Early Autumn Shorefishing in Argyll

I’ve not really been shore fishing around Argyll for months, ever since the midges started to appear, so I was happy to head westwards for a daytrip at the weekend. It was 50:50 whether to trail the boat, but I plumped for the aerobic option and packed the shore gear and hiking boots instead. Plump being the operative word, as I could also do with shifting some summer over-indulgence! Sadly, no Bonnie dog for company, as she’s probably needing an op to repair ligament damage. On the plus side that meant I’d actually get some fishing time, as opposed to spending my day chucking sticks for her.

Early morning sun picks up the mountains at the head of Loch Etive
Early morning sun

Autumn was starting to show some teeth as I headed west, with sub-zero temperatures showing in several places. The early morning sun soon beat back any hint of frost, but it’s a reminder that winter isn’t too far away now. At least the summer crowds have largely gone, although the car park at the head of the loch seemed well enough occupied for early on a Saturday morning.

The walk along the loch was knock-out stuff this morning – and I don’t just mean the struggle through bog and overgrown, saturated vegetation. Even the mist was dramatic, and the landscape revealed as the sun broke through was west highland picture perfect material. The hike is definitely hard work, but very rewarding in fine weather.

A misty autumn morning looking across scrubby birch woods down towards Loch Etive
There’s a loch in there somewhere
Stunning oak woodlands line the banks of Loch Etive, with my path winding between them
Stunning oak woodlands line the loch

Late morning had me setting up the rods with mackerel baited pulley rigs and casting out into calm, deep, water.

Launching a mackerel bait out into the calm waters of Loch Etive, in search of a spurdog
Launching a mackerel bait

The tide was ebbing, which makes life easier on this mark, and the sun was shining. However the fish didn’t seem as inspired as I was, and it was almost an hour before the first bite translated into a small spurdog.

A small thornback ray adds variety to the catch on Loch Etive
A small thornback adds variety

It was quickly returned, just as another pair of anglers hove into view, and set up at a nearby mark. A few fish later I headed round for a chat and to see how they were doing, as I’d not fished the spot they were on. Turns out that they started off before me, but had overshot the turnoff from the trail and then spent quite a while making their way to the marks. I consoled them a little by telling them that Trevor and I had a pretty hard time finding our way here the first time we tried. At least they were also catching fish as a reward for any blisters incurred.

A thornback ray caught from Loch Etive, and waiting to be returned to the water
Fish of the day

The day rolled on nicely – more fish, more coffee and more bacon. A good bit of sun, some breezy spells, and a shower or two. Basically, easily enough to keep me occupied for the rest of the afternoon until I decided to head for home before sundown. It always feels longer on the way back, but nothing felt too broken by the time I arrived at the car.

The Loch Etive woods are a lovely place to explore as the autumn colours start to show
A lovely place to explore

In day trip terms this is very much an even split between hiking and fishing and that’s part of the attraction to me. I like my hiking and I like my fishing, and this combines the two quite nicely. Add in a little hillbilly cooking and it suits me perfectly.

However, it’s probably as well that I’ve managed to convince myself that it’s not all about the catching – 10 spurdog, 1 thornback and a doggie doesn’t sound too bad for a 5 hour session, but the biggest fish only went around 3lbs and most of the spurs were laughably small.

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Wildcamp at Sandwood Bay

A couple of weeks ago I managed to escape back towards Cape Wrath for a little wildcamp at Sandwood Bay. Surf, scenery and solitude reset a jaded mind very effectively!

Wildcamp at Sandwood Bay
Pitching camp on a small headland overlooking the rollers crashing ashore at Sandwood beach, NW Scotland.
Pitching camp

A few fish would be nice, and September is generally a good month to find them, but my real aim was just to have a little chill time for myself.

A lovely surf pounds in to Sandwood beach on a clear September morning in NW Scotland
A lovely surf pounds in to Sandwood beach

Ian teases me about the slow-ish fishing for small fry that makes up my typical angling experience of Sutherland. At one level he’s quite right, as I could easily catch more and better fish elsewhere.

