Meandering my way to Cape Wrath

I’ve paid two or three visits to the far northwest in the last couple of years. Wonderfully remote and isolated country in which to escape for a day or three, it makes for perfect chillout territory, especially if you pick your weather. My latest trip to the extremes of Cape Wrath was more hiking than fishing but I did take a light spinning rod along for the journey…

Cape Wrath is just about the most isolated spot on mainland Scotland, with no real road access. It’s also the only actual Cape in Scotland that I’m aware of. Good enough reasons to pack a rucksack and set the alarm for very early. Sneaking quietly out the house without winding up the dog too much I set off before Edinburgh woke up. The sun was rising nicely as I crossed the Forth Bridge and even the A9 was empty enough to be bearable as I ploughed on.

Trail into Sandwood from Blairmore
Trail into Sandwood from Blairmore
Finally, by mid-morning, a 5 hour drive from Edinburgh saw me setting off on the track to Sandwood. I was deliberately trying to pack light, so it was only a 30l backpack with a tent, sleeping bag and cooking kit. Probably rather too much camera gear and not enough fishing kit, but much less effort required than hauling a 65l pack around. The first part of the trip, along to Sandwood Bay, is an easy hike along a well maintained little trail so I made rapid progress and was descending into the bay after 90 minutes or so.
Approaching Sandwood Bay, with Cape Wrath in the far north
Approaching Sandwood Bay
Sandwood is an iconic beach flanked by high cliffs and backed with grassy dunes and a fine peaty loch, and you get a great view as you drop down towards the sea. Way to the north, the lighthouse at Cape Wrath is just visible above the hills. Sandwood wasn’t my destination this time, but I felt obliged to give it a little shot to see if anything was hungry so stopped off towards the end of the beach and dug out some gear.
A stray Warrior boat arrives at Sandwood, presumably from Kinlochbervie
A stray Warrior boat arrives at Sandwood
My little 6’6” spinning rod was mightily outgunned by the surroundings but we gave it a couple of casts with a 1oz lead and a mackerel sliver. Nothing seemed terribly interested, but it was an ebb tide and a hot, sunny day, so I wasn’t hugely surprised.
Big beach, little rod - fishing Sandwood Bay with a spinning rod
Big beach, little rod – fishing Sandwood Bay

The sun was hot by now so I filled my water bottle from the nearby river and then sweated my way northwards over the low hills that guard the route to the Cape. There isn’t really much of a trail here and you make your own way across the mixture of peat bog, heather and machair style grasslands. Nothing much grows higher than six inches or so, and the areas of bare grit and rock bear witness to the ferocity of the wind along this very exposed coastline. None of that today though, and the light breeze was definitely welcome in the strong sunshine as I marched on towards my campground.

Camping at Keisgaig Bay, just above the Keisgaig River
Camping at Keisgaig Bay
Keisgaig Bay isn’t pretty in the way Sandwood is, but it is a fine, lonely spot to spend a night. I pitched the tent on a small promontory overlooking the most northerly salmon stream in mainland Britain – a mere shadow of its normal self in these dry conditions – and made a well deserved coffee as I took a short break. My plan was to leave most of the gear in the tent and then head up to Cape Wrath and back before nightfall, so I couldn’t hang around for too long.
To get out of Keisgaig involves a 600 feet climb up the hills to the north, which took a little while on a hot day, but was then followed by a fairly easy trek across dried out peat bog. Further on I encountered progressively wetter conditions and it didn’t take much imagination to appreciate how much more difficult this territory would be after a decent spell of rain. By comparison the final stage to Cape Wrath is almost an anti-climax along a rather beaten up army track.
Looking east from Cape Wrath towards Durness
Looking east from Cape Wrath

There was no-one else around as I took a few photos and nibbled on a snack before heading back south. This time I hugged the coastline a bit more closely which was quite a bit harder going but also let me identify any opportunities for a man with a rod in the future – and there are definitely some spots where the shoreline is accessible without abseiling gear. All in all I was feeling more than a little tired as I stumbled back down the hill into Keisgaig and unzipped the tent door.

I awoke the next morning to find the sun had returned after some overnight showers, so it was time for some breakfast and to watch the seals lounging around the bay whilst I had a coffee and sorted out my plans for the day. The idea was to give my rod a little bit of both fresh and saltwater action as I made my way back to Sandwood and then to the car, so I tied on a little Mepps 00 lure to some light braid and set off in search of a trout or ten.
Striking into a small trout in a burn near Cape Wrath
Striking into a small trout

I spent the rest of the morning exploring, trying a couple of lochs and several burns for any stray trout. These proved very obliging and easy to catch, although quite small (hardly a surprise in such a harsh environment) and I only drew a blank on one loch.

Small but beautiful - a brown trout from a hill loch near Cape Wrath
Small but beautiful – a brown trout from a hill loch

After amassing 13 or 14 very prettily marked fish (all returned) I rather reluctantly decided to return down towards Sandwood and try a beach a little to the north.

