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Sea pooling for silver - Pooling your Resources By Robert MacDougall Davis

This article was originally published in Fly Fishing and Fly Tying Magazine

The magic of the pools

As a young boy I can vividly remember peering out through the misted windows of our small cottage, peat smoke billowing around the room, eagerly awaiting my fatherís return and his silver harvest from the pools.  Those childhood days have gone, but the overwhelming excitement, the magic of the pools and most importantly the sea trout, remain.

The patchwork of trout-filled oligotrophic (nutrient poor) freshwater lochs with feeder burns running down to the sea provides a large source of sea trout for the coastal waters around North Uist.  The sea trout spend much of their time foraging in the many inlets, brackish lagoons and sea pools that can be found in abundance along the islandís varied coastline.  Gin clear water, white shell-sand and vibrant sea weed oranges and purples, all conspire to create a dreamlike setting in which to go in search of silver.  There are few places on earth so beautiful!

Sea pools, tidal races and brackish lagoons

The sea pools themselves are simply areas of water that are partially cut off at low water from the main body of the sea.  Most pools are connected to one another or to the open sea by narrow channels or tidal races that flow or ebb in correspondence with the tide.  As the ebbing tide drains, sand bars and mini reefs of rocks quilted with bladder rack start to appear, the outline of pools becomes visible and a few fish start to show, raising the heartbeat of any angler in the vicinity! 

What is truly magical about fishing in these pools is the splendid isolation and the feeling that you are quite simply a part of the changing tidal landscape.  As the water level falls the pools spring to life, and a whole host of creatures are unveiled. Crabs, shrimps and hordes of tiny crustaceans scuttle around under your feet, and sometimes otters and even the odd seal put in an appearance.  If youíre lucky you might even see a school of sand-eels shooting past pursued by a shoal of ravenous sea trout.

Life in the pools

The sea pools not only provide a glut of tasty morsels all year round, but also an area of relative oceanic shelter in which sea trout can feed voraciously.  Thank goodness that this is the case, because in my view, catching sea trout that are nailing prey in their natural feeding environment is one of the most heart-stopping forms of fly fishing that I have encountered.

Predominantly, the local sea trout feast on Gammarus shrimps, sand-eels and tiny crabs.  Like most trout, however, they are often partial to anything that looks like a potential food item.  As with freshwater trout fishing, observing and understanding their foraging patterns is the key to successful sea pooling.

Action packed

Fishing on the pools can, at times, be frenetic sport.  On a recent trip I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time on the right tide and on my third cast there was a solid and determined pull as a heavy fish engulfed my fly.  I carried on down the pool and hit into two more beauties in quick succession, and a handful of hard fighting finnock.  Sea trout move around in shoals up and down pools, and races with the changing tide so it really pays to get fishing again quickly once you have run into a fish.

Pound for pound these fish have to be some of the hardest fighters I have ever come across, knocking spots off most of their salmonid counterparts, though I concede that they may be on a par with kiwi backcountry browns.  The fish in the pools average the 1-3lb mark, although more mature fish of 4-6lb are always present and larger specimens do lurk beneath the ripples.  The secret to landing these shining rockets is to take your time and above all stay in solid contact throughout the fight.  So, I imagine by now you are wondering how on earth to hook into these silver beauties.

Tactics, tides and timing

Although experience on the pools will result in more fish, anyone on their maiden pool expedition still has a good chance of hitting silver.  The best way to approach sea pooling is to deploy the same skill base and knowledge that you have already accrued from fishing rivers and lochs.  Keep your eyes peeled for any surface disturbance such as bow-waves, dark shadows under the water or even leaping fish.  Above all take some polarised glasses because you can often spot a cruising fish in time to single it out with a deft cast.  A lot of this fishing requires careful and adrenaline packed stalking for sighted fish in under 4ft of water.  It is well worth remembering to approach the water with extreme care.  Large fish will often lie close in with their backs hardly covered as they forage amongst bladder wrack.

While you are searching for fish, long, diagonal casts 45 degrees to the edge of the pool are a good speculative bet.  Look for areas where the seabed appears leopard spotted with bunches of seaweed and any other features that may provide cover such as mini-reefs, rocks and compressions in the sand.  As with standard still water tactics, cast across the current or wave rather than straight down to avoid lining fish that will invariably face into the flow or ripple.  Above all, donít be intimidated by fishing in the sea.  Too many fly anglers are daunted by the prospect of saltwater fishing, but once youíve been a few times youíll be hooked.

