One fine summer day a few years ago I was fishing Loch Laidon for brown trout. This dramatic loch lies at the heart of Scotland where it silver-ribbons Rannoch Moor for five-and-half narrow miles. Off Eilean Iubhair, ‘the island of the yew tree’, the boat bobbed gently over the waves in an accommodating breeze. Small trout rose to my flies, Black Pennell, March Brown and Silver Butcher. My fishing partner and I were well content, at peace with the world and all that it contained.
A moment later we were becalmed. The wind fell and fish stopped rising. Not a dimple stippled the mirror-like surface. Resigned, but content just to be there, we reeled in and opened a flask of coffee. A suicidal bluebottle buzzed impotently on the water a few yards from the boat. As I watched it struggle for flight, from out of the depths, in slow motion, a huge trout appeared and leisurely head-and-tailed over the doomed insect.
This was my first encounter with Scotland’s legendary ferox trout; described by Ron Greer, fishery biologist and environmentalist in his book of that name, as ‘The Aquatic ‘Wolf’ from the Ice Age.’ The moment was heart-stopping, the image indelibly stamped in my mind. I can still see every mark on the body of that trout as clearly as I see the words I now write. I still feel the same sense of privilege and awe I felt then at being so close to such a completely wild, magnificent creature.
Ferox trout have survived in Scottish lochs for more than 10,000 years. They are special because they have retained their genetic integrity. Until recently, little was known about their lifestyle and habits other than the fact that they appear to subsist virtually entirely upon Arctic charr; although, as voracious hunters, ferox seem quite happy to snap up other morsels that come their way, including the odd unfortunate bluebottle.
In Norway, remains of lemmings have been found in ferox stomachs, in Scotland, small rodents. However, Arctic charr are the preferred diet and the number of ferox in any given loch depends upon the health of the local charr population. The size of ferox is also governed by the size of the prey species. Ferox eat fish which are generally one third of their own length. Therefore, if the charr population consists of small fish, this will restrict the ultimate size of the ferox which feed upon them. The ideal scenario for ferox is to live in a loch with a large population of modest-sized fish, like Loch Laidon. In such circumstance, ferox grow rapidly and can attain weights of up to and over 20lb in the space of six years.
The reason more is known about ferox today is largely due to an initiative undertaken by Scottish whisky distillers, Ballantine & Co. In 1985 the company invited a number of anglers to take part in a week-long fishing expedition, the objective of which was to catch a record-breaking brown trout. The venue chosen for the attempt was Loch Quoich at the head of Glen Garry in Inverness-shire; a deep, dour water, impounded in the 1950′s as part of a Hydro-electric generating scheme.
A deal of whisky was consumed during the exercise and several double-figure weight ferox were caught, but the record remained intact. However, the experience fired the imagination of some of the participants who subsequently formed the Ferox 85 Group; fishery scientists such as Andy Walker, Alistair Thorne, Ron Greer and others. Since then, they have devoted much of their energy and time to the study of these great fish.
In doing so, they are following in illustrious footsteps, not the least of which is Osgood MacKenzine, creator of the famous gardens at Inverewe in Wester-Ross and author of the book, A Hundred Years of Sport in the Highlands. In his book, MacKenzie recalls a basket of ferox trout taken from Fionn Loch, the white loch, to the north of Loch Maree:
“How perfectly do I remember one evening in April 1851 (when I was just nine years old), Sir Alexander Gordon Cumming of Altyre sending down a message to us at Pool House, asking my mother and me to come up to the inn and witness the weighing of the fish brought back that day, in case his own statement might be doubted in future years. The were four beauties lying side by side on the table of the small drinking room, and they turned the scales at 51lb. The total weight of the twelve fish caught that 12th April by trolling was 87lb 12oz.”
Sir Gordon Cumming’s friend and neighbour, Charles St John (1809-56) also recalls trolling for ferox: “I was crossing Loch Ness alone one evening with my rod at the stern of the boat, with my trolling-tackle on it trailing behind. Suddenly a large trout sized it, and before I could do anything but take hold of my rod he had run out eighty yards of line and bent my stiff trolling rod like a willow.” St John lost the fish.
The magazine ‘The Field’, on 13th November 1880, also carried a report on ferox by Sir John Colquhoun of Luss: “The largest feroxes taken in Scotland, not even excepting Loch Awe, have been taken out of Loch Rannoch…. At Loch Rannoch, in twenty-eight years, three of twenty-three, twenty-two and twenty pounds’ weight have been taken.”
There is no doubt in my mind that much larger ferox lurk in the depths of Scotland’s lochs. The world record rod-caught ferox, landed in Sweden, weighed 37lb 6oz. The climatic similarities between Scotland and Scandinavia suggest that ferox of these weights are also present in Scottish waters. The biggest ferox ever taken on rod and line was a fish caught in Loch Awe, Argyll, in 1866 by WC Muir. It is reputed to have weighed 39lb 8oz, although this weight was never authenticated.
Although ferox may be caught throughout the fishing season (15th March – 6th October), knowledgeable pundits would agree that April and May can be the most productive months. Unfortunately, here in the Highlands of Scotland, in April and May, the weather can be appalling. I have found myself fishing for trout in a white-out blizzard even towards the end of May. To be properly clad, therefore, is a first priority of ferox fishing. One more layer of clothing is rarely too much. After all, if the sun does happen to shine, you can always take it off.
As to tackle and technique, the best advice I can give you is to get a copy of Ron Greer’s book. Make it your bible. Trolling a lure, live bait, dead bait, artificial minnow, Devon, spoon or Rapala can all bring results. Use a strong rod, a salmon spinning rod would do fine. Set up your tackle to ensure the line neither kinks nor twists whilst being towed behind the boat. Learn as much as you can about your chosen destination before setting out: depths, where the shallows are, where the loch shelves into deeper water and known ferox lies.
The best places to break both your heart and your tackle in pursuit of ferox are the same today as they were in the days of Osgood MacKenzie, Charles St John and Sir John Colquhoun. Happily, they are readily accessible and, mostly, boats are available for hire. In the Southern Highlands, consider a visit to lochs Lomond, Awe, Tay, Rannoch, Laidon, Garry and Laggan. Further north, try your luck on lochs Ness, Lochy, Arkaig, Garry, Quoich, Morar, Sionascaig, Loyal and Calder.
All that now remains to be done is to construct that glass case for above the mantelpiece. When you do so, think big. Given dedication to duty, perseverance, sheer cussedness, determination and grit, you could, one day, fill it with the fish of your angling dreams, the Aquatic ‘Wolf’ from the Ice Age, Scotland’s most noble freshwater fish.
Ferox Trout, by Ron Greer, published by Swan Hill Press, 1995 (ISBN: 1 85310 486 8)