From the lush borderlands of Dumfries and Galloway to the Western Islands and windswept moors of Shetland, there are thousands of hill lochs in Scotland.
Some of them are easily accessed but most of them are not. This can range from the sublime to the ridiculous, with a good proportion of them well out of reach. And the wonderful thing is that most of them contain natural-born thrillers, the native brown trout.
For me, the hills are more than just a place to fish, more like a place to worship nature and the great outdoors. I have been fishing hill lochs since I was five and it has probably become my religion. The size of trout in many of the loch’s is small – four to the pound – but others can hold monsters. It’s all down to feeding and the pH of the water.
We enjoy large expanses of peat moorland in Scotland and it is here that many of the lochs exist. Peaty water is very acidic and not as conducive to trout growth as, say, alkaline limestone. But I have had some big fish from peaty lochs; indeed one of over 8lb is in a glass case on my wall. The truth is, you never know what’s in most of the hill lochs until you fish them.
The trek to the lochs might be masochistic but there are great rewards awaiting you!
Float Where No Man Has Floated Before
Many of the lochs involve a bit of a hike. Like or loathe this, it’s part of the experience. When you fish a stocked fishery, you drive to the waterside, have a coffee, talk tactics, check the weather or fish reports on your smartphone, and maybe do the odd health and safety induction video (God forbid!). Well, you can forget all that.
In the wild, you drive to the nearest geographical point from the loch, find somewhere to leave the car and then walk… a long way. No tarmac. No level surface. If you are particularly masochistic, you can carry a belly boat on your back for extra pleasure! The upside of this masochism is that you get to float where no man has floated before. This gives you a massive edge over the bank fisher. Although, having said that, the bank fisher doesn’t need to spend hours seeing a physiotherapist or chiropractor after the event.
In truth, you will probably never see another human being up there and the real benefit you gain is to better cover the water.
So, having studied your OS map (hard copy only in no mobile signal land), you have chosen your route. Best of luck. The only thing for sure is it will be hard going.
But, there is a great reward awaiting you: Firstly the humping of the belly boat has stopped; secondly the cool clear waters soothe and embrace your overheated body and make the pain disappear… until you remember that you need to do the return journey back down to the car after the fishing, and thirdly you will probably be in a beautiful place echoing to the sounds of nature and devoid of man-made noises. Breathe the clean air and let your spirit float free of the weights and burdens of life.
Tackling Up For The Tube
The trout in these lochs don’t see a fly that often. If you are silently drifting on the breeze and fishing the right flies, you have a good chance of nailing a beauty. My favoured methods are either long-line fast retrieve or short-line loch-style. For loch-style you need a long rod, for long-line you don’t, but it’s better to use a rod that will do both.
Have everything at hand. The pockets are ideal for fly boxes, leaders and accessories. Make sure your net is securely attached to your boat because these can be easily lost overboard.
I am firmly in the camp of 4 to 6-wt and as long a rod as you can get. A 6-wt 9ft 6in rod won’t trot a bob fly far enough out from the boat to give you a good chance of hooking a biggy; an 11ft plus model is best.
Lines are generally floating with a looped end to the line to accommodate a sinking tippet. You can use sinkers, but you need to do a full line change (very difficult in a belly boat), if the fish are suddenly taking terrestrials off the surface or there is a hatch. I also like to fish dry fly from the float tube, so it’s a pain to change all your tackle when you are wearing flippers and suchlike.
The message is, keep it simple. I fish three flies, but I’ve been doing this for a while. If I were starting out float tubing I would go for two flies. A big, hefty bob fly like a size 8 Loch Ordie and a size 12, beefy Black Pennell. The big bob brings them up and the Pennell nails them.
For the long-line fast retrieve, lose the bob fly and put on another Pennell or something like a Diawl Bach or Pheasant Tail. There are other flies, but that’s for another article…
Keep it simple. A team of wet flies fished loch style should account for a good number of fish.
Let The Pain Begin
The average good float tube has an outer rim and a seat area that inflates. You can carry float tubes semi-inflated in your car or 4WD. This saves ages of pumping it up and then deflating down. So the only pumping you need to do is when you take the float tube out of the car and prepare it for the hike.
