Corryvreckan and Jura

A couple of years ago I sketched out a plan to take a boat around the Isle of Jura, more just to explore this remote place than to do any serious fishing. Of course, doing so involves traversing the Gulf of Corryvreckan which, depending on who you believe, is either the second or third largest whirlpool in the world…

Despite its terrifying reputation (30 foot high standing waves, the roar of the sea being heard 10 miles away, etc, etc.) it was pretty obvious that lots of small craft, from yachts to kayaks, made it in one piece and it was more a question of the right tides, weather and timing. Aligning these three with enough time off work delayed things, but last week saw me trailing the boat across to a spot called Carsaig (near Crinan).

Western edges of Corryvreckan
Western edges of Corryvreckan

The Longliner was loaded up with a little more than normal, to allow for a tent and sleeping bag, before nosing out into the Sound of Jura and taking advantage of the late summer sun as we headed over to Jura. There was a little time to kill before the tide was right for Corryvreckan so I had a little fish around the farmhouse at Barnhill (its main claim to fame being the place where George Orwell wrote “1984”). One lonely coalie later I continued on my way, along an equally lonely coastline. Barring a hikers bothy the next human habitation was another 30 miles ahead of me.

Exiting Loch Tarbet, Jura, heading south on a fine morning and calm seas

Corryvreckan

In the event a light NW wind, very small tides and slack water saw me heading through Corryvreckan in very anti-climactic fashion with a small swell of less than a metre and no overfalls to worry about. A few minutes later I popped out the far side and into a pretty rugged stretch of coastline. At that point it dawned on me that the Yam must have completed it’s 10 hour run in period somewhere in the middle of Corryvreckan. Pretty much academic really, but it gave me a little satisfaction at the thought.

Run-in complete - in the middle of Corryvreckan!
Run-in complete – in the middle of Corryvreckan!
Small coalfish from the edge of Corryvreckan
Small coalfish from the edge of Corryvreckan

30 minutes fishing saw loads of mackerel and some coalies, plus pollack to 3lbs or so on feathers close in to the small islands at the edge of Corryvreckan, but I didn’t hang around here given that I’d quite a way to go and the tide run was quite noticeable even at slack water. As I mentioned nobody at all lives on the west coast of Jura, with a single bothy and a summer house owned by the Astor family being the only buildings, so pretty genuinely a trackless wilderness.

Formidable cliffs line the NW coast of Jura.
Formidable cliffs line the NW coast of Jura.

Full of raised beaches and with a neat ring of rock lying just offshore that varies between just above or just below the surface – so very tricky to get ashore unless you’re in a kayak.

The bothy at Glengarrisdale, Jura, with its red tin roof clearly showing in this shot from the seaward side
The bothy at Glengarrisdale, Jura

Maclean’s Skull…

I’d kind of hoped to do just that near the bothy at Glengarrisdale, but the swell was washing onto a boulder beach and it looked a distinctly bad idea at that stage of tide (around mid-tide it’s pretty much a sandy beach). Glengarrisdale is also the home of the Cave of Macleans Skull, or at least was so up until comparatively recently. The story goes that one of the many, many skirmishes between the clans occurred here sometime in the 1600s and no-one got around to burying all the casualties at the time. Consequently Maclean’s skull had a cave to himself for a few hundred years, barring the odd visiting hiker, until he finally disappeared about 40 years ago. The tale perhaps underlines how remote this area is, as I can’t quite see the same thing happening in Edinburgh.

Maclean's skull, Glengarrisdale Bay, Jura
Maclean’s skull, Glengarrisdale Bay, Jura

I trundled down the coast for a few more hours and stopped off to fish a sandy bank just offshore from Loch Tarbet. Perhaps 50 feet of water and very little tide and my baits were completely shredded by small critters quite quickly. I tried a livebaited mackerel in case some tope had headed up from Islay, but nothing doing in the hour or two I gave it. Perhaps not too surprising given the tide, relatively short time and generally random nature of the mark, but I headed into Loch Tarbet to find somewhere to sleep overnight.

Drift fishing near Glengarrisdale, Jura
Drift fishing near Glengarrisdale, Jura

Loch Tarbet

Tarbet is one of these lochs that just keeps on going and it very nearly cuts Jura in half, but with three or four channels maybe only 20 metres across and others with plenty of rocks in them it requires quite a lot of care even in a wee boat like mine. It was getting on a bit by now and I was tired so I decided to stop playing dodgems with the reefs and find somewhere to rest up and get some food.

