Some rivers announce themselves grandly – approach the Spey or the Yellowstone, and you can be overwhelmed. Other rivers are more carefully hidden. You drive down a single-lane road past low stone walls, and just when you think you’re lost you arrive at a small wooden bridge and look down and it’s stunning. 

Turn the wrong direction, however, and you could easily miss it. That’s the case with the River Carron, which flows narrowly between dramatic rocky banks and over falls, before winding easily through meadows. The Carron runs through the grounds of the Glencalvie Estate, which is spread across more than 20,000 acres in the Highlands about an hour north-west of Inverness. The house itself is well-worn and grey, with turrets; large enough to get lost in without being ostentatious. The décor is reassuringly Scottish: tartan on tartan, taxidermy beside taxidermy, plenty of fireplaces. The estate was once owned by a Lea & Perrins heir, whose Worcestershire Sauce has improved generations of Bloody Marys. This bodes well for our chances, though starting a fishing day with a Bloody Mary might be too much of a good thing.

The River Carron flows through the Glencalvie Estate in the Scottish Highlands
The River Carron flows through the Glencalvie Estate in the Scottish Highlands © James Harvey Kelly
A selection of salmon flies
A selection of salmon flies © James Harvey Kelly

I’m here with my friend James, whose photographs grace these pages. We share a love of eating and drinking, perhaps more than we should. James, however, leaves the fishing to me. Anglers pass through a walled garden and down quiet paths beneath alder trees – all very peaceful. Along the river are wooden walkways with steep staircases down to the bank. This retreat feels transporting, and yet we’re courting heartbreak. Few pursuits veer closer to failure than salmon fishing. Atlantic salmon anglers are on intimate terms with the fine line that separates good luck from failure. When we catch a salmon, we credit our skill; when we don’t, well, blame the bad timing. 

Despite the long odds, we’re determined to connect with the fish known as the “silver king”. And the Atlantic salmon really is one of the world’s great creatures. Imagine (cue David Attenborough’s sonorous intonations): this noble fish has existed for millions of years. The salmon starts its life in a river before heading out to sea, where it eats well, grows large, turns silver. Then it returns to its home river, sometimes after a journey of thousands of miles. The fish amass at the river’s mouth, which is reassuring somehow, in its momentous trajectory. When the water reaches a certain level, they all swim upriver to spawn and continue a line that is, it’s no exaggeration to say, ancient.  

Highland cattle venture into the river
Highland cattle venture into the river © James Harvey Kelly
The entrance hall at Glencalvie Estate
The entrance hall at Glencalvie Estate © James Harvey Kelly
The dining room at Glencalvie
The dining room at Glencalvie © James Harvey Kelly

Planning a salmon trip requires expertise and access. So I consulted with Mungo Ingleby, director of Ossian Sporting Lets, which connects sportsmen and women to Scottish estates where they can pursue fish and game in storied settings. Mungo has forgotten more about fishing than I’ll ever know, so I take his counsel seriously. He instils optimism in anglers who travel great distances hoping to catch a salmon. And in the dreaded aftermath of a lost fish or, perish the thought, no fish, he’s there to temper the grief. 

Expert number two is another friend, Ruaridh – a Scotsman, salmon devotee and FT Weekend contributor who resides in Havana (what a life!). Ruaridh knows this stretch of the Carron well (coincidentally, his brother is scheduled to be fishing the same water right after we departed). Ruaridh cautions us against getting too hopeful with our dates, though I can’t tell if he’s just bitter that he’s not here. 

For weeks, I have been assessing the Carron’s conditions, like a general preparing for battle. I want the river to rise. The fish will wait to swim until there’s enough water; if there’s not enough, we’re out of luck. I think of a beloved Cure song, “Prayers for Rain”, and look longingly at the clouds in the sky. Presumably Robert Smith is not a passionate angler (though you never can tell; a surprising number of British musicians turn to angling in their golden years). 

The author relaxes back at the house
The author relaxes back at the house © James Harvey Kelly
The author fishes with Jim the ghillie
The author fishes with Jim the ghillie © James Harvey Kelly

But if the water doesn’t go up, all is not lost. A salmon trip remains a wonderful institution, especially if it becomes an annual tradition. You book your dates and hope nobody needs to get their hip replaced or has a reversal in their market position. Then you put your fate in the hands of the angling gods.

