Salmon on the River Gaula
Sparkling with golden possibilities, an early-season salmon fishing trip to Norway’s fabled River Gaula leaves a lasting impression on Matt Harris.
There are few better places to start the salmon season in Norway than at The Norwegian Flyfishers Club on the fabled River Gaula. Per, Enrico, Daniel and the team always offer a warm and relaxed welcome, while chefs Per and Eric cook a relentless procession of fantastic meals to keep you fortified against the cold nights and icy currents. The fishing is exactly how it should be in early season – it is tough, with cold, high water and no certainty that there is one of the early season pathfinders out there in front of you. However, the rewards are the very best that salmon fishing has to offer – big, chrome beasties fresh from the ocean, dripping with sea-lice and still full of all the power and energy that they will need to ascend the brawling currents of the legendary Golden River.
Not many salmon rivers can hold a candle to the Gaula. This mighty torrent comes tumbling down out of the mountains above Trondheim to provide mile after mile of mesmerising and highly productive fly water. It is one of the most prolific salmon rivers in Norway – only the vast Tana catchment far to the north can claim more rod-caught salmon per year, and the Gaula’s fish are not only plentiful, they are also often very big – fish of 40lbs are caught every year, and 30-pounders barely raise an eyebrow. The river’s mighty Gaulfossen rapid – a maelstrom of white water nearly half a mile long – has forged a race of indomitable salmon that are, by necessity, brutishly strong. The big, early-season fish that somehow pass through the Foss are made of rare stuff indeed, and to put a hook in one is to experience one of the greatest thrills that fly fishing has to offer.
My week this year started well. After arriving just in time to enjoy a late-evening streamside party on the NFC’s prolific E beat, I hit the hay and woke early to watch the mists clearing in the beautiful valley upstream of Storen. After a leisurely breakfast getting the lowdown from my great mate Simon Kitcher, a Yorkshireman who has been guiding on the Gaula for 20 years and more, it was time to go fishing.
Bogan Sondre 1 is one of my favourite pools on the Gaula – a beautiful long glide that shelves gently into a deep, dark gully against the far bank. It was a perfect place to start my week. With the river falling and clearing, the Gaula was gleaming its signature golden hue as I crossed the railway tracks and made my way down to the hut. Peeling the line off the big reel, I threaded up the 15-footer and picked out a size 4 Loop tube double – much kinder to the fish than the trebles often employed on the river – and tied it in behind my favourite black and green Templedog.
I practice 100 per cent catch and release on all Atlantic salmon. They are such a precious and increasingly endangered resource that I feel strongly that we have to stop killing them completely. Only then can we put pressure on other fishermen and netsmen to do the same. Using doubles is a first step, and makes it much less likely that you will inadvertently kill your fish. Gaula fish over 1m in length must now be returned – this is huge progress. Atlantic salmon are delicious to eat – no question – but there are a million other delicious things to enjoy without destroying our fisheries. In British Columbia, the anglers wouldn’t dream of killing a steelhead, and most of the fisheries are thriving. We have to learn from this.
Mulling these issues over, I de-barbed my hooks and took my first tentative steps into the water. The pool looked perfect, and as a soft drizzle started to fall, I took a quick swig of Macallan from my hip-flask and made my first cast.
It felt great to be salmon fishing again after the long winter months, and after a few rusty casts I was soon in the swing of things, the steely Spey rod fizzing out a satisfyingly long line over the wide waters of the river.
A third of the way down the pool, the current on its far side softened and flattened out. I worked hard to put a long, diagonal cast into the dark, deep water against the opposite bank, and suddenly, in that special, electric moment that sets salmon fishing apart, the fly was snatched savagely away and the big reel started to spin. There was no need to set the hook; the fish was already dashing down the pool, and was 70 metres downstream when it crashed up through the surface, showing a big, broad flank of chrome silver.
I edged out of the river and decided to take a risk. I fumbled my phone out of my pocket to call the lodge to see if someone could come down and grab a picture. The salmon wasn’t going to hang around waiting for me – it seemed insulted by my arrogant assumption that I would put it on the grass – and went hurtling off again, ploughing downstream in another long run. I blurted out my news to Enrico at the lodge and went stumbling off in its wake.
