All anglers dream of some fantasy fish. In my case, it would be an Atlantic salmon weighing 30lb or more. But where can you go that is affordable, and offers the reasonable chance of such a trophy? Since the first British sportsmen ventured there back in the 1820s, the rivers of Norway have been synonymous with big salmonids. In their heyday, waters such as the Vosso and Namsen were unrivalled; pioneers, including Sir Hyde Parker, trekked across fjord and field toting 20ft hickory rods and brewing up bankside punch from cognac and snow. These well-heeled visitors became known as the Salmon Lords. Prince Axel of Denmark later cruised the banks of the Laerdal in his Rolls-Royce, and once hooked a milkmaid on his back-cast-he insisted on having her weighed for his record book.
The days have now gone when, according to the 1848 Jones’s Guide to Norway, salmon were ‘as plentiful as blackberries on a Devonshire hedge’ (its author had never even been there), but some huge ‘portmanteau’ fish still run. A friend of mine landed a 56-pounder last month from the fabled Alta, but access to such prime fishing has long been for the privileged few. This July, our party of six writers tried three northern rivers where a day ticket (sometimes on public water) typically costs under £100-and great fun it was, too.
Our whistle-stop tour began with the Malselva, up in the Troms province. We stayed at Rund-haug guesthouse, a delightful timber-built coaching inn, with a stuffed fox and a photo of Field Marshal Montgomery in the hall. I’m not sure if Monty was there for the fishing, but he should have been. Our very first morning (on the private Nymo beat), the intrepid Colin Bradshaw landed a fresh 28-pounder and we all got our mugshots in the local paper. In the stretches above Malselvfossen-a waterfall described by hotelier Charles Ritz as a salmon ‘aquarium’-there is attractive fly water reminiscent of the Lower Dee, with manageable wading and no need for Special Forces feats
of casting. I used a 14-footer and interchangeable shooting heads all trip, and covered most lies comfortably.
Up here, the Malselva runs pleasantly between pine and birch, with occasional farmland. The huts have reindeer skins to loll on, and the Lars kettle is perpetually a-bubble to dispense coffee thick enough to trot a wolverine over. It’s a shortish season (June 15-August 26), but, last year, they grassed 1,787 salmon. We persisted until late-the Midnight Sun means you can see to unpick wind knots at all hours-then repaired for what our genial group leader Harald Oyen called a rund-opp: a traditional round of toasts that became a nightly ritual.
Our next stop was the Reisa, a river once poorly managed but now enjoying a definite comeback. Rod numbers on its 19 zones are carefully regulated, ‘catch and release’ is finally catching on and, the previous week, a local spin-fisherman had taken a 51-pounder. Sharing public water is not much of a problem, but the permit application system is so complex, you’re better off letting an expert such as Harald handle it on your behalf. He had us staying at the excellent Reisastua Lodge, which is dedicated to what owner Roar Olsen calls ‘big fish hunting’.
Mighty and moody, the Reisa would best suit an experienced angler prepared to eschew numbers for the chance of that salmon of a lifetime. I saw at least three huge fish show, but the late spring had kept the water cold (just 8˚C) and they were not in the mood. One day, we motored upstream in the traditional wooden boats, and the landscape became hinterlandish looming peaks and scree streaked with snow. Below the awesome Mollisfossen, our party huddled round a campfire for hot dogs and ‘mosquito tea’ (the bugs can be bad). A few grilse had been caught, but the bigger specimens were eluding us.
Back in 1927, ‘Bendor’, Duke of Westminster, took a lease on the entire river. He built a lodge up by the foss and, according to my guide Kjell Arne (whose grandmother was the ducal maid), there were so many Champagne bottles, you couldn’t cross the kitchen floor. The river was unfishably high, so, after just one day, he left for his steam yacht, the 263ft Cutty Sark, and never returned. In far-flung Finnmark, we find our final water, the lovely Lakselva. ‘Skitt Fiske!’ shouts Egil the river manager, as he leaves us on the Kairanen pool (in Norway, you wish people ‘lousy fishing’ not ‘tight lines’).
First time down the run below the island, my friend Neil wipes my eye with a fresh grilse. By now, most of the team has hooked something, but not me. It’s Friday the 13th, and almost midnight, when my Blue Sunray is finally taken, and I’m so excited, I fall over the boulders and crack a rib. Skitt Fiske! But it’s still on, and after hurtling 100 yards down into the main pool, we finally tail out a tide-bright, sea-liced 24lb beauty.
We never did manage that magical ‘thirty’, but, like the Salmon Lords, I’ll be back.
David Profumo flew as a guest of Innovation Norway (www.visitnorway.com/fishing). Seasons vary between rivers, but typically run from early June to late August. For prices, and details of all lodges, contact Harald Oyen (01257 464805; email@example.com; www.fishnorway.co)