The morning had gone well. It was one of those late summer days of mild air and thick cloud and the wind was forecast to veer during the day from south easterly to south westerly on the back of an incoming high pressure system. It was a day breezy enough to keep the boat moving at a decent clip; not to the degree where the drogue was necessary, but sufficiently so that one could justifiably be deployed if tactics required a slower drift. And the white overcast softened the light beautifully, creating a damp, cotton-wool fuzziness to the atmosphere that made it feel as though the air and water were one, their limits all but indistinguishable. I could sense the vigour of the place as the breeze infused the water's surface with oxygen and fine spray whipped off the wave crests absorbed into the humid air around. It was one of those days the stillwater trout fisher dreams about and I felt with every bone in my body that the native brownies would be, as a friend of mine puts it, "up and looking for trouble".
As I motored upwind to start my first drift of the day, I remember feeling a peculiar combination of emotions: there was pure, nerve-jangling excitement at what the day might hold. There was also a strange sense of loneliness at the prospect of spending perhaps 12 hours afloat, alone, on a wild, untamed northern stillwater. And counteracting this was the feeling of comfortable familiarity which derives from having spent many hours getting to know a water intimately. It is difficult to explain, but I felt slightly ill at ease, yet at the same time totally at ease as I turned the boat beam-on and rolled my team of wet flies out into the wave.
The next few hours followed a mesmerising pattern as I sank into the rhythm of deep concentration that loch style fly fishing demands. I changed line a few times, tweaked my choice of fly patterns, drifted both unfettered and be-drogued. I pulled the flies slowly, pulled them fast, stripped, twiddled and hung them. I drifted contours and open water, weedbeds and rocks. The melody may have occasionally altered but the theme remained the same: constant working of my team as the little boat rocked and nudged in the wave.
By mid afternoon, my fugue had been interrupted seven times by magnificent trout which ambushed my flies from seemingly out of nowhere. In each case I had developed an eerie feeling beforehand that they were coming - a feeling I cannot begin to articulate but which I could best liken to the nymph fisherman's 'sixth sense' which compels him to lift into a fish which ostensibly gave no clear indication as to its presence. I would be drifting along, thinking nothing in particular, when a sudden certainty would take hold that something exciting was about to happen. No more was this evident than at the end of the last drift I made before breaking for lunch when, without any reason other than a gut feeling, I began the upward sweep of my flies a little earlier than I normally would, to be met by an almighty pull as a huge trout took hold of the middle dropper. The fish weighed just over six pounds; a broad shouldered, yellow-bellied beast of a hen fish which regurgitated a mess of part digested sticklebacks into my lap before scything off into the depths leaving my head and arms soaked through. That trout should have etched an indelible mark on my memory. But like an accidental tape recording of one song over another, the subsequent events of that day have unfairly diminished the magnificent creature's splendour in my mind.
I took lunch on the bank, basking in the afterglow of a good morning's work. I knew then that the bulk of the day's action was probably behind me. This water, like so many others, has a tendency to drop quiet in the afternoon before maybe picking up again late on. The evening sport might or might not materialise, based upon a number of variables which would be impossible to accurately predict; and in any case, I sometimes find it difficult to continue on into the 'simmer dim' when my whole body aches after a full day of repeated casting and retrieving. No, as I reclined amongst the grasses and wildflowers, I half conceded that the big trout I had just caught would quite possibly be my last of the day. I would venture out again for sure, but my expectations were not high.
Three hours later and my prediction was looking safe. The wind had veered square southerly and eased a touch, bringing the inexorable feeling that here was a water at rest, its residents taking their mid afternoon siesta. I propped my feet against the bulwarks, leaned into the backrest of my seat, and maintained a casual working of the flies; an occasional break for a nip from the hip flask, and an awful lot of gawping at the bleak majesty of the surrounding scenery. At such times, the rhythmic nodding of the boat can induce an almost trance-like state in the angler, where despite nothing at all happening for long periods, time seems to just slip away such that an hour can feel like five minutes. So it was that afternoon: the hours eased by like the low clouds and I fished away, replaying the morning's events over and over in my mind.
Then, as the wind picked up again and began a subtle shift towards the south-west, everything changed once more. The sky darkened a touch, the atmosphere freshened, and I began to sense that another fish might be on the cards.
