The trout flashes golden in the sunlit water. I reel it in, seeing the spots and patterns of its sleek body, shaky with excitement. It’s totally unexpected: first cast, with the simple gear my father taught me to use more than 50 years ago. It’s a keeper, for sure, and it goes in the bag.
Now, I worry, what’ll happen if I catch another good one on my second cast? That’ll be as much as I could possibly eat today, and I’ll have no more reason to stay here …
This loch is a wonderful, secret place: a good size – maybe 400m long, 200m across – but invisible from anywhere other than the circle of low hills surrounding it. It’s not far from a big sea-loch and there’s a wide-open-sky feel here above the steep heather and bracken, birch and oak.
When I was a small boy, the family parked the caravan and our blue-and-white Austin Cambridge, 217 XTJ, on the sheep-cropped turf next to the road, maybe a kilometre away. We fished the loch we could see, and the burns, but had no idea this hidden loch was there.
Then dad met the gamekeeper. I remember him, a craggy man in tweed, pedalling along the narrow road on an ancient black bike, like the one granddad still had in the spare room, with its smell of oil and old newspaper. I saw a brown ten-bob note change hands. Dad came back with a smile.
“There’s another loch,” he told us. “Over the hill – you boys can fish it, but we can only take the two biggest you get.”
Over the hill next day, old cane rod over my shoulder, a big expedition. The loch sparkled then, too, with gnarled oak woodland running down to the shore, green, quiet, a lost world we felt privileged and thrilled to be in.
Dad supervised as my older brother and I set up, maybe a hundred metres apart, and waited. It didn’t take long then, either, and after maybe an hour-and-a-half I had two in my keep-net, and he had two. Bigger than our normal burn trout, a good dinner’s worth on each.
Then came the judgement of Solomon. I honestly couldn’t see the difference, but his two were appraised as being slightly larger than the ones I had caught, so dad ruled they were the ones to be kept. We took them home for mum to gut and cook for us. Good – but I couldn’t help wishing one of them was mine…
That holiday still burns bright in the memory. Two lads, maybe eight and 11, wandering the lochs, the burns with their dad; unearthing worms for bait from cowpats; trout sizzling in burnt butter; building dams in the small stream; seeing a barefoot pack of children outside a net-strung croft cottage.
Sunshine, midge bites, the smell of gas and boiling spuds in the caravan… Mum worked hard to keep us fed and vaguely clean, and I suspect my sister, five year older than me, hated it, but for me it was paradise.
Finding the hidden loch on the map again is no problem. Walking back over to it, I catch my breath when it comes into view, as beautiful, steeply hidden, silent and secret as before.
Two hinds shoot up from the long heather as I walk down to the water. The first time I was here, the sighting of a deer would be a wonder to be talked about for days; now they’re a commonplace. Is that why the oak trees seem sparser? There’s no sign of oak saplings – the only young trees are birches clinging under the steep loch banks were deer can’t get them.
I needn’t have worried about getting too lucky. After my first catch the next couple of hours are wasted happily, wading barefoot to cast, wandering the banks of the loch, without a sign of another bite.
I walk back over the hill to my car and gut the trout. I’m not really sure if it’s bigger than those others, but at least it’s mine. I get out the stove and butter, and in the lee of a bank, the fish is fried, a few leaves of mountain thyme in its belly.
Crisp skin, a little salt, light pink flesh pulling off the bones: the finest food of all, tasting of the best memories.