During the gloom of the last year’s lockdown, I set out to rationalise my fishing kit. The first job was the 15 or so fly boxes I had dotted around my work room, the second was to get shot of some of the stuff I had accumulated over the years and superseded with new kit and the third a resolution to be tidier and not hoard what Lyn referred to as junk, and, only buy new stuff that was essential!
For many of us, fishing kit assumes an almost magical affection, it occupies a special place in our lives so the task of sorting out and getting rid of stuff is something not easily done. At the discovery that I had about 15 rods and the same number of reels, she who must be obeyed gave me the quick up and down and observed that I hadn’t got the 30 arms to fish that lot. My response about they all occupying a place in my fishing world, and, I now only using about 5 or 6; a mistake which got the obvious response – ‘that’s 9 that can go then’! This called for Johnson style political move – I’ll say that I have got rid of some of the stuff and smuggle that into the loft.
That done I started on the fly boxes and decided it needed long term effort so I abandoned it for the time being.
The piles of old magazines and other accumulate paperwork, now hove into view, some was about fishing trips – travel arrangement and the like which sparked a thought, why not fill in the lockdown by cobbling together something about the trips, something of a record and which may amuse others. Much more fun than buggering about trying to make the place tidy. So, safely having parked the resolutions I set to work, dragging out memories that, at earliest were 20 years old.
These Fishing Adventures are the result of my NEW resolution namely, do what I want to do or, at least get My priorities right although, I keep this to myself. They describe the five destination of fishing trips made over the years from about 2001 by a gang of friends which varied in number but generally involved a group of four or five. Day trips are absent as they are ALL about fishing! Expertise at the start was, put politely, lacking but, we had a real laugh trying to improve. The trips were all about enjoyment, the fishing playing some part, but not all, to this endeavour, and enjoy it we did, catching some fish on the way and saw places we probably would not have seen.
Of the fisherman, Don Beatie was on the Irish and Canadian trips and, by far the most skilled fly fisherman of the group. I had fished with Don on his boat, on many occasions at Maytime on Ullswater and learned so much and caught a lot of fish. Fishing with Don, 2 or 3 days a year for 5 or 6 years taught me so much, many, the subtleties that last a lifetime.
Of the five destinations, 5 were to Ireland, 6 to the River Coquet in Northumberland, 2 to the river Helmsdale in Sutherland and 1 to Canada.
Of the people taking part, Nat Thornton and me were on every trip, Bob Ayres on all excepting to the Helmsdale and my son, Peter on 2 trips to the Coquet.
Adventure 1: A Bit of ‘Irish’
The River Drowse, is in the Province of Connacht and the County of Leitrim, Eire on its north west coast. It is fed by Lough Melvin, notorious for its sudden storms and drownings. The south west part of the Lough is bisected by the border with Northern Ireland and as such was contentious when we first were there.
Our group of fishing pals had often talked about fishing in Ireland and it seemed the River Drowse and Lough Melvin was a good place to start, salmon in the river and trout in the lough. Melvin is unique, it has four species of trout, brown, sonaghan, gillaroo, and ferox and the river about 10 km long was recommended by my friend Don Beattie of Ullswater fame. I have said before that Don was and is the best fly fisherman I have ever known and he had caught on every trip to the river. He said the salmon were plentiful!
We also discovered the river joins the sea at Bundoran in a series of sea pools, full of salmon with the tide and the best time was June.
Another attraction of the Drowse was that the fishing is owned by one family who also have self-catering accommodation and boats on the lake, so Bob Ayres, Nat and me booked for a week in June with Don coming out for a few days.
So off we went, made easier that in those days as tackle could be carried in the ‘planes nose cone, into Belfast and a hired car. A stop for a bite in Enniskillen, via the road by Lough Erne and to Bundoran to check out the recommended Bridge Hotel but not before punctuating our journey at Ballyshannon. Now you may have heard of Rogan’s of Ballyshannon, founded in 1830 and famous for their flies tied without a vice and their method of dying with ‘Ass’s piss’, as Mr Rogan, it is rumoured, announced to Prince Charles. We could see the shop was on its last legs, a shadow of its former self and did not survive for long after. On to Bundoran where the Bridge Hotel proved to be as good as the recommendation, good food, ‘ ‘like mother makes’, Guinness, music and the Craic. We followed the river up to its source and to the ‘Office’. Thomas Callagher the owner of the estate and fishery, directed us to our accommodation and to the Shop, ‘you’ll need some of our flies, you’ll catch nothing with them’, looking at ours. The shop, more like a cave, was ruled by one Billy Likely[!], Jamison on the counter and lots of baloney, we left with depleted wallets. It turned out that our accommodation was near to Bundoran, adjacent to the river and within walking distance to the ‘Bridge’. Convenient said Nat.
