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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part IV.—Guide to Gairloch and Loch Maree

Chapter XVIII.—Angling in Fresh-water Lochs


BESIDES Loch Maree there are many other fresh-water lochs within the parish of Gairloch ; they are enumerated in Part III., chap. i. Those which are within deer forests or grouse shootings are nearly all strictly preserved, but permission to fish several good ones may be obtained by visitors staying at the different hotels. Those in private lodgings may sometimes get limited permission to fish, but except at Poolewe this cannot be easily obtained.

There are very few lochs which do not contain trout of more or less respectable quality, yet trout are not so numerous in Gairloch waters as they were formerly. Writing of trout as they were in the early part of the nineteenth century Dr Mackenzie says :—"Seventy years ago (about 1815) there were in every pool of water in our west (Gairloch) the most marvellous quantities of trout. Our lakes were, I suppose, never counted. Innumerable, like the trout, some contained good, well-fed, pink-fleshed trout, and others a mere mob of say four ounce bags of water. These filled the pools that ran to the sea from every loch in shoals, and, singular to say, sometimes as plentiful above falls, far too high for any fish to swim up, as below them. I have been told that water beetles, all of whom can fly, have been caught fresh from a feast on fish roe, with some of the roe adhering to their back; and in this way it is supposed fish have been planted in lakes from which there was no stream, or none up which they could have found their way.

"I have often filled a large fishing-basket twice over in a few hours in a hill burn not two miles long, and requiring much cookery help ere their consumers praised them.

"I have never yet heard an explanation why there are only about one trout in the same burns and lochs for every ten now that there used to be seventy years ago; unless it be that then the moors washed into the lochs far more cattle debris than there happens now, when sheep with their horrid anti-fish "tarry-woo'' are everywhere, with a flavour as hateful to fish as it is to game; no eatable insect growing in sheep d&bris, while from cattle and horses crowds go to feed fish."

The Doctor's theory, that the falling off in the numbers of trout is due to the substitution of sheep for cattle, is generally accepted. Something is also due to unconscious expansion in reminiscences of the good old days, surrounded as they are by the halo of youthful enthusiasm; and no doubt there is too a real falling off in the number and weight of trout, owing to increased travelling facilities bringing north a far larger number of tourist-anglers. However extensive a loch may be, it must be remembered that its deepest parts are seldom feeding ground for trout, which mostly congregate in the shallows adjoining the shores and on the few banks there may be further out.

Next to Loch Maree itself, Fionn Loch, which is five hundred feet above the sea level, is the best known. It used to be celebrated for its yield of the so-called ferox. There is a wonderful record of the large number of these monsters that were captured in the months of March and April some thirty years ago by a celebrated sportsman.

My own experience of Fionn Loch is, that the trout have slowly but surely fallen off in number and size. In 1871 I remember making some grand baskets on this high-level loch. We used "to pass the night at the shepherd's house in the bay of Feachasgean, and the evening and the morning made our day. Our bags generally included two or three fish of four or five pounds, and a dozen or two ranging from one to two pounds, at which last weight we could have got as many as we wished with a favourable breeze. At this time it was almost a virgin loch, and there was no road within four miles of it. Perhaps the best day's trout fishing I ever had was on a glaring hot day in June 1874, when in the upper pools of the Little Gruinard river, a short distance below Fionn Loch, I caught with ordinary trout flies one monster of ten pounds, about a dozen from two to three pounds, and a large number of lesser fish.

Permission must now be obtained to fish Fionn Loch, and no angler need expect to make the bags of the old times, either in number or size.

At the head of Fionn Loch is a smaller loch, called the Dubh Loch, swarming with large trout. In 1876 and 1877 this sheet of water was the subject' of litigation. The Lord Ordinary, in the Outer House of the Court of Session, decided that the Dubh Loch was not a separate loch from the Fionn Loch, and that Mr O. H. Mackenzie had a joint right of fishing in it as well as in the Fionn Loch, part of the shores of which belong to him. This decision was reversed by the Inner House, whose judgment was (on appeal) finally upheld by the House of Lords. The issue raised was a nice one, and depended on the determination of several interesting questions.

In a small loch on the Inverewe ground, on 24th September 1874, I hooked three trout of one pound each at one cast, and succeeded in landing them all. I have several times landed three small trout on the same cast when fishing the Little Gruinard river, but I never got three really good ones except that once.

All the lochs open to visitors at the hotels yield fair sport to the fly-fisher, and those who like bait fishing will be sure of a nice bag of trout from any of the smaller lochs, if the tempting worm be tried in the "gloaming," or twilight.

Large trout may be captured by trolling on Loch Kfernsary, wThich is, I believe, open to visitors staying at the Poolewe Hotel. It is my opinion, as already said, that char exist in most Highland lochs. I have only known these pretty little fish to have been actually taken from four of the lochs in Gairloch. Loch Kernsary is the only one of these lochs which is open to tourist-anglers. Char may be taken by the angler, and possibly may be thrown into the creel without the captor noticing the red belly which is the chief distinction between the char and the trout. Very few char are taken in Gairloch, and they are usually small, about four or five to the pound. In flavour they are not to be distinguished from trout, any more than the pink-fleshed trout are to be distinguished from those with white flesh. If you doubt me, try an experiment; let some one whose palate you can trust be blindfolded, and he or she will, to your surprise, be unable to discriminate between char and trout, and between pink and white-fleshed trout. Take care the experiment be tried fairly, and it will not fail.

The ordinary trout of the country do not rise to the fly before May, and then in no great numbers. In June they yield good sport, but July is the month in which the largest bags of well-conditioned trout may be expected. Trout fishing requires more delicate skill than salmon fishing, and is grand training of the senses of sight and touch.

There are eels in all the lochs and streams, but they are seldom hooked, and, when they are, what a mess they make of your tackle!

The only other fish in the fresh waters of Gairloch is the voracious pike. I believe this monster only occurs in the Feur (or Fiar) Loch and Loch Bad na Sgalaig, and in the river Kerry, all in connection, and I only hope he will not spread further. Dr Mackenzie gives the following account of the importation of pike to Gairloch. Writing of his boyhood, he says:—"No loch had pike till one black day my eldest brother inveigled me into catching a dozen small pike in the east coast Blackwater and driving them to the west, where I launched them safely into Fiar Loch, a small twenty acre sheet surrounded with bullrushes, and just boiling with innumerable trout. It only communicated with one other lake, and from it the pike flew to the sea over a high waterfall, down which we never dreamed that the abominable creatures would go. Very soon the lochs were not boiling with trout on a summer evening as of old, and plans were laid for famous pike-fishing with trimmers, or a flock of geese with trout-baited hooks fastened to their legs and sent across the loch. But ere this ploy came off a salmon fisher in the river below the falls caught a fine pike on his salmon hook ; the abomination was one of those I had launched into Fiar Loch, and who ought to have broken his neck when shooting the Kerry falls ; alas, it was quite ower true a tale! The vermin had learned that the Kerry was a salmon river with lots of delicious smolts there in May, and parr, i.e. young salmon, all the rest of the year. So they soon stocked every pool in the Kerry, and a salmon in that river has for years become a greater wonder than a white blackbird; the fry all carefully eaten up, and few salmon return to the Kerry."

Sir Kenneth Mackenzie, the present baronet of Gairloch, states that none of the pike above-mentioned as having been put into Feur Loch survived, and that pike were introduced (or re-introduced) in his day—about 1848.

With this I commend the fish of Gairloch to all jolly anglers, only begging them not to angle where they have no permission, and not to interfere with other people who have a superior right.

May good sport wait on the patient angler!


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