The Helmsdale season ended with a flurry of larger-than-life catches. The long drought which started in May was broken when rain fell heavily in mid-September. Through the long dry summer catches had never altogether ceased but angling had been difficult and sometimes frustrating. Anglers blessed with the arrival of rain caught some of the largest numbers on record. This happy situation applied equally on the private beats and also on the Lower Helmsdale public water fishing.
Spawning started in early November and went on for an unusually long time. In many of the upper tributaries the pools had big numbers of fish. Conditions were ideal for seeing spawning salmon and grilse with reasonably low and steady water, mostly clear, and without the wind shivers which make viewing harder. Some fish had developed fungus on their noses and tails, but mostly they were clean.
The spawning finally ended by about 20th November. Bigger fish which had spawned earlier were drifting back. Some smaller grilse were still paired and in the act of spawning. Redds and the fish were easily visible in water which became increasingly clear.
The 2019 season is upon us before the late-season fishing bonanza has had time to fade from memory.
The Helmsdale fishery board welcomes all anglers to the 2019 Open Days. These start on the season’s first day, January 11th, and finish on Saturday January 19th. The Open Days ceremony starts with the Pipe Band in the High St at 10am., closing with the opening cast by a local angler. Fishing is by fly only. Anglers need to sign in and can then fish anywhere they choose on the whole length of the river. They may sign in either at the Belgrave Hotel or at Glencoast, both in the High St. Scottish Government Spring salmon rules apply and all fish must be returned to the water. Kelts should be treated as gently as possibly to enhance their chances of survival and eventual return to the natal river.
Meantime hopes are on a strong run of early salmon, fattened on their feeding grounds in the north-east Atlantic.
The River Helmsdale is in the 8th week without rain. Days are mostly in full sunlight, although there has usually been a welcome breeze. Nights are sometimes cool.
Up until now the compensatory loch-water retained by the Badanloch Dam has provided a better flow in the river. But inevitably the long drought is taking its toll and catches have dropped significantly.
The fish counter shows that salmon, grilse and sea-trout are running into the river still, usually at night. It appears they enter the freshwater, find a deeper hole or a streamy run, and then remain doggo. The movement of fish over the fish-counter in May and June was good. Runs have been late but in larger numbers than last year.
The water heated to over 23 degrees on some days. This occasioned fungal problems with some fish showing white noses and behaving languidly. In recent days this appears to have reduced. To date there are only 2 known cases of deaths.
One ghillie witnessed an otter cornering a small salmon in a low-water pool, catch it in its mouth, and carry it up the bank and away.
When the rain eventually arrives it will be interesting to see how the salmon and grilse behave.
The season has ended with a respectable catch total of 1720 salmon and grilse on the private beats. The Lower Helmsdale too had good catches. The rain continued most of the year but never resulted in enormous spates. River levels held up well.
On the private beats the notable feature was that two thirds of the catch is estimated to be salmon and one third grilse. 20 years ago this would have been the other way round. It lends support to the theory that we are on the turn from a predominantly grilse cycle to a predominantly salmon cycle.
Weights were good and 22 fish were caught which weighed over 20lb. The beats returned over 96% of their fish to the water.
The Helmsdale Board is happy to welcome anglers to the Open Days in 2018. This starts on Thursday January 11th at 10am with the Pipe Band ceremony in the High St. and goes through to Saturday January 20th. Fishing will be by fly only. The whole river is open to fishing and there is no limit on numbers of anglers. Permits will be issued from the Belgrave Hotel in Helmsdale, tel 01431 821242.
The River Helmsdale has fished reasonably well all season. There have been no bumper weeks, but also no weeks without fish swimming up. Weights have been unusually high, in common with some other northern rivers. Three fish have weighed 30 pounds, and some two dozen over 20 lb.
In common with other northern rivers a few ‘pinks’ have been caught, thought to have come from northern Russia where introductions designed to create a commercial net fishery occurred 70 years ago. These straying salmon have been killed, as the government has asked. Pinks spawn earlier than native salmon and their young return to sea in the year of birth, so no freshwater habitat is shared with native salmon for long.
Water temperatures remained low later than usual and never became high all summer. We have had no periods of very low water.
No exceptional spates have occurred to date.
The proportion of the migrations which has consisted of grilse as compared to summer salmon will be determined when we have results from the season’s scale sampling early next year. In common with several other neighbouring rivers there is a feeling that long-term cycles may be moving towards a multi-sea-winter salmon period consisting of older fish, coinciding with fewer grilse.
The River opened on January 11th with the Sutherland Schools Pipe Band bravely marching down the High St and soon to be lost in swirling sleet. However, hardy anglers from far and wide as usual turned out in numbers. They spread up the river and on a single pool there were anglers from 7 cars by 11 am.