Surf rolls into a lovely little beach to the north of Sandwood
Surf rolls into a lovely little beach to the north of Sandwood

Washed by a light surf and crystal clear Atlantic water it was almost a privilege to mark a line of footprints in the sand of this fine little beach as I headed towards a large rock outcrop in the middle. Even the rock felt hot to my fingers as I climbed up under the sun and made myself comfortable. Armed with only a little spinning rod, and able to see the sea bed quite clearly through the surf for a long way out, I can’t say I was terribly confident about actually catching anything. However I went through the motions and slung another mackerel strip out into the breakers before settling down into my usual coffee making ritual.

A flounder caught to the north of Sandwood Bay
A flounder caught to the north of Sandwood Bay

Twenty minutes later I noticed the line was slack and felt a decent weight on the rod. Even with light gear I can’t say there was much of fight, but you certainly knew that there was a fish on as the little rod hooped right over. A flounder isn’t exactly in exotic territory but it was certainly welcome and I was pleased to add to my species count for the year.

Light surf fishing near Sandwood Bay - just a spinning rod and mackerel strip
Light surf fishing near Sandwood Bay

Confidence boosted I rebaited and cast out again, before settling down to be roasted again. A combination of snoozing and some complacency meant that I was very late to wake up to another slack line bite, and my line was hopelessly snarled up in the kelp at the base of my rocky perch before I realised I’d a fish on. I could even see it clearly 30 yards out in the surf as it swam effortlessly in the waves – a small sea trout. It took another thirty minutes before the tide cleared the bottom of the rocks sufficiently to let me clear my line and land the fish. Not large but it was still welcome proof that there was something worth fishing for!

A small sea trout caught on mackerel strip from a beach just north of Sandwood Bay
A small sea trout
By now it was getting closer to my “I’m still alive” check-in with home, and I still had a fair way to go and no mobile reception. Rather grudgingly I packed up and gasped my way up the hill and then back down to Sandwood. The beach was busier now, with 2 or 3 tents and at least a dozen people strung out along its length, so I was quite glad not to stay this time and content to head back towards the car at Blairmore.
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A Couple of Days Fishing for Skate at Oban

To be quite honest, being an ageing office worker with the upper body strength of a 10 year old means I don’t always relish the chance to play tug of war with a skate almost as big as myself. I’m neither particularly keen or successful as a skate fisherman, but a great forecast, small tide and late March meant I didn’t have a many other options on the sea fishing front. So a trip to fishing for skate at Oban was on the cards, with Ian recruited as crew.

Perfect weather for a day afloat in March. A view over the islands to the south of the Firth of Lorne.
Perfect weather for a day afloat on the Firth of Lorne in March

This was to be a two day effort, with an overnight camp in between, which meant a lot of scurrying around to sort out gear beforehand. It was a leisurely start on Friday and we launched at Ganavan around 11, just after low water, and headed out into a very calm Firth of Lorne. The plan was to revisit the Lochaline area as I’ve not tried it for several years.

Well, we fished for around 6 hours without so much as a sniff from a skate. Ian was fishing a lighter rod and picked up a grand total of 3 doggies, whilst I spent more time watching the eagles on the cliffs above Inninmore Bay. An utter waste of time, and not a great omen for Saturday.

An eagle soars over Ardtornish
An eagle soars over Ardtornish
A small but pretty dogfish, one of three taken by Ian on a poor day in Inninmore Bay
Fish of the day, almost

I hauled anchor with my tail thoroughly between my legs and we headed off to find a spot to camp overnight. We (eventually) got tucked up for the night at my second choice, a remote little bay on Mull not far from the entrance to Loch Spelve. It proved a fairly tight spot to moor in but at least there was a great little spot to pitch a tent overnight. After a dinner consisting mainly of half-cremated sausages we turned in early for the night. A remote and isolated site together with a cool, starry and midge-free evening – pretty much the way I like my camping!

Next morning I was up early, mainly to make sure the boat was still there (and floating), and was rewarded with a fine sunrise over Ben Cruachan and Kerrera.

Just before sunrise on Ben Cruachan, viewed from Mull
Just before sunrise, looking across the Firth of Lorne from Mull. Ben Cruachan in the background, Kerrera in the foreground
The sun rises over Ben Cruachan with Alcatraz sitting at anchor on Mull
The sun rises over Ben Cruachan with Alcatraz sitting at anchor on Mull

Coffee and breakfast was followed by re-stowing everything on the boat and undoing the overnight mooring, However we were soon heading out towards my usual marks near Kerrera and fishing before nine, or around 90 minutes before slack water low.

Hauling ashore from our overnight mooring
Hauling ashore from our overnight mooring

Water depth was 515 feet and I was using a 2lb lead to get a whole mackerel down and pinned to the muddy seabed. Mackerel isn’t my first choice of skate bait where there might be spurdogs out to play, but with Ian possessing the one respectable coalie we had between us there wasn’t much choice in the matter.