Next day, keen as mustard, we tackled up at the house and tied on our new flies – #14 Curry’s Red Shrimps, ‘Tis’ a killer serr’, and got to it – result nixed. Back to the house for a bite, ‘it’ll be alright when Don gets here, we said as some comfort, that was the next day so we spent the remainder of the day exploring the river with the odd exploratory cast.
Now the Drowse is not a big river and, in most places, a 10’, 8 weight will do. We found the sea pools where locals and visitors alike, fishing sitting on chairs with very heavy rods and fast sinking – even leaded line. The fish are energetic said one with a heavy German accent just as he hooked a fish which ran towards the sea – it was a 5lb grilse, he was right about energetic. The fish was pristine, just from the sea – put up a hell of a fight. Fish here often we asked – every year for a few weeks replied our new German friend – ‘you have to get down deep as they run up on the left side on the bottom’.
Don and our other pal Andy turned up the next day and agreed we would fish the sea pools in the morning, they were staying in different digs so we’ll see them there. ‘We need to catch the tide, got your tide table’?’ ‘No’. ‘Early then’. The Bridge Hotel figured that evening and we surfaced next morning at 8 only to find two decent fresh grilse in the kitchen sink with a note’ where were you’. Don had done it again, told you he was good. Apparently, the tide was right at 0630 we were told as they marched in for breakfast. ‘We were there an hour before – fish everywhere’.
Next day we decided to fish the Lough, boats were included in the deal and Don showed us his dapping kit. Now the three of us had never dapped before so another visit to Mr Likely. Dapping turn out to be a load of fun in the rolling wave and we all caught – Browns of 8 – 12 Oz’s, bright spots and gorgeous. We didn’t make the sea pools that evening!
The next days were much the same, we fished the sea pools, at the right time, twice and caught nothing – so much for the killer flies. Don caught another two grilse. We were more at home on the Lough and continued to catch alternating between dapping and wet fly with evening at the ‘Bridge’‘before the pub’ in Kinlough near the head of the river.
Don and Andy left on the Friday and we followed the next day. There is no doubt that an ‘Irish;’ fishing trip is more than fishing, the people, the music, food and the craic.
We made four more trips to Melvin and the Drowse, slowly learning the river and lough but it was Melvin we all preferred. Our party range from 4 to 6, all fishing friends. For the last we drove to Holyhead, caught the HSS ferry and drove across Ireland. We experience a storm on Melvin which blew up from nowhere and nearly drowned Bob and Nat – no life jackets required!
Nat caught his first salmon after thirty-five years trying, which led to some celebration and we all caught a lot of trout.
It turned out that Nat had a friend, Pat, who lived overlooking Lough Swilly near Rathmelton, and on the third trip we visited Pat and his wife for supper. Pat had sold his small farm for ‘a shed load of money’, to house and golf course developers and had built a really lovely house overlooking the Lough. It is fair to say that Pat was no stranger to Jamison’s and we had a hilarious time although none for me the driver. The trip home, about 100 miles, was an adventure as, when we encountered the ring road around Letterkenny, we went around four times, Nat the navigator couldn’t see the map, his glasses were in the boot! He only admitted this when we were home.
We venture to Donegal City and the counties spectacular country side and coast, had a fishing trip to the Earn Estuary and south to the lovely city of Sligo taking in the grave of W B Yeats.
If your ever in that area, take in the estuary of the Bunderun River, the gradient is so steep it a wonder how the fish ascend.
Postscript. Many years ago, my friend Don Beattie gave me a book saying it is a ‘must’ read and so it was. It is A Man May Fish by T C Kingsmill Moore 1893-1979, a Judge in the Irish Supreme Court who spent a lifetime fishing for seatrout and salmon mainly in his beloved Counties Galway and Connemara and Lough Melvin He had a knack of taking the reader with him to the time and place of his fishing adventures – it is indeed a must read and so must you. It is one of my two favourite fishing books*. To close, this an extract from the Book’s Preface.
