Boat camping in Sunart

Almost two months had past since Alcatraz last got some exercise, as one thing after another got in the way of a bit of fishing, until finally some decent weather and a free diary lined up for a few days.

The original plan had been to head either to the far north of Scotland or to some very remote territory on the south coast of Mull, as the forecasts looked a bit on the breezy side. However this improved just enough to give a decent crack at Loch Sunart so it became a question of finding somewhere sheltered enough for an overnight stay in a northerly wind that was still forecast to be a force 5.

Looking towards Dun Ghallain, a natural harbour used for over 2000 years
Looking towards Dun Ghallain, a natural harbour used for over 2000 years

Dun Ghallain (“Fort of the Storms”) is a highly sheltered little lagoon on the north side of Sunart between Laga Bay and Salen, and most people are only vaguely aware it exists. It does indeed have an old Iron Age fort, and the superb little anchorage was used by the Vikings for their own ships over 1000 years ago, but the more pressing question was – is there anywhere to pitch a tent? Past experience with Sunart’s combination of stony shorelines and bogs has made me wary as flat ground is quite rare, and Dun Ghallain is no exception.

Sunart-Viking-harbour

After a good bit of looking around I settled on a site on the outer edges of the lagoon where there was enough ground to pitch a tent between exposed rock edges. Fine for a bit of solo camping, but two would definitely be a crowd when it came to avoiding rocky lumps in the ground.

Given the history of the place you’d half-expect a ghost or two to show up but not even a stray deer wandered past and I’d a couple of uneventful nights. I’d been a bit worried about the amount of weed in the bay, coupled with some large rocks, but low water revealed Alcatraz safely surrounded by sand and water and it wasn’t difficult to extricate her from her mooring and out the channel into the loch.

Leaving Dun Ghallain anchorage just after sunrise
Leaving Dun Ghallain anchorage just after sunrise

To be honest the fishing wasn’t great. Day 1 only involved a few hours by the time I was launched and allowing for the time spent setting up camp, and it was basically dogfish. Day 2 was better after a slow start, with a mix of rays and a few spurs from Laga Bay, including just one double of 13lb 6oz, plus more dogs and a couple of whiting. Given that it was pretty windy for much of the day I couldn’t really complain as I headed back to feel my way in to Dun Ghallain as darkness fell. After breaking camp (and the ice off the tent), the last day gave a couple of conger to 17lbs 6oz and yet more dogs and whiting in a beautiful sunny day. So quality fish but slow fishing, and in line with my previous experience of Sunart.

A spur in low-double figures
A spur in low-double figures
A small thornback ray from Loch Sunart
A small thornback ray from Loch Sunart
Where possible I use a net to land conger
Where possible I use a net to land conger
A typical conger eel from the Laga Bay area
A typical conger eel from the Laga Bay area

 

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A little bit of everything on the sea lochs

…and that’s just the weather. Flat calm and warm sunshine one minute, followed by vicious squalls with heavy rain and sleet the next. Not quite what was forecast but certainly what we got when Trevor and I headed west for a couple of days on Etive and Sunart. Sort of summarises the fishing too!

A double figure spurdog from Etive An early start on Sunday saw us anchoring in around 120 feet near Ardchattan, where we got off to a good start with my second fish being a lively spurdog which just made into double figures by a couple of ounces. Trevor soon added a thornback and we both picked up more doggies than we might like. Whitecapped waves driven up Loch Etive by a vicious squally wind The weather alternated between bright sunshine and a blasting cold wind that kicked up the surface of the loch into a mass of whitecapped waves, but we stuck it out for most of the morning, picking up a good collection of spurs and thornies for our trouble.

A rainbow brightens up the gloom of a severe squall, upper Loch Etive Come lunchtime and we decided on a move up beyond Bonawe narrows where we spent a fair while chasing fish quite a long way up the loch, but with fairly poor results. As a sort of compensation, loads of rainbows appeared after the many heavy showers, several of them framing the mountains and upper loch quite nicely. Working our way back down to Bonawe I took the opportunity to mark the wreck of the hulk that had sunk earlier in the year – just in case I get bored some point in the future and want to give it a try. Another rainbow frames Barrs and upper Loch Etive Our last spot for the day was opposite Airds, where we anchored again in fairly deep water and picked up more smallish spurs and a ray or two until we packed up about an hour after dark and headed in to recover the boat.

The plan was to fish 1 day on Etive and 1 on Sunart, so we needed to head down to Connel and then up to the ferry at Corran. The hotel at Salen had been our first thought for the night, but we wouldn’t arrive until late and the forecast had been good enough to tempt us into few hours camping rather than forking out a fair bit for a few hours kip. Given that it was now cold and fairly wet, this didn’t seem like the best decision but it was a bit late to change our minds so we turned up the car heater full blast and headed off into the night.

A little detour to Oban saw us with a first class fish supper, but the drive from Etive to Sunart took an age and it seemed to rain most of the way there. To be fair we didn’t have to wait long for the Corran ferry, but it was around half-nine before we pulled over near Salen and got the tent organised. It was a cold night and I was glad of the extra mats and warm sleeping bags that we’d taken over, and we were so tired that it didn’t take long to fall asleep. Next morning saw us awake to clear skies and ice on the car, but we were launching at Salen just before 8 and heading out on a perfectly calm loch.

