John Bailey: Another yard of silver (or, the sea trout sagas!)

John Bailey fishing the pristine waters of North Uist Picture: John Bailey

John Bailey fishing the pristine waters of North Uist Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

Over 40 years ago, for the Eastern Daily Press, I wrote a euphoric piece entitled A Yard Of Silver, about sea trout off the north Norfolk coast.

North Uist shots from the air. An island more of water than land Picture: John Bailey

North Uist shots from the air. An island more of water than land Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

In those student days I had the time to chase the tides and, living in Blakeney, geography was on my side. We didn’t know much about conservation in those days and the scintillating fish I did catch ended up in my mother’s kitchen. And there were plenty of them, glorious creatures, some of them over 10lb in weight. One ran me most of the way from Wiveton Bridge to where the River Glaven meets the sea at Cley and broke me at the sluice gates.

I wrote in my pretentious way that my heart melted like a snowflake in the sea. Pretentious, oui, but I still feel the pain. Today, I have given up on the sea trout game, but Charles Rangely Wilson had a belter 10 years back and a few brave souls like Robbie Northman are still at it. In part, Norfolk sea trout are a young man’s target and not everyone likes to be up and out in the autumn pre-dawn darkness waiting for the tide to flow. Largely, though, you won’t find me at it because there are not many sea trout left I fear. Some, I guess, but I doubt if the game is worth the candle, whatever that quaint phrase means. You get the picture.

Old Izaak Walton wasn’t wrong when he wrote about the brotherhood of the angle, when he counted friendship as one of the foundations of fishing. Beautiful waters and big, brawny fish are grand but looking back, it’s fishing friendships that loom even longer in the memory. So it was with much anticipation that I flew to North Uist last Friday to meet up again with the greatest of pals from the past. Christopher has fished here in Norfolk for pike at Selbrigg pond and bream at Gunton lake, but it was the wilds that forged our relationship. We shared a passion for the predatorial ferox trout of the Scottish glacial lakes and we literally spent years holed up in bothies on the shores of deserted lochs or caught out on the water in storms that threatened to drown us. We found ourselves out in Mongolia after an equally rare fish called the taimen. This is an Asian landlocked salmon of immense proportions and an eater of grayling, marmots and small children. Christopher spent more time tracking bears than catching fish with me, but we shared a riotous night of roast yak and Chingis vodka drunk under a star-spangled sky.

It was work that took me up to Christopher’s home in the Outer Hebrides, a recce for Mortimer and Whitehouse for those wanting to know, but my rod was packed in the hold. And I had a fancy we’d get out on the water in amongst my duties. I smelled sea trout in the salty air as soon as I landed. If you look at a map, you’ll see that the Uists are more water than land. The river systems are short and you fish the sea pools in the estuaries as the tides bring the fish in. Then you trek no more than half a mile to the freshwater lochs into which the fabulous fresh trout have run. There they wait to spawn in the burns that enter everywhere, but whilst they wait, they are hugely catchable and they are there in huge numbers and sizes. This is just glorious stuff, sea trout fishing to stir even my jaded soul.

Okay, I didn’t actually catch a sea trout myself – remember, I was there to work and time was tight – but I do have a story to tell. Christopher and I got up to a major freshwater loch and he rowed me along the north shore towards one of the spawning burns. I’m not an elegant caster, being self taught, but I can get a line out accurately enough to drop the fly most times six inches from the rocky bank where the fish lie. The morning passed happily. Fleeting sunshine, breathtaking scenery and a chance to catch up on almost a decade of missed fishing opportunities together. I had a couple of plucks and a heart-stopping follow from a fish that ghosted from nowhere and then Christopher suggested we should beach and follow the fish up the stream. Hardly had we gone 50 yards, stealthy as herons, when my line scorched tight, the rod buckled and the reel didn’t just scream. It howled. I had forgotten the obscenely brutal power of a big sea trout fresh from the salt and I was in trouble from the start. In truth the fish ran me ragged and when it got me past the backing I had to stumble after it through the heather. I couldn’t run as fast as it could swim and after 50 yards, with a soaring leap, the fish broke me. Yes, my heart melted like a snow flake in the sea.

Christopher manages the Hebridean Smokehouse on the island, famous for its smoked salmon. The sublime taste is put down to the raw material, the salmon itself. Christopher and his team farm the fish in a manner that is friendly to both the environment and the salmon alike. Stock density in the cages is uniquely low and those cages are anchored over the ferocious currents and tidal rips that sweep the waste away rather than letting it settle and fester. That is how sea lice proliferate and it is these swarming parasites that attack and destroy sea trout around fish farms that dirty the seas and put profit above all else. It’s true that the end product is more expensive than the bargain basement slop smoked salmon you can buy, but surely smoked salmon should be a delicacy, a treat, and the sparkling ecology of North Uist is worth paying a premium to preserve.

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I’m hoping the message is clear. There’s a load of claptrap talked about saving the planet but it is undeniable that producing as much food as possible at the lowest cost possible leads to shortcuts that almost always end up doing damage. We anglers are at the sharp end of that damage when it is done to our rivers. In East Anglia we have seen our water courses polluted, abstracted and generally abused during the 40 years since I lost that giant sea trout of mine at Cley sluice gates. North Uist. The Hebridean Smokehouse. Christopher. My lost silver beauty. There are better ways of managing our planet if we take better care and are prepared to pay the cost.