Ticking Lists

Ticking Lists

6 April 2020 0 By Fred Carrie

Over the past 40 years or so I had gazed upon The Headwaters many times, winter and summer, whilst heading out or returning in an exhausted state from some ridiculous marathon hill walk or inane Munro bagging trip.

For those who don’t know: a “Munro” is a Scottish hill or mountain of at least 3000 feet. They are all listed neatly in a book. There were about 270, or so, of them last time I counted. Collecting them – that is climbing them then ticking them off the list – is a popular hobby these days. In my younger, fitter days I collected them enthusiastically. Well, it’s no worse than collecting stamps I suppose and it does get you out into the fresh air. I laugh at it now, but I guess if it hadn’t been for Munro bagging I probably would not have known of The Headwaters or indeed most of the other fine, remote burns and lochs the length and breadth of Scotland.

It’s all part of the apprenticeship you have to serve to really appreciate what a wonderful place Scotland is. It teaches great respect for this environment; you have to get out there and slog the miles. There are no courses that can teach you these values and respect, no assessments by bands of so called experts, no Blue Peter badges – no shortcuts.

For me it was all the sunny days, the camaraderie, the soakings, the blizzards and blisters, the sore legs, the blood, sweat and tears that led to a greater appreciation. As it turned out ticking the list was no more than the catalyst that started the reaction.

In mid-July a few years ago, after much procrastination, I headed out to The Headwaters for a few hours fishing.

Now, to be absolutely honest, I am not sure if trout fishing would be encouraged in The Headwaters. Probably not. This is a salmon river, at least in its lower and middle reaches and one where the humble brown trout is not looked upon fondly.

It’s more than just a little sad, in these so-called enlightened times, that on some salmon rivers brown trout are still considered vermin that should killed at every opportunity. The story goes that all of them threaten salmon by eating their eggs and the bigger ones actually – shock horror – sometimes even eat salmon parr. It really makes you wonder how salmon managed to survive at all before sporting estates began managing rivers, ‘properly’ and so ‘successfully’.

I guess one or two must have got lucky and survived.

I don’t know about you, but between ignorant, idiotic and greedy 19th century attitudes like this and hearing some anglers calling for culls of seals, and fish eating birds, I am sometimes left wondering if angling really deserves to survive at all. It’s not really a great advert for our sport and really blows the argument that anglers are conservationists right out of the water.

Sometimes we appear to be striving to score own goals.

There is however an up-side to this manifesto of the deranged that might not be immediately obvious. During the environmentally disastrous ‘Victorian Sporting Era’ and for sometime before and afterwards, many estates, as well as exterminating anything that moved with hooked beak, tooth or claw, stocked brown trout, usually the silvery Loch Leven strain, into waters that held no salmon. Mainly into lochs but sometimes into rivers. It is thought by some that in most waters, the original native or local strains may have been lost or hybridised out years ago. There is no way The Headwaters or any other part of this river would have been stocked with trout. Even in loony sporting estate logic, stocking vermin would make no sense at all. It is pretty certain that all trout in this river are original, unadulterated, native fish.

I parked my car at the end of the public road, got the rucksack on, my back, mounted my Iron Horse and peddled off up the (very) rough track that eventually leads to The Headwaters. The wind was against me as it always is when I am cycling. I really wish someone could come up with a non-castration saddle design for mountain bikes. To younger readers intending to take up mountain biking and also start a family I offer this advice: get the family bit sorted out first.

By the time I reached The Headwaters, pushing the bike as often as pedalling the damned thing, my legs were like jelly. I guess I might be getting too old for this bike nonsense, but I knew it would be worth it on the return journey.

Most stretches of The Headwaters are wide and very shallow, broken by vast numbers of rocks and with few obvious fish holding areas. There is however one ravine section, perhaps ¼ mile long, consisting of tree lined cliffs, deep pools and short waterfalls that had fascinated me on my many treks into these parts. The first thing that strikes you here is the fantastic New Zealand like clarity of the water. Any fish here will spot you before you even leave your house. It’s also a bit dangerous for wading being very depth-deceptive. This is the kind of trip where I might have been tempted to leave the waders at home. That would have been a big mistake. I could not have fished this ravine section without them.

The gin-clear water, although very attractive, reflects the nature of the igneous underlying rock. Hard granite and peat means acidic water, low in nutrients, low in insect numbers, few if any crustaceans and poor feeding. The prevailing cold summer temperatures don’t help insect numbers either – apart from biting midges of course, they seem to thrive anywhere! In some countries headwaters have a reputation for small numbers of very big fish; here I was under no illusions; while I was sure there would be plenty of fish, I was not expecting them to be big at all.

I rigged up my good old 9 foot Bloke XL50 fly rod with a floating line, long leader and two dry flies: these changed throughout the day but basically they were Deer Hair Sedge / Elk Hair Caddis style flies – claret, black, silver bodies etc. Sometimes using a big Stimulator style fly on the tail as a marker in the rough water

It was slow to start with but I caught plenty of fish; no glass case stuff, the best barely 9″. Beautiful, real wild trout. I did rise one good fish at the foot of one of the waterfalls. Sod’s law dictates that if you are going to miss a fish it will always be the best of the day. It wouldn’t be real trout fishing otherwise.

I also fished the broken water above the ravines for a further ½ mile or so, picking up small fish from the pockets in the rough, shallow water between the rocks. I was getting some puzzled looks from passing hill walkers. I guess it’s not every day they come across some eejit standing in a river in the middle of the nowhere, waving a stick, wearing chest waders, a floppy wide brimmed hat, Polaroids and a queer looking bulging waistcoat.

The sun was warm, the peace and tranquillity restoring. The river was mine for the day. On returning to the ravine, I found I had been joined, on the far bank, by a large picnicking family, complete with a swimming dog, who, like me, had biked up the many miles from the public road. Fair enough, they were pleasant folk and some things are far more important than fishing: like families getting out and about together. Good for them. They have as much right as anyone else to be there enjoying the great outdoors.

Finding a quiet corner looking out towards the high hills I sat down, relaxed in the heather, took in the atmosphere and contemplated my reasons for being there at all. It certainly was not about catching fish; that’s only one piece of a large mosaic. While having lunch I spied an eagle wheeling above the far ridge. Folks reckon they see lots of eagles in the hills then one day they really see an eagle and realise that all the other eagles they have seen were buzzards. I dozed off for an hour in the warm sun.

When I awoke it was time to leave. I had fished for about 3 hours altogether and that was just about enough. In contrast to the inward trudge, the return journey down the rough track to the public road was exhilarating; freewheeling most of the way it took about 15 minutes!

Most of my days fishing on rivers are solitary affairs and none more so than my day on The Headwaters. There were no trophy fish, but the wild Scottish highlands, the flora and fauna, the clear cold waters, and the beautiful small wild trout together created an angling experience that could not have been bettered. The sleep was pretty good too.

I know some people who would be aghast at this kind of laid-back, even lazy behaviour, when fishing. There are anglers who won’t even stop for a sandwich; to them catching fish – lots of fish – and making sure everyone knows about it, is the be-all and end-all. It all depends on how you are wired and what you are looking for I suppose. Some strive for respect with long impressive casting skills, stories of big fish or big catches, others feel that matching their skills against like-minded competitors will bring them kudos.

That’s just list ticking in another form I guess and the reality is it won’t get you invited to many parties; not parties that are worth attending anyway.

Just as my own days of checking-off Munros were replaced by a wider appreciation of things around me, my fishing priorities have changed too.

I don’t tick lists these days. Strange how this mellowness creeps up on you and you don’t even notice it.