There is a danger with writing articles on angling that some regular readers (if I have any) may think that the author considers he is some sort of angling guru dispensing pearls of angling wisdom. I hope that this isn’t the case, but in this piece I want to dispel any such notion, should there be one. There is a wonderful angling truism that fishing is like sex “ you don’t have to be good to enjoy it. I am not going to comment about the other half of this equation but I certainly believe that you don’t have to be an angler who catches lots of fish to enjoy the experience “ which is just as well given my many years of vast incompetence.
This is where I bear my angling soul and tell you of some of my angling disasters as well as the numerous setbacks all destined to live on in my angling hurt locker. I hope they inspire any other duffers out there.
So where do I start? At the beginning I suppose. My long and spectacularly unsuccessful fly-fishing apprenticeship started with the tip of an old greenheart salmon rod stuck into a piece of dowelling teamed up with an old and very cheap fly reel loaded with light monofilament nylon. Yes, sadly no one had told this mad-keen young angling tyro that you needed fly line in order to be able to fly fish. Let me assure you how unsatisfactory and completely unrewarding trying to cast a piece of limp nylon with a fly rod is. I defy even the best tournament casters to make such a set-up work in the pursuit of wily River Devon trout. And indeed, I caught none on this outfit whatsoever “ and possibly didn’t even manage to cast my fly into the water.
Matters did not improve with any rapidity and my angling incompetence continued for many, many years. Thanks to my non angling (golfing) family, I was all too regularly stuck on the banks of a far too shallow river in the midst of a bright summer afternoon (do you remember when we had those?) and expected to catch a trout on dreadfully inexpensive tackle and frankly, without a clue. At least I can now stand on the bank of a river with nae enough water and fish for salmon with very expensive tackle and catch nothing with far more style (but still the same lack of substance).
Reading books helped but it wasn’t until my mother introduced me to Paddy Bulloch “ a most wonderful man, sadly dead for many years” that I started to get to grips with fly fishing. This did not mean I was an overnight success. I still smile as I remember just how patient Paddy was with his young disciple. I wasn’t so much Grasshopper as Spider, such was the way I could form nylon into strange web-like tangles (you have to be a certain age to understand the Grasshopper reference).
Overtime I became highly proficient at breaking rods “ a skill I still practice on a regular basis, in particular with my Hardy Smuggler. How my friend Stuart laughed as I shut my car door on my new fly rod in the car park of Craigluscar reservoir many moons ago now. He laughed simply because he knew of the Victor Meldrewesque reaction he was shortly to witness. I did not disappoint him and he calls me Victor to this day.
Nor has my breaking things been limited to rods. I have had landing nets, reels and tackle bags fall to pieces in my service “often whilst playing fish” and I have almost broken limbs as I have fallen out of trees, climbed in the pursuit of watching fish. Trees feature highly in many of my unsuccessful struggles with fish. I well remember hooking a pike on a fly in a Hampshire chalkstream and realising it was moving in a direction that I couldn’t go unless I followed it downstream past a line of bankside trees. This I accomplished by passing the rod around each tree in turn (whilst at this point still attached to my angry pike). I remember being very smug about achieving this feat until I tripped over the roots of the last tree and in the process lost my fish (and incidentally almost broke yet another rod).
But of course you don’t have to break things to be inconvenienced. Walking half way across the Isle of Coll before realising I didn’t have my reel wasn’t my smartest day on the planet. Thankfully Sean and Rob rose above any childish reaction to my predicament. Aye, right.
I have also proved that you can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Even after having a good day’s fishing, you can find yourself surpassing yourself with Frank Spencer-like incompetence. Leaving a trout in the boot of your seldom-used second car during the summer doesn’t increase its second-hand value, believe me. Good source of maggots though.
Even today, when I think I have this competence thing in the bag, I can regularly bring myself back down to earth. After a rather too liquid lunch in the Kinkell fishing hut on the Earn, I recall standing rather shakily on the bank and, having decided to spin in the afternoon following an unsuccessful morning with the fly, casting my devon minnow comfortably a field beyond the far bank. Too much effort is oft likely to have the opposite result.
I will end this first trip into my hurt-locker by telling a tale of a visit to the back lochs of Ardnamurchan a few years ago with a salutary reminder to others of the perils of forgetting how time changes everything “ from your own fitness to how much trees can grow in 15 years.
There are two ways of fishing the back lochs “ the easy way and the other way. The easy way is no doubt to ask the Estate for the keys to the gates on the forest path and to take your car as far as you can before doing relatively short walks through the pine plantations to the lochs. In fact the easy way is still not easy at all, for traversing through the plantations from loch to loch is not straightforward and you are well advised to be able to use map, compass and GPS before you try. The other way is to park your car by Loch Mudle and travel a circuit by foot, taking in as many lochs as you can manage. This other way was relatively straightforward 15 years previous to my trip when the plantation was younger, as were my own legs.
The reason I chose the other way on this trip was that relatively rare event in these parts “ a south easterly wind. In order to go with the wind and use it to fish down the lochs as I went about my circular expedition, it made sense to fish anti-clockwise “ so the die was cast, shank’s pony it would be.