‘What has fishing meant and means to me may be summarised in a plea and a protest. A protest against the itch to make records, the urge to extract every possible fish in anyway that is not illegal, the desire to go one better than the next man; a plea that fishing should not be so much a pursuit as a pastime calling for concentration sufficient to put all worries out of mind, yet not such concentration as to be in itself exhausting. It was not his skill but his approach that made Walton the father of anglers’.
*The other book is ‘Fly Fishing’, published first in 1899 and much revised, written by Viscount Grey of Fallodon – Lord Grey who was Foreign Secretary in the first decades of the 20 C, including WW1. As most know, my affection for the Aristocracy is honed to a minimum, I make an exception for the Viscount!
Adventure 2: The River Coquet in glorious Northumberland
Following our trips to Lough Melvin and the River Drowse, the fishing gang decided a change of venue was needed and after much debate, which usually took place in the local, we decided the River Coquet in Northumberland had potential and although 310 miles distant, an easier trip than County Leitrim.
You have met Bob Ayres and Nat in our previous adventures, but this time my son Peter and pal Clive would come along.
The River Coquet, a spate river, which rises in the Cheviots and after about 38 miles, flows into the North Sea at Amble and was once famous for its very big Seatrout and good Salmon runs. For most of its length, the fishing is controlled by the Northumberland Angling Federation.
We decided July was a good timing, light nights for the Seatrout and Rothbury, a small Market Town, a good base.
A house was booked and a people carrier hired, none of our cars being big enough and the second Saturday in July saw us on our way, M1, A1M past Newcastle and turn left at Morpeth. No one had told us about the Metro Centre in Gateshead and the traffic jams so caused on the A1
Turning off the A1 we tracked the river to the likely looking Pauperhaugh Bridge where we hung over to get a reckoning with the river – too low -too high -any fish running[?] it looked OK to our inexpert eyes, so on to Rothbury and booked into the house.
Owing to the escapades that evening, a slow start was made, getting to the river well after lunch on Sunday. We decided to fish the stretch upstream of Pauperhaugh Bridge and I settled on a stretch,300m upstream of a narrow cascade with the others dotted along the river above the bridge. I got onto water about 1.2m deep and very slowly worked my way downstream, fan casting to cover the 12m wide stream. After 2 hours I was within 30m of the cascade when the rod dipped, I tightened and something pulled – I was on! Panic! Frantically reeling in, the fish shot past me against the current and I managed to keep connected; it kept going for about 25m then turned downstream making for the cascade and freedom. Something very lively had taken the #14 Black Stoatstail and its did not like it. Slowly I gained a modicum of control to stop the fish running over the cascade and about 10 minutes later, the fish was in the net, a 7lb seatrout, fresh from the sea.
I am ashamed to report, I killed the fish, something I have not done since. I climbed out of the river exhilarated. This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me.
By now it was 5pm, our rendezvous the bridge, a walk of 20 minutes away.
We ate the fish for supper, cooked by Clive, a bit of a dab hand at the stove. After, Nat said he had, some years back, been to a pub in an adjacent village so of we went to Forest Burngate. You will recall that Nat had been the Huntsman of the Beagles at Stowe School and about 25 years ago had taken the pack to hunt on and ‘Old Boy’s estate in Northumberland and had then taken the boys to the pub.
Its fair to say the Forest Burngate Arms was not salubrious, the single bar like someone’s sitting room with worn armchairs and a tatty bar – just Nat’s kind of thing. We walk in and the owner/barman looking us up and down said ‘hello haven’t seen you for a long time’ – addressing Nat. Nat was ‘tickled pink’, the rest of us not so much – they only had Carlsberg! Apparently, the owner was a keen hunt follower and knew the Master of the local Beagle Pack, an Old Stoic.
The next two days we fished up through Rothbury, covering about 3km of water without any fish, our daily schedule fish from 8 to 11am and 4 or 6pm till dusk with some site seeing in-between when the sun was on the water.
The rain storm on Tuesday night put about a metre on the gauge, so Wednesdays’ fishing was out, and off we went to Alnwick to explore – Hardy’s showroom and Barter Books on our agenda.
Alnwick has been vote one of the best towns in the UK to live and its easy to see why – excepting at least for me, the Duchesses’ new garden at Alnwick Castle, a parody of historical reinterpretation and tastelessness, for which, I understand she secured grants of £45m. Remembering her husband owned a goodly proportion of Northumberland including the whole of the River Coquet. I refused to pay the exorbitant entrance fee so we didn’t go!
