Thursday 17 May 2018

The Edge of the Known World - The Helmsdale

Naturally I was delighted and excited when a very kind friend invited me to join his party on the Helmsdale in late April.  For those unfamiliar with its location, the Helmsdale enters the sea about a little finger's width below Wick at the north eastern extremity of the map.  I'd never fished that far north in Scotland before - the Carron was my previous frontier - so the idea of heading to the edge of the known world added an extra sense of adventure.  Indeed, the fact that the top of the Scottish mainland is a straight edge endows it with the special quality of a defining boundary, after which you enter somewhere else.  It's also a very long way away - 450 miles by road from my bit of North Yorkshire - which takes a full 8 hours' driving.  I appreciate such a distance is trivial if you're a citizen of Montana or Russia (I've driven in both), but for an older Englishman it's a bit of a psychological epic.  Thank goodness comfortable and reliable modern cars have taken the physical elements out of the epic.  As a callow 20 year old I drove a real Mini Cooper (not the modern BMW imitation) from Carnoustie to Surrey in one night, an epic of manifold dimensions, without the benefit of dual carriageway on the A90, the existence of the M74 or of the M1 beyond the Midlands.  At least there were no speed cameras in those days.  On the other hand there was nothing edible for 450 of the 550 miles (life before Ronald MacDonald) and with a 4 1/2 gallon (20 litre) fuel tank you had to be pretty canny about choosing your stops.  That's enough reminiscing: this is a fishing blog not History Hit.

A few drops of Fairy Liquid in gently warm water,
pull the line trough the sponge, one way then the other.
Leave the line to ease in the sun, then dry and polish.
Anyway, the traditional annual outload of the GFC into the car boxes and jacket took its usual course, while a conveniently sunny day allowed me to wash, inspect and polish all my lines.  The process of unspooling and rewinding also confirmed the adequacy of last winter's post-season servicing of the reels.  It's a pretty menial task, but the fact that it's fishing related makes it a pleasure while its simplicity gives you ample scope for salmon daydreams.  As this was to be a non-dog week - lambing was in full swing at Suisgill - everything fitted into the car with ease.  Unusually I wasn't fretting about the water level, which was low and likely to remain so throughout our stay.

The drive to Inverness was as deeply familiar but rendered tedious by the cameras.  As a matter of habit and fond memory we checked the height of the Findhorn at Tomatin as we crossed the A9 viaduct over my favourite Dalnahoyn pool, noting that it was far lower than we expected in mid-April.  The Allness and Brora were even lower.  The further north we drove, the drier the land became, but conversely the shortage of grazing told its own story of a hard late winter.  Once you leave the Black Isle the A9 follows the coast, which diminishes the feeling of being in the Highlands.  North of Dornoch Firth the villages are more widely spaced and the traffic much lighter: it feels like a totally different country to the prosperous valleys of the Tay, Dee and Spey.  Once we reached the village of Helmsdale we left the main road and headed up the glen on a single track road beside the river for 12 miles to Upper Suisgill, a perfect antidote to the long drive and a sure-fire stimulus to my already high anticipation.

The Helmsdale
from Upper Suisgill Lodge
Water at MSL +5"

The Helmsdale is a small river, perhaps little more than 30 miles in length, with its flow moderated by the Badanloch at its head.  It is the perfect salmon river in miniature, with everything in proportion and balance.  Under the tutelage of my host Tony (the Master Netsman) and Donnie the ghillie I quickly learned to recalibrate my thinking and methods to match the environment.  Although I've fished plenty of small (and some tiny) rivers, the Helmsdale was a unique, joyful and fulfilling experience.  Every pool - and sometimes situations within a pool - required fresh consideration and different approaches, often within the space of 3-4 casts.  I've always thought myself a lively fishing thinker and analyst, but the Helmsdale and Donnie demanded a much higher level of mental effort.

Behind the Clan Gunn Kirk
Kildonan Farm

Despite the low water - 2 of the 5 inches were supplied by releases from the loch, which caused bizarre variations in the water temperature - there were fish in the river and still fresh enough not to have gone into suspended animation in the quiet corners.  Tony had me out before breakfast on the Monday morning to fish the lower end of 6 Below.  The MCX score - low, clear, slow, shallow but cold 6C - of 5-6 suggested a very small Alistair tube (adamant local knowledge kept the MCXs in the box) and a fine 15 lbs fluorocarbon leader to give it movement.  The 11' 6" Tool was the ideal rod for the short casts required.  I started on Swirl, casting little more than 6-8 yards from the gravel bar.  On my third cast a fish came at the fly but turned away after 3-4 feet.  It was a near miss and more than enough to lift the spirits in time for breakfast.

