Loch of the Soldier Palmer

Mark Bowler describes a fabulous large loch on which to fish wet fly, in particular the Soldier Palmer.

One of the most pleasant, classic ways to spend a day fly fishing is to work a team of wet flies, on a floating line, from a drifting boat on a wild water. Sadly, there’s less and less of this going on these days. Once a common sight on our reservoirs, nymphing, dry flies, lures, washing lines and the development of sunk lines have altered the outlook and approach of the boat angler, plus, maybe, the changing insect ecology of our lakes, from the olives and sedges of yesteryear, to the buzzers and daphnia of today have enabled the demise of the wet fly approach.

Whatever the reasons, I still like to set into a drift with a team of wet flies and cast, pull, lift, and dibble the bob fly before repeating the process. When on song, it comes with a succession of swirls, jolts, tugs, tightenings, boils and splashes that make it an exciting combination of a visual and sensory technique. Just as much as I love the slow draw of a Buzzer take to a slowly fished Nymph, I think I’d always opt for the positive smash-and-grab take from a hungry trout taking a wet fly as the bigger adrenaline shot.

loch rannoch

So that’s why I get excited whenever I visit Loch Rannoch, because whenever the Rannoch fish come ‘on’ you are in for some rod-jangling sport; I don’t think any trout hit harder than a Rannoch trout dialled in on a pulled wet fly.

I’ve been visiting this se Highland Perthshire loch, which is part of the amazingly engineered (but, sadly, environmentally vandalistic) Tummel hydro-scheme, for the best part of 25 years. When I first fished it, the trout were a fraction smaller – ranging 6-12 ounces, and there was quite a number of them, but these days Rannoch trout seem to be fewer and further between, but of a better quality, ranging to well over a pound.

What has never in doubt however, is their eagerness to take a wet fly, and their fighting qualities. In addition, Rannoch trout have a certain unmistakeable ‘look’. There are two types of trout in Rannoch – the deeper-bellied, richly spotted and butter yellow trout of the shallows, and those of a more pointed nose, sharp, vee-shaped tail-fins, gun-metal, green-tinged flanks and a steely look, which appear to be reflect their Arctic origins and temperatures.

Rannoch is a big, long loch, which is full of character. It is bounded by Schiehallion the east, the magical, triangular ‘fairy mountain’, which is so symmetrical at its pyramidal peak that it was the scene of the first calculations of the earth’s mass, in 1774. Only recently was the mass of the earth calculated by digital means and the result, almost 250 years later, was virtually the same. Not a bad result for a few sums based on the deviation of a plumb-line!

wild brown trout on loch

Further west, where the road ends, is Rannoch Station, one of the most remote and beautiful railway stations in Britain, which is connected to London Euston via the southbound sleeper. Beyond here lies Rannoch Moor – desolate, boggy, and wet – and then the mountains of Glencoe.

Loch Rannoch is part of a National Scenic Area, one of 40 such areas in Scotland, which are defined so as to identify areas of exceptional scenery and to ensure its protection from inappropriate development. The remnants of the Caledonian Black Wood of Rannoch, on the south shore, being a Special Area of Conservation.

The loch plunges to nearly 500 feet deep in places and holds some trout and pike of legendary size. However, it also holds a large population of Arctic charr. At nine miles long it is fairly typical of many big Highland lochs, in that hugging the edges is the best place to find trout, as these are the places where it is shallowest and most productive, but Rannoch also possesses an area of extensive shallows – around three square kilometres – which runs from the nineteenth century island folly tower all the way to the west end, where the river Gaur feeds in. When the water is low and clear, one can make out the white sandy bottom. As you drift, the lake bed looks a bit like a flat, white desert, but don’t let that fool you, for this is the silt in which another character of Rannoch story lives – the Mayfly. When these fellas put in appearance then the trout will hunt them out.

This means that a drift anywhere across this vast expanse can bring up a fish or two, so drifting across this expanse needn’t be limited to the loch edges, which is generally the case with the rest of Rannoch, apart from those areas where feeder streams enter, or around points, shallows and skerries, drop-offs, under the trees, or round any islands. As with many big Highland lochs, if you can find weed-beds then you’ll probably find trout, and this is especially so with Rannoch, as it can support some excellent olive hatches.

