Fly Fishing in Orkney
One of the many attractions of Orkney are the expansive lochs which dominate much of the West Mainland. These are filled with Brown Trout and are popular with fishermen from Orkney and further afield. We asked Neil Chalmers, the Freight Supervisor for MV Hamnavoe and a keen fly fisherman all about his experiences fishing in Orkney!
Q. Which are the good fishing lochs in Orkney?
A. They are all good! However, I’d say probably the Loch of Harray would be the main loch to visit due to the sheer volume of fish in it. From a competition point of view I prefer Harray – it has over 14 miles of shoreline and it covers more than 2500 acres. The fish are an average of 10 to 12 oz, but it’s not uncommon to land fish in the 1 to 2lb range, and fight hard!
“With over 14 miles of shoreline and covering more than 2500 acres, I’d say probably the Loch of Harray would be the main loch to visit due to the sheer volume of fish in it.”
For a day of relaxed fishing though, I prefer Skaill Loch. The loch is reserved for Orkney Trout Fishing Association (OTFA) members so not just anyone can go fishing there; you need to join the OTFA first. Many a day you will come home empty-handed for your efforts, but there’s always a chance to catch that ‘fish of a lifetime’.
Q. Why is it advisable to join the Orkney Trout Fishing Association?
A. Well – the fishing in Orkney is free – you can come up here and fish any of the lochs except Skaill and there are no fees. However, it is recommended that you pay £20 (which covers the season) to join the OTFA. You don’t get much for £20 these days, but membership to the OTFA is well worth it. If you join, you get a key for all of the site huts around the lochs, you can use the toilet facilities, the shelter facilities at the sites. Also, if you have your own boat, you can use the launching slips.
The membership money also goes towards the hatchery which keeps the lochs stocked with fish. There’s a lot of unseen work which takes place through winter; during the cold dark nights they have guys up at the spawning burns stripping fish.
Q. What does this involve?
A. At the back end of the year the fish go up the burns and do their business! So members of the OTFA go up the spawning burns in search of the trout. Then they strip the spawn from the hen fish and sperm from the cock fish before setting them free. This is then mixed together in a collecting jar and then taken back to the hatchery and put in trays. It becomes a daily rota for committee members to inspect them. The trays have got fresh water constantly flowing through them – this imitates their own environment in a burn. We keep it as natural as we can.
Q. At what point are they released?
A. When they are small fry – tiny wee fish. The OTFA stock some of the lochs but others don’t need stocked. Skaill is one that does need stocked as it doesn’t have a good spawning burn as such, there’s only a small burn which runs into it and another burn which runs out into the sea. So the OTFA stock some of the smaller lochs and they occasionally go the North and South isles and stock the lochs there too.
Q. It sounds like £20 is a quite a bargain for all the work the Orkney Trout Fishing Association does!
A. Yes. The £20 fee for visitors is just peanuts because there are lots of things that go on behind the scenes that no one sees. In the springtime before the season gets under way, the committee members patch up the roads at the site huts. The gravel washes up along the shorelines after all the wind and rain in the winter so JCBs are hired to sort out the site frontages. There’s maintenance work to be done on the site huts and there’s the hatchery. OTFA Membership costs a little bit more for locals, and there’s a £4.50 entry fee for each competition too.
Q. How would you go about joining the OTFA?
A. You can join up by visiting Shearer shop in Victoria Street, Kirkwall or W.S.Sinclair’s in John Street, Stromness. Or else you can join via the website – www.orkneytroutfishing.co.uk – then when you arrive here you’ll be issued with your key and that’s you ready to go! All the information you’ll need is on the website and the competition reports are worth a read.
Q. When it comes to fishing in Orkney, what would you recommend are the best tools for the job?
A. I have four fly rods and over 20 lines and thousands of flies but which are the best ones, I couldn’t give you an honest answer as tactics change frequently in a day. Fly wise I would always advise to use local patterns – if you go to Sinclair’s shop in Stromness or Shearers in Kirkwall they have trays and trays of local fly patterns.
Coincidentally there’s a fly called the ‘NorthLink cat’. It was a fly invented by a friend of mine from Shetland called Stephen Breivik. They were on their way to fish in the Inter County Orkney v Shetland match on Harray and they had all their fly-tying vices and gear with them on the Lerwick boat down to Hatston. It was a fly he invented on his way to Orkney on the NorthLink boat. It turned out to be a cracking fly, so when they looked to name it, what else could they call it?! But unfortunately for them they still lost to Orkney once more!
Anybody coming to Orkney to fish will pretty much know the score anyway. The best advice I can offer is to always ask the locals, they’re not a bad bunch of guys really! If you see someone fishing on the shoreline, go down and ask them for a bit of advice if you’re stuck.
It’s also helpful to keep an eye on what the farmers are up to in the fields as perhaps a combine harvester or simply just a field of cattle can raise flies which get blown onto the water, getting the trout of the feed.
Birds picking olives off the surface is also a good sign. If you see this, then get yourself over there and reap the rewards.
When fishing in competitions I also like to keep a close eye on the other competitors to see if they are catching when I’m not, just in case it’s simply the wrong location I’m fishing.
A lot of the guys here go to the UK Mainland for competitions, and on the Mainland, they tend to fish from stocked rainbow fisheries. Fishing for a big rainbow trout is a totally different ball game from fishing the wild brownies you get in Orkney. Brown Trout are totally wild and very territorial whereas the rainbows go in pods; they group together to search out their food. This means you have to use a totally different technique to hunt out wild brownies in Orkney.
