fishing (Northern rivers)

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I appear to have lost almost the entirity of the second half of the fishing season. I’ve looked everywhere but can’t find it. It isn’t even in the outdoor cooking equipment drawer like most things that go missing around here. Somehow it really has gone missing, and with the 6th October rapidly approaching something had to be done. A few weeks ago it thus seemed like a good idea to plough all that pent up fishing frustration into a proper expedition, one that would make memories to last more than a few seasons.I trawled through the list of remote lochs on my ‘to do’ list, and finally settled on one of the remotest. The eastern edge of Knoydart, a 16 mile round trip, lots of uphill, two potentially dodgy river crossings and a long walk alongside a hydro-loch of variable height. There was no way to do it in a day, so together with the brother we opted for a three day expedition including two nights of wild camping.

After a Friday evening stopover in Glen Etive on the way north, we found ourselves in Fort William wasting time in outdoor shops, wondering what items might have been forgotten. My propensitiy to be drawn into outdoor gear shops, even when I know I wish to buy nothing, is something I really must address. Terrible consumerism and an unholy waste of time.

My initial purpose was perfectly reasonable. I wanted a lightweight trowel with which to bury the natural waste of eating and walking long distances. Alas the lightest trowel I could find weighed almost as much as the (heavy) trangia I was already carrying. I finally decided that with all the rain the ground was sure to be pliable enough that the camp spoon could be put to a new and interesting use.

To further digress, dare I say to rant, I must recount my conversation with an assistant (that’s a funny word) at one particular camping shop on the high street. After asking him if the shop had any trowels, he looked at me as if I’d just shat on the carpet right there and then, and stated, “We don’t sell things like that here.” I suppose I must have missed the secret method his regular customers no doubt adopt for turding in the wild, perhaps involving standing side on to the breeze and grimacing intently.

A couple of pies later, the venison version of which would go on to help provide a memorable night and bring the camp spoon into earlier use than expected, and we were driving ever north and west through sheets of rain. Every five miles or so the clouds parted as the rain subsided, only for another shower to be met around the next corner. Spirits didn’t flag though, as the always reliable highland weather forecast suggested that Sunday would be better.

We arrived at the parking spot and kitted up. Normally this is a brief affair, but with me around it tends to get somewhat slowed down as camera equipment is strapped on. This time it was further retarded by the fact that somehow 3 days of camping and fishing and walking gear didn’t want to fit into my 45L rucksac. Some emergency discarding helped a bit, but only in combination with wearing all clothes and offloading (ahem) the fishing bag to my kind companion would the lid shut. In my defence I was carrying the tent…

Thus we were on our way. For about 10 minutes. At which point it became immediately obvious that the first river wasn’t going to be crossed without swimming. Much hard staring at the map and an alternative start point was proposed. Back to the car.

Along the way to the revised start point an interesting looking bridge, which is maybe stretching the use of the word, was almost tempting enough to draw us across. But given the state of my balance, and the 80-year old knees located at my leg hinges, we kept going for the last mile up to the top of the road and thus avoided the river altogether.

All this arsing about had cost us another hour of light, which together with the Great Fort William Turd Scoop Debacle (GFWTSD) meant that we were not going to eat into very many miles before sunset. We thus took a more direct route towards our destination, which involved climbing quite steeply up to gain a long ridge, but which saved a couple of miles of low level trudging. Arriving on the ridge we were greeted with one hell of a nice view, including the sight of a sinking sun and beautiful splashes of colour on the surrounding mountains. The tent was quickly errected on the flattest raised spot we could find, which was nonetheless waterlogged.

Meanwhile SP went off to get some cooking water and I whipped out the camera and started photo-spamming. I spend so much of my regular time imagining being in places like that ridge at the right time of day, that to actually be there was really quite wonderful. Clouds danced around the higher summits and occasional patches of whispy mist passed under our feet. It seemed quite unreal that simply by plodding one foot in front of the other you could attain such a location and view. It gave the understanding that there really is no great trickery in the beautiful photos of folk like Colin Prior and Richard Childs, just a lot of trudging and patience (to go along with a healthy dose of skill and technique of course).

