The Word for “Fish” in Speyside: Missing Salmon in Scotland

My first experience with Atlantic salmon lasted a week. I covered beautiful and unfamiliar water for the better part of each day—every day except Sunday—and did not hook a fish. It was exactly the kind of fishing I like best—a puzzle with cryptic clues. And when I wasn’t standing in the river, fumbling every third cast, there were other mysteries: hand-pulled ale, whiskey by the dram, a six-speed transmission, gearshift on the left.

I did manage to catch a few trout but, as Terence Hanbury White has observed, the word “fish” in Speyside is rightly reserved for salmon. His 1936 memoir, England Have My Bones, contains some of my favorite descriptions of fishing and hunting.

Part of the fun of that first fish-less week was watching salmon leap from the dark water into the bright air. At some pools, this miracle would happen once every two or three hours. It was the first week in May, the fields bustling with rabbits and daffodils and the mountains tranquil under snow. Anything seemed possible, even success. I admit that my greenhorn’s technique with a two-handed rod was inadequate, and my fly box dominated by patterns better suited for other species, but I was having precisely as much luck as the local experts—some casting wood-and-copper Devon minnows, others size-12 Willie Gunns, elegantly tied…

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