Brown Trout on a hidden Highland river

TUFF flyfishing.co.uk headed North Westwards to explore a great river in a hidden gem of a glen; West of Inverness lies a glen that most drive past on there way up Strathglass heading for Glen Affric, blink and you would miss the turning for the wee single track road that leads you westward up a glen that is in my biased opinion the far more beautiful sibling of the famous Affric. ​Much like the secret garden a gate greets all, keeping the wonders beyond hidden, vehicle access restricted on the private road to certain times and months which thankfully limits the car numbers and the obligatory coach tours that haunt so many glens like Affric. This secret highland glen is Glen Strathfarrar a glen they named twice it was so good.

 

Strathfarrar reaches westwards for over 30 miles almost touching the west coast its ramparts wild rugged Munros senetery like along its flanks and headwalls separating it from its neighbouring Straths and hiding this wild beautiful gem of a glen. However the 1950s saw its walls breached as Hydro electric brought dams and turbines across the highland, Strathfarrar was tamed somewhat as the waters of the River Farrar, Loch Monar and Beanachrain were held back and harvested to drive these turbines.

Though the Glen has had its circulatory system tapped its wild heart still beats strongly and this hidden gem feels as wild as it ever was, with its changing character that develops as you climb westwards from the rivers junction with the River Glass; Birch, Alder and Scots pine trees fill the lower glen a remnant of the ancient Wood of Caledonia, providing a magical wooded landscape that fills the lower 5 miles of the Strath hugging the River Farrar and on summers day makes me feels like I could happily stop time and loose myself here in my own personal middle earth.   

Winding westwards following the river upstream through its slabby gorges and tumbling riffles you emerge through a narrow road cutting above Beanacherain Dam where this glacially hewn glen opens before you; to loch, steep slopes of heather and glistening rocky outcrops of mica rich schist (sorry the former geologist in me getting over excited!) a patch work of moorland and native woodland draws you westward to Loch Monar at the head of the glen and the end of the single track road. An area depicted beautifully in a snap shot of what seems like a simpler time in the captivating book “The Isolation Shephard” written by Iain Thompson about a time before the hydro. 

Loch Monar and Dam looking North West towards the narrows of loch Monar

​If you hadn’t guessed by now I have a special attachment and love for StrathFarrar; or have I been too subtle? I was lucky enough to have been born and spent my early life growing up on the banks of Loch Beannacherain in the glen, sadly over the last 20 years I haven’t been able to return often enough. With autumn knocking on the door of summer and the end of the trout season beconing I made a journey home to fish the River Farrar! Well at least to fish the bottom 5 miles of the river below Beanacherain Dam.
 

Looking Eastward down the Cave pool below Beannacharan Dam


Culligran Estate has 5 miles of double bank fishing on the River Farrar extending from below Beannacharan Dam to just below the the Gate, divided into 3 beats aptly called Top, Middle and Bottom with over 30 named pools, all fly only. Almost all of them are within easy reach of the road and with the best parking spots cleverly mark by a little red numbered flag that’s  really makes finding the pool very simple, so no excuse for not finding the pool or a parking place. It’s popular so book in advance and I have to say It was a very warm welcome from both Frank and Juliet Spencer-Nairn the owners of the Culligran Estate who have a huge love and enthusiasm for the Glen and the quality fishing the River Farrar has to offer.