With dinner duties finished (it’s always worth taking that block of cheese and French sausage..) we watched the sky deepen through all imaginable shades of blue, until at last a few stars revealed themselves. I took a few long exposure photographs with the camera propped on rocks (the tripod was one of those emergency discarded objects), managing to simulataneously photograph Ursa Major and scratch the hell out of the LCD screen.

Squeezing through the tent door I produced the first suggestion of what the night would hold, but pretended it was just gas released from the bog under the groundsheet. The brother wasn’t buying it, but did decide to join in. Fun fun times in a cramped space. A few generous sips of whisky and off to sleep. I’ll spare the rest of the details.

Read Part II of ‘The Lost Loch’ here.

It’s always nice to go fishing with a couple of pals. It’s even nicer if you’re having a mini-reunion on a favourite stretch of river with a wee band of lads who haven’t fished together for more than a year.

A week or two ago Emanuelle, the Italian DFM (Dry Fly Master), made the trip up to bonny Scotland from jolly Engerland to fish with Alistair and I on a glorious highland river. They made a weekend of it (apparently without anything large and dark in colour) but I could only join them for a day, so bolted up the road one morning, arriving at the permit shop around half nine and just in time for the the olives.

I love the feeling of excitement when you speak to a fishing pal on the phone who’s already on the river. They describe the current conditions, giving a tantalising glimpse of what’s happening, and so setting off an incredible burst of eagerness to finish buying lunch and the day ticket and to get on down to the water. Speed restrictions and road works, especially following such a conversation, never feel as frustrating as when they impede travel to the side of a river…

I pulled my car up as the DFM was stringing up some dodgy Sage belonging to Alistair. Our attention was immediately drawn to the river and the regular rising of several trout. The sky was piercing blue in the morning light. Dropping my gaze down to the mountain fringed horizon and on to the glistening river surface, the view was spectacular. The greedy slurp of a trout in a crinkly little creese just upstream rounded off one of the most soul warming scenes an angler in Scotland could hope to see.

The Italian Sage Swinger was first in the water, and quickly caught a couple of nice brownies on the dry. It must be said at this point that the smile on his face was truly something to behold. I just about caught sight of the end of it as it disappeared over the hill, presumably towards Rome or Milan. Fishing with pals sometimes gives you a chance to share in someone else’s unbridled joy. It sometime gives you the chance to feel the disturbing murmuring of murderous jealousy and rage as well, but on this occasion it was the certainly former.

I got up to the crease and started chucking out the usual fluff. Three nice trout obliged my offer in quick succession, and I began to feel that little surge of self-confidence that comes right before a fall. The fall was twofold: I slightly overbalanced from the ledge I was perched on and almost fell in, and then the next trout didn’t like my flies. I switched to a smaller fly, something with CDC in it (go smaller, smaller…!) and a few casts later it was sucked under and the best trout of the lot came to the net. Still nothing enormous, but the steady action was exactly what was needed after a fairly itty-bitty start to the season.

Around half eleven the hatch trickled off and the trout mooched on down to the pub on the bottom of the river. The stiffening easterly didn’t help matter either, and we began to contemplate a shift of location. This idea was soon firmed up as the (apparently lucid) gentleman salmon angler who had been watching us cast to rising fish decided to switch to his trout rod and wade in to the river about 15 meters above our Italian dry fly hero. We exchanged confused glances that quickly morphed into steely glares as the gentleman requested that we make up his sandwiches and rub sun tan lotion into his neck. (The last sentence may be a slight fudging of reality, but by this time it seemed the laws of normal reality and interpersonal cordiality had long broken down so don’t blame me.)

