Big trips

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Two seasons past I found myself driving north. It was late August, the tail end of the fishing year, and with each hour the sun traced a lower path in the southwestern sky. Passing through Fife, then Perthshire, Highland and beyond, the fields were studded with farmer’s bales, each casting a long shadow over the stubs of harvested wheat. This east road gathers light from the across the width of Scotland, before it pours out over the North Sea. The sea air seems to give it an electric quality in late summer and early autumn, which far exceeds any chemical stimulant in exciting the traveling fisherman as he drives north.

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The road traces along the western edge of the Cairngorm mountains. Dropping down into Aviemore, they rear up behind the town in Tolklein glory, frequently bathed in swirling cloud that rolls blue and grey in the afternoon light. Their remarkable character is tempting to the hillwalker inside, but today is not for the hills. It’s for the north, for the big sky and for the lochs.

The road meanders west then northeast before a long descent into Inverness. Even here, we’re not in the north. Not the real north. Pushing the throttle to the floor, the Moray Firth becomes a shrinking silver sliver in the rear view mirror. From here the road opens up into one of the most wonderful drives in eastern Scotland. It pushes east, then north along the sea’s edge. Up and down it meanders, each new crest revealing the wall of coast stretching away into the distance.

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What I remember most was the light. By the time I reached this final northern corner of Britain it was streaming across the green rolling fields on my left, and warming my cheek. Good light makes any day interesting. When you’re driving north to go fishing, fishing for a week, fishing to live and living to fish, it lifts one’s spirit to a rare new height, one I never even glimpse down in the city. A completely open road, a completely open window, the sea on my right and warm golden light on my left. In my car, music. The Blue Nile, perhaps the greatest ever Scottish band. Every time I put on one of their CD’s, I’m instantly back on that northern road, and the magic light is back on my face.

The fishing towns of Brora and Helmsdale lie far to the north of Edinburgh, but still they’re south of my destination. There are some famous salmon rivers up here, the Helmsdale is certainly one of them, and I stopped several times to gaze down into their peaty waters. Helmsdale is a lovely wee place, particularly when the sun streams across the bridge as you drive over. Thank the Lord for no parking meters up here, no checking over my back for the yellow-clad gentleman looking to catch me out. I’m sure the parking police have an important job to do in the city, but it doesn’t stop me being delighted at my new-found northern freedom.

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It was warm, I wore a T-shirt and my official fishing trousers. It may make me simple, but I love to have specific clothes for fishing and walking. When I pull on my crappy old army combat trousers, bought for a tenner down on Leith Walk, I undergo an instant mental transformation into fishing mode. Suddenly I can smell the air more subtly, see deeper into water, feel every contour of the earth under my feet. City-boy-goes-outdoors romanticism I’ll readily grant, but let me have my moment.

The hour was pushing eight-o-clock and there were still fifty miles to go. The light began to redden, and the chill of the wind through my open window began to question the manliness of the silly city-boy. I put on the next album in line, and smiled a big happy smile at its glorious atmosphere of beautiful vocals, wash-walls of synths and admittedly cheesy 80’s drum beats.

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By this time memories of the previous year’s glory were flooding back. My pulse was thudding in my neck, my hands tapping on the wheel and inside I was gigglingly excited. It was a wise human who once commented on the superiority of traveling with hope than actually arriving.

Eventually I turned the car left off the main road, and struck out through the heathered moorland. Within five minutes the visibility was 150 feet. Thick evening fog was pouring from west to east across the open hill land, totally enveloping my road and vision, and instantly putting an end to the magic-light induced euphoria of the past few hours.

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I passed dozens of deserted old farmhouses, each sitting quietly in the thickening gloom, and each a monument to a time past before I was born. I find their desolation to be oddly warming, almost enticing. Perhaps it’s my imagination at work, running away with the stories I imagine they might have to tell. The way they all sit there, staring blankly at each other and at the hills. It’s like someone slapped them on the face and they’re still sitting up in shock.

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I was now close to what would be home for the week. I drove up over one of the last long climbs, and pulled the car over for a toilet stop. Through the gathering gloaming, dozens of giant wind turbines throbbed. In the dense fog it was a surreal experience. Each turbine made a slight swishing sound as the rotor blades sliced through the air. The heavy atmosphere damped the sound a little, leaving the most bizzare effect, a sound not far from a chorus of far-off human groans. Stopped there, I knew I was close to a wonderful trout loch. I imagined being stuck out on a boat in the middle of the loch, a couple of dry flies on my leader, surrounded by deathly groaning from the turbines beyond the fringing forest.

Ten minutes later and I was sipping a cup of streaming, milky tea. An electric fire burned orange in the corner of the static caravan, and my sleeping bag lay sprawled out on the floor. Tomorrow would be for fishing.

Nine days of fishing. For anyone less than a guide or a professional trout bum, it’s a good stretch. For the first few days it’s a novelty, then it begins to feel strangely normal. Casting becomes more natural, presentation more consistent, fly choice oddly instinctive. It’s almost like finding an activity that draws on all one’s spirit, slowly moulding everything together to fit some kind of focussed purpose. When a ‘normal’ day involves nine hours at a desk, it’s a deeply satisfying purpose to feel, even if it lasts just a few days.

