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A beginners guide to Salmon Fishing

Everything you need to know about getting started with salmon fishing

This is a comprehensive no-nonsense guide to getting started, if you’re looking to learn how to fish for salmon.

So you want to get into salmon fishing but don’t know where to start? Hopefully this guide will help. This is a simple guide to help you get started. I’ve based the knowledge in this article on 16 years as a professional salmon fishing guide throughout Scotland.  

River Spey, Spey Casting, Ghillie, Ballindalloch, Salmon Fishing, fly fishing, fishing guide
Salmon fishing on the River Spey with a Ghillie

It can be daunting starting out, where to go, what equipment to use, how to read a river, How to fish for salmon, what is the river etiquette? What Spey casts to use? How much do I tip the Ghillie? The insights are here, please read on:

Let’s break his down into a step by step guide, beginning with:

Tactics for fishing for salmon

The first thing to understand is that salmon do not feed when they enter freshwater. They have two things programmed in their brain, reproduction and survival.

Why a salmon takes a fly nobody really can be certain. It’s thought to be a combination of aggression, curiosity and a conditioned response from when they fed in saltwater. 

Make no mistake, salmon fishing is a dark art. You need resilience as blank days are frequent, and determination to keep moving your flies through the pools with method, focus and a clear strategy. Usually you would cast your fly down and across and try to keep a steady swing on the fly, letting the current do the work. As you work through a pool, imagine you are playing battleships and draw a picture in your mind of the river as a god, and your prospecting all the squares hunting a fish. Work through the pool by casting and then taking a step downstream.

My best advice is listen to the experts, when you arrive at a river, speak to the ghillie, his advice is invaluable. Remember he lives and breathes his beat of the river, knows where the salmon lies are and importantly at what water level where to fish. Ask him also what tip to add to your fly line (sink rate or floater) and what fly. If you’re a beginner, get him to show you the correct knot for the fly. I recommend a double turle, for salmon fly in doubles (two hooks). Most of all keep it simple, persistence beats resistance and don’t overcomplicate your casting or try too hard to reach that extra few feet. Often fish can be a rod length or two away. Don’t make too much disturbance when wading. 

What equipment to use for salmon fishing in Scotland? 

Most rivers in Scotland are fly fishing only, and some allow spinning like the Tay and the Tweed. The sensible thing to do is to ask yourself, do I want to fish one of the big rivers? The Tay, The Dee, Spey and Tweed, r a smaller spate river, like the River Ericht, Orchy or Alness.

River Tay, salmon fishing, Scone Palace
Happy Guests Fishing Fly and Spinning rod

Salmon Fishing Seasons in Scotland

Salmon Fishery DistrictStart of Rod SeasonEnd of Rod Season
1. Annan25th February15th November
2. Argyll11th February31st October
3. Arnisdale11th February31st October
4. Ayr11th February31st October
5. Beauly11th February15th October
6. Bladenoch11th February31st October
7. Brora1st February15th October
8. Caithness

Forss11th February31st October
Thurso and Stroma11th January5th October
Wick11th February31st October
Dunbeath11th February15th October
Berriedale11th February31st October
9. Carron11th February31st October
10. Clyde and Leven11th February31st October
11. Conon

River Alness and Alt Graad11th February31st October
River Conon and Balnagown11th February30th September
12. Cree1st March14th October
13. Crowe and Shiel (Loch Duich)11th February31st October
14. River Dee (Aberdeenshire)

River Dee1st February15th October
River Carron and River Cowie11th February31st October
15. River Dee (Kirkcudbright)11th February31st October
16. Deveron11th February31st October
17. Don11th February31st October
18. Doon11th February31st October
19. Eachaig1st May31st October
20. Esk

River Bervie25th February31st October
River North and South Esk16th February31st October
21. Findhorn11th February30th September
22. Fleet (Sutherlandshire)25th February31st October
23. Fleet (Kirkcudbright)25th February31st October
24. Forth1st February31st October
25. Girvan25th February31st October
26. Glenelg11th February31st October
27. Helmsdale11th January30th September
28. Inner (Jura)25th February31st October
29. Irvine and Garnock

River Irvine25th February15th November
River Garnock25th February31st October
30. Kishorn11th February31st October
31. Kyle of Sutherland11th January30th September
32. Laggan and Sorn (Islay)25th February31st October
33. Loch Long (Luingi and Elchaig)11th February31st October
34. Lochaber11th February31st October
35. Lossie25th February31st October
36. Luce25th February31st October
37. Mull11th February31st October
38. Nairn11th February7th October
39. Ness15th January15th October
40. Nith25th February30th November
41. North and West

Hope and Polla12th January30th September
Grudie or Dionard11th February31st October
Inchard11th February31st October
Laxford11th February31st October
Inver11th February31st October
Kirkaig11th February31st October
42. Northern

River Halladale12th January30th September
Kinloch (Kyle of Tongue11th February31st October
Naver and Borgie12th January30th September
Strathy12th January30th September
43. Orkney Islands25th February31st October
44. Shetland Islands25th February31st October
45. Skye11th February15th October
46. Spey11th February30th September
47. Stinchar25th February31st October
48. Tay

Tay15th January15th October
River Earn1st February31st October
River Eden5th February31st October
49. Tweed1st February30th November
50. Ugie10th February31st October
51. Urr25th February29th November
52. Wester Ross11th February31st October
53. Western Isles

Loch Roag11th February16th October
East Lewis11th February31st October
Clayburn25th February31st October
Fincastle25th February31st October
Resort11th February31st October
Mullanageren25th February31st October
Howmore25th February31st October
54. Ythan11th February31st October
The salmon season in Scotland, key rivers

Salmon fishing Equipment for Big 4 rivers – The Tweed, Tay, Spey and Dee

A 14ft or 15ft Fly rod, is a perfect size to cover a big river, don’t go any smaller, because if you get into a big fish, you’ll struggle to control it. You don’t need to spend the earth, a Shakespeare Oracle Scandi 15ft rod will set you back £120.00 on Amazon and its a pretty decent rod, certainly good enough for a beginner to enjoy learning the fundamentals. The Scandi version is my pick (there are other Shakespeare Oracles) is that Scandi (short Spey) lines are easier to cast for beginners.

