Fishing the Wet in the Wild

Rainbow at Factors Island

I am not a big follower of fashion, my experience of trout is that they don’t care too much for fashion either happily wearing the same speckled birthday suit for generations.

Anglers do follow fashion driven, I guess, by the massive growth in trout fisheries, the introduction of rainbow trout and ease of international travel. Tackle, flies and methods have evolved more in the last 3/4 decades than in the previous history of angling although the general principle of a stick, line, hook and a bit of bait prevails. The question is do these methods, flies and tackle catch any more fish than traditional methods?

I am happy to concede that the modern ‘stuff’ has resulted in some prodigious results with hatchery bred fish. That said looking at my old fishing magazines and angling books I see pictures of exceptional catches of wild brown trout taken using good old fashioned methods which seem to have been consigned to history. I believe what was good 50 or a 100 years ago is as good today, confirmed by the enthusiasm of the conservatively dressed troot for traditional wet flies.

Fishing the traditional wet fly for wild brown trout feels right. Until an old rugby injury to my right wrist made using a cane rod more pain than pleasure I used my old 10 foot Edgar Seally split cane rod. My concession to fashion was to buy a retro Bruce and Walker 10 foot Hexagraph when they came out about 30 odd years ago. Some years later at a diner in the Seafield Arms Hotel in Grantown on Spey I told Ken Walker I had a ‘Hex’, he described them as ‘s**t rods’. Hey ho, I still use it. My ‘Hex’ looks like a cane rod, is light, can hammer out a long line and handles a 10lb salmon just fine. I use it for traditional wet fly fishing. With my old Marquis reel (circa 1973) and either a floating or intermediate line I am ready for the off. I confess, I do use modern flt lines.

So what about tactics and flies?

You might guess I like to keep things simple. I recommend just 20 or so flies classed either as Naturals or Attractors. I have also provided some tips on methods and details you should take into account when setting out to fish the traditional wet fly on rivers and lochs.

The Naturals:                                                                                         

The naturals represent the key natural species of ephemeroptera, chironomids, caddis and terrestrails in variations of olive, brown and black:

First Choice:

Black Pennell, Bibio, March Brown, Greenwells Glory, Greenwell Spider, Kate McLaren, Light, Medium and dark Olive.

Second Choice:

Black Spider, Blae and Black, Blue Dun, Grouse and Claret, Hoppers, Invicta, Iron Blue Dun, Wickhams Fancy

The Attractors:

Much simpler, Alexandra, Dunkeld, Peter Ross and Silver and Bloody Butcher


Position is everything when it comes to where to fish each pattern on a 3 fly cast.

The naturals are always fished on the bob, sometimes on the second dropper if the Peter Ross is having an off day. As for the attractors the Peter Ross, if used, is always fished on the second dropper while the others are fished on the tail. For some reason the Peter Ross only works on the second dropper (for me). I have tried to vary it and the whole combo fails when the Peter Ross is out of position.


I carry 14s, 12s, 10s and 8s the smaller sizes are usually the naturals while the attractors are always 10s and 8s. One tip for highland lochs is to use the bigger sizes. One of the most successful flies I had was a size 8 Greenwells Glory that took fish until it was all but stripped to a bare hook.

A Steamy Border sGem

Method: On a river

I fish the fly speculatively downstream, cast and step one cast straight across the flow, one at 45 degrees. Look for lies off course; eddies, runs, submerged features, weed beds and work them, cover any rising fish. It is worth remembering that on a river trout take up lies and are very territorial with the bigger fish defending their favoured spot for it’s safety and the food supply the current brings. I always work the fly gently ‘nodding the rod tip’ while doing a figure of eight retrieve. Through practise you learn when to vary the retrieve or even give some line or when to make mends up or drown stream to vary the speed and depth the fly is working. I tend to fish a medium length line 15 to 20 yards preferring to wade closer to the fish.

Method: On a loch (much of the following applies equally to rivers) the first thing I do is to ‘read’ the land. The terLoch an Eileinrain indicates what you can expect to find within the water. A little bit of geology helps to pick out limestone, chalk or igneous rock types which dictates ph in the water. Solid rock, rocky, pebble, sandy shores or muddy shores indicate what fly life will be present. For example muddy sandy shores might indicate chironomids (buzzers) and in alkaline water Mayflies. Lime stone or chalk will mean that shrimp and snails will be present. Stony shores are favoured by many prolific species of caddis. The incline of the terrain indicates the depth of the water off shore and to some extent how safe it is to wade. Watch out on highland lochs, rubble has tumbled into lochs over millennia often creating a shallow unstable shelf with a sudden sharp drop off into deep water.

