Sometimes you’ve just got to go for the big one. Salmon season is open and all we chasers of silver are planning our adventures to the Humber, Exploits, Pinware, Eagle or whatever destination tickles our fancy.
We are all hoping to catch the big one, a salmon of massive proportion that will excite us like a 10-year-old with a BB gun under the tree on Christmas morning. If you don’t relate or understand my analogy, watch “A Christmas Story” and see how excited Ralphie gets when he discovers his treasure. That’s me with a 20-pound salmon buckling my rod.
Newfoundland has great salmon fishing, with more than 200 rivers to choose from. I’ve fished quite a few of them and had tons of fun. But our rivers don’t reward us with many big salmon. I’m talking about salmon over 20 pounds, the ones that spool your reel if you give them just a tad too much free rein.
I’ve never caught a salmon over 20 pounds in Newfoundland. I’ve come very close, but no cigar. Anglers who target the whoppers in our fair land generally either spend their fishing time on the west coast around Bay St. George, or the lower reaches of the Humber. Those areas are most productive for big fish.
In 2007, I went to Russia on a quest for big fish. I cast for a week in the Rynda and Zolotaya rivers on the Kola Peninsula near the seaport of Murmansk. I caught many fish over 10 pounds, but my biggest tipped the scale at just a tad over 19. The 20-pound mark was eluding me.
In 2010, Rod Hale and I tangled with the monsters of the Gaula River in northern Norway. On the very first evening, I hooked and landed a fine silver jack of 24 pounds. Rod beached one over 30 pounds. We were playing with the big boys. I was hooked, addicted hopelessly and totally to swimming silver giants. Enough would never again be enough.
Matt Brazil and I flew to Trondhiem on May 30 of this year to fish opening week on the Gaula.
The start of salmon season up and down Norway’s beautiful and picturesque Gaula valley is a very big deal. A local cable TV channel covered the entire first week of fishing. There were fireworks at midnight; anglers in waders and boots attended the opening festivities, ready to hit the water at the stroke of 12.
They thought nothing of fishing all night. After all, they are Vikings, descended from the same lot that rowed across the broad Atlantic and spent a few winters on the Northern Peninsula, hundreds of years before Cabot sighted land at Cape Bonavista. Fishing in a wee bit of chilly night air is no biggie.
Besides the local Norse contingent, Matt and I were there, along with about 20 other nut cases from around the globe, willing to suffer jet lag and forego sleep to cast over chromed salmon fresh from the sea.
A gathering more devoted to their cause you will not likely find; folks from all walks of life, hailing from France, Italy, Australia, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Japan and Scotland, on a quest for silver. Every man is equal before a salmon, and all hands hit the fishing beat at midnight.
It was the coldest opening night on the Gaula in 37 years. The air temperature hovered just above zero and the water flowed from the snow-capped mountains at a toe-numbing 4 C. Matt and I had been without sleep for over 24 hours, but out in the water we pranced for the 12 to 6 a.m. opening shift.
After an hour up to my waist in that cold water, I waded back to shore with lesser spring in my step. Per, our Swedish guide, had built a nice warm fire to warm our bones and subdue the shivers. Then it was back out for another stint of casting and so the cycle continued.
I can’t believe sometimes the things I do for fish, and often for catching no fish. This was a no-fish night — not a single bite for six hours casting and swinging flies. At about 6:30 a.m. we turned in for a few hours sleep before fishing again at noon.
Opening week on the Gaula is a risky gamble that sometimes pays great rewards if the salmon gods are kind. The fish are deep-bellied salmon of gargantuan proportion that enter the river early while it’s still in spring flood. In the best of times this sort of fishing is very challenging.
In water this cold, salmon will not rise to the fly. Fur and feather needs to be right in their faces. Only heavy, full sink lines and big flies propelled by long two-handed rods give you a fighting chance. It is indeed very tough fishing, but there’s nothing like silver from the sea so fresh that sea lice still cling to keep you motivated. You don’t expect to catch many, but the fish of a lifetime might strike hard on your very next cast.
Ah, but the gods are fickle. On our first Gaula opening week, things did not go at all well. Late snows and a cold May left much snow in the hills. On the afternoon of June 1, the rain came with such a vengeance it spilled the mighty river over its banks and up into the trees. No fish were caught for days.
Finally the water settled, but warm temperatures melted snow that put the river in a 12-hour yo-yo cycle of rising and falling water. Fish were not holding in our pools.
The only chance was at running fish as they passed by our berths.
Luck was not on our side, and we did not connect with the big shiny prize this time around. Some of our fellow anglers did convince the gods to bestow some kindness. Eight fish were caught in total between about 20 of us at the Norwegian Fly Fishing Club. Per said it was the poorest year he’d ever seen, about a fifth of the typical allotment for the average opening week.
I will definitely try again if the other god spares me. But most of my prayers these days are directly to the salmon gods. I’m heading to Labrador in early July.
Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every
opportunity. He can be contacted