Home Crafts & Hobbies The River Tweed – a journey from source to mouth

The River Tweed – a journey from source to mouth

The River Tweed – a journey from source to mouth

A famous stronghold of the king of fish and blessed with myriad prolific beats and pools, The River Tweed is truly a salmon angler’s dream, says Sam Carlisle

In October 1938, shortly after declaring that there would be “peace for our time”, Neville Chamberlain repaired to the River Tweed for some fishing; much-needed respite following the travails of bartering the Munich Agreement. Like so many before him, he echoed the angling bard Izaak Walton’s affirmation that “God never did make a more calm, quiet and innocent recreation than angling.” Chamberlain probably chose Tweed because of its reputation as the finest salmon river in the land. It was an auspicious decision.

The river has a long border with England and Scotland. This is why it has more bloodshed than any other British River. Berwick-upon Tweed is where it empties into the sea. This town was so fiercely fought that ownership changed 13 times between 1296-1482. Chamberlain failed to make any impression on his trip and shortly after, Hitler invaded the Sudetenland.


The River Tweed

Rising among barren hills, about six miles north of Moffat, the start of Tweed’s 100-mile journey to the sea has a modest beginning. The small stream flows between patches of rough grazing, and modern conifer plants. You might feel that Tweed is lacking the wildness salmon love. What the river lacks is remoteness. But it makes up in miles of perfect salmon spawning ground. Tweed, with its 1,500 square mile catchment area, provides more perfect habitat than any British river. It is this abundance of spawning beds that makes it one of the world’s greatest strongholds of Atlantic salmon.

The fishing begins in earnest when the river widens and enters the Stobo Valley at Dawyck. While the salmon fishing here can be good – and the trout and grayling world class – it is once the river flows past Peebles that the more storied beats begin. The same families have lived in many places for three to four centuries. You feel like you’re following in the steps of those who went before you to catch salmon for sport or sustenance. Traquair, and its deep Boat Pool, is a fine spot for an autumn salmon in the shadow of Scotland’s oldest inhabited house. The house has been continuously inhabited since 1107.

As the river widens, beats include Ashiestiel (once home to Sir Walter Scott), the Nest, Fairnilee and the Yair, which takes its name from the old Scots for ‘fish trap’. In 1156 King Malcolm IV gave a charter for Melrose Abbey Monks to build here a dam and trap salmon. As they are located higher up, these beats will fish best in mid-summer after a decent rise in the water allows the grilse run and summer salmon to arrive.

The weight of history doesn’t diminish as you work your way downstream. Boleside is a great place to start. It was the site of Melrose’s Battle in 1526. Ettrick joins the Tweed here, one of its major tributaries. Folklore suggests that most of Tweed’s ‘springers’ are destined for the Ettrick, and although the River Tweed Commission’s scientists aren’t so sure, this didn’t dampen my enthusiasm as a student when I took advantage of the relatively affordable rents during the early season, and successfully landed my first ever spring salmon from the Meetings Pool.

The charismatic Nigel Fell was the person who first told me about how prolific Tweed is. Fish were reported on every cast. Once, there was a story of two fish caught in one cast. “A guest hooked a fish that wrapped itself round a rock on the far bank,” Fell told me one morning. “So I rowed across, netted the fish and dropped the fly back in the water. As the fly worked its way across the current back towards the fisherman, it caught another.” It was at Boleside, in Glenmayne Pool, that the largest fish from Tweed in recent times was landed. The fish, estimated at 50lb was caught in Glenmayne Pool on 29 October 2013, using a fly created by Fell and called the Boleside Shrimp.

Middle Tweed extends from Ettrick Junction down to the famous Junction Beat at Kelso where the Teviot enters. The legendary salmon angler John Ashley-Cooper said of middle Tweed that its beats “comprise the loveliest parts of the river, with a splendid variety of pools, suitable both for wading and boating”. Tweedswood & Drygrange beats are all productive, as they fish under the Leaderfoot Viaduct. As the river meanders around Scott’s View it enters perhaps the most picturesque of all Tweed beats, Bemersyde, home to the Haig family for around 1,000 years. The river is flanked here by steep, forested cliffs. Its water is fast and rushing, with many deep holding pools, such as Sangsters or Jock Sure.

