Chasing Spring Silver; on the Helmsdale and Thurso

Part 2 of 2 (Every Adventure has to start somewhere)

The journey north had been stunning in the gathering gloom and was a taste of the vistas and scenery that we were to experience over the next 2 days; it’s wild, remote sunning landscapes inspire, and in winter weather it is something to experience. Spending the night in Brora a wee town 10 miles south of the village of Helmsdale it was a quick jaunt North and on to this famous river. Having elected to fish the Association water which runs from the harbour 1.5mile upstream, in Spring this can be most likely to produce of all the beats on this 20mile river, famed for its once prolific Spring run like every river it has dropped off in recent years that is as much to do with the pressures on the species and the endless other factors threatening wild Atlantic Salmon than anything else, yet the Helmsdale still manages to consistently produce good numbers of fish.

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Tentative wading on the Helmsdale, sheets of sleet, rain and high wind, river high water and difficult wading, looking upstream east/north eastwards

Its location in stunning scenery, it’s history and influence on salmon fishing makes it all so worthy of a pilgrimage, just scanning a beat map or OS map of Strath Kildonan also known as Strath Ullie you can’t help but notice the origin of several famous flies alone that this river has contributed to the sport; the Kildonan Killer , yellow Torransh and of course the legendary Willie Gunn which some credit with having taken more fish than any other fly. There is also a sadder Scottish history associated with Helmsdale, the Strath and Sutherland as a whole but that is another story and I had ventured north to fish. The Helmsdale primary source is Loch Badanloch, 1 of 3 interconnected lochs Badanloch, Loch nan Clar and Rimsdale.  These lochs help to maintain water levels in drier times thanks to a Dam, so fishing is an option season long. Picking the day ticket up for  a very reasonable £25, generally it’s a first come first served basis but it always worth while to phone a head of time. The Helmsdale is unique in some respect as the waters above the Associations water are a collective of owners that work together in regards to the fishings, allowing their guests to to experience all the Helmsdale has to offer fishing different beat on different days. Similarly the opening week; 11th of January is free, all you have to do is register in advance and on each day of opening week you are alotted a beat for the day, personally I think this is a fantastic idea and allows anglers a taste of a river that might otherwise be out of reach. it also helps to get plenty of rods out in the hope of seeing the first salmon of the season, never a bad thing for a rivers’ reputation. Currently Association day tickets can be bought at the Helmsdale Tackle company shop in the centre of the village but sadly they are in the process of closing their retail shop to concentrate on online sales so where to get the tickets following the shops closure, I am unsure.

The Helmsdale tackle company does produce some of the finest flies on the market; beautifully hand tied, so with the permit I bought a few of their classic Willie Gunn copper tube that only 4 days earlier had scored Helmsdales first 2016 springer.

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Looking Downstream, East/south Eastwards across the Flat and Style pools

A mile by road up Strath Ullie brings you to the top of the Association beat, well sign posted next to a parking place a path leads down a flight of steps to the rivers left/north bank and the 2 most productive pools on the beat; the Flat and Style pools. The clear blue skies of earlier where now a distant pleasent memory, Mother Nature must have seen me tackling up and decided……well you can guess! Howling wind bringing with it sheets of heavy sleet and snow that looked like it was never going to stop, it was blowing 40mph from the Southeast/East straight in my face upstream. Hang it, I hadn’t travel 150miles not to fish! As I threw on my waders above the river Jen took pity on me and asked if I would like some company, someone to hold my net.  I was so grateful, as much as I love to flyfish there are times were I question my own sanity and just having someone there with you on the river bank when your fingers are blue numb and you are starting to believe your feet are lumps of ice can make the difference between fishing and sacking to off for the pub.

the Sharpes Gordon 2 13ft 9/10wt (http://www.sharpes.net/gordon-2 15ft 10WT salmon-rod-195-p.asp),

with an Orvis Large Arbor IV (http://www.orvis.co.uk/p/access-mid-arbor-fly-reels/3r44)

teamed with the Rio AFS Shooting head with hover1 sink tip (http://www.garryevans.co.uk)

I fished virtually this same set up on all 3 river how ever I did change the fly used, on the Ness the cone head monkey was the go to fly, but I was on new water on the Helmsdale and Thurso so opted for the tried and test Willie Gunn since only days earlier it had produced.


