Monday 11 September 2023

The Week on the Tay

Stanley Fishings
Panorama from Summerhill
Pitlochrie centre and left, Benchil downstream to the right

The Tay is unlike the other Scottish salmon rivers I've described on this blog:

  • It's huge: the average width in the panorama above is around 140 metres (a long roe stalking shot or a full 7-iron).  In contrast, Commonty, the biggest pool on the Spey, is only 70-80 metres.  Salmon can run into and through the Tay at virtually all water heights.  One's judgements based on experience on spate rivers are irrelevant.
  • Its size generates unfamiliar activities involving boats, spinning and harling.  I've fished from boats on the Tweed, but I hadn't cast a spinner since 1967, and harling was an entirely new experience.  When casting a fly it is just a tiny speck in the vast volume of the Tay, so you cannot just rely on chance.
  • The beats on much of the lower and middle river are lined with truly magnificent trees.  The Murthly Castle arboretum is majestically beautiful.  The rivers from the Findhorn northwards to the Helmsdale are mostly treeless.  On the Tay you feel that you are somewhere else, amidst fertile farmland and prosperous estates: it feels different, softer and less edgy than the Highlands.  But whatever the differences, the Tay is beautiful and delivers the same soothing potion to the soul.

Soul food at Murthly - The Tronach looking upstream

The Challenges

Beyond the unfamiliarity of the river and its enormous scale, we faced three major challenges:
  • First and most important, there weren't many salmon about.  During our week the major beats reporting on FishPal were catching a total in the range 12-15 fish daily, which amounted to 10-20% of what used to be expected.  Taymount was consistently above the average, but with a larger number of rods.  Bearing in mid that a proportion of that 12-15 figure were taken by harling and spinning, fly anglers were having a very thin time.  Indeed, on Pitlochrie I caught the only fish taken in the week.  There was an awful lot of gloom around and some very subdued ghillies.
  • Second, a lot of these beats fish best in lower water, which concentrates the salmon into clearly defined running lines and holding areas.  We arrived to find the Tay at +2' 8".  While this would have been a cause for celebration at Tomatin, it created additional challenges for us on the Tay.  The small numbers of salmon present were dispersed across huge acreages of water: they could run and rest wherever they chose, and it was only on the last two days as the level fell towards +1' 4" that the features became more defined.
  • Third, on some beats the higher water made it difficult to wade to a position from where you could hope to reach the target areas.  I spent a demanding morning wading waist-deep on Stenton with a big rod and full Spey line, just touching the near edge of the running line without so much as a nudge.
As a result we depended heavily on the ghillies' knowledge and advice.  Tony Black on the Murthly water and Davie Seaton and Jimmy Chin at Stanley were tireless in their efforts to put us into contact with salmon, but even they were sorely tested.  The watchwords were persistence, determination and patience, and we certainly gave it our best shots.  Nevertheless, if the house party had not been such fun there would have been a crisis of morale, which proves yet again the essential value of balance.


We fished two of the Murthly beats, Stenton and Top Water, on alternate days with three rods, two from the bank and one in the boat with Tony Black.  They are both exceptionally pretty with an intimate private atmosphere and delightful quietude.

Stenton - upper wade
Monday morning
Showing near edge of target area

Stenton presented three options for casting a fly from the bank.  I fished the two below the hut on the Monday morning, which proved to be hard work with the river running at +2' 8".  Although the wading underfoot was easy, the combination of the sheer weight of water; the need to wade deep to reach the near edge of the target area; and right bank casting in a sharp downstream breeze, made it hard work.  I don't much enjoy right handed Double Spey at the best of times, but 3 hours' putting out a full Spey line with a fast poly leader and weighted tube while up to my waist in cold water wasn't much fun.

