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Loch Beg

There is something mysterious in loch fishing, in the tastes and habits of the fish which inhabit the innumerable lakes and tarns of Scotland. It is not always easy to account either for their presence or their absence, for their numbers or scarcity, their eagerness to take or their “dourness.” For example, there is Loch Borlan, close to the well-known little inn of Alt-na-geal-gach in Sutherland. Unless that piece of water is greatly changed, it is simply full of fish of about a quarter of a pound, which will rise at almost any time to almost any fly. There is not much pleasure in catching such tiny and eager trout, but in the season complacent anglers capture and boast of their many dozens. On the other hand, a year or two ago, a beginner took a four-pound trout there with the fly. If such trout exist in Borlan, it is hard to explain the presence of the innumerable fry. One would expect the giants of the deep to keep down their population. Not far off is another small lake, Loch Awe, which has invisible advantages over Loch Borlan, yet there the trout are, or were, “fat and fair of flesh,” like Tamlane in the ballad. Wherefore are the trout in Loch Tummell so big and strong, from one to five pounds, and so scarce, while those in Loch Awe are numerous and small? One occasionally sees examples of how quickly trout will increase in weight, and what curious habits they will adopt. In a county of south-western Scotland there is a large village, populated by a keenly devoted set of anglers, who miss no opportunity. Within a quarter of a mile of the village is a small tarn, very picturesquely situated among low hills, and provided with the very tiniest feeder and outflow. There is a sluice at the outflow, and, for some reason, the farmer used to let most of the water out, in the summer of every year. In winter the tarn is used by the curling club. It is not deep, has rather a marshy bottom, and many ducks, snipe, and wild-fowl generally dwell among the reeds and marish plants of its sides. Nobody ever dreamed of fishing here, but one day a rustic, “glowering” idly over the wall of the adjacent road, saw fish rising. He mentioned his discovery to an angler, who is said to have caught some large trout, but tradition varies about everything, except that the fish are very “dour.” One evening in August, a warm, still evening, I happened to visit the tarn. As soon as the sun fell below the hills, it was literally alive with large trout rising. As far as one could estimate from the brief view of heads and shoulders, they were sometimes two or three pounds in weight. I got my rod, of course, as did a rural friend. Mine was a small cane rod, his a salmon-rod. I fished with one Test-fly; he with three large loch-flies. The fish were rising actually at our feet, but they seemed to move about very much, never, or seldom, rising twice exactly at the same place. The hypothesis was started that there were but few of them, and that they ran round and round, like a stage army, to give an appearance of multitude. But this appears improbable. What is certain was our utter inability ever to get a rise from the provoking creatures. The dry fly is difficult to use on a loch, as there is no stream to move it, and however gently you draw it it makes a “wake”—a trail behind it. Wet or dry, or “twixt wet and dry,” like the convivial person in the song, we could none of us raise them. I did catch a small but beautifully proportioned and pink-fleshed trout with the alder, but everything else, silver sedge and all, everything from midge to May-fly, in the late twilight, was offered to them in vain. In windy or cloudy weather it was just as useless; indeed, I never saw them rise, except in a warm summer stillness, at and after sunset. Probably they would have taken a small red worm, pitched into the ripple of a rise; but we did not try that. After a few evenings, they seemed to give up rising altogether. I don’t feel certain that they had not been netted: yet no trout seemed to be on sale in the village. Their presence in the water may perhaps be accounted for thus: they may have come into the loch from the river, by way of the tiny feeder; but the river-trout are both scarce and small. A new farmer had given up letting the water off, and probably there must have been very rich feeding, water-shrimps or snails, which might partly account for the refusal to rise at the artificial fly. Or they may have been ottered by the villagers, though that would rather have made them rise short than not rise at all.