I tentatively waded into the style pool the very top pool on the Association water where the water was high with the snow, sleet melt and the colour of an over brewed cup of builders tea. I couldn’t see the bottom, just a peaty abyss it’s because these type of conditions, I always wear a life jacket and carry a wading staff. An unfamiliar river, its bottom and its nature is the quickest way to kill yourself, you go for a days fishing and end up fighting for your life, it may be cumbersome but it could save your life. It soon became apparent that wading just wasn’t going to be an option so I heaved myself from the water and got to laying my first cast and even with the 13ft rod it was easy to cover the whole water, but I have to say that I truly hate Spey casting from a bank and I recently discovered that when the cast was developed it was never supposed to be preformed with in 2 yards of the bank and I can understand why! at the back of my mind there is always a niggling worry that you catching the bank. I could have thrown in an upstream C cast but with the wind it was just easier to limit the time the line was in the air, casting at about 45 degrees across the river the line would land several feet upstream of me but I was determined to fish through the pools and at least give it ago.  The river was 18in plus up as I fished through the flat and style pools without a touch and in the two odd hours I had seen several cars with rods on them heading down the Glen and calling it a day.  A rather wet and cold Jen doing star jumps by the river sealed for me, we beat a retreat to a great wee café in the village to thaw out. The Helmsdale is such a truly iconic river it was great just to wet a fly on it, a cold and wet day on the river beats a day in the office. I made a promise to myself as we drew out of Helmsdale on to the A9 that I would be back. May is proving a productive month, so come warmer days in the months to come I will be back chasing silver on the Helmsdale.

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Snow storm coming in over the Beattrice oil platform, looking eastwards over the Moray Firth from Upper Latheron

Back on the A9 we had 50 miles left to Thurso and the final river on my northern adventure. It has been almost 10  years since I had ventured this far North on the East coast of Scotland, the West is a different story and is like a second home. I had forgotten how unique and stunning the landscapes of eastern Sutherland and Caithness are! As a recovering geologist the landscape is underlayen by some awesome mouth watering geology, a geology that paved many of the great cities of the world; London, Sydney and many more.  You can take the boy out of geology but not the geology out of the boy.

But I was here to fish and had left the rock hammer at home, I aimed to fish the lower section of the Thurso Beat 1 the Association water, but the first challenge was finding the shop to buy the permit. A small book shop little more than a broom cupboard the ticket was £40 for the day, which I felt was steep for a river that was not firing on cylinders of late and not a ghillie for help, from the outset I did not feel welcome. I was informed as a guest day ticket I could not fish below the graveyard in essence removing the lowest pools only.

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The Tail of the Salmon pool on the river Thurso

The river was beautiful nestled in channel below the rolling plateau like landscape that optimises the this stark beautiful part of Scotland. The river was running a couple of feet above normal, running fast and coloured much like the Helmsdale the previous day however the weather was more favourable, light wind and blue skies only occasionally broken by light snow showers as they drifted through. I chose to fish the well known Salmon pool above the weir, a long deep pool with lovely greasy water and boils which just looked as though it should hold fish, fishing from the West Bank wading was once again out of the question so I stuck to cast of 45-60ft aiming the copper tube Willie Gunn on the edge of the fast water that lay along the opposite bank and fished the fly round through the seam and the greasy water I fished slowly through the pool twice without a touch.