At that time, Hardy’s showroom showed all Hardy or Grey’s tackle, devoted to the fly or spinner. The staff were old hands and knew their stuff. On this and subsequent visits we always bought a few flies and the odd bit of kit – leaders and the like and picked their brains about the Coquet.
If you haven’t visited Barter Books, put it on your ’to do’ list. Its in the old Alnwick Railway Station, a Beeching victim, and houses thousands upon thousands of second-hand books with a good fishing section ranging in cost, from a few £’s to thousands! It’s possible to spend a day there, lunch in the very good Café’ and a front room with an open fire in the colder months. We always bought a few books.
The remaining days we fished various stretches of the river, some right down to the Estuary, but no fish.
We made six more annual trips to the Coquet, the last four in October hoping to catch the late salmon run and took advantage of the Federations beats on the Tyne at Ovingham where the River is 200m wide.15 ‘double handers ,#10 weight lines and Spey casting, the order of necessity, but Nat, true to form always with the Toby spinner. It was there we bumped into another of Nat’s Beagling pals who owned a dilapidated caravan site with frontage to the river – ‘hello Nat he said’, and this after 25 years! Lunch was always sandwiches from a bakery in Corbridge, a Roman town near the wall; another ‘must visit’. The visits to the Tyne we always regarded as ‘site seeing’, the River is so big and local knowledge essential.
One highlight of the Coquet was getting to know a local fisherman from the Byker area of Newcastle and famous for the Byker Wall* development, who had been fishing the Coquet for six decades always using the worming method. Until then I thought the fly required the most skill, not so seeing this man fish. His knowledge of ‘his’ stretch of the river was phenomenal. The paths the fish ran up the river, where they crossed sides and more, he knew with precision, it was encyclopaedic knowledge. He lamented the ‘old’ days when the fish were prolific, relying on his catch to feed his family. You try ‘rolling’ a bunch of worms against the current and see how skilled ‘worming’ is!
As I have said before, our trips were never about ‘catching’ but’ enjoying’ and Northumberland, its People, Countryside, Castles, Pele Towers, Coast and more, delivered this in spades. Nat still enjoyed his afternoon siesta and we became regulars in the Newcastle Arms in Rothbury – such a lovely village.
If you haven’t been to Craigside, an amazing National Trust property in Rothbury, you should – look it up – and we got to know the river a bit – not enough to regularly catch as it is a shadow of its former fishing self, netting in the estuary, pollution and the rest taking its toll.
Our best catch in a week was 7 fish and another friend, Phill caught 5 of those, prawning, both Bob Ayres and me had fish of 14lb and on another trip, Nat caught a 12 pounder.
The Duke of Northumberland continues to take the best beats from the Federation for his pals and has developed a big housing estate on prominent land overlooking Rothbury, not of outstanding design and build quality[!] and continues to do so elsewhere. He obviously hasn’t enough money!
Lyn and me continue to spend holidays in Northumberland and County Durham and have been regulars in the seafood restaurants in Craster and Warksworth. There are apparently more Castles in Northumberland than any other UK county. The Coquet valley up in the Cheviots is about the most picturesque I have seen.
We usually call in at Hardy’s, but more recently, having been bought by Pure Fishing, it’s a shadow of its former self, with most of the staff we knew, gone.
Barter Books remains a joy to visit and my bookshelf is in debt to them.
My first fish still remains in my memory and shame. For those interested in such things my tackle was – Sage 9’-6’, Hardy Ultralite LA #7/8 reel, 8wt Wetcell Kelly’s green inter’ line, inter’ polyleader and 8lb maxima tippet. A self-tied Blackstoats tail on a #14 double at the business end. This fly proved to become my Coquet go to. I broke the rod’s top section on our 6th trip and insurance replaced with a Sage SLT, without requiring to see the original rod, for which I got a replacement top section, and ironically, the rod which went overboard at Ravensthorpe on a Club trip.
*The Byker Wall, located east of Newcastle City centre and built over about 12 years from 1969, was a slum clearance scheme of, I recall, about 1200 flats, and designed by Swedish Architect Ralph Erskine. It was very famous in its hey day and figured in my time at Architectural School.
Adventure 3: Canadian Magic
It was my fishing pal Don Bettie who started it. Did I want to go on a fishing trip to Canada, British Columbia to be more precise. Apparently, he had a pal who organised these trips and him and Andy, another pal, were going and ‘there’s two spaces left’.