A simple skate rig - One mackerel, one 12/0 crimped to 18 inches of 400lb mono, plus a 2lb lead
One mackerel, one 12/0 crimped to 18 inches of 400lb mono, plus a 2lb lead
A coalfish rigged for skate fishing
A coalfish rigged for skate fishing (yes, the tail does get cut off!)

In the event it didn’t seem to make any difference as there was little in the way of spurdog (apart from one nice but skinny specimen for Ian), and the skate liked the mackerel just fine.

A good bend on the rod as Ian persuades a skate towards the surface
Ian persuading a skate to start moving
A common skate comes aboard Alcatraz
A common skate comes aboard Alcatraz

I won’t bore you with the full details of every capture, but we hoisted 7 skate to the surface and had two more throw the hook. That is waay better than any day I’ve had previously – I think the most I’ve had aboard Alcatraz before is just 3. Most of them were small(ish) males but the biggest was a female that looked to be in the 150-160lb bracket. The tide was pulling her under the boat and we were both getting knackered by that point, so we didn’t pull her aboard. Maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less, but I can’t say the precise weight bothers me too much.

My turn to try and surface a skate from 510 feet below.
Fish on! Another skate heading towards the surface
A first skate on to my rod
A first skate to my rod (one of Ian’s pics)
A 107lb male skate caught off Kerrera
A 107lb male skate caught off Kerrera

Apart from that, all the others did scrape over the gunwhales, with the best being a male of 107lbs (we had 4 males and 3 females in all). It had some sort of tag fitted, of which only the black circular base remained. There wasn’t any identifiable number on this one, so it was possibly one of the few skate tagged with a radio beacon – if anyone can shed light on this that would be great.

A small common skate from Kerrera, near Oban
A small common skate from Kerrera, near Oban
The only spurdog of the trip, and a rather skinny specimen
The only spurdog of the trip
Ian with an 85lb common skate, caught off Kerrera.
Ian with an 85lb common skate

Ian also managed the dubious honour of being the first person I’ve ever seen to get bitten by a skate. Probably more of a glancing blow than a full on crush your hand effort, it still did a fair bit of damage and certainly looked impressive with a nice pin cushion effect. This was a particularly pissed male skate which was quite aggressively trying to bite anything it could and managed to extend its jaws just as Ian extended his pliers to remove the hook. Oops!

Ian's hand after getting bitten by a common skate
Ian suffering after getting too close to a skate’s jaws. Note the lovely pincushion effect!
The mouth of a common skate bristling with sharp, backward pointing, teeth.
The mouth of a common skate bristling with sharp, backward pointing, teeth.

After swabbing copious quantities of Ian’s DNA from Alcatraz’s decks and covering his hand in band-aids we got back to fishing again. Slack water high was about 4.20 and I reckoned we could give it another 90 minutes after that before the tide picked up again.

In the event that was pretty much spot on, as I pulled up a small male of around 60lbs – and no sooner had that hit the deck than Ian was into another fish, again a male, which gave a good account of itself before coming aboard for a photo opportunity.

A last skate for Ian
A last skate for Ian

By this time it was well after five, so we decided to call it a day and head in whilst our backs were still just about in working order. 4 to me and 3 to Ian, and both of us happy with our lot, bandaged fingers notwithstanding. I’m not sure I’m converted to skate fishing as such, but it was a great way to spend a couple of days in a beautiful part of the world.

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New Year Spurrie Boot Camp

Spurrie boot camp! The concept was simple – an early start to the New Year and a comfortable camp overnight chasing spurdogs in nice, calm conditions. Trevor was up for it so late morning on New Year’s day saw us meeting up before heading west.

Now spending an afternoon hauling rods and a hefty backpack  through miles of sodden peat bog might not be everyone’s idea of a good time and,  by the time we stumbled over the final ridge and found our target over two hours later, we were certainly wondering ourselves.

However I wasted no time in setting up my usual mackerel baited pulley rig on one rod, and kitting the second out with a two hook paternoster style setup. A modest cast out confirmed we were in deep water as the gear took a good while to reach the muddy seafloor.

Sundown - and only 16 hours to sunrise this far north at the beginning of January
Sundown – and only another 16 hours to sunrise

The sun was disappearing fast and it would soon be dark so, once we were both safely fishing, it was time to get the tent up and sort out a fire. There’s a decent fire ring here, put together by generations of hikers, kayakers and the odd fisherman so we could build our camp fairly easily.

A level site, sheltered from the wind and with a nice sized fire ring in front of you - what more do you need in winter
Comfortable overnight camp in January

By now the light had pretty much gone, and the rods were banging away with the first bites of 2017. A few minutes later my first fish of the year appeared, in the shape of a small spurdog and even smaller LSD. They’d taken the smaller hook rig and were quickly photographed and returned.

First fish of 2017 - a spurdog and LSD come up together
First fish of 2017

The wind had been gusting quite hard but dropped after dark which helped keep some feeling in my hands. Both Trevor and I pulled in a few more fish, mainly small male spurdogs, as we sorted out some dinner.

