Colin Simpson, ghillie and fly tyer.
Now that the 2014 season is behind us and I don’t have the fishing report to share every week, I thought it would be interesting to explore other aspects of life in and around the Dee. We have a rich angling heritage on Deeside; from the creation of salmon flies and fishing tackle, to the pioneering work of Mr Wood at Cairnton, the Dee has a long and proud history of contributing to the development of angling. To kick things off I met Colin Simpson recently to discuss flies and tactics for the river. Colin is the ghillie at Lower Blackhall and Kinneskie where he has been since 1985.
Colin is a modest man, but as a fly tyer he has earned a reputation as one of the very best in the world; at one time he had a four year waiting list for his flies. He is now retired from tying and his flies are now collectors’ items. That is hardly surprising given his pedigree. He was schooled in the art of classic salmon flies by the legendary Megan Boyd MBE; Colin served a four year apprenticeship under Megan, who is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in Scottish fly tying. Each year Colin receives many letters from collectors asking him to authenticate Megan’s flies, which are regularly sold for up to £800 each. Colin appears in a documentary about Megan’s life, Kiss the Water. It’s a fascinating and touching film. The DVD is available on Amazon, and I thoroughly recommend it.
It was in the late 1960s, when barely a teenager, Colin sold his air rifle, bought a ticket and put himself on a train in Aberdeen and made his way north to Brora, where he presented himself to Megan. This was the beginning of a close friendship which lasted until Megan’s passing in 2001. Colin stayed with Megan for a week and began to learn the importance of technique and the need for exacting standards, something clearly important to him to this day.
His apprenticeship under Megan, who was a perfectionist, involved regular correspondence where by Colin would tie tags or tails for several months and send them to Brora for critique, which was always rigorous. Colin learned he had finally ‘graduated’ when he asked Megan if he could buy flies from her, to which she answered, ‘No, you can do it yourself now.’
“ I began by learning the stages”, says Colin. “ I spent three months tying tags only. I spent a month each on tails, butt and bodies. It was over three years before I finished a fly for Megan, and once it has passed inspection I cut it cut up and recycled the hook and the process began again. We are losing these skills; I don’t think the same time is invested in learning them.”
Colin’s father Alex, himself an important figure is classic salmon fly tying, has a truly remarkable collection of classic salmon fly patterns. Over a fifty year period Alex, who will be 90 next spring, has compiled tens of thousands of these wonderful patterns. When I joined Colin last week at the Lower Blackhall hut, he brought along one of Alex’s pattern books- a large ledger style book, which contains 500 pages of carefully hand written patterns. There were, on average six patterns per page, which equates to around 3000 patterns in that one book alone. There are a few of these books and thousands upon thousands of pieces of paper with patterns that have still to be compiled. In addition Coin and Alex have a collection of about 170,000 salmon flies. Together they have amassed one of the greatest and most important collections of classic salmon flies and patterns in the world.
Colin has spent over 30 years as a ghillie on the Dee and has accumulated a vast knowledge about the river and how to fish it. Having caught many fish and tied countless flies, today Colin takes most pleasure from seeing others enjoying the Dee; seeing a first fish landed is his greatest enjoyment on the river. Colin is a great believer in controlling the fly as it moves across the current; the Dee is well known for fishing small flies once the water warms and fishing them correctly takes practice. As a ghillie Colin supports his rods by coaching them in the art of presentation: adjusting casting angles; using mending to speed up and slow down the fly, always thinking about where the fly is in the pool and how it is behaving. Over many years Colin and other long serving Dee ghillies have developed a deep understanding of the different moods of the river, especially the ever changing variables of water temperature and water height and their effect on the pools and how they fish. Colin knows which pools fish best under certain conditions and his guests can always be sure that he will give them the best chance of hooking a salmon.
Thanks to Colin for giving me some of his time, tea and rowies. I will be back to pester him for more!
For more on the Dee and her excellent ghillies reader might be interested in ‘A Portrait of the River Dee’ by Mel Shand. It is a beautiful and entertaining book full of photographs, lively text, warmth and humour. Part of profits from the book go to the River Dee Trust. See http://www.melshand.com/
If readers are interested in exploring the history of fly tying and fishing tackle manufacture in and around Deeside, look no further than see Colin Innes excellent website http://www.feathersfliesandphantoms.co.uk