Fly fishing the Shetland islands
584 lochs that are larger than one hectare and trout swim in 98% of them. Thats what drew me to the islands that lie between the North sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
The flight to Sumburgh Airport on the southern point of Shetland took a little longer than anticipated, due to fog. I was informed that when there is a heat wave on main land UK , there will be fog on Shetland. Looking at the BBC weather forecast while waiting in the departure lounge of Inverness Airport, they reported several deaths due to heat stroke in southern England while Shetland was 12 degrees and a thick low fog with only 30 meters vision.
After several hours of continuous airport lounging and cancelations, suddenly, out of nowhere, the information board read, Sumburgh, now boarding! No, go to gate, just boarding!
Apparently there had been a small opening in the fog above Sumburgh and they where taking it. Under an hour later our baggage was first off the carousel and the hire car was waiting.
The Scalloway hotel is the perfect place to stay if you’r fishing and enjoy good food and a fine bar!
After a short drive north we checked in to the Scalloway hotel and on the phone to our guide Davy Pottinger, I’ll pick you up in an hour. After a quick bite to eat and a few minutes to throw some tackle together, Davy was waiting outside in a SUV with a boat and hanger on the back.
It took no more than 30 minutes before there was water under the keel!
Ten minutes later Jon landed the first fish in the fog, 3.5 lb. of Shetland brown trout. What a start! Shortly after with night falling early because of the rain and fog we called it a day.
On Davy’s business card it states ‘Ghillie’ But Davy, now retired, had a company designing and making the famous Shetland pullovers. My business took off when I designed and made the pullovers for Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, that they used when they first climbed Mount Everest in 1953. He says. Davy is also one of the driving forces behind the Shetland Angles Association (SAA). The next day we where up early and in the hotel restaurant for breakfast. “What will ya be havin for brekfast gentlemen” asked the manager of the family run hotel. My Norwegian companion, Jon, knowing we would be out fishing all day, decided a hefty amount of carbohydrates where appropriate. A full english please, he replied, yull not be gett’n dat here, but ya can hav a full Scottish! Smoked local kippers with lashings of home made butter followed by a magnificent fry up with haggis and black pudding, set us up for the day.
On arrival at Benston Loch the next day, Davy tells us while launching his boat that this is one of the many fly only waters and is known for its big fish, and that fish of 3 lb. plus are common! We tackled up with a small bead head nymph on the point and a large streaking caddis on the dropper. But it had to float high! any sign of it becoming submerged and these wild Shetland trout wouldn’t even look at it. But it didn’t take long before the Benston trout gave us the thumbs up for our choice of flies. With Davy at the oars and expertly placing us in fine drifts, stripping the streaking caddis, making a big bow wave through the surface, we where both rising fish the whole drift. After a couple of hours and a few smaller fish of 1-1.5 lb.. boated, Davy says -the big ones are not on today I think we’ll move to another loch!
The perfect brown
It only takes Davy only a few minutes to put the boat back on the trailer, a procedure that has clearly become second nature to him, and where off to a new loch on the west coast. As we approached the loch we could see the cliffs steeply falling into the Atlantic Ocean and long winding dry stone walls that weaved south across the landscape, towards the lighthouse at Calders Geo.
This is a true moorland loch, no trees and surrounded by only rolling hillsides. After an hours wading and shore fishing, we’d seen no rises, not one! So I decided to take a look in the shallows to see if I could find any signs of previous hatches or insects. It was quickly evident that we where fishing on the top and should have been down! The shallows where crawling with gammarus, literally thousands everywhere. In all sizes from a couple of mm to over one cm in length.
We quickly changed our flies and where both into fish almost immediately ! These where cracking strong wild fish, with some of the finest markings I have ever seen on brown trout. Butter yellow with big spots and full finned. Because of the surrounding geography, for the most part this is a shallow loch, something that was reflected in the acrobatic nature of these beautiful fish when hooked, throwing multiple summersaults and long fast runs before becoming subdued.
The next day Davy was busy with his grand children and asked if was ok for us to fish alone, and gave us a few pointers, one of which was -if its not fishing, dont change the flies, change the Loch, No matter where you are on Shetland, its never far to the next one! The fog had lifted at last and Jon and I studied the OS map in the bar at the hotel.