However, devouring a juicy sirloin whilst warming yourself by the flames of a lively little campfire – all the while watching the last of the sun disappearing over the Atlantic surf – and the reality is that fishing is just an excuse to be here.

Dinner eaten and a single malt awaits as dusk falls over my camp, Sandwood beach.
Dusk falls over my camp, Sandwood beach
The sun sets over the Atlantic surf rolling in to Sandwood beach
A perfect view from the camp

A nice slug of single malt and I fell asleep to the sounds of the surf. Quite genuinely, there was nowhere else in the world I’d rather have been.

Fish

Well, I did catch some. Hardly the best catching I’ve ever had, but a very satisfying few hours playing in the surf. More small sea trout and bass but no turbot. Less happily, I stripped a large number of sea lice off the sea trout before returning them and was quite taken aback by the infestation. Obviously I’ve seen sea lice before, but not on this scale, and I can understand why our freshwater friends have such concerns about them.

A small, and sea lice infested sea trout from Sandwood Bay
Sea trout
A small bass from Sandwood Bay waits to be released
Small bass from Sandwood Bay

I also managed to land a “bonus” weever fish too – a first for me, although I’m not actively hunting for a second.

A first for me, with a poisonous lesser weever fish lying on the sand waiting to be unhooked.
Lesser Weever

I’d hoped for the possibility of a ray but the surf was a little too energetic for that to be likely. Unfortunately, the range up at Cape Wrath was closed or else I’d have tried a couple of the more accessible spots north of Sandwood that I picked out last year.

Fishing the southern end of Sandwood Bay
Fishing the southern end of Sandwood

Pretty much the same experience as before – bass on crab, with everything else on mackerel strip.

John Muir Trust and Sandwood

If you’re an outdoors type whose toes curl (even a little!) at the idea of time spent out in true Scottish wilderness, then you might like this little YouTube offering. I claim absolutely no credit for it, and it has nothing to do with fishing – but it does nicely explain the philosophy that guides the owners of Sandwood, the John Muir Trust. It’s worth remembering that the voice-over was written well over a century ago, but still seems completely relevant today.

The Trust aims to encourage access to iconic Scottish wilderness whilst also conserving it and certainly seems to be doing a good job at Sandwood. It’s named after John Muir, a Scots migrant to the USA who is idolised there for his work in setting up national parks such as Yosemite, but is relatively little known in his native country.

And finally…

I like a campfire out in the wilderness. It cooks your food, keeps you warm and hypnotises you with its flame. In the sixteen hour darkness of a December night in Scotland it provides light in more ways than one. Done sensibly there is no harm. Done badly it ruins your chosen spot and leaves a scar that can last a decade or more.

A little trace of charcoal on the sand, but not much sign of a campfire here.
A little trace of charcoal on the sand, but not much sign of a campfire

Use a sandy beach where you can, or perhaps an existing fire hole, but never start a fire on machair or other vegetation. Come back in 10 years and you’ll still recognise the damage you did… I know this personally, and still cringe every time I see a little spot with 18 inches of slowly recovering turf. A mistake I’ve never repeated, and which you can avoid easily.

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Sutherland Bass

I live a long way from the wilds of Sutherland, so it was a 5 hour drive through Friday afternoon traffic before I finally got parked up. And then the hard work started as I marched on for a further couple of hours to reach my destination. I pitched my little Vango tent in the early dark, on the grassy machair overlooking a small beach. I was tired by now, so I just crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep to the sound of the Atlantic crashing ashore just below me.

Video below, or just read on…

A cracking campsite on the machair, perched just above a beautiful beach in North West Sutherland
A cracking campsite

By morning the sky was clearing after a little rain overnight, so I had a leisurely breakfast watching the waves before I set up my rods and moseyed on down to the sand.

Walking along the beach towards my first spot of the day
First mark of the day

I chose to fish a large rock which was becoming accessible as the tide dropped and it took only a few minutes to get the gear sorted out and make my first cast.

Casting out a couple of baits on a spinning rod and into the crystal clear water of the Atlantic
Casting out

The water is fairly shallow and crystal clear, and both spinning rods coped fine with a modest wave. I didn’t need to wait too long before  a small sea trout took a fancy to a sliver of mackerel and paid me a visit.