It should have pockets for storing fly boxes, line and suchlike and an area in the bow to keep a net and some rope. I find the American nets are great for float tubing. Always remember to attach the net to the boat by means of some light elasticated rope. It’s amazing how easy it is to lose kit if you don’t keep things connected or stored away.
If you are carrying cameras and mobile phones, put them in a mini drybag. Your float tube now has to double as your fishing bag and rucksack. Everything, apart from your rod, must go into its pockets and your pockets because you can’t carry anything else on your back apart from the boat. Look for a belly boat that has metal D loops on the underside that can take straps. Good makes have these and supply straps to go with it.
Now the painful part begins. Put your arms through the straps and get ready to suffer! A couple of tips for the haul; have a bottle of drinking water in your pocket and don’t try to go over barbed wire fences wearing the boat. It’s deflating to say the least if you need to end your trip because of a puncture!
Find The Fish
Okay, so you have arrived at your loch or lochs. You now need to find the fish. On a new loch I tend to fish it in lanes. Starting at one end of the loch and drifting with the wind behind you, fish the first drift close to the shore and remember points where you saw or had some interest from fish. It’s tempting to just stay in an area where you are getting takes, but there may be bigger fish in another part of the loch, so keep searching.
By the end you will now know the loch and where the best taking spots are, so you won’t waste as much energy in unproductive water next time around. Float tubing can be very tiring on the back and legs and cramp is a real problem. It can be very tough finning upwind to start another drift. You don’t need to do this. Take your fins off, put them in the boat and just walk in the shallow water up the shore you have just fished. Now drift a lane further out until you have drifted the entire loch. This will save your legs and let your body loosen up a bit between drifts.
When walking back through the shallows to start another drift, be careful to avoid swampy and peaty areas. I have been down a few and it can be difficult to get back out, so keep your boat close to you in these areas so you can hold on to it if you start to sink down.
The size of hill-loch trout might be small – four to the pound – but bigger fish can be encountered.
Wind can be a problem. If it’s forecast to be windy, just fish from the shore for that period. If the wind gets up when you are out there, go into the shore and hole up for a while. Wind can be a real nuisance. It will whip your boat down the shore really quickly. Try to keep your bow into the wind because if you don’t, it will spin you around in circles all the way to the windward shore.
A tangled leader ‘at sea’ is a nightmare. You will struggle to master it on the water; best to head in and sort it on terra firma. You will burn a lot of energy in a day’s float tubing, so take ample supplies. I always fire up my Swedish petrol stove for shore lunch. It’s light to carry and saves all the kafuffle of lighting a fire, which is outlawed in many moors because of the fire risk to forestry and wildlife habitat.
Rolls filled with crispy bacon or square sliced sausage (Lorne Sausage), are mandatory as well as tea made using water from the loch you are fishing. I could write an entire article about the best lochs for making tea! The main thing is that you have adequate food and of course water from the loch itself. The vast majority of lochs in Scotland have superb, soft drinking water, even if the colour is a bit like tea stain!
A “shore lunch” with tea made with water from the loch using a lightweight Swedish petrol stove.
I have had a mobile phone for many years and for years it hasn’t come fishing with me. I’m not a fan. However, when I’m in the hills it always gets an outing. In most cases you will not be near a road and the nearest A&E could be 40 miles away. So if an accident befalls you, the mobile can quite literally be your lifeline to the emergency services. There is patchy coverage in the more remote areas of Scotland, so take note of any locations where you get a signal as you climb towards the lochs.
Because of the effort required in getting a float tube up to the hill lochs, I often stay up there overnight. Hill lochs can fish really well in the late evening as the trout chase sedges and the like in the fading light. If I were to choose my favourite time and place to push the boat out, I would push it out on waters that reflect the blue, pink and orange of a dying sunset. I would watch sedges scurry on the calm surface only to fall victim to the lazy rise of a 4lb wild trout.
This is nirvana, this is where the gods go fishing.
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