Fishing Scotland’s Great Glen – A Report By Andy Nicholson
Somehow the haunting melodic tune and words of The Fields of Athenry resounded through my already excited head as I wended my way down the spectacular Glen Coe. In full and glorious view were Ben Nevis and Loch Levin, where I’d had the privilege of fishing, many moons ago.
Maybe the Celt within had been re-ignited through these wondrous sights, the last visit to my native Scotland had been to trace my ancient ancestors and fore Fathers, to The Isle of Skye where there lays an island in the middle of the river Snizort – the burial ground of 24 chieftains of the Nicholson Clan and the Nicholson chapel that pre-dates Iona and a fishing pool called the Cauldron of Heads! My heart and head had been lost to Scotland so many years ago and my return, long overdue.
My mission and assignment, by kind invitation of Crown Blue Line, to take charge of a near, 50ft, 11 ton gin palace of a luxury cruiser and explore the Caledonian canal, Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and home of the Loch Ness monster, along with the vast angling potential that this incredible natural resource affords and report back on my dream adventure.
For me combining my love of boats, bobbing around on Lochs, canals and vast expanses of water and my passion for angling and sense of adventure was just one temptation too far and there was no way I could decline nor resist this invitation.
At the grand ole age of 53, you would have thought that a cool premeditated professional demeanour and approach to this assignment would have been standard for a well seasoned, world angling travel, journalist and correspondent. “Call sign, been there and done it” who actually gained his Charter Boat Skipper ticket, some 30 years ago in Kenya. A veteran in the angling world catching so many different exotic species including sharks in excess of 1000lbs.
Wrong!! I was as excited and as nervous as a kitten and like a rookie on his first ever press trip. Why? Good question. Could I remember and actually physically and mentally be capable of guiding this graceful and extremely expensive craft through the Lochs, canals and the five tier lock system in Fort Augustus twice! And bring this liner back to base in one piece! And ohhhh actually catch some fish en-route, with a crew of one!
Any anxieties I had were quickly dispelled. On arrival at the West Highland Sailing base at Laggan on the headwaters of Loch Lochy I met the highly experienced Ray Norris and his amazing professional team who offered every assistance in way of loading my excessive weekly provisions of food and wine – along with a mountain of fishing tackle.
Just as well Crown Blue Line had organised for me to cruise in the beautifully designed and well-equipped Elegance cruiser as I had brought enough gear for the full occupancy of eight and there were just two of us!
The boat was great – three en-suite cabins, spacious dining room, well-equipped galley, air conditioning, central heating, microwave, TV, two steering positions (one on the flying bridge sun deck) and bow thrusters for ease of mooring. Oh and a wonderful covered aft deck, accessed through the lounge sliding doors, which was perfect for fishing from. In short it was a luxurious floating gin palace that catered for your every whim.
A wonderful warm welcome and introduction from West Highland Sailing base manager Ray and it was then over to his team for a full and concise briefing in boat handling, safety aspects and familiarisation of this fine craft, along with any questions one has regarding the cruiser and the adventure ahead. Of course many of my questions were aimed at where was the best fishing??
I was so impressed with the attention to detail; the captain’s log included all the dos and don’ts – where to moor, places of interest, where to shop, where to eat, lock and bridge opening times, in addition to charts and navigation routes – basically everything you needed to know. The boat and setup had been made as idiot proof as humanly possible meaning a complete novice could successfully navigate this floating 5-star hotel easily and safely.
I sat on the flying bridge, pouring over the navigation charts, musing where that eve I should head for and watching the hustle and bustle in the marina – folk loading their gear on to various crafts then gunning the engines and heading off in such a hurry – as though they had some important business meeting to get to.
I had long learnt that boating and cruising is an un-hurried pastime, a time to slow right down, enjoy every aspect, and drink in the magnificent scenery. Soak up the experience and just linger for as long as you like, wherever you wanted to. I thought why these folk are in such a rush and would have another cuppa, quite content for them to leave me well behind in their wake and watch this wonderful watery world go by.
These press trips always somehow throw up wonderful un-expected surprises. With all my gear and provisions stowed neatly away, the lady friend preparing a late but welcome lunch. Still watching the armada of cruisers emptying from the marina, disappearing at speed in various directions.
A well-educated voice from the stern of the boat, called “Andy permission to come on board?”. With permission granted, the distinguished ex-military gentleman turned out to be Ian MacLachcan of Great Glen holiday lodges, sited across the bay on the banks of Loch Lochy, who by chance also ran a charter boat angling service on the Loch with an ultra fine craft.
