EVER gone on a fishing trip with the lads and been tempted to run a small sweepstake to liven up proceedings?  Not Exactly Fishing reveals how a smart London coarse angler with an inside knowledge of underworld crime, ran off with the profits on a fly-fishing holiday to the wilds of Scotland’s remote Sutherland.

IT WAS a motley assemblage of men whose daily bread depended on the creation and distribution of daily news – three newspaper reporters, a circulation representative and a newsagent. All we needed was a chip shop owner to represent fully the birth, life and death cycle of our daily toils.

Yet there we were amid the empty, bleak grandeur of eastern Sutherland, just about as far away from the heart of news and information as it was possible to get on mainland Britain.  A radio, but no telephone or television.  Mobile phones were still the stuff of Star Trek, and not yet a prized possession of the average primary school pupil.

If we needed to hurry back to civilisation, the quickest way was to stroll down to Kinbrace and flag down the next train.  Which would be sometime tomorrow.

Our fishing territory stretched over many square miles of desolate moor and mountainside – some of the wildest wild trout fishing in the land.  The nearest loch was a lengthy tramp over flat, but nonetheless thickly heather-clad ground.  It was shallow and strewn with rocky skerries, which made for careful boat manoeuvring, but it was a fertile location for trout of the three-to-a-pound variety.

The Long Walk Home: Achentoul Forest, Sutherland - from Greamachary

Provided that your leader contained three small Blue Zulus you could regularly also put them into the three-to-a-cast class.  This was entertaining for the first half-an-hour or so.

But with five enthusiastic anglers on a week’s wild trout fishing in the Scottish highlands it was inevitable that the party would seek something more demanding. And human nature being what it is, a spirit of competition quickly emerged.

I blamed big Tom, our press circulation expert – a man whose knowledge of dapping and dabbling was equalled only by his ability to count in quires and dazzle even the most cynical editor with an array of statistics to show why the slightest dip in newspaper sales was attributable to poor editorial content rather than dodgy distribution.

Tom, keeper of a secret fly tied to his recipe by an obscure Midlothian dresser and dubbed prosaically, ‘The Hairy Wumman’, insisted on conducting a daily sweepstake.  Entry was, as I recollect, a gentlemanly £1 for the heaviest individual basket and £1 for the heaviest single fish.   There was a bottle of malt for the supreme champion who captured the biggest fish of the week.

We all know what money and competition has done for football.  Even the simplest kick-around in the park descends into acrimony, despair and the kind of deceit generally only demonstrated by Latino nancy-boy forwards, if a game is enlivened with the pursuit of some plastic trophy or a few bob in the back pocket.

Amid all the usual fishy banter,
there quickly emerged
a new spirit – rivalry!

Man versus man versus trout.  Fly boxes which had been debated with vigour the first night, were suddenly no longer open to inspection.  Line weights were out of bounds. Fishing diaries were kept under the pillow at night.  Suspicion crept in to the conversation surrounding the breakfast table draw for partners and loch locations.

Five is a tricky number for an angling party and each day the draw ensured one individual would fish alone.  As luck would have it on three days out of the five we had together, Jeff, the crime correspondent for a national Fleet Street title, found himself a man alone in the vastness of Sutherland on the edge of the Flow Country.

And on three days out of five our super sleuth returned with a trout better than 2lb in weight, capturing on one occasion not only the kitty for the largest fish, but also the prize for the biggest basket.   What’s more he looked a racing certainty to carry off the bottle of malt whisky at the end of the week.

He was eyed warily. How, we pondered, could an angler on foot conjure up these results? Between us the remainder of the party had amassed a respectable tally of fish.  We had spent long days hiking into the hills, lugging boat engines to ridiculously remote lochs, fishing early, fishing late.  Hard work and rewarding in all kinds of ways including the capture – and release – of some specimen Arctic Char in all their astonishing breeding colours.

But the inescapable fact was that our largest trout, a dark lean specimen winkled out from the depths of Loch Druim a’ Chliabhain after a long and tiring hillwalk, turned the scales at only 1.5lb.

Jeff, it transpired after much cross-examination, was a fine coarse angler whose real passion was monster pike.  And he called on all of his skills honed over many years tempting tiny dace and shy barbel from Home Counties lakes and canals, for his Sutherland sorties.  He simply walked all the feeder burns and small rivers he could find, seeded them with bait and reaped the results.

We never saw him digging for worms and grubs in the garden of our cottage after we had left in the morning. We never knew about the maggot box in the bottom of tackle bag. And oh how we had laughed at the size 18 and 20 hooks he had displayed that first evening.

The laugh was on us as Jeff pointed out that the house rules didn’t specify fly-fishing only – he owned one small box with about 10 flies –  and he cheerfully mapped the waters where he had captured his fish.  His best, he said with a smile, had come from a little burn just two feet wide. Less than half a mile from the house.

And with that he uncorked the bottle of Old Poulteney, and poured us all a dram.

There are some purists who regard coarse fishing as a crime.  For our week’s champion both were more than a way of life.  And we, his companions, were the wiser for it.