Record halibut caught on fly
Having given up her job as a veterinary nurse to manage a fishing lodge in Norway, Jo Stephenson discovered the fabled waters in the far north have much more to offer than incredible Atlantic salmon and sea trout.
There is a saying that if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. We all dream of this, and I was one of the lucky ones.
I trained 11 years ago to be a veterinary nurse and, as challenging and heart-breaking as it could be, I loved my job. But I had another love, and I would spend my quieter moments planning my next fishing adventure and dreaming about how amazing it would be to have a job in the fly fishing industry.
A friend once said that they could see me running a fishing lodge, but I never really considered it a possibility. Until last year, that is.
Last spring I was tying my pike flies at a show when my husband started chatting to someone from a travel company that had just taken over the running of a new lodge in Norway. As it happened, they were looking for an English couple to work there. But could I give up my much-loved job for a three-month stint in Norway? It was a difficult decision. But you only live once!
So, we packed up our car and off we all went. It took three full days of driving to reach Norway from the UK, stopping in Sweden for a day to visit a friend and sample the dry fly grayling fishing, the first of six new species I would catch on fly during my time away.
At last we arrived at the lodge we would call home (and work) for the next three months. Reisastua Lodge is situated on the banks of the Reisaelva in the Reisa Valley of northern Norway. With breathtaking tree-covered hills towering above crystal-clear water, sparkling on its journey to the sea, it really is a tiny piece of serene heaven. We fell in love instantly.
Working in a salmon fishing lodge is tough – seeing to the guests’ every need, transporting them to and from the river, and cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing and doing various maintenance jobs throughout the lodge kept us very busy! And the days were long: fishing started at midday and finished at midnight. But we had to be up by 8am to cook breakfast, and supper was served at 1am. After dinner and the inevitable post-fishing discussions over a few glasses of wine, we generally cleared up and hit the hay about 2:30–3am.
I’ll admit that I found it difficult watching the guests head out and come back full of stories about their conquests. After all, we had taken this job because of the lure of fishing, not because we liked cooking and cleaning! I did feel better, though, every time I went outside, took a big breath of Arctic air and watched the river meandering past the lodge; I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those big Atlantic salmon were passing by at that very minute.
After a while, though, we became better at managing our time and chores, and found a couple of hours now and then to hit the river. It was nice to get out of the lodge for a short while, take in the scenery and practise some casting. I soon found out what it was like to have a large salmon attached to my line, but after a short battle he spat the fly and I was left feeling that bitter-sweet combination of excitement, adrenaline and despair – a concoction unique to fishing. Jonny fared better on this trip, landing a beautiful 19lb hen.
During our times on the river we caught and lost several perfect Atlantics and began to understand why this river is so special and the fishing so addictive. It was the lodge’s first fully-commercial year, so it was not fully booked. Moreover, we experienced unusually high water in the peak time of the season, but despite that, Reisastua Lodge still ended the season with no fewer than 80 salmon in the book, 36 of these over 15lb.
Our spare time was limited, so we did everything we could to make the most of it. ‘Work hard and play hard’ was our mantra! We decided that, although the salmon fishing was outstanding, we wanted to explore the other opportunities this little spot of heaven offered the adventurous angler. There was a small lake
a short drive from the lodge in the middle of a dense wood, so one day we loaded up our kayak and rods and headed there for the afternoon. Not only were we treated to a front-seat sighting of a moose family-gathering, but we also found a few small pike and some specimen perch that were willing to take our flies.
What really intrigued us, though, were the fjords and their crystalline saltwaters. Our boss Roar called us “strange people” for he couldn’t understand why we would want to fish for anything other than salmon. I suppose it did seem a little mad, having one of the world’s best big salmon rivers on our doorstep, and here we were planning a session in the sea! But being the adventurous anglers we are, and as amazing as the Reisa and its silver inhabitants were, we could never commit ourselves to one species or water type – we had to investigate what else there was to be had!
To the fjords
In late August we found we had a couple of free days, so we arranged with Morten (one of our guides) to go out onto the fjord on his boat. We knew there would be big sea trout, but Morten told us we may also find coalfish, cod, and maybe even halibut. I love any form of fishing but I’m happiest targeting fish with a fly rod, and the idea of trying for something like a halibut was such an exciting prospect.
I spoke to a few local people about it, and most of them told me it wouldn’t be possible. However, I found one person who had had success; he had managed to catch some halibut between 5 and 10lb on a fly. Well that is all I need to hear; it was possible!