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Looking upStream south on the Thurso, Snow storm on the Horizon

I had enjoyed the 4.5 hours on this classic river but no success so with my frustration building, the sky darkening and heavier snow looming I opted to beat the retreat to the hotel and the Scotland vs Wales rugby, so from one passion to another. I alluded earlier to a less than welcoming reception to the day angler on this beat and I have to say it was only this beat that I fished so I cannot comment on the other higher beatsimage. Now I hate to be negative about the locations I fish or the sport in general but I was so disappointed to learn that I could have fished these tidal pools at the very mouth of the river, I was told otherwise and it sadly reflects how some Association waters are managed almost like private thiefdoms who would rather not see a visiting angler.  But I do have to say having spoken to the Chairman before we travelled he could not have been further from this, welcoming and very helpful but sadly this appears lacking in the other points of contact for the visiting angler who often pays more for a day than the members pay for a year. It is quickly forgotten that these visiting anglers are a valuable revenue stream for any Association water that allows the members to enjoy reasonably priced season tickets and river upkeep, is it so terrible a thing that a visiting angler catch the first fish or even just sample this beautiful river? because apart from the revenue, these fishers leave with a real appreciation of how lucky the locals are, a tinge of jealously that as a visitor it may only be that once a year that we get to sample the peaty waters.

 

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Looking down stream across the Salmon pool towards Thurso, beautiful conditions and a vast improvement on the previous day

The rugby concluded much like my previous two days fishings, without victory but I had loved every minute exploring a tiny bit of these fantastic classic Highland salmon Rivers. We headed South homewards on the homeward leg, a much needed rest and a chance on my local rivers, now that they were once again open for salmon; the Deveron, the Spey, the Dee and the Don.

Bucket list on the Spey.

It is an impossibility for me not to answer a ringing phone the whole reason why I am still wearing my waders and dripping all over the kitchen floor, having just got back from the Deveron and as the phone began to ring as I reached the back door, my compulsive nature gave little option! now standing in a growing puddle with a less than impressed looking Jennifer standing in front of me, a sheepish smile does little to recover the situation! It was Jay our neighbour; Drumdelgie B&B and Holiday Cottages from just up the hill , “Ah just the man! You know about all things fishing” flattery will get you everywhere Jay! “could you organize a days Salmon Fishing for my boss?” Jay and his wife Claire own the huge former farmhouse and cottages at Drumdelgie, with even better views of the Deveron Valley than mine, and the soon to open boutique holiday lets, (http://facebook.com/Glambunking) When not being hospitable Jay works in IT and his boss Mark it turns out was desperate to Fly-fish in Scotland and land his first Scottish Springer.

Mark a very experience all round fly-fisher having fished all over Ireland, the UK and further afield for Salmon, Sea-trout and like myself Mark is a huge Brown Trout bum. It didn’t take much thinking about, with the famous Spey only 20 minutes away, it was an easy choice for a Scottish salmon virgin! A quick call to Dougie on the Craigellachie Beat and we were booked on for the 19th of March. No doubt a shiver went down Dougies back at the thought of my Spey Cast! The 19th still a couple of weeks away as due to work commitments it was as soon as Mark could cancel his meetings and head North. Our fate and our fishing was now in the hands of Mother Nature and the March weather, which can sometimes be a lot like Russian roulette. Bad weather is a certainty but its all about whether it will be on your turn with the gun that it decides to fire? And as sure as the proverbial brown stuff, wind and torrential rain, in places over 100mm of rain moved in from the West. Temperatures rose to a sultry 14 degrees around Huntly, stripping the snows on the hills across Scotland and combining with the deluge of rain, the Spey at Craigellichie rose over 8ft in 24 hours. The Tay like-wise went up 12ft in 12 hours, typical March weather! I sat nervously watching the SEPA river level data as the week of the 9th wore on. I was having a squeaky bum moment, I don’t specilise in Salmon Fishing, it’s just a bit of fun for me, Brown Trout is my trade so I was starting to feel like I was out of my depth, combined with finding out that fishing the Spey for Springers had been on Mark’s bucket list for some time, dread of the 19th becoming a wash out and Mark having travelled 600 miles for nothing felt tangibly close. But as the week of the 9th slipped in to the 16th, river levels began to drop and fairly rapidly the 19th was looking like a perfect day, light wind from the West, cloudy with bright spells, light rain later in the day and 10 degrees it looked pretty close to perfect.