Stenton - Island run
Monday afternoon

The Island was a totally different proposition, with a deep fast run close to the right bank.  Indeed, at the head you only needed 5-6 metres of line out.  As you fished down the 130 metre length the target area got further away but always remained with easy casting distance with a 13' 6" rod.  This was very fishy water and I approached all three runs down with the greatest (unfulfilled) optimism.  It did, however, present a tricky conundrum: any fresh fish at the short halt would be amenable to a fly presented quite shallow, but the residents would need the fly on their noses, demanding a heavy dose of T-14 to get something metallic down to them.  Having been deposited and marooned like Robinson Crusoe, with my boxes back at the hut, the latter option wasn't available.

Murthly - harling
The third option at Murthly was harling, something I had never previously encountered.  For the uninitiated, this involves towing a variety of lures behind a boat from a battery of rods.  It involves no skill on the part of the angler, and relies entirely on the ghillie's knowledge of where fish may lie.  You sit there making conversation with the ghillie until a fish takes, at which point he hands you the rod to finish the job.  It was similar to the mackerel fishing of my childhood, but with the excitement removed.  I felt like lobotomised boat ballast.  Thankfully Tony Black was great company, a real Tay legend of 34 years' experience on Murthly.

The product

It's with some trepidation that I display the product of my harling, a stale cock fish of around 6lbs.  With a substantial Hardy glass fibre spinning rod and an Abu multiplier, it took me little time to bring him to the net.  Of all the salmon I've caught, this must surely have yielded the least pride.

I understand why the estates do it - the economic pressures of the capitalised value of salmon are inescapable - but it's just not enjoyable.  All six rods in the party expressed the same distaste.

The tail of Tronach
Tuesday morning
Murthly Top Water is a stunning beat that offers two long stretches of left bank fishing.  You fish the top of the Tronach, shown above, from the grass, because the water at your feet is deep and the wading underfoot Tyne-ghastly.

Sadly this wonderful stretch of salmon nirvana only yielded a single touch, despite the intense enthusiasm I applied.  You can't catch what isn't there.

Stanley Fishings

Stanley Mills
Pitlochrie Beat

We fished two of the Stanley beats - Pitlochrie and Benchil - on alternate days.

Thursday morning
Pitlochrie offers a long 400+ metre sweep of left bank fishing with ample space for two rods, with the third casting from the boat.  Although this stretch is dauntingly wide, it is soon apparent that the most interesting water is in the nearest third and within easy casting reach without the need for deep wading.  You'll find a detailed analysis later in this post.

I really enjoyed fishing this stretch on a beautiful morning, and in view of the thoroughness with which I covered the best bits, I was surprised not to encounter a salmon.

looking up to Summerhill
In the event the fish came during my afternoon session casting from the boat in the pool directly below Summerhill, at the head of the fast water above Benchil.

Casting from a boat is infinitely preferable to harling.  Yes, you depend on the ghillie to position the boat but thereafter it's up to you to present the fly to the best of your ability.  Its other advantage is that you can use a lighter smaller rod than you need on the bank, a real bonus at my age.

Pitlochrie fish

This chunky 11 pounder was fresh but not bright silver, having been in the river for 7-10 days.  It was a runner, smack on the line that Davie indicated, and took a #8 MCX Dark fished 10-12" deep.

The space available gave it ample scope for running about without encountering any hazards, which made for an entertaining if uneventful fight.  I was absolutely delighted to have caught a decent fish on the fly.

I also missed a grilse take about 10 minutes later, followed by another when a fish took the fly and came straight at me, causing the line to slacken.  Despite an extravagant strike I failed to connect.


Benchil, directly downstream from Pitlochrie, is primarily fished from two boats, with a 350 metre stretch of right bank wading below the hut within reach of the nearer of two running lines into the lower pool.  While Benchil may appear bland - certainly the other rods in the party thought it rather dull - as the river fell you could see the running lines and short halts increasingly clearly.  To assuage their feelings I reduced the rods on Benchil to two, and took two compensating extra slots on Murthly Top Water on the Thursday and Saturday.

