The River Helmsdale has long been regarded as one of the most prolific and consistent rivers in the world for producing Atlantic salmon. If you are lucky enough to fish on this prime water you will have a chance of hooking a fish from the opening day of the season on 11th January. The last time an opening day fish came off was 1991 on beat 6 from the Swirl pool. Andy Sutherland was the captor skillfully directed by the late George (Hardy) Sutherland.
Traditionally the lower river offers the best sport in springtime as temperatures are generally low. The most productive pools over the years would include the Flat pool on the Association water, Lower Caen & Salscraggie on Bt 1, Kilphedir on Bt 2 and the Torrish pools on Bt 3. Next stop is usually the Kildonan falls on Bt 6. Salmon are not keen to jump these falls until water temperatures get into the mid 40s, this can lead to a build up of fish and good sport in the pools below. The Falls, Flat, Little Rock & Manse pools would be the pick.
By the end of March and into April occasional rods fish the upper beats and pick up the odd fish, by early May the Spring run is in full flow and the upper beats score well. For the cream of the fishing you would hope to be on beats 2, 3 & 4 above. The Loch (Bt 6 above) provides a fair chance of a fish from mid May onwards.
Sea trout & grilse are the next to arrive and early specimens can be caught in May but it is not until mid June before we expect the run to gather pace. By the second/third week in July the main run of grilse will have arrived and sport will be fast and furious throughout the river. The best sea trout fishing will generally be had on the Association water or the upper beats, The Woody (bt 1), Suisgill (Bt 2) & Dalharn (Bt 3) will all give you excellent sport from dusk till dawn.
By mid August most Helmsdale fish are in the system but good sport can be had right up to the last day of the season on September 30th. Although the river thrives from the luxury of having compensation water when required, spate water usually provides the best fishing towards the back end.
Favourite flies for the Helmsdale
You could account for most Helmsdale salmon being taken on 3 flies and the rest being caught on variants of the same flies, The Willie Gunn, Alistair & Silver stoats tail. The Willie Gunn is by far the most successful Spring tube fly. Prolific variants from the Traditional pattern would be the recent Temple Dog & Conehead versions available at the local tackle shop.
Summer fishing however is generally dominated by the Alistair & Silver Stoat, the most successful being tied on small tubes. Baby Temple dogs and Coneheads also take their fair share, as does the reliable Ally’s shrimp. If all else fails try a large Sunray Shadow fished square and fast, you might be pleasantly surprised by the results.
For sea trout fishing you would be well advised to stick to the old favourites and increase fly size as the light fades. A wee silver stoat on the point teamed up with a silver grey or teal blue & silver on the dropper works a treat.
If you do get the chance to fish this famous river be sure to take in all the advice of your ghillie and if you are fishing the popular association water, keep an eye on the locals! Unlike the big rivers of the world where casting long distances is important for success, the secret of the Helmsdale is in reading the water and knowing the lies which are often just under your rod tip.
Prince Charles and Ronald Sutherland's father fishing on the river Helmsdale.