The first loch encountered on this route was Lochan a Mhadaidh Riabhaich. This is the loch I had fished on a regular basis, being less popular than Mudle but close enough for a quick walk from the road where you can be fishing within half an hour.
On this occasion however, I would only be passing the loch on my way to Lochan na Carraige. I had decided to make use of what I had surmised was a firebreak in the north-east of the surrounding plantation when I had last fished Mhadaidh Riabhaich to make easier progress to this loch I had only fished once before. The distance was only 1.5km on the map “ surely not too difficult for an ex-Army man?
How wrong I was. 15 years of growth, and more importantly of trees blowing down in the frequent storms of these parts, rendered the route “ after the first deceptively clear element that I had seen from the shore of Mhadaidh Riabhaich “ almost impassable. There was no fire break, there was no continuous tree plantation furrow to follow, there was just 1.5km of fallen trees and treacherous bog to negotiate. Thankful that I was travelling light, with my Hardy Smuggler #5 not yet set up (it would have ended up in far more than its normal 7 sections if it had been), I literally battled, crawled, climbed and slithered my way through the primary jungle of fallen trees following what were roe deer tracks through the tangle of timber until, at last, I appeared sweating profusely and caked in mud at the small lochan that was the satellite of Lochan na Carraige.
Having taken some time to cool off and to then put on my waders (a bit late given how wet I was), at last I got the chance to explore this enchanting lochan. At only 500m long and perhaps 100m wide, this was no large loch, but that’s the way I like it – an intimate experience for the lone angler to cast and step their way round a loch barely troubled by anglers throughout the year. Having taken note of the abundance of flying ants falling onto the loch, I armed myself with a cast comprising an Alexandra on the point, a russet palmer in the middle and a Bibio on the top dropper. This is almost my go-to-first cast in all wild lochs. The Alexandra is, I am sure, taken as a beetle imitation, the russet palmer is taken for a host of terrestrial insects (in this case I hoped a flying ant) and the Bibio is taken as a Heather Fly. In order to best exploit it as an ant imitation, my russet palmer was size 14 where the other flies stayed the usual size 12. Success was immediate and repeated “ all on the wee russet palmer. All terrier-like and quick as lightning, these were not large fish but how they scrapped on my 5-weight rod.
So with success and a feeling that the struggle had been worthwhile, I moved on to Lochan nan Sioman “ a thankfully short 200m walk over rock and heather rather than through dense forest. My previous immediate success was not repeated, despite a similar fall of ants. A light rain started to fall and I took out my lightweight waterproof “ no sense in getting wet and cold when at a remote loch “ when I suddenly experienced shooting pain on my neck. The pain seemed to spread and grow worse and I knew I had been bitten/stung by something, but of course could not see exactly where and by what, given the location of my discomfort. Thankfully I carry an after-bite pen (as well as so many other things) in my fishing waistcoat and so I found myself applying the soothing solution all over my neck whilst considering the unlikely but not altogether ridiculous notion that were I to have any kind of anaphylactic reaction whilst at this remote spot I was, frankly, a goner. The likely culprit was of course a flying ant attack but my mind went through a range of possibilities such as an adder (there are plenty in these parts) in the hood of my jacket. No melodrama here then!
Having soothed the affected area, I continued to fish (well, if there was to be an anaphylactic reaction, I might as well keel over whilst playing a trout). By some twist of happy fate, I was shortly to connect with my best fish of the trip, a hard-pulling brown of comfortably over the pound which put a wonderful arc into my 8ft rod. Safely released to fight another day, I fished on to the north-west tip of the loch before setting my sights on another cross-country hike of a kilometre and a half to cast into Lochan Creag nan Dearcag. Had my initial walk been less arduous I would have also taken in Lochan Creag nan Con, but now time was against me. I had promised my kids to take the boat out into Sanna Bay later that day to check our creels for lobster and crab, and now I sensed that I was pushing my luck with the family.
While not as demanding as the initial walk, the traverse proved demanding enough (in particular having decided to keep on my waders and felt boots). Felt boots and grass certainly don’t mix and I had a couple of interesting tumbles which could easily have resulted in a badly damaged knee (again this would have been interesting in terms of extracting myself from within dense forest). But time was pressing on and I didn’t want to waste precious fishing time getting in and out of waders.
Sadly, my investment in time was a poor one, as both Lochan nan Dearcag and Lochan na Tuaidh proved dour with only a few fish showing any interest. Perhaps it was the lightening of the wind, or the ending of the flying ants that caused the trout to go down, but perhaps it was just that I wasn’t fishing as hard, conscious that I had to keep moving even faster than I normally did when covering these wild lochs. Whatever the reason, my fishing came to a natural end as I headed from Lochan na Tuaidh to hit the end of the forest track whence I began a rapid walk back to the car.
Arriving some 3hours late and having missed the tide to get the boat afloat to check our creels, Judith did enquire as to why I hadn’t turned back when she heard of the tough going. My reply was simply that I had set out to go fishing, and that’s what I was going to do, no matter what.
Well, there’s no fool like an old angling fool.
Here’s to a successful 2013!