The fish was a typical Gaula salmon – ferociously strong and blessed with remarkable stamina. It ran hard again downriver and for a time seemed destined to reach the long rapid at the end of the pool, but slowly, the smooth, consistent drag of the big reel started to take its toll. I finally started to gain a semblance of control, and felt the headshakes grow less violent as the fish began to tire. Three times I had it up in the shallows, and on each occasion it defied my efforts and shot back across the river, thrashing its huge spade of a tail as it powered back to the deeper water.
Eventually, after 25 long minutes, I was elated to see the fish roll over, its white belly gleaming in the golden water like a flag of surrender. I eased the salmon up into the shallows, crept up quietly and grasped it firmly by the wrist of its powerful tail.
I’ve caught a good number of salmon over the years but that first fish of the season never fails to take my breath away. The sparkling silver fuselage, shot through with sapphire blue and peppered with jet-black spots, the powerful fins and broad tail are all beguilingly beautiful, but I’m always drawn to the eyes of the fish. As they stare back at me, I wonder what this remarkable fish has seen on its incredible voyage out to the dark waters of the Arctic Ocean and back. Atlantic salmon really are one of nature’s true marvels and I hope with all my heart that they will be around for our children’s children to enjoy.
My reverie was suddenly broken: “Nice fish!” I heard from behind me, and turned to see Jack Rodat, one of the NFC staff – a really likeable young American salmon nut who had kindly dashed up the road from the lodge to help out with a picture.
We grabbed a few quick shots and then quickly weighed the fish at 24lb, before watching her swim away powerfully, none the worse for her ordeal.
I offered my rod to Jack but he had to rush back to work, so I was left to fish through the pool again.
I waded out, stripped line from the reel and then, just for a brief period, stopped to enjoy the moment. My first salmon of the season – 24lb and an absolute pearl of a fish. The Gaula in front of me, sparkling with golden possibilities, three long months of summer stretching out ahead... and a patina of iridescent silver scales already gleaming on the cork.
For a salmon fisherman, it doesn’t get any better.
tackling the Gaula
The river is a big and powerful stream that can be tricky to deal with. Think heavy lines, short, stout leaders and big tube-flies armed with heavy-duty hooks.While most Gaula anglers fish the Scandinavian system, typically shooting heads like the excellent Loop GDC, I like to borrow from my steelhead pals and use a float/intermediate Skagit, with a set of 15ft tungsten tips. I like Rio’s excellent i-Flight, which is perfect for the heavy flows and the big flies required. This setup really bosses the biggest flies and heaviest sink-tips, and a powerful 15ft 10wt will blast the whole lot clean across the river.
It also offers another key advantage. Unlike the fully sinking Scandi heads, the floating rear-end of the Skagit allows the angler to pick up and mend the line effortlessly and to gently ease the fly through the pool at the pace he or she chooses. Thin mono running-line offers minimal resistance and adds precious yards to your cast if required, cutting up out of even the heaviest water, and Rio’s new Gripshooter features a thicker handling section that prevents the line from slipping out of your grasp on the forward stroke – a real innovation. This setup is particularly useful in high winds, where the high line speed helps to punch through the strongest gale. It’s hard not to sneak a look to see if the other anglers are watching as you belt another cast out through the gusting winds and feel that satisfying slap as the running line comes up hard against the rod blank.
Throwing a long line way across the river is not always the best tactic, especially in high water: the fish often hug the softer water close to the bank. However, being able throw a long line allows you to cast a shallow angle and really slow the fly down while still covering a large section of the river. Make big mends and ease the fly into the soft water on the edge of the main current. The fish often come right up the edge of the stream, so keep wading to a minimum and fish the fly right around, leaving it to hover for a good long while.
As far as flies go, I tend to fish Templedogs, particularly with a black over chartreuse wing, a chartreuse schlappen throat hackle and a sparkling silver body. Add plenty of holographic silver angel hair to the wing – angel hair is fine and subtle compared with most flash materials, blending perfectly with multi-layered Templedog wings and possessing the same mobility as the fur. To finish the fly off, you do of course have to have jungle cock in your fly like everyone else, although omitting it might just make your fly stand out from all the others, and may even give you the edge? Who knows?
To tie these flies, I use Morten Bundgard’s Pro Tube system, employing a silver drainer disc in front of the wing combined with a short heavy bottle tube behind to get the fly fishing immediately. When I’m looking for extreme distance, I dispense with the drainer disc and fish a small-headed fly in the Hakan Norling style, as the drainer disc impedes the cast, slowing it down just a little.