More details followed, when, where and cost – September, Vancouver Island and reasonable. I consulted the gang and Nat seemed keen. I looked up the location – halfway up the Island on its east coast. You all have met Nat in my previous articles, he’d never been to Canada or the US for that matter and was raring to go.
Don proved to be the oracle as it turned out he had fished BC several times and said September was prime so we signed up. As Don and the organiser live in Lancashire, the flights were from Manchester- you can stay at my place as it’s an early start.
What about tackle? 9‘– 9’-6’, 10-12 weight rod, big reels with at least 200m backing and 350 and 450 grain sink tip lines. Are well, my Sage 8 wt and 15’ Diawa 10 wt would have to do but what about a big enough reel. I bit the bullet and bought something reasonable.
All of this was an anathema to Nat why obtained the majority of his kit from auctions or car boot sales. We cobbled some kit together –‘that’ll do’, said Nat.
So the second Saturday in September saw Nat and me, laden with kit, on the Pendolino to Wigan where Don picked us up and a boozy night followed – too boozy for the early start!
Our early flight turned out not to be so early and we eventually got away at 1pm.There were 10 in our party so we spent the time getting to know one another and learning how those Lancastrians like a drink. It would have been rude not to join in – we had to whilst away the 10-hour flight via Calgary.
A ‘puddle jumper’ took us on from Vancouver to Campbell River and we checked into the Campbell River Lodge, made famous by Roderick Haig Brown in his book,’ A River Never Sleeps’, and our base for the week where we met the ‘Crew’ who briefed us on the fishing and expeditions during the week. There were Coho, Sockeye, Pink and King salmon running in the huge Campbell River, the former ‘nuclear fuelled’ and the latter up to 50lb they said.
Next day, early but not so bright we were off to the tackle shop for the ‘RIGHT’ lines and backing and then to the river – it was massive and very fast, about twice walking pace. How the heck do you fish that yelled Nat, ‘450 grain line and diagonally upstream,’ said our Guide. We sort of manage but caught nothing.
Tuesday saw an early start and some fish hooked but none landed, convincing me that my chosen quarry should be the Coho I hooked two, both jumping at least two metres out of the water and throwing the hook before I registered the take. Bugger.
The next day was an expedition to the Gold River, direction, north west. We parked at the edge of a forest, welcomed by a sign telling us to beware of Cougars, with a conciliatory note about a fourteen-year-old girl who, some years before had been killed. The fact that we had about a mile walk through the forest was met with an ominous silence and much glancing from side to side as we went. The river was big, about 300m wide and the scenery all you expect from B C but as the forest was down to the water’s edge, we kept as a group – there’s safety in numbers. No one caught anything but we got back without losing anyone.
And then there’s the bears! ‘They’re ok if you don’t get too near a female with cubs’!’ Blacks are Ok but Browns not OK’? Well, that’s good to know!
Wednesday morning was on the Campbell River, a different beat but more of the same, and in the afternoon the River Quinsum, a tributary which was the steepest river gradient I have ever seen. In a big pool, littered with fallen logs, I hooked a big Coho which broke the 15lb leader as if cotton.
Who of you remembers Harry Corbett and Sooty? I do and it transpired that his son, with his inheritance, had purchase fishing on the Campbell River opposite where we were fishing. Our Guide said ‘not much of a fisherman’. We all said ‘where’s sweep’.
Next day we were off up country, stopping on the way to walk down through the forest to a precipitous mountain stream where Don, first there, saw a steelhead lying in a pool and caught it – a 7 pounder, the only one of the week. When hooked, the fish went berserk! I have told you before that Don is the best fly fisher I know. We fished several other smaller rivers that day and caught some sockeye, not as much fun as Coho.
Friday saw us fishing the Tacoma River, wide, deep and very fast flowing. Our Guide waded across, observed by several black bears, looking at us with contempt – they preferred to eat the salmon. The wade was the most frightening imaginable – deep and, estimated by the Guide, a flow of 8 knots. The beat was about 2 miles from the coast and full of King salmon. The overriding feature was some black bears patrolling the beach. Don hooked a King, about 4-foot-long, taking all the backing and broke his rod tip. Unaware of the bears, which, by now had taken an interest, he kept at it until the rod broke off at the butt and then, not to be beaten tried to reel the fish in but the reel jammed. After some swearing, he turned around and only then saw the Bears, I still laugh at the photographs.
