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The other side of the Tweed

By Finlay Wilson

Think of Tweed and one thinks of salmon. Finlay Wilson extols the virtues of the river


Trout success on the Tweed at Innerleithen.
Trout success on the Tweed at Innerleithen.
A lovely Tweed trout about to be returned.
A lovely Tweed trout about to be returned.

Trout fishing on the mighty Tweed – there can be few better ways of whiling away your time. The river is in fine health again and rightly revered as a salmon fishery par excellence, restored considerably to its former glory. A general awareness of the quality of its grayling fishing prevails now too, a fish whose presence in numbers is always a fair reflection of the general health of a river. But what of its trout?

The Tweed boasts an illustrious past not only for its bounty of migratory fish; this is a water where in the mid-19th century Thomas T Stoddart practiced his across-and-down technique with sparsely dressed wet flies, where the precocious WC Stewart developed his method of fishing a team of spider patterns, and where Canon William Greenwell caught prodigious numbers of trout using a certain fly named after him, created with the help of James Wright, a skilled local tyer.

Tweed trout are without doubt stunning examples of the species, their backs usually heavily spotted in black to create that lovely mottled, leopard-like pattern and their undersides a light golden hue. They can also sport a more silvery flank though, as pointed out by an authority on such matters, just because a brown trout lightens in colour doesn’t mean to say it’s headed for, or been out to, sea. This leads to an interesting aside. Sea trout in the system can grow as large as salmon, with fish over 20lb present, and studies made in the late 1980s/early 90s suggested a high rate of interbreeding between the two, with 4-5% of juvenile fish proving to be trout/salmon hybrids. Only at specific locations in Spain and Finland have similar characteristics been found.

Although adult hybrids aren’t exactly commonplace, they do occasionally crop up and the Tweed Foundation has a cast of one which had a trout mother and salmon father. The upshot is an estimated 20% of Tweed trout contain a salmon gene in their make up, which means a salmon is present in their ancestry. What all this actually means isn’t exactly clear, though what is undoubtedly the case is that specimen brown trout of noteworthy size are caught each season.

The Tweed has an alkaline pH and feeding is rich. Its waters can run crystal clear and the vivid green of Ranunculus trailing seductively in the stream and banks bursting with lush vegetation offer a pretty much perfect representation of trouting heaven. Despite complaints from some anglers that fly life isn’t as prolific as in days gone by, there is as yet little evidence to support such claims and studies carried out so far in specific areas as part of the Tweed Foundation’s ongoing Trout and Grayling Initiative compare admirably to previous recordings on the same sites.

Visit the river in favourable conditions and you will witness first hand how prolific hatches can be, and subsequent reactions of the trout. Early season on the Tweed can be sensational if you’re fortunate enough to be there when the action kicks off. A trickle hatch of March browns can herald impressive sport with specimen trout hitting the dry fly hard, though such action won’t necessarily last long and timing a visit to the river between 11am and 3pm at this time of year will generally maximise chances. Large dark olives feature heavily on the Tweed and a general imitation like the Big Grey is always worth a cast.

It can be worth flicking a dry fly over likely lies for the big boys even when nothing is showing in these earlier days of spring as they are much more inclined to oblige before such tasty snacks become ten a penny. Otherwise, a single nymph fished upstream on a long leader and allowed to dead-drift down in the current is as effective a method as any. Don’t be afraid of using a fair-sized nymph in spring and autumn, it will often pull in the better-sized fish, and I’ve yet to find a pattern which consistently catches more than two old dependables, the GRHE and the Pheasant Tail, usually beaded or tied with wire underneath to gain a little depth.

Yellow May duns will also begin to feature as will iron blues and imitations of both will bring trout to a well-presented fly while suitable emerger patterns can be deadly fished just sub-surface. The Mayfly will appear and Greenwell’s Glory, alluded to earlier, of course, still catches fish, grannom and other sedges abound and stonefly nymphs the size of your pinky finger can be seen crawling onto exposed rocks in the shadows.

Mid-summer months can be notoriously difficult. I have witnessed hatches on the Upper Tweed on hot summer days so dense that the banks are obliterated from view by the swarming masses. Tempting trout sated by such feasts can be a thankless task and at this time of year, given low water and sunny conditions, very early morning and evening are the only times worth venturing out if it is the bigger trout you seek. Small, sparsely hackled, wingless and black will work well in the summer dusk and CdC dries in similarly muted hues down to 18 and 20 in size may be necessary when the going’s tough.

The Tweed Foundation has concluded the stocking of brown trout to be detrimental to the wild trout fish population, whose numbers they believe are healthy enough in their own right. It can be an emotive issue. There are some anglers who regularly fish in areas which have been stocked each season by local associations who are used to catching these much less wily fish and who, with the phasing out of such stocking, are catching less. Letters have occasionally appeared in local newspapers from disgruntled fishermen, bemoaning the scarcity in numbers of good-sized wild fish to be had.

It’s certainly the case that numbers of smaller trout can be quite remarkable and flicking a fly through streamy, shallow runs will invariably lead to an impressive amount of juvenile fish, or indeed salmon parr, being hooked. This surely, though, emphasises the healthy state of the river and from my own experience and that of anglers more skilled than me, the better trout are there, too.

It is an obvious point, one nonetheless worth making, that wild fish are significantly more difficult to catch, and just because trout of over 1lb are understandably less willing to give themselves up than any remnant stockies in there doesn’t mean to say they’re not present and thriving. Additionally, turning up at a river expecting to catch considerable numbers of wild fish over, say 11/2lb is unrealistic. A wild trout of 3/4lb is a good fish and should be appreciated as such.