Benchil - Saturday

I was fishing Benchil on Thursday when a succession of pods of salmon and grilse came through, with several dozen fish showing either side of lunchtime following high water 
downstream at 1030.  We didn't connect with any of them, but interestingly they must have come to rest around Cargill later in the day, when the rods up there enjoyed an unexpectedly brisk afternoon.
Unfortunately Saturday's high tide didn't occasion a similar run.

The Takeaways

By any standard we had a very quiet week, with only 7 fish to the party.  However, we were not alone, and finished about average amongst the other beats on the Tay.  Clearly there was a dearth of fish, and you can't catch what isn't there, or if it was there, expect much of hunting dispersed needles in a giant watery haystack.

As ever, I try to learn from the experience.  In this case I have framed the lessons within some of the advice given by the retired Yorkshire Tay ghillie.

Pitlochrie defile - a 16 metre river
from the mid-point of the old croy

 1.  Look for the rivers within the river.

On Pitlochrie the Tay is a daunting 135 metres wide.  However, at this point, the croy on the near bank and the gravel shallows that occupy most of the far side force the great majority of running fish into a channel about 16 metres across within easy reach of a 13' rod.  If you don't look closely and just mechanically cast and step, you would miss the opportunity altogether.

Line of main lies in red
Secondary lies in yellow

2.  Concentrate on what you can reach.

With the river at +2' 8" the main lies on the Tronach, indicated by the succession of boils along the red line are at full casting distance with a big rod and a full line.  With a square cast it's about 30 metres and at 60 degrees oblique, nearer 35.  In either case, with the enhanced flow in higher water your fly only spends a short time amongst them.

In your enthusiasm to reach the red line, don't neglect the good lies right in front of you, which should be a central part of your plan, not an afterthought.  I missed a good take in the third one down from the top.

Balance and happiness
The Brigadier gets a fish!

3.  Balance.
  The fishing is the core of the week, but it's not everything.  I shared the week with a delightful group of close friends, and their good humour, banter and company more than compensated for the dull and largely unproductive fishing.  The surroundings were stunning and the lodge wonderful.  In any event, in the current state of salmon fishing across most of Scotland, you have to be both philosophical and balanced.

Sparkling water
Benchil - Saturday

Tay standards - a dishwasher in the Murthly Top Water hut!

Looking Ahead

Now the autumn is approaching and I am looking forward to the delights of fishing the Ure.  My unheard prayers for less water on the Tay should now be cancelled!


  1. You were unlucky with your river heights. Pitlochrie is a great high water beat, the pool below Summerhill is Horsey. It is a fantastic high water pool. On the Ballathie gauge from 2ft to 5ft - and to the fly. Look at the early July catches there.
    Benchil is a lovely low water beat with great pools and runs for wading and fly fishing.
    Unfortunately you had too high water for Murthly’s best and “that in between” height that didn’t suit Pitlochrie or Benchil.
    The Tay’s still a great river - and the guys you fished with are great guys too.

    1. Neil T from Perth

    2. Neil, many thanks for your positive comments. As I'd never fished the Tay before the whole thing was a learning experience. Nevertheless it was obvious from the outset that things would have been a great deal easier with less water.

  2. Lovely written report as ever MCX, I specifically like the advice 'look fir a river within the river' something I have taught all my life from the vastness of the largest rivers to the smallest Spate streams.

  3. I can claim no credit for that wisdom. The author of the advice was a Yorkshireman who used to be a ghillie on the Tay before coming home to be a professional dog trainer.

  4. Chanced upon your musings recently, which prompted me to book Bolton Friday/Saturday this week. Had an absolutely lovely 2 days, after a good rise in the river. Released a 6lb hen, in what you describe as the pool with the overhanging ash tree, and lost one in the park pool. Thanks for the informative blog. Lovely beat/river

    1. Thank you for the compliments. I'm delighted that you enjoyed fishing Bolton - it always needs water to show well - and even more so that you got a salmon. The Ash tree pool is a banker and has got even better over the past couple of years as a result of the tail getting much deeper than it used to be.