Looking West upstream of Mark and Myself on the Slabs pool, Ben Rhinnes behind and the MacCallan fishings hut.

The week of the 16th became a busy week for me with the Trout season open I headed for some brownies.  I always forget how disappointing and hard work the brownie fishing can be this far North this early in the season with cold water and lack of insect life, which seems all the more frustrating as you read the tweets of the like of Paul Proctor who already seems to raking the Lunkers from the waters of Cumbria. March is a fickle month and to stem my frustrations I bashed….some rainbows on the Wednesday morning and then, a fantastic afternoon Clay shooting with Mark and Jay. Jay thought a bit of an ice breaker and friendly competition would warm us up for Thursdays adventures on the Spey.

Arriving on the Spey at the back of 8.30am the weather man seemed to have got it spot on, the boys Mark and Jay however were looking a little bleery eyed, no doubt a restless night due to excitement……..alas No, they had been sampling a different liquid from Speyside, one of its many malts!

However Marks excitement was still quite obvious and it is quite contagious when a client is that excited about a day fishing you have organized, it gives a real lift and personally its a major part of my enjoyment for the day.

Mark casting on the Slabs pool drinking in the scenery and the smell of Whiskey and Shortbread

 

Mark loving the fishing, the smile says it all.

Fingers crossed he would see a springer, the river had been producing a few, so now we just had to present our flies in the right place and hope the Salmon were for taking them.

There were 5 rods including mself and Mark booked on the Beat, Jay had volunteered to drive, coming a long as a voyeur of  our fluff chucking, more like an excuse for a day off work. You can’t get a much better skieving spot to whyle away a day than beside the beautiful Spey. And as before on my last visit, the intoxicating aroma of Whiskey mash and shortbread filled the air.

Dougie smiled looking out over the River “ it is at perfect height, good chance of seeing a fish” the River was lower than my last visit and was between 6/8 inches above summer levels. Myself and Mark were put down to fish the Upper and Lower Slabs pool which runs from above the MacCallan fishing hut on the North bank in a large sweeping arc past main Cragellachie hut on the South bank about a half mile above the old cast iron bridge.

I fished on a Sharpes (http://www.sharpes.net)15ft 9/10wt Gordon 2 rod, a large arbor Able game reel, Rio 9/10wt outbound floating shooting head, spey line with an 11ft fast sink tip and the old favorite 1.5in brass tube Monkey. A combination that wanted to shoot out long accurate line, well, once Dougie had corrected my lingering affliction of a Trout fisherman’s bad habits, that seems to hinder my Spey casting more than help.

Mark slipped in to his Bucket list River 50m below me, and from the outset there seemed to be a problem, the rod just wasn’t loading, the line seemed to collapse on the water.  I tried to help to little success. But once more Dougie spotted the problem, a quick change of rod and line and Marks experience shown, as cast after cast effortlessly rolled out long beautiful casts arced out delivering one of his new Ian Gordan flies in to the deep glassy water that looked certain to hold his much desired Springer.

Dougie giving Advice, on the Slabs

 

Change of Rod for Mark and Dougie showing where to put the fly  

New Rod, New focus, Mark fulfilling His bucket list sending casts out over the beautiful pool

We both fished through the pool with little luck, we only had to contend with the Gorrila photography of Jay, who often went un-noticed until you heard the click of the shutter, and a shout of “got you” with Jay appearing from behind a broom bush. He captured good and bad shots alike, and as many bad and goods casts against the beautiful back drops of Speyside. By the end of the day he had filled my camera’s memory card with over 200 snaps.

Reaching the tail of the Slab pools around 1pm we retired to the Mashton Bar and restaurant in Aberlour for a tasty lunch and to re-energize.

Looking West upstream, Mark fishing through Ringorm pool

Looking East and downstream, from Ringorm to the Garden pool

Casting out over the Ringworm pool

Dougie Ross our Ghillie for the Day on the Craigellachie Beat, the Garden pool behind.

