If you’re new to fishing in the Highlands you might be wondering what a Ghillie is.  Well, the word ‘Ghillie’ is Gaelic for man-servant, and this is essentially what the role entails.  The Ghillie is your personal assistant while you are fishing!  The fishing Ghillie has centuries of history behind him and has helped form Scotland as one of the world’s greatest game fishing destinations.

An experienced Ghillie will have expert knowledge of fishing on the local lochs and rivers, knowing how their seasonal rises and falls can change their characteristics and the locations where the fish will lurk.  He will be able to advise you on casting techniques and general salmon fishing skills, such as which fly is most suited for fishing that day.  And if you’re out on a boat on the loch he will steer you to the best spots on the beat, which will allow you to focus on your fishing and improve your chance of landing a really good catch.  Similarly, if you’re wading he will have knowledge of the river or loch bottom so that you can fish as safely as possible.

While it’s the Ghillie’s job to be on hand to help you catch the Atlantic Salmon and Sea Trout that migrate up the Scottish rivers every year and to lure the resident Brown Trout, it’s also his job to look after the fish in his locality. He will know the rules of the lochs and rivers he regularly visits, including the catch and return regulations, which vary from area to area – for example he’ll be able to identify if you have caught a hen salmon as these must be returned to the water to spawn if caught later in the season.

Rules and regulations aside the Ghillie will also have an endless supply of fishing stories and local knowledge.

If you’re thinking of coming up to the Altnaharra for a fishing break, have a chat with us if you think you might need a Ghillie and we can book one on your behalf.

Fishing on Loch Naver

I’m a 17 year old girl and have been visiting Altnaharra Hotel with my family every year since it reopened. We go at Easter which I really love because it’s actually quite warm but you don’t get the midges! On my first visit in 2010 I wasn’t expecting much but I really was pleasantly surprised!

It’s usually quite an active holiday for us; we often go on walks in some amazingly beautiful places, which isn’t hard in an area like the Highlands. The chef at the hotel packs a lunch for us so we can make a day of it. We also cycle using the hotel’s mountain bikes, although there are a lot of hills so you need some energy!

I also tried fishing for the first time in Altnaharra when my dad took my sister and me out on Loch Naver in a boat. Our hopes were high to catch a huge salmon but when my line tugged I was so excited it didn’t matter what it was. As it turned out my sister and I caught 12 brown trout that day, the larger of which we took back to the hotel and the chef cooked it for our dinner. It was the best brown trout we’ve ever eaten!

The best thing I’ve ever done on my holidays in Scotland is horse-riding on the beach which the hotel arranged for us. We drove up to Bettyhill where there are stables and anyone can have a go. I have hardly ridden in my life but I was pretty eager to jump on. My horse was well suited because she was quite old so she wasn’t going too fast and it really was great fun. There were much sportier horses for regular riders, and maybe I can try one of those next year.

And even when the weather’s not so good there are still things for us to do. At the hotel there is a games room in the log cabin where we play table tennis, table football and snooker which is great because we have tournaments and we’re all pretty competitive so the rematches can go on for hours…

Obviously, being in the Highlands, you feel very secluded but I only realised the extent of that on a crystal clear night when I looked up at the stars. It was absolutely incredible, the entire sky was completely showered in them which was the most amazing sight and really let you know just how far away you are from cities further south, it’s a great feeling! I saw the Milkyway for the first time but not the Northern lights – although I gather they can be seen by those lucky enough to get their timing right, which one day I hope will be me!

So, from a less-than-convinced teenage girl three years ago on my very first visit, I’m now a regular. Our trips to The Altnaharra are part of our annual calendar and the whole family really look forward to them… including me!

Dapping fly - 'Furnace'

Dapping fly – ‘Furnace’

For those of you that may never have tried this fly fishing technique, I thought we might best start with the formal Dictionary Definition:In angling, letting the bait or lure bob lightly and repetitively down onto the water surface in the manner of certain behaviour patterns of gracile flying insects such as craneflies, mayflies, caddisflies and others.

Whilst this is an accurate description, it does very little to convey the sheer fun that can be had using this little used technique.

As John Humphrys (of Today Programme and Mastermind fame) wrote in an article for Trout and Salmon following a stay at The Altnaharra:
“The origins of dapping are interesting. In the old days, the boatman or gillie dapped with a hookless fly to tease the fish up. When he caused one to rise, the guests in the boat would cover it with conventional flies.

Later, it was the province of ladies who could not cast a fly all day. To sit at ease in the boat wafting your dapping rod was a lovely way to spend the day. At last the men, being slow on the uptake, gradually realised that the women were catching more fish than they were so they, too, took up the gentle art and abandoned their fly rods.

Dapping allows you to fish a fly as you have always wished you could fish your top dropper and I soon got the hang of it, taking pride in making the big fly sweep back and  forth, trickling it with the wind, furrowing the water, pausing, lifting lightly off and dancing down again.”

So, what are the basics?
Starting at the business end with the fly, here we’re talking big and bushy – some say the bigger the better – and ideally something that imitates a daddy-long-legs.  Onwards to the leader, this rises vertically from the fly, so the breaking strain of the two or three feet of monofilament needed is not really an issue as the fish shouldn’t see it – I usually use about 8lb line.  Above this is about 6-10 feet of dapping floss, which is needed to catch the wind to take the fly away from the boat and to hold the leader vertically from the water.

From there on its simple – 10lb monofilament leading to any type of reel (fixed spool or centre pin) and a telescopic dapping rod of between 14-18 feet.

For sure you need a breeze – but then there aren’t many still days in The Highlands.  Anybody will get the hang of it in 10 minutes which from then on, in some, will lead to a lifetime addiction and days and weeks of fun.  You will see every nibble, swirl, tail-flap, lunge or leap-right-out-of-the-water that the fish make at your fly – albeit if you can catch one in every two or three of the numerous takes you will generally get, you will have had a good day.

Most of the more addicted guests tend to bring their own equipment but for beginners, don’t worry, you can hire everything you need from The Altnaharra and an expert local ghillie can be arranged to steer the boat and lead you to the fish.

I caught my first ever salmon dapping on Loch Hope and on the same holiday my then 10 year old brother caught a seven and a half pound sea trout – upon landing which he exclaimed ‘WICKED!’ – apparently the highest level of proclamation a 10 year old can ever bestow!

Try it – I will challenge you not to get as hooked as the sea trout, brownies or salmon you will inevitably catch!

Duncan Mason
Owner, Altnaharra Hotel