Trevor holding a nice double figure Sunart spurdog The first two or three hours proved to be a teaser session – just enough double figure spurdog to keep us interested, but not enough to stop us considering other options. Another nice spurdog, this time for me! No wind and a fair bit of sunshine made for a very pleasant session but eventually we tired of the spotty dogs and decided to chase conger and skate down in Laga Bay, aiming to get there just before the tide turned. A few hundred feet of anchor rope later, and a little detour back to Salen for me to pick up a couple of essentials (a hat, and water for the kettle!), and we were soon scooting seawards at a steady 21 knots.

A decent coalie parcelled up as skate baitAn early sunrise at Salen, Loch Sunart More nice spurdog from Sunart

A conger eel from Loch Sunart As per usual, things were quite slow in Laga, but a few conger to the low twenties appeared which were good fun on light gear, plus a handful more spurdogs and the usual LSDs. Skate were noticeable by their absence, but the baits did seem to attract a few spurdog which did their usual shredding act whilst avoiding the hooks. We hung on until the light was almost gone, but with nothing wanting to play we called it quits around 5 and headed for home with the last of the light fading over Carna. A typical Sunart conger eel A Laga Bay spurdog, caught from 370 feet below

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Shivering on Sunart

This is the tale of a trip to the wilder parts of Scotland in mid-December, and one that came together quite wonderfully well given the preceding forecasts and work getting in the way of the participants. Of course, trailing a boat across to Ardnamurchan for 3 days fishing hardly counts as a great adventure but after a summer of dismal weather I didn’t rate the chances of getting decent fishing weather very highly. However the forecasts improved mightily and we were faced with three days of flat calm, sunny weather, so some hasty calls to the Salen Hotel later and we were (almost) organised.

Crew were Trevor and Ian, and we rendevouzed at Ian’s house at the relatively leisurely hour of half-six in the morning and trundled across westwards to Sunart without any drama. Making our way along the single track road towards Salen we realised that the upper loch had frozen over – something I should have expected given the conditions on Etive a week earlier, but it underlined how cold it was. Fortunately we arrived at Salen Pier and got launched into the ice free lower loch without any bother, and readied the boat for the rest of the day.

First stop was the deep hole opposite Salen which can produce decent numbers of spurdog from 380 feet below our keel. The weather was beautiful – sunny and windless, and it felt quite warm – so it wasn’t a great hardship to give it a couple of hours with little activity from anything. Trevor picked up a bonus Black Mouthed Dogfish – it’s the second I’ve seen from Sunart, and also taken from what is paddling pool depth for this species as they’re more commonly associated with 600 feet of water. Apart from that all that came up was a slow succession of LSDs.

You can only flog a dead horse for so long, so we shifted down towards Laga Bay to finish the day off, trying a mark that has thrown up conger, spurs and thornies in the past. Initially this was quiet, but picked up as the light faded – nothing spectacular but a smattering of conger to mid-teens plus a single double figured spur for Trevor and a mid-sized ray for me. We called it a day at the back of 5 as it was now freezing in the winter darkness, and we needed to check into the hotel and claim dinner before it got too late.

Day 2 saw us eating a decent hot breakfast before venturing out into very frigid conditions with thick frost covering the boat. Once out on the loch it became obvious that there was really no need for a coolbox, as the water and milk left on the boat overnight (and under cover) had frozen almost solid! Popped up on top of the cabin to catch the sunshine they eventually melted enough to keep us going for the day but it remained very cold all day, and we were all soon suffering from the cold creeping up the deck and through the soles of our waders. Fortunately the fishing picked up a bit and kept us moving as a selection of spurs, mainly low double figure fish, chomped at our baits around 400 feet down. A couple more conger appeared, plus a slow procession of LSDs, but the fishing eventually slowed to a trickle and a move was on the cards before darkness fell again.

Life here was very quiet until the light started to fade, whereupon another conger and spur put in an appearance – and then Ian almost watched his rod head over the side as a skate ignored the “proper” baits and munched a spur bait instead. On light gear Ian really struggled to slow the fish as it quietly proceeded off down the slope towards decent water, and it was clearly a good skate as it pretty much ignored whatever level of pressure was applied. This went on into the darkness until the hook snood finally gave out after an exhausting 30 minutes or more, leaving Ian gutted if not terribly surprised at the outcome. Back at the hotel it gave an excuse for a few more drinks that evening, and we looked forward to the final day out.

Again we awoke to clear skies, no wind and a vicious frost and we headed off eagerly down the loch to try the same mark as produced the spurs yesterday. However a few almost fishless hours later we called time on the deep water and headed over towards the same general ground as we’d tried the day earlier. Being earlier in the tide, and also a couple of hundred metres nearer the mouth of the bay we found ourselves in a significant run of tide which made fishing very difficult at first – normally you get a surface run of tide with little movement more than 50 feet down, but this was the reverse with a lot of movement sub-surface and not too much showing topside. Eventually the tide slackened and we caught a couple more spurs before Trevor picked up a nice 22.5lb conger to finish the trip with – this took a whole coalie skate bait and was the only fish we caught on a skate rig the entire trip.

Overall the fishing was modest, and dominated by spurs in the 10-11lb range plus a decent sprinking of conger – in absolute numbers there weren’t many caught, but the quality was better than I’ve had in the last few trips to Sunart, and fishing in clear windless weather is so massively more enjoyable than enduring heavy rain and strong winds! Sea lochs like Sunart are simply transformed by winter sunshine, which really adds to the pleasure of fishing them, even on days with little more than 7-8 hours of daylight.

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