Robert MacDougall-Davis goes slob hunting in North Uist’s brackish lagoons.
"Re-produced from an article originally published in Fly Fishing and Fly Tying Magazine."
Deep purple stretches far into the distance and a plethora of trout infested lochs lie amid the heather, dotted puddle-like, beneath an all encompassing backdrop of gunmetal mountains. This is North Uist, the loch angler’s paradise.
The island is rightly famous for its trout fishing, which for many conjures up dreamlike images of peaty lochs, drifting boats, long fly rods and beautiful little brownies. Now it is true that the majority of water on North Uist is whiskey-tinged and full of 8 inch tenacious brown trout, but there are also some very different and expansive waters to explore.
In North Uist’s saline lagoons bulky slob trout proliferate and it is these magnificent and challenging fish that have captured my attention in recent years. Slobs are not only partial to a fly, but are also capable of searing backing-stripping runs making them superb sport fish.
Commonly referred to as sea-lochs, saline lagoons provide a very unusual arena in which to go in search of trout. Most of the island’s lagoons are isolated from the sea by a rocky sill over which water ebbs and flows in rhythm with the tides. Conditions within the lagoons change as the influence of the sea declines with increasing distance from the rocky sill or ‘tidal entrance’. Quite a marked saline gradient encompasses most sea lochs, along which there is a transition from an almost totally marine habitat, to brackish and finally a virtually freshwater environment at the furthest point from the sea.
Life in the lagoons
The lagoons harbour a great diversity of life from sponges and seaweeds to gammurus shrimps, blue mussels, small crabs and the common periwinkle, not to mention a host of birdlife and an array of unusual organisms. Near the tidal entrances, bunches of rare seaweed swish with the ebb and flow of the tide and large sea slaters clamber over the rocky, lichen quilted fringes of the loch. Various species of snail flourish and sticklebacks and gobies dart, with lightening speed, in amongst the weed fronds as they dive for cover. All in all the local trout population must feel bewildered when confronted with such an exotic and nutritious menu.
With water as clear as the finest Russian vodka and mysterious sub-surface meadows of lush green eel-grass, this is an exciting and intriguing venue in which to go hunting for trout. And here, in this brackish underworld, there be dragons!
So what exactly are slob trout? Interestingly, there was a time when slob trout, or bull trout as they are sometimes referred to, were classified as a species in their own right. Nineteenth century taxonomist William Yarrel classified them as (Salmo eriox) in A History of British Fish (1841). For some time after this classification the debate raged between naturalists as to the exact origin of these fish until, after close observation, it was finally discovered that they were in fact Salmo trutta. Unlike sea trout, slobs do not go through a smolt stage, because their physiology enables them to cope with the brackish waters of estuaries or saline lagoons without making the adaptations needed for survival in the sea.
Given their name, it is easy to see why these fish might get a reputation for being stubby, barrel-like and not particularly attractive. Far from it! These fish are magnificent creatures each equipped with a glistening-gold lame trimmed wetsuit! They are not only thick set, well proportioned and superbly conditioned powerhouses, but also have a tendency to reach monstrous proportions and what’s more they fight like Trojans. Fish in the 2lb–4lb range won’t raise many eyebrows at the local bar and, fuelled by an ample supply of highly nutritious shrimps, snails and small fry, much bigger specimens lurk beneath the ripples.
Tackle, tactics and timing
When searching for slobs, I usually reach for my trusty fast-action 9’6 AFTM #6 which enables me throw out large fry patterns as well as open loops and a team of small singles and doubles. This rod is also a godsend when the wind howls, the fast action providing the crucial wind-cutting ability. A floating line covers most eventualities but when there is a bit of a chop, on goes the intermediate sink tip (i.e. 444SL int. 15ft ghost tip) which keeps those flies in the fish catching zone.
As far as fly choice goes there are no real right or wrongs because ultimately these trout are opportunists and will seize most things that are well presented and impersonating life at the right depth. That said, some flies always seem to become favourites, and my Slob Dream Team is made up of flies in which I have unerring faith. Generally I fish a long 18-20ft seaguar (0.20mm/8.8lb) leader with a buoyant Daddy Long-Legs or bushy Blue Zulu (size 10-12) on the bob, a size 14-16 lightly dressed Kate McLaren or my own Magic MacDougall (size 8-14) in the middle and a double Teal, Blue and Silver or Silver Invicta (size 14) dangling tantalisingly on the tail.
