In the latest instalment of Not Exactly Fishing, Gordon Mack recalls how his beloved hill loch retreat, tucked away off the beaten track in the foothills of The Cuillin was unexpectedly burgled.

Skye_Hill_Loch

Skye's Cuillin backdrop: A secret retreat from life's cares and woes . . . until it was burgled

IT IS A Scottish Highland hill loch to gladden the heart of any wild trout enthusiast.  Small, no more than 15 or so acres and remote, a good 50 minutes climbing uphill alongside a tumbling burn over trackless woody heather, peaty hillock and soft rising moorland strewn, as always in mid-summer, with sphagnum moss, bog cotton, campion, sundew and lus nan leac or “plant of the hillsides” as eyebright is known in the far north.

Fishing apart, which I will dwell on in a moment, its greatest redeeming feature is its location, buried in the foothills of The Cuillin on Skye, the jagged gabbro buttresses standing like silent, black sentries guarding the entrance to my secret retreat from the cares and woes of daily life.

To fish this little loch on a summer evening under a breeze, warm and sufficient to dust away the midges yet not destroy the sedge hatch, and as the last rays of the sun turn the giant mountain peaks a rich ochre while serenaded by lark, curlew or cuckoo, is to enjoy Nature surely as it was ever intended.

I visited this loch early in the season and late, in fair weather and in foul, at sunrise, high noon and at dusk. Rarely did it fail to yield up joy. Sometimes this might only be sitting quietly and watching as a pair of great northern divers carried out their courtship while their wailing song echoed mournfully across the water. Or looking skyward to admire briefly the silhouette of a golden eagle soaring effortlessly across its vast territory.

As I became more familiar with the loch and its shoreline, the little weedy bays, rocky clefts and treacherous peaty quarters, and with the rich, dark amber contours of its depths, I understood where the fish gathered, where they meandered.

One particular evening as the wind died to the merest whisper and the air around me whined with the wings of ten million chuileagan, I watched mesmerised as circles of nosing trout appeared across the glassy surface of the water.  Occasionally one would hurl itself into the air in pursuit of some fluttering ephemerid, its splashy re-entry allowing ripples to spread gracefully ever-outwards, long after the sound had died away.

But the fish which caught my eye was not a showman; he did not indulge in aerobatics. Only his shoulder and dorsal fin broke the surface from time to time as he swam here and there in silent pursuit of flies which hung suspended a few centimetres down in the water before breaking out of their shucks and taking wing.  This was a healthy trout which had been around for a year or two.  I guessed he might be 12 oz, perhaps 1lb if I was very lucky.  I set off after him.

Time after time I offered a variety of hatching nymphs and sub-surface wet flies.  I was delighted with casts which landed with all the delicacy I could muster, perfectly placed for the cruising trout.  They were steadfastly ignored; this was a fussy fish.  And he was on patrol.

I followed him for an entire circumference of the loch.  But as the light started to fade and the first of the snipe thrummed past, he was still feeding away and I, now clad in midge hood, was still in pursuit. I studied my flybox for inspiration.  There were so many insects in the air it was impossible to identify which specimen this trout was focused on.

I had already captured earlier in the evening, a brace of half-pounders to classic wet flies – one on a small Kate Maclaren, the other on a tiny Silver Invicta, not in themselves real clues and besides, these had already been proffered and ignored.  I had tried perhaps a 12 or 15 different patterns with no success.  But like most ardent fly-fishers I had no shortage of alternatives.

I stared at the box for what seemed like a long time, considering this colour and that, this profile, that size.  Finally I selected a vintage fly which had come out of my father’s tackle box and probably dated from the early 1950s.

Do you think the fish will know if it it’s a new or old pattern, The Ghillie Herself had once asked?

It was a size 16 with a square gape.  The body was stripped peacock herl with a very fine blae wing, almost like gossamer, and just a few wisps of light brown hen hackle at the front.  No tail, or at least none remained.  The words of The Ghillie Herself were the deciding factor: Do you think the fish will know if it’s a new or old pattern, she’d once asked me as I had displayed the latest packet of purchases.

I was by now fishing just a single fly on a very long 4lb leader which I greased up to 5cm from the fly and set off after my quarry who was working his way methodically on another circumference of the loch.  I stationed myself on a suitable outcrop and waited patiently.

After about 20 minutes, he approached.  I cast out and watched as the trout dutifully sucked down the old fly without hesitation and continued on his way.  Only when I lifted the rod very slightly, did the fish erupt from the water and then take off across the loch.  He never jumped again but bore down and fought relentlessly before sliding over the net.

He wasn’t quite a pound in weight but was fit, healthy and as beautifully marked as only a wild hill trout can be.  I looked at him in the net.  And he looked at me, unblinking.  When all is said and done, it was an uneven contest. Sure, Nature and the elements can conspire to stack the odds against the angler, but on this small water, an experienced human fisherman only has to demonstrate determination and a measure of ingenuity to register success. I removed the hook and put the fish back in the water where he sat motionless in my hands for what seemed like a long time, but in reality was probably only seconds.  Then, suddenly, he was gone.

Few fish before or since have given me quite so much satisfaction as that small trout and cemented forever my love for that remote stretch of highland water; I guarded my solitary expeditions jealously.  But one day not long after and without warning, it was all over.

I sat at the end of an afternoon’s fishing, my six-piece rod stowed in my small rucksack, looking out across the water to the mountain range beyond and contemplating the silence and the light.  A movement to my side caught my eye.  A figure approached.  He was moving slowly and carrying an enormous pack of equipment.

This interloper to my hillside sanctuary was unaware of my presence lying against a grassy mound just 50 metres along the shore. I watched in horror as he unloaded a tent and what seemed like the contents of an army surplus store, including the camouflage jacket and trousers, and then set about assembling an array of spinning rods.

My heart sank.  In truth this little hill loch was no more mine than anyone else’s.  But I had fished it alone so often that I had come to regard it as personal property.  The presence of another angler was akin to being burgled, an invasion of privacy.

I didn’t wait to see the results but rose from my position and marched past him.  He didn’t hear me coming and stumbled forward in shock as I swept by. He muttered something about getting permission to fish “some years ago”. I didn’t stop but said over my shoulder that I’d pass on his regards to the owners when I got down.

I did too, not with any real malice, but more in the hope that somehow the fat little trout that I had returned one evening might evade the armoury being assembled on the bankside.  Sadly, I felt that the odds against, even for that wily trout, were great and that my personal wild paradise was lost.

And so it proved.

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