This was definitely gourmet cuisine compared to my usual standards, with a smorgasborg of sausages, chicken and baked potatoes. All washed down with a decent slug of Glenkinchie malt 🙂

Dinner cooking on the campfire
Dinner cooking on the fire

We hit the sack fairly early and managed a decent sleep in temperatures that couldn’t have dropped too much below freezing. Next morning saw us popping the coffee and bacon on whilst fishing in beautiful calm and clear conditions. Even the ebb tide helped make this mark easier to fish by keeping our lines clear of the snaggy rock wall close in.

Ironically, given this is the west coast of Scotland, the only problem was getting fresh water. In the end we (i.e. Trevor) had to scout about 400 or 500 yards to find a small stream.

Trevor with a spurdog from wild country, early January 2017

Trevor bends into another spurdog on a calm, grey morning
Trevor bends into another spurdog

We both had more spurs and a scattering of LSDs, but nothing else to bump up the species count. It stayed pretty much windless but the sun disappeared as the morning wore on and it became heavily overcast with a little light rain.

A small shore caught spurdog

Trevor with a small spurdog taken on mackerel bait

We called time around 2 o’clock, as it is a long trek back to the car and we didn’t fancy finishing by wading through a peat bog in the dark. The woods were eerily silent as we marched through them in the fading light, with no birds or other animals making a sound, and no sign of humans at all. We reached the carpark just before dark, both pretty knackered but happy with our early start to the year.

Also, I’ve not camped out in January before (at least not in Scotland) so that’s bonus on top of the fishing itself. 🙂

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Westward Ho! – Revisiting Lochs Leven and Sunart

I hadn’t really planned on a trip to the sea lochs, but the forecast was mixed to poor and Trevor was still recovering from the damage inflicted the last time he came fishing with me, so we took the Mr. Sensible route and headed westward – besides which, I haven’t fished Sunart for a couple of years now and it is a very pretty place.

Loch Leven

We got launched easily enough at Ballachulish, once the hotel reception had found the key to the car park barrier, and skipped across to the fish farm for a couple of hours.

A small thornback from Loch Leven
Baby thornback

Smallish mackerel soon added to our bait supply but the rest of the fishing was pretty slow, with only a few rays showing. Getting a little fed up of this we upped anchor and went for a bit of exploring.

Trevor feels for a bite as we fish on Loch Leven
Concentration: Trevor on Loch Leven
A nice ray from Loch Leven for Trevor, but nothing like the quality of fishing that the loch can produce from time to time
Ray of the day. Umm!

Heading up the loch in far calmer conditions than the forecast promised, we passed through the Narrows and into the upper loch. We dallied for a few minutes at the cliffs, but the codling didn’t really want to play ball and we’d to settle for a few poorcod as additional bait.

A warm afternoon afloat on Loch Leven had us both getting a little sleepy
Nodding off
A peaceful scene on Loch Leven - vastly better than the near gale and heavy rain that was forecast
Tranquility… despite the near gale-force forecast

A mooch over to the mussel farm saw a few more rays and absolutely the tiniest mackerel I’ve ever seen – large shoals of fish the size of a large minnow.

These tiny mackerel were around in large shoals on Loch Leven
Micro-mackerel
Another miniature mackerel falls to Trevor on Loch Leven
Another miniature mackerel

The final move for the day saw us try some reefier ground in the middle of the loch, but with only a few dogfish to show for it. Heading back to the slate slip we duly retrieved Alcatraz after the usual palaver of getting the keys for the barrier.

Ballachulish now boasts a chippie, but before heading off to find it we’d a chat with the skipper of one of the big ribs that plays with tourists on the loch. Aside from the tale of the witches curse on the Ballachulish bridge, it was quite blood curdling to hear of the fuel consumption of these ribs at full blast – 110 litres per hour – per engine!

Trevor hauls up a thornback from Loch Leven
Something meatier
It would be nice to say Loch Leven coughed up loads of thornback rays, but that would be a fib.
A small ray comes out to play

And across to Resipole and Loch Sunart

By now the rain was starting, but the plan called for a run to the Corran ferry and then an overnighter at Resipole campsite before a day on Loch Sunart. We reached Resipole as it got dark and pitched the tent quickly in what was becoming quite heavy rain – and then promptly fell asleep.

Resipole is a very nice and scenic campsite, but the still, damp air at half-past six next morning meant there were a million midges hovering outside the tent, just waiting for us me(!) to step outside. I’d say it took around 60 seconds to clear the tent and sleeping gear into the car…

Launching wasn’t too bad, as we’d a few minutes grace before the little bar-stewards figured out where we were, but we didn’t hang around on the slip and were soon heading out on the loch.

A very atmospheric early morning on Loch Sunart
A very atmospheric early morning on Loch Sunart

We tried a couple of different marks in the morning, and both were holding good numbers of spurdog – but just the wrong size, maxing out at maybe 5lbs. Mackerel, dogfish and a solitary thornback made up the numbers, but quality was distinctly absent.

