Din­ner in Dur­ness

Stan Headley dis­cov­ers bonny trout and abun­dant fly life when he fishes for his sup­per in the far north

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Crois­pol Loch in the far north pro­vides sup­per for Stan Headley

ISAW THE ini­tial take. I guessed it was a fairly run-of-the-mill Crois­pol brownie, around the pound mark. But as the fight pro­gressed I was los­ing the up­per hand, and the bow in the rod was in­creas­ing be­yond ex­pec­ta­tion. I was con­fused. Had I foul-hooked this fish? The typ­i­cal fight from a foul-hooked fish is a se­ries of dugged pulls fol­lowed by fast, ex­ag­ger­ated runs against the bend of the rod. This fight did not match that pat­tern at all. There was much more weight than ex­pected and a large num­ber of arm-shud­der­ing stac­cato thumps. I looked down into the gin-clear wa­ter and there was an amaz­ing sight. Down to about 20 ft I could see not one, not two, but three pound-ish fish charg­ing about on a two-drop­per cast. What was even more sur­pris­ing was that this was hap­pen­ing on a team of Buzzers. A mul­ti­ple-hook­ing on wet-flies is com­mon enough, but very un­usual on Buzzer rigs. Many, many years ago I vis­ited Crois­pol, a lime­stone loch in the Dur­ness re­gion, as part of a group. I also fished Bor­ralaidh (pro­nounced Bor-a-lee) and Cal­adail in the same area. All were re­mark­able, par­tic­u­larly be­cause of their (al­ready men­tioned) crys­tal-clear wa­ters and very lightly coloured marl bot­toms. It was love at first sight with Bor­ralaidh; a lit­tle less so with Cal­adail; I wasn’t much im­pressed with the in­di­vid­ual av­er­age size of the trout pop­u­la­tion of Crois­pol, to the ex­tent that I have not fished it at all in the in­ter­ven­ing years. Big mis­take, as I dis­cov­ered this June. The aquatic food and fly life of these lochs is phe­nom­e­nal. In a con­tained area among some

of the least pro­duc­tive and bar­ren land and wa­ter in the UK, the Dur­ness lochs are pure trea­sure. You’d have to ex­pe­ri­ence it to be­lieve it. Cow dung fly, oak fly, buzzers, sedges, crane fly, stone­fly, olives and hordes of ter­res­trial diptera. And, of course, in­nu­mer­able shrimp and snails. A smor­gas­bord of in­ver­te­brate delicacies. A fly-fish­er­man’s par­adise. On the down­side, the boats on Scot­tish High­land trout lochs leave much to be de­sired, es­pe­cially if you are used to the qual­ity craft found at ma­jor low­land com­mer­cial fish­eries. I have be­come so used to these plas­tic bath­tubs that I take them in my stride and just get on with fish­ing, al­ways bear­ing in mind the pre­cise lim­i­ta­tions of the boat I’m in. Two bits of ad­vice, how­ever, are to al­ways take an across-the-gun­nels seat be­cause typ­i­cally these boats have poor seat­ing ar­range­ments for fly-fish­ing oc­cu­pants, and carry a drogue to sta­bilise a drift. The quin­tes­sen­tial High­land loch boat is one of the Pioner range. Af­ter a long trek through the wilds, dis­cov­er­ing that the day’s fish­ing has to be from one of these boats has caused hard­ened men to burst into tears. They are very low in the gun­nel de­part­ment so that you are con­tin­u­ally bang­ing your chin on your kneecaps. They have no dis­cernible keel so they don’t drift worth a damn and con­tin­u­ally crab all over the shop. They are rel­a­tively sta­ble but this doesn’t counter-balance the fact that by no stretch of the imag­i­na­tion could you ar­gue they are de­signed for fly-fish­ing. There is a rea­son for this state of af­fairs, which is not nec­es­sar­ily one of cost. It is that es­tates may need durable boats that can be dragged to lo­ca­tions by off-road ve­hi­cles, across dis­tances (some­times mea­sured in miles) made up of very rough ground. At the lochside they will, of ne­ces­sity, be left to fend for them­selves for the du­ra­tion of the sea­son. I am fairly sure that some may even be sim­ply flipped over come the end of the sea­son and left out­side over the win­ter months. But don’t let this put you off for a mo­ment be­cause many of these less-than-sat­is­fac­tory craft are sit­u­ated on lochs where the fish­ing more than com­pen­sates. Af­ter all, what are a few hours of mi­nor dis­com­fort and frus­tra­tion com­pared to mem­o­ries of fish­ing that will linger for a life­time? When Stan (The El­der) Clementsmith and I ar­rived at the launch site on Crois­pol, sweat­ing and midgebit­ten, en­cum­bered with es­sen­tial kit, we had to make a de­ci­sion. Two boats were avail­able: one a high-sided,

