A Glimpse of the Grail
- By: Matt Harris
FROM THE RUGGED FREESTONES THAT SPLASH down Quebec's Chic-Choc Mountains, to the wild brawling torrents of the Russian tundra, most salmon streams have a quality that defies you not to fall just a little in love with them.
Salmon rivers can be anything from tiny, gin-clear creeks bouncing over Iceland’s moonscape, to the wide waters, steeped in history, of the Scottish Spey. There are countless rivers to choose from and no one will fish them all. One river, however, stands above all others on the dream list—Norway’s Alta.
Its fabled waters have produced more huge salmon—fish of 40 pounds and more—than just about all other Atlantic salmon rivers combined. The river’s spectacular canyon has bred a super race of deep-bodied silver leviathans. On most rivers, a 30-pounder is considered the salmon of a lifetime, but on the Alta that fish would barely raise an eyebrow.
In the golden age of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the British aristocracy first started fishing the Alta, the river provided any number of monsters, the only limitations being antique tackle. Since the end of the Second World War, in a modern age where “progress” destroys the runs of big fish on many rivers, the Alta has continued to produce nine giants of more than 57 pounds. To tangle with one of these titans is every salmon angler’s Holy Grail.
No doubt environmental issues impact the Alta’s unique fish. A wretched and hugely controversial hydroelectric dam, the explosion of sea lice due to salmon farming, and reckless coastal and high-seas netting all hit hard. These grotesque manmade disasters contribute enormously to declining numbers, but the Alta remains the salmon river by which all others are judged.
Despite being an avid fisherman who has fished many of the world’s great salmon waters, I only dreamed of fishing the Alta. It was reputed to be impossibly exclusive, and a river that only bluebloods and aristocrats could expect to cast a line over.
Then, while queuing through the tortuously slow Russian passport control on the way back from a trip to the Kola Peninsula, a friend and fellow salmon addict tapped me on the shoulder and asked, furtively, if I was interested in sharing a rod on the Alta for three days in early July.
“Yes!” I stammered. “Absolutely, 100-percent YES!”
“Don’t you want to know what it will cost?” my friend asked.
“No.” I grinned. “Absolutely 100-percent NO!”
After a lively “priority” debate with my wife, I was soon standing in the Alta’s stunningly beautiful canyon, with the midnight sun throwing a beguiling golden light on the uppermost walls of that magical place. Gabonakken is a legendary spot, right in the heart of the canyon, nearly 1,400 feet below the tip of the great ramparts. Below the lip of this notorious pool, the Alta cascades into the brutal, boulder-strewn rapids of Steinfossen. One glance at this savage water and you’ll know why the Alta’s salmon are such singularly huge, broad-shouldered and powerful fish.
My guide, Kjell, vastly experienced after a lifetime spent guiding on this peerless river, held the long canoe expertly just a little above the sweet spot. Gabonakken is notorious: If a fish disappears over the lip of the pool and descends into the maelstrom below, it will break both line and heart in the blink of an eye.
With this in mind, Kjell did what generations of Alta guides have done before; stripping a little line from my reel, he looped it around my forearm, so that a fish would be unable to take any line—unless it dragged me through the guides.
I listened to Kjell’s advice, and sent a long cast arrowing across the river. Every cast on the Alta is filled with tension and perhaps a little fear, as the angler waits for one of the river’s behemoths to rocket through the dark waters to engulf his or her fly. My heart was in my mouth on every cast, as I watched my huge, riffle-hitched Sunray Shadow swimming across the wide, foam-flecked waters, its V-wake breaking the perfect mirror. I cast carefully and methodically, and felt that I covered every inch of the pool, but as my fly came round one last time, it remained untouched.
Disappointed, I started to reel up. Kjell urged me to make one last cast and to swing the big fly right across the very lip of the glassy pool. I asked if it was really worth it, but the grin on his wise, old face answered my question, and I obediently stripped the line back off of the reel and sent one last cast.
Those who know Gabonakken understand its rocks and its taking places: As the fly waked across the lip, all the time threatening to be swept over the edge of the pool and into the rough water below, it passed one of the big boulders that guard the edge of this great pool. Just then, a huge wake started up behind the fly and a moment later a salmon far beyond anything I’ve ever dared to imagine came porpoising out of the water.
The fish was impossibly vast—it looked like a monstrous silver dolphin as it rolled at my fly. And then, a second later, the colossus melted into the bottle-green depths of the river. My fly continued to swing unimpeded across the pool, and as concentric rings spread out across the dark waters, I was left shaking and fishless.
Kjell flashed his infectious smile: “Now this,” he said, in his warm, Norwegian brogue, “was a big one.” I tried a half-dozen flies, but the fish just skulked in the depths.
I’ve made subsequent pilgrimages to the Alta, and I’ve caught several magnificent fish, but I’m forever haunted by that freakishly great salmon.
It’s unlikely that I will see a fish like that again. However, I also know that on the Alta, each cast could bring another impossibility crashing out of my dreams.
Whatever happens, I know that, just for a moment, I glimpsed the Grail. w