Friday July 12, 2013

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A First Hill Loch

Written by Angus Cameron

thumbA week’s holiday in Wester Ross in high summer was something I had long looked forward to. On a previous visit for the kids’ autumn half term we had contrived to arrive the week after the season in those parts closed. This trip couldn’t fail to beat that... could it?  On the first night though, I woke in the wee small hours to discover the whole house thrumming as storm force winds roared in from the Minch – the tail end of some tropical storm arriving from across the Atlantic. I cursed, knowing that I could forget about any fishing for at least a couple of days... Scrabble anyone?

It was a full four days before the storm abated enough to even conscience venturing out with rod and fly and, as it was, this would be only a short evening trip. The wind had dropped and for the first time in days the sun could be glimpsed through the murk.

I parked the car, excitedly tackled up my 9’ five weight and at the last minute and not really knowing what to expect or why, slung my waders over my shoulder and headed briskly off up the hill towards the closest loch marked on the permit. At first the going was good and there was a path of sorts. Soon though this dematerialised and, hideously overburdened as I was and forced to zig-zag to avoid areas of peaty gloop, I was reduced to a sweating, gasping mess.

Still, after maybe twenty minutes climb I crested the hill and there below me nestled two pretty lochans. As I eagerly made my way down to the first I scanned the surface of the water for tell-tale signs of fish. Despite much fly life there wasn’t even a single rise. Still, I tied on a small brown dry which seemed to match the insects hovering above the water and began to work my way around the shore of the loch. With not a peep after ten minutes and conscious that the sun was getting lower in the sky it dawned on me that perhaps this was not one of those lochs of fishing folklore but actually lifeless, muddy puddle. I would do well to move on but the second nearby loch brought a similar result and disconsolate I studied my permit hard. There was another slightly larger loch marked - it seemed it was just over the next hill.1

I struggled across boggy ground, leapt unsuccessfully across a deceptively wide burn and with water in one welly boot struggled up the next hill stumbling and tripping the whole way while doing my best to protect my precious Sage. All the time, I cursed bag, net and most of all those bloody waders. At the top, I realised that the map wasn’t quite accurate and I would have to cross a trackless moor made soggy by days of rain.

A full half an hour later and by now utterly drenched in sweat and filthy water I arrived at the next loch to discover that, despite the rain, it too was little more than a very shallow and muddy pool. Stranger things have happened, but I could see no sign of fish. On the map,  just a little way further on were marked two even better sized lochs. I decided to continue my trek without making a single cast.

After a circuitous route to avoid the worst peaty hags, I approached the first of the two lochs with trepidation knowing I would be able to go no further tonight. If this loch did not deliver I would have wasted the full hour and three quarters of resolute yomping that it took to get here plus, presumably, the same to get back. To the West a huge reddening sun was already slipping out of the cloud down towards the horizon – it would be a pretty end to the day but I would have to be on my way home by the time sun met sea.

The nearest of the two lochs was deeper and set in a cut between low hills. On the far shore, a steep hillside rose almost straight out of the water while behind me the sea was not far away. A gentle breeze was creating a ripple and as I studied the water I realised that its surface was beginning to come alive.  Had it been by design I could have prided myself that I had timed my arrival to perfection as the most massive hatch was unfolding before my eyes. Clouds of insects formed above the surface of the water and drifted towards me, landing on my arms, legs and all over those damn waders which were now lying in the heather where I’d flung them. I rummaged through my fly boxes and tied on a single dry pattern that reasonably matched what was now clouding all around me. I searched for a likely spot and to my great satisfaction found a slowly shelving rock extending out into the water which then dived away tantalisingly to blackness at its limit.

The far hillside had already began to glow a spectacular fiery red but when my first cast hit the water, a fish launched itself up from where it lurked deep below and slashed at the fly so violently it genuinely gave me a fright. Though it didn’t stick, I knew that I had found what I was looking for and my heart rate, which had only just returned to a semblance of normality, shot up once more.  I cast and once again a fish slashed at my fly but didn’t take.  This was repeated again and again for twenty or thirty minutes – one or more fish rushing at my fly only to think better of it.  It was exciting but frustrating as only fishing can be. A more experienced loch fisher would have known just what was required but all I could do was rapidly change dry-fly patterns, sizes and tippets as if searching for some magic formula - all, sadly, to no avail.