Avie Lochan

Vegetation is another indicator for the type of fly life. Trees offer a range of windblown terrestrials including such morsels as caterpillars (for example in June look for oak trees, they are often "assaulted" by an abundance of caterpillars that tumble to the water in a breeze) and bugs.

Heather shores will have moths while grassy shores will offer hoppers and daddies at various time of year. Bushy shores with broom, gorse, hawthorn will, when flowering, provide a massive range of flies especially Hawthorns.

Vegetation, both terrestrial and aquatic, is also a good indicator of the ph of the water. Heather and mixed conifer and deciduous trees indicate more acidic water. Wild meadows will be generally neutral to alkaline while farm land may be the same but the addition of fertiliser or lime used by farmers leeching into the water can have a significant effect on the "fertility" of the water which works right though the food chain.

Weed beds, lily pads and rushes provide microhabitats for food species and refuge for fry. Trout will always loiter near weeds for food and for their own safety, it’s not just anglers who want to eat them.

Inflow streams are always worth exploring especially if there is bit of a spate, food will be washed into the loch. In warm weather the cooler, better oxygenated stream water is also attractive to the trout, never ignore an inflow no matters how small.

Look for features: fallen trees, fencing in the water, large rocks, gravel banks, sand banks, bays and inlets. Trout like to cruise around features where the extra nooks and crannies provide shelter and food.

I assess the wind, it is easier to cast with the wind behind you but it is only beneficial if there is terrestrial fly life being blown onto the water. Make life a bit more difficult for yourself, work a bank where the wind is coming at an angle across your shoulder or use promontories to cast across the wind into the shore. Fish will gather where the food is ie the down wind shore, look for wind drifts on the water, lines of froth, fish will search them for food.

Finally water temperature must be taken into account, it indicates the depth at which the fish will be feeding. In warmer water the fish will be near the surface and in the shallows, in hot weather the fish will go deep where the water is cooler and the water gives protection from bright sunshine. In cold weather fish will be down deep, off course since shallow water can heat up quite quickly in sunshine fish may move inshore to feed at midday.

I get bored fishing slow and deep so I am always on the hunt for areas where fish might be approached more actively.

There is a lot to take in even before you make your first cast but with experience just a few minutes scanning the terrain, weather, geology and ecology will indicate where and how you should start to fish.

Unless otherwise indicated by feeding fish and natural flies I will put a Greenwell on the bob, Peter Ross on the dropper and a Bloody Butcher on the tail and take it from there ringing the changes as I move about and observe how the day develops.

Many anglers do their fishing on man made reservoirs and fisheries where they tend to find a spot and hammer it. While trout on a loch are less territorial than in a river they do have a patrol area which means that if you stay in one spot fish may come to you. This is not advised on a natural loch, it is best to fish through locations, cast and step, look for rising fish and cover them as soon as possible. The stock levels in wild waters are not like those on a fishery, but fish do congregate where the feeding is best. Hunting will always improve your chances and it is a lot more interesting.

Feeding fish will often cruise in a circular pattern, sometimes in a straight line. The shape of the rise, watch for the "bow wave"can indicate the direction in which the fish is moving, as a rule I cast 3 / 4 feet past the rise in the direction I think the fish has gone. I tend to wade out about thigh deep, making one cast straight out, one at 45 degrees to the bank and one in toward the bank. In the twilight pay attention to the shallows, you may be surprised how close in trout will come in shore of an evening.

I love wild fishing, you never know what a day will offer. Some days the fish will be suicidal, sometimes dour. Some lochs are full of 6 to 8 ounce fish some have fewer fish but bigger but one thing is for sure, you cannot predict what will hit, three tiddlers at once or one prize specimen. I still fret about the occasions my 10 ft cane rod was snapped down into the water once on Loch Rannoch and an other time on Coldingham loch. My leader broke instantly. What size were those fish? I will never know, I dream.

To get the best out of wild brown trouting you need to consider all about the above and then hope for just a wee bit of help from Lady Luck. Maybe, when your rod is all but jerked out of your hand the line will hold and you will net that fish you dreamed of taking. Hard earned and well worth the effort.

Hey buzzers are great, hoppers too but walking with a rod and line, a 3 fly cast and a single box of traditional flies in our stunning countryside is magical. Try it, please.