THE Tay is wine-dark and powerful. It boils at points in eddies from rocks beneath, big as cars, they say. Twenty foot deep and a javelin throw across, its cold could kill you. You don’t mess with this river. You play by its rules.

I’m no country boy but I’m knee-deep in the Tay now, the water so cold I’m beginning to think I’ve frostbite. I’m picturing my toes going black and breaking off inside my waders.

I’m not going to go all city-boy here though, and limp away frozen and beaten, I’m going to do what I came to do and catch a fish - a salmon to be precise. Or at least that’s the plan. No one I’ve spoken to seems too hopeful I’ll pull it off.

It’s the start of the salmon season - which officially began on Tuesday - and Jock Monteith, one of the best fishermen in Scotland, has set me up for a day’s sport on the banks of the Tay, at the one and a half mile salmon beat by Dunkeld House Hotel.

He tells me not to get too hung up on the idea that I must catch a fish. ‘Think of it as river therapy,’ he says

Dunkeld House is a grand affair - lying sprawled along the banks of the Tay. Deer wander the grounds on the drive along the river bank. The surrounding woodland is ancient and huge - and lend Perthshire its nickname ‘Big Tree Country’.

The hotel is steeped in Scotland’s history. The first house was owned by the Earls of Atholl and blown up by Oliver Cromwell’s roundheads. It was rebuilt, and Queen Victoria liked to stay here during her reign. The current property went up in 1897, and today it’ll set you back about £300-400 for a few nights of luxury.

The salmon beat where I’m to spend the day is less than a stone’s throw from the hotel - and the two have a symbiotic relationship, with guests taking up a spot of fishing, and folk up to fish staying over at the hotel.

The two ghillies who run the salmon beat are Gordon Pollock and Alan Wilson - they have the thankless task of taking this townie, clueless of the countryside, and trying to turn him into a fisherman in one day.

These men know every rock and whirl of the Tay, and have half a century of experience between them. They work six days a week throughout the season until it ends in October and are out here in all weather - pruning the bank, catching fish, tending boats … and posting on social media. Sadly, even the ancient art of angling needs Facebook.

They’re confident I’ll make a catch too, if I listen and learn, but if I don’t, they say - I better not blame the river. It seems 2018 was a bad year for salmon across Scotland and inexperienced anglers took their disappointment out on the beats they were fishing rather than putting failure down to their own lack of skill, patience, luck and knowledge.

‘A bad year’, however, is something of an understatement. In fact, last year saw the worst salmon season in living memory in Scotland - and it was all down to increasingly erratic weather caused by global warming. Some beats didn’t record a single salmon being caught - wild salmon was even taken off the menu in some restaurants due to stocks falling so low.

Gordon and Alan explain that unlike humans, salmon don’t go by the calendar, they go by the weather. If the weather changes then the salmon change behaviour too. So an unexpectedly cold and late winter like last year with the Beast from the East is going to make fish harder to catch. The colder the weather, Gordon says, the harder it is to hook a salmon.

‘It’s natural,’ he says, ‘like everything to do with fishing, it’s about understanding nature and how it works. Sometimes the weather isn’t right, sometimes people have the wrong equipment, sometimes they’re in the wrong spot. Fishing is as much an art as a science.’

Alan kits me out in waders, all-weather jacket, and life vest - so I at least look like someone who belongs near a riverbank.

Now all I have to do is learn to fly fish and cast. To begin with, I feel like a gormless oaf standing up to my thighs in a river holding a 15 foot rod that at first is as cumbersome as writing with a sausage. But Alan is a great teacher. Slow, patient, good humoured, encouraging, and he teaches you by breaking everything down into units of simple movement.

Fly casting is almost balletic - it is about grace and fluidity of the body, not strength. If you’ve never fished before and you try to cast, then your natural inclination is to put your back into it - to use your shoulders and your muscles like you’re throwing a stone, hard and fast. That’s wrong. The muscle movement is more akin to flicking paint from a brush onto a canvas - light, subtle.

I practiced for more than two hours - line up, hips turn, arm back, flick - over and over until I was making fewer mistakes. It’s learning a muscle memory and that takes time and a blankness of mind - and my mind had become blank, washed quiet by the roll of the river.

I’d been lost in the simple movement of my body, when I realised that if felt as if my feet weren’t there. It felt like I’d been amputated from the ankles down. The water was two degrees and I was freezing. Alan didn’t even feel the cold. I tried to move the dead lumps at the end of my legs to get some circulation going but they were like stone. And that’s when I genuinely began to think I had frostbite. I was sure when I took my waders off - if I could actually walk the fifty foot to the shore - that my toes would tumble out.