I dropped anchor in shallow water, just in the lee of a headland and sorted myself some dinner as the light faded (Wayfarer’s Chilli con Carne if you want to know, and not at all bad). With the cover on the Longliner she converts into rather a large tent and was quite comfy on a calm night so I got a decent night’s sleep. I could have headed ashore and popped up the tent but it was easier and more midge-friendly to stay afloat this time around. Morning saw me spend a couple of hours trying a hole in the loch in search of rays, but really just repeating the experience of the day before – lots of wee things having their breakfast at my expense.

Somewhat frustrated I headed back down the loch aways and came inshore to scrunch around an impressively massive shingle bank that represents multiple layers of raised beaches. My boat is in the photo, so gives some sense of scale.

Impressive raised beach on Loch Tarbert, Jura.
Impressive raised beach on Loch Tarbert, Jura
Peat coloured seawater in Loch Tarbet
Peat coloured seawater in Loch Tarbet

Further round Jura and you get into the Sound of Islay, where the coast is a little more civilised but overshadowed by quite impressive mountains in the form of the Paps of Jura. Round here I was extricating myself from between some rocks near the shore when I encountered a pair of otters. One was a bit shy but the other just swam towards me and seemed quite curious rather than nervous – I’ve never seen that before, as usually they disappear quickly if any anglers appear.

An otter keeps an eye on me - just south of Jura

Sea otter in the Sound of Islay, off Jura
Sea otter in the Sound of Islay, off Jura

Pollacking on Black Rock

I tried a couple of spots along the way but had only coalies and small pollack until I made a final stop at the Black Rock near the SE tip of Jura. A big tide rip even in a tiny tide and a chart that was clearly not 100% right (my sonar showed 8 feet above the rock, where the chart clearly said a minimum of double that…). However it screamed pollack and duly obliged to mackerel trip and jelly worm on a 1 oz lead.

Pollack from Black Rock, Sound of Islay
Pollack from Black Rock, Sound of Islay
Into a pollack, Black Rock
Into a Pollack

Loads of smaller fish to 4lbs or so, and I hit three much larger ones – one shed the hook, one straightened it and I landed one at 7lb 12 oz. All these came close in to the very shallow top of the reef. No photo unfortunately as the GoPro threw a wobbly filming it, just after I popped it back 🙁 I only managed about 45 minutes here before I’d to head back up the east coast of Jura to get back before the tide dropped too far, but it must hold larger fish – although whether I’d want to be near here on a large tide is a bit doubtful.

84 mile round trip, with an overall mpg of 9.4, so quite happy with that
dimension too. It was more of an explore/wander about than a fishing trip, but (unsurprisingly) there are some good fish around the tide rips at the north and south ends. Not so sure about the bits in the middle though!

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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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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

Lochaline

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!

The Hole at Kerrera

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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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
Ardmeanach peninsula from the south

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

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
Fishing Gribun

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

View to Ardmeanach
View to Ardmeanach.

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
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
Only goats make the trails here

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. One of a pair that circled the cliff line.
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
Camping in the Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull

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.

Nightfall, Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull
Nightfall, Ardmeanach Wilderness, Mull

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.

Herd of feral goats on the beach near the fossil tree, Ardmeanach
Herd of feral goats on the beach
A herd of goats contrast with basalt columns, Ardmeanach, Mull
A herd of goats contrast with basalt columns, Ardmeanach, Mull

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
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
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.

The Ardmeanach Wilderness, Isle of Mull
High in the Ardmeanach Wilderness, Isle of Mull
About 500 feet above the sea, near the base of the cliff line
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
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 🙁

Frosty-morning-on-Loch-Etive
Frosty-morning-on-Loch-Etive

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.

A very civilised wild camp on Loch Etive
A very civilised wild camp on Loch Etive

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.

Frost covers everything
Frost covers everything

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 winter campsite on Loch Etive
A steely looking early winter morning
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
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
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.

Hiking the High Sierra Trail and Death Valley

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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A Pilgrimage to Sandwood Bay

Very remote, often stormy, and always stunning, Sandwood is a broad sandy bay guarded on either end by sandstone cliffs hundreds of feet high which sits in the extreme and rather inaccessible NW corner of the Scottish mainland.

Camping at Sandwood Bay
Camping at Sandwood Bay

Over the years it has acquired an almost mystical reputation as a place to visit, complete with the ghosts of drowned sailors and the odd mermaid. Remoteness and grandeur certainly attract legends, but unfortunately what Sandwood doesn’t possess is a reputation for top class fishing, with the few reports available suggesting the odd flatfish, seatrout and possibly a bass.