On Saturday, our last fishing, we went south to a river Don had fished before but we all blanked then back to the Lodge to pack.
Sunday was home day and on the plane to Vancouver, I sat next to a Canadian lady who asked were we were going. Having told her Manchester,UK, she replied that she was there two weeks before and had stopped on her way home to see friends on the ‘Island’, and that her home was in Whitehorse, up near the Arctic Circle. What’s the temperature there now I enquired – oh about -minus 13c!
So what was the verdict? We all caught, mostly Sockeye but some Coho. We all hooked Kings but only Andy landed and after a 40-minute struggle.
Did we enjoy it, no doubt about that, although If I were to go again it would be to the north on the Skeena River system up on the Alaskan border.
One thing I did learn is that Canadian tackle shops are much better than ours and at the time much cheaper although this was partly due to the exchange rate.
For the trip, Nat had fixed me up with an ex CCF camo anorak, ‘guaranteed waterproof’! Canadian rain confounded this promise and I bought one there and still use it -its guaranteed waterproof for life and made by Bare, a Canadian company. Sometime later, I ripped of the landing net loop on a Northumberland hawthorn hedge, emailed the company and they sent me a replacement, post included. I still use the original!
Adventure 4: The Helmsdale Adventure – Trip One
The Helmsdale River, 21 miles long, is the poshest river in the UK. That I was invited to fish not once but twice was a matter of pure chance and a little of who you know, or in my case, knowing someone who knew someone else.
My old friend, Nat was Kennel Huntsman of the Stowe School Beagle pack at the time and his pal Ken was the master of the Beds Beagles and son in law of a Lord.
I am not that keen on hunting and less so on the aristocracy but I did cock an ear when Nat said we had been invited to the north of Scotland to fish on the family’s estate for 3 days.
Now Ken is not posh but his Kennel maid was and the inevitable happened – he was 60 + and she was 30 – and Ken had a second family and an awkward fit with her family!
The first trip was organised for June, apparently, a good time for the river according to Ken, who said June was a prime month.*
I learned the river was owned by six proprietors and split into twelve beats. The family owned the Kildonan Estate, some 21000 acres with two beats on the river and Deer stalking, another of 35000 acres near Oban.
The river was wide in places, so a double handed rod was needed, and is fed by three Lochs totalling six square miles in area providing a regulated flow. A Gillie was provided, Donald if you’re feeling brave, Mr if you’re not.
The source was near the Garvault Hotel, reputed to be the most isolated in the UK.
I was told the travel arrangements were down to me and we could stay in one of the Lodges fully catered by Mrs Sutherland, NOT the Gillies wife.
So one Monday in June we EasyJeted to Inverness and I drove the hire car to Helmsdale, about 90 miles. All went well until we had the river in sight and saw swarms of midges, Scottish midges and no net, oh bug….r.
Mrs Sutherland welcomed us to the comfortable lodge with a decent supper, whisky and tall – as it turned out, fishing tales.
I don’t know about you but highland porridge, cooked overnight in an oven with really plenty of salt and served in slices is not to my taste, however the fry up was. Well set up, as Ken had family business, just Nat and me with tackle, chest waders and borrowed midge nets met the Gillie at the riverside, stern instructions given and Ronald promptly cleared off after telling us there was a beat rotation system – double Dutch to us. After that it was up to us – the blind leading the blind – followed by three hours of casting across and down and taking a step downstream each cast, in water 4’ deep.
I was ‘awakened’ by a ringing handbell – a call to lunch, so tackle down, waders off and to the ‘other’ lodge, expecting a sandwich but which turned out to be a very decent three course lunch with limitless malt whisky , none of which was spared despite the prospect of the following deep wading Was this how the other half lived? A bit different from Pitsford!
Now Nat’s not one of those blokes who take his fishing too seriously and an afternoon nap is, it seems, important to his wellbeing and he’s often found snoozing on the bankside on previous trips. The Helmsdale was to be no exception, particularly after more than a few malts. So, after staggering back to the river, struggling with the waders, he said he had noticed a ‘relaxing’ bench downstream and not to make too much fuss when I came across him. I made a note, thankful that would probably reduce of the prospect of telephoning Ann, his wife with the bad news of a drowning and got down to the business of fishing.
