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