Ian had heard I was arriving and wondered if I would be so kind as to join him the following day for a spot of fishing, trolling for the mighty Ferrox, Trout and Pike. How could I refuse such a mouth-watering invitation, so my decision as where to moor up that evening had been made for me.
With arrangements made for Ian to collect me in the morning, it was time for me to acclimatise myself with our personal floating hotel and a gentle cruise down the stunning Loch Lochy.
In no time at all I felt that I had been captaining this fine ship for years and easily mastered the art of turning, manoeuvring and mooring up, made all the easier with the bow thrusters. I returned to a now completely deserted marina and realised with all the boats gone, what a pretty and peaceful part of the Loch it was and more importantly, very fishy looking. How right I was…
While my galley maid was preparing evening supper served with the odd cold gin and tonic I set a static rod baited with mackerel and wandered the jetty with my trusted spinning rod. Not to be disappointed, several fine pike came to both rods. That first evening gave a little taster to the spectacular angling events to follow.
The following morning with a hearty breakfast consumed Ian glided his elegant fishing craft alongside. Everything organised with military precision – the mission for the day was to try and catch the elusive and very large Ferrox that lurk in the depths of Loch Lochy plus try and catch a few pike and trout along the way.
Not only was our time on board a blissful day of fishing but also a veritable nature trip, viewing fish eagles and their nests, deer watering from the loch and all manor of wildlife. Many pike and the odd trout came to our rods that day. Sadly the enigmatic Ferrox decided not to gorge on my lures – no doubt waiting for me on the next visit. Ian is a consummate professional and a guaranteed action packed day out with him is assured and highly recommended.
And so back to our deserted mooring for a second idyllic and peaceful night. Time for the much needed G&T and a late fish supper – prepared while I watched the static mackerel baited rods catching yet again more pike and even the odd large eel.
The early morning mist rolled back across the Loch to reveal another fine day. I gently slipped the mooring ropes and got underway, turning the wheel towards our first experience of negotiating the powered Lock alongside the marina. Now nearly two days behind the armada that had scurried off before us we headed towards Loch Oich and into the Caledonian Canal for the cruising and fishing adventure beyond.
The Lock keepers, how wonderfully helpful, calm collected and what delightful characters they all are. Fonts of knowledge with many an amusing tale and story to be told, it’s a shame so many of the boaters don’t give them a thought and take time for a chat.
Over that week they were to become my friends, valuable advisors, especially on fishing matters – many of them radioing ahead to their Lock keeping colleagues informing that we were heading their way and to advise me on great fishing spots, invariably near to the Locks.
I spent many an hour, lingering, chatting with and admiring the beautiful flower beds and gardens that they lovingly tended and cared for around their Locks. I even learnt that they had a friendly competition for the best-kept Lock on the system. For me they were all winners, an invaluable source of angling knowledge and information. I applaud them all and am indebted to these merry souls – a rare breed and custodians of our precious waterways.
Our journey then took us along the Caledonian Canal, stunningly pretty; and underneath the first swing bridge – opened with perfect timing and a cheery wave from the operator (the previous lock keeper had radioed ahead) before emerging into breathtaking view of Loch Oich. With ease we navigated the well-marked and buoyed channel, passing along the way The Well of Seven Heads, the old castle with moorings – a spectacular setting.
We gracefully glided out of Loch Oich; through the swing bridge which opened as we neared as if by magic. The Lock keepers jungle telegraph working to perfection, past The Bridge of Oich and the impressive weir, the start of the river Oich that shadowed the Caledonian Canal, until it flowed into the Mighty Loch Ness at Fort Augustus. Our destination for that day was the first Lock and again the keeper knew we were coming and the lock opened ready for our arrival.
A very warm welcome ensued and with introductions undertaken and lock successfully negotiated, bless him, our genial lock keeper even ran ahead, showing us the perfect mooring and fishing place, even helped with the ropes and mooring. What stars these chaps are.
Such a pretty mooring – we were less than a hundred yards from the river Oich, just across one field. An amazing scenario the boat moored in a perfect Pike hot spot, a short walk to a renowned Salmon and trout river that I had permission to fish on. Ray of Crown Blue Line had negotiated with the river estate owners for a couple of rods on a mile of the river for his boating clients to fish. Talk about being spoilt for choice.
