Upper Avon salmon spawning

Next year we will be electrofishing the Avon so I was interested in the number of redds in the upper reaches. We set off early this morning to rendezvous with the keeper for access through the estate gate. It was a foggy start at Knockando but by Tomintoul it has cleared and it was a cracking day. It is a long drive to the end of the road (one hour in 4 wheel drive) but well worth it for the scenery which is stunning. We saw the eagle take off and fly round the ridge where it was waiting on a rock keeping a beady eye on us. It was hundreds of yards away, just a speck on a rock against the skyline but my camera has a fantastic zoom.

Ever had the feeling you were being watched?

On the way up we were discussing what we expected to find. My hopes were limited, one pair of salmon or a redd and I would be happy, but it turned out a lot better than that.

The Avon is still a big river at Faindouran, 20-30m wide where we started at just below 600m altitude, climbing to 620m. The weather couldn’t have been better, still, mild and bright although the sun soon disappeared behind thin cloud, providing ideal conditions for redd counting. Just where we parked Steve crossed the river to walk up the south side disturbing a fish on the way. A good start, a pair of fish within 50m of the bothy. No sign of a redd in the immediate vicinity but it wasn’t long before we started seeing fresh redds.

Good redd close into the left hand bank.

The redds were much easier to spot than we thought, there was a cover of algae on the undisturbed substrate making freshly cut redds highly visible. Just opposite the redd above Steve came across one in a shallow glide.

Salmon redd in glide

I’ve spent a lot of time watching salmon redds over the years but we found one further up which looked as if it was made by a digger. The pit was about 1 foot deep and some of the cobbles that had been shifted were 6″ diameter. The fish we did see were mostly small salmon/grilse but whatever made this mega redd must have been substantial.

The photo doesn’t do it justice but this was one massive redd

We covered 3km of the upper Avon spotting about 25 redds or so. As stated earlier this was more than expected. 10 redds/km would give an egg deposition rate of about 2/m2 which isn’t too bad. We will be electrofishing up here next summer and I now expect to find fry, although they have been thin on the ground during previous surveys. Even a low density of juveniles in such a big wide river can mean a reasonable smolt output; there may be more production up here than we thought.

We stopped at about 620m altitude (over 2000ft) and just where we stopped there was a small redd midstream. How much further do they go? It is only 4.5km to Loch Avon, could they spawn that high up? That trip will have to wait for another year. At 2000ft these are some of the highest spawning salmon in Scotland, I know of only one other place where they spawn at higher altitude – the Dulnain where we have found salmon fry at 640m.

Small redd midstream, what lies beyond?

The juniper was pretty stunted up there, little more than groundcover compared to the 8ft high bushes seen further down.

Stunted juniper plants

Mission accomplished we had a look in the Burn of Loin on the way home. At 500m+ this was practically a lowland burn. The redd density was much higher here compared to the upper Avon, most looked like sea trout redds but a dead cock salmon further up showed salmon were spawning also.

Redd in the Burn of Loin

We came across this dead cock salmon. Looks like an otter kill with only the guts eaten.

The Loin supports a high juvenile fish density, the habitat is good but there must be some better geology in the area to create such a productive high altitude burn.

Three redds in this photo. The nearest must have been made in high water as the crest was exposed. Second redd is in the centre of the pool tail and the third in the distance in amongst thick weed growth

On the way back to the pickup we found some watervole burrows in an old side channel.

Water vole burrow just above the water line. Lots of rush clippings (favoured food) lying about the entrance

It was encouraging to see reasonable numbers of redds in the very margins of Spey salmon habitat in a year with an apparent low stock of adult fish in the river. Fish this high up are almost certainly spring/early summer salmon and grilse (the falls below will stop any late running gravid fish). The late season grilse were notable by their absence this year but there did appear to be a reasonable early run of small grilse (if you can call the first half of July early). I saw one small fish on the redds today that was about 2lb size; just shows the importance of these early grilse for populating the upper reaches.

There endeth another great day out (best job in the world this!).On the way home we stopped at the Linn of Avon. There were a few fish half-heartly jumping at the falls but what a stunning spot.

Waterfall perfection

We will be doing a lot of redd counting across the river in the next few weeks so if anyone is wanting to assist please get in touch at b.shaw@speyfisheryboard.com

 

 

 

There are 6 comments for this article
  1. Ross at 3:42 pm

    Brian,

    I have sometimes been hillwalking/cycling in the area you describe above and have observed the salmon spawning in the area of the Linn of Avon.

