Large or small, wild or stocked, the still waters of Scotland offer world-class trout fishing in breathtaking surroundings, says Mungo Ingleby
Mungo Ingleby champions the lure of loch fishing, making the most out of Scotland’s still waters brimming with wild trout.
If you can understand how a fish targets a fly, this will inevitably lead to more chances of success, says Paul Kenyon.
The River Dee is renowned as one of Scotland’s finest salmon rivers, with its fast-flowing waters and beguiling pools enchanting the Royal Family for more than 175 years, says Sam Carlisle.
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT LOCH FISHING
There are moments in every salmon fishing season where it is counterproductive to your chances of success to continue flogging the pools hour after hour. In such circumstances, there is the ever-present danger that golf might be proposed as a means to while away the time before the light starts to fade from the day. Now is the time to fish for trout. Trout fishing in Britain, and in particular Scotland, is often overlooked and undervalued. Countries across the globe – the USA, Slovenia, New Zealand, Ireland and many others – cherish their trout fisheries and people travel from all over the world to fish in their waters.
Scotland is different; there are thousands of lochs brimming with wild trout that see fishers only occasionally, if at all. The Don and the Deveron offer world-class river trout fishing and yet most beats charge less than £10 a day. There is little doubt the reason for this; in the eyes of many, Scottish fishing equals salmon fishing. Happily, Scotland can still deliver outstanding salmon fishing, but recent weather patterns have meant that sport is becoming more condition dependent, and the runs of fish seem ever more compressed.
BEAUTIFUL AND WILD
Away from the river, Scotland has stunning trout-fishing lochs and they all, large and small, wild or stocked, offer different challenges and opportunities. Your first option is the hill loch. Scotland is full, and I really do mean full, of lochs of all shapes and sizes that hold prodigious numbers of wild brown trout that probably average no more than 4oz. The water is acidic and peaty, fly hatches, with the exception of the infamous midge, are sparse, and the trout that swim in these waters, unlike their stocked counterparts, do not grow big and fat. These trout are unable to pick and choose their meals and they must grab what they can, and quickly, before one of their brethren gets there first. As a result, these fish are always on the alert, nearly always obliging and the fishing is generally as easy as it is possible to find in freshwater. Try a bushy Sedgehog in the margins, but if you can get a fly, almost any fly, in or on the water, you will catch fish. In many parts of Scotland, you can choose a loch that is by the road or one that requires a two-hour hike in the hills. These lochs take you to beautiful and wild parts of Scotland; they can be an afternoon or a full day, an expedition, a lazy cast and picnic and they are brilliant locations to take children and beginners to learn the mechanics of fishing, retrieving and hooking fish.
Rather more challenging are Scotland’s clear, fertile lochs. Some, such as those in the Uists, around Cape Wrath and in Caithness, are well known. Others are closely guarded secrets, and they are not my secrets to tell, but a geological map of Scotland will give you the clues you need. These lochs are a different proposition. Fly and invertebrate life is rich, the shrimp populations in the marl-bottomed lochs have to be seen to be believed and the portly trout that inhabit these waters are fussy, unpredictable and occasionally maddening. If your chosen loch is in a benevolent mood, you might just hook something special – a trout of more than 19lb was recorded in one of these lochs in 2021. Extraordinary, but beware as, in much the same way as salmon fishing, many hours can pass with no action. They are less suited to the beginner. Early and late, both in the day and season, often offer the best chance of success, and sometimes surprisingly large flies can be the key to these lochs. I might start with traditional flies, although in any sort of wave they will be 8s rather than 12s, and I will admit that a second rod, with an intermediate line and Natural Minkie, will be close at hand.
