The Gaula River offers the chance to catch the Atlantic salmon of a lifetime.
[by Philip Monahan]
AS WE ALL KNOW, BUT MAY LOATH TO ADMIT, luck is a vital component of success in nearly every fly fishing situation. The concept is so ingrained in the consciousness of every angler, in fact, that it’s part of our standard on-the-river greeting.
“Have any luck?”
We’d all like to think that our skills and cunning are enough to ensure a hookup, but that moment when a fish eats a fly is really dependent on so many things that are out of our control— weather, water levels, the inscrutable whims of the piscine brain, and even the very presence of fish, to name just a few.
I know from my time as a guide in Alaska that luck is an even bigger factor when you’re pursuing anadromous fish, which enter fresh water in fits and starts, according to no set schedule, and are almost constantly on the move. The same pool or run that was full of fish the day before, allowing novice fly fishers to hook coho after coho, on this day can yield nothing for a seasoned angler. You can’t catch fish that simply aren’t there. At times like those, as the saying goes, it’s better to be lucky than good.
So I was aware that I was going to need a few good spins of Fortuna’s wheel when I traveled to Norway’s famed Gaula River during the last week of June to try to catch a large Atlantic salmon. Since I had very little experience fishing for the species or casting Spey rods, I certainly wouldn’t be able to rely on skill. But what I discovered during my stay at the Norwegian Flyfishers Club (NFC) was that the very capriciousness of the fishery created an atmosphere of camaraderie and solidarity among the disparate group of anglers at the lodge that was unlike anything I’d experienced before. Atlantic salmon anglers are accustomed to fishless days—and they’ll eagerly commiserate with others in the same situation—but the long hours of fruitless casting seem only to increase the majesty of the quarry in their eyes. One of the things that make the “Fish of Kings” special is that it doesn’t come easily; except when it does.
As usual, I was accompanied by my friend and photographer, Sandy Hays, whom I’ve known since high school, and we caught an overnight flight from Newark to Trondheim on June 20. At the airport, we picked up a rental car, and the hour-long drive to the lodge took us first along the shores of the dramatic Trondheimsfjord and then into the gorgeous, verdant Gaula Valley, which narrows dramatically as one travels upriver. Perched on a high bank above the Gaula, the majestic NFC lodge, with its turf roof and imposing façade, is just outside the small town of Støren.
After a much-needed nap and a fine dinner of reindeer stew, we met our guide, Alessio Falorni, and got ready to fish the final session of the day at our assigned beat on the lower Gaula. Because there are nearly 24 hours of sunlight in June, it’s possible to fish at any time, and the angling day is divided into four sessions: midnight to six, six to noon, noon to six, and six to midnight. Alessio, a fanatical angler from Florence, Italy, was bullish about our chances, since several fish had been hooked on the lower beats in recent days. But as we drove downriver and I anticipated breaking out the Spey rod, trepidation began to set in.
When I’d booked the trip to Norway last winter, I promised myself that in the intervening months, I’d practice a lot with the two-hander, so that I’d be at least semi-proficient the first time I waded into the Gaula. But once spring arrived, it was difficult to trade my limited fishing time for casting practice. And once the Hendricksons started popping on the Battenkill, all thoughts of the 14-footer flew out the window. Thus, I was about to be exposed as a rank novice, something I was not accustomed to.
Beat E1, aka the Horse Pool, is considered one of the best early-season beats because it is a good resting place for fish that recently entered the river. It starts with a riffle below an island and then transitions into a flat run with a few submerged but visible rocks. The wide gravel riverbed makes for easy wading. We started at the top, and Alessio set me up with his rod and gave me a five-minute lesson in “Scandi” casting, which relies on precise body movements and timing. As I practiced, he calmly offered corrections while I made a total hash of things. After 20 minutes, I was able to get the orange tube fly out to a fishable distance. However, I was abashed every time I looked downstream and saw my friend Taylor Edrington—the owner of Colorado’s Royal Gorge Anglers, who happened to be at the lodge that week— booming out long cast after long cast on the beat below us.
No one hooked up that first night, but a few hours of casting practice helped immensely, and we were treated to a spectacular sky at about midnight, as the sun dipped briefly below the horizon and lit up the clouds with a brilliant display of red and orange.
Cheering on the Team
During his introductory talk to us new guests, NFC general manager Enrico Cristiani described fly fishing for Atlantic salmon as a “team sport.” When a group of anglers is at the lodge, he explained, they are all fishing different beats on the river, and you never know which beat will produce fish on a given day. Luck and timing play such important roles that everyone should celebrate each fish caught, no matter who caught it.
Our international group—six Americans, three Canadians, and an Englishman—took this to heart, especially when day two was the first day of the season in which not a single fish was caught. Alessio, Sandy, and I worked hard on two separate beats before we got washed out by a mountain rainstorm that sent a slug of muddy water down the river. Back at the lodge, no one complained about getting skunked, but you got the sense that everyone was anticipating that first fish— caught by anyone—which would give us all hope that our hundreds or thousands of casts would soon produce success.
The majority of the Gaula River is private water that belongs to landowners along the banks. The Norwegian Flyfishing Club leases about 25 stretches of water, or “beats,” for its guests. At the beginning of the week, each guest receives a schedule breaking down each day into four fishing sessions and assigns a beat for each session.
Depending on the time of year and water level, some beats fish better than others, but there are no guarantees. My salmon was the first of the year caught above the Gaulfossen, a long chutelike rapid that serves as a barrier to migrating salmon when the water is high. Anglers caught several more fish in the upriver beats in the following days.
The changing water levels, fish migration, and weather make each new beat a different experience. When I returned to the scene of my catch, Bogen Søndre 1, two days later, rising water had completely changed the pool, forcing us to fish it differently. These constant adaptations are yet another challenge that makes this style of fishing so fascinating
The next morning, I made the executive decision to switch from the rod with the Scandi line to a 14-foot, 9-weight Spey rod with a Skagit line that I had brought. This allowed me to employ the snap-T, snap-C, and double-Spey casts, which I found easier and more natural, and I was able to focus on covering water (i.e., fishing) instead of on trying to perfect the challenging cast. Even though he didn’t agree with it, Alessio supported my decision, as long as I was willing to attach 15 feet of T-14 lead-core line to the end of my Skagit line, to ensure the fly dropped down in the water column to where the fish would be holding.
I was chucking all this weight pretty well on beat L2, when Alessio’s cell phone “rang.” (His ringtone is actually a screaming salmon reel.) An angler had hooked a fish on the beat below us! I reeled up, and we all headed down to watch the action. John Hoagland, of Salt Lake City, was engaged in battle; his rod bent double as his guide, Thies, talked him through the process. We cheered him on as he brought the fish close twice, only to have it race away across the current again. Finally, Thies got the net under the fish, John’s shoulders relaxed in relief, and there was much rejoicing.
The bright-chrome salmon was just hours from the sea, with sea lice still attached to its gill plates, and its body streamlined and muscular. Although it was on the small side for the Gaula, at around 10 pounds, it was still astonishingly gorgeous. Just laying eyes on the magnificent fish made me both more excited to catch one and filled with hope that such a thing would occur—emotions bolstered when we returned to the lodge and heard that two other anglers, Californian Justin Miller and Canadian Paul Wiebe, also landed salmon. Our “team” was suddenly on the board in a big way, and the midnight bonfire and cookout on the riverside gravel was awash with an air of real optimism.