After another three hours of fruitless casting Nat staggered up, ‘any luck’, ‘bug…r all’, so it was decided that the fishing would be better in a pub in Helmsdale, then off to supper, the same sort of affair as lunch, drink, tales and bed.
Mrs Sutherland had still hadn’t got the message about porridge, although I daren’t tell her, then off to the river only to find it in flood, had rained overnight – so much for the regulated flow. Nothing for it but to see the country – up to Wick then across to Thurso taking in John o Groats and south, up the Halladale valley, by way of Kinbrace with its corrugated iron clad station, where we detoured to see the Garvault Hotel, to confirm its claim and lingering to make sure the drink was up to scratch.
The ride to Helmsdale down Strath Kildonan, following the river and the railway track was spectacular.
Again Mrs Sutherland hospitality made for a memorable evening, she had many a tale about her father, a Deer Stalker and Pony Man for the Estate, whose job was to get the shot deer back from the hillside. Nat a shooting man was delighted.
The day had seen an occurrence that still sticks as, taking a bye road from Wick to Thurso we had been ‘run of the road’ by a convoy of three black Range Rovers who managed to slow down from 70mph enabling us to see, in the middle vehicle, a contemptuous sneer, identified as from M. Heseltine, Mace swinger and Bette noir of M.H. Thatcher, but then, I never did think much of the man!
The following day, our last, was a repeat of the first excepting we were treated to pep talk from Ronald and taken to a different beat- narrower, rocky and tricky. No wading, apparently too dangerous or so we were told. No fish caught or seen, we were clearly doing something wrong according to our adviser, what, he didn’t say. We did however get to meet the Lordly owner who took delight in telling us the 1980’s hideous lodge we had come across, was a replacement made necessary by, in his words,’ the bloody nationalists burning it down’, smug as the insurance paid. We were also shown the demolished materials, massive stone columns etc, of the original estate mansion,’ bigger than Buckingham Palace’!
The next day – home time – was an uneventful journey, we amused ourselves by counting the Distilleries on the way.
Did we have a good time? Did we learn anything, well that Scottish Gillies all lived up to their reputation, what was meant by a beat rotation system, that the river was a delight and the scenery beautiful, that they pan for gold in Sutherland AND we could never afford to be regular fishers on the Helmsdale. That the variables of salmon fishing depend on so many factors which cannot be changed, thankfully, by humans and living near to the river is a very big, big advantage. They say, or the Victorians did, that you need to catch 10,000 from your river before you know it.
Now there’s a prospect.
*And the best time to fish the Helmsdale is earlier in the season!
Adventure 5: Helmsdale Adventure – Trip Two
In my essay about my first trip to fish the Helmsdale river you became acquainted with my old friend Nat and his pal ken and how they conspire to organise a first trip to Helmsdale. The second trip involves the same characters and ken’s in-laws second invitation.
The Helmsdale river flows down Strath Kildonan, giving its name to Ken’s in-laws estate.
The railway follows the Strath on part of its route from Thurso to Inverness. This is ‘Flow Country’, vast areas of shallow water cover the ground, although not near to the Strath, but 100’s and 100’s of Red Deer are found nearer the top of the Strath and deer stalking is all the go, expensively catered for the wealthy who fancy themselves as Wyatt Earp.
A feature of the area is the Ceremony of opening the River, usually on 11th January, it is a big affair, marching pipe bands, kilts, loud noise, a big crowd. Food and drink are abundantly to be had as well as blessing the river with a bountiful amount of whisky. Just our sort of thing!
So when Nat telephoned to say we had been invited to the ‘do’ and we could stay at the Lodge, we had no option but to go, ‘Ken says the river is best in the first few months of the season’! Beware, I was told it will be blo__y cold. I consulted Lyn, should I go, be rude not to, so that was that.
We had about 2 months to prepare, tackle ok from the last trip, thermals needed reinforcement, no problem. The travel arrangements were delegate to me – again – and on the 10th January we took an Easyjet to Inverness and drove to Helmsdale where we were directed to Ronald the Gillies [remember him], Tackle Shop. We were able to park right outside, probably a mistake. The shop was heaving, everyone including the local police. We piled in, the first thing catching our eye was a pile, eight cases high of Macallan’s malt whisky, donated by the Distillery – help yourselves Ronald yelled above the noise and so we did.
