High drama in the far north
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.