    If you wait a bit later in the month of November the amount of spawning salmon and redds will increase i.e. a bit early for the peak of spawning activity? I can supply dates and some photos from previous years if you are interested.

    Ross.

    • Brian Shaw Author at 4:39 pm

      Hi Ross,

      Thanks for the info. Our visit to the upper Avon was for info rather than a formal redd count and appreciate that there will be more spawning to occur. It was good to see spawning activity at such an early date. I’m sure that the rain and mild weather forecast this week will bring more fish onto the redds. I’d be grateful for photos and dates b.shaw@speyfisheryboard.com. Much obliged.

      Brian Shaw

  2. Anthony Tinsley at 3:54 pm

    Speaking as a recently retired member of the Board and former Chairman of the Spey Research Trust (now the Spey Foundation), I think Brian is doing an excellent job and critics would do better to read and understand his presentations before commenting.

    Unfortunately virtually the entire cause of the ‘problem’ is what is happening in the marine phase of the salmon lifecycle, probably due to global warming. Our smolt traps have shown over several years that the Spey is producing about as many smolts as it could be expected to do. Therefore there is little wrong in the freshwater phase.

    Added to this we have the more recent information from the genetics work that the hatcheries have only been producing 0.5% of the catch for a cost of £125,000 per year of the proprietors’ money, a figure quoted by the current Chairman in the past.

    To date since we have known this, the proprietors have already wasted some £250,000 or more.

    I do not wish to suggest that all the savings from mothballing the hatcheries should go back to the proprietors. Some should go into habitat work, which may have been responsible for some of the Tweed uplift. Some should go to the Atlantic Salmon Trusts Salsea projects trying to find out causes of marine mortality.

    It is possible that in due course the genetics work might identify elements of the Spey population that are doing rather better than others in the marine phase, i.e. better return rates. If and when this is discovered there might be some renewed justification for some stocking using this sub stock, but I would not wish to hang my hat on it being discovered.

  3. Stuart Brabbs at 3:27 pm

    You are a lucky man having the best job in the World. It is far easier to pick these redds out than you were used to in peaty Ayrshire rivers but that I suppose honed your skills!

  4. Peter Spence at 10:43 am

    I read your blog with interest ref your visit to the upper Avon. It so happened that I was having dinner with Sir Seton Wills last night, the owner of Inchory in the v early 60,s.The old days inevitably came up,talk of the river full of fish,yearly catches of 400 no trouble at all,with few rods. I even managed one August day to catch 14 salmon following a spate,between 11am and 2pm on my 8.6ft trout rod returning all but one, I also caught a fish on the same rod just up stream of Fiandouran.Our observations over these productive years was that the majority of the spawning took place in the main stem. The river was simply alive with spawning fish when we were up stalking, (many do not believe us) but it,s true. So what has happened up there? Water quality? climate change? something fundimental has changed. Your observations ref the Loin Burn are correct ,it was always a seatrout spawning area with v few salmon even in those days.And for some reason the Builg had v few fish of any sort entering it ; why? All the v best with your efforts in restoring the R. Spey to it,s position at the top.

    • Brian Shaw Author at 6:36 pm

      Thank you very much for your reply and observations Peter. I doubt if that much has changed with regard to the habitat in the upper Avon; aside from the higher gradient sections it is almost universally good parr habitat. Marine survival and returns of early running fish have certainly declined and that will impact adult fish numbers. In recent years catches have been well down on the figures you quote but reasonable numbers of fish are still caught in the middle/upper Avon with very light fishing pressure nowadays.

      Have you any thoughts on the upper limit of spawning in the Avon?

      On the same day we walked for one mile along the Builg from the bridge upstream spotting about 15 redds, mostly salmon we thought. There were several single cock salmon in the burn perhaps indicating the burst of salmon spawning was over. There is very mobile gravel in the Builg, I wouldn’t like to try and count redds there after a spate. The Allt Gaineimh has obviously been dumping a huge volume of rocks/gravel into the Builg for years swamping the channel in the middle reaches. The habitat looked better above the confluence but we didn’t have enough time to walk up to the loch, that pleasure will have to wait for another day.

      Brian Shaw

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