by Steven Neely


Angling Obsessions

I’ve been chasing loch brownies for the best part of 40 years now and the longer I do it the more I’ve found myself targeting bigger specimens, or more specifically trying to catch a 10lb plus fish. For me, a wild trout over the hallowed 10lb mark, on river or loch, is as good as it gets. Any brownie over 4 or 5lb will fight like fury, but once they start getting close to double figures then hooking them is just the start of the problem when it comes to actually landing one.

Big Fish Heartache

Over the years I’ve lost a handful of big trout in this category. I can remember them all as if it were yesterday. A couple were down to pilot error; one because of a poorly tied dropper knot/and or standing on the leader on a stony bank whilst trying not to be eaten alive by midges, and the other when using a hook with too fine a wire. Painful as these experiences were, and they still hurt to be honest, they were invaluable.

Several other big fish lost were all in the same season, a couple of years ago, two on the Outer Hebrides and one on Shetland. The first I’d fought hard for a good ten minutes without seeing it. I thought I had it under control until it tore off with phenomenal speed and power straight into a thick weedbed. The second had me down to the backing in what seemed like a heartbeat, turned, tore back towards the boat faster than I could strip and then tailwalked in 4ft of water and threw the hook. And on Shetland a fish took my top dropper, a Gorgeous George, close in when I had line coiled ready to make a longer cast. It hit the fly so ferociously, and took off so quickly, that there was no time, or perhaps presence of mind, to do much. Some of the rapidly disappearing loose line managed to coil round the reel handle with the tightest of loops, the rod bent over double and 10.6lb bs fluorocarbon snapped like thread. Part pilot error, perhaps? Either way, excruciating. It’s never happened to me before, or since, but represents yet another little detail to be aware of when there’s the chance of a big, powerful fish hitting out of the blue.

Hitting The Jackpot

This season however I enjoyed a big chunk of luck and finally managed to land a double figure brown trout. At 15 ½ lb it blew my previous personal best out the water and certainly made up for at least a couple of those close calls in the past – though by no means all. It came from a well-known specimen trout water in Caithness which has produced more than its fair share of 10lb plus fish over the years – and in more recent seasons they seem to be getting even bigger. Heilen is remarkably shallow with an average depth of 2 to 3ft. The bottom is a mix of stone/gravel and silt/marl with plenty of weedbeds and as a result it can colour up really easily. The wind is no stranger to this part of Scotland so Heilen is often too turbid to fish. The first time I visited it a fair few years ago, visibility was such that it was for all intents and purposes unfishable. However, Heilen is one of the most fertile waters in the land and the feeding in it is phenomenal with shrimp being high up on the menu. Search the shallows when it is clear enough and you will see all manner of small fish and other protein-rich aquatic food sources scudding about.

Mental Approach

So, what’s required to get to grips with wild trout that grow to such gargantuan proportions? Probably the most important thing in any angler’s armoury from the offset is confidence. This begins with a strong mental approach to any water being targeted and can only be achieved through prior knowledge of a loch, either by fishing it extensively yourself, by research, or by  seeking local expertise/guidance.

Armed with this knowledge you can then decide on what tactic or tactics are likely to work best. Of course conditions can change and sometimes the most well thought out plan of attack can soon become obsolete as soon as you’re actually on the water, but having a general game plan, with options, can go a long way to upping your chances before you’ve even wet a line. After this it’s down to equipment. No matter what the fishing situation, having absolute confidence in every single component of your fishing set up is vital – especially when targeting big, unpredictable and powerful fish.

Tackling Specimen Trout

Last season a 20lb fish was reported to have been caught on Heilen, with several in the 15lb range, and the season before a 19lb 4oz trout was caught. Presentation is always key when targeting wild trout but when they get this big it goes without saying that using anything other than tackle that’s up to the challenge is going to end in tears.

So, my set up for fishing Heilen was chosen with all of this in mind. My go to rod for pulling wets or lures on lochs is the Sage R8 Core in a 10’ 6 weight. The R8 Cores have been a revelation since being introduced. I generally prefer a through action on a rod, as long as it has enough backbone. When I first picked up the R8s to try them my initial thoughts were that they were perhaps a little stiff for my personal tastes, with not quite as much flex as I tend to like. However, as soon as you get a line on and start actually casting them they transform. Quite simply they are the sweetest rods I’ve ever fished with, capable of throwing the tightest of loops with accuracy, light and responsive but also unbelievably powerful. You want to be fishing with a rod you’re not even thinking about, in terms of its capability for the job in hand and ease of casting, and for me the R8 Core is that rod. My reel of choice was the Sage Spectrum 7/8. It’s solid as rock, balances a 10’ 6 weight perfectly and has a smooth, powerful drag – vital for playing powerful fish capable of surging or running at breakneck speed.

On the Spectrum­ I had a RIO Elite Rio Grande 6 weight. It’s a full floating line, all that’s required on such a shallow loch, and the perfect line for throwing bigger flies or lures in this kind of situation. At the business end I used a Rio Salmon/Steelehead 6ft tapered leader, cut back a bit with a 2mm Rio tippet ring tied to it. On to this I attached 10 to 12ft of 13.3lb Rio Fluoroflex Strong with a dropper tied on 6ft from the point fly. This is incredibly strong tippet material that I’ve developed the utmost faith in.

I use it on low breaking strains and very fine diameters on the river for trout and grayling. Its knot strength is remarkable and it’s basically never let me down. Although not the best choice for throwing bigger flies on a loch in the lower breaking strains and diameters, the 13.3lb version is stiff enough to deal with turning over heavy lures but still fine enough in diameter to get away with pulling wets, presentation-wise.

And that’s it, a pretty basic set up but one I have absolute faith in, from top to bottom. What could possibly go wrong! Well, I was fishing a dropper, a large muddler. The water, although fishable, was coloured and I reckoned a big wake-inducing dropper as an attractor would up my chances of success. Whether it was a contributing factor to the fish taking my point fly, a Caledonia Red Night Hotty, I’ll never know but it almost did for me on three occasions when the big trout went under the boat. At no point however, throughout what was obviously a very tense fight, did I feel that any of my equipment was going to let me down and the kind of confidence that instills in these situations is invaluable.

There is one further ingredient, key to any memorable fishing outcome, and that is luck. On this occasion I enjoyed a very large slice of it. Hopefully there’s plenty more of it to come. You can read the full story of Fin’s Heilen adventure in the current (September issue) of Trout and Salmon magazine.         

Author: Finlay Wilson

Photography: Euan Myles

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