The iconic lochs of Scotland’s Flow Country offer trout fishermen one of the finest experiences in the sport says Tim Bonner
The Lowlands beyond the Highlands’ is an often used description of Caithness. But while the ‘Kingdom of the Cats’, which is surrounded by the mountains of Sutherland to the south and west and the sea to the north and east, is low-lying it is by no means uniform. In the north and east cattle grow fat and sleek on fine grazing alongside fields of barley. The River Thurso lures salmon fishermen, and the great alkaline lochs of Watten, St John’s and Heilan hold big silver trout in gin-clear water. In the winter wildfowl abound, and huge numbers of snipe lurk in every bog and wet corner. This fertile top corner of Scotland, which was historically part of the Viking kingdom of Orkney, is a sportsman’s paradise but it is the other unique and much wilder region of Caithness that holds even more attraction for the trout fisherman.
FISHING THE FLOW COUNTRY
The exact boundaries of the Flow Country are a matter of heated debate, but so vast is it that even by the most limited definition it is the most intact and extensive blanket bog system in the world. This expanse of bog, which covers much of Caithness and crosses into North Sutherland, stores about twice as much carbon as all the woodland in Britain and preserving it has become a priority in the fight against climate change. Things were different 40 years ago, however, and the Flow Country still bears the scars of shocking environmental vandalism from the planting of conifer forests over tens of thousands of acres driven by subsidy, tax relief and greed. Many of the wonderful trout lochs that are scattered across this landscape were wholly engulfed by alien Sitka spruce, removing the single most stunning aspect of the Flow Country – its huge skies and vast vistas. My answer to the vexed question of where the Flow Country’s boundaries lie is defined by views, not maps. You know you are in the Flows if you can see Ben Dorrery to the east, Morvern and the Maiden Pap or the Ben Ghriams to the south and Ben Loyal with Ben Hope behind to the west. These are the defining views of the Flow Country and the landscape means that they stand out across large distances of bog and loch unless, of course, there are trees in the way.
The good news is that the RSPB, in particular, is doing extraordinary work to return those parts of the Flow Country that have been subject to hugely inappropriate tree planting back towards their original state. So delicate is the ecosystem that, rather than fell and remove timber, the RSPB has smashed trees into the bog over huge areas. This has created a slightly bizarre landscape of dead branches from buried trees reaching into the sky and reseeded conifers that are ruthlessly culled. The result, even in the short term, is a huge improvement on the sterile conifer forestry that went before. Renowned Flow Country lochs such as Caol and Talaheel, which were surrounded by green-shaded conifer forestry on the first Ordnance Survey maps of the area I bought 25 years ago, are now open to the skies again and offering fishermen one of the finest experiences in the sport. Further west in Strath Halladale timber has been felled and removed, but rather than leaving an apocalyptic landscape of stumps and brashings everything has been ground down, buried and even rolled to allow the natural flora to regenerate. Even the deer fencing has been rolled up and removed, often by helicopter to avoid damage, and in some places there is the peculiar sight of 10-foot-high stiles standing in an empty landscape with not a fence to be seen.
A LIFETIME OF FISHING
Not only is the RSPB, in partnership with other landowners, restoring the Flow Country but it is also allowing access to its lochs through the Forsinard Flyfishers’ Club, creating a wonderful resource for local and visiting fishermen. There are Flow Country lochs that are not accessible to the Club, including those to the east associated with the Strathmore Lodge and River Thurso fishery as well as Loch Caluim, which was reputedly a great favourite of The Queen Mother when she was in residence at the Castle of Mey. But the Forsinard Flyfishers’ offers a huge volume and variety of fishing ample to keep most of us happy for a lifetime, let alone a week’s holiday.
There are 47 lochs listed on the Club’s website and it might be difficult to know where to start, especially when many attract the description ‘little is known about this loch’. Do not be put off either by the descriptions or the extensive choice. Both the Club’s secretary, Paul Byrne, and chairman, Reuben Sweeting, who is also fishery manager for Bighouse estate and the famous River Halladale, are immensely approachable and ready to share their experience. Their advice will be worth much more than mine, but I have been lucky enough to fish in the area for 20 years and have plenty of favourite venues.
