Willie Gunn gave his name to one of the most successful patterns of Scottish salmon fly ever devised, the fame of which has spread throughout the world. Today, salmon anglers would consider themselves to be improperly dressed were they to appear on the river bank without at least one Willie Gunn in their fly box.
The pattern was designed to imitate a hair-wing version of a fully dressed Thunder & Lightning and the originator of the design was an RAF officer, Flt-Lt "Dusty" Miller, who was based at Kinloss in Morayshire. Miller dressed salmon flies for another famous Scottish salmon angler, Rob Wilson, of Brora, and the two men were anxious to rationalise the large number of hair-wing patterns which were then (in the late 1940s) beginning to appear in an ever-increasing range of shapes and sizes.
Miller produced 25 patterns which he sent to Wilson for his comment and approval. Wilson was examining the newly-arrived flies in his shop one morning when Willie Gunn called to equip himself with a few patterns for a day's sport on the River Brora: "By gum," Gunn said to Wilson, pointing to one of the flies, "that looks bonny. If I had a choice, that's the one I would use." "Well," said Wilson, "you must have it and we will name the fly the Willie Gunn."
During the course of his day's fishing Gunn caught six salmon on the fly, and on the following day a further four. News of the "miracle" fly quickly spread throughout the north and within a short space of time the fly had established itself as a principal weapon in the salmon angler's armoury.
Willie Gunn was born in the township of Skerray on the wild north coast of Sutherland where his father was a crofter and fisherman. Gunn started work with the Forestry Commission in the Borgie Forest; the first forest to be planted in the north, in 1929. After trying his hand at farming, which he did not like, Gunn found employment as a keeper, gillie and stalker on the Sutherland Estates where he spent the remainder of his working life.
It was whilst Gunn was based at Loch Choire, in Caithness, on the south side of Ben Klibreck, that he caught his first salmon and fell in love with fishing. The salmon was taken from the River Mallart, a tiny tributary of the River Naver, and it weighed 161b. Ever after, Gunn was a confirmed salmon angler. The largest fish he landed was a magnificent specimen of 281b which he caught in the Bengie Pool of the River Brora.
Gunn's salmon fishing technique was based upon precision: he never fished out a bad cast. If the first cast was wrong, he immediately corrected it and began again. He was always more concerned about covering known salmon lies effectively rather than following the ethos of the "chuck-it-and- chance it" brigade.
Gunn was also a good friend and companion: reserved, gentle, courteous and kindly. Generations of salmon anglers began their career under his careful guidance and he was one of the most respected members of the small Highland community in which he lived and worked, always ready to share his wealth of experience with fellow anglers.This is illustrated by a story told by Rob Wilson. Wilson had been given a day on the Brora and when he arrived he noticed Gunn sitting by the stream, apparently without a rod. Wilson fished the pool and then wandered over to speak to Gunn. "Aye, Willie, grand day," said Wilson. Gunn replied politely and then mentioned that Wilson had been fishing the wrong bank; he should have been fishing the south bank, the north bank being reserved that day for Gunn's own use.
On many Highland rivers, to fish someone else's water, inadvertently or not, is nothing other than a hanging offence. Mortified, Wilson asked Gunn why he had not said something before he had started to fish down Gunn's pool: "That would never do," replied Willie, "I did not want to spoil your enjoyment." The matter was never mentioned again.
Gunn's other great passion was motor cars, for latterly he acted as a chauffeur for the Sutherland family. His eyes would sparkle when he recalled the names of the cars he drove over the narrow, twisting roads between Inverness and Golspie: "What lovely cars they were: Lagondas, Rolls Royces, Armstrong Sidleys, BMWs . . ." Gunn claimed he had once driven the route in under an hour, no mean feat in those days.
It is a mark of the regard in which he was held that Willie Gunn's funeral was attended not only by his many friends but also by many who knew of him only by the famous fly to which he gave his name.