If you’re looking for a robust, great value salmon reel, the Vision Deep ticks many boxes. It will set you back about £80.00 can take a battering, has a decent drag and great line capacity. It does what it says on the tin.

So what salmon fly line is best for a beginner? If your setting out, do not use a long head Spey line, i.e. 65ft, opt for a Short head Spey line(sometimes called Scandi lines). These are easier to cast and I can tell you that in my years as a guide I have got literally thousands of people casting lines like this good enough to cover fish in under 30 minutes of tuition. You cannot go wrong with an Arflo Rage Shooting head kit. For £79 this gives you a running line/ short spey line and tips, floater, intermediate and sink tip. This will cover most scenarios and this is an extremely easy line to cast. If you’ve heard about lines called Scandi or Skagit, then this line sits somewhere in between. Take it from me, it’s easy to cast, and hugely versatile.

So there you have it. A complete, fly rod, reel and line for £280.00.

Spate rivers: If you are looking at fishing smaller rivers, then use similar equipment to above but come down to an 11ft 8 weight. This will help you fish in tighter spaces and still give you enough clout to play a bigger multi-wintered fish. 

Tippet. Go for Maxima. 15lb for bigger rivers and 10lb for the spate rivers. This line is reliable and tried and tested. It stretches when a fish lunges on a run, and it comes in two colours. Chameleon for peat stained water and Ultragreen for clearer rivers. It also changes colour when the line degrades and oxidises, going a pale pink colour.

What are the best value breathable waders?

River Tay, Salmon Fishing, Fishing holiday, Fly Fishing, Spey Casting, Mackenzie fly fishing, Orvis Endorsed guides, Scone
The lower River Tay at Fishponds

Waders are an item you should be careful buying. Many people buy cheap and pay the price.. many people buy expensive and pay the price too. I cannot see past the Orvis Clearwater waders, they offer excellent value for money, and I would recommend trying them on with thickish socks and wading boots. Make sure you try bending down and standing up and all legs movements are easy and unrestricted. Get the Orvis Clearwater wading boots too, they are superb value, the waders and boots will set you back £368.00 but often Orvis offer deals and discounts, don?t be afraid to contact your local store and ask.

So in summary, £650.00 will get you properly set up, and enable you to be tooled up for a day on the river. (Excluding flies and nylon tippet)

River Tay, Salmon Fishing, Fly Fishing, Spey Casting, Scone Palace, Best Beats, Tactics, Atlantic Salmon, Spin Casting,
The Lower River Tay

Which river in Scotland is best for salmon fishing for beginners?

This depends where you live, but make sure you select a beat with a good Ghillie, preferably one who holds a casting qualification like SGAIC and therefore can give casting tips and tuition. If you want a more dedicated (one on one) guide for the day, then pay the extra and get a good one. You can meet the guide at the river, use your own gear and he or she can take you through the fundamentals and various casts. This can be invaluable in the beginning, so bad habits don’t set in. Salmon casting can also be physically taxing when you set out. First off you are using muscles and movements that are strange and alien to the norm. Having a guide and casting instructor can help you understand how to put less effort in and more technique, this can save you damaging muscles and getting a repetitive strain injury.

Guided Salmon, Salmon fishing in Scotland, Best salmon fishing Scotland, Salmon Fishing River Spey, Salmon Fly Fishing Scotland, Orvis, Albagamefishing, Speycasting,
Salmon Fishing guide River Tay

The River Tay at Fishponds is one such beat, a gem of a Ghillie in Iain Kirk, a casting instructor and rod designer for Mackenzie Fly Rods, he’s always willing to help. Its good water for learning and relatively inexpensive in the earlier parts of the season (spring and summer)

Whilst were on the subject of ghillies and guides, it’s customary to tip them. This is the right thing to do and as a general guide, anything from £20-£50 depending on the day you’ve had is the norm. Some grilles are very helpful and get involved and work hard to keep you right, others will show you the pool and hide in the hut, there’s no right or wrong, that’s the way to is, this will help you decide how much to tip. Tipping isn’t mandatory, but if you don’t give them a “handshake’ don’t expect the same level of service next time or any worthwhile help. Ghillies never forget! 

River Dee, Aberdeen, Banchory, Ballater, Orvis, Deeside, salmon Fishing, Aberdeenshire, Spey Casting, Fly Fishing, Learn to Spey Cast
A honeymoon couple learning to Spey cast on the River Dee

Hire a guiding company to take you out, they will provide you with quality fishing tackle, waders, boots, life vest and rain jacket. Well we do that certainly!

Rather than but all the gear and then discover its not for you, you may want to consider hiring a guiding company for your first trip. They will provide you with quality fishing tackle, waders, boots, life vest and rain jacket. This will set you back approx £375.00 for a full day including dedicated guide with you all day, permit, tackle and VAT. Our team of professional fishing guides include SGAIC casting instructors, so if you want to try various combinations fo rods and lines and learn various Spey casts, we can help.

Stewart Collingswood, Orvis Endorsed Guide/ founder Alba Game Fishing Ltd