A catch that feeds the soul

Heaven is the Outer-Hebrides – with the electric jolt of the sea trout on the line


This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Memories are precious to the fly fisherman, helping sustain him through the half of the year when the rules forbid the catching of trout, sea trout and salmon.

On a January night when the opening of the season still seems depressingly distant I have only to close my eyes to summon up some episode from my fishing past. The memories come back with pyschedelic clarity. I can’t remember much about some pretty key life events but though it is nearly 20 years since I first caught a fish with a fly I still recall the jolt of electric intimacy as though it happened this morning.

Each season you add new memories but last year, with the opening of the season delayed by the pandemic, the number of outings was reduced. That made it all the more important to replenish the dream hoard before the shutters came down again.

The island is almost more water than land and the innumerable lochs and lochans are famous for their wild brown trout

Recently I’ve been rounding off the fishing year with an early autumn trip to South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The island is almost more water than land and the innumerable lochs and lochans are famous for their wild brown trout. They are beautiful fish, often gorgeously spotted with red and yellow — in each loch the palette is different — and run up to three pounds.

As the summer wears on the brownies tail off and by September it is the time of the sea trout which arrive at a few inlets on the west side of the island, then make their way through an interlocking system of lochs and burns to the streams in the hilly centre and east where they will reproduce.

I love South Uist and when I go my ashes will be scattered there. But I hesitated before making it my last fishing trip of the 2020 season. I wanted to go into winter with good memories and the previous two visits, while fun, had not produced great catches. There are fishing types who claim that they have achieved a state of zen contentment whereby catching fish has become almost immaterial and it is communion with God’s creation that draws them to the water.

On the Howmore

I do not believe them. In my view they are covering for the fact that they are either a) useless and never catch anything anyway or b) brilliant and therefore so sated after a lifetime of hauling out whoppers that truly, as the great B.B. King sang, The Thrill Is Gone. In the end I booked the flight. To be a fisherman you have to be an optimist. You have to believe that luck can change and that you can make it change.

The technique here is wet fly, with three dangling from a thin monofilament leader at the end of a floating line. A typical day may pass with you flogging the water for hour after hour before trudging away empty handed. That might seem to fulfill Einstein’s alleged definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. But the fisherman tells himself he is not mad. He is convinced that by constantly changing his fly pattern or lengthening his leader he is engaged in a logical process that will eventually change his fortunes. It is what keeps him and the tackle industry going.

I arrived in South Uist on a Sunday afternoon, breezy with sunny spells. The bracken was a lovely rusty orange. There are hardly any trees to speak of on the island and no big mountains. The boggy land is dotted with plain grey bungalows that resemble dummy houses plonked down on an architect’s maquette. It’s the poor relation of the Outer Hebrides, less favoured by summer visitors than Harris, Lewis and North Uist. Outsiders either get it or they don’t, and those who do feel a partisan loyalty to the place and its warm and kindly inhabitants.

My wife’s family has a house here dating back to when her father served with the Cameron Highlanders, who recruited hereabouts. Previously there were four or five in our fishing party. This year Covid-related fears meant there were just the two of us. Given my determination to score, that was perhaps no bad thing. The usual crew are great company but some are easily disheartened and liable if the fish aren’t co-operating or the rain gets too heavy to down rods and head for the pub — which was anyway not an option this time.

Outsiders either get it or they don’t, and those who do feel a partisan loyalty to the place and its warm and kindly inhabitants

If you want a companion who is undaunted by wind and weather and ready to stay out till the light goes then Mark is your man. He is also a naturalist and a professional wild-life cameraman who picks up dramas going on in the rocks and heather around that are invisible to townie eyes.

We hit the water at my favourite spot at 9am on Monday. The Howmore is the only river in South Uist and it is less than a mile long. It flows out of a clutch of three lochs that are the best sea trout lochs on the island. The river is the fishes’ route into them so it is the obvious place to mount an ambush. But you have to be there at the right time, that is, when the tide starts to rise.

