Gasping for breath, I’d finally reached the departures entrance at Bristol airport – I’d lugged three huge bags stuffed with my fly-fishing gear from the long stay car park. I was off for a weeks fly-fishing on the Isle of Lewis, part of the Outer Hebrides.
It was the first week of May and with the weather a month or so behind, there was still a definite nip in the air – along with plenty of rain. I was however, avoiding the ‘Midgey season’, which was an obvious advantage. My base was to be a lovely old croft-house; a stones-throw away from the coast, and just half a mile from Stornaway Airport. Perfect.
I’d done my homework before the holiday with the Internet proving invaluable. I’d found an interesting site www.lewislochs.co.uk, which contained information on various lochs along with OS grid references. There are over a thousand named lochs on Lewis, most of which contain healthy populations of brown trout! I’d marked around a dozen lochs on my map before ramming it into by suitcase. Most of the trout fishing on the island is free, but it’s worth checking, because the island is spit up into Estates, with specific lochs requiring permits.
I arrived on a Saturday afternoon and following a quick scout around the island, I was keen to wet a line the next day. However, I would have to wait until the Monday morning as fishing on a Sunday is forbidden in Scotland. In fact, on Lewis, it’s ‘frowned upon’ to even put your washing out! Nevertheless, this ‘free day’ did allow me to have a serious ‘reckee’ of the island and get a chance to speak to some locals. As ever, local knowledge is paramount – especially for the visiting angler. Time is of the essence. With such a huge array of lochs at your disposal, you don’t want to be wasting any time flogging what’s known locally as ‘a stiff loch’ – in other words, a loch which doesn’t fish particularly well! I was lucky to stumble across a local fishing fanatic, Fred Thomas. Fred runs the only stocked rainbow trout fishery on the island and has fished the lochs of Lewis for over twenty years – just the man! Before he’d had chance to put the kettle on, my OS map was out on the table and my pen was at the ready! He was soon pointing out some hotspots to try. During his younger days, loaded up with a huge backpack, Fred would wonder off into the moors for anything up to a week to fish a ‘pod’ of lochs. He’d been Head Gillie on many of the famous Estates and his enthusiasm was plain to see – he was in the know, and my ears we well and truly open! Fred explained that you’ll catch in most of the lochs, but the challenge is to find the better fish.
For the first few days I pottered around some of the roadside lochs finding my feet. I caught fish, but nothing over the half-pound mark – then Fred kindly invited me to join himself and a friend for a days fishing. Through the grapevine, he’d heard of an unnamed loch that was producing fish over the pound mark. The loch was off the beaten track, being over an hours walk across the moor! This was just what I needed – a chance to fish with a local. My name was down and we decided to meet at Fred’s fishery at 8am sharp the following morning. I woke to a bright, sunny morning – not ideal for fishing, but the blustery wind would help our cause. Come 8.30am, Fred, myself, and Tom (Fred’s fishing pal) had bundled ourselves into a Toyota Hilux for the short mile or so spin to where we parked up at the side of the road. “It’s over that mountain somewhere….” remarked Fred, as he slipped on his neoprene chest waders. Opening the roadside gate, we set off across the moor. Now I consider myself to be reasonably fit, but the next hour demonstrated to me that my 9–5 office job was not doing me any favours. I wasn’t fit at all, and walking across that boggy moor was bloody hard work! Those moors are deceiving – everything can look the same at times and when you reach the top of what you think is the final hill, you discover that in fact you’ve got another 20 minutes of walking to go! It’s easy to steer off course, so it’s recommended to check your bearings periodically with your compass. Amazingly, Fred did the walk wearing neoprenes – with a roll-up cigarette constantly in his mouth! I could see why many of the locals these days use quad bikes to reach such lochs. Nevertheless, as we descended down the last ‘wee slope’, we caught our first glimpse of our loch and suddenly it all proved worthwhile. The water glistened bright blue in the sunshine amongst the thick yellow heather. We were in the middle of nowhere and about to fish a place that no man had been near for a long time.
According to the map, there was another loch just to our left, but from where we were, it was hidden. This was Plan B, if our loch was to turn out ‘stiff’. Fred suggested a raised spot near to waters edge that would act as a ‘base camp’. We unloaded our kit and reached for our rods. At last, it was time to tackle up. He explained the best approach, “Traditional wet fly fishing which a floating line, with flies such as the Kate McClaren, Blue Zulu, Bibio and Clan Chief’s often earning their place on a leader. Wild browns are opportunists, so fly choice isn’t that critical. Always remember to keep things simple because you are usually fishing in very exposed, windy places. At times it makes sense to stick to just two flies with quite a short leader.
During the day, you rarely see fish moving, but they are there. Most of the fish you catch are ‘pulled’ to the surface following the movement of your wet flies.” I watched as Fred sifted through his fly box and carefully attached three flies to his 6lb maxima cast. Playing safe (and watching the squally wind), I opted for a 10ft, 6lb flurocarbon leader. On the dropper went a size 10 Blue Zulu (my favourite brownie fly), along with a Sunburst Kate McClaren on the point. Tom was first away and had decided to try the opposite side of the loch, whereas Fred and myself began our attack on the nearest windward shore. Fred went on to explain, “When you approach a loch, never cast a full fly line out. Always work the margins – even if most of your fly line lies on the bank. Brown trout love to feed close in and you’ll be surprised what you’ll pick up on your first cast. As ever, always adopt the ‘Cast and walk’ approach. Never stay in one place for too long and try and cover as much water as possible throughout the day.
