Whenever I get asked what my most memorable fish was, suddenly visions of multiple fishing trips come flooding back to me. There are so many wonderful moments that I could choose but the one that seems to stand out from the others is one of despair and heartbreak rather than jubilance.
The fish that I am talking about is from my first ever trip to Norway and the mighty Gaula River. It was to be just a brief three day stay, but the chance to target big Atlantic salmon in stunning fly water was one that could not be passed up.
My base for the stay was the wonderful Winsnes Lodge, upstream of Singsas and the Gaulfossen falls, that can act as a barrier in the early part of the season. As this was early August we did not have to worry about that, and after a tour of the private beats it was evident that there were dozens of salmon throughout the pools. Much of the first day on the water was spent refining tactics and finding my feet, literally, on a new river and piece of water.
With tinkering of tactics and lots of discussions with my host Matt Hayes and head guide at the time George Howard, I settled on my Guideline LXi 13’ 9” #9/10 combined with the Guideline 3D Float/Hove/Intermediate shooting head. This outfit seemed like a great balance for the low and clear water without sacrificing strength if I were to encounter a good salmon…
At the business end, I had tied on a 12’ section of 23.5 lbs Seaguar Ace Hard Fluorocarbon (not everyone’s first choice but I seem to get on with it), even in low water it is not worth going lighter in case you hook into something sizeable. Then attaching a choice of small ¼ to ½“ cone head tubes, this allowed you to anchor the flies in the faster runs where the salmon were holding. Colours I adjusted depending on the light conditions, Black wing over green or blue in bright light and Black wing over orange or red in low light.
Setup and ready to go, I headed out after one of the lunchtime rest periods that Winsnes exercise between 1400-1800. I was heading to the well-rested and stunning Bottle Pool, which is best fished from the true right bank. The neck of the pool offers some tricky wading but a great run that bounces from large boulder to large boulder. The run is pushed to the left bank and provides multiple taking spots all through the pool until it reaches the tail. The wading in the pool is much easier and a delight to fish.
Starting in the neck, I put out some short casts. Gradually extending to cover more likely holding rocks. Before long a couple of unsettled resident salmon showed themselves but seemed to have little interest in attacking my offering. Working lower you could now see the main holding spots forming along a slack on the far bank. One of those hard to reach places that result in lots of swearing for all the bad casts followed by absolute delight with one good cast.
After several attempts I got one of those casts that makes you smile inside, it unfurled and the fly dropped into the slack on the far side. I held the rod tip up to try and keep the belly out of the run so the fly could get purchase. The shooting head began to catch the flow, the fly was about to be whipped out of the slack. Then everything stopped, the line was heavy. My heart froze, my brain was saying rock.
Then that double tap came down the line, the headshake. I firmly lifted the rod to secure the hook hold across the river. At that point my frozen heart, went into overdrive. I scrambled to get onto a higher rock to help get a better position as the fish drifted from its calm waters into the main flow. As it entered the flow I was fully expecting it to just turn in the flow and head off to Trondheim in some unstoppable blazing run, but it didn’t. The fish was cool and calm and just glided across the run and parked itself behind the one big boulder left in the run. It was now a tug ‘o’ war.
Malcolm had joined me on the pool and had seen me hook into the fish. He waved and called out that he would go and get the net from the hut halfway down the pool. My standoff with the fish’s dead weight was ongoing…
I then made a decision that I have continuously played over in my head. I thought, the fish is close to me, maybe if I just apply more pressure and attempt to prise it from its refuge. Needless to say, the salmon really did not like that… It turned and with unstoppable force it pushed into the flow and sailed down river.
The shooting head/running line connection shot through the rings and the backing was fast approaching. And then everything stopped once again, this time with soul crushing slackness. The line now limply snaking in the flow and fish not to be seen.
I retreated to the nearest dry stone and plonk myself down, staring at my feet, line still snaking. A rustle above had me glance up, Malcolm had reappeared with the net…
Who knows how big that fish was, could have been 15 lbs or 40 lbs. I was devastated… but also completely inspired and it drives me to return over and over in search of that special fish.
The one that got away is often the most memorable…