Website http://www.culligrancottages.co.uk/fishing/

Email info@culligranfishing.co.uk

The Farrar offers both quality salmon and Brown Trout fishing with April –Mid June offering the best Brown Trout fishing with many of the bigger Trout being taken during the early season and there is plenty to explore over the 5 mile beat. Although it’s a hydro river the Farrar retains many of the quality’s of a natural spate river with one huge advantage, a weekly freshet where by the dam is opened and closed gradually over a 48 period on a Thursday, Friday to put through a flush of water; its all in the name “Freshet”. This Flush of fresh water through the system is for the salmon fisher, aimed at livening up any fish and encouraging them to run.  As per usual among the fishing and science community opinions are divided about the effectiveness of “Freshets”. I think I’ll let sleeping dogs lie and leave the arguments to the salmon fisher, personally I think these runs of water are an advantage to the Trout fisher as much as the salmon fisher,  any Trout bum will know having had a fruitless or frustrating day during the warmer months and the rivers are on their bones; the fish quickly  feel pressured and switch off,  but the “freshets” help livened them up and more willing to feed/take a fly.  Anyone who has fished a highland spate river that is rising or in moderate. spate where it has risen slowly and the water is not turgid with silt can atest to some fantastic top quality sport.


  

I was was lucky enough to witness a small “Freshet” on this visit to the Farrar and the responding reaction from the fish was obvious, the trout began showing and feeding within a 6 inch rise of the river, the Salmon began running certainly on the pools I was fishing but the freshet lasted less than 2 hour. And the activity soon died off under the clear blue skies warm sunshine with temperatures in the high teens, normally these conditions are a cue to pack up and head home. But like a returning salmon I was on a mission to my river of origin and I wanted to make the most of this late summers day in a breathtaking location.​

During this “Freshet” the rapidly rising river caught me quite unaware, I was fishing a tricky pool to position yourself to cast caught between  deep water and over hanging trees, I only becoming aware that the river had risen as I came to exit the pool by the shingle I had walked on 30min earlier which was now submerged 6 inches under water. It was a Monday and a freshet wasn’t scheualed and that is where I made the school boy error! I had expected the status quo and in some circumstances that lapse could have proved deadly and reaffirmed how important it is to keep your wits about you, because it maybe a controlled river but things can and could go drastically wrong very quickly. A river can rise exceptionally quickly be it from the opening of a Dam or a flash flood induced by heavy rain fall a mile from your location.  Never under estimate a river – an example of this was brilliantly illustrated by a video post by Cawdor estates this summer shot on the River Findhorn (Avalible on the Cawdor Estates Facebook page) that saw a placid river turned into a raging torrent in 3 minutes, a terrifying demonstration of natures power.

 

I explored the river searching out pockets of shadow, normally this glorious late August is cursed by the fisher but having been savaged during the still overcast morning by a massed assault of midgies, the warmth of the late summer sun and its ability to deter these little blighters was most welcome; “blighters” was not the actual word I think my language was somewhat more colourful through gritted teeth as I furiously attempted to ignore them casting and focusing on my fishing. Evidently swearing like a trooper at them has little to no effect in stopping them or the irritation, they are in your nose, eyes, ears and they find every tiny chink in your clothing and repellent being able to drive you to distraction. I have developed quite an effective technique of being able to change my flies whilst jogging in circles because let me assure you if you stand still you will be lucky to survive becoming a buffet for a fog of Midgies!  

Exploring the Double Bend pool with some tricky casting

Discovering a large pool; J2Bostail above a fork in the river leading to some nice broken riffles and pocket waters that had the sought after shade and the catnip that every trout fisher craves, the occasional sound and sight of rising trout feeding on the surface. For the Farrar like any of these highland spate rivers I find size of fly is as important and sometimes more so than the actual pattern, looking to mimic naturals as closely as possible particularly for my dry fly choices so emergers, terrestrials and usually a good supply of PTNs and HRE nymphs for subsurface both weighted and unweight. Making sure to carry a good selection of sizes from 12 to 22/24 for all my flies, many fishers would also carry some Scottish Trads’ like Kate McLaren and butchers but I prefer to use North Country Spiders, I just find they fish more productively, but then that is purely a personal preference, and confidence in them producing. As I always say, a fisher that fishes a fly with confidence is more successful and fishes more effectively, that one who constantly questions their choices.

