Hebridean har­vest

You may be sur­prised by what takes your fly on Loch Obis­ary in the Outer He­brides, writes Fin­lay Wil­son


Fin­lay Wil­son has mixed sport on Loch Obis­ary, where you may be sur­prised by what grabs your fly

THE LOCHS THAT MAKE up so much of the Outer He­brides are as com­plex as they are in­trigu­ing. Saltwater meets fresh through a dizzy­ing net­work of in­lets and out­flows in a con­stant state of flux as tides ebb and flow and weather-fronts pitch in driven by the un­teth­ered power of the At­lantic Ocean. Rain is never far away, rapidly lift­ing the lev­els of count­less streams and lochans: dy­namic, un­pre­dictable and ut­terly ab­sorb­ing. One loch that sums up the as­ton­ish­ing di­ver­sity is Obis­ary. A whole life­time could be spent try­ing to fathom its se­crets. On the more moun­tain­ous east coast of Ben­bec­ula, be­tween North and South Uist, its nu­mer­ous bays, is­lands and large ex­panses of open wa­ter wrap around the 347m peak of Eaval and smaller Burab­hal (140m). The scenery is breath­tak­ing. Obis­ary is big, two miles from north to south and nearly the same from west to east at its widest point. Saltwater en­ters in the north from Loch Eport, mak­ing the wa­ter there brack­ish and bring­ing in ex­tra nu­tri­ents and food. It is an SSSI due to its rich flora and fauna. In form it re­sem­bles a clas­sic high­land loch – steep banks, is­lands and sker­ries dot­ted around – a spec­tac­u­lar wilder­ness. Where the sea runs in there are step­ping stones that can be crossed at the right time, but which on a high tide will dis­ap­pear and leave you stranded on the eastern shore – though there are worse places to be stuck if the weather’s fine. I first fished the north­ern end in 2014, spend­ing an en­joy­able sunny af­ter­noon on the bank, pick­ing away at qual­ity ½lb-¾lb trout. Sport was in­ter­mit­tent, but when­ever cloud scud­ded over­head, dim­ming the harsh light, and a team of tra­di­tional wet-flies was pre­sented be­yond boul­ders tight to the shore, the trout would take them. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing fish­ing: plum­met­ing depths be­low steep rocky shore­lines, blad­der­wrack and knot­ted wrack and lu­mi­nous green al­gae mix­ing up the palette. A re­turn to in­ves­ti­gate ex­ten­sively from a boat had al­ways been planned and last June the chance ar­rived in the com­pany of my friend Euan Myles. A 12-hour front hit on the day we had planned to fish, which meant a 24-hour post­pone­ment. You don’t want to be in a boat on Obis­ary when high winds whip in from the west. The next day we were in luck, the wind had dropped and al­though blus­tery, at times it was man­age­able and set to lighten. The per­ceived wis­dom is to fish around the in­flow one hour ei­ther side of high tide if tar­get­ing vis­i­tors from the salt. It can also be when the res­i­dent trout come on the feed. Un­for­tu­nately, the tides weren’t high that week, but cast­ing spec­u­la­tively is al­ways worth­while – you just don’t know what you might catch. And so it proved. De­spite bat­tling un­pre­dictable gusts and try­ing un­suc­cess­fully to get the boat to drift evenly, fish were caught. They weren’t big, but their va­ri­ety more than made up for their lack of size. Small trout, mack­erel and pol­lack all came to the fly. All were taken on small fish or shrimp imi­ta­tions: Oc­to­pus, King­fisher Cor­morants, bead-head In­vic­tas and the good old Pe­ter Ross. Just when we reck­oned we’d cov­ered the wa­ter, some­thing con­sid­er­ably larger flat­tened the

“Some­thing con­sid­er­ably larger flat­tened the wa­ter as Euan swung his flies at the end of the drift”

