Tuesday, 25 October 2011

A Day In The Hills - Applecross Peninsula

Scottish gold: a trout from the hills of the Applecross Peninsula.

The Scottish Highlands have been a place dear to my heart ever since I first visited on a family holiday when aged four. The dramatic scenery, the unique culture and history, hills, heather – pick pretty much any cliché you like, I’m invariably taken in by them all. But nowhere I had visited had ever genuinely left me speechless until I was comprehensively silenced by the Applecross Peninsula this August. In fact, on reflection, the vast majority of my week there was spent gawping in every direction, incapable of forming a coherent sentence.

Overlooking Applecross Bay from a hilltop on a beautiful August day.

It really is an area of outstanding natural beauty. The sheltered bay glitters and dances crystal clear in the sunlight, whilst the mountains which frame the bay tower imperiously overhead, and the shadows of Raasay and Skye thrust jaggedly upwards from the sea. Atop the mountains themselves, you can very easily spend the whole day walking without seeing another human being, or hearing a single sound other than the squelch of your boots as you trudge through the peat, and of course the infernal humming of the seething clouds of midges which engulf you if you stand still for so much as a moment to catch your breath (man up – it’s all part of the experience). But what was of most interest to me was the endless small lochs dotted all across the hillsides. Pristine wild waters, rarely fished by anyone, and full of Trout! Naturally I couldn’t miss the chance to fish in such special place, and so with a little help from an OS map I planned an expedition towards the end of the week with the aim of fishing at least 4 different lochs over the course of a day.

A small loch, with the islands of Skye and Raasay in the distance. Who could resist fishing in this kind of scenery?

I rose early on the day of my trip to find a beautiful morning. The sun was out, it was warm, and only the faintest breath of wind blew across the bay. Fantastic weather to have a good walk and take in some scenery... but from a fishing perspective, pretty dire! No matter, after a quick breakfast I set out towards my intended area, first following Bealach Na Bà (the mountain pass which connects Applecross to Lochcarron, formerly a drover’s track, hence the name which means ‘Pass of the Cattle’ in Gaelic) then cutting off up the hill towards my first intended target, Loch An Fheiòr. It wasn’t the easiest of walks through endless and often disorientating peat bogs in baking heat, but the views alone more than made up for it on such a clear day. As for the lochs, I would have happily walked double the distance to reach them. They were charming pieces of water – not ‘shouty’ and over dramatic in the way which bigger lochs can be... they certainly wouldn’t provide the inspiration for some classical masterpiece, but there is something about the total isolation of these peaty, weed fringed pools which captures the imagination – they feel wild in a very real sense which you rarely come across in a nation so hopelessly overcrowded as ours. I suppose if I was to describe anywhere I’ve ever visited as ‘soul restoring’, this would be it.

Following a small burn into the hills.

Looking across the hillside towards the towering presence of Beinn Bhan in the distance.

Loch An Fheiòr - my first target on the day.

The fishing itself became somewhat secondary to the whole experience – just being there was more than enough – but fish I did, and this is an angling blog after all! So, having reached my starting point, I set up my 8’ 4# rod with a 12’ leader, fishing a Bibio on a dropper with the ever reliable Black Pennell sitting in point position and began covering water, making a few searching casts into likely areas before moving on along the bank.

A small selection of traditional wet flies - standard fare for hill loch fishing.

Now, all the accounts I’d previously heard had suggested that hill loch fishing was often easy sport, and usually involved half suicidal brownies in the ‘three-to-the-pound’ class. However, as it turned out on the day in question this was wrong on both counts. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that many lochs are indeed full of these willing little trout, but on the day in question with the sun high in the sky and the total lack of wind (along with my casting with more than one fly on the leader looking distinctly questionable) they simply weren’t playing ball! As such, Loch An Fheiòr drew a complete blank, and I was forced to move on to a new target. This next water was much smaller than the previous one, but it was deep, and with a large weed bed at one end looked promising. I changed to a one fly cast so as not to fluff my chances with any silly tangles, and then crept into position.

A small, weedy unnamed loch. Home to some surprisingly large trout.

I watched and waited for a few minutes before making my first cast, and was again struck by the sheer silence all around me. The only sound was that of the frantic wing beats of Dragonflies darting after each other across the water’s surface, which was then joined by the fluid swish of my line through the air as I sent my fly sailing to the edge of the weeds. The moment it landed on the water it produced an instant response, but not the little splash or sharp jag at the hand which I had been expecting – instead there came a slow, relaxed rise as a fish sipped in the fly. I struck, and then again, rather than the short cartwheeling fight of a hand-sized brownie which I was expecting, line was torn from my reel at breakneck speed as an evidently large trout rolled and flashed before boring inexorably towards the middle of the loch! Miraculously, despite crashing directly through the middle of the weed bed, it didn’t become stuck, but continued to put up a ferocious resistance to the very last, as after a long battle I was able to lift him from the water – truly the most magnificent trout I had ever seen, all two and a half pounds of him.

The most magnificent trout I had ever seen, all two and a half pounds of him.

Not even the hordes of midges could dampen my mood!

It was to be the only take of the day, but that didn’t matter – I’d have happily traded a year’s worth of catches for that one fish. The long trudge back through the peat bogs didn’t seem half as bad, and not even the hordes of midges could dampen my mood as I bade farewell to the group of deer flitting away in the other direction across the hills. The only thing which perhaps tainted the experience was the fate of my quarry. I would much rather have seen the fish returned alive, but having given its all in the fight, I could not revive it no matter how I tried, and in the end it was destined to end its days on the dinner table. As much as I relish taking a fish for the pot every now and then, I felt that a wild trout that had managed to attain that size in such a small, isolated loch, deserved to grace the waters of its home for the rest of its days, however long that may have been. Nevertheless, it was one of the most unique and enjoyable day’s fishing of my life, and one I’ll never forget.

Deer on the hills - a fitting end to a memorable day.

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