Pike fishing in Scotland
Simon Everett visits a dreamy destination, Loch Katrine in Callendar, for top-quality pike fishing.
As the car swung round a corner, the view of Loch Katrine opened up ahead of us. The security gate opened, as if by magic, using the marvels of modern technology and across the water, tied up against her wharf was the vintage steamer that runs tourists up the loch to see the magnificent sight that is one of the most prestigious pike waters in Great Britain.
It is also one of the most difficult to gain access to and here I was, sat in the passenger seat of the fishery lease holder’s car, with a full day ahead of me in the presence of the man who was responsible for re-opening the fishery after two years of arduous negotiations.
I had heard of Loch Katrine in the past, but in hushed, revered tones. I had longed to cast a line on the crystal-clear water but every avenue of enquiry had led to a dead end.
For 15 years or more I tried to obtain access, and then one day, I was talking about fishing to my friend Alex, who runs The Craggs Hotel in Callendar, and he just happened to drop into the conversation that I should contact Mike who has the fishing rights to the loch.
After all these years, the key to unlock the door was there all the time, he had just failed to mention it.
I rang Mike there and then, and he couldn’t have been more welcoming. A date was arranged for me to be his guest, and that day was today.
As we drove along the private access road, the only route to get to the boathouse, some 40-minute drive alongside the loch from the security gate at the visitor centre and quay, Mike told me of the trials and tribulations he had to overcome to be able to fish the loch. It had cost him dearly in time, travel and effort before a single penny had been spent on the boats.
The loch belongs to Scottish Water. As it is one of the main water supplies for Glasgow it is very strictly managed. For instance, bank fishing of any description is forbidden by the owners.
That makes policing the fishing much easier, because anyone fishing from the shore must be poaching.
With the historic steamer plying the loch, the fishing is limited to the northern end of the water for safety, away from its route.
Various operators have tried to run a commercial fishery on Katrine in the past, but because of the remote access and the fact the loch can cut up very rough, they all quickly fell by the wayside. One boat rental company lost all their boats in one sudden, summer storm.
So it was against all the advice of locals who had firsthand knowledge of trying to run a viable business, that Mike got a plan approved. The difference being the current fishery operators are not trying to make a living from the enterprise – far from it.
They are all passionate about fishing for wild fish, pike in particular. They were quite prepared to put the money up themselves just for the opportunity to fish such an iconic venue, so they did.
A proposal was drawn up and put in front of the management committee at Scottish Water, addressing every one of the owners’ concerns, even down to the propane powered outboards, rather than electric ones, so as to be totally pollution free – one of the major stipulations from Scottish Water.
Electric fishing outboards, from past experience, were not considered suitable for operating on the open waters. Several times in the past boats had to be rescued due to the electric outboards not being man enough to propel the boats against the strong winds the loch seems to generate.
We pulled into the car park beside the boathouse and I could see the bottom of the loch, even through the slightly peat-stained water, some 10 feet down. The clarity was incredible.
With the gear loaded, Mike motored us up the loch and we began to fish against the backdrop of magnificent mountains with a neatly kept, whitewashed house called Glengyle at the foot of the hill, the house built by the McGregors and where Rob Roy was born.
Fishing venues don’t get much better than this.
Mike put me over the old river bed – he has mapped this water in great detail and knows the favoured features and lies. I tried a number of popular flies and covered the water thoroughly at various depths, but it was obvious after a couple of hours, in a very stiff breeze, that the fly was not stimulating the fish.
I switched to the spinning rod to fish even deeper, and within the first few casts we got a hit.
I was winding slowly, the homemade hardwood lure wriggled from side to side enticingly, making the modern carbon blank vibrate to every change in stability.
Suddenly everything went tight and I felt the thump as a pike hit the lure. Boy do these pike fight!
I have not had a pike tear off on a 40-yard searing run like that before. It wasn’t a big fish either, pulling the scales down to 12lb. Mike says the best fighters are those from this size to about the 20lb mark.
The bigger fish are less athletic and use their shoulders in a more dogged, heavyweight struggle. Regardless, I was happy, I had caught a fish from this hallowed water that I had dreamed about fishing for so many years. And that fish will live in my memory for a long time.
However, this was just the start.
We now had a gauge on where the fish were to be found. They weren’t in the shallows, they were lying in water around 20 feet deep, and so this was where we concentrated our efforts. Mike set us on a drift across a rocky point with deep water either side of it.
He fished his usually successful patterns, but they weren’t waking the pike up. After my second fish, of similar stamp to the first, I offered him one of the successful plugs. It is a homemade design by Paul Fennell and he only makes them in small batches as a hobby.
Mike was intrigued by the fantastic action these lures have at very slow retrieve speeds. Being made of hardwood they are fairly heavy for their size and cast really well.
His first cast landed close to a steep cliff with a rowan growing just above the waterline. Within seconds a pike smashed into the lure and had Mike’s rod bent into a full hoop. This was a bigger fish that was taking long runs and putting up a great fight. I eased the net under her and lifted her into the boat – a lovely looking pike that pulled the scales down to 18lb.
Mike has caught literally hundreds of big pike and much bigger ones from this water, but the sheer pleasure these fish give never diminishes, as evidenced by the look of delight on his face.
We went on to catch more sizeable fish, and Mike had three large ones of 18lb, 21lb and 23lb.
I had to make do with smaller specimens – my best weighing 15lb.
I was on cloud nine, though. The quality of Katrine’s pike fishing cannot be measured simply in terms of length or weight. It is the superb condition of the fish, the magnificence of the surroundings and the sporting qualities these pike display.
It is not unheard of for a pike to make 80-yard runs into open water, which is unusual in itself.
When you put all those facets together, the result is something very special indeed and that is why the fishery group got together to revive the fishing on the loch.
The entire day left me with an experience to treasure and it is all down to the hard work that Mike and his fellow fishery members have put in. There were two years of unstinting negotiation and jumping through corporate hoops to be allowed to run the boats and manage the fishing. They had to find ways of deterring poachers, many of whom were big names in the pike fishing world and willing to risk public humiliation and the stigma of prosecution, to say nothing of the confiscation of their gear. This is something Mike feels very strongly about and the fact that they were, without exception, fishing against the regulations laid down by the loch owners, gave strength to his case.
It took a year of perseverance and education, but largely these uninvited visits are a thing of the past and the local police are prepared to back up calls for prosecution. The effort has been rewarded and generally the poaching problem has gone away.
For those prepared to go through the legitimate route, it is possible to fish the loch, but it has to be arranged to fit in with the eight season ticket holders who have first option on the seats in the boats. The fact the fishing pressure is kept very light with a maximum, at the moment, of only four anglers on the water at any one time, due to their being only two boats available, has ensured the quality of the fishing is maintained as being some of the best in Europe.
Mike will take guided days as does one of the other regulars, but it is possible to book a boat for the day. And for the future, the feasibility of adding to the fleet is being explored.
For me, the remoteness and exclusivity are part of the attraction, that and the fact the loch holds a good head of big pike in prime condition, which points to the health of the water. I hope to be invited back, and Mike did mention top-water pike action in the spring, which on the fly rod would be magnificent sport, and worthy of the price.And the wild brown trout fishing is also some of the very best.
That is a story for another day.