We bolted off up river to a promising run, but the still-stiffening east hoolie gave us second thoughts as the river was quite exposed. It our collective confusion Alistair and I turned to the Master for ideas, and he suggested a little spot he knew. We arrived at the spot twenty minutes later and bushwacked our way through wild vegetation to reach a point of the river a few hundred yards downstream of where we started.. Of course we bowed to the Master, who certainly knows this river better than I, and we started fishing.

Nothing moved at all, except for the micro-parr that seemed to be suicidally throwing themselves between the rocks at the edge of the water. Even the dark horse streamers didn’t produce anything, so eventually I resorted to a favourite searching pattern and started some casting practice. By some incredible twist of luck I managed to put my fly over a grayling without spooking him, and he enthusiastically grabbed the fly. It’s not really a good time of year to catch grayling, so I got him back as quickly as possible. Interestingly enough he did put up a serious scrap though, despite the obvious sexiness on his mind.

I ended up having a pretty successful day, in conditions that were excellent to start with but which quickly tailed off. Even in May, it seems, the hatches are already concentrating into short spells in the morning. It really payed to be on the river early enough to see flies moving, which is something I must remember for next year.

Enamuelle did pretty well too, despite disgracefully abandoning his dry fly ethics at one stage and opting for the some nymphy abominations. He even caught a fish, and to be honest I can hardly begrudge the man, for it was a great day spent in good company and spirit, with the old Northern master returning to catch again.

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.

So it’s been ages since I posted any fishing trips. It’s not that I haven’t been fishing. On the contrary, I’ve been fishing a lot. I took a psychological blow (!) when my last update crashed after typing for ages (my fault for not backing it up as I went) which together with my craptastic computer have held me back. I have a new computer coming though, so expect much more frequent updates to start soon.

In the meantime, I returned from the second mamoth fishing expedition inside of 2 weeks yesterday. The first one has already had a grand write up which I have a go at myself soon. This latest trip took in a couple of the same rivers, this time accompanied by my fine brother. The plan was to camp and fish and catch. However if there’s one thing I have really learnt about fly fishing, it’s to never ever go fishing with expectations of anything. Just be prepared for whatever happens and be happy to be out there. I try to live by this wee mantra, but I usually end up getting annoyed with myself all the same when I feel I’m particularly cocking up (this is quite often). So all of this to say it wasn’t exactly spectacular fishing wise, but once again it was a fine old trip with much jolity and even some sunburn. And I got plenty time for more bug photos.

The first day we blanked. Lost a couple wee fish, but all in all very quiet. Almost no rises all day, which was quite different to the previous trip. There were gazillions of terrestrials about and even a good few sedges and some olives, but they were never on the water in enough numbers to encourage a proper rise. It was good to see some soldier beetles ambling around. They really look fantastic under a macro lens. I actually have an imitation of this bug in my fly box, though I’ve never used it.

Don’t know what these guys were.. green beetle was as technical as I fancied.

We stayed late but still no rise. Probably the burning sunshine didn’t help much, though it was pretty nice to be out in warm weather for a change. In the end I just opted for the “sit it out” approach. I recommend it highly.

Next two days we were on a nice beat of another highland river. Things got off to a flying start with both of us catching nice fish within half an hour. My my I thought, this could be a cricket score. And here lies another lesson of fly fishing I have learnt. Never count your chickens before they’ve squwawked. Despite another couple of nice fish, I caught nothing for the whole afternoon or evening (or the next day). In truth the river was very quiet, but later on there were a few fish moving, and I even had a few casts to a really nice fish (by which I mean several pounds) but I did my classic cock-up cast and couldn’t raise him. He did at one stage take a damn good look at my fly, but something wasnae right (drag drag…..)

Now this particular river is known for being quite rich in aquatic life. Strewth that’s no joke. Never before have I seen so many cased caddis larae. In the shallow parts the stones on the river bed were literally covered in them. Made me feel guilty of wading to be honest.