When evening fishing a large natural Muddler Minnow (size 10) deputises for the Daddy or Blue Zulu. Behind the muddler goes the trusty Kate McLaren (size 14/16), and the two fished in tandem can be a deadly duo. The scaled inhabitants seem to find the allure of a bow-waving muddler, drawn at a steady rate over the water, irresistible. Fish will frequently pursue the muddler jaws-style throwing up a heart stopping bow wave in its wake, only to swing round and snatch the little Kate McLaren trailing behind.
Sometimes a glass minnow stripped at pace close in to the shore can result in a spectacular hit. Keep your eyes out for any surface disturbance because a quick fire cast in the path of a fry bashing slob usually has only one outcome – a savage attack. A team of traditional wet flies will also do the trick, but look to flies in the smaller sizes as these seem to be particularly effective. I have had some success using smelt, crab and shrimp imitations originally conjured up to fool bonefish, but somehow I always end up back with the faithful Slob Dream Team.
Hit and Miss
Quite rightly these tidal lagoons have a reputation for being boom or bust waters. Hit them at the right time and sport can be breathtaking, but get it wrong or simply be unlucky with your timing and the fishing experience can be dour. The reason for this boom or bust phenomenon is actually quite straightforward but some anglers remain mystified by the apparent all or nothing nature of these waters. As with most trout fishing, observing and understanding your quarry’s foraging patterns is the key to successful slobbing. With a glut of food on offer at certain stages of the tide, these fish feed voraciously in small tidal windows of opportunity, during which they are eminently accessible to the fly fisherman.
As the flooding tide pours in, it not only stirs up debris on the bottom, but carries with it a fresh harvest of tidal treats from the main body of the sea. Slob trout are highly tuned to tidal fluctuations and materialise like clockwork in the narrows around the tidal entrances in readiness for the influx of diurnal rations. Spring tides usually coincide with the best fishing as they push greater volumes of water over the sill and into the lagoon, which in turn stirs up more food and enhances the banquet for the slobs. A flooding spring tide will shunt water hundreds of yards into the loch so don’t focus too much on the tidal entrance itself. Instead, try to work out where the water is being funnelled and with luck you will find fish. Slob trout will in fact congregate up to an hour or so before high water in anticipation of the spring tide food conveyor and it is often possible to take a couple of beauties before prime time which generally falls in the first few hours following the tidal peak.
Outside prime time it is a more risky game and a solid blank is a real possibility. Nonetheless, it is still possible to eek out loitering slobs by casting a fly through the narrows by tidal entrances, along the indented shoreline and around rocky promontories or islands which can all be productive fishing grounds irrespective of the stage of the tide or the time of day. Although the state of the tide seems to be the most important consideration, evening fishing often coincides with the best sport. A great advantage of being so far north is the soft lingering light, which can extend an evenings fishing long after sundown. It is often in these twilight hours of dancing shadows and eerie noises that things can go crackers!
A balmy south-westerly and rising pressure helps things along nicely by promoting invertebrate activity and adding terrestrial insects to the glut of aquatic food beneath the surface. A good ripple really helps to mask the presence of the prospecting fly fisher. Perhaps, most importantly though, a breath of wind staves off those damn midges, also known as, ‘no-see-ems’, which have forced many a burly fisherman into taking the plunge. That said if the wind blows from the Northeast I usually steer clear of loch fishing all together and instead, try my luck sea pooling for silver or I find a warm fire, a pint of Guinness and my vice.
In short, aim to go slobbing when a high tide or even better, a high spring tide, falls in the evening and cross your fingers for some wind and a fair dose of good luck because if you hook into one of the finned leviathans, you’re going to need it.
