Donal MacDonald, resting on his oars, asked passionately, "Have you got a Goat's Toe at all?" His ill assembled features were screwed up tight and his eyes glittered. He was into his manic phase again.
"No, not even at all," I told him. We were sick of the question, Williams and I. He knew we didn't have a Goat's Toe, indeed that there wasn't a single one left on the island. He was trying to bring us down again, shifting the burden of guilt, a typical ghillie's trick. He knew as well as we did that Loch Roag, at drought level and now brassily reflecting the September sun, was about as likely to yield up a yellowfin tuna as a salmon. A couple of hours previously a big, weary sea trout had heaved itself through the surface film and collapsed back onto it, but that had been the only sign of life. Mercifully MacDonald had been fairly silent up to this point, too, as he suffered from the early, depressed stage of his normal monumental hangover, although now and then he expressed surprise at his ailment, as if it were some act of God or mysterious viral infection over which he had no control. A stranger, overhearing our grunted exchanges, might well have concluded that relations had deteriorated between ourselves and the ghillie. He would have been entirely correct.
It is part of the mythology of sport that the ghillie, the guide, the boat skipper, is always a well-seasoned character, full of resource, humor and wisdom, though sometimes he has to speak bluntly to the idiot who has hired him—purely for the idiot's own good. Naturally he is infinitely skilled in the ways offish and game. I have rarely met one like that. I go along with Negley Farson.
Farson was one of those swashbuckling American foreign correspondents who flourished between the World Wars. He took his rod with him when he covered the rise of Hitler, and between dispatches wrote the best fishing book I've read, Going Fishing, unhappily out of print this many a year. He had a lot of trouble with ghillies and guides, especially in Scotland, and in an uncharacteristically ill-humored outburst he wrote—after one of them had broken the tip of his Hardy rod—"Ghillies...need firm handling. The local man always knows more than you do. Also, although he may be clever enough to conceal it, he resents your presence: this 'foreigner' he is taking around. I do not succumb to the philosophy of the local man."
Maybe that's not universally true, not even of Scots ghillies, but after four bad days in the boat with Donal I was beginning to think that Farson could have gone a lot further. This matter of the Goat's Toe, for instance. Everywhere you go for Atlantic salmon there is a favored fly or lure, and sometimes it has been favored for half a century without any guide or ghillie seriously questioning its supremacy. On the island of South Uist, off the West Coast of Scotland, where we were now the prisoner-clients of MacDonald, the Goat's Toe was the only fly to use.
Oddly enough, I'd come to South Uist because of Negley Farson and then only because he sneered at it. He'd seen the veranda of the Lochboisdale Hotel paved, he said, with sea trout, but discovered that the fishing was booked up for that and for the following season. "It is a place I have no wish to go back to," he wrote loftily. "The fishing seemed almost a business there. It was too well organized. Still, if you want to be sure of catching masses of fine sea trout, that's the place." Well, Farson's book came out more than three decades ago, something I should have taken into consideration. As he promised, it had certainly been difficult to book a week's fishing, but the big sea trout were there no longer, or very few of them. Nobody had fouled the water or netted the fish: they had been driven out-by salmon.
Not literally. Big sea-run brown trout are the more pugnacious species, and the South Uist salmon run small, averaging seven or eight pounds. The latter, traditionally, had been outnumbered by sea trout in the lochs by about 5 to 1, but in the late 1960s the pattern changed and the ratio was reversed. What happened was that the salmon started to run later in the summer than the sea trout. As they moved up into the same hill streams to spawn, they plowed through the redds the sea trout had made, sluicing their fertilized ova downstream. So now, instead of having the finest sea-run browns in Scotland, South Uist has a run of modest-sized salmon. When there is a run at all.
Williams and I, the doctor, the navy commander, the two cattle dealers and the Church of Scotland minister, who formed a fishing party at the Lochboisdale Hotel, reckoned any run would be worth waiting for. The fish, we'd been told, moved from the Atlantic into a handful of small shallow lochs. There they rested in the lochs until the fall. All those weeks they watched flies, a thousand Goat's Toes, swim past their noses until they became the most sophisticated fish in Scotland. You couldn't approach them on salmon tackle. You needed a No. 6 line, size 10 or even size 12 flies and a 3X leader. They were well-rested fish, too, not like spring salmon that had just fought their way up 50 miles of river. On what was virtually trout tackle they were a formidable angling prospect. For a try at them, through the best part of a bad week, we had put up with the rigors of both the Clan MacDonald and the island of South Uist.
South Uist dangles, like some kind of green afterthought, almost at the end of the island chain of the Outer Hebrides. Northward, islands like Lewis and Harris have all the trappings of the romantic Highlands—mountains, eagles and heather. South Uist has bogland, one significant hill, some wet, defeated-looking sheep and the MacDonalds. The worst of it all, I reckoned, was Donal—and his obsession with the Goat's Toe. For four successive days Williams and I had flogged the entirely unresponsive waters of Lochs Roag and Fada, the School-house Loch and the Mill Loch. Nothing, and according to Donal it was simply because we lacked Goat's Toes. None of the guests had actually seen such a fly. The last had been cracked off or snagged under a stone weeks before we arrived, and we couldn't even tie one because Donal was vague about the dressing. ("A bit of red wool. A bit of peacock in it somewhere.") The game book in the hotel lobby indeed recorded that until the last one was lost around mid-August almost every fish that season had fallen to the mysterious killer. Since then catches had dwindled. In other parts of the world barroom chat revolves around money or sex. At Lochboisdale, we talked about the Goat's Toe. That was while we were still talking.
It didn't take us long to discover that the Goat's Toe was a crude alibi. The truth was that four of the lochs—Roag, Fada, Schoolhouse and Mill—had hardly produced a fish all season. Nearly all the salmon had come from Lochs Kildonan and Bharp. Theoretically this meant that during a week's fishing—i.e., six days, since it is illegal, because of some Sabbatarian hangover, to catch a Scottish salmon on a Sunday—you could expect four bad days and two good ones. Possibly. There were plenty of fish in Kildonan, but you needed precisely the correct weather—a moderate blow from the west or southwest. Anything else, and the fish wouldn't move. Anything stronger, and the sand from the bottom would be stirred up, making it too cloudy to fish. On the other hand, for rocky Loch Bharp, you needed a flailing westerly gale.