by Andrew Barker
One of the most exciting moments of my life was when, aged 13, I caught my first salmon. It was under the watchful eye of Col Archie Fletcher, the laird of Dunans Castle, and was from a small pool under a waterfall about half a mile North of Dunans. Two days later, I caught another one from the pool just below the road bridge to Otter Ferry.
That was back in the 1950s, when there were 3 hotels in Glendaruel for whom fishing and fishermen were a major part of their business. The Ruel was famous throughout the country for it’s terrific fishing, and the Ormidale Hotel [now Kandahar] water alone, right until the 1970s, was averaging catches of about 40 salmon and 300 sea trout a year. The number of people employed in the hotels, and the amount of business that fishing visitors brought to the Glen, was a very important part of the community welfare.
Then in the 1970s and 1980s, aquaculture became established in Loch Riddon. First cages were sited just off Craig Lodge containing rainbow trout. Inevitably, before long, there was a massive storm, and literally hundreds of thousands of rainbows escaped with most of them entering the river where they ate everything including the eggs, fry and parr of all the migratory fish [salmon and sea trout]
Soon afterwards, the cages were filled with artificially grown salmon of Norwegian extraction, and two other fishfarms were set up in the Kyles of Bute. There continued to be escapes from these cages, and whilst farmed salmon are capable of inter breeding with wild salmon, any offspring therefrom will have lost their migratory instincts. Worse still, the fishfarms attracted great swarms of sealice, and whilst the farmed fish could be treated against these in their cages, young wild salmon and sea trout smolts making their way out to sea were infested by these sealice and probably the great majority of them died as a result. It was hardly surprising therefore that the number of wild migratory fish coming back to the Ruel dropped dramatically and fishermen stopped coming to the hotels which subsequently closed down. Practically nobody was fishing the river, and practically nothing was being caught.
In the 1990s, the Dunoon Angling Club purchased the fishing on part of the river, and one of their members, Colin Macdonald soon after the millennium, started to catch some sea trout and salmon in the river to use as brood stock for hatching eggs, and then restocking the river with the fry. As a general rule, migratory fish [salmon and sea trout] will always return to spawn in the river in which they themselves were spawned so restocking will only work if one uses fish caught from that river. Between 2005 and 2011, as a result of Colin’s work, about 75,000 sea trout fry and 60,000 salmon fry from fish caught in the Ruel were introduced to the river. It is generally thought, certainly for salmon, that only a very small proportion of fry [not more perhaps than one in a thousand] will survive their journey back to sea from the river, their two or three years migration to the Greenland feeding grounds, and their return as adult fish to where they were spawned. Sea trout numbers returning are probably rather better because sea trout do not normally go very far into the sea from their place of origin and return much more quickly, but by remaining fairly close to shore, they have the constant battle of contending with sealice nearby fishfarms offshore.
However the good news is that in 2012, the last fishfarm in Loch Riddon closed down, and netting of young fish in Loch Riddon in June 2013 have shown greatly reduced numbers of sealice. There is no doubt that over the last few years, there have been increasing numbers of both salmon and sea trout returning to the Ruel.
In addition, with the help of the Argyll Fisheries Trust, surveys have been carried out on the river designed to recommend ways in which the habitat for the river can be improved for spawning purposes and also to help reduce the amount of erosion of the river bank which is causing increased flooding and problems for the farmers.
The Ruel will probably never come back to the level of catches of 50 years ago, but more people are fishing it now, and fishing can easily be arranged on the river at very small expense either through talking to Colin Macdonald or Andrew Barker, or by going on to a website called Fishpal or by joining the Dunoon Angling Club. Most people fishing the river now like to catch their fish, take a photo maybe, and then return it to the river unharmed so that it can go on to spawn. As a rule of thumb, a hen salmon will produce 1000 eggs for every pound that she weighs, so a 10 pound fish might produce 10,000 eggs. If one in each thousand eggs turns into a fish returning to the river, by operating a catch and release policy, hopefully returning to the river a 10lb hen fish will mean 10 extra salmon coming back in 3 or more years time.
The Ruel is a wonderful potential asset to the Glen and the more that we can all do to improve the quality of the fishing and the enjoyment of people fishing it, the better. Recent prospects and signs are very encouraging, and more than 50 years after that first salmon caught above Dunans, I myself have caught over the last two years 12 salmon and about 50 sea trout from the river. I would love other people to experience as much fun as I have had from the ‘little gem’ flowing through the Glen.