Searching for slobs
While you are probing for slobs, long diagonal casts close into the shoreline are a good bet, but above all, make sure you’re casting across the flow or wave rather than straight down wind. This helps to avoid lining fish as like other trout, slobs tend to orientate themselves facing into the current or wave when on the prowl. Fishing your flies around any features that may provide cover such as mini-reefs, rocks or banks of seaweed can also draw a slob from its dark lair. In particular, look out for the extensive meadows of eel-grass whose tendrils reach skywards, stopping short of the surface by about 1-3ft. During the summer months the grassy sub-surface meadows are clearly visible below a boat or from an elevated point on the shore. These underwater pastures are labyrinths of roots and blades, giving rise to a great structural diversity, in terms of habitat, that in turn supports a profusion of invertebrates. The abundance of food and cover that the stands of eel-grass provide make them favourite haunts and hunting grounds for large slob trout which lie in wait amongst the lush green fronds. As the light fades, steadily drawing your muddler minnow above the eel-grass beds can be lethal, sometimes triggering a ferocious marlin-style mauling of your fly!
Hidden away between steep banks of heather, the often windswept saline lagoons are a magical setting in which to cast a fly and what’s more, a surprise is never far away. As well as slobs, these brackish waters are home to sea trout, the occasional grilse, pollack and other sea species, most of which are partial to a fly, so when you hook-up it is always a guessing game. On a recent outing I got a thumping pull and lost maybe 40yards of line before I could say knife. The line suddenly went dead as whatever was appended to my line sought refuge under a weed swamped rock. After a lot of flapping around, and a sudden twang, the line pinged free and, after much further flapping, a brace of decent sized pollack, one on the Zulu and one on the point fly, came to the shore. The top dropper had been smashed off during the tussle so I narrowly missed out on a hat-trick.
Otters also like to try their luck in the brackish lagoons and many different sea birds frequent the sea lochs too. Up on the heather-clad hills stags roam as they keep watch over their harems, whilst on the water flotillas of swans, including the occasional and rare hooper swan, glide effortlessly over the ripples. You also don’t need a blue moon to spot a golden eagle, in these parts and even the white tailed sea eagle too – so cross your fingers on that front and look to the heavens for a giant flying barn door!
Accessing the saline lagoons
Accessing the lagoons is straightforward. Loch an Duin has two tidal entrances that pass, in separate places, under a small single track road, which runs alongside the eastern flank of the loch. A mile or so around the corner is Loch Strumore, a huge, mysterious and rarely fished loch that again has a tidal entrance that flows under the road making access to this part of the loch, at least, very easy. For the mobile angler who fancies a real adventure and a bog hop, the remote Loch Obisary, which lies at the foot of Eaval (1138ft), has a very impressive tidal entrance that can, during a low spring tide turn into a tumbling cascade as water from the main loch drains out and into the sea.
North Uist’s brackish lagoons fish well throughout the season with August and September, in my experience, providing the best chance of success. Although there are many other sea-lochs to explore, the three mentioned here are vast and more than enough to keep the avid slob hunter occupied until the cows come home. Although boat access is available and effective for these lochs, shore fishing is my preferred strategy. Wading, however, can be seriously dodgy in places due to sudden drops-offs disguised by dense racks of seaweed. With that in mind a solid wading pole really helps to probe the weedy fringes of the loch. It is fair to say that experience on these brackish waters will result in more fish, but slob hunting virgins still have a good chance of success; so why not venture forth into the realm of the hebridean slob trout and try your luck? If you would like to see some photos of the saline lagoons and their magnificent slob trout visit my website www.wildaboutfishing.co.uk.
While you rarely catch a basket of trout when slob hunting, those fish that you do get into are likely to be large, broad shouldered and strong. If it is numbers you are looking for then you will be far better served striding off into the glorious Hebridean hills in search of wee hard fighting brownies, but that story will have to wait for another time.
Author’s website: www.wildaboutfishing.co.uk
Ferry: Caledonian MacBrayne operate daily sailings from Uig (Skye) to Lochmaddy (North Uist) or you can sail from Oban (mainland) to Lochboisdale (South Uist) and drive for a couple of hours up onto North Uist.
Plane: British Airways operate regular flights (c. £150 return) between Glasgow and Benbecula (North Uist).
Season: 15th March – 30th September
License: Licenses and detailed access maps can be obtained from North Uist estate at the Lochmaddy Hotel (Tel: 01876 500331) or Langass Lodge (Tel: 01876 580285). North Uist Angling Club offer trout permits and boat access for Loch an Duin which can be purchased from Clachan Stores.
Tide timetables: Accurate seven day advance tide timetables can be obtained from: http://easytide.ukho.gov.uk/Easytide/EasyTide/index.aspx (Loch Maddy).