With the afternoon Dougie got us on the Garden and Ringorm pools, the wind beginning to strengthen with a decided chill on it.  We fish down through our respective pools, I was fishing the Garden pool, I faced the challenge of casting from the bank due to the depth garden pool. But I seemed still to be managing to reach out and land my fly were I wanted it, landing it between two prominent large rocks generating nice eddies of bubbling, oily water, that looked bound to hold a fish. From behind I hear Dougie “remember your Snap-T cast” a better cast from the bank but knowing my caic handed casting, I decide to err with caution and stick with what I am doing “Baby Steps” I shout to Dougie, ‘I only just got my double spey firing right! lets not tempt it to fall apart”. Dougie smiles knowingly and heads off to deal with other fishers. The pool is soon fished through and still not a touch for either of us. With the wind picking up and the temperature dropping we decide to call it a day.  Mark had ticked the Spey off his bucket list, but unfortunately not his Scottish Springer. As we head for the hut Mark admitted although he’d not seen a Springer he felt truly rejuvenated after his day on the Spey and now with Dougie’s contact details, he would be back on the Spey for his Springer as soon as he could. next time Mark ventures North I’ve promised him some worthwhile Brown Trout adventures.

Shambles on the Spey

I had hoped to regale you with a great story of this weeks Salmon fishing trip to the Craigellachie Beat, on the famous river Spey a beautiful section of the river, and better still it is only 20min from my front Door. The Craigellachie beat constitutes one of the lower middle sections of the river, with the beat stretching for over 4 Km/2.8miles and lies about 17miles from the Moray coast, Were the Spey empties its peaty waters in to the Moray firth at the aptly named spey bay.

Fishing once more with Mark a regular fishing buddy, we arrived at the main hut about 8.45am, nestled among some trees on the well groomed and maintained right hand bank of the river. Over looked from behind by the craigellichie hotel and sitting about a half mile above the old cast iron telford bridge that majestily arcs across the deep tea coloured pools of this world famous river. Above on the opposite bank beyond the trees sits the Macallan Distillary, hidden, but making it presents known with the familiar smell of sweet roasted barley mash. The whiskey ladened sent was being carried on a light wind, which thankfully was expected to stay light for the day. To the west above Ben Rhines,  wearing its bright white coat of snow much of which and fallen the previous day glowed under the glorious blue sky which wasn’t expected to last the day, as cloud was to roll in Bringing heavy rain and sleet. Ah the joys of spring fishing.

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Greeted by Dougie Ross our ghillie for the day,  we quickly tackle up slipping into something less comfortable; 3 layers of thermals, woollen jumper, fleece body suit and topped off with a pair of Waders, warm is the aim! With air temperature about 4 degrees and the water not that much better layers is a must. Clad head to toe in goretex and neoprene,  you can’t help feeling that you look like some kind of  PVC clad fetishist, auditioning for the next 50 Shades film. on top of this you throw on a goretex wading jacket, buff, neoprene gloves, a wooly hat and of course  life jacket. Thankfully then the Fishing can commence.Craigellachie

As the only Rods on the Beat to have arrived, we had the choice of pools and on the grilles advice we headed for the top of the beat and the first pools of the day. I elected to fish the Brown Isle the second pool on the beat. Slipping in to the chilled water at the neck of the pool, I wade out through the glassy water that stretches the length of the pools right/south bank wading to thigh depth and start sending lines out in to mid stream using a right hand double spey fishing a brass tube monkey, on a Rio scandi line with Hover sink 1 shooting head. and to be honest I never really enjoy fishing a sinking line be it for Salmon or Trout, but i wanted to get down to the fish. My fly was landing in the boiling water that extended from the mid stream across to the left/north bank and runs the length of the pool till it reaches the riffels and then transitions in to the Garden pool below. Occasional  large boulders litter Brown isle generating nice, eddies and greasy water, These I would pay more attention to as I reached them. Then on only my third cast my fly is greeted with a Knoock knock as it drifts across and down. My senses ping the knowledge fish are there wetting my appetite, almost as much as the lung fulls of warm homely shortbread are wetting my appetite, the warm sugary smell drifting on the breeze from the nearby walkers factory. I loose myself in my fishing cast after cast and slowly fish down through the pool with out another touch.