Most lochs aren’t too big, so therefore you should be able to walk and cast around in a few hours.” With this in mind, I positioned myself about 100 yards away from Fred and begin to ‘cast and walk’, working my flies around the margins. From my vantage point I was able to work out what pace Fred was fishing, ensuring I wasn’t holding him up. I soon learned just how fast the locals fished! The next hour or so, we fished nearly half the loch only to bring a couple of small fish to hand. Earlier on I noticed that Tom had wondered off in search of the other nearby loch – I assumed that he also hadn’t had much luck. Had we discovered a ‘stiff loch’? – I think we had. The bright sunshine wasn’t helping our cause, but rain was forecast, so I was hopeful of some action later. We decided to take a break for a bite to eat. Approaching base, we noticed Tom had beaten us to it and was stretched out on the heather soaking up the sunshine. ‘Any luck boys?’, Tom enquired. ‘Only a few small ones, that wind’s hard work though”, replied Fred. With that Tom proudly displayed a bag full of cracking fish, some over the pound mark. “Where the hell did you get them?!”, we replied in stereo. Tom of course had been to explore the other little loch just over the hill. He had caught it right and the place was alive – he couldn’t go wrong. The Clan Chief had done the damage, fished static! He had made the right decision to explore pasters new. It was time for Fred and I to give it go. Tom pointed us in the right direction and he decided to give our loch another bash. Following a ten-minute walk, we were soon walking around the wee loch looking out for the landmarks Tom had mentioned. It was a completely different place. It was sheltered and much of the banks were high and covered in grass – this was a much more approachable place to fish in the wind. We could see fish rising – always a welcome sight. What followed was nearly an hour’s frantic fishing before the heavens opened – and boy did it rain. It was nearly a fish a cast for us, with the only down side being the very high banks, which made for difficult catch and release. Visibility was poor – the rain was in for the night. It was time to re-group and begin our trek home. I must admit, I felt uncomfortable knowing how far away our vehicle was – but I was in safe hands.
When the moors get wet, it makes for much more difficult walking, so stick together and take nothing for granted. If a patch looks particularly wet, treat it with respect; otherwise you could get into all sorts of trouble. After nearly 45mins, we caught sight of the Hilux. I was soaked and looking forward to sit down. The loch we made an big effort to fish proved a disappointment, but we discovered another loch which contained good fish – and that’s what this type of fishing is all about. If you speak to any local, they will have a secret loch that has produced for them some time or another.
To sum up…
Having experienced Lewis, to me, the most important piece of kit is a good pair of breathable stocking foot waders. When you are traipsing for miles across boggy moorland they are essential. Neoprenes are too much like hard work. You don’t actually wade a lot, but chest waders keep you dry during such changeable weather conditions. Also, they keep you clean, because you will come across some really boggy moorland! Another handy piece of kit is a waist bag. I transferred the contents of my waistcoat into one, which proved its weight in gold. Due to the constant wet weather, I was usually wearing a coat, so a waist coat would have proved somewhat inaccessible. The belt bag provided everything I needed quickly with the minimum of fuss. Remember though, there isn’t a great amount of tackle available on the island, and what is there is expensive – so be prepared. If you have felt sole waders, take a spare set of replacement soles, because believe you me, you’ll wear one pair out – I did! I took a float tube with me, but to be honest I never used it and the extra baggage cost at the airport proved unneccasary.
Although most of the lochs look ideal for float tubes, I personally think that unless you have a reasonably calm day, the winds will play havoc throughout the day. You’ll be blown around like a cork for most of time. With this in mind, bank fishing is the best approach. You rarely see boats on the lochs, I assume it’s because most of the better places are less accessible. Lewis is an exposed island, and it’s nearly always windy, but the wind direction doesn’t cause too much of a problem. Even with the dreaded Northerly and Easterly winds, certain lochs will be more ‘fishable’ than others because they face in different directions – so study the map and choose your lochs appropriately.
Don’t expect to catch monsters, but it’s common to take between 10–20 fish during a day. Many fish will be under the pound mark, but fish to 3–4lb are taken from time to time on the fly. Locals prefer to fish the spinner or worm as these methods tend to take most of the nicer fish. Locals reckon that with lower PH levels, many lochs are producing smaller fish. It’s said this is due to the lack of nutrients reaching the lochs with less septic tanks and other effluents reaching the lochs. Of course, its not just wild brown trout fishing Lewis has to offer. The island has some of the best Salmon and Sea Trout fishing in Scotland. During just ten outing last year (2005), Fred caught over ninety Salmon and Sea Trout on the fly – that’s good going by any ones standards! On a sad note, the whole island is being threatened with the introduction of wind farms. This of course will have a detrimental effect on the fishing, as many lochs will be wiped out to make way for the development. I’d like to think that I sampled some ‘proper’ wild brown trout fishing.
By the end of week, I had fished seven different lochs, which wasn’t bad considering the weather I experienced. It was certainly one big adventure and I know where my camper van will be heading when I retire… If you’re after really wild un-spoilt, brown trout fishing, then in my opinion, there is no better place than Lewis. It really is a fly fisherman’s paradise.
Fact file on Lewis
Tackle shop: Sportsworld, Stornaway Useful contact: Fred Thomas