AAA: An Alta Atlantic
I’ve heard it said that it’s not bragging if you know what you’re doing. Since I seldom do, I’d prefer to think that’s it’s not bragging if you’re lucky. Fishing always requires luck: the fish choose us, we don’t choose the fish. And I’m mindful that a jerk on one end of the line is not an act performed by a creature with fins and a tail, but is the embodiment of another creature usually wearing a hat.
My true luck was being invited by gracious friend Frank Schurz to share his rod and fish Norway’s River Alta the third week of August 2016. As many Atlantic salmon anglers know, the Alta is at the top – both figuratively and literally – of the fishing world. I’ve heard it stated that fishing the Alta is as exclusive as golfing at Augusta. Since the recorded history of angling the Alta dates to the 18th century, it actually is the other way around. Tarquin Millington-Drake says of the Alta, “If you fish here just once, you are part of fishing history.”
Five weeks a summer are allocated to non-Norwegian or non-daily draw anglers to fish the Alta. These individuals have paid for and own a rod – equivalent to a membership – for a specific syndicated week. They usually have inherited their rod (if, for example, you are the Duke of Roxburghe) or have purchased it from someone they know who no longer can pursue the sport. Turnover is infrequent and typically the same anglers occupy the same lodges – there are three – year after year.
The Alta is managed by the Alta Laksefiskeri Interessentskap (ALI) dating back to 1725. Frank is one of eight rods in one of the two August syndicates. Thirteen of us (three solo rods and five shared rods) started our week at ALI’s Stengelsen lodge, spending the night of August 17 there. The next day some of the group decamped to fish from the upriver lodges while seven of us remained behind to angle out of Stengelsen.
Frank and I each landed a salmon and a few grilse our first three days… which was fairly reflective of how our group overall was faring. The fishing was slow to OK, certainly not terrific although a 40 pounder had been netted upriver and I boated a male 31’er in a pool near Stengelsen.
On August 21 our contingent of seven moved up while the others moved down and we swapped pools. Frank and I were to be based at the Sandia lodge and were assigned to fish the Vina section of the river below Sandia. Our daily schedule called for commencing fishing at noon, breaking for a shore lunch at 4:00 and quitting at 8:00 to clean up for dinner. We started a little later that day due to moving ourselves and our toothbrushes to new quarters.
At around 4:00pm we were just below our lunch spot on the Kista pool and our primary boatman, Erlend suggested we fish a bit longer due to our late start. I was the one wielding the rod at the time, so this certainly sounded fine to me. It was not long thereafter that I had a pull and a fish was on.
Often different salmon rivers yield different salmon takes ranging from gentle nibbles to violent tugs. On the Alta it seems to be more the case of the former. I was hooked up, but none of us had any idea whether it was a sea trout, a grilse or a salmon… or what size. My fly line was tracing downstream as expected, l had a decent but not extreme arc in my 14′ Loop rod and all was proceeding nicely. Erlend was at the stern of the traditional sharp nosed, narrow, flat bottomed Alta longboat. It is the same as those used by generations on the Alta, now augmented with outboard engines. Frank was seated up from Erlend, I was next in line standing with rod upraised, and in the bow was Vegard.
As salmon sometimes tend to do, they can defy the apparent direction your line is running and show themselves at an angle 90 degrees plus from where you think they are. Vegard saw mine roll to the surface somewhat near him before it submarined. At this point an excited Norwegian exchange occurred between the two boatmen. Erlend next queried me, “What has been your biggest salmon?” I boasted, “Forty pounds, Grand Cascapedia 2011.” Erlend responded with nothing more than a smile. The human body has more than 50 types of sphincters. All of mine just tightened.
