantra:

salmon fly river tay
Photo: Shane Townsend

"Fly for a try but spin to win," he says, nodding at the rods leaned against the pickup. For the first time I notice every angler has a spey rod and a spinning rod. I'm tempted, but I'm not sold. Not yet, anyway.

After lunch Harry ferries Callum and me upstream. Apparently, an equally bad spey caster is coming and he needs the privacy of my morning pool. We disembark and hike to the bottom of a run. A Zen monk of a speyman sits meditative on the bank, readying his gear. He nods us onward— a kindness he will likely soon regret.

In honor of his sacrifice, I nod reverently. I wade thoughtfully. I clear my mind to let the spey rod fulfill its ambition. I visualize the salmon in the seam and will the fly into her mouth.

And, then I proceed to feck it all up. Over and over again like a serial monogamist.

My arms ache from the casting, because I'm doing it wrong. The fly won't go where it wants, because I'm doing it wrong. I'm messing it up for the gentleman behind me, because I'm doing it wrong. And, my mind won't get out of my way, because I'm doing that wrong, too. There's an hour left to fish, so I wash my face in the river. A voice rises like smoke from the ruins, and asks me: "Wouldn't it be fun …?"

I breathe and look around. I'm waist deep in a stunning stretch of water that runs through my family's ancestral countryside. A dark, carved stone shines from the river bottom, evidence of a human history that stretches back to the Romans, the Celts, and beyond. I remember Ms. Ballantine and the monsters that swim here. And, I have to laugh at myself.

Callum hands me the spinning rod. And, the familiarity brings a smile like a hot, buttered biscuit. A flick of the wrist and the in-line spinner bait goes where destined. A few cranks and the lure dances the seam. Woooompf – the rod doubles. She fights hard and puts the current and the rapids to her advantage. Callum nets the big, beautiful, athletic Atlantic salmon. I study her and work the cold, cellophane water over her gills. Her strength builds. She swims away. And, I start jonesing for the next tug on the other end of a thin, tight line, thinking wouldn't it be fun.


I am so glad you put this down in print. Different river (mine was the Ness) exact same result. With one exception, I did not catch a fish when I finally gave in to the spinning rod. When I got back to the hotel that evening I was so tired I could hardly make it to the bed. I had several drams and slept like the dead. I can't wait to give it another go!

Glad you enjoyed it. The way I look at it, anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, often, and with a friend. Hopefully, we'll both get one on the spey next go round. I honestly think I'll get a spey rod. I'd like to try it on reds on the flats.
Take it easy,