My first experience with the beat system was one following a non-stop flight from Sea-Tac to Heathrow, followed by three sleepless nights in London, a short flight to Edinburgh, and the longest one-hour car ride of my life before stepping into the famous River Tay. At this point of my travels, I had only a few hours of sleep at best and the jetlag was in full effect. I can clearly remember the expression on the Ghillie’s face as I introduced myself, I must have looked like I was coming off of something good.
Ghillies are just as unique as the beat system itself. You can consider them gamekeeper of the property, your guide, and a personal caddie. Many Ghillies have worked the same beat for upwards of 30 years and no one knows the beat better than them. Our Ghillie was Andy and he was in charge of the Newtyle beat on the River Tay just outside of Perth. After a proper introduction and a few cups of coffee, I began to wader-up and get my gear together. Andy noticed the bright blue color of my Skagit head and told me “not on my beat,” so I was forced to dig out my Scandi head. Personally, I enjoy the touch and go style of casting but being in my current state I figured the Skagit head would have been the safer bet. You have to keep in mind salmon fishing in Scotland is very traditional which means long rods and even longer belly lines.
Having the Ghillie approved setup now, I was given instructions to start fishing the run just below the shack. I was unsure if Andy placed me in this run because he felt this was the best chance for me to connect with a fish or if he just wanted front row seating to watch me flail in my jetlagged state. Trying to prevent embarrassment I asked Andy where he would like me to start in the run and where to finish. He pointed at the freshly mowed walkway with stairs leading into the water and told me “we put stairs there for a reason, fish it down to the next set of stairs.” Not only did I manage to embarrass myself with an obvious question, but I also came to the realization that this wasn’t going to be a day of two handed fishing like what I was used to back in the States.
Fishing in Scotland was like playing a round of golf at a private country club, the banks were manicured and you had your tee time with plenty of buffer space between groups. Whereas back home I would compare it to playing the muni course. On the beat system, you own that stretch of water for the day. You don’t have to wake up two hours before sunrise just to get a spot and no one will float into your run or low-hole you. There’s a Ghillie to guide you, a place to keep stuff dry, and plenty of hot coffee to keep you going. Back home, a day on the water during prime time is more like the muni course and can be a chaotic mess. This might come across as unattainable for most anglers but many beat costs are less than what a guide will charge for a day float. As always our day came quickly to an end and after our goodbyes we were off to our hotel for the night and by hotel I mean the east wing of the Meikleour Estate.
After a much needed night of sleep, I found myself in front of the Ghillie shack on the Meikleour beat introducing myself to Callum, the head Ghillie for this beat. The first thing I noticed that morning was the date on which the Ghillie shack was built, 1776. Anglers have been stepping into this run, pursuing these fish before the first Europeans set foot on North American soil. My day ended like many of my day’s two-handed fishing end, fishless. After a few days of making countless casts and swinging the fly in a way that was approved by the different Ghillies of the different beats. I came to the realization that I was quick to notice the differences between here and home, but was slow to notice the similarities. The cast and the grab, these things are what drives the two-handed angler to invest a portion of their life on the water, well knowing that most days will result without a fish.