It must have been about three hours later, discussing appropriate flies if you must know, we remembered that we should have booked into Mrs Sutherland’s [remember her], about two hours ago, at the Lodge. Whose driving? You, but- you, so I did. The drive was best described as tentative and we congratulated ourselves on achieving the tricky journey and parked behind the Lodge, neglecting the bang as I backed up the car.
We shuffled into the Lodge to a big welcome back from Mrs Sutherland, ‘have some tea’ she said ‘although you’re a bit late -plane delay’? Ah well! Supper was a bit of a trial but we did our bit, it was clear that she knew our weaknesses.
Everything went smoothly the next morning, still highland porridge on the menu, until I drove forward, Nat yelled –‘you better look at this’, so I did. He was pointing to an old iron fence of pointed metal standards which had fallen down to about 18 inches about the ground – I had back into it and impaled to car through its skirt below the boot. ‘Ah well, it can’t be helped can’t be late’, as I drove away to the High Street where the Opening Ceremony was getting going. The noise was terrific, Bands playing bagpipes marching at full tilt, Boy Scouts marching, crowd clapping and yelling, – what a do – we loved it. After an age we got to the River and it quietened down for the Ceremony of Blessing the River which fell to one of the River’s proprietors attended by someone who looked like a Bishop. We came across some of our new friends from the Tackle Shop; it’s entirely fair to say they didn’t look their best but we congratulated each other on making it to the Ceremony. After a brief interlude in the local Hotel’ bar, as I’m the driver ‘a small half of shilling for me ‘, and on to the Tackle Shop – to top up on flies! We had decided to take in some of the scenery before supper, ready for the next two days fishing, after all the first part of the seasons the best? All day the temperature had hovered around -2C and forecast to be colder tomorrow.’ Won’t that affect the fishing Ken’? ‘Don’t know’.
Breakfast was, good as usual and Mrs Sutherland reminded us that lunch was in the other Lodge: ‘Listen for the bell’.
It was freezing cold at the River, the ground was hard and slippery to my felt soles and for the first hour, the line froze to the rod, but it warmed up towards lunchtime. I fished with Ken who pointed out some likely runs. We were glad when the bell rang to get inside and warmth. Lunch was as good as before and the malt aplenty, water for me, I had to drive back to our Lodge.
By mid-afternoon we all had had enough, the line was freezing on the rod , light was failing and the temperature plummeted, tea and cake were waiting. I seem to recall that supper was particularly good that day and no drink for us! Mrs Sutherland remembered us from the last trip and had found out some photos of her father, the Estate’s Pony Man. It seems he was famous over the north of Scotland for his knowledge of deer stalking and the terrain. Nat was in his element.
The next day was much the same as the last but seemed even colder, we split up onto different stretches of the river and I kept moving, cast step, cast step, I covered about 500 yards of the river and bumped into Nat just as the bell rang in the distance, what a welcome sound. After the usual lunch the fishing became monotonous, step cast, step cast. No fish, no fish seen.
I think we all welcomed getting back to our Lodge, to tea and cakes and the prospect of supper and the warmth. ‘No fish’, asked Mrs Sutherland, ‘No’, ‘Ah well it’s the time of year’! Apparently, nothing had been caught on the whole river.
The next day, for most of the journey back to Inverness Ken and Nat ribbed me about how much the damage to the car would cost ME, speculating in the £ 100’s. I didn’t let on that I had taken out ‘All eventuality insurance’, so kept quiet.
On the way to the Airport we stopped at Dunrobin Castle, seat of the Duke of Sutherland, the Architect of the Highland Clearances during the eighteenth hundreds, whose bulling gangs terrorised the area around Helmsdale amongst many many other places. No marks for that and another minus for the aristocracy.
So what did I think of the trip? Well, I was glad I went to the opening Ceremony, enjoyed being in Helmsdale and seeing Mrs Sutherland again, I learned she was eighty at the time, and the overall experience. Did I learn anything, about the fishing – no,excepting not to go to Helmsdale Tackle Shop before parking the car at the day’s final destination.
Very sadly, Ken died about two years after this trip. He was a really nice man.
Nat and his wife Ann now live in a village near Rugby where he was born. We keep in regular contact and sometimes go fishing at Pitsford. Nat is a very amusing man, great company and has a vast knowledge about hunting and shooting and the great Country Estates. Until recently he was a regular Judge of dogs at the Peterborough Show and at Shows and Fairs all over the country. He tries to persuade me to agree with hunting with dogs, on this we continue to agree to disagree.