I’ve fished all the Isles but, in the end, I guess it comes down to the Uist – both north and south – that get my vote as my own personal favourite. There are two ways to get there: you can be relaxed about things and take a day or two travelling and finally catch a ferry from either Oban or the Isle of Skye. Or, if time is tighter, then fly to Glasgow and from there you can hop on a BA flight that will take you to Benbecula. This charming little airport is the hub of island life and you’ll be able to fix up car hire if necessary. But to the fishing…
Let’s take a typical day, if any day can be said to be typical up in such a beautiful place. It’s September, not a long time after dawn, a grey one at that, and the tide is beginning to seep away leaving sand banks exposed and a swift-running channel between them. Now’s the time to make the hike down to the infamous sea pools that ring the island like so many jewels in a crown. You are absolutely on your own…your footsteps in the slime are the only ones as you chase the ebb to pools seemingly halfway between the shore and the sea. Uist sea trouting is different like this: everywhere else you seem to wait for the incoming tide but not here…the ebb forces the trout into the pools and, fortunately, many of them still feel like feeding. There’s a lot of activity: a number of fish between three and six pounds are leaping. Some are surging after sand eels. Others are grubbing after crab or chasing the endless fry in the margins, hiding amongst the kelp.
You don’t really need any fancy gear – a heavy trout rod, a floating line and a selection of largish full coloured flies should suffice. The vital thing is to be there along with the fish, casting something that they can see, bringing it back in a way to excite some enthusiasm.
You’ll get many follows, many plucks and refusals: keep changing the fly till you pick on a winner. Try something red to imitate a prawn or a shrimp. Something silver to look like a sand eel or darting fry. Blues work and so do greens. Keep an open mind and ring the changes and success will be yours.
You hook a fish…it goes mental, awesomely berserk. You think you’ve caught sea trout before but nothing like this, this cartwheeling streak of silver in the pewter sea pool. It surges off line, your reel is a screaming monster that you hardly dare to touch and then, after ten breath-taking minutes you can barely believe your eyes – the fish is only a four pounder when you would have sworn it would have been fourteen!
Then the dead water time…you notice that there is current neither in nor out and the pool stands limp, slack, disinterested. And so do the fish. Leaping has ended, there’s no more bow waving after small fish. The fish are doggo even when you move further down towards the beckoning sea. It’s time to leave for breakfast.
And now it’s off to the hills, endless treks of extraordinary beauty to absolutely innumerable lochs. The islands of North and South Uist appear from the air as you coast in towards Benbecula to be more water than land and so it seems when you’re out there on the heather. There are literally hundreds of lochs and virtually all of them hold brown trout, and many nearer to the sea hold sea trout and even salmon as well. However, for the very best of the brown trout then you’ve really got to walk inland, to waters that rarely, if ever, see an angler. That’s one of the beauties of the Uists – that you really can fish virgin lochs and lochens, waters that are truly your own, utterly pristine and undiscovered.
Another beauty of fishing the Uists is the extraordinary variety of the brown trout on offer: some lochs only offer small fish but in huge quantities where it’s quite possible to catch thirty or fifty or a hundred trout of up to a few ounces in a day. Other lochs have fewer but much bigger fish – six and eight pounders are possible if you know the sort of places to go. And on the fly! It’s sensational stuff.
Another delight is the variety of the trout that you will catch: some are lean and dark brown and very heavily spotted. Others will be much lighter, almost silvery in colour with crazy flecked patterns of reds, blacks and browns. In fact, it’s almost as though every loch has its own little genetic pool, trout that the true Uist expert will recognise.
Every Uist man has his own favourite team of flies and, in truth, most things are worth a bash. Try anything beetle-like, black or brown pulled back quickly, just under the surface, creating a bit of a wake. Or let them sink and trundle them back slowly along the bottom. Big dry flies can work – let them skate around on the margin of the ripple and you’ll bring up thrilling, splashy rises. Daddies can work well towards the end of the summer. Pheasant tails work well everywhere and I have a huge affection for small shrimp patterns. The key is to be adventurous and, like with your sea trout, to keep experimenting until you hit on the winning pattern for the day.
Also, keep your eyes open for any moving fish. Sometimes they’ll be jumping, rising or occasionally you will just see a flat spot in amongst the ripple. It also pays to keep on the move – don’t flog one piece of bank but cast a few times and then move on five or ten yards, so that you’re probably working upwards a quarter of a mile during the hour. And don’t forget that if a particular loch is ‘off’ another one might very well be on. So, if the water you’re on is particularly dour there is almost bound to be another opportunity just over the brow of the next hill.
Floating lines are probably all you’re going to need as most of the lochs don’t go particularly deep and many of the trout anyway are working towards the surface layers. A leader of three to five pounds is pretty well sufficient for anything you’re likely to come up against but you will need thigh boots, at least…some of the bogs that you will be crossing can be rather evil in nature and it’s a good idea to give yourself the ability to get out a little way from the shore. A head-net stuffed in your pocket and some midge repellent are also good investments…if there’s a breeze you won’t be worried but should it die away and the day come in calm and humid you could be in real trouble!
Above all, you’ll need a map and a compass isn’t a bad idea either. I’m not exaggerating for it really is possible to lose yourself out in the wilds of the Uists, especially as you get carried away with the glut of fishing on offer. It’s a good idea always to keep a close look out for any obvious landmarks as you pass them – hills, obviously, cairns, even the odd stunted tree. And do make sure that you never leave it too late to pull off the water – even old hands on Uist don’t like to be caught out on the hill as darkness sets in. Mist, too, can be a major problem and it can be truly disorienting to be caught out miles from the car in a pea-souper. So, it’s not a bad idea to have an accurate weather forecast before you set out. I’m not being alarmist and I’m not trying to put you off – it just makes common sense to ensure that you have one of the greatest trouting days of your life.
A word or two here about conservation. Do you really, really need to kill the fish that you’re catching? Okay, a few sea trout or brown trout for the pot perhaps but let’s not overdo it, eh? There’s absolutely no point in burdening yourself down and overloading your freezer. Remember that the Uists are one of the few places in the British Isles where the sea trout stocks are really bearing up under what is often intolerable pressure. Respect the sanctity of such places and take very sparingly indeed. Also, take the greatest of care of the fish that you catch and intend to release. Remember that if you do hook a salmon or a sea trout that is to be returned, under no circumstances whatsoever tail the fish. This common way of landing a good specimen is in actual fact a death knell to any salmonid. If you hold the fish up by its tail, extreme pressure is exerted on the spinal vertebrae and they simply crack and come apart. You might put the fish back, it might seem to swim away okay but what you’ve actually done is condemn it to a lingering death.
The best times to go? Well, the sea trout season runs from February right through to the end of October and both early and late can offer some spectacular fishing. The brown trout fishing begins on 15th March and runs until the end of September…early and late is again good though some of those high summer evenings can be difficult to beat.
DOS AND DON’TS