A small sea trout falls for a thin strip of mackerel
Sea trout

A little later and I got a firm bite on my other rod and reeled in another reluctant silver specimen, only to find it wasn’t a sea trout but a small schoolie bass.

A small school bass - my first from northwest Scotland
Small schoolie

Very pleased with this one, as I knew they inhabit the area but haven’t seen one myself. It took a crab bait carefully preserved/left over from last June that I’d stuck in the cool box just as an afterthought.

The tide had ebbed away leaving my little rock high and dry by now, so I needed to move. I decided to switch to the other end of the beach where there was a clear flow of tide and slightly deeper water. The movement looked quite strong but I was held fine with a 1oz bullet.

A tiny turbot swallows a mackerel belly and becomes my first ever of this species. Well chuffed, tiny or not!
Yee-hah – A new species for my list. Tiny turbot.

The little spinning rod scored first blood with a very small flattie that probably didn’t quite deserve the shout of joy that greeted it – my first ever turbot. Small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, but hey-ho, it’s still a new species!

Fishing the fringe of the beach, just out of the main force of the swell.
A sheltered corner that holds a few fish

A bit later I topped this by landing a bass/turbot duo, so I ended the morning feeling quite chuffed with myself.

The bottom of the tide is quite awkward to fish here as there’s some shallow water with dry sand beyond it. I didn’t bother and had a wander into the hills in search of some mini-trout for a couple of hours.

No trees allowed - just heather, rock and water in this very exposed environment
No trees allowed

Nice day, nice walk but only a handful of minnow sized brownies grabbed the Mepps 0 I offered them – loads more had a go but didn’t seem quite big enough to actually hit it properly!

This tiny trout is roughly the size of a large minnow, but is typical of the population in this small stream and harsh environment.
Tiddler trout

Back on the beach I spent the afternoon baking in the sun as the tide rose. Only one bass, and another missed bite, so not as good as the ebb but still a lovely place to watch the breakers come crashing in.

A wave breaks against a boulder embedded in the sand
Wave breaking against a boulder

From up on top of the cliffs you could see seals coasting inside the curve of the breaking waves – presumably chasing the same fish as myself.

Another bass munching crab comes ashore. Very small, but still beautiful and very welcome.
Another bass munching crab

Then it was a long hike back out and a drive part of the way home before I’d to pull over and kip for a few hours.

A reluctant goodbye to this beautiful coast as I start my hike back across the machair and rock.
Starting the long trek back home

Loads of deer about too – one full emergency stop and another that clipped the car, fortunately without any obvious damage to either party.

So 3 bass, all on crab and 2 turbot and a sea trout. All small and not a lot in absolute terms, but a really classy place to camp and fish. and I’m pretty chuffed with the result.

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Final Fling for 2017 – a Hike in the Sunshine

Days of Christmas force feeding meant I really needed to get some fresh air,  so I reckoned a hike in the sunshine along the banks of Loch Etive would fit the bill nicely. Fishing wasn’t the main aim but it looked possible to get 3 or 4 hours to wet a line before darkness fell.

Bonnie, my bozo spaniel, came along for the day and quite happily trailblazed as we trudged along. Happily, the cold had frozen most of the water into the ground so it was less boggy than a month ago and we made steady progress towards our mark. With the sun still hiding behind the mountains it was chilly but otherwise a beautiful day to be out.

Cold, clear and windless - a perfect winter day at Barrs, Loch Etive
Cold, clear and windless – a perfect winter day
Typical small spurdog just about to be returned. Bonnie the spaniel is looking on in rather bored fashion.
Typical small spurdog

Arriving at our mark I quickly rigged up and cast out whilst Bonnie waited impatiently for sticks to be thrown. Unluckily for her there was a solid stream of distractions in the form of small male spurdogs and I was kept busy dealing with them. On two or three occasions I got bites just as soon as I hit bottom, suggesting there were large numbers about.