Not great - a typical sized spurdog for this trip on Loch Sunart
Not great – a typical sized spurdog for this trip
Clearing skies on a windless Loch Sunart - but only small fish around
Deep water + small fish = hard work

A shift to shallower marks for the afternoon added some smaller species – whiting and gurnard, plus a conger eel for Trevor. We were trying for thornbacks but had none at all, so it was a little ironic to get an eel from relatively shallow, clean ground when we’d spent all morning trying for them without success on the more recognised marks.

This Loch Sunart conger eel was a slight surprise from the mark it was captured on - shallowish water and clean ground
Sunart conger
A low double figure conger for Trevor - and our best fish of the weekend from Loch Sunart
Trevor with his conger

And the whelk population just here seemed enormous – I don’t recall seeing any from Sunart before.

A "shoal" of whelks feasting on a whole mackerel bait in Loch Sunart
Whelk-fest!

So we ended up with better weather and fewer fish than we probably deserved, but it was fine just to mix a bit of fishing with a bit of fossicking about in search of new ground – and I don’t see anything to regret in having a relaxing weekend in the Scottish fjords, rather than a full-on fishing trip.

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A bit of Surf and Turf in Lochaber

Yesterday saw me launching the SIB at Ballachulish before six in the morning, after a few hours kip in the car the night before. I made haste, to try and avoid the midges which are well and truly out of hibernation now!

An early morning launch for my SIB at Ballachulish

I don’t normally bother with Leven at this time of year as the fishing is usually taking off along the east coast and down in the SW. However the east has been very slow to get going this year, and I didn’t have any bait for a session in Galloway. The plan was to fish a fairly short session on Leven and then head for the hills for the rest of the day, exploring some of the other attractions that Lochaber has to offer.

Pap of Glencoe backlit in early morning sunshine
Pap of Glencoe backlit in early morning sunshine

The first hour passed slowly with a little ray and a smaller codling, but then cheered up somewhat as several more rays happened upon my mackerel strips.

A pretty little thornback ray gets returned to Loch Leven

I packed in around 9.30 with 9 rays, a couple of whiting and 1 mini codling to show for my efforts. Best was only 6lb 8oz, but it was a decent enough session, making the best of a windless early morning.

A slightly alien looking thornback ray clings to the Avon's tubes
A slightly alien looking thornback ray

A thorny thornback ray and best fish of the day

And the turf element? Well I’ve never hiked up Ben Nevis before, and thought it was about time I got around to it. I reckoned it would take around 6 hours to complete the round trip, but in the event it was a 5 hour haul up and down the steep access track. It was rather too crowded for my liking, but the weather was kind and it was a pleasant enough afternoon.

A crowded Ben Nevis.
A crowded Ben Nevis.
The view from the summit of Ben Nevis, May 2016
The view from the summit of Ben Nevis

Incidentally, I swapped cars a few months ago, and one of the advantages of the Yeti is that it’s fairly easy to arrange things to get a half decent night’s sleep – even sharing with an inflatable and outboard engine.

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Into The Wilderness of Ardmeanach

Ardmeanach lies on the exposed, lonely but very beautiful west coast of Mull. Only twelve miles in the round, it is almost inaccessible in places due to trackless terrain and boulder strewn hills that drop 1500 feet into the sea. The emptiest and most remote part is called simply “The Wilderness”.

Ardmeanach peninsula from the south, with layer upon layer of lava flows clearly showing

I’d no idea how much, if any, of the Ardmeanach is fishable, but The Wilderness is a name that oozes potential, and I’ve fancied exploring it for a couple of years now. With a few days of calm and dry weather forecast I grabbed the opportunity before the midges woke up for summer.

Arriving on Mull, a short stopover at Gribun gave an introduction as to what to expect, with layers of ancient lava flows stacked one atop the other to build a very dramatic coastline.

Across to Gribun cliffs
The Gribun Cliffs, Mull. Around 1000 feet high, with the road creeping along the bottom

If only the fishing at Gribun proved as exciting as the surroundings – but a couple of hours fishing the end of the cliff line you can see above generated not one hint of interest to either mackerel on the bottom or float fished ragworm.

Fishing Gribun - very deep water at the base of the cliffs

Ardmeanach itself lies just round the corner from Gribun, and was an intimidating sight, partly hidden in the clouds.

View to Ardmeanach - follow the base of the highest line of cliffs to get access to The Wilderness

It is trackless, apart from the meanderings left by goats and deer, but the initial approach isn’t difficult as you pick your way across fairly typical heathery grassland.

Approaching Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull

As the sheep thin out towards the edge of The Wilderness the going gets quite a lot harder. I dropped down over the cliffline and down towards the shore, to make my way across the slope towards the tip of Ardmeanach.