At such times, I find the Black Pennell is perhaps the best wet fly imitation to use; yes, the traditional dressing with a floss body. If you look at Rannoch olive nymphs they are very similar in shape: sleek, tapering to the tails, and dark in coloration. They are satisfying flies to tie, too.

So, here’s a cast for Rannoch: Claret Bumble, size dependent of the wave; size 14 Black Pennell, with either a Chinese Whisper or Executioner on the point. For a variation, try Bibio on the top – or maybe a Hedgehog or Dabbler – Solwick lower down, and a Connemara Black on the point. If nothing is happening, then a Dunkeld on the point might just bring up a fish or two.

However, Gordon Brown, who has spent his life on Rannoch, and who runs the club and the boats in the area, surprised me recently when he admitted that his favourite pattern for Rannoch would have to be the Soldier Palmer. I wasn’t expecting him to say that, but you live and learn in this game! Now, where’s my red wool?

A midge-tip line is worth threading up, just to get the flies to bite a little deeper, but a floater will work on most days.

If you are fishing in June, July or August keep an eye open for big, green flies taking off vertically from the surface, or sitting sedately on top. These will be Mayfly – a big mouthful for a hungry Rannoch trout, and well worth representing on your cast. I’ve caught trout on Dabblers, Goslings and Claret & Gold combinations when Mayfly are about here. The earliest I’ve seen them on this water is June 10.

Sometimes, Rannoch can be dour. Then you have to use all your knowledge to find obliging trout. Hugging the shoreline is generally a good idea, especially under the trees that fringe most of Rannoch, but drifting from Finnart to the tower can be a good plan, or the bays around Dall and Carie, as can drifting around the points of the bays on the north shore at the extreme west of the loch. The hydro-power plant is unmistakeable on the north shore, and the inlet here is sometimes good. In fact, any inflowing stream is always worth exploring. I once fished the loch from a canoe, and the burn that enters at Dall provided some great sport, this time on a dry fly, as it washed heather beetles in from the moorland above, and some decent trout awaited the feast in the apron of flow as the burn spilled out into the loch.

One giveaway for Rannoch trout is the gulls, swallows and martins. If you see activity from gulls working over a specific area, then you can be pretty sure a hatch is happening. This actually typical of many big Scottish lochs. If you see bird activity, get there quickly. The cause could be hatching olives, Mayfly or caddis, and the trout will also have noticed, too.

Rannoch is well worth fishing from the bank, as the margins are likely places to find fish, and a road runs along both the north and the south bank, which means access is straightforward. Waders or wellies help, as by paddling you can steer clear of the trees that line the shoreline, but make sure you have felted, cleated soles – the rocks are slippery. An ability to roll-cast will help here, too. Apart from that, keep on the move, cast and pace, cover new water constantly.

There are some very big trout that live in Rannoch – ferox have been recorded up to 23lb (the British record is 31lb 12oz); it is favourite venue for ferox hunters, due to its large charr population – on which they feed, but interestingly, this much-studied population was estimated to be just 71 fish in the whole of the loch – one of UK’s largest lakes – which emphasises the fragility of the population if recreational fishing is intensified, and the importance of catch-and-release to such a fishery.

mark bowler ffft

Also present in numbers in Rannoch are pike. It is a favourite venue for specimen hunters. Over the years, the size of the jack pike in Rannoch seems to have got bigger: when I first started fishing it we would catch a number of ‘jacks’ around three-quarters of a pound. More recently, the pike I’ve encountered on wet flies have been more around the 3-4 pound mark.

I’ve often noticed that, whilst pulling wets on Rannoch, one is suddenly aware that something is ‘not quite right’ about the cast and, on checking the leader, there is a blank stub of nylon – the fly has been bitten off so easily that no resistance was felt. Be pike aware!