With clear blue skies, sunshine and no wind, we decided to walk to some small remote lochs up in the hills not far from Scalloway. After a five minute drive and a brisk walk of under an hour, the first loch was in sight below us. Once again we fished for a good hour with only seeing two rises, way out in the middle of the loch, and way out of casting range. Taking Davy’s earlier advice we made the short walk to the next loch. As we approached from the neighboring hill top and looked down on the flat calm surface of the loch, we could see the tell tale signs of adult caddis flies skating on the surface, when suddenly, we saw a rise, close to the shore and then another a little further out in amongst some weeds. We hurried the last 100 meters down to the shore.
Trout from the hills
Taking a few seconds to observe and catch our breath, it was clear there was a hatch of small caddis and a fall of small red spinners. There wasn’t much rising but it was enough! Selecting a small ‘X Caddis’ (16 ) from one of the tightly packed windows of my dry fly box, I tied it on to a new, finer tippet, and give the first 50 cm a good rub with Orvis mud to assist its passage through the mirror flat surface. Jon was already waving carbon on the east bank, but I was waiting for one of those earlier risers to surface again! There he was, a nice splashy rise right in the middle of the weeds. I waded carefully out until I was in casting distance. Making a long cast here was not difficult with no obstructing structure or bank vegetation. After a few false casts, feeding out more line with each one, I lay my little X Caddis down, luckily it fell smack in the middle of the weed free area right in the centre of the weed bed about 25 yards from me. With the evening sun setting low behind me, I could see the bleached deer hair wing of my fly perfectly on the backdrop of dark blue still water. It hadn’t been there for more than 15 seconds when the water below it was sucked under and it disappeared with a resounding ‘Plop’ I automatically assumed the position, and lifted my 4 weight rod, everything tightened up! Another magnificent wild fish with even better markings and condition than the last place!!
Although we had experienced great fish and fishing so far, Davy thinks the lack of big fish has been a little disappointing! So on our last day on the island he took us to one of his favorite lochs, up north. On arrival we immediately see why Davy as ask us not to name the loch and swore us to a confidentiality pact. Although there are many lochs on Shetland with such large fish, he says, this one is particularly venerable. Within minutes of being afloat we saw fish breaking and rolling in the surface that had to be in double figures. I cant tell you how exciting that was! But alas, they where not willing, although we through everything we had at them and managed to boat a few nice fish the big ones alluded us the whole day. On the drive back to the hotel we decided to stop at a small ‘pond’ no more than a hundred meters from the main road. After only ten minutes, both Jon and I had bagged a couple of fat dry fly feeding two pounders, a fitting end for our first trip to Shetland…
At the time of writing this Davy has peppered me with e mails of huge trout (double figures) and sea trout he has taken since my return home.
If this type of fishing appeals too you as much as it did to me the Shetland tourist board are very helpful in planning a trip and organising a guide. My next trip to Shetland is already planned…
You must have this:
The SAA. in collaboration with Promote Shetland has published this small map and guide to Trout fishing in Shetland. This lists just about all the information you will need to get started along with a map that covers over 170 of the most popular lochs.
Shetland in Numbers:
The islands: 15 islands inhabited, 85 uninhabited.
Population: 21 988
Distances: 150 km from north to south. 75 km from east to west.
Brown trout 15 march – 6 October
Sea trout 25 February – 31 October
Brown trout 25 cm
Sea trout 32 cm
To fish for trout in Shetland, anglers must first buy a Shetland Anglers Association permit. These are available in Shetland or from this website. Boat permits can also be bought online. Please see below to purchase, or for more information.
Shetland Anglers Association operate a very simple permit system, with a single price for visitors or locals. The permit costs £25, and entitles the angler to fish throughout the entire season. Junior anglers (under 16) are free.
Permits can be bought in Shetland, at the following locations:
LHD Tackle Shop, Alexandra Buildings, Esplanade, Lerwick. Tel: 01595 692379
Ocean Nets, Gremista Industrial Site, Lerwick. Tel: 01595 694848.
Visit Shetland, Market Cross, Lerwick.
The cost of boat hire is £30.00 annually. This fee gives unlimited use of the boats for the whole season. The boats are secured with combination padlocks (the same number covers all boat) and the combination is changed every season.
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