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In awe of Loch Awe

You may have seen articles in the past by Shooting Times covering young Shots or school open days, which contain the plea to get the next generation into country sports. ?We must identify the shooters and fishers of tomorrow,? the organisers cry. ?As a sport, we are an ageing population.? This is all very true and worthy. At many shoots across the land, the ?young bloods? are already in their mid-40s. While we really must attract as many children into clay grounds, angling clubs and riding schools, however, perhaps we are missing the point?

Apologies if this makes me sound like a political spin doctor, but maybe we should look at this from another angle. One of the great attractions of shooting and fishing is that it can be done to a ripe old age. Indeed, given the physical and mental exercise they provide (not forgetting those other elixirs, such as healthy food, friendship and laughter), there is every reason to believe regular country sports will put a few more miles on the clock.

Alister McKellar is one such 75-year-old, who retains the same vigour for fishing he did when he was a lad, when he spent almost all of his free time thrashing the lochs and burns near his home. On a steely grey evening in late August, he took ST photographer Paul Quagliana and me on a tour of the top of Loch Awe, in Argyll, where he was brought up. Alister has been many things in his life, including a top-grade lock forward and a schoolmaster, but the past decade has been dedicated to fishing. In that time he has competed for Scotland with success on the world stage, proving it is never too late to excel.
We could not have been in better hands.

On such a still evening, our gillie decided we would be better to dangle the lines over the side and trawl along the banks of the loch, calling in on the islands that stud this ancient water. ?You?ve as much chance catching fish this way as you would casting,? he said, tying a blue zulu and butcher on both lines. ?We?ll also see a lot more.? We trundled past crannogs, the Pictish dwellings built by hand several thousand years ago. The communities that lived there survived on top of the water, crossing back to land on causeways known only to them. ?Given the effort of making one of these islands, they must have had a good reason for it,? Alister said. ?Whether it was bears, wolves or their neighbours, I don?t know, but apparently they could escape along these zig-zagging causeways. If their pursuers didn?t know the route to follow then they?d perish.?

Every year there is a tragic drowning on Loch Awe, usually due to over-confidence or lack of preparation. ?You must not be complacent and think, because it is a loch and not the sea, that accidents won?t happen,? our guide warned. ?You must wear life vests, as it can get choppy. As long as you steer the boat into the waves then you should be all right, but there?s always a few who stand up in the boat and proceed to get knocked overboard.? As a boy, Alister would catch jars full of salmon parr from the burn near where he was brought up and put them in the bath to show his parents. Back then there were many fine salmon that came up the burns, but no longer. He has not seen one on his patch for 14 years.

?I think it was a combination of factors that led to their demise,? he said. ?There was the acidic run-off from the mass plantation of conifers; the introduction of gill nets which caught many more than before, and then the effects of commercial farming. I think the salmon may have been able to have dealt with just one of these, but certainly not all of them
at the same time.?

On the hill above us was a monument to the Gaelic poet and humorist Duncan Ban MacIntyre (1724-1812). He was an illiterate gamekeeper from Glen Orchy who composed various songs and poems about deer, the hills and national politics, which he would recite in pubs and ceilidhs. Had the local minister not written them down for him, they would have been lost forever. ?There?s one story about him, which my wife likes,? said Alistair with a grin. ?He composed a song about his own wife being the most beautiful woman in Scotland. His friends were impressed, but eventually one of them said, ?That?s very nice, Duncan, but let?s be honest, now: she?s not all that bonny!? At which point Duncan replied, ?You may not think so, but then you don?t see her with my eyes?.?

We were not the only fishers on the loch that afternoon. Cormorants, goosanders and a sedge of herons were making their presence felt on the water. Later, we heard the distinctive mew of an osprey. ?We used to have many more mink than we do now, as the number of otters has grown and pushed them out,? said Alister. ?Mink are wonderfully efficient predators, though, and I?m sure they still account for many of the goslings along the banks. I was once teaching a young lad who had caught this trout and he put it on a stone while he came to fetch me. When we came back, there was the wet outline of a fish on the stone, but no trout. I told him to do the same if he caught another and watch from a distance. Sure enough, a wee mink shot up from the cracks in the rocks and swiped it. I only just managed to stop the lad going in after it with his hand!?

There is no doubt that good fishermen catch good fish, so it was always likely that Paul Quagliana would fare better than me. On this occasion I had reason to be optimistic, however; after all, we had the same tackle and neither of us was doing anything more than holding the rod ? yet it was Paul who was quickly in the action, passing across his camera as his reel buzzed into life. Soon he was guiding the reluctant passenger into Alister?s outstretched net. At ¾lb, it was fit for the priest. By the end of the evening, we had three fresh and plump brownies for the pan.

Specialist anglers travel to Loch Awe for its population of ferox trout, which stalk at depths of up to 200ft. ?Nobody is quite sure what makes a normal brown trout, which eats mostly insects and plankton, turn carnivorous and start eating other fish. Some scientists reckon they are another species, yet they look just like the wee brown trout, only much bigger!? said Alister. ?The biggest trout I?ve ever caught on the loch was 4½lb, which is a big trout, but some of these can weigh up to 30lb and be 20 years old. The Ferox anglers never kill them, mind, just put them back to see how big they will grow.? Huge pike have also been pulled out of the reedy shallows where they hunt for parr, fry and Arctic charr.

The current UK rod-caught record stands at 31lb 12oz (14.4kg) on Loch Awe, while the oldest recorded ferox was 23 years of age. These monsters have a reputation as cannibals, but they have a marked preference for Arctic charr. Ferox trout are present in most, if not all, large Scottish lochs. It was thought to be a separate species from the brown trout, Salmo trutta, but scientists have proved it shares the exact DNA. Biologists are now searching for the trigger that causes it to switch from a normal diet of underwater beetles, snails, and insects, to eating its own kind and the shoals of Arctic charr that inhabit the depths of many lochs.

The day was organised through the hotel at Ardanaiseig, a beautiful baronial house designed ? by the Scottish architect William Burns, in 1834. The retreat boasts award-winning cuisine, comfortable rooms ? including a charming converted boathouse on the banks of Loch Awe all within striking distance of many Argyll sporting estates. The hotel can also organise stalking with prior warning. If, like ourselves, you are fortunate to catch a few of the local brownies, then the chef will cook them for you. There are few better starts to the day than grilled trout with scrambled egg.

For more details about fishing on Loch Awe with Alister, or staying at the Ardanaiseig
Hotel, tel (01866) 833333 or visit