Global angling explorer and world-class photographer Matt Harris shares an exclusive guide to one of the world’s greatest Atlantic salmon fishing destinations.
Photographer / MATT HARRIS
The sausages start to sizzle as I toss a couple more logs on the fire. My companion Roar retrieves a couple of cold beers from the river, and we savour them in the warm evening air. We are waiting patiently under the ‘Gapahuk’ shelter for the sun to fall behind the high ramparts of the mountains far to the west. The fishing has been tough for the last three days, but after a brief rise, the river is clearing and falling, and a few fresh fish are starting to run the river.
I spread a few flies out on the bench, and Roar points to a well-chewed old Templedog tied by my mate Hakan Norling. I tie it on and test the knot carefully.
I hold my hands out and Roar guesses wrong. I toss the stone into the grass and snatch my rod up with a grin. I walk quietly to the top of the pool and wade in. I lengthen line and make a cast. The line fizzes out across the river, and I throw a big upstream mend in to ease the fly’s progress across the powerful currents.
A third of the way down the pool, the line suddenly straightens, and the loop of line shoots up between my fingers. A big salmon boils on the surface and then starts to run downstream. Without a word, Roar quietly pushes the long Norwegian canoe into the stream and I clamber carefully in. Thirty minutes later, we are gazing at a beautiful salmon – 28lb of sea-liced perfection, sparkling in the midnight sun. I lift the mighty fish for a quick picture and then we watch her glide back into the icy currents and continue on her way. We ride back upstream and I pour a celebratory dram. The midnight sun lights up the vast mountains that tower all around, and for a moment, it catches the two iridescent scales gleaming on the back of my hand.
This is salmon fishing in Norway.
Every salmon angler dreams of fishing the mighty Alta. The hallowed waters of this special place have consistently produced the biggest Atlantic salmon in the world. Every year fish of 50lb and more are caught, and fish of 60, 70 and even 80lb-plus have been recorded. Yet Alta is about much more than freakishly big fish. To cast a line over the big glassy tail of Vahaniva or Gabonakken, enveloped in the breathless silence of the vast canyon that soars above you is simply spellbinding.
The salmon of the Alta will take a big hitched Sunray Shadow and there are few experiences in fly fishing that rival seeing one of these impossibly large fish porpoise on your fly.
Be warned; accessing this salmon fisher’s nirvana is difficult. Barrelling up the river to my favourite beat at Sautso, my boatman Kjell often points out various dukes and lords, and on more than one occasion the King of Norway himself. There is a long waiting list, and should you find yourself at the front of it, expect to pay a hefty sum for the chance to catch one of the river’s behemoths. That said, there is the Alta lottery, which allows a few lucky anglers the chance to fish this river of dreams for a fraction of the cover price. And any price is worth paying, believe me.
My old friend Hakan Norling, the inventor of the classic Norwegian fly pattern, the Templedog, and a world class salmon angler, caught a fish from Alta last year that weighed 25kg – that’s 55lb in old money. That really is what salmon fisherman’s dreams are made of. If you ever get the opportunity to fish the Alta, grab it with both hands!
The Aaroy is perhaps the ultimate Norwegian heartbreaker. The river’s legendary ‘platforms of despair’, built by Major W. J. Smith in 1919, are immortalised in the writings of Charles Ritz and Ernie Schweibert. They have seen countless anglers battered, bruised and beaten by the huge salmon of this unique river. However, there is always hope: occasionally, some of the Aroy’s monsters do get landed.
The Russian exile Nicolas Denisoff leased the river from 1921 to 1965, and often fished with Coco Chanel, his long-time lover. Denisoff managed some incredible fish, including two stupendous specimens of 68lb and 76lb.
In more recent times, the river and its beautiful lodge have fallen under the stewardship of Knut Munthe Olsen and his wife Nina, and they have overseen a renaissance on the Aaroy.
Despite the huge advances in tackle design and the best efforts of the Aaroy Lodge’s brilliant resident Head Guide Scott de Bruyn, anglers continue to be regularly beaten by the mighty fish here. However, the river still throws up 50-pounders, and if you do get beaten up by one of the big beasts of the Aaroy, Knut offers wonderful consolation in the form of fabulous 5-star cuisine and a warm, friendly ambience in his celebrated lodge.
Aaroy lodge nestles amongst the birch forest, with heather and wild blueberries growing all around. Spectacular views of Barsnesfjord, one of the Sognefjord’s many arms stretch out below, and the lodge offers seclusion and tranquillity, as well as the chance to tangle with some of the very biggest Atlantic salmon in the world.
The Aaroy is a unique fishery, and if you aren’t afraid to suffer the potential heartbreak of losing the fish of a lifetime, it is one to put very near the top of your Norwegian wish-list.
