July 13, 2010
It’s amazing what a night of sleep will do for you when you haven’t had a good one in a few days. Vladi Trzebunia and I jumped from bed at about 6 am and listened to the birds over a pot of Norwegian coffee. Half way through, Vladi began giving me careful instructions on how to go about catching an Atlantic salmon on a fly.
Few anglers have ever caught a wild Atlantic salmon. Populations have been overharvested and suffer incredibly from pollution and dams. Efforts in North America and Europe have returned small populations but overall there are only a few places left that have them running wild.
I have fished Atlantic salmon only twice before. Once was a weak attempt in Maine and the other in Scotland on the River Tweed. I failed to catch a salmon either time and sort of wrote off my chances of ever catching one. That was until I met Vladi and now our trip to Norway.
Even in Norway salmon populations are nothing what they used to be, however Norway does have some of the best rivers in the world. Norway is also known for some of the largest salmon left in the world. With my limited salmon fishing experience and the knowledge of how few Atlantic salmon there are, I came here in hopes of catching one wild Norwegian Atlantic salmon of any size.
When Atlantic salmon migrate from the ocean to a river they do it to spawn and don’t feed. Therefore, getting one to take a fly is not an easy task. This has led to some amazing flies and tactics that have been developed over centuries. Luckily after eight years of Atlantic salmon guiding, Vladi knows many of these tricks.
The River Gaula has numerous beats. Vladi and I are camped in Stǿren on the banks of the river on what is referred to as the “Stǿren Campground” beat. The “Storen” beat is numbered 1, 2a and 2b and 3. 2a and 2b are the only “Fly Fishing Only” sections. So first thing today Vladi got us organized to fish there. In most of Europe, there’s a fee for the beat you chose on top of the regular fishing license. Norway is the same and this famous beat cost 250 crowns ($40 US) for a twenty-four hour session. Vladi has chosen not to fish today to help me get that first salmon.
When we arrived on 2a and 2b there were several fly fishermen taking turns fishing the beat. The way you fish an Atlantic salmon beat is you start at the top (upstream end) and after every cast you take three steps down. Once you are at the bottom (downstream end) of the beat you get out and back in line you go. This beat takes approximately 30 minutes to fish. I was at the back of a line of about five anglers. At first this may sound horrible but it was cool to hang out and meet the other anglers in the salmon hut. I would also find out later that time between turns provides valuable and needed rest.
Most of these anglers are extremely experienced in Atlantic salmon fly fishing and true addicts. Some spend the entire summer at the Stǿren campground fishing beats 2a and 2b. Every one of them uses a two handed spey rod. I was the only one with a single handed rod.
I quickly realized that I was immersed in a fly fishing culture. It was similar to opener of the Ranch on the Henry’s Fork. Long time friends gather and catch up on stories while catching some fish. The only difference is we walk around trying to catch a few huge finicky rainbows while these guys do it for Atlantic salmon. Best of all, these guys welcomed Vladi and me into their group. Today the group consisted of several anglers from Denmark, an Italian, three East Germans, a family of Swedes and several Norwegians. They loved that they had an American in the mix and were very excited that I was after my first salmon. And like I do for any newcomers I meet on the Henry’s Fork, all of these guys started giving me tips on how to go about catching my salmon. Already I’m in love with this new fly fishing experience.
Despite witnessing some of the most unbelievable spey casting you could ever watch, no one hooked a fish while I waited my turn. When my turn came there was lots of encouragement and tips from the group. Vladi strolled down to the river with me and coached me on how to fish to the salmon. There are certain angles in which you land a cast and all kinds of methods for presenting the fly. For the most part, you cast as far as you can downstream at a 45 degree angle and let the fly swing until it’s directly below you. Some guys move the fly a little while others keep it still. When a salmon takes the fly it’s usually gentle and you then give them line – far different than anything I am used to.
I watched each angler before me land 120 foot casts with their spey rods all the way to the other bank where the occasional salmon free-jumped. I was seriously handicapped with my 9-foot 9-weight because my average cast was about 80 feet. I addressed my disadvantage quickly and rather than ripping my underwear trying to cast 120 feet I concentrated on seams and rocks on my side of the river.
There’s no doubt that beginners luck exists. As my fly swung on each and every presentation I knew something was going to happen. Sure enough, fifteen minutes into my turn I had an aggressive take and set the hook. It was a nice fish but by no means a huge salmon. Everyone came running down to see. After a good fight I landed a sea trout. Everybody was pretty amazed that the “single hand rookie” got a fish so fast. Not only that, sea trout are rarer than the salmon on the Gaula River. It was a lucky catch.
My fishing ticket started at 9 am today and runs for 24 hours. While most guys’ fish about three hours then take a break and then come back for another three hours, I fished right through from 9 am until 10 pm. Now I’m tired and hungry as heck.
I’m really excited about my sea trout in my first pass. Unfortunately that was my only fish today. In fact, it was the only fish caught today. There’s no doubt it was beginners luck and I need to mentally prepare myself for a tough week in search of that one salmon. The plan now is to get some sleep for a few hours then Vladi and I will get up at 3 am and fish out my ticket till 9 am. As we climb into the camper here for dinner (more pasta) it’s starting to rain. Vladi says when it rains fresh ocean salmon come into the river. Vladi is usually right!