“Dis­cov­er­ing that fish­ing has to be from these boats has caused hard­ened men to burst into tears”

un­sta­ble fi­bre-glass ves­sel of no dis­cernible make and lack­ing a vi­able keel; or a Pioner, suf­fer­ing the same lack, with low gun­nel height. We plumped for the high­sided job be­cause Stan the El­der felt that the cramped con­di­tion of the Pioner would see him need­ing in­ten­sive med­i­cal care by the end of the day. This de­ci­sion was to have em­bar­rass­ing reper­cus­sions later in the day. The loch sur­face was like a mir­ror and there wasn’t much hap­pen­ing to dis­turb it. As we were tack­ling up a short shower drifted through and a slight breeze fol­lowed. Sud­denly, and with­out warn­ing, flocks of sand martins ap­peared across the loch’s sur­face and fish be­gan to rise as far as the eye could see. I have a tech­nique in my ar­moury that I first used in Orkney, which in­volves putting a floatant-treated Sedge­hog on the top drop­per and fish­ing a cou­ple of wet-flies be­hind it, all fished on a float­ing, or prefer­ably, a short midge-tip line. The idea is to pull the flies as nor­mal, which makes the ’Hog “pop”: div­ing be­low the sur­face on the pull, and then pop­ping back to the sur­face be­tween pulls. There are oc­ca­sions when this drives trout ab­so­lutely crazy, most of the takes com­ing to the ’Hog but also draw­ing fish to the lower wet pat­terns. When trout are ac­tive in the sur­face lay­ers and ris­ing, this is a method I would strongly ad­vise. It has worked for me from Orkney all the way down to Rut­land. I reached for this tac­tic as I cre­ated my leader. Claret Sedge­hog on the top, Red-ribbed Sooty Olive vari­ant [T&S, June 2017] in the mid­dle and a small Red Ar­row vari­ant [T&S, June 2017] on the point. The winds were light and from a south­west­erly di­rec­tion, and as we drifted out from the moor­ings it was in­ter­est­ing to note that the busy trout ac­tiv­ity was po­si­tioned in pre­cise bands, lo­cated be­tween the ex­ten­sive weedbeds in the south, west and north, and the very deep wa­ters in the east. Like Bor­ralaidh, Crois­pol has a deep hole, lo­cated just be­neath the Dur­ness Craft Vil­lage, though not as deep as the for­mer. The drop-off, the area be­tween the very deep and the very shal­low, is dis­tinct and stepped. Ar­eas of trout habi­tat are des­ig­nated by colour. The very shal­low is a pink­ish-brown; the slightly deeper band is yel­low; and the area just short of the depths is blue/ green. The wa­ters cov­er­ing the hole are a dark blue. Trout ac­tiv­ity was in­tense in the yel­low wa­ter, fad­ing out as we pro­gressed into the blue/green. We needed trout for din­ner, so the first fish, in the 1 lb-1½ lb range, was knocked on the head and spooned. The spoon re­vealed buzzer pu­pae, hordes of them. Some minute, oth­ers mas­sive. The big­gest and most im­itable were a deep brown­ish or­ange with dis­tinct wing buds. The medium-sized pu­pae were a dark olive-green. No sur­prise, then, that it took the Sooty Olive wet-fly. How­ever, the next fish, needed to com­plete the din­ner re­quire­ment, con­tained a few pu­pae plus a con­gre­ga­tion of wa­ter mites. The mites were small and quite dark – prob­a­bly of the Ar­renu­rus fam­ily – and I have only ever once be­fore seen mites in a trout gut, in a very sim­i­lar high ph wa­ter in Orkney. Those, how­ever, were red and at least twice the size of the Crois­pol mites. Sorry, I know I’m be­ing an anorak, but these things fas­ci­nate me. I per­se­vered with the wet-fly rig know­ing in my heart that the rises I was see­ing were to buzzer pu­pae trapped in the sur­face film and that I was only wit­ness­ing a small pro­por­tion of the feed­ing ac­tiv­ity. Most of the as­cend­ing pu­pae were be­ing in­ter­cepted be­tween bot­tom and sur­face. This sce­nario was scream­ing out for an Epoxy Buzzer rig, pos­si­bly with a sac­ri­fi­cial Sedge­hog on the point to keep the Buzzers from div­ing too quickly into the depths. A day out is a day to learn. Some­times you learn a lot by catch­ing noth­ing; some­times you learn very lit­tle by catch­ing a lot. This day was a mix of the two. I caught a lot and learnt a lot about trout be­hav­iour dur­ing a good midge hatch. Fish were ac­tive from deep to shal­low. Most of the bet­ter fish were stay­ing deep and the smaller stuff braved the shal­lows. The Crois­pol trout seem largely unim­pressed by static Buzzer pat­terns, and were as likely to take a slim wet­fly as an Epoxy Buzzer. I mixed them up on the cast and saw no great dif­fer­ence in per­for­mance. We headed in at 2 pm for a bite to eat and a chance to think over our tech­niques and tac­tics, to ac­cen­tu­ate the pos­i­tive and elim­i­nate the neg­a­tive. This is of­ten a dan­ger­ous thing to do be­cause in the short time