I’ve trekked the 4 mile access track from Oldshoremore to Sandwood a couple of times before, but never with a fishing rod and not for over 25 years. However I’ve fancied a trip north for several years now and this time I took a rod along with me, along with a tent for an overnight stay.

Something like five and a half hours and 280 miles after leaving home I arrived in the car park at Blairmore, to find I wasn’t the only person interested in the Bay, as there was a good fistful of cars and camper vans there already.

The first part of the walk along was dominated by sheep and a load of lambs.

Lamb
Lamb

The view down the coast was wonderful – it’s amazing how a little bit of sunshine transforms the Scottish countryside.

Looking back to Blairmore
Looking back to Blairmore

Another of the local wildlife, although there were relatively few beasts of any sort after the first mile or so.

Highland Cow
Highland Cow

The path is in good condition (there was a volunteer party from John Muir Trust working on it) and easy to walk or bike along.

Footpath to Sandwood Bay
Footpath to Sandwood Bay

First view of Sandwood is both sudden and dramatic.

First view of Sandwood Bay
First view of Sandwood Bay

I worked my way along the beach towards the northern end, not far from where the river hits the sea. Exposed by the winter storms there are the remains of a WWII Spitfire which crashlanded here in 1941.

Sandwood Beach with Spitfire engine in foreground
Sandwood Beach with Spitfire engine

The other famous occupant of Sandwood Bay is the sea stack Am Buachaille.

Am Buachaille sea stack
Am Buachaille sea stack

I set up my gear and fished with a combination of mackerel strip and lugworm, hoping for a flattie and possibly a turbot. Nothing for the first couple of hours, until the tide had covered the very shallow part of the sand, and then this little seatrout took the mackerel strip.

A small seatrout from Sandwood Bay
A small seatrout from Sandwood Bay

The rest of the afternoon was spent fishing near the old Spitfire (the pilot escaped unharmed, incidentally), and it yielded several more sea trout in the run up to HW.

Remains of a Spitfire engine lie in the sand
Remains of a Spitfire engine lie in the sand
Seatrout swims off
Seatrout swims off
Nice sea trout
Nice sea trout approaching the 2lb mark

I set up camp on the beach itself, largely so I could fish on into the evening. Normally I’d prefer to get some more solid ground but it wasn’t forecast to be too windy, and I can handle a little bit of dry sand getting blown into the tent.

Camping on the beach at Sandwood Bay
Beachfront camping
Returning another bar of silver
Returning another bar of silver

As the tide ebbed the fishing died off, so I’d a little look around the beach and dunes. A little surprisingly there was very little in the way of flotsam or driftwood (any hopes of an evening bonfire were soon dashed), but I did find this old iron fishing float.

An old iron fishing float cast ashore
An old iron fishing float cast ashore
Looking inland towards Sandwood Loch
Looking inland towards Sandwood Loch

The sun set around half-nine and I took a few pictures of it disappearing, although it never really got fully dark – a mixture of the clear sky and the distance north that Sandwood Bay is compared to most of the UK.

Last of the sunshine
Last of the sunshine
The sun nears the horizon
Going, going…
The sun goes...
Gone!
Nightfall at Sandwood, with Cape Wrath to the left of the image
Nightfall at Sandwood

By now the last of the other visitors had left and the beach was mine for the night. Undisturbed by the local ghosts I fell asleep to the sound of the surf on the beach and had some much-needed kip for a few hours. Next morning saw me awake fairly early to get a bit of breakfast and have a short try for more fish before the tide ebbed too far.

Early morning on Sandwood Bay
Early morning on Sandwood Bay
Breakfast in the early morning sunshine
Breakfast in the early sunshine
Looking inland towards Foinaven
Looking inland towards Foinaven

Unfortunately things were a little quiet and nothing else appeared before I packed in and headed back along the path.

Last chance for a fish
Last chance for a fish
Rod watching at Sandwood
Rod watching at Sandwood
Seatrout heads back
Seatrout heads back

 

Simple short range fishing
Simple short range fishing

And finally… It’s easy to say that catching isn’t the central experience of a trip, especially if you haven’t actually caught so much as a baby flounder, but it’s very much true for me in such splendid surroundings. Immersed in magnificent isolation a fishing rod gives some sense of purpose, a little figleaf to fend off those who ask why you journey there, but it’s very much an accessory rather an essential requirement.

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