Fishing on the edge - by Barry McConnell
In 1981, while backpacking in the Scottish highlands with a fly rod, I came upon a remote glacial loch hidden away between the jagged peaks of vast mountains in an unpopulated part of the far north.
This was the best place I had ever been and I revelled in the peacefulness and solitude of this unspoilt wilderness with such magnificent scenery and wild, unpredictable weather.
The loch contained trout and char but no salmon because they can’t scale a huge waterfall that spills out of the loch. When I sat quietly in this huge open space I soon became lulled by the sound of the wind, the waterfall, the waves lapping the rocky shore and the sound of rising trout. The wailing call of both red and black throated divers drifted over the water.
It is an eerie sound that touches some inner instinct and is accompanied by the shrill noise of oyster catchers, the melodic piping of sandpipers and the distant sound of grouse that drifts down with the mist from the heather-clad moor. This set of lochs and the surrounding mountains made such a deep impression on me that I have returned every year since
Since the early 90’s I have been searching for big eel waters and have always tended to head south to fish in the richer waters of England where eels benefit from the warmer southern climate. It hadn’t occurred to me that a highland loch in the far north could have some massive eels in its depths. What spurred me on was a conversation with Pete Drabble regarding the fact that male eels outnumber females, they are also much smaller than females and their instinct doesn’t urge them as far inland as the larger female eels. The males generally stay nearer to the sea and are not likely to scale a tall, sheer waterfall. The females, however, when they are still tiny elvers, have a body weight that is light enough to allow them to cling on to damp surfaces and scale sheer obstacles. They can then access the lochs above where they can grow big and old without competition from masses of male bootlaces.
So it came to pass that, several years ago, Peter Drabble and I set off on an eel angling expedition with a load of kit that was far too heavy to be carried up a mountain and deep into midge infested country. We carried brandlings for bait as they withstand travel better than lobworms. I use a massive bunch and cram as many on the hook as possible - 10 to 20 brandlings depending on the hook size. After a long drive, the kit had to be carried 7 miles up a steep hill, past the waterfall, and into the mountains. By the time we got to the loch we were exhausted and fell asleep missing a night’s fishing. The following night, for some reason, I decided to cast towards very, very deep water, over 30 metres deep, where it is permanently dark. I thought that this water may be too deep for other species of fish to populate.
A study of science would make the odds seem stacked against success as research reveals that the temperature at this depth doesn’t go above 6 degrees centigrade in summer and that eels don’t digest food properly, need to feed often, or grow very fast at temperatures below 10 degrees. The optimum temperature for growth rate in eels is recorded at 24 degrees.
One of the attractions of specimen eel angling is the way that you often go in to uncharted territory where no angler has been before. When fishing in the unknown, you are likely to encounter the unexpected so anything is worth a go. Even so, it still came as a great surprise to get a really fast run, strike, and feel a good eel pulsating deep down in the loch. I soon managed to beach a fine eel of 3lb 8oz. The same thing happened the next night in a new swim with an even bigger eel of 4lb 8oz, and again 24 hours later with a fish of 2lb 12oz. We weren’t able to do any fishing for the last two nights because the wind dropped and we had no choice but to stay in the tent as millions of heat-seeking midges homed in on us. It was impossible to bait and set the rods. It really was unsustainable.
Back at home we reflected on the unexpectedly large size of the eels we had caught and the fact that they were caught from deeper, colder water than expected and from further north than I would have predicted finding big eels. We decided, for the sake of progress, we should endure another trip. A year later, armed with big bottles of midge repellent, we went to the next loch up the system, which is up yet another huge waterfall.
With the aid of an ordnance survey map, showing underwater contours, we could find where the drop-off comes close to the shore. The shallow marginal shelf on a glacial loch often goes several yards out from the shoreline so that, after casting in to the deeps, the line goes from rod-tip out over the shallows then suddenly drops off into the depths in such a way that the line is then grating on the rocky rim of the drop-off. On retrieving the rig it can often catch on the rim as you bring it over. A long tip action rod with plenty of spine helps here. I am currently using 12ft, four-piece travel rods with a 3lb 4oz tc. I find an in-line leger with a 12ins length of tubing through the middle to be the best rig when fishing over rocky ground because it rarely gets stuck between the rocks. When used with a trace of no longer than 10ins it provides a tangle-free method of getting a baited hook into the depths. I don’t bother to tack up the trace with PVA string, instead, I prefer to simply cast as far as possible, then, when the rig hits the surface, hold tight without paying out any line or the trace may spiral up the line. The leger and its attached tube will fall to the bottom with the trace and bait lying untangled beside it.
I get an idea of the depth by counting how long it takes to sink. Here the count varied between 45 and 90. At such depths it is necessary to let the weight of the line sink before setting the indicator.
We didn’t get a single eel run for the first 4 nights. Then they suddenly turned on and I casually managed to land two three-pounders and a fat fish of 4lb 8oz from very deep water. Our spirits lifted and we made up a motto ‘When they are on they are on, and when they are off they are off.
I hooked yet another good eel that really bent the rod as I winched it up from the deeps. I managed to get it onto the surface and coax it quietly over the snaggy rocks on the rim of the shelf and into the margins where I got a massive surprise as I came face to face with the biggest eel I have ever seen in Britain. Unfortunately, to lighten the load, we had left the landing net behind. I had the eel on the surface in the shallows and it was right there, a rod length out, as Pete waded out so he could shepherd it towards the beach.