All this is not to say some exceptional days aren’t to be had, or indeed far bigger fish. The Melrose and St Boswells area has more than its fair share of first-class anglers who include several Scotland internationalists in their ranks. Such anglers maintain days are to be had on the Tweed which in anybody’s book would constitute incredible fishing; 25-30 wild trout generally in the 1/2 - 3/4lb range with fish up to 2.5lb and 3lb included, and all from one pool, for example. And that’s not counting any amount of smaller fish. The pool in question happens to be a particularly long and productive one, but such instances highlight just how good the Tweed can be. And as ever, the greatest thing about fishing the Tweed is you just don’t know what might spring up. I had an hour on the Upper Tweed near Clovenfords in early September last season which produced several grayling, a few cracking trout up to 1.75lb, and a 4lb sea trout. Every fish fell to a size 14 Dirty Duster.

Significant parts of the Tweed’s vast system are your oyster. There is an impressive list of local clubs which fall under the Federation of Border Angling Associations umbrella and who are more than accommodating to the visiting angler. Without fail they should be your first port of call; each have significant stretches of river at their disposal for as little as £7 a day and will point you in the right direction.

On the Upper Tweed, for example, the Peebleshire Trout Angling Association has 26 miles of river to go at. On the middle Tweed, the excellent Melrose and District Angling Association and the St Boswells AA control some incredibly enticing water. Likewise, the lower Tweed offers much with fine fish to be had around the Kelso area; a challenging day can be enjoyed trying to pick off better trout in the gravelly glides and tails of the flats in the locales of this particular Borders town. And the water around Coldstream can be perhaps even more productive.

Tributaries like the Ettrick, Leader and Teviot can also be deserving of attention. The Ettrick is the tributary where the majority of spring salmon run, however some very large trout have been captured on camera passing by the fish counter there, as they have been on the Gala Water. The Teviot may perhaps be more valued for its grayling fishing these days, but its trout should never be dismissed out of hand and the Jedforest AA has five miles of water. The Leader likewise is a fine grayling river but decent trout can be picked up here too with early morning and evening forays being the preferred times by those anglers more familiar with this seductive stream, controlled by Earlston AA.

Moving inevitably downstream, like those brown trout who feel the call of the sea, you can expect to pick trout up as far as you wish to wander and catching fish on small black nymphs in low tide below the Chain Bridge by Berwick offers an intriguing contrast to deploying similar tactics upstream where the river is little more than a rod’s length across.

There is also the Whiteadder, a cracking river which springs from the Lammermuir Hills and develops rapidly into a particularly sumptuous water with the chance of wild fish over 2lb. The Whiteadder Association has six miles of river and stocking there has also been phased out. Worm-fishing, previously allowed there, has also been stopped and regular anglers noticed a considerable leap in numbers of smaller wild trout being caught on the fly towards the end of last season. This year could prove one to remember.

One final thing. Working on the assumption that bigger trout generally drop down a river where food is generally more abundant and fish can seek shelter in the deeper pools, then the lower reaches are where more specimen trout might be reasonably expected to be found. Now consider that where I mostly fish, some five miles upstream of Peebles, wild trout of over 3lb are encountered each season, that a ten-year-old fish has been recorded spawning in a burn much further upstream than here, and that fish of 5lb and more can be caught on middle Tweed. What monsters might lurk in the dubs and deeps of lower Tweed? Here is a river where wild trout are well worth chasing.


Dry fly initiative
The Trout and Grayling Initiative is doing it’s level best to ascertain how the whole system’s precious wild stocks are fairing, part of the Tweed Foundation’s general mission to monitor how healthy the river is as a self-sustaining fishery, and enhance it wherever possible. Part of this research involves the filling in of log books so as comprehensive a picture as possible can be built up regarding success-rate of anglers, methods used, size of fish and their spread throughout the system.

Early suggestions are that the results from last season don’t compare particularly well to the last period of results recorded in the 90s, though there are many variables at play and it isn’t a straight forward case of comparing like with like. In addition, the very cold (if not non-existent) spring followed by the hot, dry summer of last season didn’t exactly make for easy fishing. One interesting factor which has cropped up is that dry fly fishing proved a particularly effective tactic. That it accounted for more than its fair share of better-sized trout is perhaps not so surprising as bigger fish will often be specifically targeted, but the fact its success-rate generally held up well is certainly worthy of note – one for the purists, perhaps.

More results are needed to enable a more comprehensive picture so anybody who fishes the Tweed is strongly encouraged to get involved and at the very least catch returns should be handed back to the relevant association.
Further info/logbooks available from local clubs, or by visiting: www.ttgi.org.uk.
 

Factfile


The Tweed is very easy to get to, situated close to all major arterial routes connecting the Scottish Borders with England and central Scotland.

• Telephone Edinburgh Airport on 0131 333 1000 (www.baa.co.uk) or Newcastle Airport on 0190 214 4444. Alternatively, if travelling by train, telephone Great North Eastern Railway on 01904 653022 (www.gner.co.uk).

• There are over 20 clubs on the river. Each has its own stretch of water and is run by their own committee of knowledgeable anglers. They offer daily, weekly and season tickets, with various concessions available.

• The brown trout season starts on March 15 and finishes on October 6. However, most clubs restrict the season from April 1 to September 30. Most clubs do not allow Sunday fishing.

• For a comprehensive list of trout angling associations on the Tweed got to: www.fishtweed.co.uk and click on 'trout fishing'.
 

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