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A Northumberland Salmon Fishing Trip to Remember

An Occasional Salmon Angler
Posted in: Salmon Fishing

AN OCCASIONAL SALMON ANGLER

I’m not really a proper salmon fisherman. I don’t own a double handed rod, have never Spey cast, and would struggle to explain the difference between Scandi and Skagit lines. My real passion has always been small river fishing for wild brown trout. I do however completely understand how some people are diehard salmon anglers. I say that because once every year I travel up to Northumberland to fish the very upper reaches of the river Coquet for salmon and sea trout.

I’ve been going with the same group of friends since I was a student at Newcastle University over 25 years ago. It was at Newcastle that I met a student from Northumberland called Tim, who with his dad was a member of a private small syndicate on the upper river Coquet (Tim remains one of my oldest friends - I was Best Man at his wedding and am Godfather to his daughter). I started as his guest and have been a member myself for many years now (there are around 30 members, most are local).

I wouldn’t really know where to start with a double hander on a big famous salmon river. All I do know about fishing for salmon and sea trout is self-taught and learnt from one river. I do hope one day to explore further afield, but trout fishing is my first love and currently that’s where I’ll spend my time. My home stretch is also a 35 minute drive, not a 6 hour one.

Pictured above: A pool towards the top of the Coquet beat (image taken after I’d caught a 6lb salmon here in the first hour of day one 2022, with another shortly afterwards 300 yards downstream)

DELICATE NEGOTIATION REQUIRED

With most of us based down south, we could only really manage the long trip up north once a year. We choose the last weekend of the season in October because that in theory allows for the most rain to get the water levels fishable and for the fish to get that far up the river. It’s still quite a challenge to organise every year as it’s usually half term (easier now the kids are a bit older) and, by strange coincidence, 3 of us have wives with a birthday around then too. Careful negotiation required.

Tackle We Use

The section we fish is around a 5km stretch meandering through the stunning Cheviot hills, pretty rugged and narrow at the top with a few wide pools towards the lower reaches. There are probably only a handful of places you can’t reach the other bank with a single handed rod. So that’s what we use (we’re all trout fishermen so can’t really justify nor do we need fullon salmon kit).

The exception here is of course salmon flies, but years of experience have taught us all you really need are some red and orange shrimp patterns, Silver Stoat Tails and, if you’re focusing on the sea trout in the faster water, a handful of traditional wet flies like Peter Ross and Teal Blue & Silver fished on droppers. I fish light (one box of flies, a hip flask, some leader and some nippers) because you’re walking a fair amount over uneven ground all day. 

The very upper section of the beat, narrow and fastThe very upper section of the beat, narrow and fast
The very upper section of the beat, narrow and fast
And the lower stretch, wider and slowerAnd the lower stretch, wider and slower
And the lower stretch, wider and slower

NOT A LOT OF FISH, OR HAIR

We stay in nearby self-catering accommodation, and while the quality of the food and wine has improved markedly over the years, the quality of the fishing is very much weather dependent, both prior and during the trip. Every year we eagerly monitor the river levels online months in advance, but even when we know it’s low water and there’s been no rain and therefore little chance of fish in any numbers, still we go, full of optimism.

We blank more than we catch, and when we do land fish it’s usually not very many. Until 2022, in the 10 years since we started recording our catches in a lovely leatherbound log book (which I bought from Farlows…little did I know then I’d end up working for them), the tally is 4 salmon and 3 sea trout between us all. Our wives have often questioned why we bother. As any salmon fisherman will tell you, the reward is worth the wait. Plus it’s a boys weekend away and all the camaraderie and banter that comes with it, fish or no fish.

There was one exception in 2006, when conditions were ideal and everyone caught multiple fish (I alone caught 4 salmon and two sea trout). That however was so long ago that I had a full set of hair on my head. In 2022 only two of us could make it, and we managed 5 salmon between us, the only time any of us had caught more than one fish in 16 years. So it was with some sense of excitement that we awaited our 2023 trip. 

The Upper Coquet on the day we arrived…blissThe Upper Coquet on the day we arrived…bliss
The Upper Coquet on the day we arrived…bliss

River Coquet Salmon Fishing Trip Diary

FRIDAY 27 OCTOBER 2023

Having celebrated my wife’s birthday the night before, 3 of us set off around 7am in a car brimming with optimism, mingled with a slight sense of foreboding that our trip would be a washout. The river had risen over 2 metres the week before and was still running pretty high. We got to the river just before 2pm, and having seen the flooded fields and raging river that followed the road on the way there we tried to remain positive. It was well over a metre higher than the previous year.

Tim was already there, on the tail of one of the best pools, and as we pulled up alongside him, we could see from his smiling face he’d had some action. He’d been broken off by the biggest fish he’d ever hooked. The water was too fast in places to fish where we might have done in previous years, but equally providing decent water in a handful of other places. And there were clearly
fish in the river. Game on. Unsurprisingly, we set our rods up pretty quickly and assumed our usual starting points, with me right at the top of the beat, Iain a few kilometres further downstream, and Hugh a bit below Tim. 