Looking upstream on Bobs Pool

The day so far had not been particularly productive having risen several trout to the fly they had failed to stick, so a change to a size 18 grey Para dun I use an awful lot when small up wing are hatching produced immediate results rising a couple of fish when fishing beneath the over growth where there was good flow of water along with the intising rings and sound of sipping trout beneth the fallen and over hanging trees. Presenting the fly up stream allowing the current to carry the fly under the over hangs and over the fish being sure the 1.8lb 2x tippet is well mudded and hidden avoid any drag, I imparted the occasional “tweak” to the fly (single point fly no dropper) and now my fortunes turned as a fierce wild StrathFarrar brownie sipped down my fly and this time with barbless hook help I had a beautiful very dark Farrar brownie of just under a pound to the net.

a long tricky wade at the top of the Ant pool above the Neaty Beach pool


A long wade over the next hour and a half produced 4 more reasonably sized trout and a feeling of being completely detached from the world, I could easily have been the only person alive; a feeling of total bliss. With the sun beginning to touch the hills above I made the long wade back to the road and the car with a real feeling of blissful satisfaction from a days fishing.  This hidden highland glen that still has a draw that only home has and I think I can in some way relate to the salmon and that draw that pulls them home to the burns and rivers they spent their early life in. StrathFarrar is a magical glen and it will see me far more often that’s a guarantee. And I will be back come next May hopefully to search for the bigger brownies.
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On The Hunt for Harris Trout, fell in love with Harris Sea Trout

I never expected this article to be one of the hardest to write, this the fourth rewrite and it has got no easier! The problem is I just don’t feel like I can do the Island of Harris justice, certainly not without sounding gushing and clichéd…it really was that good a trip! To what is truly one of the most beautiful locations Scotland has to offer, look I’ve started with the gushing already! So maybe I should apologize now for the clichés and moments of gushing that are inevitable in trying to describe Harris, the welcome and the fishing.
Its almost 20 years since my last visit to these Islands of Scotland’s western frontier, I was but a chubby school boy with a tent, a good friend and a couple of fly rods. The trip had been great but we were beaten by glorious blue skies, sunshine and the worst sunburn I’ve ever had. The midges rose as the baking August sun set every night, so we turned tail and made for the ferry having only sipped from the over full glass of fine hill lochs and fishing that Harris has to offer, with literally hundreds of lochs most filled with hard fighting wild brown trout and many with sea-trout and the occasional salmon it a fly-fishers paradise.


I had always said that I would return to Harris but had lacked any real commitment ’til last summer when I discovered a tweet by Gail Tunnah who runs Finsbay Fishing’s. What sealed the deal was the January morning that the brochure for the fishing’s and their holiday cottages landed on the door mat, a cold January morning spent leafing through it dreaming of wild brownies, it had me hooked! It was all just a matter of finding the time so when the opportunity arose and ten days became free in my diary at the start of June I began planning an adventure and immediately Harris came to mind. Spending a few day pouring over maps and noting how accessible the lochs and fishing’s were, I had the hair brained notion that this adventure would be on foot. I am happy to admit that having once been a keen mountaineer I have softened with age and wisdom and enjoy the comforts of a nice hotel and clean bed after a day or nights fishing.  But I was feeling bold for this trip. Maybe it was a reniessounce, a reliving of younger days. Exploring on foot just seemed the best way to immerses myself in the plentiful and accessible fishing plus the public transport links on and to Harris really are very good, putting many on the mainland to shame. So I packed the rucksack with a lightweight one man tent, sleeping bag, stove and freeze dried meals, lightweight is ………well a figurative term because once you have packed every thing you need to survive for seven days without visiting a shop it weights alot more than you would imagine, nearly 14kg. The fly-fishing tackle the cherry on top.