Q. So, when and how did you start fishing?
A. I started fishing when I was about 7 years old at the Loch of Clumley and Stenness with my cousins. I used to fish with a bubble float and worm, but I must admit I didn’t like worms and had to get my cousin to thread the worm onto the hook for me because I couldn’t do it!
I only started fishing fly in 2002 – I’d always fancied fishing fly – and I taught myself the basics. I did get a fair bit of advice from Billy Sinclair when he was in Sinclair’s shop in Stromness. He sold me my first fly rod and reel and set me up with lines and I started going to the OTFA competitions then and that was the biggest learning curve! When they have the weigh-in at the end, you overhear folk speaking about what lines and flies they used. Apart from that I was pretty much self-taught – I watched videos and watched people and learnt myself.
Q. So what do the fishing competitions which take place in Orkney involve?
A. Each season there are 14 fishing competitions. These take place on different lochs throughout Orkney. At the end of the season the officials look at what your best 10 competitions were out of the 14 and add up your points to get an aggregate score.
There are between 40 and 50 competitors in the league but they don’t all necessarily fish in all the competitions. So in a single competition there are normally about 30 to 35 anglers.
There’s an 11 inch limit on the fish in the Loch of Harray – anything under that has to go back. The limit is 10 inches on every other loch. You measure from the tip of the fish’s nose to the inside of the ‘v’ on the tail.
If you win the competition you get 16 points. If you come second, 15, if you come third, 14 and so on until you come down to everybody who catches a single fish – they get 1 point – and if you blank, you get nothing. That’s how they work out points at the end of each competition.
Q. Can visitors take part in a competition?
A. Yes – absolutely. There’s a group of guys from south that come up here every year. They hire a boat from the Merkister Hotel and they always try to get involved in one or two competitions while they’re here. There are many places to hire boats on various lochs, and ghillies are available as well.
The Orkney teams also compete elsewhere. It’s important to try and get in the top 12 because if you finish in the top 6 then you get an automatic place in the Orkney team to compete in the Anglian Water Airflo International – an international competition held at Rutland Water in England. You also get a place in the Orkney v Shetland Inter-County competition which is held in Orkney one year and in Shetland the next.
If you come between 7th and 12th place you get a place in the second Orkney team and they fish the Scottish qualifier for the Anglian Water Airflo International competition, this takes place on the Lake of Menteith. If they qualify they end up at Rutland Water for the final as well as the top six. So getting points in the competition is important!
Q. Are competitions quite sociable events or are they more intense?
A. They can become more intense towards the end of the season! Some of the guys take the competitions very seriously but others, including myself, are more relaxed. Everybody wants to win though!
Q. What’s the best place you’ve ever got in a competition?
A. Last year, I finished fifth in the league thanks to two competition wins. The previous year I was sixth, also with two competition wins. The previous three years to that I’ve been in the second team.
Q. What has been your best and worst days out fishing?
A. My most memorable day of fishing did not happen in Orkney I’m afraid. I fished in the Scottish National Final in 2015 and finished 38th on the day but that was out of approximately 380 qualifiers. Obviously the 380 qualifiers came out of all the competition anglers in Scotland, so I was very pleased to come 38th! I would think that was probably my proudest day!
I’ve had many bad days, but one that comes to mind was when I was at a competition on Boardhouse loch a couple of years ago. Just as we were leaving the dock my expensive sunglasses fell off the peak of my cap and vanished into the water; that was them gone! I lost two fish that night – and I got broken twice on big fish. I was just destined for defeat and a blank. I was in a bad mood and I cast my line for the last time right at the end of the competition and I was winding my line back I caught a fish! It was just over 10 inches, just enough to save the blank and get me a point in the competition!
Q. Does the weather make a difference to fishing?
A. It can – you just have to know when and how to adapt to it. On Harray and other lochs, on a windy day you can get a nice rolling wave with daddy long-legs or olives rolling across the top of it. If you can get your flies in and imitate that, it can be very good on a windy day!
Most of the time I actually fish with four flies – though four is not advisable on a windy day. If it’s particularly windy I’ll sometimes go down to two flies to avoid the cast tangling like a bird’s nest.
Also on a flat calm day you can get a good midge hatch and fish rising freely! A lot of folk say the bright sunshine puts the fish off but you can go up to Hundaland Loch which can be particularly good on bright days when there’s blue skies and blazing sunshine. The amount of daylight can affect the fish, the direction of wind, the temperature, air pressure – everything. The one thing that folk say the fish don’t particularly like is a thunderstorm – low pressure puts them off. However the weather in Orkney can change in an instant.
Q. Do the longer nights help because you can take your boat out for longer?
A. Yes – and quite a few of our competitions in the summer months are evening competitions – which run from 6:30pm until 10:30pm. We have a competition on Boardhouse on a Saturday night as near to midsummer as we can get – which finishes at midnight!
Q. What would you say the best thing about fishing in Orkney is?
A. There are so many good things about the fishing in Orkney – the scenery is second to none. If you have a nice evening on the Loch of Harray and you’re surrounded by the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe – it’s lovely. One of my favourites is Boardhouse Loch though. Especially if you fish there on a nice summer’s evening. On a nice still night, there can be loads of flies hatching, the fish will be rising freely and you’ll maybe catch a few – just when you get the sun setting over the horizon, over the back of the Brough of Birsay – it’s pretty spectacular!
With thanks to Jim Adams of the Orkney Trout Fishing Association for the photos used to illustrate this article.
Orkney and Shetland enthusiast, family man, loves walks, likes animals, terrible at sports, dire taste in music, enjoys films and audiobooks, eats a little too much for his own good.