Beautiful, but this part and many others unfishable in 2023Beautiful, but this part and many others unfishable in 2023
Beautiful, but this part and many others unfishable in 2023

The section where the previous year I’d had two salmon on a Silver Stoat’s Tail in the first 90 minutes was too fast to fish properly, as was much of the top reach, but I walked excitedly casting downstream and across whenever I found somewhere fishable, happy to be back in such a magical, beautiful place. I opted for a red Ally’s Shrimp this time, something a bit bigger and more colourful given the conditions, but had no joy until I reached a small but long pool usually too languid and shallow to get a decent swing but this year looking perfect. I covered it slowly, down and across, gradually working out more line. As my fly swung around midpool I said to myself, that’s where they’ll be.

The magic spot on day one (and day two)The magic spot on day one (and day two)
The magic spot on day one (and day two)

Sure enough, I tightened into a solid fish. It’s always a relief to hook a fish on the first day, to feel that power at the end of your line, to be reminded why we do it. It's quite simply one of the best feelings in the world, despite the excitement often battling with the fear of losing the fish. The salmon this far up the river aren’t usually that big and can be quite coloured, but this was a fish of around 12lbs, which put up an admirable fight, with leaps and searing runs. I smiled as I released it back, took a swig from the hip flask, and thought, this is going to be a special trip.

4.37pm: salmon #1 (Simon, 12lb, red Ally’s Shrimp)
My first fish of the trip on day one laying in the water, 12lb, caught on a red Ally’s ShrimpMy first fish of the trip on day one laying in the water, 12lb, caught on a red Ally’s Shrimp
My first fish of the trip on day one

I walked further downstream, fishing occasionally, with an inane grin, as darkness started falling. The others came up the track alongside the river in the car. As we’re usually fishing some way from each other, you need to take photos of your fish as evidence before you release them. Not that we don’t trust each other, but our rule now we have smartphones is no photo, no fish. This can lead to some interesting and tense moments trying to get photos.

Tim and Iain had had no joy, but from Hugh’s face through the wound-down window, I could tell something had happened. He had hooked an absolute monster in the beat’s biggest pool, battled it for 15 minutes, and got it to the bank. Rod bent double, he’d reached for his phone to take a photo, only for the salmon to thrash powerfully enough to break his rod and shortly afterwards unhook itself in the chaos. A gentleman’s release as Hugh calls it. We repaired to the local pub, then back to our cottage. I cooked dinner and we watched England beat Argentina in the Rugby World cup 3 rd place play offs. An almost perfect day, for me anyway. 

One of my favourite stretches (and where Iain caught his first salmon of the trip)One of my favourite stretches (and where Iain caught his first salmon of the trip)
One of my favourite stretches (and where Iain caught his first salmon of the trip)

SATURDAY 28 OCTOBER

The river had fallen a little bit and we were all keen to get started. We agreed who should fish where and off we went, adults as excited as children in a sweet shop. Here’s how Super Salmon Saturday unfolded…

10.41am: salmon #2 (Simon, 10lb, red Ally’s Shrimp)
10.45am: salmon #3 (Hugh, 10lb, Aurora Shrimp)
11.00am: salmon #4 (Hugh, 6lb, Aurora Shrimp)
11.36am: salmon #5 (Iain, 10lb, red Ally’s Shrimp)
2.34pm: salmon #6 (Simon, 8lb, red Ally’s Shrimp)

We all had a few more knocks. Tim unfortunately didn’t land any fish and had to leave late afternoon for work. Pub, dinner cooked by Hugh, rugby World Cup final, pub. It’s fair to say we were all in good spirits (even if I thought New Zealand should have won).

My second fish, from the same pool as my firstMy second fish, from the same pool as my first
My second fish, from the same pool as my first
Hugh into his first oneHugh into his first one
Hugh into his first one
Iain releasing his first fishIain releasing his first fish
Iain releasing his first fish
And me into my third salmon, stood river side with fish on the hook pullingAnd me into my third salmon, stood river side with fish on the hook pulling
And me into my third one

SUNDAY 29 OCTOBER

The heavens had opened while we slept. We drove to the river, but even prepared for the rain, we all decided it would be a waste of time, with the water raging and coloured. Instead we walked a few miles up the valley following what’s usually a little burn at the bottom of the beat. In normal times it joins the river under a concrete ford that the farmer uses to cross it, but today it was a seething torrent of chocolate water flowing over it.

We saw a sheep washed downstream which thankfully managed to get itself out after a few hundred yards. Later there was some more good food, drink, chat and an early night.

The burn in spate- it’s usually a narrow, clear, gentle stream good for wild brownies in the summerThe burn in spate- it’s usually a narrow, clear, gentle stream good for wild brownies in the summer
The burn in spate - it’s usually a narrow, clear, gentle stream good for wild brownies in the summer
The ford at the bottom of the burn after the spate – you can see from the debris on the railings how high the water rose the previous dayThe ford at the bottom of the burn after the spate – you can see from the debris on the railings how high the water rose the previous day
The ford at the bottom of the burn after the spate – you can see from the debris on the railings how high the water rose the previous day

MONDAY 30 OCTOBER

It had stopped raining. The Coquet here rises and falls quite fast. The river at the bottom of the field near our cottage had clearly dropped. We cleaned the house, packed the car and were on the river just after 9am. The water was similar to Saturday’s levels, still high but clear and with a decent strong flow. We assumed our favourite positions once more. Magic Monday got underway.

