Colin Bradshaw joins a team of salmon fly fishers exploring the wonders of Norway Part 1. The Målselv River, Troms.
The Målselv River of Troms, northern Norway was once the preserve of the wealthy British 'Salmon Lords' – now a team of UK fishing writers return to rediscover its silver. Will they strike it lucky?
Gold has recently been found in the Mauken mountains which loom over the mighty Målselv River. But before you drop everything and rush to make your claim – this is no Klondyke – there are no nuggets to be found. The gold is well hidden within the crystal structure of Pyrite a mineral commonly known as “Fool’s Gold” because of its gold-like appearance – which is of course why prospectors have ignored it for years – fooled again!
The Målselv ‘silver’ is perhaps a similar story. Ask any group of UK salmon fishers to name the top Norwegian salmon rivers and few would name the Målselv. In fact few will have heard of her, yet this is a mighty body of water - much the same size as the Tay - but like its gold the Målselv is well hidden.
There are no cities or even large towns along its length which is very unusual for such a big river and even the local airport recently changed its name from Bardufoss to “Snowman International” in an attempt to get noticed. The nearest city is Tromsø some 43 miles to the north and the city of Narvik is 50 miles to the south so I suppose you could say that there is a well kept secret in between. Nevertheless, here I was, part of a very fortunate group of fishing writers invited to rediscover this great river valley.
Two of us flew from Edinburgh to Oslo (Gardermoen) where we met up with the rest of the team and boarded a flight to Bardufoss. Arriving late on Sunday evening we were whisked to a nearby hotel, the splendid Rundhaug Gjestegård (Guesthouse) which had first welcomed English fishing parties in 1902. The hotel oozes character and charm and is clearly very comfortable in its own wood-panelled skin. Quite right too – it has all the makings of a perfect fishing hotel – and the effervescent and enthusiastic new co-owner Reidun Nilsen is determined to welcome back sporting anglers from around the world. They are even opening a British style bar in the basement – hurrah!
Rundhaug Gjestegård with the 'silver' bearing Målselv in front and gold bearing Mauken hills beyond!
Over a fine Norwegian breakfast Reidun briefed us on the hotel and its history; when war broke out the English salmon lords were chased from the hotel by the occupying Germans who then fled themselves when General Montgomery arrived – and his photograph proudly hangs in the reception today - good old Monty.
Interestingly, during the recent refurbishments the new owners, exploring some old store rooms, discovered a series of fine paintings from the 40s by a then resident German war artist. These were much admired by our group and may well be valuable - so perhaps they have found their own hidden gold too!
As I devoured more eggs and crispy bacon, Reidun's husband Bjørn, a keen salmon fisher himself, described the river and outlined the fishing prospects and the beat allocation for the day ahead.
Like the scores in a rubber of Bridge the Målselv River is effectively divided into two: below the falls and above the falls. The mighty Målselvfossen (fossen means falls) is located about 16 miles upstream from the fjord and is an impressive series of rapids and falls which shape a formidable natural barrier to ascending salmon. This is not the end for the salmon however because for the last 100 years they have been able to use the longest fish ladder in Europe. A built-in viewing window has ensured that the ladder is a popular tourist attraction too, giving visitors brilliant close up views of the mighty salmon of the Målselv.
Målselvfossen as we saw it on July 10th 2012.
And here is Målselvfossen a few days after we had left. Over 1,000 cubic m/s!
Magnificent salmon in the fish ladder viewing window.
Immediately below the falls of course is a massive 'holding' pool and pioneering British 'Salmon Lords' during the 19th century paid handsomely for the privilege to fish there and even today the great falls pool is leased for the whole of July by a Norwegian billionaire!
Because salmon had recently been moving through the ladder under favourable running conditions, our party was to fish two private beats of classic fly water above the ‘falls’. Bjørn further whetted our appetite with the knowledge that; with the river running moderately high (around 190 cubic metres per second), crystal clear and at a cool-ish 8 degrees C, prospects were good.
After the important tackle disinfection and a very short drive our group arrived on the banks of the Målselv and in the blink of an eye Bjorn was pouring us strong coffee brewed over an open fire. Marvellous! - I do love this ritual-like aspect of Norwegian salmon fishing. Cup in hand we stood and admired a most wonderful salmon pool called the “Boat Pier” (Båtstøa). The river simply swept past us in a great bend as one continuous glide of perfect unbroken fly water. The crystal-clear flow sparkled with shades of pale green and blue and its perfect pebble-bed gleamed as it slowly shelved away from us. The scene was really beautiful in ways perhaps only salmon fishermen fully appreciate.
