I am often asked what got us into fishing, and what it was that made us obsessed and want to pursue a career fly-fishing.
For two young boys from the Midlands, the banks of the river Dee was a million miles away from us and had no place on our radar for future plans, so what was it that pulled us to Scotland, and a lifetime of chasing endless bucket list destinations with a fly rod in hand…
As kids we were brought up in a quiet hamlet in the north-west of Staffordshire bordering Shropshire and Cheshire, I suppose Stoke-on-Trent is where we are from but we never felt a connection to any town, it was always going to be some form of country living.
We were the only kids in the village and with only each other to play with, days were spent building dens in the woods, chopping down rides through head height nettles, annoying any friends that would let us come and play on their farm. Playing “44 and in” on stacks of hay bales, or even making tunnels underneath them, which even now I wince at the thought of.
Just a normal country upbringing. We did get the nickname ‘the terrible twins’ id like to think mischievous was a better description but it didn’t have the same ring to it.
Neither of our parents fished, however, our grandfather was a fisherman. I remember even now the smell of his old wax Barbour, wet dog smell with a hint of tannins, he was over 6 foot and stern, we would stand to attention as he walked in the room and knew instantly that misbehaving was not an option. He had two beautiful yellow labs named Baxter and Breagha which were impeccably trained.
He had a soft gentle way with them, never having to raise his voice just hand signals was almost always enough. One of our first memories of him was going into his house and seeing a cast of an 18lb salmon in a glass box he had made which he caught on Beat 2 on the Brae water on the river Spey. Little did we know at the time, this strange mammoth cast of a salmon would eventually lead us into following a career pursuing them.
Nan and Grandad disappeared for most of the summer to Scotland to their small house in Fochabers to be closer to the fishing, I remember visiting them for summer breaks and having lunch on the riverbank, but it wasn’t a place for noisy kids and we certainly weren’t born with rods in our hands.
As we got a little older he took us on our first fishing trip, nothing spectacular just a day out to Cudmore fishery, our local course fishery.
We were dually taught how to tie knots and were given our maggots and float to watch. I think to this day he was glad of the peace and quiet as we both sat on our little box watching our floats waiting for it to take the slightest of dunks.
There was something about looking into water, perhaps it was not knowing what was down there that might take our bait, an endless expanse of unknown, there is a certain amount of mystery about fishing, I think it is this unknown that keeps the optimism of every fisherman.
We had some old tackle handed down to us and spent most of our spare time walking up the fields fishing any small pond we could find, luckily there were a few that were stocked with various species. Carp, tench, bream, roach etc I think they belonged to an angling club but we never saw anyone there so we fished them religiously. Pocket money was spent on bait alarms, new floats, method readers, quiver and swing tips we took to it in a big way. We made ground bait out of stale bread, berries from the garden and raided mum’s herb, spice and baking condiments to come up with the winning concoction. I remember once pushing a wheelbarrow two fields to get to the pond as we had accrued so much kit that we absolutely had to have!
Air rifles were the next thing and shooting, needless to say, took over much more of our time, which I think worried the local villagers immensely! We would be seen crawling in hedgerows trying to sneak up on a rabbit or the local shoots pheasants. Money was then saved to buy gas powered air rifles with a pump to increase the psi…
I’m sure a conversation was probably had between our parents and grandfather about how fishing is much less dangerous than shooting and shortly after we were taken to Deanford trout fishery, a small reservoir about half an hours drive away.
This was our first lesson fly fishing aged somewhere around 10 or 11 I would think. Fly fishing was much more active than course fishing and we really took to it! We worked hard trying to work out the casting, to which grandad used to get tired of pulling our flies out of trees and undoing huge birds nests but once we eventually caught one I remember thinking that fish are much more fun to catch on a light fly rod than our heavy duty coarse tackle. We were both hooked immediately.
On a later trip to Deanford fishery, we could both get a fly out ourselves, we had been dropped off for the afternoon. I remember Al coming running over saying he has cracked it. ‘Will will’, he said ‘Ive got the answer!! I was just talking to another fisherman and he was fishing with three flies!! So I did the same and just caught one!!”
Well, of course, that was the answer the more flies the better! We tied our long leaders and put lots of droppers on, surely with a 3 fly cast we couldn’t fail! We did catch the odd one but looking back I’m pretty sure we spent more time undoing tangles on the bank than fishing. But it was the answer and nothing would change that!
During summer trips to Scotland Grandad would take us fishing on hill lochs for trout, I remember drifting a boat on a large expanse of water with him, thinking how were we going to find trout in here, but we invariably did. The first time we held a double handed rod will stay with us for a long time. We had always seen these strange looking colossal rods hanging on Grandads rod racks up the stairs of his house in Fochabers and I remember now the first time we were taken to the Bridge Pool in Fochabers on what was then the Spey Association water. Waving this giant stick around with very little control and grandad instructing us to make a number 8 in the air to do the ‘double spey’ and casting huge orange flies across the river.
In our early teens the local shoot had its rearing field at the bottom of our drive and shooting certainly again became a much bigger part for us. We helped out on the shoot whenever we could and got shotguns to replace our air rifles. We used to leave a stash of clothes in a hollow tree on shoot days, walk to the bus, quickly get changed and go beating for the day instead of school. It was great fun! We still went for the odd good 2 night 3 day session coarse fishing after the big carp at Cudmore, and used to go to a small lake across the fields which we had heard had trout in it with the fly.