Looking east down stream on Brown isle pool

Looking east down stream on Brown isle pool

Not another touch was had through the pool, and as the pool draws to its end, the cloud began to roll in. And with the cloud, my day began to descend into a shambles! To be honest by the time the day drew to an end, shambles is as polite a word as I could use! No longer being able to feel my toes, I waddled from the pool feeling really quite frozen! In the fast obscuring sun I gained some warmth, and quickly I began trying to warm my ice like toes. The warm starts to return, the growing warmth brings  with it a surging throbbing pain, the Hot aches! An excruciating throbbing pain coursing from toes to shin. Agony! so Dressed like some sort of PVC clad fetishist I begin waddling as though on hot coals, stretching and swearing on the river bank like a deranged mad man, that has soiled himself! I frantically try to get warmth in to feet, whilst fighting the throbbing pain. I must have looked a site, I dearly hope no-one saw me!

Trying to regain my composure I waddle to the garden pool Where Mark is fishing, with Dougie watching. Having now returned empty-handed from attempting to find the missing guests. Mark is quickly shown a different cast to help deal with the high bank that you have to fish from on the Garden pool, and I return to the top of the pool and begin to start fishing again, employing the new learned technique. With the first cast begins the total collapse of my casting, I appear to have become a ham-fisted idiot, with every worsening cast my rage boils at myself. Now cursing and berating myself under my breath, streaming combinations of insults and swears that only real rage brings. Dougie spots my decent into chaos and comes to my aid, his patience and resolve to get me back on track was amazing but it seemed to be a lost cause, as we sort one part of my cast another part dissolved and with it embarrassment and rage fizzled away within me I think we spent an hour beat our heads against the brick…crumbling wall that my cast had descended in to. My right shoulder screamed in pain as did my back, and I am almost sure I could hear my pride in there aswell! I should have walked away and taken a break but I didn’t and really can’t thank Dougie enough for is endless help. Eventually broken dougie calls lunch! And my weary body and patience could get a rest.

The Upper slab pool looking down Stream to the lower slab pool and Mark with Dougie

The Upper slab pool looking down Stream to the lower slab pool and Mark with Doug

Following lunch we began fishing through the pool in front of the main hut, and alas the cast was still a shambles it creaked and fell apart with every second cast and Dougie battled on trying to help even trying me on a larger heavier rod in an attempt to slow me down. But the damage was done to body, confidence and focus, I trough in my hat and called it a day dragged myself from the river dejected by failure, rage and the kicking my pride had taken.

Pana Boat 'o' Fiddich Pool

Marks first casts on the final pool of the day Boat “o” Fiddich I chose to spectate for this Pool.

So from the Shambles what can I take? Casting should never be painful! clearly I was using my right shoulder to try to impart power into the cast, a trout habit that is utterly redundant in the spey cast, the over use of my shoulder inflamed old rugby injuries which now inflamed stopped me from moving and turning as I should have, and stiffened up. To compensate for this I seemed to speed up the whole cast which didn’t allow time for a D loop to form and I was in variably on almost every cast pulling my anchor point, these combined and stopped me loading the rod, which in turn ment I had to work harder and apply more power. A vicious circle! Listen to the ghillie! he is truly an invaluable source of knowledge and skills, A good ghillie like Dougie Ross is worth their weight in gold to the fly-fisher and don’t let your pride get the better of you listen to everything and learn! also listen to Ur body if your sore. stop, breath, slow it down and walk away for a minute the river will still be there in 10 minutes time and remember it’s not just about catching a fish drink in where you are Scotland is gorgeous and breath-taking so breath in the location as much as the fishing. Again thank you Dougie for your patience and resolve. I spent saturday on the River Deveron, 300 meters from my front door. No fly on my line but I went through the motions like a novice. Cast after cast sorting out the shamble, hearing and heeding Dougies advice, rebuilding my cast and confidence ready for my next adventure. Knowing that every time every time I go fishing I learn and importantly being open to learning is part of the fun for me.