Lobbing another bait out
Lobbing another bait out
Small but sleek looking spurdog
Small but sleek looking spurdog

With only a short session and quite a lot of action between the fish and doggie stick chucking, it took a while to get a brew on – but I can’t survive without a supply of coffee.

Brewing up a coffee on my twig powered Honey Stove
Coffee brewing

This time I wasn’t the only one out on the loch. I’d passed a tent with a couple of shore rods parked outside it on the way in, and there was a kayaker out as well. Plenty loch to go around though!

A kayaker using the light wind to sail up Loch Etive in the shadow of a snow covered Ben Starav
Kayak sailing up Etive in a very light breeze
No wind, so paddle power now required for the same kayak
No wind coming back, so paddle power now required

I chucked in the fishing around 2.30, to be sure of making it back before it got too dark. A final tally of 15 spurs and a couple of dogfish for 4 hours fishing was a good bit better than I’d expected, even if none of them made more than 3lbs or so.

Camoflaged against the rock - this little spurdog merges quite nicely against the granite
Camouflaged against the rock
Golden light floods over Ben Starav as the sun starts to set over a mirror like Loch Etive, just after Christmas.
Golden sunlight lights up Ben Starav

The return trip to the car was a fine walk as the sun faded and turned the mountains golden, all reflected in the perfectly still waters of the loch. Our timing was good and we crunched across the carpark just as the last of the light disappeared.

Bonnie is quite indifferent to fishing
Bonnie is quite indifferent to fishing

Poor old Bonnie made herself comfortable in the front seat of the car and then collapsed for the journey home. She’s over 10 now and can still charge around for hours, but it does catch up with her when we stop at the end of the day.

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Wild Camp on Etive – with a few Spurs thrown in

I do like this time of year – the nights are long but it’s not too cold, and the worst of the bugs are back in hibernation. The autumn colours are still around and the summer crowds have largely gone. And last weekend the weather and the tides lined up nicely too, so I sorted out my tent and loaded up the rucksac again. Time for another wild camp on Etive, fishing right alongside my tent in a very quiet spot where deer were the only likely intruders.

Solo wild camp and fishing on Loch Etive

To me the long walk in is part of the attraction of this mark. The track is rough and quite arduous in places, but it runs through wonderful scenery and quite splendid isolation – a very rare commodity, even in Scotland.

Fording a small burn along the track between Glen Etive and Barrs.
Fording a small burn

Travelling light is a relative term, but everything goes in the rucksac apart from the rods themselves, and I keep gear to a reasonable minimum. This time I was relying on a campfire for cooking and hot coffee, so the gas stove was swapped in favour of a little fatwood and a couple of mini-firelighters. A few leads, traces and a little coolbag with mackerel bait was pretty much all I needed to fish, as the loch doesn’t tend to be too tackle-hungry.

A couple of hours later I arrived at my destination, having worked up a decent sweat in the process with only a single tumble into the peat bog on the way in. Mild embarrassment and a wet fleece were the only casualties, but a reminder of the reason I carry a PLB on these trips – the line between merely looking silly and potentially crippling injury is a fine one, and easily crossed over.

Campsite in sight. A beautiful location to spend the night
Campsite in sight. A beautiful location to spend the night
Scots Pine with Ben Starav in the background. Fine autumn colours on Loch Etive.
Scots Pine with Ben Starav in the background.

Set up, bait up and cast in – it doesn’t take long to get fishing on this mark. I am pretty lazy when it comes to fishing here, and I don’t tend to spin or float fish for the pollack which also swim around here. However I did need to sort out my campsite for the night, and darkness comes early in these parts at this time of year. My “semi-detached” style of fishing allowed me time to get on with collected kindling and firewood, and to set up the tent.

Sunset over Loch Etive. Fishing near Barrs on a calm November evening
Sunset over Loch Etive

Finding dry wood can be a bit of a challenge on the west coast, as anything on the ground gets saturated quite quickly, so I’d to tramp around a bit to find decent chunks of dead but still standing timber. My efforts were rewarded by a couple of nice pieces of oak to form the core of the fire, and a good bunch of dry-ish bracken to act as tinder. Happily it didn’t take too long to get a decent fire set up and burning steadily.