Tweed travels on to Dryburgh, where it passes another abbey that is now ruined and ancient Lebanese Cedars. These trees were brought back from the Holy Land by knights who had just returned from crusade. Lower Dryburgh and the Mertoun Beats meet at the bottom. Mertoun Cauld which restricts river flow drastically, acts as a barrier for temperature in the first few weeks of spring. If the weather has been particularly cold during the early months of spring, it is best that you fish downstream.

Middle is the most productive Mertoun beat. Pools such as the House Stream, where the then owner had three 40lb fish between 1918 and 1923, and Collarhaugh are a salmon angler’s dream: a perfect flow with enough features to make them interesting. The Tweed continues to offer more pools with character, ideal for fly fishing. From the Dub, at Rutherford, with its sandstone wall on the opposite bank, to Makerstoun’s bedrock striations, or Coach Wynd, on Lower Floors.

While the upper beats of Tweed fall 260ft during their seaward passage and the middle beats another 220ft, once the Teviot joins the pace of the river slows, falling only 75ft yet sweeping “in stately curves, broad bosomed… slumbering occasionally in ladylike dubs… at Sprouston, Birgham, Carham and the like”, according to Sir Herbert Maxwell. Lower Tweed, while lacking in dramatic scenery and scenery that is awe-inspiring, makes up in quality of fishing. Bill Quarry, author of the seminal work on Tweed and founder of the Tweed Fishing Museum in Kelso, describes this stretch of the river as “super prime”. This is a good description, given that it catches about half of the Tweed fish.

The River Tweed

In the slower sections, old caulds called dubs can form fast pools. They are especially useful in spring as a stop. Some people estimate that 80 percent of Tweed springers were caught in this section of the river. If you go by any metric, Junction Sprouston or Hendersyde is likely to be the top salmon beats worldwide in any given season. Birgham dub, a little further down the list, could claim to be the birthplace of salmon sport fishing. In 1743 the 8th Earl of Home caught a 69¾lb fish on a 22ft rod with a horsehair line. The British record was set too long ago, and there is no proof, but it’s likely accurate because it is listed as a fish weighing just below 70lbs.

The River Tweed

More than 200 years later, Sir Alec Douglas Home, with two friends, caught 64 springers in one day of February. The Lees is where 61 fish were caught on a day in September 2010 by Sir Alec Douglas-Home and a couple of friends. West Learmouth was next, Cornhill, then Tillmouth.

The river’s English and Scottish banks have fought many battles in this area. Blood has also been shed. The most recent conflict occurred in 2020, when Covid restrictions on the English side were lifted earlier than they were in Scotland, allowing the anglers to fish. One angler caught 15 fish on his own rod within a single day while boatmen sat idly by in Scotland.

Lower water is best for the beats on the river bottom, like Milne Graden. Pedwell. Horncliffe. And the tidal Tweedhill. Salmon are happy to remain in these reaches, until a flooding allows them to safely move upstream. Ladykirk recorded 332 catches in September during this year’s lowest water level ever.

Alongside warring nations and differing Covid restrictions, the lowest part of the river in particular has seen a historic battle between recreational anglers and those who harvested salmon for a livelihood – the netsmen. In the 1880s there were at their height 105 stations of netting along the coast, and the river up to Tillmouth. Even though netting is now no longer done, the practice is not obsolete. The Tweed record year was 2010, when 31,321 salmon were caught, 8,000 of them in nets. It was a time when the autumn run of the river was abundant.

The River Tweed

Tweed was pulsating with silvery fish in November up until 2013. It was believed that salmon were entering the river every day. Then, suddenly, like switching off a lamp, the autumn fish stopped. The figures are staggering. No one is sure why. Anglers caught 5,779 Salmon in November 2010. Ten years later, only 141 fish were landed. They were almost all colored fish which had been caught earlier in the year. The fall is 98%.

Many theories have been proposed to explain this dramatic disappearance. Most likely, this is a part of the natural cycle. Tweed was a spring-fed river to our great-grandfathers, but it wasn’t until the 1970s when the autumn run started to improve. It peaked in 2010. In the past decade, spring and summer fish have increased slightly. However, the magnitude of the fall fish decline remains a mystery. Tweed continues to be the benchmark for all British rivers, while scientists debate the causes. Anglers also have their own theories. The abundance of spawning produces the largest salmon run, and its pools provide solace and excitement during troubling times.

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