Norway’s River of Gold: The Atlantic Salmon of the Gaula

The salmon caught on the Gaula are often just hours out of the salt, sporting sea lice on their gill plates.
Photo by Sandy Hays

As we all know, but may be 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 hook-up, 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.

The midnight sun colors the sky on a gorgeous June night in the Gaula Valley.
Photo by Sandy Hays

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.

Alessio’s example (top) and my pale imitation (bottom) show how far I had to go toward perfecting the cast.
Photos by Sandy Hays

Facing Reality

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 the previous 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.

The Gaula Valley is green and gorgeous in Late June.
Photo by Sandy Hays

Beat E1, a.k.a. 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.

John Hoagland fights the first salmon, while his guide, Thies, stands at the ready.
Photo by Sandy Hays

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 first Guala salmon we laid eyes on was a beauty.
Photo by Sandy Hays

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.

My Spey rod is bent, as the salmon heads downstream . . . .
Photo by Sandy Hays

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, had 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.

First Cast

After breakfast on day four, we headed upstream from the lodge, to a beat known as Bogen Søndre. (The beats are often named after the farms from which they are leased.) I was so eager to get my fly in the water that I waded in at the top of the beat while Alessio and Sandy still geared up in a small hut on the shore. I stripped off some line, executed my first cast of the day (a passable double Spey), and guided the tube fly through the seam between the main current and softer water closer to me. About halfway through the swing, the fly simply stopped, so I did what Alessio had trained me to do: nothing. Then, as the belly of line bulged downstream, a big, silver slab rolled on the surface, and I set the hook.

My 22-pound Atlantic salmon was a dream fulfilled.
Photo by Sandy Hays

After thousands of casts over three days, I had finally hooked into an Atlantic salmon, and my brain was flooded by a rush of emotions—excitement, relief, and a fear that I would somehow screw it up. Alessio and Sandy heard my shout and jumped into action. The fish immediately peeled off all my line and about 100 feet of backing as it headed for the deep water on the other side of the main current. Lucky for me, the pool contained no major obstacles that the fish could wrap me around, and after a 15-minute fight, during which I almost brought the fish to Alessio three times, he finally made a dramatic scoop to net the beautiful salmon.

Suddenly, all that casting and frustration of learning to handle the two-handed rod and heavy tips seemed but a trifle. The fish was gorgeous: deep-bodied, chrome-bright, and a bit over 20 pounds. Its profile was perfect, from the sloping head to the fat caudal peduncle, which I could just barely get my hand around. This was the fish I had come to Norway to catch, and I was buzzing with adrenaline. After a few photos, we released it to complete the journey upstream. As it swam away, my mix of emotions modulated to include elation and awe, and I was overcome by the desire to catch another.

My fish’s powerful tail would propel it upstream to spawn.
Photo by Sandy Hays

Buying into the Culture

My first-cast salmon turned out to be just the opening act of a great day in which guests of NFC brought five salmon to hand. The atmosphere at the lodge that evening was festive, and even those anglers who hadn’t yet caught a fish shared in the excitement. Although I didn’t end up landing another salmon on the trip, the team scored another five salmon the next day—including a remarkable sequence in which my fellow Vermonter John Bleh caught two fish in an hour. By the end of the week, the tally was impressive: John was top rod with three salmon, three anglers landed two fish, three of us caught one, and three were shut out. Of course, there were also plenty of bumps, tugs, missed strikes, and lost fish in the mix, as well.

As expected, the hand of fate had not necessarily touched those with the greatest angling skill. Canadian Paul Wiebe had never even held a two-hander, yet he brought two salmon to the net. In contrast, another angler who had guided fly fishers for steelhead in British Columbia scored just one brief hook-up for the week. In our discussions about the role of luck, lodge owner Per Arneberg argued that angling skill—better casting and presentation technique—helps to get the fly “fishing” quicker and produces a longer swing in the strike zone. This gives the angler more opportunity to be lucky, but it’s no guarantee of success.

A celebratory cup of coffee was in order after landing my first big Atlantic.
Photo by Sandy Hays

In the end, I succeeded in my goal of landing a large salmon, but the joys of the trip went far beyond that single event. The Gaula itself is a beautiful river, as well as one of Norway’s most productive salmon fisheries, and the beats we fished offered many different kinds of water, making each session a new challenge. My affinity for and comfort with the Spey rod grew immensely over the week, and I will always prize a photo that Alessio took of me booming out a long cast on our last evening together. His expertise as an instructor, as well as his enthusiasm and storytelling ability, made him an excellent guide for my entry into Atlantic-salmon-fishing culture. And it was that culture, with its sense of camaraderie and shared victories, which will stick with me the most.

Click here for more information on the Norwegian Flyfishers Club.

This article first appeared in American Angler magazine.

On the final evening of the trip, I finally figured out the casting stroke.
Photo by Alessio Falorni

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