Campfire catches hold - a welcome sight on a cold November evening
Campfire catches hold

Almost in parallel, there was a steady run of spurdogs taking my baits. I missed a few due to my fire raising, but the body count was respectable and rising as I put the coffee pot on to boil and tucked a couple of potatoes into the fire to cook away.

Striking into a spurdog, early November morning on Loch Etive. Cool, clear and beautiful.
Fish on!
A small thornback ray from the shore, near Barrs, Loch Etive
Thornback ray

The light finally faded as I returned my one and only thornback ray of the trip, and the steak and mushrooms went on to cook – I felt I deserved a little treat for braving a long November night. All fairly primitive, but I dined well and in very contented fashion as I contemplated the stars reflecting in the calm waters of the loch. Not a light or trace of humanity disturbed the quiet.

Steak and mushrooms over the campfire. Treat and a half!
Steak and mushrooms. Treat and a half!

I’ve not had a baked apple since I was a kid, but it was a perfect follow on to the steak. Apertifs came from a slug of Talisker and then it was time for an early night.

I slept pretty well, waking only to the sound of some light rain on the tent and later on to the pitter-patter of tiny feet as a tick traversed my torso. Uugh! Not really what you want at two in the morning and it was duly trapped and despatched after a slightly desperate search by torchlight. The morning light revealed a neat line of bites across my middle which suggested I’d moved the wretched thing on a few times in the night before it woke me up for real…

Five in the morning, moon and stars brighten the long night
Five in the morning, moon and stars brighten the long night

A New Day

Next morning dawned clear and cold, with the sky clearing after the last shower departed, so I struggled free of my warm cocoon and back into thermals. The gear was pretty much ready to go so it was a matter of minutes to bait up and cast out. Then back to trying to re-awaken the campfire and get some breakfast on the go.

Early morning - calm, cold and clear on Loch Etive as I watch my rods for a sign of fish biting
Early morning – calm, cold and clear

My backup was in the form of muesli, so there was a strong incentive to get the fire going and polish off an early morning smorgasborg of sausage, bacon, mushrooms and eggs. The overnight rain dampened everything enough to give some anxious moments, but I eventually kickstarted the fire and breakfast got underway.

Bacon and eggs on the campfire. And a fish biting...
Bacon and eggs on the campfire. And a fish biting…

Just like the campfire, fish were a little slow to come out to play, but started to appear just as breakfast got to the critical stage of pre-burn perfection. A little careful juggling kept everything edible whilst still pulling in a few more spurdog and a rather more grisly whiting head – its body presumably forming the equivalent of spurdog bacon and eggs.

Whiting head - with the rest forming part of a spurdog breakfast. Not a good start to his day!
Unlucky whiting

Over the next couple of hours I had a coffee or two, pulled in a spurrie or three, and generally organised my backpack until, rather slowly and reluctantly, I packed up camp and prepared to move back down the track towards civilisation. I wanted to fish a mark about half-way back to the car that I hadn’t tried for 2 or 3 years. Whilst I fully expected to repeat previous experience and find it stuffed full of micro-spurs in the sub-12 inch category, I felt it was worth a shot, just to see.

Early morning spurdog, caught near Barrs, Loch Etive
Early morning spurdog

Micro-spurs

My expectations were fulfilled, and faint hopes dashed, as a succession of micro-spurs dutifully gobbled up the bait and were dragged ashore. An hour of this was more than enough, especially given a blustery northerly wind, so I was soon heading back towards the car. Given it’s a fine spot to camp and fish it’s a shame that there don’t appear to be any larger fish around here.

Casting out - upper Loch Etive
Casting out – upper Loch Etive

A final splosh through the sodden moorland saw me back at the carpark at Glen Etive, with a couple of final treats in store on the road home. The first in the shape of large numbers of deer (there are loads in Glen Etive), and then a very fine sunset as I crossed over Rannoch Moor on the way back east. A reminder that Scotland can be magnificent at times, and not just a prisoner of Atlantic weather systems… Definitely an A-list weekend!

