Monday, 7 June 2010

Islay: Two Weeks of Angling and Dramming

What a fortnight. I'm just back from my longest visit to the Hebridean Isle of Islay. Over two weeks in Angling and Dramming heaven, and already I'm looking forward to returning to this amazing island. My journey started on Thursday 20th May. I hosted a Diageo Flavour Map tasting on the way in Kendal, and at about 10.30pm, I sped off in the van and had a couple of hours kip in the Wine Shop van down a quiet lane near to the small port of Kennacraig. In the morning, Calmac pointed the Hebridean Isles towards Islay, and we were off......

My first evening was spent at The Port Charlotte with Mark and Helga Unsworth and John Mac Lellan of Kilchoman Distillery. Mark and Helga kindly put me up for the night and on Saturday morning, I made the last of my whisky deliveries and started to think about the fishing competition that was to start at 1pm on Islay's largest freshwater loch, Gorm.

The weather was not great for fishing, very bright and very hot. On the plus side, there was a good breeze which kept the midges away and a good ripple on the water. The competition started at dead on 1pm. I knew many of the boys were finding it tough but I managed to find a rare weed bed and landed 4 nice wild brownies from it in the first hour or so. At least half of the 25 anglers blanked on the day so I was quite pleased with my result and I finished somewhere around 5th I think, in what was a really tough competition. The winner was Kevin Morrison with 14 fish...well done Kevin!

After the competition, I made my way to Bunnahabhain Distillery where, for the next two weeks, along with many guests, Number 2, Shore Road, would be my home. I unloaded the van, which was a big job, given the amount of fishing gear and luggage there was in it. to top it all, Leonie had packed just shy of 100 bottles of wine in preparation for our party (it was my 40th) and it all would need to be removed from the van for fear of heat damage. I felt like drinking most of it but made do with a dram and beer or two with Adrian and Jane who arrived on the late ferry.

The weather changed from one day to the next but was consistently dry and bright. What did change was the wind direction and speed. At the beginning of the week, I could not fail on a team of three flies, two red tailed muddler variants on droppers and an LTD on the point. Interestingly, the muddlers took the most fish but the LTD took the bigger ones.

These three brownies all came to the red tailed muddler but later in the week, as the wind increased, I was getting more results with a muddler on the dropper followed by a green tailed Katie Maclaren and a Black Pennel on the point. I was fishing 3 or 4 hour sessions and managing 10 to 15 fish each time, which I was really pleased with. I think I got to about 100 fish for the week.

On a couple of evenings, I was lucky enough to accompany David Morris who is undoubtedly one of Islay's top fly fisherman. We tried different patterns in preparation for the next competition which would be held at Finlaggan. On one evening, we fished around the whole of Loch Finlaggan, trying to find the fish and it was interesting that, in some places, David would have a fish on every cast and me nothing, and sometimes, I would be catching all the time and him nothing...with similar flies. I put this down to localised hatches that were often really tight to the bank, indeed my best fish of just over a pound was caught in the fading light not more than 6 feet from the bank in less that a foot of water, and by the way it fought, I was convinced that it would be 3lb or more!

The competition was again tough. I managed 6 fish, which was my worst catch at Finlaggan all week, but that's just how it goes sometimes. The fishing had been spectacular and I loved every minute of it. I'm looking forward to returning in September to have another stab....anyone wishing to join me for a few days should contact me now!

Of all the places that I am lucky enough to fish, Islay is by far the best. It is proper, wild, remote, challenging fishing in real wild country. I'm not talking about a few wild brownies that we catch up Dovedale whilst a few hundred walkers look on and half a dozen dogs and kids jump in our swims every five minutes, and where we all wear our posh fishing tackle like the tackle tarts that we are...I mean wild in terms of the environment.

Fishing a remote place like Islay is almost a different sport, it doesn't just test the angler it terms of tricking the fish, it requires much mental and physical stamina, it requires him to walk for miles and to cover vast areas of fish free areas before he finds a few fish. The lads I've fished with on Islay live and breath fishing, they've done it since age five. They don't have to make a sudden decision at the age of 30 as to whether take up golf or fly fishing, it doesn't go on the CV, it isn't an aspirational sport.

I was talking to an Islay angler about the recent decision of one of our local fishing clubs about it's decision to revoke a fellow members licence as it's committee had unanimously voted him out for allegedly targeting out of season grayling. "Why? did he kill one" was the shocked response from the angler and for me, he hit the nail on the head.

It's not as of he'd been filmed fishing for Grayling, a day after the Grayling season ended and broadcast on BBC's Countryfile for the whole nation to see, he'd simply accidentally caught grayling out of season as most trout fishermen, unavoidably do....and when they do, they certainly wouldn't take them if they were out of season.