Only goats make the trails here - rough country in Ardmeanach, Mull

In retrospect this was a mistake, as the scree and boulder fields were daunting, especially combined with constant switchbacks and climbing around inlets and across streams. The winter had clearly inflicted a lot of damage, with fresh rockfalls and washed out shorelines. Progress slowed to an exhausting crawl!

At least the wildlife showed up pretty much on cue – with a pair of golden eagles circling the cliffs and wild goats aplenty.

Golden Eagle, Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull

Almost 4 hours after I started off I pitched up for the night at the tail end of a massive old scree slope – hoping it was as inactive as it looked, as other areas had plenty of fresh falls.

Camping in the Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull. The base of an old scree slope provided a sheltered spot for the night

The solid cloud base thinned for a little while, to allow the moon to outline the cliffs above my little tent, but I was pretty tired and hit the sack early.

Moonlight above the cliffs, Ardmeanach. A break in the clouds allowed the moon to highlight the drama of my surroundings.

A solid night’s sleep was followed by an early morning wander across the shoreline in search of Mull’s famed fossil tree. In the event I didn’t quite have enough time to work my way round to it, but there was plenty of other geology to marvel at, including these basalt columns which were guarded by a wary herd of feral goats.

Goats and basalt, Ardmeanach, Mull.
Herd of feral goats on the beach near the fossil tree, Ardmeanach.

The coastline here, and around most of Mull was dictated by the lava flows that covered the whole area 65 million years ago and created the likes of Fingals Cave on Staffa a few miles away.

Small Atlantic Swell, Ardmeanach Wilderness.

Most of the area around the peninsula was fairly shallow so I wasn’t too bothered about giving the fishing a miss in March – more possibilities in late summer and autumn I’d have thought.

Tip of Ardmeanach peninsula.

Striking camp, I headed back but kept higher than the previous day in an effort to keep away from the deep gashes in the shore. The goat tracks kept pushing me upwards until I hit the base of the cliffline a few hundred feet up.

High in the Ardmeanach Wilderness.
About 500 feet above the sea, near the base of the cliff line.

This part of the route was definitely easier going than the previous day, although a little hairy in places, especially with the mist swirling around. The downside came a little later, as it proved very difficult to pick the best layer of rock to traverse – too low and you end up climbing up again all too soon, whilst too high and you find yourself with a serious cliff between you and the car.

Leaving the Wilderness, Ardmeanach.

In the event it still took the best part of 4 hours to get back to the car, although I reckon another trip would be quicker now that I’ve got some on the ground experience of the route.

So, what to make of Ardmeanach and its wilderness? Fishing-wise it was a washout, although there are some decent rock stances worth another look. On every other level it’s a jewel of a place – visually spectacular, lots of wildlife, amazing geology and quite challenging physically. The only other person I met was the farmer and his dog at the start of the hike (both friendly). Definitely recommended for a prepared hiker, with or without rods.

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Assault on Glen Etive

The plan was to use the narrow, winding and un-gritted road into Glen Etive to access the headwaters of Loch Etive and drop the inflatable in where the river reaches the sea – then head off for an overnight camp, fish and stargaze.

Things went just fine to start with, until I stepped ashore and promptly fell to my knees – not to kiss the ground, but because I’d twisted my back. Hobbling around to secure the SIB and make camp was quite tricky 🙁

First cast made it clear I wouldn’t be doing any fishing either, partly because I couldn’t cast without keeling over, and partly on account not being able to balance properly on the icy rocks fringing the loch.

Nothing for it but to set a little campfire and do some star gazing, whilst listening to the squabbles of a family of otters only a few yards away.

The night was cold but beautiful, clear and windless, and starlight reflected clearly on the loch. Not many meteors though, despite it being time for the Geminid shower.

Orion's belt reflects nicely on Loch Etive
Orion’s belt reflects nicely on Loch Etive

Morning saw ice on the very edge of the loch and thick hoar frost over every surface.

Daylight also showed that this is a great little spot to pitch a tent, with a fair bit of shelter and very little chance of being disturbed. A bit too exposed for a hard boat though, unless you’re equipped to moor off a rocky coastline.

A winter campsite on Loch Etive

A steely looking early winter morning

My back was killing me again but I managed to get the SIB loaded up and ready for the off without falling over!

SIB with a fringe of sea ice

Working my way back up to Glen Etive, where a little more ice breaking was required to get ashore – not that I recommend a little rubber boat for this…

Heading back towards Glen Etive

So not really a fishing trip (one cast doesn’t really cut it!), but it’d have been a brilliant little spot to fish for a few hours if I’d been in better nick, and I’ll definitely be back another fine night.

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Re-visiting Etive

It’s been weeks since I was last out, and it’s been frustrating watching a shedload of wet and windy weather blasting through on any available free time. However a calm sunny day was forecast for the Etive area so I decided to combine that with an over-nighter boat camping well up the loch.