The Lakselva offers a very special salmon fishing experience. Despite its relatively modest size, this little Northern gem offers some of the very biggest salmon in the world. Situated to the east of the mighty Alta, the Lakselva tumbles down from the mountains to rush out into Porsanger Fjord. Its waters run clear and it is an exquisitely beautiful little river.
The Lakselva is divided into 5 zones, and though much of the water is public fishing, there is the opportunity to fish private water via Oldero Lodge.
Oldero Lodge stands on Olderoen Island and accommodates up to eight guests. It was renovated in 2018 and is a stylish but comfortable home from home. It offers great food, a hot tub, and beautiful views of the home pool which is just 100 yards from the front door. This is the first real holding pool on the river, and it offers a good chance of a Lakselva monster. The lodge also offers some other excellent pools, including Holmen, Stangnes and the notorious Swimming Pool.
Fish to 55lb have been caught on the Lodge water in recent years, and Oldero consistently produces trophy fish for its guests. A 14-15ft 10wt rod will comfortably cover most of the river. Tactics include all of the standard Norwegian fare, with Sunday Shadows and Templedogs often producing the goods. The Red Frances is also highly productive, often cast upstream and allowed to bounce provocatively through the pools.
The fish of the Lakselva are hard-won, but if you have the patience and tenacity to tackle this special little river, it may just reward you with the fish of your dreams.
Reisa is one of the most beguiling salmon rivers in the world. Situated high up in the Troms region of the Arctic Circle, this little known gem rises close to Kautokeno, and the source of her bigger and more celebrated sister, the Alta.
While Alta is rightly famous for the size and quality of her salmon, the Reisa too can produce fish of spectacular proportions. The Reisa’s pools are accessible for a fraction of the Alta’s eye watering prices, and the river is every bit as enchanting.
The river is divided into 19 sections and while many of the fish are caught in the lower river, it is the upper river that is the most beguiling. Anglers are obliged to park the boat at Nedra Fosse and make their way upstream on foot. Weaving through the birch trees, the forest floor carpeted with wild flowers, anglers hop between seductive little pools like Arva-elva and Risasgrunenstilla, hunting for one of the Reisa’s legendary behemoths.
Stealthy casts with simple Sunray Shadow patterns, hitched to skate tantalisingly across the glassy tailouts will occasionally be met by a savage surface take that will stay with you a long time.
High above, golden eagles soar on the thermoclines, and throw fleeting shadows on the vast granite buttresses of the valley walls. Countless waterfalls – including the stupendous Mollis Foss, Europe’s highest – cascade down into the valley, and moose and even bears are occasionally glimpsed roaming in the lush summer pastures.
Reisa is a tough nut to crack – her gin clear water has fashioned a race of skittish and easily disturbed fish. Employ flies with a minimum of flash in all but the highest, dirtiest water, and fish ‘fine and far off’ with long tapered leaders and all the guile you can muster. Wait until the sun falls behind the vast sentinel crags off to the west before casting your line upon the water. Take six large strides between casts so that the fish don’t see your fly repeatedly before it arrives in their windows.
Stay at Reisastua Lodge, where Roar Olsen offers a warm welcome. Reisastua has provided personal best salmon for many of its lucky guests. Fish hard and be lucky. My friend Jens Olav Flekke’s 54lb fish is just one example of what this very special river is capable of.
The Gaula represents perhaps the most quintessential Norwegian Salmon fishing experience. Along with Stjordal and Orkla, the Gaula empties into the Trondheim fjord, and it represents a Mecca for salmon anglers from all over the world.
The Gaula is a big, powerful river, and the ability to throw big flies on a sinking line is key if you want to get the best from the river in the early season. Later on in the season, riffle hitched and even dry flies can work.
The Norwegian Flyfisher Club (NFC) is perhaps the best way to experience the Gaula. The NFC was the brainchild of legendary German salmon angler Manfred Ragusen, and is now run by a hugely likeable young couple, Per and Margo Arneberg. The NFC have water from the lower river around Kval and Lundamo all the way up to the Bua confluence and beyond. This means that even when the Gaulfoss rapid is holding the fish up and preventing them from running into the classic middle reaches around Storen, resident anglers can fish good water downstream, with a real chance of a fish.
The NFC fish a rotation system that offers you a different beat every six hours, and one of the great pleasures of fishing here is planning your campaign. If you’ve drawn killer pools like Langoy, Tilseth or Bogan Sondre 1 on the graveyard shift between midnight and 6am, you need to accommodate them, and some creative sleep patterns often ensue.
Like most Norwegian rivers, the fish here are hard won, so don’t expect huge numbers. Be patient, enjoy the crac and the camaraderie of your fellow anglers on the river, and as always in Norway, fish hard if you want to be rewarded. If you do so, there’s every chance that one of the Gaula’s 30lb leviathans is charging upstream with your name on it.