Coarse Angling in Scotland
By Ron Woods
Many people think that freshwater angling in Scotland was until very recently confined to trout and salmon, but our sport has always been more diverse than that. The largest pike, chub and grayling ever caught in Britain were all Scottish fish. Nor were fish like these just isolated specimens or accidental captures.
Tommy Morgan, for instance, whose 47lb 11oz Loch Lomond pike still beats even the best of its easy-living cousins from today’s generation of stocked trout reservoirs, was a skilled and experienced pike angler who knew both the loch and his quarry intimately.
It’s true that few Scottish anglers in the past fished exclusively for coarse species, but some of the best of our game fishers were actually all-rounders who honed their watercraft on the demands of finicky grayling in the ice-fringed upper reaches of the Clyde, or perhaps be teasing spoons through the reeds and weeds of our larger lochs for the voracious, acrobatic pike which abounded – and still do – in them.
Pike and perch have been in Scotland for hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years. Both species probably spread more widely because of their value as a cheap food source. Nevertheless, around the mid-nineteenth century pike were being stocked in a number of highland lochs specifically for sporting purposes and grayling were similarly introduced in several Scottish rivers to provide year-round angling.
Advertisements for local hotels as early as the twenties were highlighting Loch Lomond’s pike fishing as a particular attraction. Carp and tench may also have found their way here as a foodsource – there is mention of both on the menu of a banquet at Dunkeld Cathedral several hundred years ago – and were certainly stocked during the last century as ornamental additions to various estate ponds.
Some of those landowners – or their estate workers – were no doubt tempted to do more than just watch when the shadowy bronze shapes materialised in the muddy shallows on warm summer evenings.
In the sixties Scottish sea angling was blossoming rapidly, fuelled by spectacular catches of cod in the Clyde and the development of the virgin resources of the Hebrides and the Northern Isles. At the same time Scottish coarse fishing was also attracting increasing publicity and generating a small stream of visitors.
They came particularly for the challenging and almost untapped reserves of pike fishing in the larger lochs, and to a lesser extent for the prolific roach shoals which were then to be found in the lower reaches of the Clyde, Forth, Tay and Tweed.
This coincided, however with a substantial expansion of carp and barbel fishing in England and the opening up of the prolific Irish bream, tench and rudd waters. Scottish coarse fishing at the time offered exceptional quality, but less variety than the touring angler could find elsewhere. For that reason the development of coarse fishing as a tourist activity in Scotland was steady rather than dramatic.
The most significant step forward in the growth of coarse fishing by Scottish-based anglers came around 1967, when a small group of afficionados formed the Glasgow & West of Scotland Coarse Fishing Association. Although its name suggested a local bias, the club was a focal point for enthusiasts throughout Scotland and did a great deal to promote coarse fishing.
Club members, particularly the tireless secretary Bryan Hewitt, located, and in many cases opened up (sometimes literally) new waters. Young members, including myself, learnt their craft from more experienced hands.
The club played a major part in creating the first generation of home-grown Scottish coarse anglers: people who grew up with the spring spawners as their main area of interest. As well as development of the sport itself, the Glasgow & West club was active on the match fishing front. By 1970 it was able to mount annual open events which attracted hundreds of anglers from as far away as Yorkshire and the Midlands.
Over the next ten years or so there was an expansion of the number of coarse fishing clubs, some concentrating on particular species and others focused on the competitive side. By the early eighties the Scottish Federation for Coarse Angling had been established to act as an umbrella body for the sport. A national team was competing at World Championship level – collectively with only modest success but gaining great credit from an individual runner-up medal won by the late Rab Stephens.
There was also some expansion in the range of species available. Carp had been stocked in Lanark Loch in the mid seventies, for instance, and fish of nearly twenty pounds were starting to be caught by the end of the decade. Tench had similarly spread throughout the Forth & Clyde canal after small scale introductions in the late sixties, and big bags could be taken in various locations.
The twin themes from the mid-eighties to the present day are of continued steady growth in participation, and increasing diversity in the species and opportunities available. The Federation runs a small but enthusiastically-supported match league, which provides the breeding ground for our international team.
Without the resources available to our English counterparts we face an unequal task as the highest levels of the competitive fishing world; but our best home-grown anglers are nevertheless a match for anyone in the conditions.
Some of our specialist anglers – particularly among the pike enthusiasts – are nationally respected experts. Several have even been among the pioneers of fishing for unfamiliar species in exotic locations across the world.
Thanks to sympathetic and forward-looking policies by a number of local authorities, carp and to a lesser degree tench and bream have become well established in various public waters across the central belt. Stocks in some private waters, largely in Dumfries & Galloway, have also been nurtured as hotel and guest house owners realise the tourism potential.
Individual clubs, notable the Scottish Carp Group, have stocked their own waters as have one or two private syndicates. Less honourable, but very much a fact of life, has been the spread of species such as dace, chub and – unfortunately- ruffe, from discarded livebaits brought here by visiting pike anglers.
The Federation has also established its status as the authoritative voice of the sport in legislative and administrative circles. It has ensured that coarse fishing interests are taken into consideration by, for instance, having representatives sitting on the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on statutory Protection Orders and contributing to the debate on the Wild Rivers report which forms a blueprint for public policy on the future of fisheries management in Scotland.
So where does Scottish coarse fishing go from here? I am confident the answer is onwards and upwards. Most of the current generation of Scottish anglers have outgrown the prejudices which saw coarse fish treated as vermin in all too many game fisheries. The more scientific approach to managing natural resources which is emerging from, for instance, the Wild Rivers project recognises a legitimate place for coarse species in the ecosystem and as a sporting resource.
The catch-and-return philosophy which is central to coarse fishing is very much in tune with the current state of public opinion on “green” issues, making it attractive both to younger participants and to the owners, many of them local councils, of waters which could be developed.
Participation therefore looks set to continue to grow over the next decade, and with that it will become increasingly viable to manage waters as commercial coarse fisheries. In addition to creating a better range of facilities for visitors, these will provide the breeding ground for home-based coarse anglers which can only serve to accelerate the growth of the sport even further.