Gayle heads to Gleneagles for the opening of salmon fishing season on the River Tay – and enjoys a fly fishing lesson near Stanley.
A sensation of peace and calm washes over me as I stand on the banks of the Tay watching Gerry Rattray cast a series of perfect fly lines.
It’s a beautiful sight to behold, like poetry in motion, as he throws effortless loops into the water.
I’m with a group of people lucky enough to have been chauffeured to this stunning spot near Stanley on one of the most important days in Scotland’s field sports calendar – January 15.
It’s the official opening of the salmon fishing season on the Tay and it’s a ceremony steeped in tradition.
This year is particularly special, too, as it marks 100 years since Georgina Ballantine landed a 64lb salmon on the Tay following a two-hour struggle. It was the largest recorded from a British river with rod and line.
It’s a chilly morning but thankfully I’m swaddled in about seven layers, plus I’ve borrowed a top-spec fishing jacket which is keeping me cosy.
I’d left the Angus area at 7am and arrived, slightly bleary-eyed, at Gleneagles for 8.15am, where I meet the iconic hotel’s country sports manager, Yuri Janssen.
After a quick chat with Yuri, fellow fly fishers and ghillies, we bundle into Land Rovers and head off via a scenic route which curves and twists through Perthshire to arrive at the secluded Catholes beat.
We’re welcomed by a piper, which rather makes us feel like VIPs, and offered hot drinks inside a picture-perfect fishing hut.
After we’ve changed into waders, we’re piped down to the river, where Stanley Fishings’ head ghillie Bob White blesses the water with a dram and declares it open for fishing. It’s stirring stuff.
We then split into pairs, and I’m lucky to be teamed with Gerry, who is head ghillie at Gleneagles and a hugely skilled fly fisherman.
Gerry represented Scotland in elite level fishing five times, but still remembers the day he caught his first salmon aged 15.
“It was one of the most exciting moments of my life,” he tells me.
“You’re standing in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nature, and you’re so focused on the line that your mind’s completely clear.”
Gerry isn’t one to rush the gentle process of fly fishing. He advises taking your time – “don’t rush up to the water” – and casting a very short line first.
“Take a wee minute. Look at the water and check where the fish might be lying,” he says.
“They often lie near the water’s edge. Let your fly swing into the side and dangle. Slowly but surely, wade in and extend your distance.”
Safety is paramount and Gerry is well aware of the risks of the sport.
“You only get once chance. If you trip, you could smack your head. And wear glasses. You don’t want a hook in the eye.”
For anyone who finds fly fishing a bit daunting, Gerry is the man to put you at ease.
“Start with the basics,” he assures me. “You’ve got to get a good anchor point (the point where the line lands) in order to get a good D-loop (the shape formed when you bring the rod back to cast).”
You lift the tip and bring your hand back towards the ear – as if you’re “on the phone” – which then creates a “D-loop” of line hanging down from the rod tip which slopes back.
Then, you cast, flexing the rod tip with both hands, as if flicking paint off a brush while turning slightly. It should be a slick, graceful action, if you get it right.
The final part of the move, the follow-through, involves drawing the rod tip down to the water smoothly. It’s an art which takes years to master.
I stand in the water with Gerry for a few hours, and find it a meditative experience. And though neither he, me nor anyone else catches anything, it doesn’t matter.
“Catching a fish is a bonus,” smiles Gerry. “It’s more about the experience. Just being in nature.”
For anyone keen to try fishing, doing it with Gleneagles is a fantastic experience.
“We offer an experience rather than simply an outing to catch fish,” Yuri tells me.
“It’s targeted at anyone and it’s a great day out. You don’t have to be a fisherman or even interested in being one. It’s about going out, challenging yourself and having fun.”
The full day “experience” normally starts with being driven to the river, enjoying a few hours of fishing, and then, the cherry on top, enjoying a sumptuous lunch courtesy of Gleneagles inside the cosy fishing hut.
The spread is sensational – soup, salmon, venison stew, cheeses, desserts, wine, coffee… delicious.
“In the past, fishing has perhaps been seen as exclusive, popular among upper echelons of society and out of reach,” says Yuri.
“We want to make it more accessible. And we need more people to get into it so we can conserve the species, or we risk losing them.”
“Catching a fish is a bonus. It’s more about the experience. Just being in nature.”
Yuri is a huge fan of Gerry’s, describing him as a “ghillie who makes you have fun”.
“He makes you believe you’ll catch a fish the next cast! And that’s the art of a good guide – keeping people hoping and positive. And you never know, you might just catch something.”
All ghillies at Gleneagles offer a fisherman’s knowledge of the water, some wry local humour, plus advice on the best strategies.
“When the mighty Atlantic salmon is in season, you’ll find little to compare with the thrill of fishing on the Tay,” says Yuri.
“You’ll learn how to read the water, select flies based on river conditions, and how to hook, play and successfully land a salmon.”
- A fully guided salmon fishing experience at Gleneagles includes a professional guide, traditional fisherman’s picnic, transport to and from the river, and top-spec fishing tackle and accessories. gleneagles.com