If heading to the hills is impractical, small waters generally stocked with rainbow trout of all sizes are a fascinating conundrum with their own set of rules. It is a common misconception that these are easy places to fish. If you arrive hours after a stocking they are, but pressured small water trout, where catch-and-release is practised, quickly become wary. A misplaced cast or heavy footfall will scatter feeding trout. Simple things can greatly increase your success rate: starting well back from the water, fishing with just a yard or two of line out of the rod tip and fishing small. It is a good mindset to adopt on the river, and it is staggering to me how many fishers will plunge into the water, immediately pay out 20 yards of line and then execute a noisy Circle C or Snap T cast with the fly and leader landing a straight line perhaps one cast in five. Ledyatt in Fife, Loch Insch in Aberdeenshire and Raemoir on Deeside all see numbers of fishers from the Tay, Spey and Dee enjoying themselves when river conditions are against them.
Larger stocked waters fish well in perhaps the widest range of conditions and in most months of the year. The Lake of Menteith is widely acknowledged as Scotland’s best and for good reason. Like many, it is open for much of the year, although the peak of the season would be March through to the end of October. Across these months the lake will see immense buzzer hatches, mayfly through late May and June, heather fly and daddy long-leg falls. With much of its 700 acres being fairly shallow, top-of-the-water tactics are the preferred method. Throw in the opportunity to cast for some monstrous pike, multiple ospreys fishing for the same trout, two islands, one hosting a ruined monastery and the other a castle, and it is quite the day out. If conditions are against me on the Tay or Teith, a day’s sport on the lake is a great way to occupy a party before returning to the river in the gloaming.
The lake is boat fishing only, while many other locations offer the choice of either boat or shore fishing. Boats offer excellent flexibility and the chance to prospect far larger areas than is possible from the shore. As water temperatures rise and fish move from the margins, they are often your only way of accessing fish-holding water and they are critical to success. They are also social. A day fishing the loch shore gives much of the same solitude as on the river, while a day in a boat with a friend is a day’s fishing shared. Every take, triumph or bungle is in full view and it is a social and relaxing day. It seems simple, but retrieving line is often alien to salmon fishermen; the drift of the boat forces you to do so and speed can so often be the key to success.
There is no doubt that loch or stillwater fishing need not be anything more than a tremendous day out. If, however, you are a fisher who initially struggles to be captured by loch fishing, remember that many of the best Shots, or those aspiring to be better, will keep their eye in at either clay or feathered pigeons during the off-season. It makes perfect sense for fishers to do similarly, and for the majority of readers, stillwater fishing will be their closest and most accessible way of doing this. Brown and rainbow trout set their own respective challenges that really make you think about watercraft, about the depth and speed your fly is fishing, about presentation and you can add layers of your own problems to solve. You can choose to cast with your ‘wrong’ hand, into or across the wind, whatever suits the day and your mood, and you can take these skills and casting tricks on to the river.
You may also choose to fish for salmon with a single-hander as, in many situations through the Scottish and Icelandic summer, light lines and rods are the correct choice. Stealthy presentation, hitching, stripping, the overhead cast – all are either easier or more effective, in most situations, with a single-handed rod. I would introduce one caveat: there is nothing more important for successful catch-and-release than playing fish firmly and quickly. There are no issues in achieving this with a single-handed rod, but you must remember that rods are made to bend. Playing multiple feisty rainbows and exploring the pressure you can put on fish, knocking them off balance, gaining confidence in barbless hooks and in your nylon strength will make you significantly more comfortable applying similar pressure to the next salmon that takes your fly.
Should an occasional day on still waters develop into a love of loch fishing, at some point you will need to make the pilgrimage to the Western Isles. Sadly, the west coast of Harris and Lewis are now, with one or two mainland exceptions, the last strongholds of loch fishing for salmon and sea trout. It is the wildest country. The walk into Ulladale or the boat relay to the top of the Grimersta system take you to places where the only signs of human habitation are the worn path you are following and the clinker boat that lies in wait. There are few such places left and for me it is something special. A day of dappled light, a steady rolling wave and silver grilse shouldering their way through the waves is truly something to treasure and great fun, as indeed is all loch fishing. Just remember to pack your trout rod, not that set of clubs, next time you head north.