Fishing in the Hills – Tackle & Tactics for Wild Brown Trout

As an alternative to your usual stocked fishery why not get away from it all?
Here Ceri Thomas talks us through the best fly fishing tackle and techniques for wild brown trout from natural lakes.

Llyn Hir & Egnant - typical upland natural lakes.

Llyn Hir & Llyn Egnant in Mid Wales – typical upland natural lakes.

The highland areas of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the North of England are full of natural lakes and upland reservoirs that offer fantastic sport in beautiful, isolated surroundings. Many are available to fish for a very small fee, and are well worth the leg work needed to reach them, if breathtaking scenery and getting away from the crowds are your thing.

Don’t expect big fish, but do expect beautiful wild fish in surroundings that match the awe inspiring views.

A typical high lake brownie - from the Teifi pools.

A typical high lake brownie – from the Teifi pools, Mid Wales.

Tackling them however is a completely different story to your conventional stocked lowland fisheries.

Why? Brown trout behave in a totally different way to stocked rainbows, so understanding this is the key to catching them.

In a lake brown trout will occupy a small territory, and will usually stick too it. They do not cruise around the lake in shoals like the pelagic rainbow trout. Brownies typically lurk just above the bottom and not far out from the bank, most often on the drop off into deeper water or near structure such as a weed-beds, or breaks in the shoreline. Large rocks, inlets, corners of bays will all potentially hold fish. There, they lay in ambush; when food comes into their cone of vision they move vertically to intercept, making a lightning quick ‘snatch and grab’ assault to the surface.

So, the crux of it is unlike rainbows they will not come to you…. You must go and look for the fish.

Walk and Cast

You must cover a lot of water when fishing upland lakes – it’s a numbers game – the more fish see your fly, the more you catch. No brainer. But it needs to be done right.

I like to pick a bank with the wind blowing over my left shoulder simply for ease of casting. Stealth is important – approach the bank with care; quietly and keeping a low profile. Don’t wade out right away, stay on the bank and cast out just a few yards of fly line to begin with.
It’s amazing how many fish I have caught like this, without the need to get your boots wet!

Should wading be necessary keep a low profile when entering the water, and try not to dislodge rocks or crunch the bottom substrate loudly with your wading boots.

Walk and cast fishing on a mountain lake.

Walk and cast fishing on a mountain lake.

Once your initial short line casts are made, work out a bit more fly line and fan cast the area – make a cast straight out, at 45 degrees and then tight ALONG the bank. When your cast hits the water let the flies settle for 10 seconds or so – expecting a hit on the drop. Then start your retrieve. I like a jerky figure of eight interspersed by short pulls. Always make sure you lift and hang the flies for a few seconds right at the end – again expect a take at this point in the retrieve. Side step 2 meter’s downwind and repeat the process.

Never make more than 3/4 casts in one spot unless you see a persistently rising fish – Most of the time if there is a receptive fish that has seen your flies it will attack, as long as it isn’t spooked. So move on rapidly if nothing happens. By moving down a bank you can cover a lot of water very quickly. In this way I often fish around the circumference of an entire lake in a session, and so maximise my chances.

I seldom cast more than around 15 yards – there is simply no need – these fish are where the food is, and that is usually in the margins. Struggling to cast further with back-cast restricting steep and rocky banks behind you will only hinder your casting and presentation. Good turnover is vital – it is far better to achieve perfect turnover every cast than struggle for an extra few yards.

The Flies

The old adage ”small and black” does hold true. Classic wet flies such as Black pennell, Zulu, Bibio, Connemara black, Black & peacock spider, Kate Mclaren, Red tag and so on all work well, I tend to use them in size 12 and 14. More modern Black cormorants, crunchers and diawl bachs in the same sizes also work well.

A victim of a 'red tag' wet fly.

A victim of a ‘red tag’ wet fly.