The feeding in Rannoch is diverse. Apart from Mayflies, olives and caddis, midges also feature, along with fry and snails, plus anything land-borne that might happen to drop in from the surrounding trees or moorland. It’s when these fish feed on snails or cased caddis that I find a Dunkeld on the point can bring up a fish or two. Fish it on a sink-tip and give it plenty of time to sink before commencing the retrieve. Other flies I wouldn’t like to be without on Rannoch are: Bibio, Claret Bumble, Connemara Black, Greenwell’s, Invictas, Hedgehogs, Mallard & Claret, Kingfisher Butcher.

If fish a really starting to show at the surface then a dry Greenwell’s, Black Hopper, a small Foam Beetle, Elk-hair Sedge, dry Mayfly, Daddy-long-legs should draw them up.

If you like wild waters then Rannoch can be one of the wildest of places. Especially for wind, so make sure you have a good engine and boat skills, plus a life-jacket, before you leave the shore. And it can also rain here, biblically, so always take your coat.

The boats on Rannoch have been ephemeral. In the early days, they were hauled on on a beach on the north shore and available from the Dunalistair Hotel in Kinloch Rannoch. Then the boats came off completely. Now, a boat is available through Gordon Brown, who runs the garage in Kinloch Rannoch. It is not available on Rannoch all season, and it has various places of mooring, so telephone beforehand to book. You can launch your own boat on Rannoch with a permit. When we go out, we take an engine, along with an electric outboard and depth finder, which is useful for finding the shallows, skerries and drop-offs, which will all hold trout.

Take a long, tapered leader and a small, size 16 Black Hopper, just in case it’s absolutely dead flat calm… and if it is, be warned, take some midge repellent!

One extra fly you should take with you is a Soldier Palmer. I was astonished when Gordon Brown told me it was his favourite fly for Rannoch. This fly was immensely popular bob fly on Rutland Water back in the 80s and early 90s, but has fallen from favour in recent decades and become a ‘forgotten’ fly. Not on Rannoch, apparently. Put one on and prepare for one of the most exciting and explosive hits in fly fishing.

6 wet flies for Rannoch

wet flies

Soldier Palmer

Hook: Dry/wet, size 8–14.
Thread: Black.
Tail: Red wool.
Rib: Gold oval.
Body: Red wool.
Palmer hackle: Red game.


Hook: Wet, size 10–14.
Thread: Black.
Tail: Red game cock fibres.
Rib: Gold oval or gold wire.
Body: Rear – gold tinsel; front – red/claret seal’s fur or sub.
Hackle: Red game.

Black Pennell

Hook: Dry/wet, size 10–14.
Thread: Black.
Tail: Golden pheasant tippets.
Rib: Fine silver oval.
Body: Black floss.
Hackle: Black hen.

Chinese Whisper

Hook: Wet fly, heavy wire, size 8–12.
Thread: Black.
Tail: Claret henny cock hackle fibres.
Rib: Fine gold oval.
Body: Gold tinsel.
Throat hackle: Claret henny cock hackle fibres.
Wing: Bronze mallard.

Note: This fly came about when I overheard a dressing for a fly which, I think, may have been for an Extractor – and old Rogan pattern –  when I was on Lough Conn, in Ireland. I got the dressing wrong, but then discovered this is a good combination for peaty lochs.

Olive & Claret Dabbler

Hook: 2X nymph hook, size 8-10.
Thread: Black.
Tail: Bronze mallard fibres.
Rib: Fine gold oval.
Body: Light olive dubbing.
Palmer hackle: red game.
Hackle: Claret cock.
Wing: Bronze mallard.
Throat: Bronze mallard bunch.


Hook: Wet fly, size 8-16.
Thread: Black.
Tail: Golden pheasant crest fibres.
Rib: Fine gold oval.
Body: Flat gold Mylar.
Palmer hackle: Orange hen.
Wing: Bronze mallard.
Cheeks: Jungle cock.

Fishing the loch

Season: March 15 to October 6.
Day tickets: £8.00; £30 per week. juniors (under 16) free.
Available from Countrystore, Kinloch Rannoch, or through online booking through Pitlochry Angling Club: https://www.beatbooker.com/bbpaconline/
Non-motorised boats can be launched from the bank for free. Motorised boats (max engine 4hp) Launch permit: £8 per day.
Gordon Brown’s boat is only available to anglers who are highly experienced in boat-handling. His email is: rdac@btinternet.com