Sea trout, like Atlantic salmon, are anadromous — meaning they start life in fresh water, then spend part of it at sea before returning from the salt to spawn. They go out brown and come back silver and pink-fleshed, the result of gorging on prawns and shrimps. They are less streamlined than salmon and deeper-bodied. Both salmon and sea trout come up this little river. If you get a bite you know before you see the fish which variety you have hooked. The salmon take is a long draw. You feel the line taughten steadily and you must wait a few seconds before lifting the rod tip — the “strike”. Sea trout do the striking for you. They hit the fly like a train, then race off at a speed that leaves spray trailing from your line. In those first seconds even a pound fish can feel like a serious sea trout only to reveal its true dimensions when it breaks the surface.

At Heaven’s Gate

I put Mark on a prime stretch, a cauldron-like pool below the bridge where the peat-stained river meets the tide, while I tackled up. I had not finished when I heard a yelp. Mark’s rod has a respectable bend in it and the line was zig-zagging around the pool. It wasn’t a big fish, a junior sea trout or finnock, but it was a beauty, fresh in on the tide and shining like a silver dollar.

Early success usually means you are in for a good day and so it turned out. I had a small fish on with my first cast and by the end of the day we had caught 14 between us. All were returned except one of about a pound and a half and we had it that evening.

You don’t need to do much to a sea-trout, just dot it with butter and herbs, wrap it in tinfoil with a little white wine and stick it in the oven for 20 minutes. To me they taste better than salmon, delicate and slightly nutty, especially when teamed with a £6.99 Co-Op Viognier.

So a perfect start, but we nonetheless went to bed with a sense of foreboding. You rarely get two good days in a row and so it turned out. Next morning it was soon clear there were no fish in the river and we moved quickly on to a loch above. Fishing a river and fishing a loch are two different things. With a river you know where the trout are likely to lie and cast to the spots where your flies will hopefully bob temptingly past their avid gobs.

You don’t need to do much to a sea-trout, just dot it with butter and herbs, wrap it in tinfoil with a little white wine and stick it in the oven for 20 minutes

On a loch you can only guess. Instead of drifting the flies you cast, pull them through the water for a few seconds, then cast again. Hope can soon start to wither as you row up and down the featureless chop, mechanically flicking and retrieving until your forearms throb and and your shoulders burn. The cycle takes about ten seconds. That means in a day you might repeat the process about 2,000 times. If it’s going well, you don’t notice. If not, you do. That Tuesday it did not go well. Mark caught three modest fish, I none.

There was a certain tension, then, as we set out on a dreich morning for Roag, one of the best-known sea trout lochs. We were taking a ghillie this time, which only increased the pressure. Colin is a shaman steeped in 40 years of professional experience both here and on the great rivers of Scotland and Norway. If he can’t guide you to a good fish the gods are against you. You will end the day cold, wet and blackly wondering why you bother.

After a couple of hours that was how it was looking. Colin rowed us back and forth over the likely lies and we cast until our arms ached. Then Mark’s line taughtened and our spirits leapt, only to sink again when there was just a wee brownie on the end.

Now great grey curtains of rain were sweeping the loch driven by a fierce west wind. It seemed impossible that any fish could see your flies let alone struggle through the waves to take them. I cast mechanically, retrieving as soon as the flies hit the water. Bang! The rod came alive in my hands, electrified by a tremendous vital force that immediately bent it almost double.

I jerked the rod high desperate to keep the line tight and the hook firm and the fish set off, plunging and climbing, racing away in a reel-screaming run then turning instantly back so I had to scrabble to haul in the slack. At last I had it under control and it came to the surface in a shudder of silver muscle. “That’s a fish,” said Colin and it was.

Mark caught several more in the remaining days. I didn’t but I had got what I came for. I froze my three-pound sea trout and took it back to London where it made a fabulous dinner. The memory of eating it will fade soon enough. The memory of catching it never. The process lasted no more than five minutes but I will be reliving the seconds until I die. A dream fish.

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