John Hotchkiss Fishing the Båtstøa pool
Now which fly? That question was easy for me because I had promised myself I would use a fly pattern that had been recommended to me by a Norwegian angler. I had met Anders Nygard from Kongsborg last year on the banks of the Norwegian Reisa shortly after he had lost a big, big salmon. The fly he’d used was one of his own patterns and essentially comprised a bright green fluorescent body, orange tippet tail with black hackle and wing of natural, red and black squirrel some 2 inches long. Anders has named it Vargen (The Wolf) and to my mind it looks great!
My version of the Vargen. Quickly snapped outside the hotel. Not neat - a bit chewed - but effective!
I’d tied a few Vargens for the trip – so on it went – and I began fishing at the very neck of the pool with the confidence a recommended fly gives. My outfit was straightforward - a 15ft double hander, floating Spey line with a 10ft fast-sinking polyleader and 3ft of 22lb tippet. The neck was too fast really but I was grateful for a spot to harmlessly practise my rusty left-handed single-Spey casting while I waited to follow the others down the pool ahead of me.
I really liked the look of the water about 40 yards downstream. The fast neck was fanning out and the hinge between its current and the steadier flow on our side looked perfect resting water. By mending line I fished the 2 inch fly as slowly as I possibly could across the stream and did not ‘work’ the fly at all. I pictured the fly swimming perhaps a foot or so below the surface, then popping out of the fast current to swing enticingly in front of any holding fish.
This was classic step & cast fly fishing and really very easy and enjoyable. And then a remarkable thing happened. A fish took.
It was the ‘perfect’ salmon take too. Within 15 feet of our bank with the fly out of the main current and into relatively slack water, my fly line quietly eased off the reel with a gentle purr. I kept the rod tip low and let the salmon take more line as it turned (which is not as easy as it sounds, as many will know!). After a few seconds I slowly and gently raised the rod tip and lifted into Målselv silver. At first I put little strain on the fish and it did very little in response. “Perfect”, I thought, “a nice manageable 10lb-er”.
Wrong! The fish woke up and time and again went on searing downstream runs into the heart of the pool. Meanwhile the other rods had gathered around and shared the excitement. This was the first hour of our fishing day – what a fish, what a fly, what a river!
Gratefully I watched our guide Bjørn ease one of the beat's huge landing nets under the fish and he was ours to admire, photograph, salute and safely return.
Målselv Silver! Photo: Neil Patterson
The consensus was 28lb and as solid a fish as I’ve ever seen – a Norwegian beauty.
By Målselv and Norwegian standards this fish was not particularly noteworthy but our presence in the valley as UK angling representatives was certainly unusual. The salmon was the catalyst the local newspapers needed and journalists and photographers arrived in quick time for interviews. It was all rather surreal and so unexpected! The rest of the party also arrived to enjoy the generous picnic provided by our Rundhaug hosts and a party atmosphere quickly developed by the banks of the Målselv.
We’d discovered silver and went on to celebrate our first day on the Målselv in style. Over a splendid dinner that evening at Rundhaug Gjestegård in the presence of Reidun and Bjørn and the region’s charming Mayoress, Helene Rognli, we toasted the Målselv and all who looked after her. Then our organiser and great leader on this trip, FishNorway’s Harald Øyen rounded off proceedings nicely with the classic Norwegian celebration toast of "Rund Opp".
There were many more Runds and Opps over the coming days – but that is another story!
Acknowledgements & Thanks
Back Row: John Hotchkiss (Hotchkiss Fly Fishing), Harald Øyen (FishNorway), David Profumo (Country Life), Colin Bradshaw (Fish&Fly), Max Sardi (Farlows)
Front Row: Neil Patterson (Fly Fishing & Fly Tying), Pål Mugaas (Fluefiske)
We stayed at the excellent Rundhaug Gjestegård (Guesthouse) in the village of Rundhaug a few miles from Bardufoss (Snowman) airport. www.rundhauggjestegard.no. The hotel is charming, food delicious and welcome and service first rate. I thoroughly recommend a stay.
We fished two prime private beats of the Målselv River administered by the Rundhaug Gjestegård and organised through Harald Øyen of FishNorway. Weekly lets for these beats and day tickets for other stretches are available. Contact Harald on [email protected] or +44 (0)1257 464805
Our thanks are extended to our fishing guides Bjørn Nilsen and Knut Johansen for looking after us throughout the day.
Edinburgh to Oslo. 1 hr 50 mins
Oslo to Bardufoss. 1 hr 45 mins
Northern Norway Tourist Board
Very many thanks are extended to Harald Øyen of FishNorway for brilliantly organising this trip and patiently leading this hilarious but demanding fishing party!