We start our first morning with a full Scottish breakfast. “Haggis really is surprisingly light,” James, an Englishman, opines, while the Yanks tread more gingerly. In the riverside hut we put on our waders, prepare our rods and have a strong cup of tea. Later in the day these wonderful huts may also be the setting for a fortifying dram (though for some salmon anglers “later in the day” arrives quite early).

We meet our ghillies, Erin and Jim, both clad in tweed and offering expertise and moral support.

Jim waits with the net
Jim waits with the net © James Harvey Kelly
The “reassuringly Scottish” interiors at Glencalvie
The “reassuringly Scottish” interiors at Glencalvie © James Harvey Kelly

We avoid voicing the question on everybody’s mind: “Are there fish in the river?” The salmon is known as the fish of 1,000 casts, though Jim – kind-eyed, with a wry sense of humour – says the salmon is really the fish of 10,000 casts. That’s patience multiplied by more patience. You hold out hope for the elusive “knock” – a slow, sustained pull that means the salmon has, at long last, struck; he’s put “his wee lips around your fly”, in Jim’s memorable turn of phrase. 

Anglers use long, double-handed rods and a technique that allows us to cast great distances. Instead of the back and forth cast on a trout stream, it’s a sweeping motion with a concise flick that sends the fly line far across the water. Though the Carron is narrow in parts, the principle remains. Jim points toward “soft water” next to the current. “A fish would sure like to rest there,” he offers. After a few swings past the spot, we move down. The water is the only sound we hear. Though we’re having no luck, being on this river is its own reward. 

Scottish weather imposes starkly different moods on the landscape, delivering cheerful sun suggesting the arrival of spring, then veering to dark grey clouds that deepen the broodiness of the banks. Within those shifts, salmon fishing unfolds in its own rhythm. It doesn’t exist in a moment; it unwinds over hours and days. You cast and let your fly swing the pool. Then you step down a few feet and do it again. How many times do you repeat this? Enough that you stop counting. If it sounds oppressive then perhaps salmon fishing is not for you.

I keep my phone off while I’m on the water, but back at the house, messages are waiting for me. Mungo hopes we have enough water. Ruaridh weighs in from Cuba: “Your chances shouldn’t be too bad.” I’m not sure if this is meant to be reassuring. On the last day, still with no fish, we pull on our waders. Despite a forecast for rain, the river hasn’t risen. “Whose idea was this again?” I ask. Jim takes me to the Morail beat, where he reckons we have the best chance. No luck. Morale is low even as the scenery continues to thrill. A light rain arrives – the rain we’ve been begging for. But it comes too late for us.

The author fishes on the Carron
The author fishes on the Carron © James Harvey Kelly
Glencalvie Estate Benriach 12-year-old single malt whisky
Glencalvie Estate Benriach 12-year-old single malt whisky © James Harvey Kelly
The author (right) and Erin the ghillie walk along the Carron
The author (right) and Erin the ghillie walk along the Carron © James Harvey Kelly

Perhaps you’ve noticed the absence of fish photos accompanying this story. It’s true that I caught no fish on the River Carron. This has happened to me before. Many times, in fact. I recall that Charles Ritz, the hotel heir and salmon devotee, supposedly said that he never accepted an invitation to fish for less than a month. That was the amount of time required for good salmon fishing. Few of us have that much time, or those grand friends to host us. As we’re packing up, there’s a comical moment where I consider all the flies and lines and rods and reels – everything I acquired when success was still a dream. That’s all right. Fly fishing, like everything worth doing, isn’t easy.

Our last night we sit by the fire drinking Benriach. There’s something very welcome about drinking a Scotch only a few miles from where it was distilled. A salmon would make the celebration sweeter; but we take a broader view of fishing. You’re with your friends in a beautiful place, away from the world moving in its relentless real time.

As we’re sitting on the runway in Edinburgh, Ruaridh sends a photo of his brother catching a gleaming salmon in the exact water we had fished the day before. As the plane speeds down the runway, I realise there’s probably a lesson in there about the importance of timing and good fortune. I try to decide whether I’ve learned it. 

David Coggins and James Harvey-Kelly were guests of the Glencalvie Estate. The Believer: A Year in the Fly Fishing Life by David Coggins is available on

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