Moody Beasts
Trout & Salmon|January 2018

Stan Headley searches for the elusive sea-trout of Loch Ailsh in the northwest Highlands.

BEFORE I VISIT a destination that I have never seen I build a picture in my mind of what it looks like. This is not a voluntary mind-game, it is a subconscious imperative. I suppose everyone does it.

My mental picture of Loch Ailsh was almost 100 percent perfect except that in my mind it was bigger and surrounded by broadleaf trees. It is, in fact, quite small and surrounded by Forestry Commission plantations. I dislike the conformity of these plantations and their effect upon wildlife diversity. Pine needles lack the natural benefits bestowed by the annual fall of deciduous leaves. There is little doubt in my mind that trout and salmon lochs with fir plantations in their catchment would benefit greatly by their replacement with indigenous trees.

Still, Ailsh has magnificent views and, plantations aside, is a delight to the eye. To the north rise spectacular hills and mountains among which are born the spawning reaches employed by the silver tourists that venture into the loch every summer and autumn. These fish run the famous Oykel, a mightily productive river that exits into the Kyle of Sutherland at Bonar Bridge and while all Oykel fish won’t run into Ailsh, a significant proportion do.

Another misconception I had was that Ailsh would be primarily a salmon water. I had come to this flawed conclusion using logic, always a mistake when it comes to fishy matters. In most cases salmon like to get as far up a river system as possible and sea-trout are naturally lazy and will leave the main river as soon as possible. Considering how many salmon run the Oykel – arguably every flood tide bestowing fish into the system – Ailsh, from mid-summer onwards, should be stuffed with them. But a loch-caught Ailsh salmon is hard to come by, strange as that may seem.

Lochs reluctant to give up their salmon to the fly are not unusual. Lochs Tay, Ness and Awe are classic examples where fly-fishing rarely works and trolling seems the only way to nail a fish. Why this should be is a puzzle. I had always assumed it was due to the length of time it took salmon to reach the loch, but this does not bear close scrutiny. A more likely reason is that in big, massive, deep lochs the fish are spread out too thinly. But Ailsh, as already stated, is a small, shallow loch with a good head of fish. As in all fishing matters, especially when it concerns migratory fish, there are more questions than answers.

Prior to getting there, I was unaware of the simple fact that catching a salmon would be the exception rather than the rule, and that I should concentrate my efforts on sea-trout. In most lochs of this type one should fish close in for salmon and in more open water for sea-trout, but Ailsh is a very shallow loch so it would be fair to assume that both species could be expected from similar depths.

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