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The North is really about the lochs. There are thousands of them, scattered all across the land and each one with a particular character. It’s probably a good analogy to imagine the landscape as a giant bowl of curry. There are endless chunks of onion (the ‘typical’ lochs), punctuated by the occasional tomato (the ‘better’ lochs), and the odd rare and prized piece of tender lamb (the ‘special’ lochs). As with curry, it’s no use having just one ingredient: variety is truly the spice of life and the huge variety of Scottish lochs provides hope for a lifetime of interesting fishing. Lochs brim-full with pretty wee brownies desperate to eat a fly are sometimes exactly what is called for after a day fruitlessly chasing after the tenderest lamb. But on the days when the butcher is kind, a lifelong memory can be found in the glistening bronze flank of a 2lb belter. It’s all in the mix.
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“We are the dollars and cents and the pounds and pence”. (TY)

Probably a thousand quid of rods and narry a fish. April on Tay.
Beautiful.

It’s been difficult to reach the heights of our northern trip in the last few weeks. In fact the fishing has been at best difficult, and at worst useless. I’ve found myself on some usual haunts, as well as a couple of new ones. But the running theme has been one of dour days and precious few fish.


The weather has been unseasonably warm, but it seems the fish just don’t look out for sunglasses weather when it comes time to think about getting it on. Despite all things it has really begun to feel like the clouds of another season are beginning to be blown away. It’s a funny feeling really, because while I feel sad to know the season will soon pass, I also know that there have been some great moments that can only ripen in the memory. All that is needed is a winter break to focus the mind anew and bring the excitement of a fresh spring.


Ealier in September we took a wee jaunt up to Perthshire to fish a couple of rivers for a weekend. It coincided with a family celebration (no coincidence) so of course fishing had to be a major feature. The first afternoon was hot and bright, and we struggled away on a lovely little stream full of pocket water and banked by old Scots woodland. A couple of small trout provided minor breaks in the blanking, but this was perhaps a day for enjoying some of the other distractions of a highland stream.


The next day we headed off to a much larger river, and managed to time things pretty well. Soon after arriving some trout started to feed on a small hatch of late olives. We took a few pretty fish to the usual patterns, DHE and a little dun creation of mine that’s been doing quite well this season. A little voice in my head suggested that this might have been the last worthwhile rise of the season. Little voices are often right.


In some ways loch fishing in Scotland is like finding a good plumber: it’s a lot easier if you know where to look. Next best thing is to know what to look for, and for loch fishing it’s pretty common for the best, most productive lochs to be quite shallow. For plumbers, well I don’t really have a clue..


In the far North there are plenty of lochs that fit this description. What makes things really happen though is some of the geology. It’s limey. As in the limescale on my kettle. Which is good, at least for bugs like freshwater shrimp:


Trout that eat lots of shrimp tend to be more sophisticated, discerning creatures, appreciating a nice bottle of Rioja with their supper. It’s the wine that makes their flesh pink and tasty. We don’t kill a lot of fish to be honest, but just had to try these famous Northern beauties, and we weren’t dissapointed. The fish below was actually returned, but gives a good impression of the superb condition of many of the trout. Prettier and healthier fish you will be hard pressed to find.


Buzzers apparently feature a lot on some of the Northern lochs, and on some evenings they certainly made a big showing, managing to get all over your face and in places you never imagined possible..

We fished a whole bunch of lochs on our trip, catching in almost every one. There was occasionally the tantalising prospect of some daddy longlegs action, but they never really got going properly whilst we were up. Nonetheless there was one lovely afternoon when I caught a nice handful to a daddy pattern I ‘invented’ the night before. It maybe wasn’t as pretty as some I’ve seen but it was effective. Let’s just say it involved a lot of polypropylene yarn and half a hare’s mask.


The fish in this loch were a good bit darker than some of the others we’d been catching, but were fantastic as well. I’d never caught on daddy’s before, and it was an amazing sight as fish confindently gulped down the fly. I found a nice bay and carefully wading down into it, casting across the wind and letting the flies drift downwind, like fishing traditional wet flies on a river. At one stage I saw a daddy fly past the line and clumsily hit the water. As it tried to get airborne again I made a bet with myself that it would get eaten, and sure enough, a few seconds later there was a big swirl and the Big Daddy was a gonner.


There was one particularly engaging loch we fished a couple of times. This loch was right near the sea, providing an extra thrill to the whole experience. The first day we were down we ran smack bang into the middle of a nice olive hatch. The old DHE did some nice work for us as usual, cast to rising trout. We found a few larger fish but couldn’t get near without spooking, as it was very calm and the wading was fun. In the evening the big rise we were hoping for didn’t really come, but it was a great place to watch the sun and sky and catch the odd brownie.



Fishing for two weeks is a bit strange for folks normally doing so only once or twice a week. At first you find yourself thinking it’s great, but you know it’s only for a wee while so make the most of it. But then I found I just stopped thinking about it, and just fished and fished, like it’s what I was designed to do. You get up, schmooze on some brekkie and decide which loch to head for. And the next day. And the next. A great feeling.

Not surprisingly you also find yourself getting noticably better at the whole shubang. Not just the casting, but reading the conditions, choosing the presentation. It feels like the more you fish the more you manage to unblock the sink that’s keeping your fishing a drip-drap instead of a gurgling rush! By the end of the trip I think we both felt like we’d reached a better level in this kind of fishing, which is great.

Need to go for longer next time..

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