Looking upstream towards Dog's Nose
After a well-earned and hearty breakfast I was introduced to Donnie who took me up into the rocks closer to the falls to test my mountain goat credentials.  For me this was pure switch rod work, mostly single-handed, casting to precise targets that Donnie indicated, with a 1" conehead Alistair.  Mid-morning Tony turned up to see how I was getting on and to report catching a fish.  Shortly after he departed, I was perched on a ledge against an overhanging rock just upstream of the Dog's Nose casting to a point some 20 feet distant at about 30 degrees to the flow.  Donnie told me to let the fly come right round to the dangle, fold round the corner out of my sight and then slowly handline it in.  The fish would take just before the fly came back around the corner.  Obedient to Donnie's orders, a strong fish took exactly on cue. This presented me with 3 concurrent challenges: first, keeping the fish under some semblance of control; second, getting back up on top of the rock whilst doing so; and third, avoiding falling into the very deep water at the foot of the rock.  Having overcome those three problems I could concentrate on fighting a strong and determined salmon in a confined space bounded by large lumps of granite, half of which was round the corner out of sight, with fast water leading to some falls at the bottom end to add further interest.  If it got any distance downstream it would be away, so I applied serious pressure.  Twice this succeeded in bringing the fish into the narrow and deep water in front of me where I could see what was going on (whilst admiring a lovely silver deep bodied fish of 10-12 lbs) and fight with some confidence, but it had other ideas and a marked preference for going around the corner.  After it had gone round the rock for third time and was heading downstream with me applying every ounce I could muster, the leader parted with a sharp crack.  I managed to retain my footing but the fish came clear out of the water and landed on its back before departing with my fly.  

This disappointment was entirely my own stupid fault and a consequence of failing to think, a cardinal sin.  The 15 lbs fluorocarbon leader I had set up before breakfast for the open spaces of Swirl and a very small fly was pathetically inadequate for the abrasive terrain in which I was now fishing with a conehead tube.  Fluorocarbon is exceptionally thin compared to Maxima of the same strength and therefore more vulnerable to forceful abrasion.  Not only had I failed to think of changing the leader, worse still I had left the spools of 24 and 30 lbs in the car box, when the best solution would have been 8' of 30 and 18" of 24 lbs.  Donnie gave me the benefit of his withering opinion of fluorocarbon and insisted on the use of Maxima for the rest of the morning.  We were to maintain a lively debate on the virtues and vices of fluorocarbon for the rest of the week.

Lunchtime marked the change of beats, and I went upstream to 6 Above with Tony as my guide.  The beat arrangements on the Helmsdale are unusual - perhaps 2-3 other northern rivers have similar systems - but work extremely well.  The estates cooperate, share the river in 12 sections (6 above and 6 below the falls) and have 2 rods fishing at any time.  Each day you move down one section, giving you one rod on each of (say) 6 Above and 6 Below. The following day you shift down one to 5 A and B and so forth.  Once you reach the bottom you go back up to 6 and start again.  This system gives you wonderful variety: over 6 days you fish 12 miles of water and every section is different in character and its fishing demands.

At the top you're fishing a large burn, exploring the nooks and crannies with a switch rod and short leader at point blank range;

1 Below
about a mile above the tide
and at the bottom, a conventional salmon river with a 13 or 14 foot rod at 30 yards.

Where the rock allows the Helmsdale meanders in its valley, twisting and turning, forever shifting its course through the alluvial sand.  In the space of 15 minutes you can find yourself casting into, out of and across the wind from any and all directions, in an exacting audit of your repertoire of casts and your imagination in applying them to the conditions.  And we had some wicked winds during the week.  Indeed the air was rarely if ever still.

I fished diligently through Tuesday and Wednesday, including overtime before breakfast and after tea, sadly without a result.  Tony was absolutely determined that I should catch a fish and in that endeavour his extraordinary enthusiasm even exceeded my own.  Thursday brought a change of fortune: under Donnie's eagle-gaze I hooked a respectable fish in Upper Torrish, but the copious splashing on the surface and head-shaking didn't bode well.  As a result I treated it quite gently - there was ample room and no rocks - but after 3 minutes or so it came off.  At least I was hooking them, even if I couldn't get them onto the bank.