wa­ter as Euan swung his flies at the end of a drift. A big sea-trout? A salmon? We’ll never know. One fi­nal drift over the same area pro­duced no more ev­i­dence of what might be lurk­ing in this mer­cu­rial habi­tat. It was time to move on – there was a big old loch out there to in­ves­ti­gate. From Obis­ary’s meet­ing place with the sea, the loch is a nar­row fin­ger that ex­tends south­wards, open­ing wide over depths that reach 150ft, ac­cord­ing to the old bathy­met­ric maps. Be­yond, fur­ther south, there are three main is­lands – Mor, Fada and Leathann – but there are count­less other out­crops, bays and sker­ries and once you’re in and about these you’ll find it hard to drag your­self away. This is clas­sic boat fish­ing for wild trout in the most se­duc­tive set­ting. The fish are free-ris­ing and don’t seem overly fussy. One of the many at­trac­tions of Obis­ary is its many fea­tures and likely “fish mark­ers” where, if you fol­low the rules of thumb, you’ll find the fish: drop-offs, shal­low bays, shore­lines with veg­e­ta­tion for wind­blown ter­res­tri­als… Hence is­lands and sker­ries tend to pro­vide the per­fect com­bi­na­tion and when­ever the pre­vail­ing wind al­lowed steady drifts around or on to these fea­tures we’d en­joy fine sport. We also dis­cov­ered that wher­ever there was long, grass-like veg­e­ta­tion, sparse and sway­ing eerily in the pris­tine, clear wa­ter be­low, greater con­cen­tra­tions of trout seemed to be present. One area in par­tic­u­lar where these fea­tures con­verged was half­way down the loch. Here it screamed ideal trout habi­tat. Our ef­forts were con­cen­trated and our time mo­nop­o­lised en­joy­ing one ideal drift af­ter an­other. We had most suc­cess east of the big­gest is­land, Leathann, and around the smaller is­lands and sker­ries that stretch from Leathann to the eastern shore­line. In any open ex­panse, the fish­ing would be slow. As soon as a skerry, is­land or the tran­si­tion to a shal­lower bay was neared, more often than not, trout would hit our flies. Many fish were caught, al­though none were big. They av­er­aged ½lb-¾lb, but were in per­fect con­di­tion and fight­ing fit. As we ex­plored fur­ther down the loch, deeper wa­ter was again en­coun­tered and the ac­tion dried up. Eaval dom­i­nated the view and on the hori­zon to the east what looked at first to be a small plane glided into

view. We soon re­alised it was a sea ea­gle, soar­ing ef­fort­lessly back and forth, its vast wing­span un­wa­ver­ing in the breeze. Days on the wa­ter don’t get much bet­ter. An­other plan for the day was to reach the south-east shore, beach the boat and walk the short dis­tance fur­ther south and east to wet a line on Loch an To­main. In a land of in­trigu­ing wa­ters, this is an­other wor­thy of at­ten­tion. Its unique sell­ing point, other than ap­peal­ing re­mote­ness, is that it is home to a large colony of cor­morants – usu­ally one of our arch en­e­mies. In the­ory the amount of guano pro­duced by the seabirds pro­vides bet­ter feed­ing than would oth­er­wise be the case and the trout thrive. Whether you be­lieve that or not, John, pro­pri­etor at The Lochmaddy Ho­tel where we were stay­ing, had in­formed us that it was a favourite place of lo­cal fish­er­men and good-sized trout. There’s only ever one way to find out. Nowhere near as large as Obis­ary, To­main is a sprawl­ing, in­tri­cate and down­right awk­ward loch to nav­i­gate, all rocky promon­to­ries, dog-legs and trou­ble­some bays to ne­go­ti­ate: clas­sic hill loch ter­rain. Un­for­tu­nately, it soon be­came ap­par­ent that we hadn’t left nearly enough time to do this wa­ter jus­tice. The cor­morant colony was on the far side of the loch, out of sight (and smell, for­tu­nately). If we were to hike around the miles of me­an­der­ing shore­line to find it and fish in that area, we wouldn’t have a hope in hell of mak­ing it all the way back to the boat moor­ing on the north­ern fringes of Obis­ary this side of night­fall. Sker­ries, boats and a big un­known loch in the dark do not make for happy bed­fel­lows. To­main had a melan­choly air. This may have been due to the low light lev­els and the chill breeze com­ing off the sea, but there could be a macabre ex­pla­na­tion. It’s be­lieved ex­e­cu­tions were car­ried out on one of the is­lands, where vic­tims were dropped into a deep hole and left to per­ish. We fished a few promis­ing western bays and, in­evitably, picked up mod­est-sized trout. But the tem­per­a­ture was dip­ping and the jour­ney back was lengthy. Re­luc­tantly, we left this fas­ci­nat­ing place and re­traced our steps. Af­ter mak­ing good progress back up the length of Obis­ary, we had time to stop at an­other tasty­look­ing bay where trout could be seen “pop­ping” on the sur­face. We took a num­ber on the dry-fly be­fore the breeze died and the game was up. We re­alised an­other 12 hours on the wa­ter had passed in the blink of an eye.

LEFT A young pol­lack that took Fin's beaded In­victa from around the in­flow.

BE­LOW This mack­erel took an Oc­to­pus. "They'll take any­thing," said Fin.

ABOVE Wad­ing and cast­ing in To­main's lit­tle bays.

RIGHT Fin beaches the boat on Obis­ary's sandy south­ern shore be­fore the hike to To­main.

LEFT Back on Obis­ary in time for an evening rise.

RIGHT Just look at those spots and colours.

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