Allan Liddle follows Osgood McKenzie's footsteps into the remote waters above Loch Maree
Ever since I first read Osgood McKenzie’s epic tales in A Hundred Years in the Highlands, especially the fantastic sport they had on Fionn Loch I had to go there. Trouble was that the Letterewe Estate had become something of a ‘closed shop’ and, sadly, angling access had become limited, so it was consigned to my ‘maybe one year’ category of 'must fish' waters.
McKenzie relates to tales of huge fish and huge catches, just the kind of tales that work deep into the angler's subconscious, and this one was one of those ‘ghosts’ I simply had to exorcise one day. Even better when something like this comes around ‘out the blue’, as despite the fact this was a place I’d really wanted to fish, the access issue had forced me into not looking very hard at getting on there. A chance mention to a friend who was enquiring about self-catering accommodation in a good fishing area, and a tongue-in-cheek (relating to the perceived cost) reply placed Ardlair Lodge, Letterewe into focus. A quick search on the estate website followed by a couple of quick phone calls and e-mails resulted in a four-day break secured and booked. Instead of McKenzie's hundred years, I'd got about a hundred hours - but you have to start somewhere.
First impressions really do last, and the journey along the A832 as it winds its way along the shores of Loch Maree with a backdrop dominated by the dramatic pinnacle of Slioch is as wild as it comes in Scotland, and my mind wandered to what we might find when we finally managed to get ‘over the hill’ and into the Fionn area itself. I could hardly wait, but wait I had to do. However, given the quality of the accommodation and the stunning natural beauty that surrounds you in every direction the wait was more than enjoyable; the midges a wee bit less so.
I could ramble on about how fantastic Ardlair is, but to do so would possibly diminish the surprises and experience to anyone who makes the trip having read this. Safe to say, I simply loved it, as an upmarket angler's retreat it was perfect, made even better by the hospitality of the local ‘keeper, Roddy McDonald.
Comfy as it was though, we were here to fish, and Fionn was to be the star of the show: extending over five and a wee bit miles and with masses of ‘fishy’ features that would really take something approaching McKenzie’s book title to fully cover it all. Especially when you add in the dozens and dozens of satellite lochs and miles of feeder streams. Standing at the top of the ridge overlooking the whole vista, I knew this was going to be something special; it's an area of rugged, ice-ravaged beauty that screams fish everywhere you look. In fact, the biggest problem we faced was a simple one: where to start? The biggest danger was always going to be trying to do too much too quickly so a game-plan was set: split the area into three and set aside a day to explore each one, using the boat as our transport to the satellite lochs, as well as our platform from which to explore Fionn.
The only disappointment (if you could call it that) we faced was the fact the weather didn’t really match the surroundings. We didn’t get those big, rough waves where I could work my big bushy Hogs 'n Muddlers to bring the fish crashing through the waves as we bounced the boat amongst the stones and over the skerries. Still, switching to dries and working the same areas more slowly and deliberately brought instant results. Besides, I’m always waxing lyrical how much I love flat-calm conditions on lochs anyway; it doesn't come any better than dries and cruising fish.
When the breeze did come, the drifts held our focus, every cast held the promise of trout action and letting your mind wander often proved fatal. These fish are lightning-fast, and not paying due attention meant a few offers were missed. Hungry and wild as these fish are, some came for a second attempt, others didn’t.
Stretching the legs amongst the surrounding waters was as rewarding as Fionn itself. In fact, the draw of what might be just around the corner had me covering that little bit more water than I had intended on more than one occasion. Real fish ‘till you drop stuff, magic. There were a few surprises on my wanderings, with one water offering fish coming to dries fished hard along a high - almost vertical - bank, in a tight band between the rocks and big lily pads and weeds. Hard enough getting a cast in, harder still to land the fish before they pulled you into the weeds. Challenging, but rewarding.
Looking back to Osgood McKenzie, I couldn’t help but wonder how much things had changed, if at all. The ancient remnants of the tall Caledonian pines amongst the islands, safe from the attention of the red deer population, certainly gives an impression of what Scotland might have looked like when these iconic trees dominated the surroundings, and it's something the estate are working hard to re-establish.
Then there was the jaw-dropping sight of the re-introduced sea eagle soaring high above the jagged tops. Beautiful. McKenzie’s detailed description and record of the sport available on Fionn is something every wild angler should read. Not only his description of the surrounding, diverse wildlife, but his fishing record which makes impressive reading; plenty of ‘trophies’ amongst them. I doubt very much has changed - the trout are as feisty and prolific as they were in his day - except perhaps for the then-common practice of set-lining.
My best fish was more modest in comparison, coming in just over a pound, but no less memorable for it. The fact is, all these fish are eye-wateringly beautiful, and the range of colours impressive: from golden fish and big red spots, to some with the most vivid, olive-coloured backs you’ll find.
And if you fancy a break from the Fionn area and its surrounding waters you’ve plenty options with far-flung chains and connecting streams which, even for me, proved on this trip a ‘loch too far'. My next visit, though, will be longer, and the lure to explore will be strong. So much to see, so little time. That said there’s also the significant Loch Kernsary to play on, and a beat on the once-so-prolific Loch Maree itself, stretching directly in front of the lodge. Why Maree is still relatively poor as a resident trout water when it’s surrounded by so many prolific neighbours is a mystery to many. Why the big decline in the sea-trout, not so much. Hopefully, one day things will change and the fish will be given a chance to recover, but we’d need a much more co-ordinated and determined approach to the multitude of problems, not least of which is undoubtedly the scourge of the sea lice and salmon farms that abound in the approaching sea lochs, including Loch Ewe.
Not that I’m going to finish on such a down note, as Fionn is the real star on this estate. When you tie in the historic connection from McKenzie’s record of this amazing place it was a real privilege to finally fish here, something I’m keen to repeat again next season; I just need to make it a bit longer next time. A hundred days would be useful, but I can’t see me getting away with that one, though.
SGAIC-qualified instructor, Allan Liddle is based in Morayshire. He specialises in wild trout and angling throughout Scotland and the islands.