Quite surprisingly though there were almost no upwinged flies at all the whole two days.. Possibly the time of year meant there was a transition from the large spring hatches to the BWO hatches of the summer. There were quite a few sedges about, but only right at the tail end of the day. It was then that the better fish started to occasionally show themselves with those brilliant plopping rises. I’m not sure, but I think these fish are taking sedges as they’re about to emerge. I’m currently experimenting with a pattern I hope will do well in these situations.. we shall see.
The broth managed a few nice wee fish on a DHS, which is also a good pattern for any kind of sedge rise.

We awoke next day to find a totally different day. Overcast, drizzly and (once again) dour. Things weren’t helped much by a poor effort at the porridge on my part.

For those who’ve never made porridge, it shouldn’t look like that.

Again there were a good few terrestrials about on this river. Some hawthorn flies were still lingering in the bushes and grass by the river, and seemed to be doing a good job of avoiding the trout.

That’s another pattern I’ve yet to use. I have hope yet though that one day it will catch me a big trout.
This was another day to spend watching the river (they all are really), by which I mean not really fishing as much as I should have. I think this kind of fishing (which a lot of my fishing is) might partly explain why I sometimes get so cock-a-doodle when I actually find a decent fish rising. It’s just so damn exciting! I asked this bunch of twigs what they thought, and they agreed that’s my problem.

Well it’s a couple of days since my last trip out. I was fishing another Scottish river I’ve not been on before. Things looked promising with last weeks good weather building up to a glorious spring day on Saturday. I had my permit by 8 o’clock and was riverside before half past. At this time of year it’s actually not really worth fishing until nearer lunchtime, but I love being on a river almost anytime, especially on such a bright sunny day. I opted to start fising some upstream spiders through a couple of nice riffles, and noticed a little stab on the leader after about two casts. Turned out to be one of the smallest parr I’ve ever caught at about 3-4 inches. It’s always good to see a river with plenty of small fish like this as it bodes well for the future. I fished on for a while, before eventually moving to another run. Here I turned around and fished the spiders across and down just slightly slower than dead drift, and it wasn’t long before a pretty little half pounder came to hand.
It was soon midday, and at last some flies began to hatch. Great big march browns they were too, always a good bet to bring the better fish to the surface at this time of year. It wasn’t long before fish started moving to the hatching flies and I could fish a dry fly with confidence. On the leader was the deer hair emerger I mentioned before. It’s really a cracking fly, well worth trying.

Of course when actually fishing the barb will be crushed as I fish catch and release on the rivers around here. Here’s one of the pretty wee trout that were avidly munching on the marchs’.

Things were pretty sporadic after that as a few more waves of duns came off, occasionally sparking a little frenzy.
Later on I was back fishing spiders down through riffles and pools. In one particularly good looking pool I felt a slight ‘draw’ in the line as a fish turned on the point fly, and I was immediatley fighting a much better fish. He went absolutely crackers and lept about 2 feet out the water before heading for the sea. I followed him downstream and after a (too long a) while brought him to the net. A beautiful fish of 1 3/4 lb, and a lovely way to finish things up.

Fishing spiders has a long history, perhaps as old as fly fishing in this country. I find it is still a really good technique, although it can be very frustrating if not done correctly. I am by no means an expert, but I have just about got hold of the idea, and it’s starting to be pretty useful. I fish the spiders upstream dead drift, across and down and just about any way I think will be useful. The most important thing is to lead the flies through the current in a controlled manner, either dead drifting them, or letting them drop downstream just slightly slower than the current. I have a feeling this last point is particularly useful, because the water speed under the surface is generally progressively slower with increasing depth. So what looks like dead drift on the surface is perhaps not so 6 or 10 inches down. Thus by controlling the drift of the flies just a tiny bit slower than the current, I think you might get both a really good presentation, and immediate contact with any taking fish. Certainly worth a bit of perseverence.
Finally, here’s a shot I took after the last fish was released. Spot the trutta!