With game angling gear collected from the hold, flies sorted and tied on, I headed to the top of the river Oich beat and what a beautiful river. My first objective was to try and bag a Salmon, this beat a delight to fish and lovely fly water. I had no luck for a couple of hours, then the tell tale slow and deliberate recognisable take of a Salmon – the hook, or so I thought, firmly set – and battle commenced.
A good silver fresh fish and one which I am sure would have made double figures. Premature thoughts stupidly turned to “did we have any hollandaise sauce on board?” for when I proudly carried my prize back to the ship! As always the fish, sensing a lapse in concentration, launched itself from the depths with a mighty leap, performed the most spectacular cartwheel and slipped the hook. Och well! A story for me to tell and the fish left to fight another day.
I saw other Salmon that day, but no others came to my rod. I decided, seeing as that I had overconfidently boasted we would be dining on fish that evening, that time was running out. I changed to smaller flies and a finer line in the hope of attracting a trout or two. I was not disappointed. What sport I had that wonderful afternoon. I caught many fine red spotted wild Brown Trout to 2.5lbs plus and kept the largest to feast on that evening – sort of made up for the disappointment of losing the Salmon and a little pride restored in returning with supper.
A blissful afternoons fishing on a stunning river, the end I thought to a perfect day of cruising and fishing. How wrong could I have been. While dinner was being prepared (sadly no hollandaise sauce!) I lazily lobbed a couple of now fast becoming smelly mackerel out over the stern and set the bait runners. On opening a bottle of wine, no sooner had the cork been popped, and the sound of the screaming reel sent me scurrying to the rods.
A mighty battle ensued which drew quite a crowd. A kindly passer by, obviously a fisherman, offered to net the Pike and what a magnificent specimen he was, tipping the scales at just over 27lbs. With the fish carefully returned I really thought my Xmass had come all at once. Wrong again. I caught three more Pike that evening before the sun set at 17.5lbs, 12lbs and 9.5lbs. What a terrific day and needles to say supper was delayed somewhat – however the wild trout was delicious. I thanked my lucky stars for the sound advice from our friendly lock keeper – a toast was raised to him.
Our next destination was Fort Augustus, but before we could moor the famous flight of five locks that drop down to the headwaters of Loch Ness had to be negotiated. At first sight these look a little daunting. We had to time it just right to meet the listed slots, however the team of experienced Lock keepers helped us through working the locks, which soon dispelled any doubts.
A totally different experience as you have to disembark and pull the cruiser through from one lock to the next and an ideal time to catch up and chat with other boaters. With the town being such a tourist attraction, crowds of folk watched this spectacle of assorted crafts descending towards Loch Ness and lots of interesting banter ensued.
Our mooring for that day and overnight stay was in total contrast to the peaceful and solitary places we had so far rested our heads. We managed to moor right at the end of the jetty with the most amazing view of the vast expanse of Loch Ness, parallel to the river Oich, where it ended its journey into the Loch. We were also just a short walk from the town, perfect for exploring the cultural attractions and of course stock up on provisions.
On leaving the marina at Laggan we had been provided with many leaflets, exciting events and interesting places to visit. One such event that I was keen to experience was the Caledonian Canal Ceilidh trail – a merry band of young talented musicians and dancers performing many dates at different venues along the entire Caledonian Canal system during the summer months.
What a most wonderful evening of entertainment we had, a true Scottish flavour, taste of culture and mix of music, played on traditional instruments. There was poetry, singing and Scottish dancing with lots of audience participation. Even got my two left feet tapping, even somehow managed to get through stripping the willow, without tripping! One could only marvel at these young talents learning their chosen vocation.
The following morning I emerged from my berth with a slightly sore head!! My thoughts turned back to fishing and the exciting cruise ahead through the mighty Loch Ness. As I strolled along the mouth of the river I bumped into a dear ole chap making ready his ageing wooden clinker built boat for a days fishing for Salmon. After a short conversation this dear man invited me to join him for a couple of hours, never one to turn down an opportunity, I jumped on board, he fired up the sea gull outboard, that he proudly told me was purchased just after the war and we chugged of into the mighty Loch.
Angus was his name. He had fished the Loch all his life and by the look of his tackle the rods and reels were also purchased at the same time as his outboard. A real angling traditionalist, bamboo rods, wooden reels and Devon minnows he had crafted himself many moons ago. Despite only spending three hours fishing with him I learnt so much. He knew the waters like the back of his hand, a terrific character, even managing to catch the first gleaming Salmon of the season. Another wonderful experience on my journey of angling discovery.
