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  • Lana Richardson

Open Season '23

As I was loading my car up with a ridiculous amount of kit, which I knew deep down I wouldn't actually use half of, the excitement of a new salmon fishing season commencing suddenly hit me. After what had felt like a closed season lasting an eternity (when in reality it was only just over 10 weeks) it was finally time to get back out doing what I love most.

The river Helmsdale, in Sutherland, is the first salmon river in the UK to open each year. It is a river I have only fished a handful of times but as I grew up in nearby Strath Halladale, Helmsdale is a place which feels very familiar and homely to me. My most memorable Helmsdale experience to date was in April 2021 when I unexpectedly bumped into a beautiful 9lb bar of gleaming springtime silver. A small and lightly dressed traditional Alistair tube fly did the business, a fly which is renowned for its effectiveness, especially on the more Northern rivers in Scotland.

In January 2022, Colin and I fished the Helmsdale for a couple of days during the week after opening week. We really enjoyed having the opportunity to get to know the six lower beats of the river. It was brilliant to get to meet some of the local fisherman and others from further-afield who come to fish the opening weeks, some make a point of coming every year and have done for a long time. The knowledge which the local fishers have of the river is so valuable; some of which has been organically collected by each person over the years and some has been passed down through generations of fishers. If they let you, it is undoubtably worth trying to get some of it from them! This trip will always be memorable to me because the weather was so pleasant that we ended up getting sun burnt, in January!

January 2022, River Helmsdale

This year, I was especially looking forward to experiencing the rivers well renowned opening ceremony.

The village of Helmsdale was a hive full of excited fishers and spectators. Along with excitement, there was an amount of anticipation hanging in the air, the possibility of making contact with not just the first spring Atlantic salmon to be caught on the Helmsdale, but the first in the entire country! The chance is slim, only a fool would dare to confidently brag about their future chances of hooking a springer in January, but, there is still a chance. Putting wisdom aside, deep down we are all wondering if it might happen, and if it does, who will be the lucky person?

As the pipe band paraded down the main street, the river owner made his pre season speech, the river was blessed with a dram and the first line was cast, I felt there to be an overwhelming sense of community amongst everyone there, we all shared a valued connection to the area, the river and fishing. The same passion had brought us all to the same place at the same time.

Opening day 2023 commences

Immediately after the river was declared open, vehicles laden with rods and eager fishers darted up river. Everyone had a strategic plan of which beat and pool they would head to first. Although this may come as a surprise, the quest to find the first springer is usually not a competitive one, this mission is all about team work and camaraderie. Flies were being swapped between anglers and 'secret' tactics shared. Although it was cold, the weather was fair and the water looked perfect, the first day of the season was officially underway. As the first two weeks of fishing on the river is free, it is an extremely valuable opportunity for anyone to come and experience fishing on what is a top class salmon river.

We set up our rods, got our waders on and headed up river to find a spot to have our first casts of 2023. We decided to go right up to fish the pools below the falls, they are part of beat '6 below'. This is the highest point in which you are allowed to fish during the opening weeks. It is such a great feeling to throw those first casts of the season. The atmosphere surrounding the river was fantastic, you could tell that everyone was just so delighted to be back out and in action after the winter, whether that be alone or with their usual fishing companions. I believe that for a lot of fishers, the social aspect of fishing is what they miss most during the closed season.

Stuart & Ross enjoying some pre-event relaxation

Later in the afternoon, Yvonne Grant, the owner of the fantastic local tackle shop hosted a gin tasting event with some popular local distilleries. As you can imagine, after a day out on the river, this went down a storm!

Stuart tying a Willie Gunn

After a good sleep and a refuel in the form of several cups of strong coffee and a hearty Scottish breakfast, we all got geared up and ready to go for day two. It was great to see a good number of people out on the river for a second day, especially as I don't doubt there were a few sore heads around...The weather had changed for the worse, the wet & windy conditions were chilling. People who 'spring' salmon fish in Scotland are usually made of tough stuff, we expect bad weather, good weather is unusual at this time of year.

After fishing all day, the light was starting to fade and the conditions weren't exactly inspiring me to keep going. I chucked one last chaotic overhead cast through a gael of wind into a deep meandering corner pool, it landed in a way which could be politely described as shambolic. I kept the faith and slowly retrieved it, after a brief and completely justifiable moment of doubt, I had realised that I had somehow hooked into a fish! I quickly realised that it was a kelt, although a large and strong one at that. After an altercation involving a posh tosh lasting around a minute, the kelt came off and disappeared back to the depths, hopefully to make it back out to sea and return again another year.

When I was reflecting on the days past whilst driving back down the A9, it was so clear to me that the most enjoyable element was simply talking to people; hearing their stories about how they got into fishing, when they first began coming to the Helmsdale and not forgetting the most important question - why they're mad enough to fly fish for salmon in January!!

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