The penultimate pool at the bottom of the fabulous Grindal Beat on the Orkla is called Igdholen (abbreviated to IGD for those of us without any Norwegian!). IGD is a deep holding pool with a fast neck running into two channels which widen into the main pool - a deep hole in which fish rest before making their way up the rapids into the river above. I shall never forget it and am determined to return.
An unseasonably sweltering week for our great WWMF team ended with a brisk, but heavy thunderstorm and much needed rain in the headwaters, which brought the river up by 3 inches on our final day. While others packed and travelled to the Airport, I couldn’t resist one last run through a pool and selected IGD, which by now was in perfect ply. The water temperature had come down by 3 degrees and despite the 18th being our hottest day yet, its appeal was palpable.
I ran through the top of the pool first with a small plastic sunray on a full-floater and a long leader and then repeated the process with a sink tip. A 5lb trout obliged and for a few heart-stopping moments behaved like one of its silver cousins. But time was ticking on and so I crossed the river to the tail – a wide, but deep trough leading to a funnel on my bank and then to ferocious rapids below. My heart quickened; I had 15 minutes left.
I cast a long line across the pool with the plastic sunray attached and began working it back, speeding the fly up by slowly stripping, so that it ran along the lip of the tail before swinging purposefully into the funnel; I simultaneously moved my 14 foot rod to the home bank to maintain the swing before letting the fly dangle and wobble across the current, no more than an inch below the surface.
Time passed. Five minutes remained and I knew my last cast approached. I wanted to cover the whole tail again and so cast a long line once more across the pool at a slight angle and watched as the fly tracked for a final time right along the lip. It approached the funnel and swung onto it, slowing as the line straightened. I held it for a split second and then moved the rod tip to my bank. The fly moved and as it did so an enormous head gracefully porpoised onto the fly, engulfing it. I gasped, eyes wide, but had the presence of mind to pull the slack line in my hand hard back towards me to set the hook.
For what seemed like an age, the fish didn’t move. It felt as though I had tightened onto a rock, but I immediately realised I had to act. Bending into the fish I applied as much side-strain as I could and stumbled onto the bank to begin walking the leviathan into the centre of the pool. I had read in Falkus’s book that it was possible to walk a big fish like a dog if the right pressure was applied and the principle had worked for me before. I did so this time, falling back into the deep water and stumbling around as I tried to keep the fish in IGD; I knew that doing so was my only chance. If he dropped back to the rapids I couldn’t follow.
He then gave me my first glimpse. A huge tail thrashed on the surface as he tried to turn away from me. I saw the bright bar of silver. This was a big fish. By now I was expecting him to make a run for it and he didn’t disappoint. Lazily rolling and head shaking, he suddenly surged. I dropped the rod tip and let the line go as he headed back into the tail, ripping line from the reel as he went. I held him, tightened the drag again and he surged again, this time harder. I hung on, but he still took line. He felt well-hooked and so shaking as I did so, I applied side strain once more and bending in hard, I regained control. Then, having failed twice, he surged again, the reel zipped and jolted, I hung on, but then suddenly the line went slack…
I reeled in, trembling with disappointment and adrenalin. The fly had gone; he had broken me 6 inches above it. The knots had held, but my 25lb leader hadn’t. I sat distraught. The fish I had come for – the fish of a lifetime - was angrily shaking his head at the bottom of the pool. How big he was is difficult to say, but as readers will know, I have fished all over Europe and caught and lost some big fish. This was bigger than all of them.
And so, the After-Action Review… Was the leader too light? Perhaps, but as ever there is a trade-off between presenting a light fly well to hook that unexpected monster and holding it once it is on. Did I bully the fish too hard? Perhaps, but not doing so would almost certainly have resulted in his return to the Ocean without me! Was my leader frayed? Possibly, but I had checked 30 minutes earlier…In short who knows, but the lesson is to consider all these factors and to think through how you are going to deal with the wonderful problem of a big fish when you hook it. But always remember you can only do your best!