Cruising the vast expanse of Loch Ness was awesome – the views amazing and so many interesting places to visit, like the impressive Falls of Moriston, nearby clog and leather workshop. It had been our intention to steam up the Loch to Inverness but then the magnificent sight of Urquhart Castle came into view. I was drawn towards this legendary landmark and the fishy looking bay complete with a small jetty with just enough room for one boat. Many tourists were milling around the castle grounds and visitor centre. It’s a popular destination – and I can understand why – absolutely stunning.
As I manoeuvred gingerly alongside this pretty mooring a rather flustered castle official came running down, stating one of the ferry’s taking tourists back to Inverness was due and that if I wanted to moor up for the night he would kindly wait for us to ensure we had the berth for the night once the ferry had left. Yet another act of wonderful Scottish hospitality and kindness.
He was as good as his word and on learning I was a journalist he gave us a guided tour of the castle, the grounds and a VIP trip around the visitor centre culminating in a film show on the history of the castle. At the end of the show we saw what the castle looked like in its hay day before the screen rolled back revealing the most amazing view of the castle today – pure theatre and drama and one not to be missed.
As we returned to our cruiser a large queue had formed by the jetty. Knowing that the last ferry had long left I was bemused, but all came clear. The couple at the front of the queue politely asked me, how much was I charging for trips around the Loch!!?? It took me a while to explain – this un-scheduled visit to the castle was turning out to be one for the ole memory bank but more was to come?!
With the visitor centre and castle grounds closed to the public an amazing silence descended upon our idyllic setting. Not a soul to be seen with the boat moored safely for the night, stern facing towards the now flat calm Loch – not a boat in sight. The golden glow of the castle lights illuminated all around, the views staggering. This was heaven on earth as I perched on the stern under the porch, supper simmering on the stove and with a G&T in hand. Catching Pike and Trout, the fishing was terrific that eve, and I remarked that frankly life just could not get any better!
No sooner had those words left my mouth, when seven extremely attractive nubile nymph like lady students bounded on to the jetty full of apologies for disturbing our peace and possibly my fishing. It turned out they were all travelling around Scotland for the summer term and had snuck into the grounds by scaling a fence and wanted to have a secret swim in the icy waters of Ness. They politely asked if we would mind – how could I refuse!
Further more they stripped off to skimpy bras and thongs leaving little to the imagination and asked if I would be kind enough to photograph them as they plunged into the loch. Of course I dutifully obliged, however Gawd knows how the photos turned out – I have a feeling there could have been a bit of camera shake!
We served a fortifying warming scotch to the intrepid swimmers and they went on their way dripping wet. Out of earshot, my lady friend turned to me with a wry smile and stated “and you said that life could not get any better”. This was turning out to be some trip.
That evening we took a bottle of wine up to the ramparts of the castle and watched the sun set across this magnificent land and waterscape. My thoughts turned to the Loch Ness Monster. As many sightings had been made from this vantage point I flippantly said that all we needed to happen now was to see ole Nessy and that really would truly cap the trip off. Unfortunately he was not to appear and we could only dream about this mythical creature that reputedly roams the Loch.
Time was running out. We headed back down the Loch, up through the five-lock flight and back down the canal and into Loch Oich to stay the final night on the isolated berth under the shadow of the castle. That evening I lit a barbeque fire, on the shore and cooked wild trout caught on the loch, time for reflection on the most wondrous angling adventure. The experiences and tremendous characters we met along the way, especially the lock keepers who all bid us a fond farewell on the return leg.
An early start the last morning and a short cruise en-route to base and a cheery welcome home from Ray and all his professional staff and me full of tales and stories from our memorable cruise. But so sad to disembark and leave behind such a splendid craft that had been home, fishing station and the focal point of my adventure for over a week.
My most sincere thanks go to Ray Norris of West Highland Sailing and his team mates. What a terrific and consummately professional service they offer in addition to fantastic quality hire boats. Thanks also to Ian MacLachcan of Great Glen holiday lodges and of course those amazing Lock keepers. They are un-sung heroes of the canal.
I can only sum up such an amazing trip as magical, the entire time and experience was bliss, fabulous varied fishing, incredible hospitality from all which I had the privilege of meeting. The cruiser was the lap of luxury, moorings with breathtaking views, so much Scottish culture and exciting places to visit along the way. Somehow I have a strong feeling I will be returning, as I really only just scratched the surface and potential of this amazing natural resource and un-tapped terrific fishing. I just loved every minute of this adventure, maybe next time Nessy will be waiting for me!!