The pier at Glen Etive, a well photographed location!
The pier at Glen Etive
November sunset over Rannoch Moor
November sunset over Rannoch Moor
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Squelching Across Skye – and a Stray Bass

Just back from a few days wandering around Skye with a fishing rod. More wandering than fishing it has to be said, but a few items of interest from the angling point of view.

Video here, and the full report below…

Squelching Across Skye with a Fishing Rod

The highlight of the trip was actually before I even got there, as I stopped off for a couple of hours near Fort William. It was not long dark when I hooked what was obviously a decent fish but one which came in without too much fuss, and it showed up in my headtorch as a nice looking ray.

A small Common Skate from the shore
My first shore-caught Common Skate

It was only when I picked it up that I realised it was actually a small common skate and a first for me from the shore. The scales put it at around 18lbs, which also makes it my biggest shore caught fish.

18lb Common Skate caught from the shore
18lb Common Skate

Suitably encouraged I scooted up the road to Skye and slept in the car overnight before heading up to Bracadale and an area I’ve never been too before.

The western shores of Loch Bracadale are heavily wooded and fringed with rock and volcanic cliffs
Western shores of Loch Bracadale

Bracadale

It was a fine morning, but the forecast was for heavy rain and a force 6 southerly in the afternoon, so I hoped to find a bit of shelter in the loch. Rather overloaded with too much clobber I headed off down the track that goes out to Idrigill Point and then cut off this and headed down to the shoreline to find a spot to fish and set up camp.

Western edge of Loch Bracadale
Who wouldn’t fancy fishing here

Nightmare country, with old forestry, small cliffs and gorges everywhere, so I was pretty knackered by the time I got set up. The mark itself was easy enough to fish, although it was nearly low water and there was a good band of exposed kelp running out 30 yards or so.

Low water exposes a thick forest of kelp on Loch Bracadale, Skye
Low water kelp forest

I cast mackerel baits over this and started picking up spurdogs from the sand beyond – only about 20 feet of water but there were fair numbers going about once the tide started to flood, and I was kept busy. Initially small males, but then a few females appeared, although nothing above 6-7lbs.

A small spurdog tries to find its way around the kelp forest fringing Loch Bracadale, Isle of Skye
Small spurdog swims over the kelp

As the tide flooded and the weather started to kick in properly I had a go spinning for pollack as the kelp was now covered by water. Plenty of interest in the jellyworms but not too many proper takes. Most of the fish were small, in the 1.5-2.5lbs range and I doubt anything went above 3lbs, but there were reasonable numbers. I lost one larger fish but even it wouldn’t have made over 5lbs. I retreated to the comparative comfort of the tent once the light faded and had quite a decent night’s sleep hidden inside the plantation as the wind howled along the cliffs.

Best way to start the day after a wet and wild night - coffee, bacon and eggs
Best way to start the day after a wild night – coffee, bacon and eggs

Idrigill

Next day was nothing to write home about on the fishing front – I did take a spinning rod along as I tramped out to Idrigill Point (after wading my way through waist deep, soaking wet bracken to get back to the track in the first place), but there is nowhere at the point itself that you could realistically get down without significant ropework.

The sea stacks known as MacLeod's Maidens, near Idrigill Point, Isle of Skye
MacLeod’s Maidens, near Idrigill Point

Most of the coastline is pretty similar, with steep cliffs straight into the water, so I didn’t try and commit suicide and just enjoyed the view. Heading back down to the south of the island I spent a couple of hours on Armadale pier feeding some very hungry crabs which munched everything I gave them extremely quickly.

Fishing Armadale Pier on the Sleat Peninsula, Skye
Fishing Armadale Pier, Sleat

There may well have been fish there, but I doubt they’d have a look in as baits were getting stripped in a few minutes.

Sleat Bass

Another overnighter in the car and then down towards Point of Sleat, armed just with a spinning rod. The Point produced nothing, although I think it is largely sandy ground rather than kelp – a beachcaster and mackerel bait might have told a different story as there was around 30 feet+ of water and a decent tide run as well.