Luckily, when sea pooling for silver, there is no need to fork out on new equipment because a standard loch outfit (9-10ft 6 or 7 weight) will come up trumps.  Personally, I plum for a fast action 9í6 #6 weight which allows me to throw out large shrimp and crab patterns as well as a team of traditional singles and wee doubles.  A reel with a good drag system is essential because you can expect the larger fish to fire straight into backing, leaping and pirouetting as they go.  A floating line will cover 70% of the fishing but when itís blowing a real hooley or when your getting bumps but no hook-ups, I find a switch to an intermediate sink tip (i.e. 444 SL int. 15ft ghost tip) can be just the ticket.  A long, steady retrieve seems to be effective with most fish taking after the first few draws. 

Although a wide range of flies will do the trick, I like to keep it simple.  My favoured strategy is to fish three flies on an 18ft, 0.21mm seaguar fluorocarbon leader.  Usually you will find me with a bushy Blue Zulu on the bob, a Teal Blue and Silver, Medicine Fly or Silver Invictor in the middle (size 8) and either a small (size 12/14) double Silver Stoat or Allyís Shrimp on the tail.  These flies are reliable and will catch you fish in most conditions.  However, I admit that on occasion I look to the bench and substitute these more traditional patterns for imitative morsels such as sand-eel streamers, lifelike shrimps and even crab patterns originally tied to tempt bonefish.  All of the above have brought me luck but my workhorse and favourite fly has to be a size 8 lightly dressed Medicine Fly or my Medicine Fly variant, the Magic MacDougall, which seems to take fish when nothing else will.  Basically, anything in the mid-size range (8-12) with a little flash of silver, a dash of yellow or orange and particularly blue, all seem to attract in my sea pooling experience.

One of the greatest secrets of successful fishing on the pools, and for that matter anywhere, is to follow your gut feeling and be prepared to use your initiative, think laterally and try a new tactic, fly or area, no matter how unconventional it may seem.  Yves Chaboussou, a Pyrenean serial fly fishing champion, once said to me ďit is often the tiniest details that are the difference between catching and not catchingĒ.  A fisherman who combines gut feelings, conventional wisdom, initiative, lateral thinking and attention to extreme detail is likely to be one of the 10% who catches 90% of all the fish.  Remember, as with all fishing, confidence is king on the pools so, above all, use something that you have faith in.

Tides and timing

The best fishing is undoubtedly during spring tides, although those who fish the neaps will tell you that they still catch some fine fish.  Basically, the bigger the spring and the lower the tide the more concentrated sea trout will be, and it is at these times when fishing can go bananas! 

Timing is of the essence when sea pooling.  As a rule of thumb, the best fishing tends to be in the two hours leading up to and two hours following low water with most fish accounted for prior to low tide.  During this period, of relative low water, sea trout are concentrated in the various races, static pools and back waters rather than being sparsely distributed over vast shallow flats and the deeper water further out to sea.  Although not always, the twenty minutes around slack water can be a bit of a dead time.  Often when the tide begins to turn and prey items become disorientated and vulnerable, the fishing can really take off.  So, if low water falls at 14.00, I would make my way across the sands at around 11.30 and, depending on the fishing, do a hop skip and jump to the pub at around 16.30.

As far as conditions go, bright sun is not ideal but it by no means ruins the fishing, especially since the development of good fluorocarbons.  When the sun is relentless, fewer fish tend to show themselves but the fisher folk who do venture out into the pools and shallow runs may well be rewarded with silver. A warm south-westerly and rising pressure usually coincides with the best fishing, although fish can be readily taken in all conditions apart from a flat calm, when your best bet is to stick to the tidal races and get your flies down a bit with an intermediate sink-tip. The best time of year to try your luck at the sea trout casino is from mid-June through to the end of the season, September and October often providing the greatest return.