With space and weight at a premium I opted to take only 1 rod and reel and a fairly lightweight set up

• Greys/Hardy 9’6 Streanflex Plus 5wt Rod

• Hardy LHR Reel & Spare spool

• Cortland Platinum Precision WTF Floating line

• Cortland Precision WTF 15’ Ghost tip

The 1st of June saw me heading westwards by bus from Aberdeenshire to Uig the ferry port in Northern Skye and the link to Tarbert on Harris. As we drew ever nearer Skye the clouds cleared and from horizon to horizon pale blue sky and warm early summer sunshine, little did I know then that this perfect beach weather was to follow me from the day I arrived on the island till the very hour I climbed on the ferry and sailed south for North Uist seven days later. The weather was almost identical to 20 years earlier, had I stumbled on a well-kept secret about Harris? That from May till September these Isles where bathed in Mediteraining sunshine? Alas apparently that’s not the case and by pure luck Mother Nature was playing a cruel joke on this hapless fisher.

Harris is one of the chain of Islands that make up the Western Isles, and are the first real land fall for the worst that the Northern Atlantic weather systems can throw. Really I shouldn’t complain I should shut up and make the most of the stunning weather but as an A-typical fly-fisher much like the stereotypical farmer; one is never happy with the weather.


I was heading for the Finsbay Fishings (http://finsbaycottages.co.uk) a group of over a 100 lochs divided into 3 areas, Stockinish; the northern group of lochs, Flodabay the middle group of lochs and Finsbay the southern group comprising of nearly 50 lochs. With boats on 20 of the 100 lochs and fantastic sea pools the fishing can be as diverse as you want from classic highland boat drifts to a day exploring hill loch on foot, some not much bigger than a bathtub but still containing wild brownies.  Some of the Finsbay fishings lochs have produced some real lunkers; brownies over 11lb and sea trout over 14lb. So you never know your first or your last cast may produce a beautifully marked hard fighting fish of a lifetime but aside from the monsters there are plenty of free rising hard fighting brownies that inhabit these lochs.

Over every rise and in every hollow there seemed to be a loch, it’s a smorgus board of choice, you could spend a life time exploring these lochs and still not fish them all. I began my adventure on the stockanish lochs. Having got the permits at the crack of dawn, I had my tent pitched by lunch time and was off with rod in hand exploring loch Creebhat and loch Glumradh Mor, managing to produce a couple of fish from shady nooks but I was fast discovery what was to be my nemesis for the duration of the trip. The bright warm sunshine putting paid to anything but morning and late evening fishing, which could be exploited by camping,  able to move from loch to loch and only have a short distance to stumble from sleeping bag to bank or boat. Every night as the sun set an hour or two of a rise would ensued, producing a few fish to the traditional highland wets.

I soon moved south loaded like a pack mule, walking the coast road I soaked in the stunning scenery that was putting on a real show in the beaming June sunshine, I was heading south for Finsbay, a group of 50 lochs and sea pools. Alistair Mackinnon the Ghillie found me slouched, parr boiled by the roadside south of foldaway and took pity on me offering me a lift and a quick tour of some of the lochs and sea pool, local knowledge truly is invaluable especially in trying conditions. Setting up camp in the ruins of an old fishing lodge; 2min walk from the sea pools and 5mins from the hill lochs this was to be home for the next  four days with views eastwards over Skye and the jagged teeth of the Cullin Ridge. I could have stayed there forever, perched on the rocks above Loch Fhionnsabaigh (Gaelic for Finsbay) the pale blue sky above and the shimmering Turquoise waters of the Minch below its hard to describe other than Stunning

Over dinner I sat watching the tide surge into the sea pools creping ever higher from one pool to the next and with it sea trout, topping and showing tantalizing splashes drawing you to the water like the sirens song. I set up a cast with just a single dropper about 6-7ft back from the point fly I opted for a classic sz12 teal and blue on point and a size 12 Claret Bumble on the dropper. As the tide peaked I began sending out casts landing the fly tight to the rocks across the pool, giving them to the count of 8 to sink and then a fairly fast retrieve. It produced instant results Bang! a 1.5lb sea trout takes me on a trip up and down the pool fighting me for every inch of line as I retrieve it to the net and then almost every second cast produces a take providing a very enjoyable hour of sport over the tide turning.