Moving back up towards my car I tried the same spot I’d good fishing from when I was up in summer, and it was instant action. However most were smaller than during the summer and in the 2-3lb bracket, although I did get one specimen that would have gone around 6lbs or so.

Another Pollack extracted from its kelpy home
Another Pollack extracted from its kelpy home
Coalfish from the Sleat Peninsula, Skye
Coalfish from the Sleat Peninsula, Skye

A couple of coalies also and then, just as most of the action had stopped near slack tide, I got hit just on the surface at the fringes of the kelp. At first I thought it was a better sized coalie until I slid it up on the kelp and realised it was a bass! Not a big one, and definitely undersized, but I was both surprised and chuffed with this little bonus. A first on lures from the shore and from any sort of rock mark.

A shore caught bass from Skye
A shore caught bass from Skye

So quite hard work in some ways, and no gigantic bags of fish, but I’m pretty happy with my lot! Even happier to get a decent night in a proper bed…

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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

Time to get my boots wet

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

Beyond Sandwood

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.

Keisgaig and some trout

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

Back to Sea

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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Spring Spurdog fishing on Loch Etive

Yesterday it was back again to Etive for another shore fish in search of some spring spurdog, although I reckon this will probably be my last for a while. The midges will soon wake up as will the fishing everywhere else, so I think the Lochaber sea lochs will go on the back burner for a while, at least for shore fishing.

Making my way through the open woodland of Loch Etvie, with the ground covered by early spring greenery
En route, through the spring greenery

It was raining as Bonnie and I set off on the long trek down the loch, not heavy but enough to have me debating the wisdom of trying some closer marks. Happily both the rain and us gradually dried up over the next hour and the sun started to poke through as we tramped along steadily. Spring is really on it’s way, despite the snow earlier in the week, and the lochside was turning green again. In the freezing cold at the start of the year the woods were almost eerily silent but now they were full of birdsong, with good numbers of cuckoos and woodpeckers making their presence felt. No sign of any human animals though!

Sending a bait out in search of spurdog, aiming to hit 120 feet or more of water depth
Sending a bait out in search of spurdog

Bozo has got the hang of the routine now and on arrival I was left in peace to set up my rods whilst she went off in search of her ideal stick. So, a few minutes after we reached our destination a mackerel baited pulley rig splashed down and made its way to the silty seabed 120 feet or more deep.

A nice shore-caught spurdog
A nice shore-caught spurdog

Even before the second rig was baited and ready to go my ratchet screeched as a spurdog hit the bait and made off at speed. A few minutes later and a superb fish glided into view, looking more like a tope than a spurrie. Sadly this was due to a combination of my new varifocal lenses and the magnifying effect of unusually clear water rather than reality. Still, a respectable fish of around 6-7lbs was soon slipped back into the water. God knows what I’d blabbering about on here if it had got off!

Baiting a pulley rig with mackerel before casting out into the depths of Loch Etive
Baiting a pulley rig with mackerel

That pretty much set the tone for the day as fish appeared regularly during the ebb and if I hadn’t managed to lose three spurdog to bite-offs I’d have been even happier. I tend to use a 7oz grip on this mark as there’s a reasonable run of tide in the deep channel that holds the fish. Coupled with a pulley rig I’ve not lost too much gear on the ebb, although the flood is a different story as your line is pulled into snags by the tide.

Brewing a coffee over my packable woodburner stove - a handful of twigs is all that's required.
Brewing a coffee

Perhaps because of its remoteness this mark tends to bring out my latent hillbilly instincts, so my little woodburner Honey Stove got another outing. Gas is definitely less messy and easier to work with, but there is a certain satisfaction from a cup of coffee brewed over a naked flame – and even better if you can use a firesteel rather than matches to light it! Boys toys or what 🙂

Bonnie hard at work with a large pile of half chewed sticks
Bonnie hard at work

Apart from “crispy” sausages shared on a 50:50 basisBonnie frowns on such frivolity of course, as it gets in the way of the real business of stick throwing. I didn’t dare put any of her collection on the fire…

A decent shore-caught spurdog from Loch Etive
A decent shore-caught spurdog from Loch Etive

Spurdog were fairly steady through the ebb and I had to interrupt stick throwing on a regular basis to retrieve them. Most were in the 4-7lb range, although there were a couple of smaller males. The average size has definitely increased since the New Year, the same pattern that showed last year.