But I persevered and stayed in that water until Alan said I knew what I was doing and we should go and catch some salmon now. It turns out there are plenty like me who step into the river with Alan - townies without any idea how to fish. On the other side of the spectrum there’s the hardcore anglers.

‘Some come here and they’re up at dawn,’ says Alan. ‘They’re out on the river all day and when it comes to lunch they run into the hotel, grab a sandwich and are back out again in 15 minutes. Then they’ll spend the rest of the day until it’s dark on the river.’

In the middle, there’s the executive types who use fishing like a round of golf - to close a deal, schmooze a client. For them, it’s a backdrop to business rather than a passion or sport.

Many think salmon fishing is solely the domain of the wealthy. But ordinary folk are still able to get involved - just about, for now. It’s not cheap - but a day on a beat like this can set you back as little as £50. Other spots - the prize pickings - can cost more than £1000. That’s where the rich play.

Gordon and Alan lament that fishing has lost some of its roots, among ordinary people. For centuries it was a skill practised by the poor to eat. Now, it’s a business. But the upside is that the money which flows in keeps the river healthy and the fish swimming, and if nature is well served then Gordon and Alan seem happy.


My feet are still frozen when we clamber into the ghillies’ boat. Gordon takes the rudder, and three rods are cast from the sides, held on props, so our hands are free. The rods are loaded with intricately painted lures - three inches long mimicking strange species of fish. Gordon zig-zags the boat slowly down the river - lures waiting for the salmon to be entranced and caught. Nothing happens for a long time.

At first, I thought I’d be bored, but the wait was part of the pleasure. This is the therapy of the river, that Jock told me about. You realise you’re in a moment of rare peace and quiet. Water laps, sun sparkles, birds sing.

There’s an entire world beneath. Eddies rise from the riverbed’s rocks. Somewhere down there salmon lurk in pools, behind rocks. A little island in the Tay lies covered in trees felled by beavers - barks stripped white by teeth.

Then we get a bite - and all hell breaks lose for a moment. It’s my job to reel in the fish. Gordon pulls all the other rods into the boat to stop the lines tangling, and Alan throws an iron anchor overboard.

I’m up on my feet in the boat as it lists from side to side. I need to keep one eye on the rod to make sure it’s bent and the fish well hooked, and one eye on the water because if the salmon starts wrestling I’ve got to quit reeling. It’s a slow, gentle tug-of-war, Gordon and Alan tell me.

Then suddenly the fish is off the hook - away. I feel like a dolt who’s blown it. Apparently, I’m wrong, though. Gordon says that fish wasn’t getting caught - even by the best angler. These things happen. Fishing is as much luck and patience as it is skill, he says.

We return to calmly zig-zagging the length of the beat. It’s a chance for some idle talk - a conversation that is as slow, meandering and easy as this stretch of the river.

The best fishermen, I learn, are often women. Men buy the best kit, show off and swagger - women listen, follow instructions and make catches. ‘It’s a shame more women don’t fish,’ says Gordon. The sport remains male dominated.

The old question of ‘do fish feel pain’ comes up. We all agree they must. In this river, though, all catches are returned alive to the water for conservation.

It wouldn’t really upset me, I say, if I don’t make a catch. The joy of the day was in its simplicity, learning a new skill, good company, beautiful scenery and the strange sense of losing oneself in the life of a river.

Gordon says sometimes he knows when a fish is about to bite. Something happens to the air, to the wind, there’s a slight alteration in temperature - a little extra warmth brings salmon up, cold keeps them deep below.

That’s a bit witchy, I say. Gordon can’t explain it. It’s maybe just knowing the river so well, so intimately, after working it for so long.

And then there’s another bite. We clear the rods, throw the anchor and I’m up on my feet, reeling the fish in. I’ve got it up to the boat - Gordon leans over and takes it into the net. It’s no Moby Dick, for sure, but it’s a three pound salmon and I can say I’ve caught my first fish.

Gordon and Alan take the hook from its mouth - Gordon so intent on not hurting it that the hook opens his middle finger and he begins to bleed.

I ask if can I pick the salmon up and hold it before we put it back. Gordon tells me he’d prefer if I didn’t, as simply touching the creature could harm its scales and lower its life expectancy.

Gordon tips the mouth of the net into the water and the salmon inches forward, then it silvers away. We turn the boat about and head for shore.

It turns out if you sit in a warm ghillie hut, have a slug of sloe gin, a cup of tea, a ham and egg sandwich, and put your feet against a radiator after catching your first fish, all thoughts of frostbite melt away pretty quickly.

If you want to try salmon fishing on one of Scotland’s rivers contact Jock Monteith of Salmon Fish Scotland on 0131-618-7058 or email - you can also go to the website for more information