There is another loch on an extremely remote hillside, eight miles from the smallest town, in a pastoral country. There are trout enough in the loch, and of excellent size and flavour, but you scarcely ever get them. They rise freely, but they always rise short. It is, I think, the most provoking loch I ever fished. You raise them; they come up freely, showing broad sides of a ruddy gold, like the handsomest Test trout, but they almost invariably miss the hook. You do not land one out of twenty. The reason is, apparently, that people from the nearest town use the otter in the summer evenings, when these trout rise best. In a Sutherland loch, Mr. Edward Moss tells us (in “A Season in Sutherland”), that he once found an elegant otter, a well-made engine of some unscrupulous tourist, lying in the bottom of the water on a sunny day. At Loch Skene, on the top of a hill, twenty miles from any town, otters are occasionally found by the keeper or the shepherds, concealed near the shore. The practice of ottering can give little pleasure to any but a depraved mind, and nothing educates trout so rapidly into “rising short”; why they are not to be had when they are rising most vehemently, “to themselves,” is another mystery. A few rises are encouraging, but when the water is all splashing with rises, as a rule the angler is only tantalised. A windy day, a day with a large ripple, but without white waves breaking, is, as a rule, best for a loch. In some lochs the sea-trout prefer such a hurricane that a boat can hardly be kept on the water. I have known a strong north wind in autumn put down the sea-trout, whereas the salmon rose, with unusual eagerness, just in the shallows where the waves broke in foam on the shore. The best day I ever had with sea-trout was muggy and grey, and the fish were most eager when the water was still, except for a tremendously heavy shower of rain, “a singing shower,” as George Chapman has it. On that day two rods caught thirty-nine sea-trout, weighing forty pounds. But it is difficult to say beforehand what day will do well, except that sunshine is bad, a north wind worse, and no wind at all usually means an empty basket. Even to this rule there are exceptions, and one of these is in the case of a tarn which I shall call, pleonastically, Little Loch Beg.

This is not the real name of the loch, quite enough people know its real name already. Nor does it seem necessary to mention the district where the loch lies hidden; suffice it to say that a land of more streams and scarcer trout you will hardly find. We had tried all the rivers and burns to no purpose, and the lochs are capricious and overfished. One loch we had not tried, Loch Beg. You walk, or drive, a few miles from any village, then you climb a few hundred yards of hill, and from the ridge you see, on one hand a great amphitheatre of green and purple mountain-sides, in the west; on the east, within a hundred yards under a slope, is Loch Beg. It is not a mile in circumference, and all but some eighty yards of shore is defended against the angler by wide beds of water-lilies, with their pretty white floating lamps, or by tall sedges and reeds. Nor is the wading easy. Four steps you make with safety, at the fifth your foremost leg sinks in mud apparently bottomless. Most people fish only the eastern side, whereof a few score yards are open, with a rocky and gravelly bottom.

Now, all lochs have their humours. In some trout like a big fly, in some a small one, but almost all do best with a rough wind or rain. I knew enough of Loch Beg to approach it at noon on a blazing day of sunshine, when the surface was like glass. It was like that when first I saw it, and a shepherd warned us that we “would dae naething”; we did little, indeed, but I rose nearly every rising fish I cast over, losing them all, too, and in some cases being broken, as I was using very fine gut, and the fish were heavy. Another trial seemed desirable, and the number of rising trout was most tempting. All over it trout were rising to the natural fly, with big circles like those you see in the Test at twilight; while in the centre, where no artificial fly can be cast for want of a boat, a big fish would throw himself out of the water in his eagerness. One such I saw which could not have weighed under three pounds, a short, thick, dark-yellow fish.

I was using a light two-handed rod, and fancied that a single Test-fly on very fine tackle would be the best lure. It certainly rose the trout, if one threw into the circle they made; but they never were hooked. One fish of about a pound and a half threw himself out of the water at it, hit it, and broke the fine tackle. So I went on raising them, but never getting them. As long as the sun blazed and no breeze ruffled the water, they rose bravely, but a cloud or even a ripple seemed to send them down.

At last I tried a big alder, and with that I actually touched a few, and even landed several on the shelving bank. Their average weight, as we proved on several occasions, was exactly three-quarters of a pound; but we never succeeded in landing any of the really big ones.

A local angler told me he had caught one of two pounds, and lost another “like a young grilse,” after he had drawn it on to the bank. I can easily believe it, for in no loch, but one, have I ever seen so many really big and handsome fish feeding. Loch Beg is within a mile of a larger and famous loch, but it is infinitely better, though the other looks much more favourable in all ways for sport. The only place where fishing is easy, as I have said, is a mere strip of coast under the hill, where there is some gravel, and the mouth of a very tiny feeder, usually dry. Off this place the trout rose freely, but not near so freely as in a certain corner, quite out of reach without a boat, where the leviathans lived and sported.

After the little expanse of open shore had been fished over a few times, the trout there seemed to grow more shy, and there was a certain monotony in walking this tiny quarter-deck of space. So I went round to the west side, where the water-lilies are. Fish were rising about three yards beyond the weedy beds, and I foolishly thought I would try for them. Now, you cannot overestimate the difficulty of casting a fly across yards of water-lilies. You catch in the weeds as you lift your line for a fresh cast, and then you have to extricate it laboriously, shortening line, and then to let it out again, and probably come to grief once more.

