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Retiring ghillie considers the Tay’s vanishing salmon

A legendary angler who claims to have landed more salmon in Scotland than anyone else, past or present, has retired from his job as a ghillie on the River Tay.

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George McInnes says he has caught a record 20,000 Atlantic salmon since his childhood.

Former police inspector George McInnes (81) will take life at home in Guildtown, Perthshire more slowly now but his lifelong interest in the water leads him to sound the alarm about fishing in future.

George, who had previously been a professional footballer for Aberdeen and Oxford United, came to Perth 60 years ago to join the police. When he wasn’t pounding the beat as a constable or investigating crime as a detective, George was fishing the best beats of the River Tay in its heyday when the pools were stuffed with salmon in spring, summer and autumn.

He retired from the force 29 years ago to become head ghillie on the Ballathie beat.

George reckons he has caught a staggering 20,000 Atlantic salmon since he was a youngster in his home village of Carrbridge.

His extraordinary catch beats that of Robert Pashley, the ‘Wizard of the Wye’ who was credited with catching 10,000 salmon between 1906 and 1951.

On four occasions in the 1980s George beat Pashley’s record 678 salmon for a season with catches of over 700.

His best haul for a day was 31, but it wasn’t a full day’s fishing because George had to go home, change into his police uniform and start work at 2pm. His best total for a week was 113.

His friend of nearly 60 years, retired crime reporter and angling writer, Arnot McWhinnie from Stanley, said: “George was a veritable fishing machine. His big catches, like some of Pashley’s, were mostly on prawn or shrimp baits, the use of which in these days of vanishing salmon stocks is now illegal because they were so deadly.

“Having said that, George was a master of the skilful art of prawning. No one could beat him. He wasn’t just a prawn expert. He could catch them on anything, from worms to spoons, Devon minnows, and the fly which he was particularly adept at. I’ve seen him catch 18 on a fly in an afternoon.”

George’s reputation grew to the extent that anglers visiting from various parts of the UK with access to the best Tay beats used to invite him to fish with them.

Arnot added: “Having the balance of a footballer, he could wade into the roughest, rockiest pools.

“Like Captain Kirk of the Enterprise who flew boldly into space where no man had gone before, George could wade boldly into the Tay where no other angler had waded before, and because of that he could reach fish that ordinary mortals couldn’t cover.

“He was famous for hooking, playing, and dispatching fish in the middle of the river, stringing them on a rope tied round him so he didn’t waste fishing time going to the bank to land them.”

Unlike Pashley, George never caught any 40-plus pounders. His biggest was 38lbs but he reckons he had hooked a few even bigger ones which got away.

George is retiring as salmon catches on the Tay have fallen off a cliff.

Looking back on his long fishing life he said: “The spring run which used to be exceptional is so poor that many anglers don’t fish in the early months.

“There is still a summer run of salmon and grilse, but that is rapidly declining as is the autumn run. In fact this season’s autumn run was the worst in memory.

“There were lots of old spring and summer salmon which had been in the river for ages congregating in three or four beats. But the autumn run of silver salmon straight off the tide was virtually non existent.

“What is causing the decline? On the West Coast it is undoubtedly salmon farms which produce huge numbers of parasites called sea lice which attach themselves to juvenile wild salmon and literally eat them to death.

“Rivers in the East Coast, however, are different because there are no salmon farms here.

“We have, however, huge numbers of predators such as seals, cormorants, goosanders, and dolphins, all of which eat large numbers of juvenile and adult salmon.

“There used to be such a thing as restoring the balance of nature with culls, not total obliteration, of some species when their numbers grew out of control.

“It’s not solely that. Something is happening to our salmon at sea.

“Whether they are being taken out illegally, or are suffering the effects of global warming, I do not know but we desperately need to find out and find out soon before Atlantic salmon stocks become even more endangered.

“The economy of the countryside depends on sports like angling, and if there aren’t enough salmon to fish for, ghillies will lose their jobs as will others in hotels and local businesses whose livelihoods depend on the runs of salmon being restored to our rivers.

“We on the river bank are playing our part by encouraging catch and release.

“Nowadays virtually every salmon caught on rod and line is carefully returned to our rivers.

“The Tay Ghillies Association has also raised thousands of pounds for restocking and habitat improvement but government, and marine biologists now need to take much more action to ensure this iconic species will still be in our rivers for the sake of future generations.”