The salmon was behaving itself and seemed to be taking this being hooked routine quite calmly. Frank looked at his watch. Vegard kept rowing, slanting the boat toward the shore. Erlend ceased rowing (both boatmen row against the current to steady the boat and ease it down the pool) and just sat there. As for me, panic was edging in: “Is my drag OK?” “What pound tippet do I have on?” “My line’s not wrapped around my reel handle, is it?” “How much backing do I have?” “Should I sit down or stay standing?” “Didn’t I squarely ping my graphite with the same cone-headed Max’s Ponoi Special tube fly yesterday?”
Not knowing what better to do, I kept winding in line knowing that sooner or later the fish was going to run. It happened sooner. What came next was a Bogdan reel symphony sounding a crescendo as my backing began to diminish. I advised Erlend of my shortening string… as if he couldn’t hear the music. I added two clicks of drag. He fired up the motor and we gave chase.
The pursuit was like many angling pursuits. I gained line. I lost line. I sat down. I stood up. The salmon ran. The salmon sulked. At one point matters appeared to be under control and we neared the river bank for the landing procedure. The salmon had other thoughts and made a dash downstream. At that point Erlend’s oar decided to pursue the salmon in its own right as it parted company from its oarlock. Erlend made a dive for the oar as it dismissed itself from the boat, nearly dismissing himself as well. That would have been a dilemma: save the boatman or continue to chase the fish with us three remaining crew members?
The fight continued as I continued to fret and to bruise my stomach with the butt of my rod. I felt like a whack-a-mole mole, the amount of times I alternated between standing then sitting as we gave further chase. Notwithstanding the occasional reel squeal and diminution of backing, Erlend maintained his nonchalance, phoning his father downstream to be on the lookout for his oar. Three more times we neared the shore for attempted landings, feeling like student pilots conducting go-arounds. Twice we had a standoff with the salmon: it wasn’t moving and nor were we. The loop-to-loop junction of the intermediate fly line and 10′ polyleader was very close to my tiptop and I didn’t want to risk retrieving any more mono. Eventually we would apply some boat pressure and the fish would wander off.
Prior to our fourth attempted landing, Erlend asked Frank and me if one of us might be willing to lend him a pair of our polarized glasses. His were not and he wanted to be able to clearly see the fish once he was prepared to net it! Frank extended him his. My anxiety turned up two clicks. That attempt also was unsuccessful as the salmon churned once again for the middle after encountering shallow water.
A bit later we spotted the salmon bob to the surface as it was beginning to tire. As for me, I was considerably past beginning. We again vectored toward the shore. Erlend and Vegard exited the boat and Erlend readied the net. I reeled in, tilting my rod toward the bank as much as I could. The salmon drew very close, spied us four ugly humans, and went back to sea running for the next set of rapids at Bollo. To the sound of more Bogdan tunes, Erlend opined that these rapids were larger.
Luckily the salmon chose to stay out of the main flow of the fast water and we were able to draw parallel to it in a shallow eddy. The same procedure ensued: Vegard hopped out and steadied the boat. Erlend vacated next. Vegard slid the net down to Erlend. Erlend readied himself and began approaching the fish. I wound, bending my rod toward the shore. The fish stopped nearing as the water shallowed and I was close to my polyleader loop again. Erlend crept further out, extended the net and ordered, “Lift your rod so I can get the net under the fish.” Are you kidding? I had no leverage left. Plus I was rather tired.
Erlend then did what any other good boatman would do. He netted the salmon anyway. Whoops and hollers ensued. Then weighings, measurings, and pictures: 54 pounds, 52 inches, a dark scissory male. Frank announced that an hour and twelve minutes had elapsed – and that this fight had delayed our lunch considerably. We released the salmon after a surprisingly short revival effort some three miles downriver from where it was hooked. The four of us each took a long pull from my flask and the river received more than its standard allocation. We found Erlend’s oar and headed back up river for lunch.
Frank told me at the outset of our trip that on the Alta each cast has the potential to yield the catch of a lifetime. Fortunately for me that has proved true… unless I am in the presence of my dear wife where I amend my remarks to state, of course, “the fishing catch of a lifetime.” I am indeed lucky to have been chosen. As for the photo, I’m the one wearing the hat.