Beginning its journey in the wilds of the Knockfin Heights, deep in the heart of the Flow Country, the Halladale runs north for some 22 miles before entering the sea in Melvich Bay. During this course, the surrounding topography subtly changes the rivers nature from wild moorland, through craggy cascades interrupted by gravelly flats to the larger, slow-flowing holding pools that characterise so much of the lower Halladale as it flows through farmland below. This recipe of juvenile salmonoid habitat, combined with the depth and shelter afforded to returning adult fish by the holding pools, has proven to be a successful one with the river able to boast healthy numbers of wild salmon and trout throughout its length.
Like many of the rivers across the North, the Halladale was once primarily a net fishery with angling taking second place to the sweep net operating in the estuary and the bag nets which lay in the bay awaiting the returning salmon – indeed, already in decline by the early 90s the 5-year average for the bag nets alone was still some 3000 salmon and grilse per year. Through changes in ownership, slowly over many years, the netting effort lessened allowing greater numbers of salmon access to the river which in time, along with angling effort, has proved self-fulfilling. It should come as no surprise that the cessation of the sweep net, which accounted for the highest proportion of Halladale originated salmon, probably had the greatest positive impact for returning salmon and grilse to the river.
Fuelled by government tax incentives, the coniferous invasion which swept across Scotland in the 1970s and 80s was felt heavily around the upper head waters of the Halladale catchment. Large areas of previously untouched wilderness were ploughed and turned over to make way for non-native plantations. These deep furrows, draining large areas of bog, accelerated the speed in which rainwater and silt entered the river giving rise to faster, flashier and more damaging spates. Much of the land where these plantations were sited is now in the hands of the RSPB who, over the course of the last 20 years, have begun what is now an ongoing blanket bog restoration project involving felling trees and blocking drains to restore the natural water table levels which in turn will promote the recolonisation of water loving plants and the associated birds.
Now solely a rod and line fishery concentrated over 4 main beats the season runs from the 12th of January through to the 30th of September. Fish enter the river in modest numbers during the early season with numbers increasing from mid-March onwards. Typically for a highland spate river, the Halladale offers great sport to anglers during times of higher flow with excellent fishing normally enjoyed for a couple of weeks after heavy rain. An extensive degree of work in the 1800s aimed at reclaiming grassland in the bottom section of the river resulted in two large, canalised pools being created. The unintended consequence of this work was it allowed fish access into the river in even the lowest of conditions, while the two 600-yard-long stretches of water act as huge holding pools. As such, even in the lowest of conditions, especially given a stiff breeze, excellent sport can still be enjoyed by anglers.
The Halladale today
Today the Halladale is actively engaged in various scientific monitoring programmes which play such a crucial part in managing a river in today's climate. Data gathered from these projects will help to guide future direction, while ensuring that current best practices are followed.
Map of the Halladale by Tim Scott-Bolton