If there is a more iconic Flow Country loch than Caol (Altnabreac) I have yet to find it. This Loch Caol (there are others) is reached from the sand road that runs from Forsinain in Strath Halladale into the heart of the Flow Country. A 4×4 is preferable but the road is perfectly navigable with two-wheel drive. Turn left off the main track about a mile before reaching Altnabreac station, which strangely has no road to it other than this track, and head through forestry and then restored land where the trees have been flattened into the peat. At the end of the track there is a half-mile walk to the stunning loch with wide views of the Reay hills to the north and Morvern to the south. An ancient fishing hut and boathouse sit at the narrow southern end. Any drift in the boat may be successful, but Sweeting rates a June evening drifting past the little island at the north end of the loch. It is as remote a spot as it is possible to imagine and about as perfect a fishing experience as the club has to offer.
I have had the most success from the bank. There is a firm bottom that holds no terrors and wading up the east bank, especially the bay halfway up, has produced many stunning Caol trout, which go to 2lb or more. Caol is an RSPB loch and, like all RSPB waters, must have three clear days between fishing visits to limit disturbance to breeding birds and other wildlife. This means Caol, similar to other lochs close to the sand road that have a boat available, can be quite difficult to access through the Forsinard Flyfishers’ booking system. I would advise anyone thinking of heading north to get an early booking in for Caol and other RSPB lochs, such as Slethill, Leir and Skyline.
EARNING YOUR SPORT
The Club’s lochs to the west of the Halladale do not have the same restrictions and are probably not in such demand, although that is as much about accessibility as it is about the quality of the fishing. To reach the best of them you will need a good pair of boots and a rucksack, but the rewards can be extraordinary. I did once have an encounter with another fisherman on Loch na h-Eaglaise Beag, having tramped several miles across the Flows; however, it seemed churlish to disturb the otter that fished away happily while I tacked up on the side of the loch until I was ready to take over from him. Eaglaise Beag holds some cracking fish and it is especially worth focusing on the west shore and the shallow rocky area at the southern end. Its sister loch Eaglaise Mor does not seem to hold quite the same standard of fish, although there are plenty of them and a fisherman who has visited both will have earned a pint on the way home. For the really adventurous there are a series of lochans to the south that are accessed from the Strathy track and can produce amazing fish. A simple lesson in the Flow Country is that there is no piece of water that is not worth a cast, and dark peaty lochans in the wettest of ground often hold monsters. My best Flow Country fish of more than 4lb came from just such a place and gave me palpitations as it bored into the undercut bank beneath my feet before finally coming to the net.
Further north, Loch na Seilge on the Bighouse estate offers that almost perfect blend of fish big enough to be memorable and numerous enough to keep you fishing for hour after hour. A stiff but not epic walk from the Strath Halladale road brings you to a big loch that can be fished from the boat. Again, my preference is to wade. There, perhaps more than anywhere else on the Forsinard Flyfishers’ waters, you can immerse yourself in the zen-like rhythm of cast and step fishing, only interrupted by a fish hitting the dropper on the surface or taking the tail fly deeper down.
As far as tactics are concerned, a high proportion of the bigger fish I have caught on the Flows have come to simple dry flies, often dark-claret or black-and-red deerhair sedges in size 12 or 14. Confidence and careful fishing seem to count more than obsessive impressionism in an environment where the fish could not be wilder or more wary but are likely to be generalists. Wet flies have their place too, and I would not want to venture out to a Flow Country loch without a Black Ke-He, Kate McLaren, or Grouse & Claret in my fly box.
Given its increasing relevance as a vital resource in the fight against climate change, it is no surprise that the Flow Country is in the running to be recognised both as a National Park and a World Heritage Site. I will leave others to argue the benefits of such designation, although if such moves ensured that the planting of commercial conifer forestry on the Flows could never be repeated, then they would be hard to oppose. I am, though, certain of one thing: the Flow Country brand should be represented by one species above all others – the not-so-humble brown trout – which embodies everything that is wet, wild and wonderful about this special landscape.
HOW TO BOOK
Membership applications can be made through the Forsinard Flyfishers’ website, which also has a booking system for all lochs. Membership is £40 for adults and free for junior members (under 18). Boats are available on a number of lochs for an additional charge of £10, although that is waived if there is a junior member in the boat.