Accessing the pools

There are a variety of readily accessible sea pools around North Uist, each having their own particular charm.  Kirkibost, Ardheisker and Kyle boast particularly clear water and white sand, while the brackish lagoons of Geirreann Mill and Vallay carry an orange tinge in places as peaty water fuses with the Atlantic.  Some pools are barely a stones throw from the road while others require a stiff walk for the more mobile angler.  The Geirreann Mill sea pools are a personal favourite because of their relative isolation, purple heather banks and the fact that there is always a good chance of running into a grilse which keeps you guessing when you get a hit.  Clear access maps and licenses for the all the pools can be obtained from the Lochmaddy Estate who hold the exclusive fishing and foreshore rights for the all the North Uist sea pools.

So if youíre not chasing bonefish in the heat of the tropics, why not stalk a silver bounty on British shores?  Oh and if you find yourself in North Uist when the tides arenít right for sea pooling for silver then you can always follow the sea trout into freshwater, or go in search of machair gold, but thatís another story.

Conservation and the future of the pools

While superb fishing remains in North Uist, this would not be the case if every sea trout were knocked on the head, and were it not for the constant efforts by numerous associations and organisations to regulate salmon farming.  In my opinion we all have a responsibility to our waterways and planet for that matter, to follow the best conservation advice available at the time, even if it is transient and not always infallible.  Only then can we move in the right direction.  Current conservation policy suggests that large mature fish (with a high spawning potential) in the 5lb+ bracket should be released, as should all finnock and fish below the 2lb mark (which have yet to spawn for a second time).  2-3lb sea trout make excellent table fish and given that taking fish of this size is in line with current conservation policy, all parties should be happy.

General Information

- Ferry: Caledonian MacBrayne operate daily sailings from Uig (Skye) to Lochmaddy (North Uist) or you can sail from Oban (mainland) to Lochboisdale (South Uist) and drive up and onto North Uist.

- Plane: British Airways operate regular flights between Glasgow and Benbecula (North Uist).

- Season: The season runs from 15th February Ė 31 October

- License: Licenses and detailed access maps can be obtained from North Uist estate at the Lochmaddy Hotel (Tel: 01876 500331) or Langass Lodge (Tel: 01876 580285) A sea pool ticket (£45) also covers you to follow the fish in land and try you luck in the lochs for the second half of the day.

- Tide timetables: Accurate seven day advance tide timetables can be obtained from: http://easytide.ukho.gov.uk/Easytide/EasyTide/index.aspx  (Loch maddy)


Favourite fly patterns and dressing details

Teal Blue and Silver

Hook: size 8-12

Thread: Black

Body: Flat silver tinsel, ribbed fine silver oval

Hackles: Bright blue cock

Wing: Flank feathers of a teal

Tail: Golden pheasant tippet


Silver Invictor

Hook: Size 8-12

Thread: Black

Body: Flat silver tinsel

Rib: Fine silver tinsel

Hackle: Ginger cock

Head hackle: Blue Jay

Wings: Hen pheasant centre tail


Medicine Fly (Personal favourite Ė lightly dressed)

Hook: Size 6-10

Thread: Red

Wing: Flank feathers of a teal

Collar hackle: Bright blue cock

Body: Flat silver tinsel

Rib: Ribbed fine silver tinsel

Wing: Red varnish


Magic MacDougall (Personal favourite Ė lightly dressed)

Hook: Size 6-10

Thread: Red

Wing: Flank feathers of a teal

Collar hackle: Bright blue cock

Body: Flat silver tinsel

Rib: Ribbed fine silver tinsel

Tail: Golden pheasant topping and tippet


Blue Zulu

Hook: Size 8-10

Thread: Black

Body: Black dubbing, ribbed fine silver tinsel

Hackle: Died blue cock


Allyís Shrimp (Silver)

Hook: Size 12-14 (Double)

Thread: Red

Tail: Slim bunch of hot-orange bucktail

Body: Flat silver tinsel

Rib: Ribbed fine silver tinsel

Under wing: Natural grey squirrel tail

Over-wing: Golden pheasant tippets

Beard hackle: Natural grey squirrel tail

Collar hackle: Long hot-orange cock

Head: Red varnish


Silver Stoats Tail

Hook: Size 12-14 (Double)

Thread: Black

Body: Silver tinsel

Rib: Oval silver tinsel

Wing: Stoats tail fibres

Tail: Golden pheasant topping


Take a guided fishing trip with the author by clicking here

Robert guiding in New Zealand (far left) and on the The River Test (centre and far right)



© Robert MacDougall-Davis : All Rights Reserved : 23/10/2011