Early winter snow near Barrs
Early winter snow near Barrs

Launching in the dark was no big deal, but ploughing up the loch by chartplotter proved a little more challenging, especially as my Navionics card pre-dates the upper loch being converted to electronic format. Darkness, low cloud and light rain misting up your glasses disorientates you quite easily, so I was glad I know the loch fairly well and had a few waypoints set.

Setting up camp was reasonably slick and I was heading back out onto the loch in well under an hour, setting up stall in one of my favourite deepwater marks. The rain wasn’t heavy but did manage to chill everything down quite well, and action was on the slow side. I gave it a couple of hours with a few small spurs, a ray and dogfish to show for my efforts, before heading back ashore to get some dinner organised.

Overnight at Barrs
A cold night at Barrs

The fire and little BBQ provided a little relief from the cold, and clouds began to break and reveal the moon. Having checked Alcatraz on her mooring I left her to it and turned in around midnight.

Next morning I awoke in reasonable warmth, thanks to a significant sleeping bag upgrade earlier in the year, and prized open the tent flap to view a cold but clear dawn – the rain had provided quite a good glazing effect where it had frozen overnight and cracked off the tent in impressive style.

Bay at Barrs

Camp struck, I headed out with Alcatraz to do a little survey of a deepish channel I’d come across a while back, and which seemed to be in range of a modest shore cast. You can see the result from Reefmaster below, combined with a Google Earth overlay – although since it’s miles from the nearest car-accessible spot I’m guessing not many shore anglers will be visiting soon. Having completed this little objective I dropped anchor in the trench and waited to see if anything would show.

Reefmaster and Google Maps chart
Reefmaster and Google Maps chart

A few minutes later the answer came in the form of a series of tiny spurdogs in the 6 to 12 inch range. There were a few whiting as well, some of which were bigger than the spurs they came up with.

Baby spurdogs

Although even these little fellows pack a punch, as I found out when I got spiked by one 🙁

Spiked by a spurdog
Spiked by a spurdog

Even the bigger fish weren’t too much better…

Small spurdog

So it was soon time to head west back along the loch to try another mark.

A beautiful day afloat on Loch Etive

The sun was up and the loch flat calm as I waited it out at another mark half-way down towards Bonawe, so I sipped a coffee and watched the world pass by – rather slowly in the shape of flotilla of sea kayaks.

Sea kayaks on Loch Etive

A pair of sea kayakers on Etive

A few fish did show up, including this beautifully olive-gold coloured little codling and a decent number of small spurdogs (no absolutely tiny ones here, thankfully).

Golden coloured codling from Loch Etive

Small golden coloured cod

Pretty little thing - poorcod head and shoulders
Pretty little thing in closeup – poorcod head and shoulders shot

A final move down below Bonawe produced nothing apart from small dogfish, so I called a halt slightly earlier than planned to allow an early retrieval whilst it was still daylight.

An angry spurdog
An angry spurdog lets fly
Parasitic worms on an Etive whiting
Parasitic worms on an Etive whiting
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The High Sierra Trail

“Awesome” is a wildly over-used word in the US, but the High Sierra Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California really is just that. If you’re into hiking, camping or fishing and you want to trade in a cool, wet, midge-ridden summer for something hot, dry, bug-free and spectacular then you should seriously check out the High Sierra Trail, which has the bonus of summiting the highest mountain in the continental USA (outside of Alaska) – Mount Whitney, at 14,500 feet.

Mount Whitney at sunrise
Mount Whitney at sunrise

Ian asked me the other day why I wanted to go to the Sierras, and I found it a difficult question to answer. Struggling up a steep track in 90 degree heat, or lying awake in your tent at over 11,000 feet because you can’t quite get enough air to breath easily and you do wonder why. On the other hand you are simply overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of the landscape; the tremendous sense of freedom that your experience in the backcountry; and the simplicity of the challenges you face.

Valhalla towers above us as struggle up to Hamilton Lakes
Valhalla towers above us as struggle up to Hamilton Lakes

Having my son, Mike, along was an added bonus for me, with the hope he’s absorbed some of the rewards of exploring wild and lonely landscapes. I’ve never climbed much above 10,000 feet before, so the chance to camp at that level and hike a good bit higher was an added draw.

We're headed over the distant mountains
We’re headed beyond the mountains in the background

I did very little fishing in the Sierras, mainly because I didn’t want to bore Mike too much, but for anyone who appreciates the context in which they fish it was superb. Alpine lakes in the 8,000-11,500 foot range held rainbow and golden trout, whilst the Kern river was a stunning little trout stream well filled with rainbows. Most were small 8-10 inch fish, but a couple of Californian teenagers who basically fished every chance they got had trout up to 17 inches on spinners.

Anyway, check out the little video of our trip and make up your own mind.

Having spent too many decades in Scotland I am fully conditioned to the need for warm, waterproof clothing, decent tents, insect protection, etc., etc. Switching to an environment where water and heat are major concerns takes quite a bit of adjusting to.