Brown trout are strange creatures. Seemingly the slightest thing can switch them on or off at the drop of a hat: a brief spell of invertebrate activity maybe, change in light levels or atmospheric pressure perhaps. The variables are many and only partially understood and I personally find the whole thing fascinating. Nearly every angler you speak to will have a few stories about days when the fish suddenly went off the boil for no apparent reason, or conversely, a long period of complete inactivity was followed by a short burst of hectic sport. Sure enough, location is often part of this equation as the territorial nature of brown trout means that the importance of fishing where the fish are (as opposed to where they are not), is paramount - obviously. But notwithstanding this, there are definitely occasions when brownies will lie completely doggo, unresponsive to any external stimuli.....and the change from this state to that of actively feeding, never fails to surprise me in it's suddenness or apparent unpredictability. Sometimes it just takes a change - any change - in the atmosphere. A slight increase in wind speed, a change in light intensity, or something less obvious and difficult to articulate, but nevertheless tangible. I needed a change that afternoon, and as I motored to the top the wind and felt renewed vigour in the air, I knew straight away that I had got what I wanted.
It was early September and a couple of the cock fish I had caught in the morning were heavily kyped and showing late season colour....and the quality of light seemed to suggest a pattern with claret in the dressing. I went with a gut feeling and tied on my 'Bloody Dabbler' in the point position, popped the drogue out and resolved to fish the flies deep and slow. Minutes later I tightened in response to a vicious yark early in the retrieve and brought fish number eight to the boat - a small but aggressive looking trout of round 1lb 8oz. Then, a few casts later, and with every nerve in my body quivering in anticipation, I felt a long slow draw countering the steady pull of my retrieve hand and as the stretch of the fly line bottomed out and the hook went home, I lifted the rod into the biggest trout of my life.
Not that this was apparent straight away. When you've returned a six pounder earlier on, it's difficult to see what more the day can hold. Sure this fish was a heavy one and its initial fifteen yard run was ponderous, deliberate and entirely unstoppable; but after that the fish went deep and stayed there, striving - as a wild brown trout will - to get behind the drifting boat and back to the place from whence it came. I knew I had hold of a good 'un, but I confess I didn't realise how big.
Fifteen minutes later, I was beginning to get some idea. This trout just wouldn't behave itself. My set up was geared to the size of fish I expected to catch and as such, was by no means subtle by loch styling standards. A ten foot rod rated for a seven weight was teamed with fluorocarbon of the same strength. And I'm a fairly hard player of fish compared to some. Make no mistake, this fish was receiving some pressure, but although it was showing signs of tiring, I had yet to get a proper look - brief flashes of gold-brown a couple of feet below the surface seemed to suggest an exceptionally deep, if not overly long trout. It was hooked on the point fly - the bloody dabbler - so I had the comfort of knowing that there were no trailing flies which could get caught up on the lake bed. I took my time, applied optimum pressure...and waited.
It would be nice to tell you that this fish made a number of searing runs, stripping my line to the backing and leaping clear, porpoise-like several times. The truth is that the fight, although protracted, held absolutely nothing remotely exciting to report. As time passed, my right arm began to tire and I became impatient to get the beast in the net. Every moment brought me closer to landing or losing the fish and I became strangely resigned to accepting either outcome. Eventually after some wallowing around and final half-hearted lunges, I got the trout's head up - this huge, kyped jaw - and turned it into the waiting net. I left the net in the water allowing the fish to rest for a minute, stretched my aching limbs, collected myself, and then peered over the bulwark to behold a wild brown trout of simply stunning proportions.
It was a cock fish. A big ugly cock fish. Relatively short in the body, but impressive in girth. His adipose fin was bigger than my thumb and his teeth shredded the skin on my fingers when I went to unhook him. If I fish until the day I die, I will probably never see anything of his like again, but the memory of lifting that great trout from my net will always stay with me. I didn't weigh him - an attempt would have proved futile in any case as my scales only went to seven pounds. He measured just under 28 inches long.
And so ended the first day afloat of a September which would continue to yield sport beyond my wildest dreams. The memories of that month are tattooed on my mind, but none more so than when I watched that huge brown trout sidle off into the depths and sat back in the knowledge that one of the defining moments of my angling life had just occurred. Even a blind squirrel finds its nuts, and we anglers are all entitled to our red letter day. That - at least in the context of wild stillwater fishing - was mine: a happy convergence of circumstances which placed me in the right place at the right time. Sheer fortune? Probably......but such moments provide the driving force which press us to the water's edge time and again. I hope that it always remains so.
A happy new year to you all!