Fly Fishing South Uist
South Uist lies on the outer Hebrides, a chain of islands off the mainland west coast of Scotland. The second largest of the islands is only shadowed by Lewis and Harris. With rich, fertile low lying grassy plains on the West Coast made up off crushed shells blown ashore by Atlantic gales, this is one of the rarest habitats in Europe. Referred to as the machair, it only occurs on the exposed western coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Fly fishing South Uist is truly special.
What Makes it Special?
The machair has a high calcium carbonate shell content of around 90 %, which extends the whole length of the island and up to 2km inland at places. This creates a rich alkaline environment, where flora and fauna thrive. Scattered along the west coast of south Uist are the famous “machair lochs.” They’re shallow, nutrient rich bodies of water that contain some the finest wild brown trout in Britain.
Storas Uibhist controls the fishing on south Uist. This is the largest community owned estate in Scotland. John Steele manages it, and it works on a rota system. This ensures guests experience a variety of fishing within the system. Fishing on the main machair estate lochs is reserved for guests of the island, which keeps angling pressure to a minimum.
Traditionally the fishing is done from a drifting boat, with the wind to your back and casting directly down wind. This is known as “Loch style” fishing. To get the most out of this style of fishing on the machair lochs, you need someone on the oars. This allows the multiple skerries and machair edges to be worked efficiently. We were very fortunate to have Ian Kennedy ghillie for us while we were fishing. He’s the son of the late captain John Kennedy—inventor of the clan chief, machair claret and various other highly successful fly patterns.
Historically the technique to fish Loch style in Scotland required long rods, sometimes up to 11ft in length. This rod pairs with a cast of three traditional style wet flies. You make short casts, strip the line several times, then raise the rod so the top dropper is dibbled through the surface. This would bring fish crashing up through the waves chasing down the top dropper as it waked in the surface.
My preference is to use a slightly shorter rod. A fast action 9’6” #6 Sage Igniter coupled with a Rio Grand Elite line, to be specific. With the weather being highly unpredictable at times in Uist, this outfit allows me to continue to fish in the most challenging of conditions.
Leaders are usually around 15ft in length, made up off 2x masterclass fluorocarbon with two droppers. Machair trout feed on a wide variety off aquatic and terrestrial food items. However, sticklebacks, snails and gammarus shrimp make up a high proportion of their diet. Understanding what the trout are feeding on and where they are likely to be feeding on these items will greatly improve your catch rate.
Possibly one off my most successful flies in Uist is the Peter Ross on the point. Love it or hate it, this fly is an excellent stickleback imitation. Muddlers on the top dropper score highly. Muddled Kate mclarens, green peters and invictas are other effective flies. Anyone one who has fished teams of wets will agree that the middle dropper fly is usually the least effective of the three. However, by experimenting over the years my middle droppers success has greatly improved. Orkney peach palmers, tailless solider palmers and my own “GB ke-he” patterns have been working very well. Breaking with tradition, I like to throw a longer line, strip more and dibble less. My muddled top dropper creates enough off a bulge/disturbance during the strip to grab the fish’s attention.
A South Uist Memory
This brings me to a very memorable day in August 2020. I was fishing the crown jewel of the machair lochs, West Ollay. Anybody who has fished this Loch will probably have a story of the monster trout they have seen and a story to accompany it of how “dour” the Loch can be at times. Anyway, we were working the machair edge in a know big fish area. I had laid my cast down and after around 3 pulls of the line a huge wave appeared behind my Pearl invictor muddler.
It followed all the way back to the boat and when I raised my rod tip into the dibble. Just then, the fish turned in the shallow crystal clear water and took my tail less soldier Palmer in the middle. After half a dozen jumps and a very powerful fight we slipped the net under a 6.4lb beauty. I never touched another fish that day.
Something for Everyone
Out with the main “estate” lochs, south Uist angling club manage a wide variety of waters. With some 800 lochs and Lochans, across south Uist and benbecula there’s something for everyone. This includes hill lochs than can be accessed by Agrocat. From around the beginning of July onward, you can also target salmon and seatrout “Loch style”. Although not famed for its runs of salmon, there is generally enough in the system to keep it interesting. The sea trout fishing however brings regular guests back year after year. There’s a very health population, and fish over 5lbs are not uncommon. In addition, anglers have caught double figure fish over the years.
Travel to Uist is via ferry from either uig on Skye or from Mallaig. Uig on Skye this shortest ferry crossing at just under two hours and the least susceptible to disruption from the weather. Overnight stays are essential due to the travel time and the distance required to get there. In recent years we’ve stayed at the “anglers retreat.” This is a bespoke angling accommodation run by Gary and Fiona Bateman to the highest off standards. Cooked breakfasts, packed lunches with flasks off coffee and evening meals are provided.
Gary has fished most off the lochs throughout south Uist and benbecula and is a wealth off knowledge on the subject. South Uist has everything the traveling game angler is looking for and urge you to try it at least once. However, once’s you’ve sampled what’s there, don’t be surprised if you find yourself organizing your next trip before you’ve even left the island.