One bank holiday Monday Al, myself and a friend were fishing this trout lake, our mate had one on and a procession of cars started coming down the bank towards us. Oh no we’ve been caught! Embarrassingly we couldn’t get away and had to land the fish in front of the peoples’ lake we were poaching. Later it turned out he was a friend of our granddads so we were duly sent round with a bottle of wine and an apology letter… He laughed and said it was great to see young lads fly fishing and said we only had to ask and we could have fished it any time we want.
Following school we decided to split up, so we went to opposite ends of the country studying the same course Game and Countryside Management. Our late teens fishing became less of a thing and we got quite heavily into shooting, drinking and chasing girls, pretty natural for that age I think.
Al worked in Scotland for his work experience on a small pheasant shoot in Kingussie and was invited to fish one of Nan & Grandads rods on the Brae water and caught his first salmon, a very proud moment for both Al and Grandparents. Sadly Grandad passed away that year but his influence already had us hooked on fly-fishing.
After a two year National Diploma in countryside management, we were looking for work for the summer before going to University, I had agreed to go back to my work placement rearing pheasants and partridge in Cumbria but Al had nothing set in stone at that point. I remember even now seeing an email which was passed through the college about a Bailiff job on a salmon fishing estate on the Isle of Lewis. I immediately called Al and said he should go for it, he did and he got it.
May of that year, Al packed his bags and drove up to the Isle of Lewis to work for a season on ‘The Grimersta Estate’ little did we know at the time that he was heading to one of the most prestigious salmon fisheries in the UK. After being there for just a week I had a call just 3 weeks before I was due to start work rearing pheasants…
“Will this place is awesome! They are needing a ghillie so they are training me up which means there is another Bailiff job going, you should come up!!”
I have never left an employer in the lurch before but the thought of spending the summer lumping feed bags around a rearing field and hot days in dusty sheds ‘bitting’ birds compared to walking the hills of the Isle of Lewis on a salmon fishing estate wasn’t a big decision.
So by pure coincidence aged 18 we both ended up working on a salmon fishing estate nestled in the north west of Scotland on one of the best Grilse fisheries in the UK. What an opportunity for two young keen fishers from the Midlands…
Needless to say, Fly-fishing really got a hold of us then, and absolutely everything about it. We lived and breathed it, One of the other Ghillies ‘Peter’ was our guru. He seemed to understand salmon and could cast beautifully. At that time we were like two ‘sponges’ and wanted to absorb as much knowledge from Peter as we could. He would pull at our flies to make sure they didn’t come apart, strip them down if you couldn’t tie a ‘turl-knot’ on them, teach knots and casting. We owe Peter a lot for what we learned in those early days.
University at Harper Adams was the next step, and we continued to work at Grimersta in the summers, another Ghillying job was free the following year so guests were never too sure which twin they would be getting for the day. Sundays we would spend diving for scallops, picking muscles, surfing on the beautiful beaches or sea fishing… Pollock fishing on the fly became a favourite and the last couple of hours into dusk usually meant the pollock would come up in the water and we would be able to get them on flies like ‘dog knobblers’ on fast sinking lines. If you haven’t tried it you must pollock are brutal fish on the fly!
Our Nanny was also an avid Fly-fisher and kept most of their weeks fishing, she had a way of making Spey casting look effortless as often the ladies of the sport do and often caught more fish, much to granddads dismay. Our birthday present one year would be our first experience of the Dee. She had the last week of May on Ballogie, a prime week on a prime beat! We shared a rod and fished every hour of daylight, our experience had all been with single handed rods and we loved getting into the world of Spey casting! With help from Sean the Ghillie we finished the week with 6 salmon for our week 3 each, I remember thinking then that I could very happily live on Deeside. Catching Spring Salmon in such a setting was our idea of heaven!
After Uni Al continued at Grimersta and spent the winters travelling. I really wanted to work with a sporting agency thinking I could travel to some far-flung destinations fishing but needed some sales experience. So I went from guiding for salmon in the beautiful remote landscape of the Isle of Lewis to working 6 days a week on a car forecourt in Stoke-on-Trent. A brutal change of lifestyle! After two years of that, it was time to get back into the fishing industry…
People often ask me why I chose ghillying?
I suppose once you have experienced a life on the river it makes it almost impossible to do anything else…
Having lived apart for 3 years we met up again in New Zealand where we spent a year working at a fishing lodge exploring the rivers of New Zealand’s south island. A bucket list trip that would require a blog post of its own about.
Al had applied for a job on the River Dee which having got, he had to cut his trip short and embark on a new position and life in Dinnet on the banks of the river Dee. I went back to Grimersta for another season chasing grilse.
In October that year, I came down to visit Al at Dinnet, thinking I would help him out building steps and filling potholes. Again by pure chance it just so happened that the ghillie on the estates’ neighbouring beat had that year retired and there was a Job going. We got to work on some heavy bank maintenance giving the beat a ‘short back and sides’ throughout. Coincidentally I got the Job and we somehow ended up living and working within 6 miles of each other
Turning 30 this year we have been on the River Dee for 5 & 6 years, are qualified instructors, started a fly-fishing school on the Dee to try and bring more people into this sport which has dominated our lives and allowed us to travel to some of the most amazing places in the world. We offer hosted trips to far-flung destinations, work closely with Loop Tackle and make fly-fishing videos.
A lifetime of fly-fishing all because of a strange looking ‘cast’ salmon in a glass box in the hallway of our Grandad’s house…