A fling with the girl next door
Matt Harris travels to Norway and has his heart stolen by the Reisa, a less well-known neighbour of the mighty Alta.
Every Atlantic salmon angler knows about the fabled Alta – the river of dreams. The Alta is the undisputed queen of salmon rivers – impossibly huge fish come charging up through its hallowed waters every year, and for the small number of fishermen lucky enough to fish the legendary river, the chances of a reward in the shape of one of its leviathans is a prospect worth every penny of the substantial fees involved.
I've been lucky enough to fish the Alta a handful of times, and I can tell you that she is a femme fatale. Spending a king's ransom to share a rod for three short nights every year allows you just a glimpse of what this unique river is capable of. Yet, despite the absurd costs for around 10 hours actual fly-in-the-water time, I am utterly seduced.
Every year, a little voice inside my head tells me not to fall in love with the Alta. That little voice tells me that she's out of my league, a rich man's play-thing. I know that the chances are that she'll steal my money and break my heart.
Yet just over the hill, in a valley that is as stunningly beautiful as the Alta's mighty canyon, flows a river that relatively few salmon anglers know – a river that runs gin-clear over golden stones and that throws up freakishly big salmon to rival even those of her more glamorous neighbour.
If the Alta is the queen of salmon rivers, then the Reisa is the girl next door. This unsung beauty is one of the most captivating rivers on Earth. Cutting its way out of the high Norwegian granite to come tumbling down towards the icy waters of the Arctic sea, this little gem can and does produce 50lb Atlantic salmon most years. My great friend, Jens Olav Flekke, took a stunning 51lb fish from the river three years ago and swears that even bigger fish are possible.
Crucially, the Reisa is affordable and accessible. Last year, I was invited to fish the river with Jens, as a prelude to my three nights on the Alta, and driving along the coast road from Alta to Storlett, I knew that I had stumbled upon a very special little corner of the world. The Reisa is everything that Jens said it would be: as clear as gin and infinitely more intoxicating. Jens keeps great company, and I found his friends to be warm and good-natured, both on and off the river. We all fished hard at all kinds of hours of the day and night and drank big glasses of good red wine as the midnight sun came winking through the birches across the river. And despite a fair amount of fishing pressure from local anglers, Jens and I caught some cracking fish.
One evening, Jens introduced me to Roar Olsen, who runs Reisastua Lodge. Roar is a force of nature – a larger than life character whose enthusiasm for the Reisa is utterly infectious. I was due to head to the Alta, but Roar insisted that I come back and fish with him after my trip. I took little persuading: Roar is great company, and he has access to some of the most beautiful pools on the upper river; even as I fished down the legendary Vahaniva pool of the mighty Alta, I found myself thinking about the beautiful little river over the hill. I drove back along the coast with a head full of wild optimism and a host of plans for tackling the Reisa.
Over the next couple of days, Roar took me to a myriad of beautiful pools, but despite occasionally showing their tantalisingly vast flanks, the big fish of the Reisa refused to play ball. On our last day, Roar decided that we'd head right to the top of the river. We rose early and met up with Roar's guide, Morten, whose best fish from the river is a stupendous 54lb. We drove a little way upriver and then jumped into a classic Norwegian canoe – a long, lithe boat in the classic Alta style, replete with a powerful engine and loaded to the gunnels with Spey rods and tackle.
After an hour or so, we reached Mollisfossen – one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever clapped eyes on, and at 269 metres high, one of the highest in Europe. Finally we beached the boat and wandered upstream on foot. After 15 minutes, we emerged from the forest path to find a footbridge spanning a craggy gorge at Nedrefoss. Roar explained that this was Zone 19 – the uppermost fishable zone on the river. Above this spot, the spectacular Imofossen waterfall prevents salmon travelling any further upstream.
Roar bemoaned the fact that the pool is not really fishable with a fly – its roiling currents and back-eddies are more suitable for the spinning rod, and there are no obvious points at which to stand at the upstream end of the pool in order to achieve the classic down-and-across swing. However, as I looked on from downstream, I watched a big silver salmon nose up through the water. Not a minute later, another fish – an even bigger specimen that was painted with the first splashes of its spawning tartan – came rolling up into view. Suddenly, I had a flash of inspiration: while the Norwegians are – with the possible exception of the Icelanders – the most accomplished salmon anglers I've come across, there is one technique that they seem not to have absorbed into their lexicon.
The last bomber to have flown over the Reisa may well have been one of the Lancasters that so heroically dropped their tallboy bombs on the notorious “Tirpitz” as it languished in Kaa Fjord in 1944. Now, I thought, it might just be time for another.
