Allan Liddle says that you don't need to keep driving north or west after Inverness for quality fishing, as it's just around the corner
The trouble with having so much quality wild trout fishing throughout such a small country is the fact that it’s so easy to miss a real gem, even if it’s right under your nose.
Take Easter Ross for example. To many it’s simply somewhere you pass through en route to more ‘exotic’ destinations further west or north as you travel up the A9 to your first point of real decision, the Torre Roundabout, the junction to fishing paradise. Continue north towards Central Highland, Caithness and Orkney, or turn west to Wester Ross, Assynt, north/west Highland or possibly some of the Hebridean Isles. As you put your foot down on the accelerator once again, consider what’s close to hand right here; it is actually quite a lot.
A long and lean Loch Eye trout.
The first little gem I’d like to highlight is a small spate river many of you will have either glimpsed as you cross it or, if you’ve taken the scenic ‘Struie’ route north, driven along part of its length. The Alness is better known as a salmon stream, but it's also full of wild, hard-fighting cracking brown trout, some not so small, either.
Essentially, as you would expect, this is a typical Highland spate stream, full of character and spirit with the resident fish all following the same traits – fast, furious, fiendishly dark and with a fiercesome strength that’s well above their size. Standard, two and three fish to the pound, typical Scottish fare is the general order, however I handed in some scales taken as a sample from a fish caught here that was in excess of five pounds, so best treat every rise or take with a bit of respect.
Throughout its length, the Alness tumbles from its source in the dark and mysterious waters of Loch Morie (itself another cracking wild trout destination where you can wander or drift the banks casting onto the rocks in search of yet more spirited, lightning-fast battling wild trout) through a series of rapid runs, pools, glides and with a few white water bits added for good measure, all of which hold fish and attraction to the angler.
Pocket water: the river Alness.
Whenever I’ve fished here I’ve tended to concentrate on the pocket water (which is usually both rewarding and exciting), or some of the runs and glides, preferring to leave the bigger pools to others (unless of course there’s a hatch on and the fish are popping away). I travel light, and cover lots of water with dries, often really big dries which catch the fish’s attention – especially in the fast water – producing spectacular and often furious takes, dibbling them across the pockets and edge of the white stuff has the added bonus of being attractive to migratory fish as well, so don’t be too shy on nylon choice when doing this.
There’s also a good mix of insect species available as well, so on the slower ‘softer’ water a switch to something like a size 12 or 14 Dirty Duster or Deer-hair Emerger when the olives are about generally produces a better response than some big, size 8 monstrosity. I’ve also witnessed some sedge and brook duns to accompany the sprinkling of olive uprights and small darks that the fish were so keen to munch down last time I was there. So, simple as you may wish to make it, there’s also the opportunity (and need) to carry a small sample from your usual river range of flies, just in case.
As I’ve always tended to stick to a surface approach I’ve not as yet worked spiders or wets through this river, although others fishing with me have done and enjoyed some cracking sport. I’m also keen to concentrate on the faster water using nymphs and a short-line next visit, if the river’s not raging, as wading can be challenging enough without a big rush of water pushing through. Please be sensible, better to fish what you can off the bank than risk it all for a mere fish.
Away from running water there’s a complete contrast on offer just a little way up the road (A9) in the form of an absolute cracker, and almost unique loch, Loch Eye, where I’ve been fortunate to have shared time on with resident Troutquest guide, Roger Dowsett.
Loch Eye isn’t a huge water, but then again it’s certainly big enough at about 390 acres, especially as petrol motors are not permitted, meaning you either use an electric alternative (with at least one fully charged back-up), or simply resort to the wooden, man-powered alternative and row your way around, which can be interesting in a big wind.
Eutrophic in nature this marl-bottomed loch would be more at home in Caithness, as it certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to Watten. Similar to, but certainly not identical. For a start, Eye fish are a totally different colour with striking, golden flanks and darker backs than their more northern cousins, a coloration that’s simply stunning and, in the protein-rich habitat, average a not-too-shabby twelve to fourteen ounces. Larger fish are certainly not too much of a rarity, just don’t expect an appearance every visit, but be prepared to hit the two-pound mark and don’t be surprised if it even exceeds this.
When Eye’s on it’s fantastic, but when it’s not, well, you’d be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t a fish in the place, which is the only real drawback with this water; to say it's moody is a bit of an understatement! In fact, it can easily switch onand off throughout the day as the fish respond quickly to whatever hatches are on offer, or it can respond to changing weather, especially strong winds, which can colour up the bottom of this loch fairly quickly with a direct effect on the sport.