The truth is that the angler in question is a square peg in a round whole. He hasn't the Queen's English like the trout angler ought to. He doesn't wash his car on a Sunday morning. He doesn't have 2.5 kids nor does he impress on any other that they might consider doing the same.This is the sort of committee generated nonsense that makes my Islay fishing all the more politics, no snobs, noone judging me, just a good, challenging day's fishing at one with the environment in the company of decent men, Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier, Sea Eagle and wild Brown Trout. And long may the attitudes that I long feared may exist within the English fly fishing fraternity stay well south of the border.

It was suggested that the angler in question was solely out to catch fish. He was indeed out to catch fish, as he always is, and he does it very well, which is porbably the real reason that he has been ousted. He is one of the best anglers I know.

Having said that though, I've seen a different side to him that, especially on a trip to Islay last year. He had never visited the Highlands of Scotland, never set foot on a boat, never set foot on a Hebridean island and he was blown away. The questions he asked about the place, the interest he showed in all that was around him was similar to those posed by a young lad, excited and eager to get amongst it all.

His respect for the fish he landed from the lochs was huge.Although the angler is encouraged to do otherwise, he returned most of the fish and inspected each one carefully, commenting on the difference between each one. He is one of those rare fishermen where "angling" refers to the sum of the parts of the whole experience, from his first plans for the day during the first fag and coffee of the day, to the should have's and would have's in the debrief at the end of the day. Islay in September youth?

During the week, I hosted three Queen of the Moorlands Rare Cask Whisky tastings in Bowmore and we were joined by many enthusiasts from all over the world. It was great to meet up with so many people who I'd met on Facebook and to share a dram with them. I'm looking forward to our tasting events at The Islay Festival of Malt and Music 2011 as I'm sure even more people will attend our events...I'm sure we will be holding more than the three...

I also got a chance to visit one of our casks at Bruichladdich. It was only 5 years old but the spirit was filled into a first fill sherry hogshead and already it is tasting will be fantastic at 10 or 15 years of this space!

On Sunday 30th May, I was joined by Leonie, the kids, and a few friends from home and from Islay, and we promptly turned Shore Road, Bunnahabhain in to a scene more in common with a village green in Surrey that a remote beauty spot in the Hebrides. After a few pints of real ale, we acquired the kid's cricket set and promptly started a match which proved to be great fun. The marquee we'd borrowed from Mark and Helga quickly changed it's name from "The Red Lion" to "The Pavilion".

John Mac Lellan was caught at silly mid off by a very serious Chad Lesley, he was out for a golden duck and goes into the record books as the first ever ex-Bunnahabhain Distillery Manager, to have done so during such an event at that venue.

Whisky finds during the week?? I didn't go for all the festival bottlings because, to be honest, I think some of the distillers are treating it as a huge commercial opportunity and I'm not sure I agree with the encouragement of enthusiasts to queue up through the small hours in order for them to purchase a bottle but I did get a Caol Islay Feis Ile 2010 bottlings, a Bunnahabhain Pedro Ximenez Feis Ile Bottling and a Kilchoman Festival Bottling.

I also picked up (and I would urge the enthusiast to do the same) an incredible offering that has recently been bottled by a group of enthusiasts under the name Port Sgioba, and 8 year old Port Charlotte from a sherry hogshead...incredible.

Adrian and Jane kindly presented me with the oddest bottle of the week, for my birthday, which was a bottle that proudly boasts the name of "Shyte Whisky". The description on the bottle simply states "An unuasual blended Scotch Whisky of no great distinction". Class.

Last mention must go to the Aberdeenshire farmer who proudly gave folk a dram from a shady hipflask that he had about himself at one of the distillery open days. He showed us a copy of the label and I noticed that it had the words "Farm Matured" on it...and "Matured in a Harveys Bristol Cream Cask".

"What is it?" I enquired, "Totally illegal" he replied. "Distilled in an ex-central heating system", he was please to say.......brilliant. What did it taste like.....chicken.

Here's a video by Mark Unsworth of Islay Studios showing some of the highlights of Feis Ile 2010. It's a good job it's not in 3D given the size of my beer belly.




  1. AnonymousJune 07, 2010

    Loved reading this. Sounds like a fisherman's paradise. Nice sentiments about injustice to great angler, too.

  2. Cheers, thanks for the comment about the injustice!


  3. AnonymousJune 08, 2010

    eyup Dave
    great blog ,Islay really does sound like fishing heaven. Absolutely spot on with your comments about a certain fishing friend of ours ,It seems that there is a lot of envy re his fish catching abilities , Catch up with you soon.

  4. Dave, that is a great read sounds like you had a magnificent time. Agree entirely with your sentiments on the injustice.

  5. Cheers Brian and Dave,

    Islay was magical...planning a 4 day trip in September if I can interest either of you.

    Free the Werrington One!