Malleny Angling Association
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THE DRY LOCH
I suppose its human nature to assume that the best is yet to
come. After almost 40 years of fishing some of the country's
finest wild trout fisheries, I've had some phenomenal fishing,
and I must admit I wouldn't mind another 40. But the small
chironimid in the ointment is that I may have already had my
perfect dream day.
Twenty-odd years ago my father and I set out from Kirkwall to
fish the Swannay loch one foggy morning in May. We had our doubts
about the fitness of the weather as the visibility was poor
and there was little if any wind. Our expectation of sport was
even lower than the air temperature.
As we pushed the boat off the shore I remember thinking, with
a tinge of the undying optimism that afflicts all anglers, that
the cloud base was lifting and the chill wasn't quite as
penetrating as it had been when we left home. In difficult
conditions fishermen hold onto and nurture these small silver
linings which drop from passing clouds. It was still glassy
calm with not a single sign of trout activity disturbing the
small amount of water we could see, but that wouldn't stop us
betting against the odds.
It may have been the first drift, or perhaps the second, but
it was surprisingly early in the day when my floating line went
tight in the middle of the retrieve. No visible sign of fish
was evident, but I was definitely in!
"Fish", I mentioned laconically to my father. "Good one?" he
enquired. "Oh I don't know," I rejoined, "pound and a half-ish,
maybe." Suddenly the fish was hanging in the air a matter of
feet from the boat, "Bloody hell, he's more like three!" Again
he exploded skywards, "Or four!" The flyrod was being put through
its paces - horizontal as the fish raced around the boat, and
vertical as the fish launched itself in gravity defying leaps.
For a fish of its remarkable size it was extraordinarily
airborne, and this eventually led to its downfall. As I regained
line the jumps were taking place ever closer to the boat and
suddenly, with a clatter of gill-covers and a spray of water,
the fish erupted from under the gunnel of the boat, arced towards
me, struck my chest and dropped into the boat. The ensuing chaos
of flailing fish, rocking boat and over-the-top human reaction
are best left to the imagination.
Shortly after this entertaining interlude we noticed that the
air temperature had risen appreciably and that a thin, pearly
haze had replaced the fog. Conditions were markedly improved,
but we had to wait some time for the next fish which fell to
my father as we drifted on to the Heathery Shore.
It was obvious right from the start that this fish was big.
It gave not an inch and bored deep and powerfully, exhibiting
none of the dash and airborne aptitude of its predecessor. My
father fought the fish with one hand and prepared his net with
the other. I remember thinking that this netting-preparation
was optimistic and somewhat previous as the fish gave not the
slightest indication of giving up the fight. Dad slipped the
net deep into the water as his rod creaked and groaned under
the strain of struggle.
Suddenly the rod sprang upright and the landing net handle jerked
in his hand. "Good God, its in the net." he exclaimed, and
proceeded to pull the writhing, thrashing, bundle into the boat.
Upon disentangling the fish it became obvious that it had slipped
the hook, and effectively 'gilled' itself in the net. Things
were beginning to take on a slightly surreal aspect.
Still, that was two immense fish in the boat, and the weather
was continuing to improve. The wind had strengthened slightly,
producing a 'corduroy' ripple (a condition I love on Swannay),
the cloud ceiling had continued to lift, and it was now as warm
as one could expect in early May. Midge were hatching extensively
and, at last, fish were rising everywhere. I remember thinking
"My God, we're going to fill the boat".
Fish were 'dorsaling' all around us but we couldn't tempt a
one. Everything was trie, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Eventually, more in hope than expectation, I stuck on a l/s
12 Worm Fly and stripped it past the nose of steady feeder and
he hit it with a thump. "Here we go", I thought, "It worked
once, it'll work again." But no, it didn't, and we were forced
to retire with but the three. Mind you, what a trio they were
- the piscine equivalent of Nijinsky weighed 5lb 5ozs, the
suicidal one went 4lb 13ozs, and the midge feeder went 2"
exactly. Three wild browns for 12lb 10 ozs.
The 5.5 still remains my heaviest wild brown, although I have
come close to bettering it on a number of occasions - once in
South Uist when a fish came to my flies through a Stilligary
wave and I almost wet myself, and a couple of times last year,
on Lough Sheelin, when my 'record' could have been shattered.
There was also the hooked and lost 'submarine' on Loch Leven
which turned the boat round, and others during isolated occasions
on other Orcadian lochs - but most often on Swannay.
Amongst them being the fish which tried to take my bob fly
as it hovered six inches out of the water, and actually slammed
into the side of the boat as it missed the fly. I might have
done a better job on that one but for the fact that I was
watching black-backed gulls mobbing an otter at the time. There
was the monster that smashed me to pieces, due to my incredible
folly, whilst drifting the Heathery Shore with messrs Gathercole
& Irvine. Both of these fish were seen in their entirety, and
there were few doubts as to their weight.
Unlike its fish, Swannay is not big by UK standards, consisting
of 600 acres of peat-stained water, and, as the bulk of the
fishing takes place in only two-thirds of its area, it is also
not as daunting a prospect to explore as, say, Harray or
Stenness. The southern end of the loch below the Muckle Holm
tends to see most angling effort, and this region is rich in
off-shore shallows, trenches and weed-beds which provide quality
habitat for Swannay trout.