On Friday afternoon I was paired with David on the very pretty 2 Above and enjoyed a grandstand view as he hooked and landed a classic shiny Helmsdale springer in accordance with Donnie's instructions.

It was a classic case of acute local knowledge of where a fish would lie in a particular run through a narrow rocky pool.  David's challenge was to get the fly to the right place in a stiff downstream breeze with a vertical bank directly behind him and only a few feet of line outside the top ring.  This was certainly a far cry from his usual fare on the wide open spaces of the Spey.

The fish had taken the fly right down which necessitated some rapid bank-side surgery.

Shortly after David had caught his fish the sky darkened and its started to rain hard.  Further downstream on 2 Below it was snowing: in all about 2" of snow, hailstones and sleet accumulated, but none fell above the Lodge.  The river started to rise gently, although Donnie advised that it would be altogether different down at Helmsdale, where he anticipated a rise of at least a foot, which would be enough to bring some fresh fish in from the sea.  This proved to be the case, with anglers on the Club water catching 3 later in the evening.

I was becoming increasingly conscious of my tail end fish-free charlie status.  Although I was fairly relaxed I was keenly aware that Tony and Donnie were both utterly determined to put me into a salmon.  The overtime session on Friday evening was an inevitable blank in a rising river, so the pressure was on for the last day.

Donnie took me first to the Garden Pool by the new Kildonan Lodge.  With the air at 1.5C and the water at 6C and +9" I would normally have been reaching for a sink tip and an MCX or Cascade conehead, but Donnie's adamant advice was for a plain leader and a simple Alistair aluminium tube of his own tying.

The Donnie Alistair Tube
It's about as simple and as sparse as you can imagine.

9 lbs Helmsdale springer
28th April 2018
By 1130 we were on the Old Lodge Pool with the clock running down towards lunch.  Halfway down under the end of the trees is a large sub-surface rock about 2/3 rds of the way across the flow.  I anticipated a fish on the edge of the 'vee' wake nearest me about 6-8 feet downstream.  It followed the fly for about 2 feet and hooked itself on turning back towards its lie.

The fight was energetic but uneventful, with the salmon choosing to conduct the battle in the open water upstream of the rock.

It appeared to have been in the river about a week, having shed its lice and gained a slight purple sheen on its back.  Something had chewed the lower corner of its tail but without impairing its swimming abilities.  Yet again the hook was well down, which necessitated high speed surgery on the bank, before sending it on its way like a torpedo.  I was delighted and relieved in equal measure.  My host was over the moon having achieved his objective.

Last pool of 1 Below
Hostess Sheila acting as ghillie
Full range casting at +12"
The Club water starts just around the corner
I fished out the last afternoon on the bottom beat 1 Below down towards Helmsdale and the sea.  This was classic salmon river water about 30 yards wide and running fast and heavy.  Despite feeling extremely fishy, none obliged before the clock stopped at 5pm to close a very perfect week at the edge of the world.

So what did I learn from the experience?

  • Avoid the idle default: make sure that your set-up and tactics are right for the pools you are going to fish.
  • On a small river with relatively few fish present, local knowledge is invaluable.  After 23 years' experience Donnie knows his water intimately and his signposting of possible taking fish was inch perfect.  Always heed the ghillies advice (I did).
  • Stay focused: the features of a small river and the appropriate fishing responses change every few yards so there's no let up in the thinking processes.
  • Start with a short line and clear the water under your feet first.  At the head of a pool don't start pacing down straight away.  Start short, clear the foreground and gradually extend your line before stepping off.
  • If in doubt, work the fly by hand lining, stripping or whatever.  After a week's chiding by Donnie I had become a much more active handliner.
  • Master all the basic casts to give you the essential foundation for the ad hoc solutions a small river demands.
  • If in doubt present the fly above the fish so it can see the silhouette against the sky in Window 3.
  • Just keep on doing the basics right and your luck may well come good.

It was a fabulous week with a great house party in the lodge and good company on the river bank and around the table.  Tony and Sheila were the ultimate hosts who derived the greatest pleasure from their guests' success and enjoyment.  What a privilege.

Upper Suisgill at sunset April 2018

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