The eel was too heavy to bully. I would have been able to steer it calmly into a landing net but it didn’t like being dragged towards the beach and the hook pulled out when it thrashed about on a short line as I tried to beach it. The shock left me in a daze and everything seemed surreal as though dreaming. The eel had looked about 8lb, 9lb or even 10lb and I wondered if I had become mistaken by the excitement of the moment. Pete still hadn’t uttered a word and I said to him, “Well, say something. How big did that look?” “Over 8lb” was his answer."
Memories of the massive eel I lost spurred us on to plan a full assault for this summer with the intention to endure the uncomfortable conditions and try to catch that fish of dreams. We got hold of some really well designed midge-proof suits with a veiled hood shaped like a beekeepers outfit and lightweight one-man tents fitted with mozzie mesh panels. Last winter, knowing that fitness and stamina would be needed for the trips this summer, I did regular hikes carrying a rucksack loaded with 35lb. Of course when it came to pack for the first trip the load weighed well over 50lb. To lighten the load we collected water from streams and ate the odd trout. We took a travel landing net this time.
With heavy backpacks we went over a mountain, across peat bog moorland, down bracken-clad slopes then along the rocky shoreline of the loch. We followed deer paths to navigate through this difficult terrain as they will find the pass or valley through the mountains that avoids tough ground such as soggy sink holes and sheer cliffs. Horseflies and ticks launched themselves at us from where they lay in ambush waiting for the deer. The deer paths ran out at the rocky shoreline where we had to do awkward manoeuvres over the massive rocks with a heavy rucksack. The wind suddenly dropped and immediately the midges became airborne looking for a hot, sweaty victim. Stupidly I had packed my midge proof gear in the bottom of the rucksack. By the time I had managed to get it on I had been well and truly midged. I could also feel ticks on me beneath my clothes but was unable to remove them while the midges were out. We arrived at the swim and I put the new tent up to give some escape from the midges and the fly repellent stick I smeared the vent left a mass of dead midges.
That night, despite being exhausted after the difficult hike and hot and bothered by the midge assault, I managed to catch a 3lb 10oz eel at 4.45am. It was 35ins long with a 7ins girth. Then the weather served up a storm and we had to abandon the trip after four nights. We left all the gear in a cave covered in dead heather where we felt it would be quite safe there in this unpopulated area. Where are we? That remains a secret.
We returned two weeks later with banksticks, butt-grips, Delkims and rollover indicators along with a few provisions to add to the stuff we had left there last time. I pitched the tent on a long, thin spit composed of small, rounded pebbles that went out into the lake near the deep water. The weather here up in the mountains is an unpredictable mix of North Sea and Highlands that can suddenly change its mood and by 3am the wind chill had penetrated the tent and I piled on every single item of clothing. I shivered and persevered until 4am when a massive, gusting, gale force wind came ripping towards the mountains behind us to have its force funnelled down a valley where it gathered momentum in to a huge twister which came roaring toward the lake making the birch trees and bracken lie flat as it gathered its full force and directed it at my tent on the spit. I held on for life feeling as though I was flying through the air on a magic carpet. A massive swell came up from beneath my rods and pushed them upwards, out of the butt grips, then launched them on to the beach. Tackle was scattered everywhere and a guy rope on the tent snapped. We hastily gathered the gear and retreated along the shore until we found some rocks where we could jam ourselves into crevices in the cliffs to shelter.
Here there was a rock platform where we could cast in to between 70ft and 90ft of water. We didn’t catch a single trout or even have the end of a worm nibbled by one and we wondered if this swim was too deep for trout. It seemed that we had discovered a niche where eels feed with little competition from other species of fish. We wondered what the eels were feeding on. Research revealed that there are no caddis and shrimp at extreme depths over 40ft. Some of the eels were oozing bright orange excrement consisting of many small bright-orange, shrimp-like creatures that have far too many legs to actually be shrimps. I have since identified them as a type of clam shrimp, which thrive in the cold, well-oxygenated, deep waters of oligotrophic lakes. In this loch, they are in such abundance that eels are able to gorge themselves. The most interesting fact is that they are exceptionally high in protein which will promote unusually high growth rates that could produce that unexpectedly large eel.
I managed to catch four eels to 2lb11oz using bunches of brandlings on the in-line rig with a size 6 hook, 15lb wire trace and 12lb mainline. These small eels were not what we were hoping for and, as we headed for home, we felt that we had achieved little for our efforts.
On the next trip we discovered a new and very unpleasant hazard. I paid a call to nature in a hole dug amongst sphagnum moss and several harmless looking flies with soft bodies and gangly legs were flying around me. Later, back at the tent, I felt something fluttering about inside my trousers and on having a look several of the unidentified flies emerged and flew away. There was blood everywhere inside my trousers where they had bitten me. Great open red craters were oozing blood as though the flies had injected something to thin the blood and make it flow. I never felt a thing either, so they must anaesthetise the skin making the victim unaware they are feeding. I still don’t know what they were. They come out of the sphagnum moss in shaded areas – beware.
This time a full week of fishing produced just two eels of 3lb 13oz and 2lb 6oz. On the last night, as the reddening orange glow of an amazing west coast sunset lit up the ripples out on the lake, we had a wee dram of whisky or two and started to barbecue a trout. We added another line to complete our motto ‘when they are only half way on they are neither on nor off ’.
Then the wind suddenly dropped and we were thrown in to pandemonium as a massive cloud of midges emerged before the trout was cooked. It isn’t possible to eat through midge proof mesh so the trout was wasted but it is possible to drink through the mesh so we finished the bottle instead. In my heart I knew that I was beaten. The environment is too harsh to enjoy long periods on the bank. The biggest eel we caught from the loch this year was 3lb13oz but I will never forget the sight of that fish of my dreams. It was the longest, fattest eel I have ever encountered, but some things just aren’t meant to be.