I spent a little time tying up a few saltwater flies for the cod and the sea trout, and I also tied a special white and red Lefty’s Half-and-Half on a Partridge 4/0 sea prince. I felt good about this fly and couldn’t wait to try it out!
Out on the fjord, the sky was blue and the sun was shining off the small scraps of snow left on the mountains. The water was gin-clear and there was only a little breeze, so we could drift lazily in the shallows and sight-fish for the large shoals of cod that swam there. The cod were such fun on the fly, you could watch them follow in close, battling between themselves for the best position before one would win, open its massive mouth and inhale the fly. We did this for most of the day, having a fly vs lure competition between ourselves.
Morten then took us to an area of mainly gravel where the water was about 2–5m deep, and explained that this was the area where he sometimes sees halibut. They would lie on the bottom in a rip current, waiting to ambush passing baitfish. So we all stuck our heads over the side, searching for a halibut shape in the sand. Before long, Morten and Jonny spotted a small one which they cast a soft plastic lure to. Although it looked interested, it turned away and didn’t take the lure.
A short while later we spotted a huge halibut cruising close to the bottom which Morten reckoned would have weighed in the region of 140lb; again a lure was offered, followed and forgotten.
We headed home chatting about tactics for the following day. We felt that the halibut we saw were in such shallow water that it must be possible to convince one to take a fly – if they are in the mood, of course!
The following day on the fjord was slightly overcast, cooler and the water had a slight chop to it. We slowly made our way to the area where we saw the halibut, catching the odd cod as we went. I had my Greys 9wt Salt rod and Hardy Ultralight reel set up with an intermediate line, a sink tip and an 18lb leader. I tied on my Half-and-Half fly with its tungsten dumbell eyes and cast out from the front of the boat. As we drifted, I slowly stripped in the line allowing the fly to bounce along the bottom. I got snagged a couple of times, so I knew I was fishing at the right depth. We fished this area for about 30 minutes, then just before Morten was about to restart the boat to reset the drift, something very powerful hit my fly. My first thought was that I had snagged something, then I felt the vibrations from a fish and thought it must be a cod. But then it took off. My rod arched over hard as the very heavy fish headed for deeper water. Line was peeling off my reel at an alarming rate, so Morten started the boat and followed the fish as it doggedly hugged the bottom and headed further out into the fjord. After a while, I managed to heave it up in the water column, close enough for us to see it. Jonny was standing with the net in his hand and as it came within sight, we all let out some blue language!
The halibut which had so ferociously taken my fly was not going to fit in the net. I managed to get the fish close to us but as it saw the boat it took off for another massive run and all I could do was hold on and watch my line disappear once more. This tug of war went on for about 35 minutes with the halibut making another couple of big runs before starting to slow down.
My bicep was burning but I’m not one for giving up easily! Eventually, the beast began to tire and we got it close enough to touch the leader and place a noose around its tail. We hopped out of the boat and into the shallows to admire this magnificent fish, and to take some measurements and photographs.
This was by far the biggest fish I had landed on fly. And despite its strange appearance, it was the most beautiful thing to me at that moment. With a bit of help from Morten and Jonny, I carefully slid the fish back into the water and held onto its tail until the very last minute, maintaining my connection with this special moment for as long as possible. It recovered quickly, I felt the muscles in its tail flex and with a couple of strong kicks it was gone.
The fish had measured 147cm, nose to tail, which would put it in the 44–50kg (97–101lb) range.
On our journey back to shore we started wondering what the biggest recorded fly-caught halibut was. Morten called Villmarksliv, publishers of a Norwegian sport fishing magazine who hold the Norwegian records. The biggest fly-caught halibut they had on record was 8kg! We were sent some forms to fill in with all the information and witness signatures. It took a couple of weeks but eventually they confirmed it as the new Norwegian fly-caught record! What an honour!
Some people are lucky enough to never have to work a day in their life because they are surrounded by what they love. Others, however, work hard to become surrounded by what they love. Last summer, I fell into the latter category; it was tough at times, but I was immersed in a world I had dreamt of so many times. And guess what... I’m already looking forward to going back to Reisastua Lodge this summer to do it all again!
A lot to offer
Norway has so much to offer. Its unspoilt crystalline rivers are home to some of the planet’s biggest Atlantic salmon, beautiful sea trout and jaw-dropping brown trout. There are hidden lakes with specimen perch, a breathtaking coastline and Arctic fjords where some amazing unexploited saltwater fishing can be indulged in. The possibilities are endless!