Kern River Valley
Kern River Valley

We had no rain at all and no bug bites at all on the trail in early September (both are more likely earlier in the summer though), and could have hiked the whole trail without a tent or waterproof. On the other hand the heat in mid-afternoon was exhausting and the need to be disciplined with water was pretty novel to a Scot.

Only about 20 yards away
A young black bear, only about 20 yards away

The wildlife is another consideration, but not one to get unduly bothered about. There are mountain lions, but these are very rarely seen and they almost never attack adult humans. There are no brown/grizzly bears, only black bears, and taking proper precautions to store food in bear canisters will greatly reduce any chance of one saying hello during the night. We only met two bears on the High Sierra Trail, both quite young, and one of these was in the trail head car park, so doesn’t really count.

Mike on top of Whitney
14,500 feet – Mike on top of Mt. Whitney

Numbers on the trail are heavily restricted under the wilderness permitting system used by the national parks, but early September does fall outside the main US holiday season and you’ve a good chance of getting access. It’s a one way trail rather than a loop and one of the biggest challenges is actually sorting out the logistics of travelling from the eastern Sierras to the western side, as public transport is limited. If anyone wants details of what we did then please add a comment and I’ll try and reply.

In parts the trail is blasted from solid granite
In parts the trail is blasted from solid granite

It would be unfair to the other parks we visited not give them a mention, as Death Valley (in my previous post), Zion and Grand Canyon national parks are all amazing in their own right.

Wading Zion Narrows
Wading Zion Narrows

Zion is famous for its slot canyons, where you ford your way through very narrow canyons with almost vertical walls 1,000 feet or more high. A mild adventure on a hot, dry day, but a flash flood killed 4 hikers a few days later.

Canyon viewpoint
North Rim, Grand Canyon

And the Grand Canyon is just as described. We headed for the more remote North Rim and were lucky enough to get a reservation at the lodge overlooking the canyon. The scale is hard to take in (a road trip from North Rim to South Rim is over 200 miles), and makes it rather hard to photograph.

A fantastic trip, and definitely one to grasp with both hands if the opportunity arises!

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Camping in Death Valley

We paused as we heard the distinctive rattle of yet another Death Valley local warning us to stay away. It had been quiet in the cool of the early morning as we climbed, but the sun was now hot in the sky and the reptilian inhabitants were waking up all around the trail as we descended from the 9000 foot high Wild Rose Peak.

Looking over Death Valley from Wild Rose Peak
Looking over Death Valley from Wild Rose Peak

Rattlesnakes warned Mike and I off over half-a-dozen times as we made our way back down the mountain, but none showed themselves and we didn’t look too hard for trouble.

Mike gets comfortable, 9000 feet up in Death Valley NP
Mike gets comfortable, 9000 feet up in Death Valley NP

We’d landed in Vegas a couple of days earlier, and had explored the real hot bits of Death Valley the day before, then headed into the surrounding mountains for an overnight camp.

Exhausting heat in Death Valley
Exhausting heat in Death Valley

And the hot bits are hot! We saw 118 degrees around the Devil’s Golf Course, a barren landscape of rocksalt nodules.

Devil's Golf Course, Death Valley - rock salt nodules
Devil’s Golf Course, Death Valley

Devil's Golf Course Panorama

Almost as roasting at Badwater Basin, nearly 300 feet below sea level, with a strong hot wind desiccating you as soon as you dared to leave the safety of the car’s air-con.

Spot the sea level marker - 286 feet above us
Spot the sea level marker – 286 feet above us
Well below sea level, and 118 degrees.
Well below sea level, and 118 degrees.

Fortunately the surrounding mountains are much cooler and we had a very comfortable night at around 70 degrees at the fairly basic Wild Rose campground, about an hour off the main road through Death Valley.

Sunset over Wild Rose campground, Death Valley
Sunset over Wild Rose campground, Death Valley

We set out on the climb to Wild Rose Peak next day as a warm-up (in more ways than one) for the more serious leg of the holiday, but it was an interesting hike in itself, with great views and a chance to explore the old charcoal kilns at the start of the trail, which still smell of smoke well over 100 years after they were last used.

Start point for Wild Rose Peak, at the Charcoal Kilns
Start point for Wild Rose Peak, at the Charcoal Kilns
On the trail to Wild Rose Peak
On the trail to Wild Rose Peak

Later in the day we came across another hungry Death Valley inhabitant, although this one was wheedling rather than hunting.

Hot and hungry coyote, Death Valley NP
Hot and hungry coyote, Death Valley NP

I’d been a bit wary of Death Valley for camping, given the potential heat, but it was actually no problem at all in the surrounding mountains. The wind died to nothing overnight, there were no biting bugs and it was warm rather than hot. Happily do it again, although the campground was fairly remote and you wouldn’t want a breakdown getting there (we saw no-one at all in the one hour drive from the main through road).

Impressive as Death Valley was, the next step was the main aim of our trip – the 70+ mile High Sierra Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and a chance to hit the highest point in the continental USA outside Alaska – Mount Whitney, at 14,500 feet…

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