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!

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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