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Journal - Spey Lessons: A day on the River Tweed By Russ Lumpkin

Michael Farr crushed my preconceived notions of a ghillie. I expected him to be less cheerful, a little crusty, but there he was, with a contagious smile and jaunty stride, wearing a dandy deerstalker. His beat is the Rutherford on the River Tweed.

He also raises yellow Labs—sweet and beautiful, and a few that appeared large for their breed. At least half a dozen canines padded around, happy to give and get attention.

Photo by Russ Lumpkin

“They’re the most photographed dogs in Scotland,” Michael said.

Photo by Russ Lumpkin

An anglers’ shack stood behind a quaint, rectangular home that overlooked a quiet stretch of river, placid except for the comings and goings of mallards and occasional rising fish. I had arrived as the guest of Simon Barr, who, along with his wife, Selena, founded Tweed Media a decade ago.

Overcast skies boded well for the angling, but there were obstacles. Michael spoke of low flows that impeded the upstream movements of spawning salmon. And the cormorants. They had moved in from the coast and were taking a toll on salmon and brown trout up to 15, 16 inches. He pointed to a long expanse of riverbank, colored a near uniform white, covered by cormorant droppings.

Photo by Russ Lumpkin

Coupled with the environmental pressures on the salmon, I had my own handicap. I’d never cast a two-handed rod, and Spey rods composed the weaponry on the Tweed. In high school, though, I had experienced some low-grade success in baseball and basketball, and felt I could make a passable cast pretty quickly.

Scots have been casting two-handed rods—which can reach water that’s either too deep for a wading approach, too far for a single-handed cast, or affords no room for a backcast—since the 1800s. In the United States, two-handed casting took hold and began taking off in the early 2000s. Where I live and fish, it’s never taken hold, and I’d never needed to know how to cast a Spey until I stood on the banks of the famous Tweed, just downstream of a riffle and just upstream of likely holding water lining the far bank. Michael made a couple sample casts, gave me some simple instructions, and then watched me make an attempt. After giving some good-natured ribbing, he pantomimed a few adjustments. As he scrutinized my second attempt, I asked him about life on the river.

He said his father had been a ghillie on the Tweed, a brother of his works a beat upstream, and his son works the river, too. The Tweed runs in his veins just as true as it runs its course to the North Sea.

Photo by Simon Barr - Tweed Media

I finally made a couple decent casts, and Michael told me to repeat the process of making a couple decent drifts and then taking a step downstream. He left to visit other fishermen on the beat.

In his absence, I began to concentrate on fundamentals, which seemed to come down to the proper angles. First, the angle of the rod as I lifted line from the water had to be straight overhead, parallel to my right ear with some oomph, in order to whip the line from downstream to behind me upstream to anchor it properly. After I anchored the line, I concentrated on bringing the rod back through the same angle, but going forward, and again, parallel to my right ear as I pushed the tip-top with oomph to a quick stop.

Photo by Simon Barr - Tweed Media

Simon, who’d been shooting photographs with his camera and new drone, waded out. He’s an experienced Spey angler, and he said, “You’re doing well for a beginner, and I’m not wanting to change what you’re doing, but we can finesse how you’re doing it.”

He told me I was letting the anchored line sink too much, and that my mechanics needed to be smoother. Planting the rod butt in my gut and turning my hips toward the anchored line just before I began the roll cast would help fix both. Most important, he said, “You need to speed up the process of anchoring the line, then slow down on your forward cast.”

Taking his advice and finally coordinating the movements, my speed in anchoring the line increased, and that gave me time to concentrate for a second at the beginning of the forward cast to focus on the fundamental of stopping at about two o’clock. As I began the push forward, I recall the rod bending deep into cork, and it felt good—similar to a good swing that results in a line drive or, closer still, a jump shot that feels so good in timing and form, you know the ball is going in as soon as it leaves your hand.

Photo by Simon Barr - Tweed Media

In the regimented world of fishing on the Tweed, at one o’clock, everyone gathered on the grounds around the anglers’ shack for lunch and tea. Each angler had been skunked, but that dampened the spirits and mood of no one. Conversations ran from angling around the United Kingdom, Brexit, and the approaching season of pheasant shooting. Wonderful chaps all.

During the afternoon session, I moved to a different section of the beat and switched to a single-handed rod. Within the first couple casts, I realized that my motion felt better than usual. I attributed the stronger casts to the very events of that morning, when I had to concentrate hard just to make a decent presentation. Even though there had been a lunch break and I had moved to a different beat with a familiar rod, my mind remained in two-handed mode, focused on fundamentals, and I could sense that thought process affecting my stroke—just as it had throughout the morning. So I slowed down a little. Immediately, I began to feel the rod work, feel it more fully, bending deeper into the blank and functioning as its creators intended. And it felt good.

Photo by Simon Barr - Tweed Media

And once, for several shining seconds, I had a fish. A grilse almost came tight, but cleared the water and dropped the hook.

At 5 p.m., fishing ceased. Back at the shack for coffee and tea, Michael brought out his logbook and asked, “Any joy for you gentlemen today?”

No one had caught anything, and as he entered the number of anglers and results, he said he possessed daily catch records dating back to 1969.

That news struck me for its great sense of narrative. While I experienced some low-grade success—learning some rudiments of two-handed casting and feeling the pull of a Tweed River salmon—it somehow felt poignant to be a small part of Michael’s history on the river, which is living and written.

People, Places, & Equipment

Russ Lumpkin is editor of Gray’s Sporting Journal, and with an invitation from Tweed Media, he fished the Rutherford Beat of the famous River Tweed. Gordy & Sons of Houston provided some of the gear and apparel for the day. To fish with Michael Farr, check out Tweed Beats.

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