It is a rule of thumb that a rough estimate of the depth of
a loch can be arrived at by studying the surrounding landscape.
In this respect Swannay is misleading, as the land around is
relatively high and slopes down quite steeply, but the loch
depth averages only 3 metres. The water, as previously mentioned,
is peat-stained and can vary from guinness-like in the early
season to the colour of a cream sherry in mid-season.
Peat-stained water is generally assumed to be acidic but in
this case, due to the nature of the geology of the region, the
water is alkaline and abounds with crustaceans and molluscs.
The principal food item being the ubiquitous shrimp (gammarus
sp.), supplemented with caddis (adult & larva), midge and
stickle-back which the loch produces in extraordinary numbers.
Terrestrial flies such as Crane Fly and Cow Dung are very
important, and can appear on the water in very large quantities
to the delight of the trout and the angler.
Plenty of food grows big fish, and the best conditions in which
to find them tend to be those of high, even cloud ceiling, mild
temperatures and just enough breeze to hold steady. All my 3lb+
fish from this loch have come in conditions of extremely light
wind, and this is unusual, as the rule of thumb for wild browns
is "big wave, big fish".
But where this loch really bucks the trend is in the most
successful fishing techniques. The extremely high quality of
the dry fly fishing on Swannay is a source of continuing surprise
to all and sundry. This loch is the only wild brown trout water
in the country where I almost invariably rig up for dries as
a first resort and only change to wets when convinced I'm on
the wrong tack. Normally, it is fair to assume that browns prefer
sub-surface offerings as the bulk of their food consists of
items which rarely if ever leave an aquatic environment. This
is very true of Swannay where the menu is largely shrimp and
caddis larvae, and trout with raw, rubbed blisters on their
noses caused by rooting about in the stones are the rule rather
than a rarity. To catch such a fish on dry fly is confusing,
and doubly so when the marrow spoon shows that nothing vaguely
resembling an adult insect has been recently ingested. But I
am no longer surprised by such an occurrence on Swannay.
Dry fly is so effective on this water that I have no compunction
in saying that a competent 'dry' man will out-fish a similarly
qualified 'wet' man over the course of a whole season. I'll
go further - the dries will take not only more, but bigger and
better fish, and this will start in April and continue on,
unbroken, until the end of September. In a three-foot wave or
a mirror-calm, without the slightest sign of natural fly life
or feeding fish, dries will regularly out-fish wets.
And God, how I love it! Nothing can be simpler - forget about
retrieve rate or density of line, pattern choice and size, just
stick on a couple of size 12 dark seal's fur patterns with a
turn of hackle at the head, degrease your leader and Gink the
flies, cast them a modest distance in front of the drifting
boat, and get ready for action. However, should you wish to
fish traditional wet patterns, a brief selection would include
Zulu, Bibio, Goat's Toe, Claret & Golden Olive Bumbles,
Alexandra, Silver Invicta, Palmered Coch, Palmered March Brown,
Peacock Palmer, Loch Ordie and, in desperation, a Black Cat's
Whisker. Patterns for dries aren't important, but colours
definitely are and should include black, claret, fiery brown
and hare's ear with masses of loose fibres brushed out and the
odd hackle fibre to kick in the ripple.
If you haven't guessed by now, I'll tell you - Swannay is my
favourite loch, and I hope to spend a lot more perfect days
on it before I hand in my zimmer frame.
Boat-hire is available from Ronnie Breck, who has 4 excellent
craft available at reasonable prices.
Phone him @ 01856 721281.
Anglers visiting Orkney are respectfully requested to join the
Orkney Trout Fishing Association. This organisation is at the
forefront of all efforts to enhance and protect the rich legacy
of the county's trout fishing. There are OTFA sites which provide
amenities for members on all the major lochs.
Accommodation, travel & general information details are available
from the Orkney Tourist Board, 6 Broad Street, Kirkwall,
KW15 1NX, Orkney. Tel: 01856 872856 Fax: 01856 875056.
General information on Orcadian trout fishing is available in
Stan Headley's "A Trout Fishing Guide to Orkney" available from
him at Quoys, Stenness, Orkney, KW16 3JY, priced @ ?2.00. Please
enclose a stamped, addressed A5 envelope with payment.
BLACK & CLARET
Hook - Partridge K14ST 10 - 14
Silk - black
Body - bibio-style, black, claret & black
Rib - fine, clear monofilament
Hackle - sparse black hen, clipped flat underneath
Hook - Partridge E1A or L3A, 12 & 14
Silk - black
Body - claret, fiery brown, or olive green seal's fur
or wel-mixed hare's mask fur
Wing - bunches of deer hair, tyed matuka style (dark deer
hair with the dark dubbings, and light hair with the
Tying Tip: As each bunch of hair is tied in, lay a couple of
turns of dubbed thread is over the deer hair roots, to prevent
the deer hair from spining.
This article archived 20 May 2003