Swinging another spring spurdog ashore
Swinging another spring spurdog ashore

By five in the afternoon the tide had turned and the sky was getting ominously grey, so I bribed the dog with a biscuit and we started back along the trail. Our final tally was eleven spurdog, with no other species showing an interest. Despite the best efforts of my new glasses there were no double figure captures, but cracking fun nevertheless.

And a video of the day…

Spurdogs from the shore on Loch Etive
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Multi-tasking on Loch Etive

The car park was deserted and the air cold as I opened the door to let Bonnie out to stretch her legs after the drive across from Edinburgh. Gulping down some hot coffee I watched clear signs of doggie approval as she nosed her way around the lochside, tail wagging eagerly.

Loch Etive - Spurdogs from the shore

A few minutes later we started down the boggy trail that runs along the loch. The overnight mist was clearing from the hills and the sun was starting to poke out but it was still chilly on the first day of March and I set a good pace to warm myself up.

Hiking in to my fishing mark along upper Loch Etive
It’s a long walk in…

The plan wasn’t complicated – hike in, spend a few hours fishing and playing with the cameras in the sunshine, and then another couple of hours hiking back. All with a furry companion who has an insatiable demand for sticks to be thrown. That’s where the multi-tasking bit comes in.

A couple of hours later, standing on the edge of the old quarry pier, we were greeted by a cracking view of the sun shining off the loch and a snow covered Ben Cruachan. Perfect!

The sun, snow and light bouncing off the water make this image look almost monochrome
Sun, sea and snow

The ebb had just started as I cast a pair of mackerel baited pulley rigs out into the depths. Normally I could settle back for a laze in the sunshine but bozo had other ideas and I was ordered into stick throwing mode whilst we waited for a bite.

Casting out in search of spurdogs on a calm, crisp day in the wilds of Loch Etive
Wish you were here?
Bonnie the spaniel has little patience with fishermen who don't throw sticks when required
Stickmeister in action

Fortunately for me the fish were fairly cooperative and I took regular breaks from my furry slave driver to deal with nodding rod tips. Fishing the ebb is much easier on this mark and helps keep tackle losses to a minimum. Fishing 30-35lb nylon and a heavish 7oz breakaway lead seems to work fairly well for me as a combination.

Two at a time, as a spurdog and a spottie dogfish are lifted ashore
Two at a time

Mostly it was smallish spurs, but there was the usual sprinkling of doggies and also a thornback chucked into the mix. The biggest would’ve made 6lbs (possibly 7 if you’d dodgy scales!) but specimen hunting wasn’t really the point of the day.

A nice sized spurdog fills the granite block by the side of the old piers at Barrs, Loch Etive
A better spurdog, just as the rain starts
Ben Starav towers over the old stone pier I was fishing from
Ben Starav dominates my choice of fishing mark

By early afternoon the sun was changing back to icy showers so we called it a day and made our way back along the trail. Up here Etive is silent and lonely today, but all around you can see the remains of a much busier, livelier past. Moss covered walls and old field systems being reclaimed by the trees are everywhere.

The shell of an old Quarryman's hut surrounded by moss covered boulders and trees near the shore of Loch Etive
All that remains – an old Quarryman’s hut

It was a fairly tired spaniel that trotted back to the car, and she just curled up on the seat for the journey home. Although a stop at the chippie in Callendar did wonders to revive her 🙂

As an aside, I do try and travel fairly light if I’m hiking any distance. This can be a bit easier said than done, given that I’m hauling camera gear as well as fishing clobber. However everything, including the reels and bait, got stuffed into a 30 litre rucksac which just left a pair of rods to carry. Even the camera tripod you see below just clips on to the rucksac and leaves your hands free. It definitely makes walking any distance much easier!

A pair of rods and all my camera and fishing gear packed into a 30 litre rucksac - it pays to travel light when hiking to a distant fishing mark
I travel light when I can

 

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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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