The game of rugby has been good to Sean Elliott and me over the years. Great camaraderie, a smattering of representative honours and tours, good times both on and off the pitch.
It has however, taken its toll on our bodies: in my case a broken leg, dislocated shoulder, fragile hamstrings, wrecked ankles (the actual opinion of an Army medical practitioner many years ago). For Sean, the spine of a septuagenarian and most recently a knee-operation that eventually came to pass just a few weeks ago, frustratingly adjacent to a planned fishing trip into the wilds of Assynt where we have been pursuing its finned residents for many years.
For the past three years we have shunned the comfort of the local hotel and donned our packs in order to explore the more remote areas available to the fit of limb – and certainly to allow us to be at the lochside for longer than if warm beds, hearty meals and bar-side drams beckoned. This year Sean’s post-op recuperation rendered any notion of heavy packs and rough terrain out of the question and so we were faced with the prospect of a more sedate excursion, which inevitably would not allow us to explore some tempting hill lochs in the shadow of one of Assynt’s iconic peaks, Suilven, as had been our original goal. Until, however, Sean came up with a cunning plan prompted by the original motto of the SBS. We would use guile and not strength to insert ourselves deep into the wilds by boat rather than Shank’s pony.
While being well short of the extreme manoeuvres of the Special Boat Service, this had many attractions, not least in saving us an undoubtedly long and arduous approach walk. It would allow us to have a somewhat more lavish camping experience than in past years, as – to paraphrase the late Jimmy Saville’s British Rail advert – we could let the boat take the strain and allow ourselves to bring along a number of luxury items such as the stove-top espresso maker, fresh rations and wood for a camp fire. Being able to ‘do it the hard way’ doesn’t always mean you have to.
Predictably, the Scottish weather wanted to play its part and during the week prior to the trip we had to endure daily visits to various weather websites and suffer the worry that the prevailing arctic weather would render the fishing unproductive and the camping uncomfortable.
Having decided on our plan of action we secured a boat for the necessary three days from the Ledmore Estate and confirmed that they were happy for us to keep it for the duration and to beach it overnight at the head of Loch Veyatie. From this site – to be our base camp for the trip – we would be able to make easy-on-the-knees day walks to the immediate north east to tackle the last of Suilven’s satellite lochs to see our attentions, as well as walking west to Fionn Loch and fish Veyatie itself – not a bad way to spend two and a half days.
Predictably, the Scottish weather wanted to play its part and during the week prior to the trip we had to endure daily visits to various weather websites and suffer the worry that the prevailing arctic weather would render the fishing unproductive and the camping uncomfortable. Such were the initially predicted daytime temperatures (4-5 degrees C) we seriously considered moving to Plan B, but thankfully by the Thursday the forecast was for a balmy 7 degrees and we decided that ‘you can only prevail if you’re there’ so the trip was on.
A sharp exit from work on the Friday afternoon, airport pick-up at Edinburgh (Inverness flights unavailable), and a very enjoyable trip north on the A9 saw the week’s work worries fall away and we were at the cottage of the delightful James and Sian Curley in Elphin by 1130pm to pick up the boat keys. We then proceeded down to the boat mooring in the dark and pitched our bivvy tent by the car headlights in what was now a very cold and clear night.
Trolling up Loch Veyatie, looking towards Suilven.
Awoken by the bright early morning light of a clear Assynt day, we quickly breakfasted, loaded the boat with our plethora of kit – which included Ferox trolling gear as well as our usual 5 and 7-weight fly outfits – and then proceeded to troll the 7km westwards up the loch in pursuit not only of huge trout but our campsite for the next two days. Alas, no Ferox were encountered, but given their scarcity and our brief attempt at their capture, this was no great surprise. However, by taking our time it had been a pleasant jaunt up the loch and we were now able to re-establish camp and take to the hill-lochs fly rods in hand. With darkness not falling until around 11pm we knew we had plenty of time to walk out to Loch Gleannan a Mhadaidh and Loch nan Rac to have a first explore of these rarely fished lochs and despite our misgivings about the cold conditions and easterly wind (never my favourite), our expectations were high.
Our campsite at the head of Loch Veyatie
The view from the tent as supper is prepared
Moving on from an unnamed lochan.
Into a small but lively fish.