Behind me the now perfect red circle of the sun dropped closer and closer to the sea and shadows started to creep up from the far shore of the loch.  I began to contemplate the thought that I might be the only fisher ever to blank on a hill loch in Wester Ross (but then why change the habits of a lifetime - I’ve blanked on some of the best trout water in Scotland).  I sat on a small mound, reached into my bag where I had stashed a single bottle of the Black Isle’s finest ale and drank deeply while watching an almost perfect sunset – in the far distance I could make out the Hebrides suspended in a sea of gold.

The Sun dipped close to the sea and I knew it was about time to head for home. The hatch was over and in place of the commotion of thirty minutes before there was now only a very occasional rise of a small fish in the shallows. I scanned my fly boxes and, if I’m honest, out of desperation rather than inspiration, I tied on a favourite – a single small black pennell. I told myself that I had three casts and then I must go.

First cast nothing. On the second, the water boiled and at last a fish grabbed the wet fly and tried to make off with it. Well and truly hooked, it rushed here and there fighting me all the way. I played this hard fighting prize in to my feet and lifted out of the water a vividly marked brownie weighing somewhere around seven or eight ounces – not the biggest fish in the world but perfect. I set it on it’s way, took two more casts (one for good luck) and with no more takers set off on the trek home.

It was pitch black by the time I reached the car. But despite being mired from top to toe in peaty muck, drenched in sweat, utterly exhausted and having taken just one fish, I realised that I would never forgive myself if I didn’t go back and have a another crack at this loch. I guess you could say I was hooked.

To my dismay another storm blew in the next day and so it was two days later and despite a horrible sou’westerly wind and cold, squally showers that I set off to tramp across that moor once again.  I was better prepared this time and with no waders, only the minimum of kit and my rod stashed sensibly for walking I made good time.

Once there, I tackled up and began to pick and scramble my way through bracken covered slopes around the Western shore of the first loch taking casts where I could despite the terrible conditions. When I reached the far end, I found the second loch was utterly unfishable in that wind and I returned to the first where I elected to struggle my way down the eastern (steep) shore. Where fast flowing burns had cut deep into the hillside I was greeted by the unexpected sight and smell of honeysuckle in full flower crowded tightly around these turbulent streams.

Despite my best efforts most of this shore was too steep to fish and anyway I would be casting into an ever strengthening wind.  Eventually, having almost circumnavigated the loch, I managed to find a small bay which was out of the worst excesses of the weather and in an hour or so of fishing managed to take some fifteen  extraordinarily hard fighting fish ranging up to about half a pound.

Eventually, the intensity and direction of the wind became all but impossible. In a last gasp I cut the droppers off my cast and tied a gold beaded nymph on the point thinking that anything else wouldn’t now punch into the wind.

With little real hope I cast the nymph out close to some sub surface rocks and it landed in the water with an ugly plop. I let it sink and as I began my retrieve I felt first a bump and then something grabbed the damn thing and shot off like a startled hare heading for the depths at the centre of the loch stripping line from my reel as it went. I was so surprised I almost slipped off my rocky perch but recovered enough to play this fish. It zigzagged angrily back and forward as I drew it slowly towards shore and as it got closer and closer it thrashed madly to get away, turning this way and that and twisting round on its side. A full five minutes later and much to my delight and surprise, I held in my hand a handsomely marked fish getting on for a pound in weight. An absolute cracker!

No sooner had I sent it on its way than the weather closed in and I was forced to give up and head home. Was it worth the effort? Definitely. Despite the dreadful conditions and hideous trek to get to this loch, I am utterly hooked.  I know that this will be the first of many wild hill lochs for me. Occasionally, in my dreams, I have even imagined myself alone, dragging a heavy wooden boat across that trackless moor.

Angus Cameron grew up on the Black Isle and learned to fish on highland rivers like the Conon and the Dulnain.


He moved back to Scotland from London seven years ago where he worked in television.





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