WHEN THE EAST WIND BLOWS
Tough conditions confront Stan Headley when he drifts lochs Cam and Veyatie in the achingly beautiful northwest Highlands
WEATHER CAN RUIN a fishing break. Through a long, cold, fishless winter I dream about May and early June. The reality can fall very far short of the images painted in my mind. It would appear that, in Scotland at least, early summer can be plagued with what anglers call “tourist weather” – cloudless skies and cold, dry, biting east winds. While these conditions are great for the walking, touring holidaymaker, they are anathema to the fly-fisher. The culprit would appear to be a recurring weather set, which involves an early-summer massive high-pressure system that locates across Scandinavia, and draws Continental winds across the North Sea and blocks Atlantic low-pressure systems from spreading cloud and rain (arguably ideal fishing weather) from putting in an appearance. Perhaps this has always been a feature of Scottish climate; if Scotland, indeed, has a climate, per se. I think we only have weather with a capital “W”. If we have a recurring climate pattern, then this feature – cold easterlies and brilliant sunshine – only seems to be reinforced with each passing year. The period midapril to mid-may 2017 was one of Scotland’s driest four weeks in recorded history. Cold air can’t hold moisture and, in a frustrating way, the colder the air, the brighter the sun. Sunshine doesn’t always equate to warmer temperatures, however. Warm air gathers moisture, so in an almost contradictory fashion, springtime warmth almost invariably walks hand-in-hand with cloud cover. Air moisture is a vitally important factor for insects emerging from water. Coming from an aqueous environment they need a certain level of humidity in the air to exist and breed out of water. We have all noticed that insect hatches are much more prevalent in damp weather, and virtually non-existent in prolonged dry spells. As I write this in mid-may, even the regular hawthorn fly hatch has been seriously delayed by the drought conditions, and they are terrestrial bugs, hatching from the soil. The same can happen to crane fly (daddy long-legs) if there is a late-summer drought. So, Colin Riach and I travelled north to fish the lochs of the Oykel Bridge Hotel in the first week of May with a host of weather forecasts hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles. The hotel is one of the most sumptuous and wellappointed hostelries in which I’ve ever stayed, and I’ve had experience of many. The staff are wholeheartedly helpful and Colin and I felt we were part of a team, all pulling in the same direction. The food was a marvel, real fishermen’s food, the sort of grub that sets you up for a hard day, and fills the gaping abyss under your belt in the evening. Everything plated up was lip-smackingly delicious, cooked to perfection. Although we were loch bound and trout orientated, the river gillies who we met in the morning, preparing for the tough day ahead were very impressive. I know one of them personally and would think myself blessed if he stood alongside me on the banks of the Oykel, no matter the conditions. All in all, this operation, the hotel and staff, can’t be praised highly enough, in my opinion. The lochs on the hotel’s availability list are Veyatie, Cam, Borrolan, Ailsh, Urigill, Eileag and Craggie. We couldn’t hope to cover them all in the time allotted so we concentrated on the first four after taking what advice was available and based on our own pre-trip research. The day dawned with what was going to prove to be a consistent factor – very bright skies and a fresh, cold, easterly blow. Veyatie was the plan. It’s a big loch with a record of producing ferox and char. Of course, just like us fishermen, both species hate bright skies, but May is a prime month to encounter either or both. Would the season suit us or the weather scupper our plans? As it turned out, the question was moot because when we – Sandy the gillie, Colin and I – arrived at the boat-launching site it was quite obvious that the weather had scuppered our plans, because the wind had moved from fresh to strong, blowing straight down the long length of the loch, and only an idiot would have ventured out on a strange water with an untested outboard motor in such conditions. Given the direction and strength of the wind, we contemplated our options. Most of the lochs in the area lie on an east-west axis, but Ailsh bucked the trend, having no axis bias whatsoever, being as long
“The food was a marvel, real fishermen’s food, the sort of grub that sets you up for a hard day”
as it is wide. We turned around and left the Kirkaig region, heading across the watershed to the Shin Basin and Ailsh, which has a pretty good reputation for early-season brown trout. We contacted the hotel for permission to change the plan. The Oykel Bridge Hotel has access to Ailsh with one boat: the loch is on the Benmore estate, which belongs to the Vestey family. When they are in residence, the loch is unavailable to guests of Oykel Bridge Hotel. When we arrived on its shores we decided it was fishable and received phone confirmation it was ours for the day. It was windy but not to the extent that we couldn’t fish every square inch. Sandy popped off to Benmore Lodge to get the keys for the oars as Colin and I tackled up. Sandy returned quickly and I knew from the look on his face that everything was not going to plan. He grimaced and said “Some of the Vesteys have made a surprise visit so we can’t go out!” It seemed the head keeper knew nothing of this hasty Vestey visit when he gave us the okay. These things can happen, particularly at the beginning of the season before everything works like clockwork and all the wrinkles have been ironed out. I forgot to mention that when we drove down the track to the Ailsh boat I parked alongside Sandy’s motor and picked the only wet, soft area in the neighbourhood, and buried the car up to its axles. To cut a long story short, after faffing about, breaking tow-ropes, and emptying our vocabulary of curses, the under-keeper popped by with a decent rope