Some seven or so hours later we had each bagged a respectable haul of unremarkably-sized wild brownies and had a thoroughly engaging time amidst the magnificent splendour of this wonderfully rugged part of Scotland, all in the shadow of Suilven. Modest in size our fish might have been, but no-one had told them that and they all fought like fish three times their size. Typical wild trout fishing in Assynt. In an attempt to interest something larger than average I spent quite some time fishing a large lure rather than my usual array of standard wet flies, to be rewarded with a succession of trout which were only marginally longer than my lure. Another lesson re-learned – fish don’t read angling books. We returned to base camp and a huge and welcome meal, cooked whist gazing on the majesty of Suilven itself. We had planned on a foray into the dark in search of the larger trout we know are so often caught into the gloaming – like Iain Johnston’s fine 11lb’er caught last season on Veyatie – but the cold easterly had both increased in strength and decreased in temperature and success seemed unlikely, so a dram and warm sleeping bags beckoned. Fionn Loch would beckon tomorrow…
Fionn Loch is joined to loch Veyatie by the2km long Uidh Fhearna burn which is a fishing venue in its own right. It flows westward and, whilst often shallow, has pools and wide lochans within its course. We could not resist. Fortified by another hearty breakfast, we worked our way down its length prospecting through its riffles, glades and pools. Its fish were relatively sparse, but they were beauties; full butter gold bellies, spade tails and white piping on their fins. Sean landed the best of our trip of around a pound in weight to a small black spider fished ‘down and across’. Having been tackled up for my lure-based assault on the trout of Fionn Loch, I had to reset my approach when it became clear that the burn was very much worth fishing.
Fishing a nice pool on the river between Veyatie and Fionn
A good fish from the same river.
Finally reaching Fionn, we lunched and brewed-up courtesy of our faithful Kelly Kettle and set about working our way westwards down its shores, Sean to the South, me to the North. By this time the wind had died to a light breeze and the surface of the loch, previously untroubled by rising trout, was dimpled with fish sucking down the small black buzzers trapped in its surface. Black Klinkhammers were now the order of the day and whilst the trout remained modest in size, the excitement of taking them on dries was more than satisfactory recompense. Sadly this did not last and once again the cold easterly wind came up and the trout went down. However, it was during this period of relative inactivity that I had the highlight of my trip which came in the very pretty and rare shape of a 20cm long arctic char which fell to that old Scottish faithful, the Black Pennel.
Looking east down Fionn Loch
As this was my first ever wild char I marvelled at its beauty before releasing it, forgetting in my concern for its welfare to take any photos – a fact I massively regret! It will, however, feature long in my memory bank. Its presence reminded me that I was in a truly wild place fishing for truly wild fish – and what’s not to like about that?
Fishing in the margins of Fionn – where the char lurk.
Angling in the shadow of giants.
As I have experienced many times before in the Highlands, the wind suddenly turned by 180 degrees for the next two hours and whilst its direction was more to our liking, the sudden change did not appeal to the local finned residents and sport tailed off throughout the late afternoon. Retracing our steps back up the Uidh Fhearna burn, we had a wonderfully engaging time picking up further fish of unspectacular dimension whilst returning to camp. We do not consider success to be measured in numbers of fish, nor in weight of fish (although what would I give for a wild 3lb fish on my 5 weight) but more in that heady combination of where and how you capture them – and by this measure our trip was certainly delivering.
Our last day dawned very bright and without the cold easterly, which had returned as we ate supper the previous night. It was lining up to be a scorcher, not the weather of choice! As we only had a mere half day before having to travel southwards to get Sean on his flight back to Cambridge, our intention was to pack everything back into the boat and to troll for Ferox eastwards down the loch, whilst stopping from time to time to fly-fish some of the enticing bays on Veyatie.
A good drift on Veyatie.
Maybe the trout sensed we were not relaxed as usual as we eked out our last precious hours in Assynt, or more likely it was the bright sunshine, but this time was to be our least productive in terms of fish caught. Nevertheless, the stunning scenery and the lack of other humanity meant that these last hours did not feel wasted. It was a very happy, relaxed and satisfied pair of anglers who drove the 5-hours back to the airport.
But don’t take my word for it – why not search out the wonderful waters of this part of Scotland for yourself and sample its wonderful scenery and fishing? True, it’s a long way to travel to the far north-west, but perhaps that can be all part of the adventure…for as Gilbert Chesterton once said “…an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.”