Salmon fishing as we all know comes with highs and lows – this, on my last cast, was both. But for the rest of our team of 12 it had been a punishingly hard 6 days. While there were fish running, it was early, and the low water and roasting hot conditions made it fearsomely difficult to tempt them. There were tweaks, pulls, fish lost, and a fish caught, but it was a tough and emotional week. The peerless surroundings compensated though, and at a lodge which leaves nothing to chance. Krister and the team are absolutely determined to ensure that all a fisher’s needs are met and while not fishing every hour God sends, Grindal is a comfortable respite with fantastic food, abundant conviviality, and constant advice.
What is so special about the fishing at Grindal? Firstly, it has some of the best holding water on the river. The pools are deep, the rapids fast and steep, and salmon migration therefore favours bigger fish. Secondly it fishes (and the fish run) at any height. We were during unusually low water for mid June, and while on some rivers that would limit options, all but one of the pools in the nearly 6 kms of the Grindal stretch was accessible. Thirdly the fly water is beyond compare. The width and depth of the river throughout are perfect for fly fishing: plenty of pace in the water and mostly an even flow, which brings the fly round perfectly and gives the angler a full suite of options for fly presentation. How about wading? Lumpy in parts, but all navigable with a good wading stick! The last point is that the whole set-up at Grindal is about the angler: huts on every pool; rubber nets at every landing spot; rugs for the colder nights and kettles for the coffee to keep you going. Faultless.
So why come to Norway early in the season? The first point is that seasonal conditions are far from predictable in today’s ever-changing climate. Early, mid-season or late offer no guarantees, although from mid-season onwards more grilse will be in the system. Time and patience are pre-requisites at Grindal, on the Orkla, or anywhere when chasing our elusive objective! The other more straightforward reason relates to the experience I describe above: the hope that any visiting angler has of seeing one of those enormous Norwegian salmon in the net, before admiring and carefully returning it to perpetuate its genes, which will keep me (and should keep you) coming back to this wonderful place for more.
There are relatively few locations in Norway that have truly embraced Catch & Release. Grindal lodge is one of them. If catch results at other locations display better returns, it is worth establishing how those fish were caught and more importantly how those fish are treated. As a fly angler, I am biased to the means by which we pursue our quarry. Yes it is done for sport, but with conservation and protection at the absolute core of what we do, wherever we do it.
Even if I would rather not, I have no objection to taking a salmon where they are plentiful, especially a grilse, even better when male. But over my recent trips to Norway I have been treated to the shameful sights of huge and vanishingly rare salmon, of 20, 30-40lbs being dragged up banks, having gorged on a large treble hook, baited with worms, cruelly left to flap on the bank, whilst watching the anglers high five their kill.
Will the riparian owners still be high-fiving as the numbers of these spectacular and incredibly precious fish dwindle away to nothing. Do they expect anglers, fishing any style or means, to still come and rent the fishing, when the numbers of fish caught become vanishingly small? Do they look forward to the day when their once precious and valuable salmon fishing falls off a cliff in terms of value?
The knowldge and science of what happens when we remove all the MSW fish from a river system is there for all who want to see it. As a visceral reminder of the challenges that the Atlantic Salmon faces, I have added the picture below, which I stress is not from Grindal Lodge, but sadly is all too common on the various websites reporting catches in Norway. More tragic still is that it comes from a country that used to offer some of the most spectacular salmon fishing the world has to offer, and albeit not as bad as recent returns in UK rivers, has suffered a similar and precipitous decline in numbers.
To continue as has been done before is to ensure salmon numbers will tip over the edge into a non-recoverable decline. Traditions and ways of thinking need to change in tune with the current conditions. It is my sincere hope that the sort of practices and measures embraced at Grindal lodge will slowly and steadily spread both up and down the Orkla as well as across all salmon rivers in Norway.
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