Tough con­di­tions con­front Stan Headley when he drifts lochs Cam and Vey­atie in the achingly beau­ti­ful north­west High­lands

Trout & Salmon (UK) - - Trout Diary - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: COLIN RIACH

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.

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