Having fished the beautiful salmon rivers of the Gaspe Peninsular in Eastern Canada, I know just how devastating the Bomber fly can be. This deer-hair and calf-tail oddity was famously created by the Reverend Elmer Smith after he tossed his cigar butt off of a bridge spanning the Miramichi and watched a salmon rise to take it downstream.
Anyone who has seen one of these big dry flies being snatched from the surface will know what a special way it is to catch a salmon. The fly is the first line of attack in its homeland, but I have made it work in Northern Russia too, and it is often taken dead-drift like a trout fly, making it the perfect antidote to glassy pools that are impossible to swing a fly through.
Even as I tied the fly on, I saw a shape shifting against the wall of rock directly across the river from where I stood. It could only be a fish, and by the look of the thing, it was big. Very big.
I sent the big bomber arcing across the pool. A floating salmon fly? Roar and Morten clearly felt that I was mad, but as the fly settled on the flat, mirror-bright water gleaming under the sheer cliff, something very special happened. The vague shadow that I'd spotted slowly resolved into a big silver torpedo, and the salmon came rocketing up through the water column to nail the fly.
My heart almost stopped at the sight of this stunning fish coming barreling up through the water, but somehow the fish missed its target, and I watched, astonished, as it swam back down to its lie with the fly still bobbing innocently above.
“He'll have it next time,” I hollered to Roar and Morten. Did I believe it? In truth, not really – just getting the fish to come once had seemed like a miracle – but as the fly settled again on the silvery current, the big fish rose again. This time, there was no mistake. Against the shadowy reflection of the cliff, the whole thing was perfectly framed – the big silver fish and the bright little fly contrasting against the inky water of the pool. For a few moments, I was in heaven – I'd duped one of the Reisa's legendary behemoths – a fish of well over 30lb, and I would surely be the toast of the lodge that night.
The fish turned down and I set the hook hard. I could see every inch of its massive frame as it returned its lie, just downstream of the cliff in the gleaming shafts of sunlight and then, suddenly, amidst the cheers and the unique and singular rush that comes from hooking a big salmon, inexplicably, the hook just pulled free.
I was bitterly disappointed. A lot of salmon fishing is a simple attritional grind – covering the water and waiting for the law of averages to reward your long hours of hard work – but this fish had been persuaded to take a fly from a spot that was not suited to being fished with a conventional fly. It would have been a real triumph.
The disappointment didn't stay with me long. Every pool down the river was a dream: glassy rushing waters that filled every cast with hope. As the day drew to a close, and I started to think about the three hour drive back to Alta airport, Roar urged me to try one last spot. Despite the fact that I was already cutting it fine, I needed little persuading.
I tied on my favourite Sunray Shadow and worked it across the stretch that Roar had brought me to, a wide, long glide that looked perfect. Three quarters of the way down the pool, a good fish boiled at the fly. I backed up, took off the sink-tip and sent the fly back out one last time.
“The last thing I need to happen is to hook one now,” I grinned at Roar, “Then I really will be late!” The words were barely out of my mouth when there was a big implosion on the surface and the rod was suddenly bucking wildly in my hands.
The fish of the Reisa are broad-shouldered, powerful creatures, and they fight with a spirit that is hard to forget. A 20lb salmon is nothing out of the ordinary for this special river, but 15 minutes later, as I looked down at the sparkling silver fish wallowing in Roar's net, I felt elated. Just for a moment, everything else was forgotten as I gazed at this exquisite, deep-bodied fish, shot through with the sapphire blue stripe that tells you that your fish is freshly run from the ocean. And then Roar was clapping me on the back and urging me to hold the fish up for the camera, before rushing me back to the lodge.
As I hastily crammed my waders into my bag, Roar made a big pot of coffee and then, after a warm goodbye, I was racing back along the road to Alta and my flight home. Three hours later, as the 4am sun lit up the mountains that guard the Alten Fjord, I found myself looking down once again at the waters that flow out of the mightiest salmon river on earth.
There is only one Alta, for sure, but I knew that I had lost my heart to the girl next door.
Reisastua is a small, intimate lodge that has a warm informal charm, and Roar Olsen will make you feel like part of the family. With some of the most stunning scenery anywhere, the Reisa also offers fishing for some of the very biggest Atlantic salmon on the planet. Scott McKenzie took his biggest ever salmon – a 31 pounder – with Roar a few weeks before my visit, and the river seems to throw up at least one 50 pounder every year.
Tel. +47 91 33 45 60