9.20am: salmon #7 (Simon, 5lb, red Ally’s Shrimp)
11.05am: salmon #8 (Hugh, 6lb, cascade Ally’s Shrimp)
11.13am: salmon #9 (Iain, 6lb, red Ally’s Shrimp)
12.34pm: salmon #10 (Hugh, 5lb, cascade Ally’s Shrimp)
1.07pm: salmon #11 (Iain, 6lb, red Ally’s Shrimp)
1.28pm: salmon #12 (Hugh, 10lb, cascade Ally’s Shrimp)
1.55pm: salmon #13 (Iain, 10lb, red Ally’s Shrimp)
2.35pm: salmon #14 (Simon, 12lb, red Ally’s Shrimp)
My early morning fish from the top of the beatMy early morning fish from the top of the beat
My early morning fish from the top of the beat
Iain releasing his second fishIain releasing his second fish
Iain releasing his second fish
Hugh into another one, rod bent, fighting the fishHugh into another one, rod bent, fighting the fish
Hugh into another one
1st ever cast from this bridge gets Hugh a 10lb fish1st ever cast from this bridge gets Hugh a 10lb fish
1st ever cast from this bridge gets Hugh a 10lb fish

There were a few more fish lost, but in total the 3 of us caught and safely released 14 salmon over two and a half days fishing, all on the fly. The 5 salmon that I landed were all caught on the very same red Ally’s Shrimp that I tied on at the start of the trip.

We caught fish from places we’d never had fish before. During these dark days and before I get excited about the new river fishing season, I’m still reliving in my mind each and every one of my fish, smiling at the memories, as I hope I will be for many years to come.

My final fish on the last afternoon of an unforgettable tripMy final fish on the last afternoon of an unforgettable trip
My final fish on the last afternoon of an unforgettable trip

Many salmon anglers I’ve chatted with spent weeks fishing last year with no fish. We were very lucky. We caught more salmon this trip than we have in the last 17 years combined. And that, despite the gloom over salmon populations in general, gives me some hope for the future.

A very special river, whether we catch or not (image from 2022 with much lower water than 2023!)A very special river, whether we catch or not (image from 2022 with much lower water than 2023!)
A very special river, whether we catch or not (image from 2022 with much lower water than 2023!)

POSTSCRIPT

Since writing the above, Atlantic salmon have been reclassified an official endangered species by IUCN, with climate change, aquaculture, obstacles to migration, invasive species and freshwater pollution identified as the main culprits behind the drastic decline of UK salmon numbers. I’m still unsure how that now makes me feel about salmon fishing. Fly fishing for salmon surely has one of the lowest impacts on their decline (96% of English, 97% of Scottish and 100% of Welsh salmon are returned).

Banning fly fishing for salmon would change very little and efforts would be much better spent tackling the main contributory factors. Let’s not forget the majority of salmon anglers have been the ones pushing to help preserve the fish they admire for many years, and continue to do so. We’re not the enemy here, far from it. But it’s easy to see how we might be perceived in a society that is increasingly polarised and sees only black and white. Irrespective of the future of fly fishing for salmon, this new classification is undoubtedly a step forward in safeguarding this most magnificent of species, and if you love salmon, that has to be a good thing.

Much as I’d prefer not too, and don’t think it necessary, I’d be prepared to accept a ban on salmon fly fishing if it meant my kids could enjoy doing so once numbers get back to a level that’s no longer endangered. Easier for me to say as I’m only an occasional salmon fisherman. Will I ever have another salmon weekend on the Coquet like the one above? I hope so, but if I can’t, the optimist in me says that future generations will. 

If you have an thoughts or questions, please leave your comments below! It’s great to share & chat. You can also share with all your friends via our social sharing buttons at the top of the page.


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2024-01-25 15:28:00
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Comments
Andy Hunt
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Hi Simon, What a great article. Like yourself I am more of a trout angler although I also fly fish for pike and have had a few great trips abroad for some exotic species. I have never caught a salmon. Your writing conveyed the excitement and optimism of anglers worldwide on any fishing trip (I hope) and your perseverance paid off with such a red letter trip. Well done and thanks for the great read.
David Tombs
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Hi Simon, It is a very good and interesting read; I enjoyed it. I struggle to see how Salmon anglers can be perceived in a negative sense. Maybe people are referring to the "netters" or the fish farms. I have never fished the Coquet, it looks fine but a little small; however, from your account, it produces fish. I aim to give it a go this year, however living in Suffolk, the fly fishing desert, it's a long track on my own. I wish you luck this year.
Simon Tilbury
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Thanks Andy, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I plan to try some pike on the fly soon!
Simon Tilbury
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Thanks David. It's always a pleasure to fish the Coquet, and if the conditions are right, it can provide decent fish. You can get Coquet day permits here: https://northumbrian-angler.co.uk/
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