Conditions made angling very testing and no fish were caught in the first 4 days. Water was high but not impossibly high. Nonetheless anglers, ever-resilient, were on the river in blowing snow as early as 8.15am.
Everyone waits in anticipation to see these efforts rewarded by the capture of the first ’silver tourist’.
The Open Days, with free angling anywhere on the river subject to checking in, finish on Saturday 21st January.
The season’s finish coincided with the first severe frost. Cock salmon at last left the lairs they had occupied since early August and became more aggressive. However, late season angling on the Helmsdale in 2016 had consisted of seeing fish jumping and being able to do little to interest them in flies.
Catches were accordingly below average. At around 1300 for the year it was a modest season for catch numbers.
The health of the river was affirmed by wide electro-fishing coverage and young salmon were found all over the catchment. Conditions were good for this simple method of assessing stocks of young migratory fish, and the Helmsdale DSFB team also carried out habitat work for the Forestry Commission on some neighbouring rivers.
The Helmsdale Salmon Fishery Board has decided again to offer a period of Open Days at the start of the 2017 season. The Open days will commence on Wednesday January 11th and end on Saturday January 21st. Anglers need to sign in and can then fish on the river wherever they please. The government’s ruling about Catch and Release for all spring salmon means that fish must be returned. But Spring fishing is not entirely about eating salmon, as anglers know.
The water has been lower for some time and kept to a reasonable fishing height by released water from the dam which is situated 24 miles from the mouth. The weather has been extremely variable, cool periods punctuated by spells of very hot sun. When it is very hot, there is considerable discrete evaporation, from both lochs and rivers.
Nonetheless, salmon have continued steadily to arrive in the Helmsdale. Local anglers have caught salmon as early as 5am., even when fishing with mist swirling over the water. The beats have been doing reasonably well and salmon have been of a good size.
Evidence of damage to salmon by seals has been increasing recently.
The first sea-trout are being caught now. The earliest run of Helmsdale sea-trout is always composed of larger fish. Rain would see them move throughout the whole system.
Visitor Angling Tickets for the River Helmsdale may be bought from either:
Thyme and Plaice, 10 Dunrobin St. Helmsdale, tel 01431 821598
or from the Bannockburn Inn, Stafford St., Helmsdale, tel 01431 821461, email: email@example.com
The Open days starting January 11th saw a large number of faithful visitor anglers returning once more to the River Helmsdale Opening. The Sutherland Schools Pipe Band led the procession down the High St and the Opening Cast was performed by Donald Sutherland, well-known ghillie on Suisgill Estate. Over 100 anglers signed in on the first day.
Water was high and the chances of finding that early migrant were thereby slimmer and, on this occasion, none were caught during the week. Kelts were reported to be strong.
The first fish was eventually caught on Feb 6. Another followed at the beginning of the next week which weighed 20lb.
The Helmsdale Board believes there is a place for hatcheries and properly-introduced young fish from its own hatchery to assist stocks in the parts of the catchment where there is a demonstrable need. There are some 150,000 ova presently in the hatchery which will in due course be returned to the river as unfed fry.
The Helmsdale Board is co-operating with the neighbouring Dunbeath River in a scientific analysis of alternative hatchery fertilisation techniques.
In the government’s concept of Conservation Limits, the Helmsdale has been given a Number 1 classification. This means that the spawning stock is considered adequate. Catch and Release rules are therefore in the hands of the Helmsdale DSFB. On the private beats the rules are as follows:
All Spring fish up to June 6 are to returned.
Throughout the season all fish over 12lb are to be returned.
Each beat may keep one grilse or salmon under 12 lb per week, providing it is fresh.
To protect the integrity of the stock, all farmed escapees are to be killed and not put back.
Visiting anglers are requested to follow the spirit of these rules for the sake of the stock and the continued good reputation of the river.
Season 2015 ended with dry weather and the summer we had all missed. July was the coldest it had been in Scotland for many years. Catches have yet to be finalised but the river will end with somewhere over 1400 fish caught by rods, which although below average, is better than in 2013.
A larger number of salmon and grilse than normal showed signs of seal and dolphin damage.
Our support for local angling and communities has continued with a party of children from Helmsdale being successfully introduced by the water bailiffs to catching fish on the river at the end of the season.
Electro-fishing and the continuation of the Helmsdale’s excellent long-term database of survival of young fish in the system was hampered in the cool summer by high water and turbid conditions in the burns. Fewer sites than normal were counted and measured. Where it could be satisfactorily done, populations of young salmon were found to be healthy, in good numbers, and in fit condition.
Scale-reading will in due course provide a picture of the age structure of fish returning to the Helmsdale in 2015. This season the number of salmon over 20 pounds was higher than average.
Supplying broodstock for the hatchery will, as usual, be done by rod and line with the assistance of local anglers. Hatchery fish will all continue to be profiled for their DNA allowing the contribution of the hatchery to salmon migrations to be measured.