High drama in the far north

Trout & Salmon (UK) - - Sea-trout In The Salt - by Michael Wi­gan

THE POOL I think of as spring ap­proaches, is the Up­per Tor­rish on my home river, the Helms­dale. It has per­fect fea­tures. Rush­ing frothy wa­ters tum­ble down­stream at the head. They crash into a rock is­land on the left, crowned by spate-dam­aged birch trees and torn scrub. The bat­tered out­crop is a true mid-river north High­lands fea­ture; you could not be any­where else. On the land­ward side of the is­land is a for­got­ten back­wa­ter, which be­comes a treach­er­ous whirlpool when ice-floes spin down­river. The pool on its left side is rock-ar­moured, low gran­ite but­tress­ing streaked with pink gneiss, a true Helms­dale char­ac­ter­is­tic. High-up gorse scrub is flecked with sheep wool. What mat­ters is the wa­ter. Where the springers idle. This is a pool they like. Last March I was there one day when many pools on the river were, the gil­lies thought, empty. I saw five dif­fer­ent fish break sur­face on the Up­per Tor­rish in un­der an hour. Mid­day is the time for early spring fish­ing in the far north, when the tem­per­a­ture lifts. That is when they showed. An­other angler was on the far bank, and nei­ther of us could in­ter­est them. But they saluted us. Mes­meris­ingly silver. The wa­ter surges over big stones and then nar­rows briefly into a short fast stream edged by a fur­ther-over back­wa­ter. You flip through that more as a duty than in ex­pec­ta­tion. If it was grilse time you would spend time, but that sea­son is later. Then the stream hits an­other rock but­tress on the left. The di­verted flow pushes out­wards. Ow­ing to some­thing out of view it then forks. The strong­est stream is the fur­thest. But the close one coils and looks in­ter­est­ing, too. You have to keep the big spring fly mov­ing across the two of them, work­ing not drown­ing. This is febrile, high-ex­pec­ta­tion time. The north High­land line train chugs by, notch­ing up an­other mile­stone in the pass­ing day. The angler main­tains fo­cus. Some­thing from be­low could tug the fly, any­time. On the Helms­dale anglers loosely hold some slack line. You ex­pect it to be drawn away. Mean­time, you look down­stream. The pool widens de­li­ciously for

150 yards. The banks are level, on the far side form­ing a plain where arche­o­log­i­cal ru­ins re­call when peo­ple lived there, crop­ping or us­ing the greens as sum­mer shiel­ings. I was there a few years back when the gillie and I saw two fish en­ter the wide tail close to the near bank, as­cend­ing the slack wa­ter. We briskly walked down and moved to­wards the spot, cast­ing. One took and we landed him. About 10 lb of capelin-fat­tened springer, a mes­sage in a bot­tle from the Inuit seas of south-west Green­land. The Up­per Tor­rish had done what it is meant to do: in­tro­duce drama to a sharp morn­ing in a far north place; show new life and a fresh year stir­ring. The bank is un­tram­melled in spring. No human print marks the ground. The first tun­dra-destined mi­gra­tory birds ar­rive, their wild cries drift­ing on the winds. The birds, the preg­nant sheep, the hinds on the high tops seek­ing early “moss­ings”, and the mus­cu­lar, shin­ing, mes­sen­ger from the arctic, the At­lantic salmon; they form the play’s char­ac­ter cast. The angler, mi­gra­tory too, like the ea­gle look­ing for lambs, meets the fish. The Up­per Tor­rish is where so many anglers have folded away the Sty­gian gloom of far north win­ters with an etched mem­ory that will en­dure.

■ Michael Wi­gan is an au­thor and jour­nal­ist, who is em­ployed by the District Salmon Fish­ery Board as the res­i­dent man­ager on the River Helms­dale. A game-angler and all-round fish­er­man, he has lived at Bor­robol in Suther­land for 37 years. His last book, The Salmon, was pub­lished in 2013.

Tum­bling wa­ter at the head of Up­per Tor­rish.

Hut pool at Count­ess Park on the North Tyne.

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