“I leant for­ward to dis­lodge this re­cal­ci­trant fly… and found my­self in the loch”

away from the ac­tion, things can change dra­mat­i­cally, and if that hap­pens it is very dif­fi­cult to catch up. There was a change com­ing that had noth­ing to do with trout or fish­ing that I would def­i­nitely not wel­come. As we put­tered into the boat moor­ings, I spot­ted that my cast had slipped its moor­ings and a drop­per fly had lodged in the toe of my waders. As the boat slipped to the shore I leant for­ward to dis­lodge this re­cal­ci­trant fly … and found my­self in the loch. Did I tell you that our cho­sen craft was un­sta­ble? By lean­ing for­ward in an ex­ag­ger­ated fashion, the boat took the op­por­tu­nity to spit me out. I was only in a few feet of wa­ter but the boat drifted down over my legs and, try as I might, I could not ex­tract them or get up­right. I was forced to turn on my front and crawl out from un­der­neath the craft, soak­ing my­self to the ver­i­ta­ble co­jones. In more than 50 years of boat fish­ing this was the first time I had fallen out of a boat. I sin­cerely hope it proves to be the last. Too much time would have been wasted in head­ing back to the digs for a change to dry kit, so I per­se­vered on­wards and up­wards. It wasn’t a par­tic­u­larly cold day but soon I was chilled to the bone. I didn’t re­alise that my dry-fly box, which I al­ways keep close to hand, had taken the op­por­tu­nity to make a bid for free­dom and floated away. Back on the loch the breeze had died and I falsely thought that this would in no way neg­a­tively af­fect the Buzzer fish­ing. Not so. The good, solid takes of the morn­ing sud­denly be­came ten­ta­tive, un­pro­duc­tive knocks and jags. I al­tered re­trieve and tried ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble, from static to rel­a­tively fast. The nat­u­rals were still hatch­ing and the trout seemed as ac­tive as they were be­fore, but noth­ing was brought to the boat. Then, just as I was se­ri­ously think­ing of some dry clothes, the breeze ever-so-slightly re­turned and we were back in busi­ness, hook­ing fish solidly. Crois­pol trout can’t chal­lenge those of Lan­lish, Cal­adail or Bor­ralaidh for size and weight. Fish of more than 2 lb are rea­son­ably com­mon and I’m sure there is the odd tro­phy fish scour­ing the depths but quan­tity and beauty are the hall­marks of this strain of trout. Above-av­er­age fish rarely ap­pear in big catches. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, big trout come to the an­gler on a day when things are rel­a­tively quiet, num­ber­s­wise. And strangely, dur­ing a hatch, I ex­pect to see the big­gest fish of the day come as the hatch peters out. Big trout seem re­luc­tant to com­pete with their av­er­age brethren, or, per­haps, when the big boys de­cide to take a place at the ta­ble the smaller boys go and make them­selves scarce. I don’t know. The ev­i­dence points both ways. The hatch faded away as a big bank of cloud built from the south-west. A change in the weather was on its way. The loch went dead, and I can’t say I was any­thing but re­lieved as I was los­ing feel­ing in my ex­trem­i­ties: those you can and those you can’t men­tion. I badly needed a bath/shower to raise my body tem­per­a­ture, and I had fish to clean and fil­let. Hey, Crois­pol! We’ve un­fin­ished busi­ness. Our brief flir­ta­tion has only whet­ted my ap­petite. I don’t think there is a more at­trac­tive aquatic en­vi­ron­ment in the UK, and your fish are a won­der to be­hold. But please re­frain from in­ti­mate con­tact in fu­ture.

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: STAN CLEMENTSMITH

STAN HEADLEY has been fish­ing for trout since he was a boy and is au­thor of Trout & Salmon Flies of Scot­land and The Loch Fisher’s Bi­ble.

ABOVE A Crois­pol loch trout. As pretty as they come.

BE­LOW LEFT Buzzer pu­pae made fly choice straight­for­ward.

BE­LOW Less invit­ing: one trout had a bel­ly­ful of mites.

ABOVE LEFT “Pop­ping” a Sedge­hog top drop­per over the slightly deeper wa­ter.

TOP One on a Buzzer.

ABOVE Stan pre­pares a hot meal af­ter his dunk­ing.

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