Reeling on the Alta

  • By: Fly Rod and Reel
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As told to Chris Santella by Mollie Fitzgerald

Reprinted with permission from Fifty Favorite Fly Fishing Tales

"It was my first chance to fish the Alta, and you can imagine that I was a bit nervous,” said Mollie Fitzgerald. “Up until this trip, it had been something that the men in the Fitzgerald family did. My dad was lucky enough to get a spot on one of the syndicates that lease rods on the river some years back, but my brother or a friend of his always accompanied him. I was thrilled to be invited. I’d read of the Alta for many years, perusing the journal entries of many anglers that depicted the epic battles they’d waged with the Alta’s Atlantics—fish of 40, 50, even 60 pounds. I’d also spoken to a number of people who had made the pilgrimage there, and had many expectations based on these conversations.

“The salmon fishing season on the Alta begins in late June, and my dad’s slot on the river is the first week the season is open. Since the river is situated in Finnmark above the Arctic Circle, you have some level of light all night long in the early summer. Atlantic salmon fishing is optimal at low light periods, so the guides fish from 8pm to 4am. This makes for a fairly easy transition for Americans making the trip, as we’re basically operating on a regular eastern time zone schedule. Fishing through the night has a special feeling to it; it’s mystical. The syndicate my dad belongs to has a group of 10 rods, and access to three beats on the river. There’s a little lodge for each beat. Generally, groups rotate through the three sections. Most of the fishing is done with spey rods from 28-foot pine canoes with outboard motors; this is especially true early in the season, when the water is too high to wade. Each canoe has four people: two anglers sharing a rod (that is, one angler casting at a time) and two boatmen. The boatman in the back runs the engine, rows, mans the net and directs the efforts of the boatman in front, who mostly rows. These fellows speak varying levels of English—generally not too much—but are incredibly adept at maneuvering the boat to maximize your opportunities of presenting your fly over fish. You don’t have to cast very far, because they get you so close. However, you do need to be accurate and consistent with your casts in order to cover the water.

“The incident in question occurred on the third or fourth night of the trip. I had already hooked and landed my first fish, so much of the pressure was off. We were fishing a pool called Richardholla (pronounced ‘Rickard’s’). It’s a classic, lovely little holding pool, at the top of a series of pronounced rapids. It’s a very exciting spot to fish, as many salmon that are hooked will immediately head down through the rapids, which means you have quite a ride ahead of you. On this particular evening, I was fishing a sinking line and a tube fly called the Maxoid that was created by a fellow named Max Mamaev, who’s a guide on the Ponoi River on the Kola Peninsula in Russia. While on some occasions you’ll fish to salmon that you’ve sighted, on this evening I was blind casting, while my dad looked on. To get the best swing on Richardholla s, you cast into the fast water at the head of the pool and let the current bring the fly into the slower water; takes usually occur there. After each cast and swing, the boatmen drop you down a few feet. At the end of one swing—just before ‘the dangle’—there was a huge boil on my fly, and a fish was on. When a fish is hooked on Richardholla the boatmen make every effort to move the boat upstream, hoping to discourage the fish from heading downstream into the rapids. On this occasion the fish would have none of it. It made a beeline down into the rapid--it’s amazing how quickly the Alta fish can melt line off of the reel. Without further ado, we were all on our knees in the canoe (you ride through rapids on your knees to keep the canoe stable) to give chase.

“Now it’s always chaotic when you go through the rapids at Richardholla in pursuit of a fish. The canoe goes through backwards, and the angler who’s playing the fish is struggling to keep the line free of the rocks while simultaneously keeping it tight so the fish can’t throw the hook. This occasion was no different, except that my reel, a beautiful Bogdan that I’d just purchased fell right off the reel seat! As we bounced through the rapids, the reel was clattering around in the bottom of the canoe, line still screaming off, while I tried to keep my composure and still maintain some pressure on the fish. As the boatmen were busy trying to get us through the rapids and I was trying to keep some control over the line, the task of retrieving the reel fell to my dad. My dad is a big guy and doesn’t like moving around in the canoe very much, but for his daughter, the big salmon that was on—and because he was closest—he stepped up to the plate, and snatched it up. Soon we had the reel back on. I keep several hundred yards of backing on the reel. Most of it is white, but the last 50 yards or so is yellow. When I get into the yellow, I know we’re getting close to a panic situation. By the time the reel was attached, I was well into the yellow.

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“I began reeling line in frantically. There was so much line out, I couldn’t feel any tension, and wasn’t sure the fish was even still on. After what seemed like an eternity, I felt the weight of the fish. We were through the rapids and into some calmer water. I began to feel like I was back in control. The salmon made two more great runs into the backing, but I felt like we had the upper hand. Eventually we reached a beach area downstream from Richardholla, and I brought the fish to hand. The entire fight had taken 45 minutes; we estimated the fish’s size at 35 pounds.

“I have to say that this experience has changed the way I fish forever,” Mollie concluded. “Now, after every third cast, I check to make sure that my reel is on.”

Mollie Fitzgerald is co-owner of Frontiers International Travel. A cum-laude graduate of Duke University, she literally grew up in the travel business as the daughter of Frontiers’ founders, Mike & Susie Fitzgerald. Now in her 20th year with the company, Mollie looks after the Elegant Journeys, Safaris, Air, and Atlantic Salmon Fishing departments at Frontiers. Equally at home in the wilds of the great outdoors and the world’s most sophisticated capital cities, her destination knowledge spans the globe and fuels her ongoing passion for travel. Particular areas of interest and expertise include Western Europe, India, Southeast Asia, South America & the Galapagos Islands, and Africa. Mollie enjoys fly fishing for Atlantic salmon, photography, gourmet cuisine, wines, and travel with her 12-year old daughter and often draws upon her own experiences in planning itineraries. She serves on the Advisory Board of Abercrombie & Kent, Conde Nast Traveler Magazine and is a Director of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. She has been identified by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the “130 Top Travel Specialists” (since the inception of the list 6 years ago).

Fishing the Alta

Most will agree that Norway’s Alta River is the king of all Atlantic salmon rivers, the world’s most prolific producer of fish in the 40 or 50 pound class. It’s also the world’s most exclusive salmon fishery. Getting a rod in the Alta can take many years, as the upper river beats are closely held by English and Norwegian nobility, and by private syndicates that often have openings only when a member dies. When a spot does open up, there’s a long line of prospects eager to pay the $15,000 to $20,000 it costs for a week of fishing. Atlantic salmon aficionados will insist that this is a small price pay to for the fish of a lifetime.