Low lying (about 48 feet above sea level) and situated as it is close to the sea in a fairly exposed location, it is at mercy to the wind, and this water has the added issue of being shallow throughout (only three to six feet for the most part, dropping to about twelve feet at its deepest point), which means it's also at the mercy of heat, which can bring about algal blooms in the summer. An added consequence of being shallow and rich obviously leads to expansive weed growth, although this also has the advantage of helping produce a rich larder for the fish. Shrimp, sedge, olives, loads of midge (it can be a buzzer paradise), along with a few terrestrial falls such as cow dung or alder, or especially in the back-end, when the daddies can be spectacular, the fish have plenty to choose from. Add to this a common desire to chase the sticklebacks which can be found along the margins and weed-bed edges, and you've some challenging fishing.
Floating or midge-tip lines are the norm, intermediate or slow-sink for times you need a bit of depth, high-density sinkers run the risk of continual weed cutting or bottom snagging, although I admit there are times or styles of fishing these that can be successful in water such as this. For me, though, I prefer to see everything happening so I generally (not always) tend to stick as close to the surface as I can. If I need a bit of depth then I can always add a weighted tail fly.
A wild Alness brown falls to the DHE.
Besides, when you catch it right then what better than to see fish head-and-tail onto your fly or, better still, come crashing through the waves not so much an attempt to take it, more like an attempt to assault it; memorable sport that stays with you a long time.
Now drive back to the aforementioned Torre Roundabout, and this time take the choice to turn onto the A835. Heading west brings you quickly to Contin, and its wee garage-cum-village shop, and the opportunity to enjoy something a little different from the waters mentioned above; this time on a water where the resident population is supplemented by stocking with browns, offering a mix of boat and bank angling on the picturesque Loch Meig.
Part of the Conon hydro system, Meig was dammed around 1956, which formed a sizeable 116-acre loch eventually coming under the control of the local Loch Achonachie Angling Club, who now control and oversee much of the angling in this area.
Meig is by no means a wide loch, averaging a little over 100 yards. The Western end is a little more open, but features and interesting drifts can be found throughout. The main feature would undoubtedly be the drop-off areas along the former river Meig river-bed, which runs almost directly down the centre; however, like many Highland waters, I found the margins to be more productive when I last visited here in mid-September.
The club supplement the natural head of fish with around 800 to 1000 stocked fish each season, putting them in early to mid season. Although these form the bulk of interest to visiting anglers, the smaller wild trout offer great sport as well. I’m told the loch also holds perch as well as a few salmon and sea trout and, as if to prove the point, my boat partner for the day, club secretary Okaine McLennan caught a nice 2 ½ pound sea trout late in the day. There were quite a number of salmon crashing about from time to time as well. These are caught occasionally, so it is worth noting that all migratory fish come under a strict catch-and-release policy.
If however, stocked browns aren’t your thing Loch Achonachie AC also offer fishing on the stunningly beautiful Loch Scardroy (local name, the real one is Beannachrain), further up the glen and where the wild trout average a not-too-shabby 12 ounces, with ferox and charr in there too, (not forgetting the salmon and sea trout that navigate beyond Meig). Sadly, my last visit didn’t allow time to get up for a cast, although I have fished here a good few years before when the fish were to be found tight along the margins of the loch –hardly surprising, as it drops away to over 150 feet in the centre.
Friend and club member, Derek Ritchie, confirmed nothing has changed since I last visited here, telling me of a cracking day's sport he’d had in late August with over a dozen fish tight to the shore on the obligatory Scottish standard of small dark flies which confirmed my memory of Connemara Black, Zulu and Kate McLaren.
The Club also controls angling on the lower water in this section of the Conon hydro system from which it takes its name, Loch Achonachie, which also holds wild trout, although it’s more regarded as a perch and pike water, again offering yet another different attraction and another dimension to those who like to chase these species with the fly.
If river fishing is more your thing then you can also gain access to the Upper Conon as well as the Upper Blackwater, although both are more regarded for salmon, undoubtedly you’ll find some quality brown trout here as well. In fact, catch returns and members' experience indicate this. Although numbers appear low, this is probably more to do with the fact very few anglers target these fish, rather than a lack of numbers present.
So, next time you’re looking to plan a trip to the north think about adding Easter Ross into the equation; there’s certainly plenty of variety on offer, and I’ve only highlighted a fraction. If nothing else, at least you'll be more aware of what you’re missing when you next speed past.
SGAIC-qualified instructor, Allan Liddle is based in Morayshire. He specialises in wild trout and angling throughout Scotland and the islands.