A little known fact is ”big and black” can also work a treat – something like a black tadpole or woolly bugger on a size 10 hook, with a total length of about 1.5 inches. For some reason a fly like this can trigger very aggressive takes; perhaps the fish take them for leeches which can be found in highland waters. Who knows, but they certainly trigger a reaction especially on rough overcast days and in the evenings.

A black woolley bugger fished on the point can be deadly.

A black woolly bugger fished on the point can be deadly.

I like to fish a team of flies to cover my bases – using traditional wet flies on the droppers, and a larger black lure on the point. The theory is the big fly draws fish up from deep or entices a follow, and then the fish goes on to take the dropper if it finds the point fly too much of a mouthful.

Dry flies

Don’t forget dries. More than 50% of upland trout’s diet comes from terrestrial insects during the season.  If you are lucky enough to come across a fall of ants, bibio heather flies, coch-y-bonddu beetle, daddy long legs or sedges then they will be the first line of attack.  You cannot go wrong with a team of black hoppers, bibio hoppers, black bob’s bits, black CDC shipmans and the like. Remember dries can be very effective at any time, even when just a few fish are moving. Wild fish are always looking up for a meal!

Dry flies can be very productive in the right conditions.

Dry flies can be very productive in the right conditions.

Target areas with wind behind you, and cast to the ripple edge where terrestrials tend to blow onto the water. Also look for points with little slack areas out of the wind – food will be blown into these wind traps and the fish will be not far behind. Cover the water with your team of dries – cast, let them sit there for just a minute, then step down the bank and repeat. Takes tend to be pretty instant, so no need to linger in one area if nothing happens.

The tackle:

A mid-tip action fly rod of between 9 to 10 foot in a 6 weight is the ideal weapon – a 6 weight still has the punch to cast into the teeth of the wind if you need it, and the power to turnover a team of flies in a stiff breeze. A 7 or 5 weight can of course be used, but a 7 is overkill for small fish and impedes delicate presentation, and a 5 can be really limiting in the often strong winds. I like to use the Airflo Streamtec 10′ #5/6, it’s the perfect rod for this sort of fishing, with just the right forgiving action.

Fly line: Only a floater is required! The Airflo range of floaters such as the Xceed and Elite are ideal. They have a low stretch core so help connect with the lightening fast takes you will encounter from wild lake trout.

Leader material: These fish are not overly leader shy. I use 6lb G3 fluorocarbon to aid good turnover, and for keeping droppers tangle free in the wind. As a leader butt to further aid turnover I use a 5 foot intermediate Airflo polyleader, to make a total leader length of 18 – 20 foot.

Places to fish

Practically anywhere in Scotland – the highlands and Islands especially are full of loch’s and Lochans holding abundant wild trout. Plenty of useful ”Where to fish” info can be found online, including the excellent where to fish in Scotland.

In Wales Snowdonia and the expanse of the Cambrian mountains in Mid-Wales are spotted with numerous Llyn’s (Welsh for lake). Many of these can be booked with the Wye and Usk foundation.

In England the Lake district, Pennines, Yorkshire dales and Peak district are all great areas for upland fishing, with plenty of tarns and corrie lakes to be found in the high fells.

Upland lakes are truly magical places to fish.

Upland lakes are truly magical places to fish.

This entry was posted in Fishing Holidays, Fly Fishing by Ceri Thomas. Bookmark the permalink.
Ceri Thomas

About Ceri Thomas

Ceri Thomas is the online marketing manager at Airflo and Fishtec. An accomplished fly-fisher and predator angler with over two decades of experience, he can be found casting lines across Wales and beyond. Ceri also lends his expertise to several publications including Fly Fishing & Fly Tying magazine, Fulling Mill blog, Today’s Flyfisher, Eat Sleep Fish and more. A member of Merthyr Tydfil Angling Association, he is active in the public discourse surrounding environmental conservation. You can keep up with his fishing adventures on his twitter account.