I saw a trout rise, with a huge sullen circle dimpling round him, cast over him, raised him, and missed him. The water was perfectly still, and the “plop” made by these fish was very exciting and tantalising. The next that rose took the alder, and, of course, ran right into the broad band of lilies. I tried all the dodges I could think of, and all that Mr. Halford suggests. I dragged at him hard. I gave him line. I sat down and endeavoured to disengage my thoughts, but I never got a glimpse of him, and finally had to wade as far in as I dared, and save as much of the casting line as I could; it was very little.

There was one thing to be said for the trout on this side: they meant business. They did not rise shyly, like the others, but went for the fly if it came at all near them, and then, down they rushed, and bolted into the lily-roots.

A new plan occurred to me. I put on about eighteen inches of the stoutest gut I had, to the end I knotted the biggest sea-trout fly I possessed, and, hooking the next fish that rose, I turned my back on the loch and ran uphill with the rod. Looking back I saw a trout well over a pound flying across the lilies; but alas! the hold was not strong enough, and he fell back. Again and again I tried this method, invariably hooking the trout, though the heavy short casting-line and the big fly fell very awkwardly in the dead stillness of the water. I had some exciting runs with them, for they came eagerly to the big fly, and did not miss it, as they had missed the Red Quill, or Whitchurch Dun, with which at first I tried to beguile them. One, of only the average weight, I did drag out over the lilies; the others fell off in mid-journey, but they never broke the uncompromising stout tackle.

With the first chill of evening they ceased rising, and I left them, not ungrateful for their very peculiar manners and customs. The chances are that the trout beyond the band of weeds never see an artificial fly, and they are, therefore, the more guileless—at least, late in the season. In spring, I believe, the lilies are less in the way, and I fear some one has put a Berthon boat on the loch in April. But it is not so much what one catches in Loch Beg, as the monsters which one might catch that make the tarn so desirable.

The loch seems to prove that any hill-tarn might be made a good place for sport, if trout were introduced where they do not exist already. But the size of these in Loch Beg puzzles me, nor can one see how they breed, as breed they do: for twice or thrice I caught a fingerling, and threw him in again. No burn runs out of the loch, and, even in a flood, the feeder is so small, and its course so extremely steep, that one cannot imagine where the fish manage to spawn. The only loch known to me where the common trout are of equal size, is on the Border. It is extremely deep, with very clear water, and with scarce any spawning ground. On a summer evening the trout are occasionally caught; three weighing seven pounds were taken one night, a year or two ago. I have not tried the evening fishing, but at all other times of day have found them the “dourest” of trout, and they grow dourer. But one is always lured on by the spectacle of the monsters which throw themselves out of water, with a splash that echoes through all the circuit of the low green hills. They probably reach at least four or five pounds, but it is unlikely that the biggest take the fly, and one may doubt whether they propagate their species, as small trout are never seen there.

There are two ways of enlarging the size of trout which should be carefully avoided. Pike are supposed to keep down the population and leave more food for the survivors, minnows are supposed to be nourishing food. Both of these novelties are dangerous. Pike have been introduced in that long lovely sheet of water, Loch Ken, and I have never once seen the rise of a trout break that surface, so “hideously serene.” Trout, in lochs which have become accustomed to feeding on minnows, are apt to disdain fly altogether. Of course there are lochs in which good trout coexist with minnows and with pike, but these inmates are too dangerous to be introduced. The introduction, too, of Loch Leven trout is often disappointing. Sometimes they escape down the burn into the river in floods; sometimes, perhaps for lack of proper food and sufficient, they dwindle terribly in size, and become no better than “brownies.” In St. Mary’s Loch, in Selkirkshire, some Canadian trout were introduced. Little or nothing has been seen of them, unless some small creatures of a quarter of a pound, extraordinarily silvery, and more often in the air than in the water when hooked, are these children of the remote West. If they grew up, and retained their beauty and sprightliness, they would be excellent substitutes for sea-trout. Almost all experiments in stocking lochs have their perils, except the simple experiment of putting trout where there were no trout before. This can do no harm, and they may increase in weight, let us hope not in wisdom, like the curiously heavy and shy fish mentioned in the beginning of this paper. Andrew Lang.

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