and extracted us from the mire. It had been one of those days, and with the hours fast disappearing we threw in the towel and returned to the welcoming arms of the hotel. Day one: two lochs visited, not one fly wet. Sometimes, when the fates conspire against you, you just have to laugh in their faces. Guess how the next day dawned? Yep, you’ve got it: bright and breezy, but a tad less breezy than the day before. Back to Loch Veyatie. There is a general dislike of easterly winds among fisherman, and this is particularly true of boat-based fly-fishermen. We drift before the wind, and the wind imparts a slight water drift. Most fish will head into a current, slight or not, so in a south-easterly wind fish will face in that direction and that means earlier in the day the sun will be shining in their eyes. This is not good for obvious reasons. Veyatie is a long, narrow loch with a south-east, north-west axis. Given its steep sides the wind gets funnelled down the valley so that in a decent blow, the wind will almost always be south-easterly or north-westerly following the geographical axis. One only has to look at the land surrounding Veyatie to see that fertility in the earth and in the water is largely absent. This is not an environment where vast swarms of aquatic invertebrates flourish. To underline this, the loch has a reputation for ferox and char, which excel in these freshwater wildernesses. Brown trout don’t do so well, and individuals in the 1 lb-2 lb category are rare, and halfand three-quarter-pounders make up all, or the bulk, of the catch. Initially, I thought to try Lochaber ferox techniques, drifting a 10 ft-15 ft contour with patterns that work on Arkaig and Lochy for the big boys. With Colin’s sonar gear in place and with Sandy adjusting our drift line with the oars, this was reasonably easy to manage. Occasional bleeps from the sonar were interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as fish in front of the boat. On this evidence alone, Veyatie was not swarming with trout but we were picking up the odd small one now and again. We knew we were up against things with the weather being what it was – very dry, very bright and a contrary wind chill – but we plugged away. Hopes of a chance encounter with ferox or char were slim to nonexistent. They simply don’t like these conditions and invariably retreat to the depths. In my experience of char, long and in some respects varied, they are only
“Bleeps from the sonar were interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as fish in front of the boat”
a chance option if the wind is light or non-existent, and the skies heavily overcast. A light drizzle is often present when char come to the top. There is an old saying that if you are catching char you won’t be catching trout, and vice-versa. While not being completely accurate it does point one in the right direction. Our only real hope was that the stiff breeze would bring us a decent brownie. We fished wherever the land surrounding the loch had a shallow incline as this would suggest that shallow water wouldn’t be confined to the margins, and when we encountered burn mouths we fished very diligently, indeed. Any flow of water into the lochs will concentrate trout and there is always the chance of an opportunistic big one drawn in by improved feeding prospects. We picked up the odd fish here and there, but everything was telling us that the day wasn’t going to feature in the “deeply memorable” category. I couldn’t in all honesty blame the loch. Some of my very favourite lochs these weather conditions would have me bashing my head on the gunwale. And early May is not the best time for these very deep lochs. The small fish get going first, their nutritional demands being greater; the bigger fish stay tucked up in their watery beds until the going gets a bit easier. Back at the hotel we dined and drank and compared our suntans, and put the day down to experience. We had already decided the Cam Loch was next on the list, but dreaded that it would be a re-run of Veyatie, given the topographical and bathymetric characteristics of the one were very similar to the other. And it very nearly wasn’t. Cam is blessed with islands in its southern and eastern expanses that always attract fish to their shores. And there is a hint more greenery to the surrounding landscape, which hints at a degree of fertility not shared by Veyatie. One of the problems with loch fishing, especially on new waters, is that no-one knows what are good results and poor ones. For example, we decided to start by fishing the narrow channel between the boat mooring and the nearby island. It looked as welcoming as anywhere in the ubiquitous sunshine. On our first drift, we hooked quite a few trout, and missed a couple that would have almost been classed as specimens. This was encouraging. We pressed on with our travels and searched the shores of all the islands, only to find that where we had started had produced the best fishing. Of course, we raced back only to find that the fish that inhabited the area had taken severe offence at our first visitation, and just wouldn’t play on our return. We tried. We really did. We tried all sorts of different patterns of flies, line densities, and areas that looked likely, including Sandy’s favourite spot, all to no avail. We got trout, but none really worthy of the name. The hellish conditions bedevilled us no matter what our combined knowledge and experience suggested would break the spell. If you like beautiful brown trout, regardless of size, and fishing in some of the World’s most spectacular scenery, I could recommend nowhere better. If you experience more clement weather conditions you may hook a “line stretcher”. We didn’t, and I wasn’t overly surprised.
An easterly blows hard down Loch Veyatie. Could Stan find the ferox, char and brown trout?
BELOW Islands and greenery suggest features and fertility on the Cam Loch.
ABOVE One on a Stone Goat from the Cam Loch.
A cross between a Stone Goat and a Clan Chief. It has been highly successful with brown trout this season. I’m expecting big things with the silver tourists.