The finnock and sea trout hitting the flies hard and fighting like monsters, the sort of sport that you can often only dream of, double hook ups, loosing as many as you land in a frantic hour of mesmerizing fun. Nothing over 1.5lbs but that didn’t matter as they felt like monsters on the 5wt 9.6ft rod, almost pulling it from your hand and as the sun began kissing the hills to the West the action tailed off and I returned to my tent buzzing. I had landed more sea trout in that frenetic hour than I had seen in the previous four seasons.

I will admit I favour Brown Trout fishing over all other but Harris sea trout had hooked me and three of the next four days I spent on the hunt for Harris Sea Trout. The tides played ball with high tide arriving between 6 and 10 pm and allowing some great sport to while away my evenings producing; finnock, sea trout, slob trout and much to my surprise Pollock. A 1lb seat trout on the point fly and half pound Pollock on the dropper every cast a surprise.

I hadn’t forgotten about the bars of gold I had come in search of, venturing out in the mornings exploring the nearby lochs of Holmasaig, Dempster and Humabhat all of which lie on the same system as the sea pools of my first nights fun. Saturday morning I wasn’t feeling too optimistic, the the warm morning sun seemed already high in the sky as I stumbled over heather and peat hag before 7am making my way round the east bank of Dempster but the sound of fish freely rising around the reeds and margins greets me, a real surprise! The lochs where showing the effects of nearly a months warm and very dry weather and I was worrieed that in these kind of conditions the fish had become stressed with lower water levels and reduced oxygen levels, switching off from feeding and had disappeared into deeper waters. However it appears Harris trout are made of sterner stuff ; oblivious to the bright sunshine even with the clear lightly peated water giving little protection, they were feeding on the surface!

A dry fly fishers dream I opt for a light cast of about 2.4lbs and a single fly to reduce any drag. I throw on a fly I tie at size  16; Quill and elk hair midge on a light Grub hook which sits right in and through the surface film, mimicking the large midge that were occasionally hatching and the main attention of the rising trout. Making a long cast I let the wind drift the fly over the rising fish, a breathless wait willing a take soon rewarded with a strong splashy hit, striking as much out of instinct as a reaction in fright at the sudden splashy. A quick reaction imperative as these wild beauties discard the fly as quickly as they strike. An hour and a half of brilliant surface action, having to replace the fly several time as the vicious takes soon took their toll on the small flies, these the tattered reminants in the fly patch serve a a reminder of some fantastic sport.

I would have loved to fish from dawn till dusk but the glorius weather put paid to that, but when it did allow the sport was spectactular, exciting and varied. I honestly cannot express how much I enjoy my time on the island and the rugged beauty of Harris,  a landscape that can make you feel like the only person alive. The people are warm, friendly and welcoming. And of course the great fishing, Harris has it in bucket fulls! You could write and article about everyday and every loch each would be quite a different story.  I wanted to give you a taste, but the only way to truely experince it is to go!

I was genuinely sad the morning I packed up and headed for Leverburgh and on to North Uist, Harris has a lot more fishing  to offer and I guarantee it will not be another 20 years till I next wet a fly on Harris. I can’t thank Gail Tunnah who runs Finsbay, and Alistair Mackinnon the Ghillie enough for the friendly welcome and all the help, I hope to see you all again soon.

I strongely recommend that you plan a fishing trip soon to Harris the transport links are good, the people are welcoming, the fishing is world class. And I think that the sun is always shining………

Useful Links;

Ferry times and Bookings;  https://www.calmac.co.uk/

Finsbay
Fishings; http://www.finsbaycottages.co.uk/uk/

Buses times and Booking; http://www.citylink.co.uk/

Scotrail; https://www.scotrail.co.uk/

Harris bus timetable; http://www.cne-siar.gov.uk/travel/busservice/current/indexlh.asp